I pulled out of the small forecourt in front of Cheltenham’s Triumph garage. It was an unremarkable Gloucestershire summer’s morning and the daily commute was lethargically drifting past in front of me. Turning left at the lights, the road ahead was relatively empty. I couldn’t resist it; I was in a 30mph zone, but I had to give the throttle a tweak. Two seconds later I glanced down at the digital speedo and saw the number rapidly rising to fifty-something. Easy, Tiger – keep in under wraps until I’m out of town.
This particular Tiger carrying me towards three points on my licence was Triumph’s 1200cc Explorer. My Tiger 800 was in for a service and I had some time to kill. So I decided to indulge in a pastime favoured by many a motoquero – test-riding bikes which sit well outside both the practical needs and the budget of the rider. This one was a beauty. Every Triumph triple cylinder engine is a joy to ride, but with the 1200 pushing out 138 horsepower, I was hooked immediately. And despite being fifty kilograms heavier than my 800, it felt far more agile and balanced on the twisty backroads.
I didn’t plot a route on which to test the bike; I just followed my nose through the villages and roads north of Cheltenham. However, whilst I may not have had a plan, some unseen force must have. I found myself a few hundred metres from the KTM garage in Tewkesbury. If there is one machine out there that could potentially trump the Explorer in my books, it is KTM’s 1190. Twenty-odd kilograms lighter and twelve horsepower more powerful, this thing is a super-bike squeezed into an adventure-bike chassis. You can guess what came next.
Whilst the Tiger purrs, the 1190 growls. If the Triumph is a a well-mannered thoroughbred, the KTM is a ill-tempered, untrained stallion, the bad boy amongst the stable of big-bore adventure bikes. I rode it for an hour or so and I loved it. Both are way too powerful for what I would need as an all-rounder on the UK roads, and I’d place a heavy bet on me losing my licence within six months of riding one. Yet I yearned to own one of these bikes. Common sense and reason were lost in the adrenalin rush: I even managed to convince myself that fourteen grand wasn’t that much.
It was in that moment that I realised what I was doing to myself. This was a subtle form of self-torture, albeit wrapped in a cloak of beauty – the lines of the machine, the sense of freedom and connection with the environment, the thrill of the ride. Whilst in the saddle, the rider is caught up in the immediacy and joy of it all. But when he returns to the showroom and hands back the keys, the doors behind which lust and greed hide are kicked wide open. The pleasure insidiously turns to pain, as we dream in vein of all those machines we crave so much filling our imaginary garage.
Over the last few weeks, I have travelled many miles around UK visiting friends and their young families. On every occasion without exception, my bike has delighted the sons and daughters of these friends. Every one of them, including my six-year-old god-daughter, insisted on climbing aboard and donning my helmet and gloves. There is something intangible about motorbikes which thrills us. They are more than just the frame, engine, lights and wheels – the physical machine. A motorbike has a soul and possess a magnetic field. It draws men and women to ride them, and children to sit atop them and fall under this invisible spell.
Yet when the children’s feet return to the gravel, they walk away with a sense of thrill and wonder and nothing more. They don’t lust after this inanimate object, they don’t crave what the can’t have. They don’t mentally construct an imaginary world in which these machines are a part. Yet we adults do. For us, the pure, unadulterated experience of this magic, which the youngsters take in their stride, is contaminated.
Less than five weeks ago, I was in Peru – a place which had helped me, probably forced me in fact, to recast my perception of money: of ownership and value; of necessity versus luxury; of the developed world’s perverse propensity for retail therapy and its undiagnosed addiction to consumerism. Yet here I was, sitting atop a £14,000 motorcycle and singing merrily along to exactly the same tune. I was caught in the tractor-beam of materialism.
Embedded in the British Army’s training culture is what we call ‘the lessons learnt process’. It involves a critical analysis of an activity after it has been completed, in order to find what went well and what could be improved. It facilitates positive change, improvement. The more astute proponents of this process recognise that it is, in fact, mis-named: is should be called the ‘lessons identified process’, for until the change is put into practice it has not been learnt. In Peru, I have recognised western societies’ obsession with financial gain and status. I’ve certainly identified the lesson, but it seems I’m yet to learn it.
We shouldn’t expect changing our perspective on money and possessions to be an easy process. Relentless and often subliminal advertising, the ever-growing culture of celebrity, and dare I say it the deliberate strategies of banks and large corporations have conditioned and programmed us thus. Maybe it is therefore wrong to call it ‘self-torture’, as we are not doing it to ourselves. But we cannot and must not resign ourselves to the status of victim; we must take responsibility for the way we see the world and the way we live.
On this trip back to UK – my third since setting off on my travels nearly two years ago – the suffering this money-obsession causes has been much more apparent. A lot of people back here are not happy. That is obvious to me. However, because they have set their metric for success as money and ownership of ‘stuff’, some think they are. I’ve seen happiness in the absence of wealth amongst the mountain folk of the Andes; you don’t find it much on the streets of London.
I’ve enjoyed returning to UK to see my family and friends, but being back here feels less natural now after so long away. I miss the simple life on the road or in the villages of Peru, where the heavy blanket of wealth-obsession and money-dependency falls much more lightly. If I’m honest with myself, coming home has shown that I can still wear that blanket easily. I need to get back across the Atlantic and get back to school; I still have more to learn.