RIDING OUT THE NOUGHTIES January 11, 2010Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.
That journalists are second only to estate agents in the untrustworthiness dept. is evidenced by my pre-Xmas claims that I would take advantage the festive hiatus to pen a quickfire stream of blogs, whereas in fact I only managed three of the blighters. And now that normal service has been resumed, I’m trying to catch up – a process hampered by events, dear boy, events… including of course the extreme weather you’re heartily sick of. However this morning’s planned tirade on the cultural importance of the motorcycle was thrown off-kilter during my hungover breakfast by some half-heard R4 pundit reflecting on the impact of eBooks on the reading public, much as I myself had done in a blog ten days ago.
Not that I wished to reprise this so soon afterwards, but it brought home the rapid pace of cultural change which, coincidentally, was also the unspoken theme of a brace of BBC2 retrospectives I’d just watched on the Noughties. The two major conclusions drawn from these well judged documentaries, at least by me, was that western society’s cultural values were increasingly dumbed down by the proliferation of communications technologies, this in itself fueled by a nation’s economic imperatives driven by demands for instant gratification regardless of whether it is earnt or merited, demands that could in fact be met by the availability of cheap credit.
THE VICIOUS VIRTUOUS CIRCLE In particular I was impressed by the Guardian’s Economics Editor (and Paul Foot lookalike) Larry Elliott, who noted that by running down our manufacturing base we and America had allowed China to build up theirs. The consequence of this enabled Western consumers to buy increasing quantities of cheap Chinese exports, thus allowing our interest rates to plummet so that we could borrow more which then pushed up the value of our houses so that we could borrow more money to buy more cheap Chinese exports!
Raising this subject with a friend this afternoon he averred that in due course this could backfire on China whose mushrooming affluence would put them where Britain and America were 10-15 years ago, i.e. looking around for cheap manufacturing elsewhere as its citizens would no longer accept dirty, boring factory jobs so that in the third world country we’d then become opportunities for an industrial revival would soon emerge. It’s a nice and not unfamiliar argument, but although we thankfully wouldn’t be around to witness it I rather doubt this scenario, not least because as a nation we’d have long lost the skills to staff and manage large-scale manufacturing, but also the speed and scale of technological development makes it impossible to predict what the industrial landscape will look like in ten, let alone thirty years’ time.
WHEELS FALLING OFF Which brings me back to where I’d intended to start, namely motorcycles. We once had a thriving motorcycle industry which, as we now all know, was ultimately hobbled by greed, under-investment and a myopic inability to note what was happening in the far east, or at least to take it seriously. However just as it had when post-WW2 workers sought cheap transport to get to their factories and shipyards, and their sons were motivated to become ton-up boys by iconic images of Marlon Brando, the motorcycle remained an essential if unexceptional presence in British culture. And although the British bike industry was in its death throes by the 1970s, I was lucky enough to launch a couple of magazines during a golden decade of motorcycling fuelled by a bewildering choice of efficient and exciting Japanese machinery that was affordable to all.
But as motorcycles became faster and more complex, and therefore more dangerous and expensive, they increasingly became toys for the affluent and also the subject of public and political opprobrium in a risk-averse world. As we exit the Noughties the omnipresent motorcycle we’ve taken for granted for sixty odd years looks set to disappear, replaced by a few bespoke machines owned but rarely ridden by rich old collectors. And why is this? Well worldwide sales of the primarily Japanese-built bikes have plummeted this past couple of years with the consequence that the ‘Big Four’ marques are cutting back their ranges, sharing production and if some darker rumours are correct, in some cases planning to give up motorcycle production altogether. Even America’s Harley-Davidson, whose costly but technically antediluvian machines until 2008 enjoyed booming sales to wannabe outlaw bikers in the media and banking, have slashed staff and closed factories.
But this isn’t all due to the ongoing recession because in Western countries bereft of their own indigenous manufacturers, trade associations and user interest groups are riven by factionalism and too weak to turn the tide of onerous legislation – particularly with regard to the obstacles aspiring bikers now face in getting a licence to ride… even assuming they can afford the vast sums required to insure and buy the bikes that tempt them. Which of course increasingly they can’t, and why would they want to when a Nintendo Wii costs under £200? After all, politicians know there are few votes and even fewer jobs in what has long been merely a dangerous recreational pursuit with anti-social overtones. Even the despatch riding trade which provided employment for a few thousand die-hards in our larger cities and steady sales of bikes and spares for their importers is, thanks to the digital highway, dying on its wheels.
So along with paperback books, CDs, newspapers and all the other trappings of society my generation took for granted, it looks like the mass-produced motorcycle will have disappeared by the time we enter the next decade. But as fresh new and undemanding gee-gaws emerge to obsess us, will we as a society regret it? Probably not, but I will personally.
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