This sequestered nook of story

It’s one of the paradoxes of lockdown that with all the time in the world to do it, I can’t seem to get stuck into anything that requires even a modicum of concentration.

But a tweet about someone looking forward to a lovely afternoon of reading has encouraged me to give it another go so I have invested in a history of Scotland by Magnus Magnusson.

As we’re seeing at the moment with the culture war over Britain’s colonial heritage, history can be intensely political, so I thought it would be really interesting to see what an Icelander, albeit one who grew up in Edinburgh, makes of Scotland’s story.

As a Brucie Bonus (a Robert-the-Brucie-bonus, perhaps?) Magnus has chosen to link history and landscape in his re-telling with a really strong focus on archaeology and the physical traces of Scotland’s story, so even though I’m only at Chapter 5 – Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret – I’ve got a list of things that I really do need to go and see, from the Pictish stones of the North East to the hill fort of Dunadd in Argyll.

I’ve shied away from making plans for journeys once the lockdown lifts. Like John Cleese’s character in Clockwise, it’s the hope I can’t stand. But this tiny list – which I’m sure will grow as I get through the book – might give me something to look forward to after all.


Like everything I start in lockdown, this endeavour has ended in failure with the disappointing revelation on page 65 that Mr Magnusson (and his editors) can’t tell the difference between Henry I’s wife Matilda and Henry I’s daughter the Empress Matilda. If you’ve watched (or read!) Cadfael or The Pillars of the Earth – the daughter is the one fighting King Stephen for her right to the throne of England. So it’s not exactly a trivial mistake.


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Am Luthier now

No, not Luther. I’m not wrestling my inner darkness to solve crimes. I’m wrestling nuts and saddles to make my ukulele sound nice.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned about fixing stuff is that Sometimes It Didn’t Come Right from the Factory.

It’s really easy to assume that the source of the problem isn’t the Thing Itself, it’s you.


I’ve had my rather posh ukulele for a few years now, and I’ve never been able to get a nice sounding G chord out of it. I assumed it was my bad technique, because it’s a good brand and cost me quite a lot.

Then last week (ish) I bought the banjolele and a book of technical exercises, because Lockdown. And everything on the banjolele sounded great. Scales were in tune, G chord didn’t sound horrible.

It wasn’t me. Which always comes as something of a surprise.

To the Internet, Batman. Apparently it’s a common issue with plastic fun ukes that the strings go sharp as you head up the frets. I’m a tad tetchy that it’s also an issue with a mahogany concert uke. But once you know what’s gone wrong you can start finding out how to fix it.

How do you fix it? You take the saddle and the nut out and file them down, really really carefully. And then you cut an Anchor plastic butter tub into little bits and shim them back up again because it’s surprisingly easy to overshoot. Don’t ask me how I know.

Relaxing into the idea that actually, it is broke and you should try and fix it has been a big challenge for me but it’s also a total liberation. “What a man can do,” remember?

You’d think that a musical instrument would come set up correctly out of the box, but I suppose when you work in a factory chucking them together on a production line the niceties get lost. So have a go yourself. Fine tune it. Get it a bit wrong and rescue it. And revel in the beauty of your G chord once it’s done.


Filed under Riding

Blues for Mama

On the face of it, lockdown is a perfect opportunity to develop new skills. But I am raging too much at the loss of all the things I enjoy doing outside of my house to accept knuckling down and getting on with something.

I worked hard to change from being a shy, retiring “wee Mary” into, frankly, a massive show-off. Riding motorcycles and playing the blues were the two chief means of achieving this, with a side order of pointing and shouting at people at Cadwell Park.

I could go back to the harmonica of mixed memory – like so much in my life, it started well but ended badly. On this occasion White Russians and Pink Floyd were to blame. But I don’t think it’s helpful to backtrack. Forging ahead to find new fields to fuck up in is, after all, the Highwaylass way.

A few years ago I bought a ukulele, and like most people I can thrash out a few skiffle tunes. It doesn’t satisfy my need to show off because the local uke group meets at a dog-unfriendly pub (or did, in the Before Times), and I don’t like the tunes in their songbook. (I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than strum along to Snow Patrol).

Last week I bought a Banjolele. The bastard offspring of a banjo and a ukulele, it has brought great joy into my lockdown purgatory. It has flames, which means I match the Wingman’s doggles. And everything looks better with flames. And more entertainingly, it comes with a Special Tool, for you have to tighten the banjo head every now and again and it reminds me of tightning up spokes.

An instrument that is nearly the same as building a motorcycle wheel – what more could a woman ask for?

I suppose, like Bill and Ted, I’d probably better learn to play.


Filed under Introspection, Riding

If it’s Monday it must be the Oily Smudges Silhouette Quiz

Mondays are for nerdery. If your appetite for niche quizzes remains unsated by the magnificent Only Connect and its dowdier sisters, Mastermind and University Challenge, you need the Oily Smudges Silhouette Quiz in your life.

Tonight’s Twitter-based challenge will be the 178th – for yes, it started in the Before Times. But it’s one of the bright spots breaking up the petty pace of the lockdown week.

Readers, for the first 170 rounds I was baffled. One Universal Japanese Motorcycle looks much like another to me. Nuances of round vs square mirrors or tail tidies were for people with every back issue of Practical Sportsbike organised and indexed in their mancaves.

Then about 8 weeks ago I finally got my moment on the A-List. For Silhouette number 171 was an MZ.

But it wasn’t an ETZ250 because it didn’t have spoked wheels.

And it wasn’t an ETZ251 because although the tank was a match they don’t have the engine slung in a frame like that.

Clue by clue I wrestled it down and got my DM from Stuart admitting me to the winner’s circle.

Have a go, it’s brilliant fun.

(I still can’t do it for real bikes.)


Filed under Riding

Missed opportunity

Minding my own business on Friday and trying to write a press release I realised that I was constantly smelling cigarette smoke and made the schoolboy error of googling it.

Yes, smelling things that aren’t there can be a coronavirus symptom. It’s that catch-all, “changes to smell or taste.”

And come to think of it, things weren’t tasting of much either.


What does a good citizen do? Cancel her planned lunchtime walk and get a test.

I don’t mind testing. I’ve done an HIV test a couple of times, I was getting tested for all the other unpleasant STDs before they’d let me have an IUD fitted and the clinic asked if I wanted the HIV test as well. Maybe there was a special offer or something that week as I really don’t think I’m a high risk group.

But driving to a coronavirus test site to meet lots of other people – the meeters-and-greeters, and the distributors of kits, while I shout my name at them – seemed to rather defeat the point of self-isolation. So I ordered a home kit instead,

But it would have been a government sanctioned excuse to take a motorcycle ride. The fact I didn’t realise this is surely proof that I really was ill.


Filed under Riding

Things that I miss

Don’t worry, the Wingman is still fine. But his days are finite and one of the things he and I both love the most is camping, either solo or with friends. He loves new places to sniff and new grass to widdle on, and most of all he loves to meet new people and try to persuade them to give him their bacon. We did get away a couple of times last year in the brief window when campsites were allowed to operate, but we went in the camper as Yorkshire is too far for a 250cc MZ and the big K was still being rebuilt.

Of all the things I hope for this year I hope that camping will be allowed again – proper camping where you aren’t expected to bring your own loo, because that’s really difficult on a motorcycle.


Filed under Riding

Nice things that come in the post

Emails are very useful but they are just not as much fun as letters.

That’s kind of all I have to say today!


Filed under Riding

Fun things to do in lockdown

You’ve got some time on your hands, right? And you’ve run out of box sets and there isn’t an inch of bike left to polish?

So you’ve got a few minutes to write to your MP about the Government’s failure to either extend CBT certificates or allow training schools to open so that riders can renew them.

I know, you took your test 30 years ago, why do you care?

Well, we’re all getting old and creaky. Biking needs a steady supply of new riders to replace us old gimmers. The more riders that there are on the road, the safer we all are.

And many riders on L-plates rely on them to get to work, or to actually do their jobs, such as food delivery. Yes, there’s an argument that they should move on from L-plates as soon as they can – but with tests suspended that’s not an option at the moment.

My feeling is that we’re suffering more from ignorance than malice – decision-makers in DfT and Government don’t really understand how bike training and testing fundamentally differs from car learning and so we’ve been overlooked.

But if you wanted to put a tinfoil hat on, you could believe that there’s an active lobby pushing for an end to unaccompanied riding on L-plates for “road safety” reasons and we don’t want to give that view any quarter.

Now, you could sign an online petition but I’m very sceptical about them*.

Here’s a better way, that only takes a few minutes more.

1. Head to

This is a brilliant website that will look up your MP, let you write a letter, and email it to them automatically – though they will email the address you give them to ask that you confirm it’s really you that wants to send the letter so look out for that in your spam.

2. Put your postcode in and the site will tell you who your MP is and open a window for you to write a letter to them.

3. Write a very polite letter asking your MP to urge the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps MP, to either extend CBTs or allow testing to resume for key workers who need their bikes to get to work or do their jobs.

Tip 1 – Keep it polite and keep politics out of it – your constituency MP is supposed to help you regardless of whether you voted for them or not, but if you didn’t, probably better not to mention that.

Tip 2 – stick to mobility/the economy/getting low paid workers to their jobs. That’s the sort of argument most likely to influence civil servants and the Conservative government.

Some points you might include-

Precedent: In the lockdown last year training providers were allowed to offer CBTs to critical workers and those with social mobility issues (i.e. getting to work), provided that they followed covid-safe procedures – in April last year the DVSA Chief Executive wrote “I’m incredibly aware that some workers including our NHS staff and those on the frontline will have an urgent need to finish their motorcycle training.”  That urgent need still exists.

Transmission: CBTs were provided in the 2020 lockdown on a 1:1 basis, reducing the risk of virus transmission. So training schools have already proved they can be covid-safe.

Safety: Riding on the roads with a CBT and L-plates is a wholly legitimate way of gaining experience on a small-capacity bike before proceeding to a full test.  The more experience a rider has the safer they are.

Keeping the economy going: Many young riders rely on their motorcycles to get to their jobs. Some of these jobs will be “essential work”. We are all being urged to avoid public transport, but a rider whose CBT licence expires will be unable to carry on riding, affecting their ability to get to work, or to do their job if they are working in the delivery sector.

4. Finish the letter with a specific request of the MP – don’t just tell them what’s wrong, ask them to do something for you: – something like: “Please could you contact the Secretary of State for Transport on my behalf and ask that the Government think again. Learner riders need either an extension to their CBTs or the ability to renew their CBT with a covid-safe traning provider, as was allowed in the first lockdown in order to allow motorcyclists to do their bit in keeping the economy going.”

5. Make a cup of tea and bask in the knowledge that you’re helping the next generation of riders.

* Boring reasons why I think this is better than online petitions – letters from MPs to Ministers have to be seen by a civil servant and a reply drafted for the Minister to approve. So they are slightly more likely to register on their consciousness as an issue that needs addressing.

Illustration from “The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Guide to Motorcycling Excellence.” The MSF trains new riders in the USA.


Filed under Riding

Let’s see what you could have won

It’s February and that’s a good month to take part in blog challenges to get back into writing when there’s not much riding to write about.

It’s also the first day of spring in the Celtic tradition – Imbolc – or Candlemas if you prefer the Christian calendar. Lupercalian Goat Sacrifice Day is approaching.

These are all good things. But I’ve got nothing. I’m scraping the barrel for this post. No way in hell have I got 27 more. And I’ve already failed because it’s Feb 2nd not Feb 1st.

When I started this blog, in January 2007, it was on the recommendation of a Web 2.0 trainer I’d taken a class with. Blogging and user-generated content was the path of the future, and all us PRs, campaign managers and lobbyists were encouraged to go forth and give it a try, on our dial-up modem connections.

I lived in London and there was a lot going on in bike activism land, from Kill Spills to bikes-in-bus-lanes (I do love it when baby bicycle lobbyists try to school me on what the TfL reports concluded. I was in the fucking room, Simon) and the first rumblings of charging for motorcycle parking in Westminster. So there was all that to write about. Then there was the Round Britain Rally.

I took a deliberate decision not to try and share riding tips – because I have no skills – and I didn’t want it to become “opinion of the week” (I got paid to go on telly for that). I just wanted to blog about my rides round the UK and other bike and classic car things I went to – like the 2008 Southend Shakedown in the photo.

Newsflash – all of those are now illegal.

The well is dry.

No-one needs a month of me being maudlin about the things I can’t do any more.

So many people have managed this transition – they’ve taken up sourdough making or birdwatching or singing sea shanties.

I haven’t. I’m still stuck in that pit of anger and resentment. The one thing that gives my life meaning is sticking the Wingman in his travelling harness and travelling somewhere. And now we’re all under house arrest on Plague Island.


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What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Billy Connolly does a great skit of one of the staples of late-night 1980s Scottish TV – two earnest men in suits delivering a homily about the Gospel. “Did Jesus play for Tottenham Hotspur, Daddy?”

I was riding back from the Toy Run on Saturday and I thought of a fantastic version of this for hustling sidecar rigs.

Luckily for you, I have forgotten what it was.

So I’m going to talk about the coronavirus instead.

The Government has failed at quite a lot of things recently but one thing they’ve been really, really good at is getting us all to judge each other. Are your neighbours standing in the garden with more than 6 people? Report them on this handy police website. Have your in-laws asked to visit on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day? Drag them to the village pond and strap them to the ducking stool. Did your First Minister forget to put her mask back on when she stood up after a meal at a pub? Stick her on the front page of The Sun.

Yes, there’s an argument that people in positions of authority need to set an example. And perhaps not drive to Barnard Castle to test their eyesight. But the rest of us are just doing our best to comply with the ever-changing kaleidoscope of rules, Tiers, guidance and laws while trying to hold on to whatever gives our lives meaning.

I’m sure some people will have seen the bikes go by on the Toy Run and tutted that it was against the current regulations. We don’t think it was, as there are exceptions to the Rule of 6 for gatherings organised by a charity. We all wore our masks and did our best to maintain social distance at the sign-on point. And you’re obviously social distancing when you’re riding a bike!

The event raised more than £4000 and will support children in local authority care and children living in a local domestic violence refuge.

Maybe I’m guilty of arguing that the end justifies the means. But what’s the big picture here? The goal of all the restrictions we’re now living under is to limit the opportunities to pass on the virus, and as grown-ups we can make a decision about whether our actions achieve this.

Just like when we ride, our goal is to enjoy ourselves and not die.

I achieve this by strapping a sidecar to my bike to limit my opportunities to fall over. Others by taking to the track and riding in circles very very quickly. I don’t judge them for not motorcycling right. I hope they don’t judge me.

So what’s the true meaning of Christmas?

This year it’s “wind your neck in.”

Or, as Jesus put it, (though presumably a few years after being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger) “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you. God will judge you in the same way you judge others.

Did Jesus ride sidecars? Well, you know, in a funny way, he did.

(Photo by Kingy Tony)

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