THE MONA LISA SMILE – by the late Bill Young
It is a great pity that I can’t find the newspaper cutting. It would be the only proof that the following tale is true.
Not that the crumpled cutting itself was over elegant, its ragged outline betrayed the fact that it had been hacked from the page with a blunt screwdriver or similar object. Certain cynics upon hearing my story are apt to scoff and loudly express doubts of its authenticity but – hand on heart – I can only tell the tale as it happened and leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.
It was so long ago that the passing years can muddle memory but you don’t have to be a quiz whiz to pinpoint the period
The change over from garden gate to featherbed.
Dead easy for the faithful followers of the hallowed name of Norton, as for the rest of you infidels –serves you right. At the time I was employed by Norton Motors in a roving capacity and as I was one of the few interested in off road activities and as I suspect no one else wanted the job, found myself in the competition department. If the name conjures up visions of clinically clean benches occupied by gleaming machines being carefully prepared by the white coated specialists, conjure again, it wasn’t like that at all. Just a crowded corner of the Manx shop littered with tyres, wheels, a miscellaneous muddle of parts of all descriptions and me! As a matter of fact, it was known by some of the coarser members of the staff, as the mud and slush department – which on reflection was probably a true and apt description
Most of the machines which came my way were covered with a copious coating of sodden soil gathered from various venues of the U.K.and it was often necessary to excavate the excrement before one could confront the complaint. Naturally the floor, bench and close surrounds soon assumed the appearance of an over populated pig pen in a wet winter and had I been a keen gardener with all that prime earth available I’m sure I would have been well on the leader board at the next plant pageant. Not every ones cup of char but it suited me, I had played in the mud from early childhood and I could put in plenty of over time, quite a help in the financial field which usually bordered on insolvency.
Picture me there in the morning the factory gaffer bore down on me, his florid face bearing a semblance of cordiality, but then I couldn’t be sure, it was a bad light. Skidding to a stand still on the slimy surface, he commenced “Lud” said he, ( every one under half a hundred was a lad ) “ Lud, we have decided to give you a rise!” This was good news indeed, no more twelve days, or occasional week end work , up to Scotland for the grouse season or Majorca for sun, which incidentally was an almost forgotten memory. The cautiously “How much”? I queried. “Thruppence an hour” he replied in the condescending tone of the chief beefeater giving away the crown jewels. “It’s good money” Disappointment over came diplomacy “ But very little of it” I rejoined.
In previous encounters with him I had noticed that when he was upset it showed in his breathing. He was inclined to inhale and exhale with a noise closely resembling that of an ancient steam locomotive ascending a steep slope. Now low wheezing noises were starting to be apparent while his hue deepened and a swelling in the vicinity of his collar stud suggested goitre. At moments like this it’s funny how self preservation and the vision of a dole queue can humble a man. I made a quick decision “ Thank you so much sir” I simpered, barely suppressing the inclination to curtsey, “ It will be a great help”, of course it wasn’t really, that’s why the following Saturday saw me slaving in the Manx shop with several other impoverished people.
Now if the rise had been in keeping with my considerable talents more likely I would be found at the local park burnishing a bench and breaking bread for the muscovies or some similar exciting exercise. .But then you wouldn’t have a story any way so maybe it all worked out for the best. So what’s all this drivel got to do with that enthralling anecdote you promised us? You may well ask. Settle on the settee Syd or Cynthia as the case may be, all will be revealed in good time.
As afore mentioned it was Saturday in the Manx shop and happened to be the day of the Ulster. Between breaking our backs we were listening to the commentary of the races on the radio borrowed from the gaffer’s office as he wasn’t there at the time. Compatriot Ken Kavanagh on his first real works ride was runner up in both Junior and Senior to , you know who, a certain G.E.Duke. There was great joy and jubilation in the camp, Norton’s 1 and 2 and it wasn’t hard to imagine the scenes in Ireland, happy riders posing for the post race pictures flanked by the Norton hierarchy all wearing the self satisfied smiles of people who knew the answers before the questions, running races had only been a formality. At the time Alan Wilson was competition manager and usually his face was prominent in the pictures, this time he had missed the trip and was here with us but determined to get into the act – and so he did.
We had just risked a double hernia by hoisting a garden gate Manx off the bench and Alan lost no time by leaping up on the vacant space as it was a stage at the local Tivoli. Being fresh out of evening dress, I was not a frequenter of the Old Vic but I am sure that no greater dramatic art could have been enacted there by Sir Lawrence Olivier himself that which we were about to see. He shook imaginary hands, bowed to invisible admirers, nodded to all and sundry but mainly that enigmatic smile was the climax of his performance. It was Joe Craig to the last wrinkle, not to much or to little, mystic, is the only way to describe it, if I’ve got my words right. This act was repeated several times to much applause, loud cheers and countless encores then it gradually dawned on him that perhaps he was unworthy of such enthusiastic adulation. Maybe his audience simply preferred sitting watching him to straining theirs sinews lifting over weighty bikes, so we all called it a day and went home for tea.
It was a few weeks later that the Eric Oliver episode occurred. He was a familiar figure around the factory, often his large van, proudly displaying the sign “Campione del Mondo” was parked in Brace Bridge Street while he ran around his business in the works. He was the sort of person who never had enough time, he was always in a hurry which may have had some bearing on why he was so successful in the racing arena. I well remember the evening, there was a trial coming up and I needed entry fees and travelling expenses, so was doing a bit of over time to raise the ready. There I was, digging the dirt out of the rear of a chain case of a trials bike, when the silence of the deserted factory was broken by the clatter of the iron wheels rattling on the bare boards. Then Eric loomed into sight wheeling a Manx engine and balancing a box of various accessories on the cam box
It appeared that he had arrived from the continent the previous day with a tired engine under his arm, on the bus too, would you believe? Cajoled the boys on the engine bench to give it a “ go faster “ transplant and was due to return for another meeting later in the week. There was a bit of finishing off to do on the engine and he was looking for a spare bench top to complete it, so he could get an early start in the morning. This was the time when the rules were changed to limit side cars to 500cc and before he had a joe motor, the engine was standard Manx and only went quicker because that was the way he rode them.
A lot of mystery had gone for me of what lay behind the muddy chain case and it was the work of a moment to sweep away the top soil on the bench and slip the motor into the waiting cradle Then a funny thing happened, I had been hooking on various bits and he was fitting the carburettor when, out of the corner of my eye I saw him put the tapered throttle spring in the side down, from memory I think the carb was a G.P. – D.K. Before you rush into print to tell me that they were not available at this time, certain selected people had got their hands on them and he was that sort of bloke. Anyway I knew from previous experience that if the spring was up side down it restricted the full opening of the slide – try it some time. I felt like a junior foot man at the Buckingham palace standing on the balcony over looking a sea of loyal subjects as Prince Charles strode out with an important part of the regal attire unzipped: What do you do in a case like this? me, a boy from the black stump, which is a popular Australian colloquialism, and he a world champion. But then I knew that the engine was being nobbled which was hardly fair to man or motor, so I discreetly pointed it out to him. He told me he always fitted them that way but was convinced by a glance down the throat, sure enough the slide wasn’t fully opening, reverse the spring and it disappeared completely. There was another meeting in a couple of days and he assured me that he would let me know how the engine performed then.
If you are inclined to raise a doubting eyebrow at my story I will test your incredibility even more and you wouldn’t be the first. With the engine completed Eric asked me to give him a lift as he was living near me, My transport was my trials bike, naturally with no passenger accommodation. He hunted around and discovered a sponge rubber pillion complete with steel base which caused me to protest at the thought of scratching my polished alloy mudguard. This did not deter him for long as a hacksaw blade soon removed the steel base, he placed the rubber on the guard, hopped on and I dropped him off at his place. When I returned to work the next morning, both he and the engine had gone and I gave it no further thought until the letter arrived later that week. Not that it was a letter really just a newspaper cutting which was totally lost on me except for a couple of words as it was in a foreign language, completely foreign in more ways than one. A quick trip to the drawing office soon offered a translation, a friend of mine laboured in that holy of holies and had a double advantage over me, clean hands and an education. Roughly translated it said that the English driver E..Oliver had convincingly won the three wheel contest as the circuit le Citroen, or some other unpronounceable name, on his British Norton which had been tuned by Joe Craig.
I lost no time in taking the cutting up to the boys on the engine bench, who, to a man, smiled smug smiles and bowed in all directions. This pantomime was enacted for a week or more after first making sure that the boy from Ballymena was not observing their antics. Although I have no longer got the crumpled cutting, I still have my trials bike and I wonder had I let Eric put that steel based pillion on my guard, the resultant scratches, even now, would bear mute testimony to the truth of my story. When I think back all those years and recall that upside down throttle spring, I wonder if I could be permitted a little lopsided smirk myself.
Bill Young’s Norton 500T in 1988