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2nd January 2004

A Winter's (Big Shed) Tale

Strange things happen when your Shed is not quite as it should be. When there are no sparks but there is plenty of Christmas spirit (the kind which comes in bottles). Frank Westworth sought seasonal solace...

It was a dark and stormy night. Rain was lashing against the industrial unit known as The Fake Shed. No-one, but no-one was at work in any of the other units, because it was the day before Christmas, and apparently not everyone works then. Not even the deranged injection moulder next door; a man of many (plastic) parts, who is always surrounded by legions of small boys on bicycles…

But I was within and alone. I was noticing how the interior and indeed the contents of The Fake Shed stay impossibly dry, whatever the weather. In The Original Shed, everything was damp all the time. If I was bored of an evening, I could unwrap a new stainless washer for any of the oldsters, and watch it rust while I sank a refreshing libation. Things are different in Cornwall. Cornwall is a land of mystery, where the nights are dark and packed with mysterious noises.

I was facing a thorny problem. Rowena had once again caused one of our excellent classics to malfunction. This particular excellent classic is a BSA, and everyone knows that BSAs are not to be trusted. Unlike Ariels or Ajays, for example, which never ever go wrong, and if they ever did (which they never do) they are so simply designed and so superbly engineered that they practically reassemble and fix themselves. I know this. BSAs, however, are a completely different kettle of prawns.

Not to be trusted.

This particular BSA has been a Shed dweller for many years now, and although it rarely gets a mention it is a heroic device, famed for its ruggedity (excuse me; I'm having a GeeDubbya moment) and powerful reliantupon-ness. Blimey. However, even the most reliable, the most rugged and the most patient of motorcycles can only take so much. And the Beezer quite plainly had Had Enough. My theory is that it felt left out when Herself decided to ride her Triumph Hurricane to the Beezumph Rally, and was slightly smug when that Triumph (which is really a BSA, as ani fule no) expired in sympathy after a wapping 51 miles. The retrieval of the Hurricane got me a telling-off from the AA, who don't like recovering things, despite what they claim. Plainly the AA don't remember the days when their patrols relied upon BSAs, when they saluted passing motorcyclists, and employed skilled mechanics who could fix things, rather than armies of local garages. Who. Just. Tow. Things.

But the Beezer wasn't satisfied with sabotaging Ms H's intended trip to the trippy east. Of course it wasn't. It waiting, silent-like, until she decided to ride it to the Fake Shed (from the Very Damp Shed). As soon as she decided to ride the Beezer, small hairs rose on the back of my neck, small boys enlisted in the Afrika Korps and Saddam Hussein decided that yes, he could wipe the floor with the US Army. The stock market rose in anticipation, and Triumph announced the launch of the Ariel 3; 27 litres of sidevalve twin…

Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick kick kick kick kick kick.The BSA was of course un-moved, and started first kick. As usual, in fact, and despite petrol over five years old and a flat battery. This is the cunning BSA way. RH sprang aboard, grinning like a maniac, and stormed off in a howl of tyres and a cloud of tyre smoke. I set off to follow, aboard rather less exciting tackle, and found her at the roadside, possibly over a mile away. Trailer time. No sparks. Plenty of (old) fuel, even lights and a horn of sorts (ferocious chargers, these Lucas alternators) but no sparks. Revenge, plainly is sweet.

And only a few months later, here I am, sat in The Fake Shed with several cans of fresh orange juice (which have been in The Shed for several months, so I have to doubt their freshness) and a stack of genuine BSA spares (BSA have been out of business since 1972, so I suspect that the spares are as genuine as the orange juice is fresh), alongside a partially dismantled BSA, and with wintry tempests battering the door.

It's dark. I have applied my meter to the Beezer's electrics; we appear to have continuity everywhere. There is no reason why the thing should not run. But it doesn't. It has no sparks. I am baffled.

I am particularly baffled because the BSA is sparked by an electronic confabulation known to cognoscenti as Rita. Long ago, Rita was moulded, rather like Dr Frankenstein's creation, by a mad scientist, presumably in a gothic edifice somewhere near Solihull. The good Dr Lucas applied the electrical energies in this case. In the same way that Dr Frankenstein's own monster was jolted into life by the application of mighty voltages to mysterious bits of his anatomy, Rita gets the jolts and applies the volts which make the BSA burst into life. Or not.

Picture this: the battery is packed with amps, volts, ohms and all the other little mysteries which make life with an old bike so exciting. I know the battery is so packed because I have a meter. If I stretched my wilting wit enough, I could probably drag out some convoluted sentence about Lovely Rita, meter made … but maybe we shouldn't go there!

The meter is a fine thing, and demonstrates that there are volts all over the place. Twelve of them. This is good. But despite there being a plethora of volts, there are no sparks. This is bad. Volts are all very well, but sparks would be better. The rains lashed the doors, tree branches battered the windows, and I was all alone, deep in the midwinter evening. Lost. No sparks. No cat to kick. Woe.

Then, I heard music. Did I really hear music, or were my senses just over-excited by the spark deficiency? No, I heard music. Was this the sound of carol singers, out earning a sov in the deep midwinter? Or was it maybe the music of angels, taking pity upon a poor soul stuck in his Shed while shepherds watched their flocks by night? I listened more closely. The tune was faint, and faintly familiar. Sing, choirs of angels…

Then there was a voice! Was this to be a choral work? Music of the spheres, or something? Plainly playing with BSA electrics and liaising with Rita was doing something to my enfeebled awareness. I wandered to the door of The Shed and listened. The voice spake thus; 'I said I'd meet you by them ol' sheds. It's bliddy freezin'. Whaddya mean you're gonna be late?' I realised that I was close to an ecclesiastic moment, and went back to the bench, on tiptoe. Loneliness does things to a chap.

When I first understood that Rita was the cause of my unhappiness, I had spoken on the electric telephonic device with a nice man at Mistral Engineering. I hadn't called him entirely at random, you understand, he'd been recommended as One Who Knows about electronigizmo ignitions in general and recalcitrant Rita in particular. We, experts both, spoke thus:

'Hello, I'd like to buy a new Rita.'


'Because mine doesn't work.'

'How do you know?'

'I've got no sparks.'

'Have you tested it?'

'No; I don't know anything about electronic ignitions, I am electrically incompetent and find it easiest just to fit a new one, for I am both wealthy and stupid, and this is the only way. Trust me.'

'Take out the plugs,' said Mr Mistral. 'Then turn on the ignition switch. Then turn it off again. There should be a spark at both plugs when you turn it off.'

I did this. Darnation! What a fine pair! Of sparks!

'To simulate the conditions inside the combustion chamber', said the voice, 'bend the earth electrode on a plug out as far as it will go. See if it'll still spark.'

I did. It did.

'There's nothing wrong with the amplifier, then,' quoth the distant voice, 'and you've just saved fifty-either quid plus VAT. Cheers!'

Mysterious voices are a tradition at this religious time of year, and I was in awe. Choirs of angels could have impressed me no more than this. And the voice quite plainly was suffering from a festive cold, too. Thanks.

So. We have sparks again. Why? Why are there now sparks where previously there were no sparks and nothing has changed apart from the mysterious conversation with the money-hating voice of the Mistralman? This is awful. Sparks don't just happen. Sparks need to be made. If sparks can suddenly just happen for no apparent reason, then they can disappear just as easily. Hang on; isn't that exactly what had happened? O woe!

There was a sound from without. Like a murmur, an impression of distant movement and rejoicing. I listened again. The night was deep, and crisp and even. There was no snow. Yet. But there was movement. Was it the sound of Santa and his sleigh, bringing seasonal enlightenment to lost souls baffled by a wandering spark? Was Rita governed by a star in the east? There was movement, though, no doubt about it. And it came from outside The Shed's window, the window in The Shed's smallest room, which I keep open to allow the exit of evil miasmas and the like.

The sound was rhythmic and steady. It was accompanied by the unmistakable chuffing of a steam train. There are no steam trains nearby. The nearest steam train is in distant Bodmin, far to the south, in a land notably devoid of wise men. Doubt you'd find three wise men in Bodmin. Doubt you'd look for them…

Oi! What's going on back there?

I scratched my thinning hair. More fell out. It does that. Sparks in front of me, increasingly loud steam engine noises behind. This was a winter's tale, OK!

I went back to the BSA. I scratched my head again, and tapped the brake pedal to see whether as well as sparks I also had lights. I did. Brake lights at least. Baffling.

I flicked the ignition switch on and off again, hardly daring to believe that I would see sparks. I was right! There were no sparks again! O Rita, how can you taunt me so? The steam train was very close now, and I was considering rushing outside with a red lamp to warn the loco driver and prevent a terrible accident. The rhythm was gaining in pace; mighty pistons were driving mighty pinions and through the dark night a hell bound train was a-coming!

Then I had a wave of the brain. More use than the wave of a flag, possibly. If there was a spark at the plugs when the ignition circuit was broken, and if there was lots of life in the battery, then if I waggled, stretched, pulled, prodded and poked at every bit of wire, one by one, then when I found a dodgy bit there would be a spark!

I did. I waggled, I prodded, in a frenzy of determination to get the BSA going before the increasingly noisy train flattened Shed, BSA and … me.

It was the fuse holder. The fuse holder contacts were corroded. So were the ends of the fuse. Simple when you know how. I applied brass brush, connected things up, and started the BSA! It ran! It sounded great without its silencers! The earth shook, choirs sang, small children with dogs followed stars from the east! The mighty rhythm was broken by a sudden scream and a cry of 'Whathebliddyellwasthat!'

I switched off.

Wheezes and mumbles replaced the mighty rhythmic crescendo. Thanks, Rita. We made beautiful music; made the earth move for someone…

I love old bikes.

Happy Christmas everyone...

Any more bike related Beatles Lyrics?


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