James May

James May

On your bike

A correction.

A year or so ago, in Top Ger magazine, I wrote an article about the history of the scooter and argued that such things are an acceptable mode of transport for the contemporary, discerning city dweller. I then went up the road to the local scooter emporium and bought one.

I now accept that this article was misleading, and apologise unreservedly for any distress or un-intended scooter purchase it may have caused. I openly acknowledge that the article gave the impression that scooters have a positive contribution to make in solving the crisis in inner-city congestion, instead of pointing out that they are noisy, dangerous, damaging to one's self esteem and altogether the instruments of Satan. I retract unreservedly any statements apparently made in support of the scooter movement and wish to record, in print, that I've sold mine to an unsuspecting Australian.

God in his heaven. What on Earth was I thinking of?

The scooter, I have now realised, is sending out the wrong message about modern Britain. It was designed for developing countries to fill that lean period between the end of a war or economic crash and the emergence of a proper car and motorcycle industry. Once it has fulfilled its intended role, it can be forgotten.

In India, for example, licence-built Vespas served the people well while the nation was hampered by trade barriers and a lack of investment. But now the country's fortunes are improving, scooter sales are diminishing, while the car and motorcycle trade is performing most excellently.

Meanwhile, in Britain, scooter sales are still increasing. This can only mean that we are going backwards.

We can make scooters fashionable, we can paint them in bright colours, we can give them to Paul Smith to customise and we can give them to celebrity chefs to ride to the super-market, but they are still scooters and still historically occupy the peasant end of the personal transport spectrum. We should not be riding scooters any more than we should be abandoning our front-loading washing machines in favour of a galvanised bucket and a wooden stick. They are the clogs of transport and everyone I know wears proper shoes.

Whenever a grown man in a suit flashes past aboard a scooter en route to the City, I become confused. Perhaps he's a savvy urbanite with his finger on the pulse of progress. Or perhaps he's just having difficulty making ends meet on the stock exchange. He may know every rat-run in the Square Mile because he wants to maximise his productivity in relation to commuting down-time, or whatever it is these people worry about. But it might be because he spends his evenings supplementing his income by delivering fast food. Either way, he looks a little bit of a nobber and I can't help thinking that if he spent a bit less money on designer shades and a lid by Nick Ashley he could afford a proper motorbike.

Let me stress that a proper motorbike is something altogether different. At one point I had four of them in my garage, plus a Vespa. And yet, somehow, whenever I opened the door I could never think of a single good reason for taking the scooter. Instead I was overcome by a perfectly normal, manly and baboon-like urge to mount a large-capacity Moto Guzzi or similar.

Yes, I know, scooters have handy lidded and lockable luggage compartments that make them ideal for light grocery shopping. Fine if you're Jamie Oliver; however, I am in the vanguard of modern male living and don't do shopping, so it's completely academic.

"I’ve been in Italy this week, a good place from which to demolish the myth that scooters are somehow environmentally sound" 

I've been in Italy this week, a good place from which to demolish the myth that scooters are somehow environmentally sound. They have done untold damage to the Italian environment, especially at night, when one awakes in the belief that there is a Stuka dive-bombing the hotel only to look outside and see an old giffer creeping past at 20mph on a scooter. One scooter can rent the air across a five-mile radius. Using this simple statistic and the area of Italy (116,303 square miles) I have worked out that a mere 1,500 two-stroke scooters, evenly dispersed, could keep the whole country awake. No wonder hotels are so expensive in Venice. They're the only ones that can guarantee you a night's kip.

Scooters aren't safe either. There is an erroneous belief that the scooter rider does not need to wear protective clothing. I have even seen a women's magazine touting this as part of their appeal. But where does this idea come from? If you get off at 30mph in light fashion clothing you will end up looking like Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective. Furthermore, my recent experiences of hospitals suggest that you won't get anything like such a nice nurse to look after you. And you will fall off, because scooters have tiny wheels at a time when Britain's pot-holes are getting bigger.

The conscientious scooter rider is therefore obliged to wear proper armoured kit, which introduces a new problem. Anyone who swaggers out of a cafe in pukka motorcycle gear and then disappears up the road on a scooter with a pathetic rin-bin-bin is quite frankly going to look a bit of a Jessie. So once again we arrive at a cogent argument in favour of a real motorbike.

At least, on a proper motorbike, the average van driver will take you seriously. It's big, thunderous, grown-up and, in the case of my Guzzi, lime green. A scooter, judging by the amount of broken plastic in the gutter around here, is a bit like the snitch ball in the Harry Potter quidditch game - first one to bag it is the winner.

This is the real problem with scooters. Deep down, and no matter how much we try and convince ourselves that they're acceptable, we hold them in contempt. Recently, news reached me of a local hijacking incident. A youth delivering pizzas was mugged by a gang of thieves and thrown roughly from his scooter. And do you know what? They nicked the pizzas.


James May, Column

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