After years of prevarication, Andy has pledged to write a book. Called ‘Letters to My Children’ the book is shaping up as a mix of autobiography, homespun philosophy, business experience and money advice, written as a guide to life for Andy’s five children. Here’s the next chapter, we hope that you enjoy it too.
It had been one of those gorgeous midwinter days when the air is clear as crystal and the sun lights up the snowy hedgerows like a vivid Christmas card. Except that now the relative warmth of midday had been replaced by the piercing cold dark night air as I rode home across Leicestershire’s icy roads.
The day had started so well. My school friend Gary Sleath (known to us all as Gaz) and I had set off from our home in Rothley towards Market Harborough, 20 miles and an hours ride away. I’m not sure who had the idea to go and watch the trials competition that was taking place outside of Harborough, but at the age of 17 neither of us needed much prompting and it didn’t take long before we were off, both of us perched on my recently acquired 500 Triumph.
We’d already had a number of motorcycle escapades together. In late summer we had ridden our respective bikes – me on my shiny new Kawasaki S1, a ring-dinging 250 two-stroke triple, and Gaz on his elderly but smart BSA C15 single – down the A6 to the London Motorcycle Show, plodding along at the steady 50 miles an hour that was the natural cruising speed of his Beeza. On the return journey my machine had gone onto reserve tank, but we couldn’t find an open garage. Eventually we came across a forecourt with a cash operated dispenser, taking pound notes at a time. My proud piece of Japanese super technology took exactly 2 pounds worth, whilst Gary had to stop at 96 pence, unable to squeeze the last few drops of fuel into his tank. That’s progress for you.
But today we were on a different mission, in a different climate. The sun was shining as we rode to Harborough, and we set about finding the trials competitors on their lightweight off-road machines. As we headed out of town, we realised that the ‘trials’ – tests of low speed skill and balance across rugged terrain – seemed to be taking place in several different locations at once. Brightly coloured riders and machines appeared ahead, behind, to our left and right, disappearing again behind the hedgerows.
We cottoned onto a couple of machines as they made their way along a country lane, in that curiously intense manner in which motorcyclists proceed when they are driving on snow covered lanes. Their machines were eminently more suited to the conditions, my Triumph having low set handlebars in road race style, although the power delivery of the low revving Triumph helped provide the illusion of safety. It felt good.
I don’t recall all of the events of the day, but I do remember that my machine gradually started to fail. The Triumph hadn’t been the wisest purchase that I’ve ever made, but at 17 I couldn’t see the folly of my ways, and this just seemed like another part of the adventure. It’s faltering coincided with the light gradually fading as the early winter afternoon turned into dusk, and the temperature started to drop.
We made our way back to Desborough. It seemed clear that my machine was not going to get us home, and we needed help. As it got darker and colder, we both crowded into a public phone box and phoned home.
The more I think about it, the more occasions I can recall when my dad bailed me out. Having had similar experiences with my own children since, I now understand how he would have felt to be called away from a nice warm fire on an icy winter evening by his errant child.
But still he came. And as we waited, the night closed in, the temperature continued to fall, and our spirits ebbed away with it.
Gaz was getting quite chilled by now. Whilst I had been wearing leather trousers which had retained some heat, he was wearing denim jeans which didn’t offer much insulation. It hadn’t seemed to affect him up to now, but as we waited the depth of cold was beginning to become quite worrying.
My dad arrived with a bag of tools and an electrical test meter. I don’t recall what caused the fault, but he managed to cure it, providing me with another lesson in my motorcycle maintenance apprenticeship. The bike started when I kicked it over, and I wasn’t about to leave my prized possession alone in the outer wilderness of Leicestershire. I would ride it home.
Gaz sensibly took refuge in the passenger seat of dad’s car, promptly turning the heat on to maximum. I set off, now acutely aware of the 60 mph gale that is the travelling companion of the motorcyclist.
The situation presented a dilemma. The faster I went, the more the wind’s icy fingers penetrated my clothing and numbed my fingers. Yet slowing down would prolong the journey further, perpetuating my exposure to the cold, and I needed to get in to the warm.
As I rode through the blackness, and despite my extreme discomfort, I felt an almost exhilarating sense of aliveness. I was battling to get home through conditions that would have stopped most people, exposed to the thrilling reality of the subzero icy blast, connected to the tarmac below me and aware that that connection might be broken at any moment by an invisible film of frost.
As I forged through the night, I could feel the cold penetrating my body. I imagined my heart’s core, a warmth in my chest that was maintaining me and needed to be protected. I started to feel that there was a real possibility that the cold might win. If the cold gets through to my heart, I remember thinking, I’m dead.
I’ve never been so cold at any other time in my life. In fact, I’ve never come anywhere near to being so cold, and I wouldn’t want to go there again. The remaining events of the day are something of a blur, but needless to say I made it home and was soon wrapped up in what initially seemed to be a very cold bed. It was three days before I had recovered sufficient energy to return to work.
Knowing my limits
Whilst I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, I did learn a lesson from it that I’ve carried through my lifetime. I learned what my limits are, and how much we are capable of when circumstances become extreme. Coming within sight of the boundaries of my endurance gave me a sense of how deep those limits are, and that has given me confidence when I’ve faced challenging situations ever since. I’ve known that, however hard I’m trying, I’m still a long way from experiencing that extreme, and there are plenty of reserves to call on yet.
As a parent, I have mixed feelings about exposing you to such experiences. My natural instinct is to protect you from harm, and to remove the possibility that you might look your own mortality in the eye.
And yet, such experiences are great teachers, and if you don’t know how far you can be pushed you’ll never know whether you’re using all of your potential.
In addition, the sense of exhilaration that I experienced that night in early 1975 as I battened down against the conditions that could kill me was something that I wouldn’t want to deny you, even taking into account the risks. Until you’ve looked death in the face, you won’t know what it means to be alive.
Life is to be lived. My advice is to live it.