Losers

Originally I’d considered attaching a speech bubble to one of the “hoodies” on this cover saying, “Nice bike mate… can we have a go?”

But as our designer pointed out, it didn’t need it because the picture in itself does a pretty good job of representing the kind of worst case scenario that is designed to strike a chord — not to mention a note of fear — in the heart of any reader who has ever ridden a desirable motorcycle in one of the seedier corners of our fair city.

Hands up anyone who’s ever woken up in a cold sweat from a nightmare where your hard earned pride and joy was violently wrestled from you by precisely the kind of hooded youth that the Daily Snail has taught us all to dread. I realise that for one or two of you it might not be the tabloids but bitter experience that has taught you to fear these feral hoodlums, but for most of us they’re no more than a nagging worry, which occasionally takes the edge off of the joy of owning a tasty machine.

So should we worry? Or are the apocryphal stories we hear about hapless riders being torn from their bikes and violently beaten to the ground, just that — urban legends. Events that rarely happen, but are constantly repeated (often with additional detail) because — just like the cautionary fairy tales parents have been telling their children for generations to keep them away from strangers, on the path, and out of dark corners — they are lurid, violent and ultimately terrifying.

There’s no question that the streets of London are incredibly dangerous but you still have an considerably better chance of ending up in a crumpled heap on the floor as a consequence of a mindless assault by a distracted motorist than you ever have of becoming the victim of a concerted attack by violent bike thieves — youthful or otherwise.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that there isn’t an enormous amount of motor vehicle crime going on out there, nor that youngsters aren’t responsible for a great deal of it — particularly the more opportunist end for “joyriding” purposes — just that it is only a minutely small percentage that involves any violence. That said, when you return to the spot where you left your R1 unanchored for less than 2 minutes while you rushed indoors for a leak, only to see a 14 year old heading for the horizon on the back wheel, you might well feel like you have been kicked in the teeth.

And the scary part is that the thieving little bastards are getting worse! They have absolutely no respect for other people’s property, and contemptuously flip a finger at teachers, police officers, the courts, and decent society generally. What they need is…

Well, what is it exactly that they need? I spent 21 years working with ‘difficult’ teenagers at the sharp end of things, and I’ve been to every kind of lock up you can imagine from police cells, to ‘secure units’, Detention Centres, Youth Offenders Centres (Approved schools and Borstals in old money) and prisons; and although the use of birching and other forms of corporal punishment ended before I entered the work, the evidence suggests it was no more effective than Thatcher’s (or to be more precise Willie Whitelaw’s) “Short, Sharp, Shock” or any of the other punitive measures employed to deal with youth crime.

Consider the case of a 15 year old, I’ll call Darren. Young Daz had started notching up TWOC (Taking Without Consent) offences on bikes and cars long before he moved to the home where I worked, and unsurprisingly when they all came to court he found himself doing 3 months in Feltham.

Now HM Young Offender Institution & Remand Centre Feltham is a proper prison (albeit one for school age kids) and although I knew when I went to visit Darren that I wasn’t about to get stuck there because I was a grown up with an official ID to prove I was one of the good guys, by the time I’d completed the long walk to the visiting area, the blood in my veins was feeling decidedly chilly. I couldn’t begin to get my head around what it must have been like to be locked up in a place like that at his tender age, so I looked the short skinny youth in the eye and asked him what being sent there had taught him?

Daz met my gaze, and without the slightest trace of irony said: “Well Dave, before I came in here, I could screw any car but a Saab — and now I know how to do them too. It’s so easy once you know, you just…”

What can society do with that sort of attitude? The worst part was that I’d been to his mum’s decrepit flat in Canning Town and I’d met a couple of her ‘men friends’ too, so it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if Darren thought life in Feltham was pretty cushty by comparison — which suggests that it didn’t provide him with much of a deterrent. So what do you with a kid like that?

Obviously the safest answer is to just keep him safely under lock and key forever. Trouble is the prison service would soon cost as much as the NHS and the state pension bill combined. So what other alternatives are there? Execution is a singularly cost effective option — and might not seem particularly extreme if you’ve had three brand new ‘blades stolen from right outside your Clapham flat in the last 19 months and you can no longer get insurance — but when you really think about it, you’d probably still get just a teeny bit squeamish when it actually came to a seventeen year old three time loser receiving a lethal injection for nicking a Gilera Runner, a 600 Bandit and a dodgy old Corsa.

I might be pushing a point to make a point but that’s because I believe that it’ll only be when our society recognises the pathetic limitations of the big stick approach that it will begin to consider other options; even if only out of practical necessity. Middle England needs to deal with the reality that unless it is willing to impose the ultimate sanction on children for crimes against property, it may as well put the stick down and look around for a suitable carrot.

Hang on!? Surely I can’t be suggesting that you give those scruffy toe rags some sort of treat in recognition of the fact that they’re thieving scum!

Yes I am actually. Based on my studies and personal experience, it is my fervent belief that if we made resources available to provide facilities for precisely those scruffy little toe rags, it would be an infinitely better use of the taxpayers money than throwing millions at building bigger ‘better’ children’s prisons, and then paying Securicor or Group 4 millions more to run them.

I realise many of you will object to the idea of appearing to reward bad behaviour, and that’s perfectly understandable; but what you need to recognise is that the most problematic youngsters tend to be the ones who have least to lose. We can either continue with the war of attrition, or we can decide that we’re the grown ups, so we’ll try something different to break the cycle and engage them. Fortunately the corollary of having so little, is that it only requires a comparatively modest investment to offer them a meaningful alternative to offending behaviour and have a significant effect on their lives.

It wasn’t just the front cover that was subject to a rethink between conception and delivery. Initially this feature was due to be wittily entitled “Toe Rags to Riches” and I planned to focus on Nicky Plumb and Bob Collins, a couple of local lads who have turned out well, but could easily have gone either way.

Unfortunately (from the point of view of the article) when I began exploring their ‘chequered’ pasts, I discovered that while they both began attracting negative attention from the police in their early teens as a result of their passion for motorcycles, their crimes were all motoring offences; and with the exception of Bob’s first chase on his dad’s VFR, none of them involved Taking Without Consent. 

While Bob and Nicky’s youthful transgressions were definitely dodgy, decidedly dangerous, and invariably illegal, human nature suggests that as motorcyclists, some of you might be less inclined to condemn their actions out of hand. But with Darren being an unrepentant bike thief. I felt confidant that he would represent a figure the readership could universally disapprove of.

If Daz is still alive, he’ll be somewhere between Bob and Nicky’s ages — his mid to late twenties (*this was written 12 years ago) — but his local authority didn’t have any motor projects, so he was never offered any other options, and just kept on sliding. Unless something miraculous happened in his life, I can almost guarantee that he’ll either be inside now or on one of the constantly shrinking periods between stretches, where ironically his crimes probably cost the average taxpayer considerably less than the expense of keeping him locked away.

If Darren’s council had possessed the facilities to offer him an option, would his life have been any different? Impossible to say, but at least if they had, he would have got the opportunity to find out.

One of the many things that motor projects tend to do very well, is to employ staff who are nothing like the clients’ parents or teachers, and therefore much more likely to be chosen as mentors and roll models by the young people. When Nicky joined the Archway (a motorcycle activity project on the Thamesmead estate in south London where he lived) he was a teenager who was drawing attention from the local police and his future prospects were less than dazzling; but aside from offering him the opportunity to go moto crossing legally and providing him with the mechanical training and structure that allowed him to find a job, the project also introduced him to Simon Pavey, who was the manager at the time.

A relationship developed with Simon, which eventually resulted in them becoming teammates for the Paris/Dakar rally (which Nicky completed on his first attempt in spite of some appalling injuries and a badly mutilated bike). He went on to become a co-instructor with Simon at his BMW off road school in South Wales. Then having started his own operation as the Touratech concessionaire for the UK, he upped sticks and moved the business there along with his family.

There’s been plenty of good stuff in Nicky’s life in recent years, but the icing on the cake came about after an advertising company phoned Touratech for some touring equipment for an ad they were planning to shoot in Argentina, and they ended up hiring him to do the all the stand-in riding. The job involved a fortnight of being well paid to ride a BMW R1150GS across an enormous variety of landscapes and terrains, and flying to exotic locations in private airplanes, all bookended by Business Class transcontinental flights! Most of you will have seen the results, because Nicky’s riding ended up centre stage in the HSBC ‘Local knowledge’ ad wherein a motorcyclist who’s been touring all over South America, insults the heavies in an Argentinean bar, by giving them the wrong hand gesture. Not bad for a Thamesmead boy.

In the May issue we introduced our readers to Bob Collins, as part of our round up of local racers sponsored by TRD distributors. We reported that Bob was an affable young man with tons of talent, a competitive bike and the kind of determination that was likely to see him doing well in this year’s BSB Superstock Cup. Well anyone who’s been keeping track will be aware that he’s currently running away with it.

In the same report we mentioned that Bob had also had more than his share of police trouble in the past. What we didn’t mention however, was that it was a police officer by the name of Wayne who first suggested that Bob should stop using the public highways as his own personal racetrack and try his hand on tarmac that was designed for the purpose. The fact that Bob was in a hospital bed where he’d spent the best part of a year — including an extended period at the beginning in a coma — after a horrendous T-bone incident, added weight to Wayne’s reasoning. As soon as Bob was fit enough to return to riding, he took the friendly Bikesafe copper’s advice and checked out a track day — and the rest is history.

Actually that’s rather simplistic, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Bob by any stretch, but there can be no doubt that racing has provided Bob with something substantial to focus on, plus an outlet for all the raw riding ability that is beginning to earn him a lot more positive attention. Most importantly though, it has also allowed him to find a constructive use for a talent that was only ever going to get him into deeper into trouble with the police if he continued to use public roads to exhibit it.

It’s amazing how far a little encouragement can go. Across the country, there are talented youngsters, who are currently riding outrageously on public roads, housing estates, and empty parking lots, and many of them harbour dreams of fame and fortune through racing or stunt riding. Unfortunately, the reality for most of these kids, just like their brothers and sisters who channel their escape fantasies into football or pop stardom, is that they have about as much chance of breaking into the big time as they have of the Lottery’s fickle finger picking them out.

That doesn’t stop them from dreaming though, and while they are if we could only make the right sort of facilities available and staff them with the sort of people who can offer the youngsters a positive role model, alongside good guidance and solid advice, there’s a distinct likelihood that they might prefer to go there rather than hanging around on your street corner getting bored and making you worry about the mirrors on your beemer.

Dave Gurman

 

 

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