December 01, 2010 GMT
Thought You'd Never Ask

Friends ask, "What was it like when you arrived home after so long, put the key in your front door for the first time and went inside?"

No, not that one. This one: "Who's Rustus McCrankpin?"
I'm glad you asked.

Here's the short snappy answer:
I've never much liked washing bikes, it's far more difficult than washing a car. You always rap your knuckles on something, an exhaust bracket, engine bolt, sharp edge of a petrol pipe clip.
The first you know is when you wonder, "What's that red stuff in the bucket of water?"
Occupational hazard.

The way round that is, like a lot of riders, to have a 'wet-weather bike'.
A rat-bike, or 'nail'. A winter-bike. That you never feel the need to wash, and at the same time keeping your posh bike out of the rain so that doesn't need washing either.
I used to have a little Honda 50. Not an ordinary commuter one, but the sports one with conventional petrol tank, extended inlet manifold and 'racing mudguards'. Early 1960s.

The one on the right.

I've looked on and off on the internet to see if I might find one for sale but they seem as rare as hen's teeth.
It was called a C114 if you have one in your junk pile.

So I never laid a finger on it, for cleaning or much else. Just changed the oil when I remembered to.
It did sterling service taking me to work and home, through London everyday, for many years. But things wear out, and go rusty, and this little thing wasn't immune to any of that.
The camshaft became so loose in its bearings that it was impossible to set the contact breakers to get anything like the correct timing. The bike would come to an inconvenient halt on London Bridge, or in The Strand, in the rain, and I'd have to remove the contacts cover (I think I left it off permanently towards the end to save trouble). There I'd find the contact breaker no longer opening because the camshaft bearing had worn some more and the cam was no longer touching the heel of the contact arm.
No trouble, I just had to bend the arm a little and we'd be away again.

The little contact was easy to bend around to force it to stay in touch with a wibbly-wobbly cam.

I found with those small and very simple engines that it didn't really matter what the ignition timing was, it would run perfectly well just as long as the contact opened on each revolution. It didn't matter at all when it opened, just as long as it did. (And then closed again).
I bet all those motorbike shops in Africa have found exactly the same thing. Well, I hope they have anyway.

But things can't continue forever like that of course.

One morning I kicked the kickstarter a couple of times and it started easily as it always did. But immediately, as I blipped the throttle a little to get it going, there was a loud metallic bang and clatter, in fact very loud for such a little engine.
And the engine was locked solid.
The kickstarter would no longer turn it, nor, I found later, a spanner on the end of the crank. Except there was a lot of sloppy movement in the end of that crank which really didn't ought to have been there. I had noticed the main bearings were a bit worn a few years earlier but now it looked serious.
So that was the end of that. Particularly as the rust had lightened the bike considerably, removing large pieces of the exhaust, rear mudguard, and for all I know the frame under the seat (I never looked under there).

This was the time, the year men first landed on the moon, when having your bike MOT'ed involved riding to the local shop and parking right outside the door when it was raining.
Inside: "Can you do an MOT please?"
Behind the counter, cup of tea in hand, the proprietor would peer out the door at the weather.
"Ah, is that your bike right there?"
"That's it."
"Yep, that looks OK. What's the registration number?" as he put his cup down for a moment to reach for a pen and the pad of pass certificates.

It was shortly after such an MOT that I rode to work on my Honda 50, despite it being summer at the time. (Summer - winter, not much difference in England). Instead of heading to my office in the City I crossed over Vauxhall Bridge and headed north to park down under the ground floor of the Post Office Tower (as it was then), hoping I wouldn't have to stop to make engine adjustments on the way. I had an important deadline to meet.
I had arranged a technical on-site meeting about some job or other, with a few colleagues, and was surprised to find a hell of a lot of other people squeezing through the entrance door and heading for the lifts and stairs.
By sheer strange coincidence a lot of Post Office telephone staff also had site meetings here on the same day. Then again you expect coincidences like this to happen in a company with around a quarter of a million employees.
But everyones' meetings seemed to be on the third floor, as was mine, so the stairs were as blocked up as the lifts and people became anxious about being late. Then it became obvious that all the meetings were in the same room. How could that happen? About eighty seven meetings all in the same room, at the same time?
And eighty seven meetings means a few hundred people attending. But never mind, we all squeezed in somehow and could get down to the business at hand.
Which was to be one of the first in the country to see Neil Armstrong climbing down his ladder to do a spot of gardening on the moon.
Our meeting venue was the TV control room in the tower where all the programmes from all the U.K. TV companies were switched and distributed around the country. But more importantly, where all the programmes coming into the country by satellite were received and processed before being passed to the BBC or independent TV companies, whoever was going to broadcast them to the public.

It was a bit difficult in that crush to find the people you were supposed to be meeting, but it didn't really matter as the only thing on the agenda was to express a bit of surprise at how so many meetings could coincidentally be arranged for the same time and place, and use a slide rule to calculate the chances of that ever happening again.
So we gazed in wonder at the TV screens all around the room, and marvelled at how many gardening enthusiasts there were working in the telecoms industry.

It was probably a sign of the times, but after that momentous technological success, MOT tests seemed to get progressively tougher.

Anyway, back to my Honda 50. It had clearly reached the end of the road and would not be going to the moon, so I didn't look at the engine too much. Just enough to come to the conclusion that the liberal play in the main bearings had finally caused either the big end to collapse or the crankpin to snap in a spectacular way. It was also spectacularly rusty.

That would probably have been the quiet end to the episode. But no.
I left it parked outside a couple of days while I organised a way of lifting it into the local council rubbish skip. But strange things happen in this life. One morning, there it was, gone. Stolen.
I reported it to the police but wondered what to do next. Who would believe, with the engine wrecked a couple of days before, it had really been stolen. Not my insurance company I decided, so I made no plan to lodge a claim.
But stranger things happen. The police found it, still in the hands of the thieves who appeared to be trying to make it run! But had wrecked it even more in the process.
Well, good luck to them, but my claim went off to the insurance company who even took the trouble to inspect it and paid out the few pence that it was worth.
So that bike achieved some notoriety.

As a result of all that, the enthusiastic magazine editor in the club I belonged to dreamed up a nom-de-plume for me. He persuaded lots of members to write various pieces to fill the pages of the club's monthly journal, and was always trying to think of pen-names for the authors to protect the guilty. He had a flash of inspiration and typed 'Rustus McCrankpin' after the next piece that I submitted.
So now you know........

I don't remember what the minutes said for the meeting in the Post Office Tower that 16th July 1969, they would have simply recorded our calculation of the chances of so many simultaneous meetings taking place again in the future, assuming a constant number of employees. (A pretty useless bit of data the way things have turned out). So I never checked the result against the next amazing coincidence, six and a half years later.

A close working colleague, the on-site cable engineer at Heathrow Airport, insisted we needed a meeting to discuss something or other. He said he'd meet me at the entrance to the Queen's Building (the tallest building at Heathrow in those days).
I've said elsewhere I think, that in the good old days, with a Post Office ID card, you could get anywhere in most places including airports. A favourite at Heathrow was the old BOAC maintenance hanger where lunches, almost the same as you'd get on a 1st class BOAC flight, were free if you had the right pass.
While enjoying your steak and chips, you could watch the technicians working on the engines of the latest jumbo jet, through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parked aircraft.
Anyway, I arrived and my colleague said we were meeting up on the roof of the Queen's Building. Up there we found airport workers and radar workers and all sorts of other workers, from as far away as Dyce in Aberdeen I think, all squeezed up amongst the parapet railings.
It was the day of Concorde's maiden scheduled passenger flight, to Bahrain, and we all had a grandstand view, and the full benefit of the raucous din made by its engines on take-off.

Heathrow, 21st Jan 1976, bound for Bahrain. (Photo - BAE Systems)

My Heathrow colleague made a good choice of date for that meeting, but I forget now what it was about.

So I'll try to answor tho quostion right at tho top, what it folt liko on my roturn.
Woll, a bit foroboding roally, wondoring what tho noxt fow wooks would bo liko, what thoy would bring, what I would bo doing. But at tho samo timo, glad to bo back in Whytoloafo.

.............Whoa there! Sorry about that, something went wrong.
That virus must still be around, the one that got into Ronnie Barker's computer when he was reading the BBC news many years ago. It changed every 'e' to an 'o'. Mako suro your virus chockor is up to dato...........

There wakkas akkanullather virus gullaing akkarullaund the internet akka little while akkagulla. Whakkatever yullau typed in English, it immediakkately trakkanslakkated it intulla Finnish. Perhakkaps it's still ullaut there. I'll hakkave akka lullaullak. Yes, it's still there, akkanullather reakkasullan tulla check yullaur PC is updakkated regulakkarly.

Now where was I?
I'll try to answer the question right at the top, what it felt like on my return.
Well, a bit foreboding really, wondering what the next few weeks would be like, what they would bring, what I would be doing. But at the same time, glad to be back in Whyteleafe. I've come to be very fond of my little home, and its location. However successful any long trip away has been, I've always been happy to find myself back here once again. And since stopping work, not having to commute there everyday, I've come to love London and the short journey to the City and West End.
But filling my head more than all that on my return was trying to recall my feelings and experiences when I shut that door thirteen months previously, got on my bike and rode down the hill to the motorway and Dover to meet Caroline and Beau. What did I think about my chances of reaching Cape Town? What did I feel about venturing into Africa?
So much has happened on that continent that much of the memory of those first steps has been pushed into far corners, and it's difficult to recapture it.
But I do remember a feeling of relief that all the preparation was over and done with at last, and itching to get on that ferry and over to France. And, of course,
"Oh dear, what have I forgotten? There must be something!"

Driving those last few miles back home from Heathrow round the local bypass I was trying to recall what I felt whilst riding in the other direction in September last year. The best I can come up with is that it felt quite magical. Probably the most unknown and unpredictable thing I'd ever done.
I was also thinking about all I'd read in the accounts of riders who had done this trip before. The unanimous advice being 'everything will be fine, you'll enjoy every minute, everyone you meet will be wonderful'. Which led to a distinct feeling of looking forward to getting on the road for this trip more than for any trip in the past.
That continued pretty well throughout the whole of the journey, always looking forward to moving on to the next unknown destination. And it still seems a little strange now, not having to think about where to move on to in a few day's time, or in a week's time, and finding somewhere to stay at the next destination, as visas and customs papers approach expiry and the next country beckons.
In fact, right now, in the mess of all my half-unpacked luggage and old piles of post, I haven't the faintest idea where my passport is.
I'm sure it's here somewhere.

I hope it's not out there somewhere....... Can't end a blog entry on a day like today without another look out the window.
Not at all the dismal darkness, but at the bright whiteness.



The leaves are white in Whyteleafe at the moment, nothing's going anywhere very much right now.
My Yamaha TTR, H.M. The Bike, would be quite a useful mode of transport if it were on the road, but I've hardly been in the garage for a while to get it tested.
The car's not much use, the roads are blocked up with other cars as well as the snow.
There's eight inches of it out there, I went and measured it......


Posted by Ken Thomas at December 01, 2010 05:21 PM GMT

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