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6th February 2003

Motor Cycle Cavalcade by IxionMotor Cycle Cavalcade

By far the most frequent question I faced during 35 years as a road tester was much less 'Wottlitdo?' than 'Howdyfeel?' It took me a few years to grasp that most enthusiasts were not, after all, implying that they assumed the written report would necessarily have its criticisms blunted: they wanted a personal opinion -- if I liked it, or not, why did I like it, or not. As the curious enthusiasts knew only too well, one learns as much from voice tones, facial expression and body language as one does from the actual words used. This rings even more true when one is aware of the perspectives of the critic.

Very few journalists have managed to achieve a quality of writing that presents the reader with an entertaining balance of accurate technical appraisal and personal perception. Authors manage better for the simple reason that the greater space within the 300-plus pages of a book allows greater room for the development of expression.

Personally, my greatest disappointment is that Vic Willoughby never wrote the autobiographical volume he owed to us all. Now that would have been the seminal work of the post 1940s decades. It would also have made the perfect partner for the book that since I first read it in the mid-1950s, aged 17, five years after its publication, has continued to enthrall me. This is, of course, Ixion's (Canon Basil Davies) Motor Cycle Cavalcade. He was the old The Motor Cycle magazine's (the blue 'un) regular contributing columnist. The mag was also the books' original publisher.

'...Cavalcade' was sold as the history of British motorcycling between 1884 and the early 1950s, and so it is of course. But far, far more than a mere technical chronology, it was and remains still, a commentary of unsurpassed erudition on the cultural, social, sporting, touring, industrial and technical progress of the motorcycle and its devotees throughout that most extraordinary half-century.

Ixion was a man of the Church, plainly after a classic education, as exemplified by a literary style of such clarity it must have had Latin foundations. But dry he is not. His writing is so impeccably understated that it disguises a fine intellect coupled to great athleticism, unusual mechanical empathy, a superb talent for riding and, so often overlooked -- a droll sense of humour. In Ixion's sublime prose you will see the smile on his face as he describes yet another disaster: '...But I soon gathered from his agonised movements that the heavy (bike) had taken complete charge (and) fell over sideways... The frame assumed a somewhat crumpled rhomboidal form'. Or sense his fatalistic shrug: 'A tumble was a serious matter, as it normally bent a pedal crank -- easily straightened at the next smithy;' wherein one also learns a valuable part of motorcycling history.

Read the chapter A Pioneer Takes A Ride and you will begin to appreciate a smidgen of what we owe our great grandfathers. They were dauntless men. By the end of the chapter you should, if have you a modicum of imagination, wonder what possessed those first enthusiasts to take up and then persist with motorcycling. You, and I, become convinced by the plainly unremarkable manner in which dear old Ixion relates the punitive consequences of riding, being that the whole business of survival in a nation without a sealed road to its name actually involved drama of the highest calibre.

'There was not one square yard of either tarmac or concrete on British roads in 1900... When a 40hp Mercedes crossed Devon on a windless summer day, its transit was marked by beige dust clouds often a mile in length and 20 feet high... It was full of decaying organic filth -- the pounded droppings of horse, cow and pig.' And ' brakes could not bring a total load of 200lb or so to a dead stop down single figure gradients... Their weakness was compensated by wearing stout hobnailed boots, and grinding them down on the road surface in emergencies.' As I once experienced, the effect of just this on one London to Brighton Pioneer Run when despite desperate brake grip and boot sole grinding my 1906 Triumph continued to gather speed down one long hill near Redhill, was paralyzing.

To study Ixion's listed contents of a typical tool kit of those pioneering days involves digesting what extraordinary mechanical ability was needed by riders then. There were no telephones, no rescue services, no worthwhile garages, no trustworthy mechanics. There was just you and whichever god you favoured.

That you will find a bargain priced '...Cavalcade' these days is pretty unlikely but, should you find one, I do urge you to pay whatever price is asked if you nurture even mild curiosity about the reality of the why's and wherefore's of our movement's founding. It will become a treasure, I promise.

No other motorcycle book, not one, is comparable and for me it remains as one of the very few that ranks equal in both historical and literary worth, within its defined two-wheeling parameters, to such as Isaac Walton's The Complete Angler, and Antoine de Saint Exupery's Wind Sand And Stars.

Ixion rarely answers 'Wottlitdo' but his 'Howdyfeel' is unrivalled.

Dave Minton

Motor Cycle Cavalcade by Ixion was last published in 1971 by SR Publishers, ISBN 0 85409 695 7. You'll have to search for a copy -- it's worth trying amazon to see if they have a secondhand one on their lists.


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