Death Mirror

“A ‘death mirror’ held up to American culture Brando, bikes and black leather; Christ, chains and cocaine. A ‘high’ view of the myth of the American motorcyclist. The machine as totem from toy to terror. Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans.”  Kenneth Anger

When it comes to showing the world you don’t care what it thinks of you, fashion can only go so far. A studded leather jacket, pair of steel-toe Doc Martens, number one buzz cut and black-on-black tracksuit might be loaded with all sorts of rebel iconography, but they are just pieces of material and a way of wearing your hair. And these stylistic signifiers mean less and less to us. Caricature punks in groomed mohawks and Westwood bondage back in the day posed for tourists pics and now you’ve got grime emcees on Children in Need. If you really want to pull off that moody insolence, to give off what a magistrate might call ‘”a total disregard for yourself and others”, you’re going to need something a little bit more substantial than a jacket or a pair of boots. 

You’ll need something endowed with a real, tangible power. Something that’ll have your family praying they never get that 4am knock on the door from a policeman with his hat off. What you need is a fashion accessory made of metal and covered in oil – a vehicle that’ll put the fear of god into your local A-Road; a death-trap, a suicide machine, a 20’ Mongoose Brawler, a 300cc Suzuki, a souped-up, second-hand Subaru with a spoiler and a big bore exhaust. Then what you need to do is find a bunch of mates with the same kind of vehicles, start doing wheelies or donuts or dirt jumps round the back of the big supermarket, and hey presto, you’re a public menace. 

But as dangerous and misunderstood as every teenager dodging the local traffic cops thinks they are, they’re actually part of a lineage that goes right back to before the concept of the teenager was even invented – right back to the highways of post-war America, where disillusioned WW2 veterans formed the first motorcycle gangs. 

Although they might ride different vehicles, listen to different music, wear their hair differently and have very different political views, there is a muddy path of history between the blood-stained Mohair jackets on Brighton Beach, the Hell’s Angels rampaging in the Western states, the enormous ‘Scooter Boy’ meets in early 80s Britain, the customised hatchbacks blasting hardcore tape-packs in DFS car parks in the late 90s — and the massive ‘Bike Life’ events taking over the streets of Central London today. These automotive tribes are associated with a certain way of living; often a nomadic, romantic kind of thrill-seeking, a search for speed and fury and fear. The cliché tells us people in car or bike gangs have nothing but disdain for the pedestrian life, they are apparently people who laugh in the face of the police, their parents and perhaps even the Grim Reaper. 

But nearly 70 years since Brando starred in ‘The Wild One’, does this still mindset still ring true? Or have these tribes assimilated into mainstream society, as so many other subcultures have? One look at a Mail Online piece from July this year, about a ‘Bike Life’ event where several hundred young people mobbed the streets of London on a mass-ride (where no arrests were made), suggests that the media at least still seems to buy into these stereotypes. 

“Hundreds of ‘aggressive’ youths on bikes brought parts of London to a standstill. Cyclists ran red lights, performed wheelies and rode into oncoming traffic in a demonstration from Embankment to the O2 which was monitored by police. Witnesses said teenagers shouted and swore at pedestrians who were scared to cross the road.”

Of course, the Daily Mail in particular does a lucrative line in forced-outrage, but the way in which the Bike Life kids are portrayed, and the language used to describe them suggests not a lot has changed since the papers were calling the Mods and Rockers ‘beasts’ on their front pages. It’s also not too hard to believe that the Bike Life kids might quite enjoy this kind of publicity, engaging in some kind of game of mutually beneficial cat ‘n’ mouse with the media, playing Hell’s Angels for the day, whilst their papers do their best ‘indignant authority figures’ routine. But for the people who have spent their lives in these weekend speed tribes, the appeal is based in something much more organic and communal than shutting down car parks and terrorising pensioners. 

For 25-year-old Katie, a veteran of the famed street-racing scene in Middleborough, there’s a lot more to it than just causing trouble. “It’s a way of life,” she explains. “It’s where I met my partner. 90% of my friends have met their partners through that scene as well…everyone is so close. I’ve made so many friends…even people who don’t have time to do it anymore are still very much part of it. We’re all still one unit, if someone sent a message saying they needed a hand with their car, 15 people would turn up.”

However this holistic sense of community that Katie and many others talk about still seems lost on Joe Public – who regard these meetings as a nuisance, a menace – something that needs to be stopped before it gets out of hand. Katie remembers this attitude all too well: 

“Once, we were in this multi-story car park, where everyone had got together. At the back there were some gardens, with houses behind that. And a guy came out with an eight-inch knife, threatening everyone, telling them to leave. We weren’t doing anything wrong, people just think because we’re in a group we’re up to no good.” 

Whilst it’s easy to sympathise with the maligned youngsters just trying to have a good time, the public’s anxiety isn’t entirely without basis. The Hell’s Angels became a target for puritanical Middle American scorn, but the FBI doesn’t call them a ‘known criminal organisation’ for nothing. The violence between the Mods and Rockers was much more vicious than the Carnaby St nostalgia shops would have us believe, and boy racing really is dangerous – for both participant and civilian. 

Just this year a young couple were killed on the notorious ‘Evo Triangle’ in North Wales, when a 21-year-old driver in a Renault Clio ploughed into them at 107 mph. At the time the young driver was racing other young petrolheads, and being filmed doing so. But for people who live and socialise in these communities based around vehicles, part of people’s negative idea of what they do comes from an unwillingness to approach them. “I do understand their perspective,” says Katie, “but I think if people were interested or worried, they should just ask. I don’t think loud or fast cars have to be a negative. The amount of money people spend on these cars is unbelievable, it’s their pride and joy, why would they act like an idiot in it?”

The truth is that many of the people who spend their lives in these scenes no longer fit the bill ascribed to them by the media and police press releases. Many are older now, with steady jobs and kids. But at the same time, they know what they do looks dangerous, and many of them seem to play up to people’s fears. This idea of playing dress-up goes as far back as the 1960s, when Hunter S Thompson met America’s most notorious motorcycle gang in his famed book Hell’s Angel’s: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

Far from being freaks, the Hell’s Angels are a logical product of the culture that now claims to be shocked at their existence. The generation represented by the editors of Time has lived so long in a world full of Celluloid outlaws hustling toothpaste and hair oil that it is no longer capable of confronting the real thing.”

But still, anyone really living in this world sees it as an overwhelmingly positive thing to have spent their lives in. Talking to them, the same word keeps coming up over and over again: community. In fact the feeling of actually riding your machine is barely ever mentioned, it appears to be more about what happens around the main attraction – just as most nightclubs aren’t really about the music. Clearly the adrenaline rush pulls people in – but the difference between a fast driver and a boy racer, a motorcyclist and a Hell’s Angel, a cyclist and a Bike Life boy, a fast driver and a Boy Racer is community and congregation. 

This theme of assembly and getting together is the red thread that runs from the Hell’s Angels to the Bike Life kids, more so than the danger or the lawlessness or even the vehicles themselves.

In a culture where so many young people are more willing to get their kicks in their living rooms, these vehicle tribes are still thriving – and using social media to keep these tribal traditions alive. “With Instagram everyone’s got their own page. It’s so easy to track people, contact new people. Go and see their spots, they’ll offer you a place to stay,” says BMXer Josh, from Portsmouth. 

But the congregation is also clearly what terrifies people about these groups, more so than even the potential killing machines they’re riding. There seems to be some deep-set first-world anxiety about what might happen when young people get together, some chronic fear of assembly, the curtain-twitcher’s worst nightmare. But then again, the idea that people might aimlessly ‘do’ something, which not only does not benefit them or anyone else – but actively endangers them – is still fairly subversive, even in this day and age.

More than anything, it seems that what these groups, these gatherings bring to people’s lives is a small dose of glory. A moment where you can have your own scene from a coming of age movie, the part where you turn up with the best-looking car, the part when you land the impossible jump, the part where you win the race. 

You don’t get that obeying the Highway Code. 

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