At fourteen I got a dropped-handlebar racing bike for Christmas. It was a Raleigh Medale with a rear derailleur and five gears, and a saddle to worry any prospective mother of my children – it was a ‘proper’ bike. It was gold coloured with a red head tube and panels on the down tube and seat tube. You can still find them second-hand on ebay. On this bike I had my first experience of commuting. But not to school – the geography of the South Wales valleys mitigates against sideways movement, and my school was sideways up, on top of a reclaimed spoil heap. No, my commute was five miles up the valley, twice weekly to the ‘2423 Squadron’ of the Air Training Corps. Stephen, Eddy, and I were in it together. Stephen still had his Carlton, but Eddy had become the proud owner of an Elswick Hopper ten speed, distinguished by the fact that it had an alloy, cotterless bottom bracket and double chainset – high end componentry indeed for 1981! We would invariably make these commutes after dark and in inclement weather so the inadequacy of sports accessories in the 1980s is vividly brought home to me when thinking about those journeys. My bike also had chromed steel rims which made emergency stopping impossible, the first five seconds or so of braking had absolutely no effect until the rims were wiped clean of water . . . how I managed to survive this in the pitch black and pouring rain wearing thick woollen, RAF surplus trousers and Dr Martens boots (the original and best) with only the wan glow of an Ever-Ready bike lamp between me and certain motorised death still amazes me.
The Air Training Corps, or ATC, was formed during WW2 as a recruitment conduit for the Royal Air Force, but the motivation for us to join was to use it as a well provisioned youth club. Admittedly, we had to wear a uniform and beret, salute the commanding officer, obey orders and take part in drills – but if you were OK with that then the benefits outweighed the cost. Our three, ex-RAF, officers would spend parade nights smoking and drinking tea in the office, with occasional emergences to give us a lecture in the principles of flight or the history of the RAF in preparation for our leading cadet ‘exams’. It was a bit like the boy scouts, but without religion and with much better activities. Most of the time we would play darts or ping-pong and practise drill. Half of our ‘squadron’ would spend the evening chain smoking so that the ‘hut’ would be filled with a thick smog that is hard to imagine now that smoking has been banned in all public places. The commanding officer, ‘Mel’ had been a rear gunner in a Lancaster during WW2 and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. I don’t know what act of gallantry it was for, but once when we had a ride in a Sea-King helicopter Mel was seated opposite the open door and looked terrified. Who knows what memory it brought back of being suspended miles above the Earth in the rear gunner’s bubble of a Lancaster bomber, surrounded by enemy fighters knowing that the next one could be coming for you . . . Maybe because he had survived the war and was not naturally of the ‘officer class’ (he was promoted from the ranks) he had a reasonably relaxed attitude toward military discipline. One particular evening during his pep talk Mel informed us that some of the parents had expressed concern that their offspring were apparently smoking on parade nights. You could smoke everywhere then – pubs, schools, on trains and buses, in the cinema, in hospitals(!) – and it was clear that Mel thought this a necessary qualification for military service; but mindful of his duty of care, he told us that we could only smoke off the premises . . . meaning on the step outside the back door.