Motorcycle display teams - the finest example of skill, precision and discipline to which the human race can aspire? Or just a bunch of blokes, with nothing better to do, twatting about on bikes? Whilst there is no shortage of evidence for the latter, the fact remains that the motorcycle display team is a tradition which stretches back many, many years, having its origins amidst the horrors of the First World War.
When Ferdinand Von Zeppelin built the first motorbike back in 1884, using a complex system of levers and pulleys, he could have had no idea how his invention would revolutionise the world of transport. In fact, history records that he said as much to his neighbour. Apparently he emerged excitedly from his garage, leaned over the garden fence and shouted joyously, "Here, Mr Johnson - I've just invented the motorbike!...Although, to be honest with you, I've absolutely no idea how it's going to revolutionise the world of transport."
But it was, and it did, irrevocably...By which I mean that it revolutionised the world of transport. Whereas, at one time, a trip from Hamburg to Leipzig would have taken six days on horseback, those same horses could now make the journey in a tenth of the time, thanks to the new motorcycle. Indeed, it became quite a common sight on the highways and byways around the Rhine Valley to see horses grinning stupidly as they bombed along at speeds in excess of sixty miles an hour, with the wind in their manes and flies in their teeth.
Pretty soon, however, those horses started to become a bit of a nuisance. It was clear that they had scant regard for the safety of other road users and tore about with wild abandon, causing mayhem and chaos wherever they went. Arrogant and abusive, they displayed total contempt for authority and when challenged would simply extend a hoof and whinny a string of profanities. It was when they began to get together in gangs that the powers-that-be realised they had a serious problem on their hands. Going under dubious names like 'The Black Ponies' and 'Hell's Donkeys', they would congregate at the weekend in popular coastal resorts to smash up park benches, harass decent folk and blatantly not wear crash helmets.
Something had to be done. Something was done. A commission was set up to look at the problem and, after carefully considering a number of options to regulate and control the equine use of motorcycles, they eventually settled on a vigorous campaign of shooting and hanging. The horses soon got the message and started to behave themselves. Many of them took up roller-hockey - a strange hobby for a horse to adopt, as they rarely prove to be any good at it, but we needn't let that concern us right now.
Elsewhere in the world, horses were banned from riding bikes altogether and the new machines were being put to more novel uses. In Hungary motorbikes were used to great effect to drive textile mills - replacing hovercraft, which had been used with varying results up until that point. In Canada, bikes were mashed up and fed to small children, providing a surprisingly protein-rich substitute for traditional baby foods. And in Australia they were used to play table tennis.
In Britain, the motorbike gradually became a familiar part of everyday life. It wasn't long before every household had one, even if no one was entirely certain what to do with them. But all that was to change in 1914 when the dark cloud of conflict settled over Europe. War! What is it good for? Even in Scrabble it will rarely earn enough points to turn the tide of a game. Nevertheless, when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan returned from Reykjavik - after negotiations with Mussolini had fallen through - and announced that Great Britain was now at war with Portugal, it set in motion a series of events that would change the way we looked at motorbikes forever.
Once war had been declared, the War Ministry wasted no time in commandeering every tractor they could find, organising the mass manufacture of pointy sticks and recalling as many motorbikes as possible so that they could be melted down and turned into commandos. Most people were quite glad to see them go, as they never really saw the point of having the noisy, smelly things cluttering up their houses in the first place. However, as the bikes were being stockpiled, ready to be tossed into the furnaces, one bright young spark from Scotland called Alexander Graham Bell phoned the ministry to tell them that he thought the motorbike could prove to be a valuable weapon if used properly. The bigwigs in Whitehall were so impressed by his accent that they invited him down to London to put his plan into action. And so Bell and his team spent the next few months fitting bayonets to all the bikes and shipping them out to the troops. However, the motorbikes proved to be much too unwieldy and cumbersome to be used for hand-to-hand fighting and were soon ditched in favour of scooters, which could be more easily stowed away in kit bags.
Alexander Graham Bell was subsequently ridiculed by the press, stripped of his position and then shot. Out in France the troops struggled on, utilising the bikes as best they could - principally by catapulting them at their adversaries. Although this didn't inflict many casualties, enemy combatants were so perplexed by the constant barrage of machinery raining down on them that their morale was seriously undermined.
Then a lowly cabin boy called Jim Kitchener hit upon a much better use. Young Jim had been a cabin boy for over fifty years and he was well used to the unforgiving ocean currents, the coarse talk of sailors and the feel of the captain's iron heel upon his backside. When he arrived in France he found a distinct shortage of decks to swab, keels to haul and mainbraces to splice, so he put his talents to work for the catering corps and quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant Spud-Peeler. In this capacity, Jim was more aware than most of the desperate supply situation. Many of the regular routes were impassable and as winter drew near their predicament was getting worse. Jim realised that, whilst trucks and vans were unable to make the journey through woodland and across the churned up fields, motorcycles could cope with such difficult terrain without any problem at all.
Jim set about collecting up all the motorbikes that hadn't already been fired at the enemy and arranged convoys to bring in fresh supplies. At first people openly ridiculed Jim and some of them poked him with sticks. Motorbikes, they said, were no way for a man to travel, they were fit only for horses. But then, as the supply situation improved, they began to see the wisdom of Jim's scheme and some of them even stopped spitting in his breakfast.
But this situation was not destined to last. One night, when the British were looking the other way, the enemy advanced. Jim and his unit woke the next morning to find themselves besieged. They were in dire trouble. The head cook tried something desperate with a couple of spoons, but it was doomed to failure. Then someone suggested that they took the bikes and tried to make a run for it. If they were lucky, some of them might manage to break through the enemy lines and live to tell the tale. The trouble was they only had five working bikes in their possession - and there were fifteen of them in the unit. Some of them would have to stay behind. Then Jim had an idea how they could all make it...
It was ingenious, it was daring, but above all it was such an elegant solution that it simply could not fail. Forming a human pyramid straddling the motorcycles, Jim and his comrades tore across the frozen ground to the tune of five growling engines and a chorus of battlecries, fifteen strong. What the enemy thought as they saw that strange, inhuman shape emerging from the swirling mists, its banshee-like wail splitting the icy air asunder, we can only guess at. What we do know is that many of them dropped their weapons and fled in terror. The few that stood their ground managed to loose off a few rounds, but their shots went wildly astray. The pyramid sailed straight through their startled ranks and kept on going, only stopping when it reached friendly territory.
News of this remarkable event spread far and wide. When the Duke of Wellington heard about it, he stopped his game of bowls and proclaimed, "This is our finest hour." He immediately ordered the formation of fourteen more squadrons of Motorcycle Attack Teams, then went off to Wimbledon where he beat Fred Perry in the third over, by a technical knock out.
By the time the First World War finished in 1945, the motorcycle was poised to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. No longer was it a dowdy, functional piece of domestic hardware. To the hip and trendy teenagers of the sixties - and later the fifties - the motorbike was the very epitome of 'cool'. All the youngsters wanted to own one, so that they could belong to one of the motorbike gangs made famous by hip and trendy film stars like Marlon Brandy, Dennis Hooper and Bette Davis. Some of these gangs got quite a reputation for causing trouble and at weekends they would gather in popular coastal resorts, smash up horses, harass old folk and blatantly run over park benches.
Today, the importance of the motorbike in recent history is still remembered at fetes and carnivals, where motorcycle display teams from the armed forces, the police or even enthusiastic amateurs pay homage to the ingenuity of young Jim Kitchener. So the next time you are fortunate to witness such a display, try to remember that what you are watching is a remarkable demonstration of skill and a touching tribute to a select group of brave men who laughed in the face of atrocity and secured freedom for the generations to come - not just a bunch of tossers who really wanted to be fighter pilots.
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