Saturday, January 1, 2011

Oliver Reed And the Motorcycle Chain

The snug at the Red Lion Inn was as empty as it should have been considering the hour, long after closing time. I had been tending bar that evening and the well known actor Oliver Reed had shown up with a friend for dinner in the restaurant which was part of the pub complex. After the restaurant emptied and the bar closed Reed and his buddy settled at a corner table and called out for drinks. That suited me, because he was never a bad tipper but he was exceptional when drunk and Reed loved to drink loudly and publicly. The story made the rounds more than once about the time he parked his convertible with the roof down during lunch and came back to find it filled with rain water. They drank, I served and the lights went down and eventually Chef came out and joined them for a little night natter.I had run away from home that year of 1978, packing my few immediate needs in the saddlebags of my Moto Morini 350 Sport (an identical machine is reproduced in the picture above) and riding out to answer the advertisement in the Dorking Advertiser for a live-in barman at the Red Lion Inn on the A25 in Ockley. Somehow I got the job, perhaps because the disreputable bunch of ruffians I hung out with had their weekly motorcycle club meetings there. In among the ranks of the Yamahas and Suzukis I rode a highly strung 105 mph "exotic" Italian V-twin, a six speed, kick start only, fire engine red little rocket that was known for it's tenacious road holding and relatively narrow power band and rough paint quality. I lived on my Moto Morini There-and-a-Half. It was my life and it was who I was, "Mick Morini" they called me. Once I called myself that by accident and never lived it down. Then I got the job at the Red Lion, my refuge from a rather unhappy home life.
I had washed up in England in 1977 after riding round the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa to Spain and by ferry (shown above) to England where I arrived with seven pounds ($35) in my pocket and no plans. I took up residence in the time honored way at home, as one does, and joined a motorcycle club to make friends. Motorcycling in England in the 1970s was a fabulous mucky way to get around at a time when cars were finally affordable after the petrol crisis of the early decade. I wore a waxed cotton jacket and calf length boots topped with long white socks which were curled over the boots to stop the socks slipping down into the boot. Our uniforms were those of the Rockers of the 1950s and more famously 1960s. I have no photos of that period in my life anymore but these were the kinds of people we youngsters were trying to imitate:In fact when I rode off the ferry from Spain a crowd of scooters met me on the seafront, much to my delight as I had always enjoyed riding my Vespa in Italy. This was a different culture as the Mods were also in a revival mode at the time and they mistook me for their arch nemesis, a man on a motorcycle. They gave chase and when I realised what their intentions were my little 350cc pocket rocket left them in the dust, even laden as it was with my tent and clothes and expectations of a new, English life. The modernists and their scooters banished all thoughts of Vespas from my mind as I struggled to adapt to this Anglo-Saxon way of life.
In some respects I was overly sensitive at that age, and that combined with a general inability to cope with the most basic requirements of daily living, gave my life a rather surreal quality. I had been educated in the cloisters of Downside School, a leading Catholic boarding school which by no measure gave adequate preparation for "life outside" and then I had lived the hermetical life of a cash starved landed squire in Italy roaming around in a vast, 50 room lonely castle all by myself. Now I was in England, an unwanted cuckoo in the family nest with no visible life skills at all. I had no idea how to rent a place to live, I had no idea how to apply for a job. Budgeting and shopping were the vaguest of mysteries to me. I liked to ride my motorcycle and I wanted to live in the thick of things for a while. Oh and I needed a job.
My stepfather the barrister disapproved of my motorcycle, not least because my mother his ex-wife dead now these six years had always loved motorcycles. She bought me my first Vespa 50 when I was 12 years old. "One day" she said, pointing to a man in leather alongside a large motorcycle "I want to see you like that." She had also hankered for me to learn to play the church organ. I got the motorcycle thing going but the organ never did happen. I learned the tuba instead, then she got a brain tumor and died leaving me to navigate a family that despised all she stood for. I got a job, lived at home and rode with the Ockley Motorcycle Club which met at the Red Lion Inn (pictured above) in the quaint little village of Ockley.

I remember one night we went to a pub that I thought was called the Green Alligator (but I suspect was the Queen Adelaide in South London) where the warm summer evening deteriorated into a fight. I had no idea what was happening but I was in the middle of a series of beer bottle volleys flying overhead and someone shouting "Put the boot in'im!" It was an evening when an electric starter on my exotic Italian v-twin would have been enormously beneficial. As it was the leaders of the club took the brunt of the ire of the irritated patrons (about what I do not know), but suddenly, after fiddling with the kick start for what seemed forever, I felt the exhilaration of being on the run once again and outpacing once again whatever angry people were behind us. My motorcycle literally was my life. Our little group of riders was formed and disappeared long before computing and the Internet and I have no pictures from that era. We were actually quite respectable but we were emulating our predecessors, pictured above, though our motorcycles were newer and cleaner than those of the 1960's and though they seemed "modern" to us they were about as antiquated to the modern era as those 1960's big British twins looked to us. We rode as a group to the coast, Brighton as tradition dictated, we went to motorcycle races and we raced each other on roads that, looking back seem free of congestion and uncomplicated compared to modern traffic jams and electronic radar and all the controls that the 21st century tries to impose. My ghastly summer of 1977 turned out quite well.

Thanks to the Ockley Motorcycle Club I ended up meeting Oliver Reed, a name forgotten by now, but who was at the time a movie star of Hollywood proportions. He owned Broome Hall just up the street from the little village of Ockley and he liked to go drinking and carousing; in fact he was famous for it. So much so he had a hard time not getting banned from pubs where he made an excessive nuisance of himself. In those days being famous did not excuse you if you were an asshole and Oliver Reed was larger than life, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not so good.It happened that I met him in both moods and it came about like this. I had held down a couple of jobs that summer, based from my stepfather's very nice house in the country. I started out cleaning windows for a good wage in the nearby town of Dorking. This was a job that involved getting up early, riding into town in all weathers and swapping my motorcycle for the interior of a foul smelling van lined with pictures of naked women and all the gear needed to wash windows. I got twenty eight pounds a week ($140 at the time) and the money kept me in beer and petrol quite nicely down at the motorcycle club. But I had a terrible fear of heights and dangling off a window ledge three or more stories high was a terrible trial for me. I got fired, in the nicest possible way from my very first job ("Not a job for you, Squire!" the foreman grinned at his upper class twit apprentice). Then I went underground, a much happier situation, stocking the trucks in a grocery warehouse for the Cullen food store chain. Eventually from the dark recesses of the warehouse I worked my way up to driver's assistant riding the trucks through the pre-dawn London streets delivering yuppie food to the yuppie grocery stores of Cullen's. It paid less but it was way less stressful. I had already figured out that a low stress life was the one for me.

However the stress in my life came at home. My drifting was not viewed sympathetically even though I was young and working and learning to make my own way in the world. I had no career and no goal and my lack of proper values made me the object of scorn from a man who had reached the pinnacle of his legal career in London. My stepfather was the top tax attorney in England, author of textbooks on the subject, famous for the size of his brain. His offspring rode a motorcycle in an era when motorcycles were decidedly greasy and not suburban respectable. I discovered they were looking for a bar tender at the Red Lion and the job came with a room. When I announced my imminent departure I thought I was doing my father favor but he erupted in a volcanic fury that only hastened my departure. I never went "home" again. The bar at the pub became my home.

The Red Lion exists no more, they've renamed it and it is no doubt nothing of what it once was. I was not much good but I stumbled through the tasks of my new trade. I focused on the fact I no longer lived at home and that was good. That the restaurant staff were all French and unhappy at being in exile made my life a misery. The chef was Lenny Henry/Gareth Blackstock mad and I found stress levels were inching back up in my life, not quite to window washing levels, but close. There was also the fact that this job paid not much thanks to the live-in accommodation. I did rather wonder what on earth my next move might be. This was clearly temporary, my Morini and I had to consider our future and Italy was calling me back.

Thanks to his banning everywhere else Oliver Reed was quite well behaved, if generally highly intoxicated, when he came by the Red Lion. He was loud and thought he was very funny, and sometime he was. In fact leaving the top down on his expensive car in a rain storm looked funny from a poor youth's perspective. Trailing anxious court hangers-on looked odd to one used to managing nicely alone but as his lifestyle dictated he always seemed to have crowds of people dangling off his coat tails, letting him pick up the tab for their lives. Reed often came in late, a lonely man who enjoyed the company of the mad head chef, a man of similar temper to Reed, only less famous.

That night the three men in the darkened bar were talking loudly as drunk men do, and I was on duty so I was obliged to stay and hover in the back ground, pretending to clean up but making no noise to disturb their conversation. They talked a lot of talk of which I remember none, except when they got on the subject of horses. One of the three, Reed's friend was connected to the horse racing world, the one Dick Francis the novelist used to write about. He had a horse racing tip to share and his reedy voice penetrated the dark recess of the long closed bar. "Put your money on..." I can't even remember what the name of the horse was, though thanks to the magic of the Internet I discovered the Derby winner in 1978 was this fine beast laboring under the undignified name of Shirley Heights.

"I happen to know this one is going to win big," the voice announced in the darkness "put everything you've got on it." I was jolted awake and at my end of the bar I took notes.

Like I said my departure from the sceptered isle was only a matter of time. The motorcycle club notwithstanding I knew I had to go back to Italy and figure out a new approach to life. England clearly held nothing for me and I had to figure out a way to get back to what I was forced to consider my home. I had not much money and all my riding meant my 1977 Moto Morini needed some money spent before making a fifteen hundred mile journey across Europe. Aside from the usual oil change I desperately needed a new final drive chain. Meanwhile I barely had the fare to get myself and bike on the ferry to France. I was not saving much cash at all at my job and at this rate I would never have enough to leave. I ate, I slept and I puzzled my dead end existence. I had barely enough money saved to refurbish the bike, but I had no money at all to make a journey. I had no prospects of making more. Money was becoming my obsession. Money.

I would like to make it clear that I abhor gambling. the idea of throwing valuable assets away on a turn of the dice or a lucky chance just seems incredibly dumb to me, and what I did next seems incredibly idiotic, in retrospect, but I can fairly blame desperation for my move. At the critical moments in my life desperation has always been at my elbow to push me into action. The next day before we opened I went to the Post Office and withdrew every penny of savings I had and took the small pile of cash down to the bookmakers. In England off site gambling has a long and honorable history. It is not some backstreet illegal operation, even though the net result generally is the fleecing of the poorer elements of society. I had never been to a betting parlor in my life but I went in like a pro, put it all down to win on the damned horse and paid my taxes up front so my winnings, guaranteed by the greatest actor in England (by now I was so worked up Oliver Reed had become my definitive source of this spectacular horse tip) would be all mine, tax free. In England if you pay the tax on the bet the winnings are tax free, if not then you pay tax on the winnings. I wanted it all.

I left the bookmakers, a place just like the one shown above, in a state of ecstatic expectation, like a man with a date, only my date was with a betting slip, not a mere woman. The days went by, the odds on the horses changed but I had my early tip and all I had to do now was wait for the horse to win. I had no money at all now though I had a place to live and I could raid the inn's kitchen for food. My motorcycle had done it's duty and it stood by with an empty fuel tank and elastic useless chain waiting for my horse to come in.

If I am to be believed that gambling is a mug's game and I didn't enjoy it one bit, gambling with a purpose was even worse. The longer I waited for the horses to get their wretched race done the more I wound myself up waiting for the race to be over. My secret bet was weighing me down at work where I dared not say a word. The unhappy French waiters would have crucified me with their cruel joy had my last penny been flushed down the drain by a second placed horse. Finally race day came and I sat by my radio like a spy waiting for his Morse Code signal to send him into action. Oh my god! The fucking horse WON! I couldn't believe it. The little betting slip I held in my hand was worth somewhere north of two hundred pounds (a thousand bucks in the currency exchange of the day). Suddenly my prospects blossomed in front of me like a cheesy movie- sunshine, the open road, all Europe laid out at my feet... I was On The Road.

There was the small matter of cashing my winnings and spending a portion at the Moto Morini dealer in Dorking (one actually existed) and then I simply had to announce I was quiting. It was the first time in my life I discovered that much though they may despise you, your co-workers will be the first to despise you even more for having the nuts to break out and go your own way. I had thought they would be pleased to see the last of the inexperienced bar nerd and his fire engine red pride and joy; instead they seemed even more bitter and angry that I had my ticket out of their lives. I recall looking back at that departure from England as the first time I ever left on a major trip with absolutely no qualms whatsoever. I had tons of money, my bike was in tip top shape and my camping gear was all strapped on. I was going to Andorra in the Pyrenees. I have always had a passion for experiencing the obscure and pointless, and the smuggling haven of Andorra was about as obscure and pointlkess a destination as any that I could have chosen. It was perfect. In a continent of strict borders Andorra waved anyone in from France or Spain and with all the tax free smuggled goods they could carry. A pound went a long way in this tax haven.At some point in this tale the horror has to kick in- lost money, theft, falling off the motorcycle, epic bad weather....but failure never did kick in for once in my young life. I took the overnight ferry to Dieppe from Newhaven, as smooth a ride as any I've had across the Channel and from there the Morini and I wound our way down through France to the single valley tiny principality in the mountains. I camped, I ate like a king on my winnings and I rode the winding back roads all the way to the mountains of southern France. I cruised Spain to Barcelona and wound my way round the southern coast of France back to Italy and back to a predictably cold welcome from the other half of my family that didn't ever really warm to the idea of sharing my eccentric life with me in Italy. Three long years later I again planned my escape, the final one this time, and at the age of 23 I landed in the US and never looked back. Still riding a motorcycle and still grateful to Oliver Reed for his horse racing tip that got me back on the road to adventure.

Photos from the Internet.