Thursday, 30 June 2016

Hounded to death: the last years of T. E. Shaw. 15. The Brough Superior

Shaw on the 1927 Brough Superior he had named George V.
Shaw's thoughts about the Brough Superior motorcycle fall into two categories: his experiences as a rider, and his observations about the motorcycles that he shared with George Brough. He named his first bike Boanerges (Βοανηργές) which meant "Sons of thunder". The name had been applied by Jesus to the brothers James and John to reflect their impetuosity. (Mark 3:17). His subsequent bikes were all named George. He died six days after the crash of the 1932 George VII in May of 1935

I can think of no better commentary about his experience as a rider than the day he raced a Bristol fighter plane:
"Once we so fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbour aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard in the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him, like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.
"The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms, and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pothole Boanerges screamed in surprise, its mud-guard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. Through the plunges of the next ten seconds I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bump should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.
"The bad ground was passed and on the new road our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to whirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cock-pit to pass me the 'Up yer' Raf randy greeting.
"They were hoping I was a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into its ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot: but an overhead Jap twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back, unfaltering.
"We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp, we are, here: and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door." 
excerpt from The Mint, 16: The Road.
He toned things down just a little in some biographical details for publication that he sent to Robert Graves on the 28th June, 1927 (The Mint was only published posthumously), but, clearly, the race with the plane was on his mind:
"Put in a good word for Boanerges, my Brough bike. I had five of them in four years, and rode 100,000 miles on them, making only two insurance claims (for superficial damage to machine after skids), and hurting nobody. The greatest pleasure of my recent life has been speed on the road. The bike would do 100 m.p.h. but I'm not a racing man. It was my satisfaction to purr along gently between 60 and 70 m.p.h. and drink in the air and the general view. I lose detail at even moderate speeds, but gain comprehension. When I used to cross Salisbury Plain at 50 or so, I'd feel the earth moulding herself under me. It was me piling up this hill, hollowing this valley, stretching out this level place: almost the earth came alive, heaving and tossing on each side like a sea. That's a thing the slow coach will never feel. It is the reward of Speed. I could write for hours on the lustfulness of moving swiftly."
In writing to George Brough, the following very respectful letter does not totally eliminate his enthusiasm but does provide more of what the bike's designer would want to hear, and it was written so that Brough could use it for promotional purposes:
"27. 9. 26 
Dear Mr. Brough, 
      Yesterday I completed 100000 miles, since 1922, on five successive Brough Superiors, and I'm going abroad very soon, so that I think I must make an end, and thank you for the road-pleasure I have got out of them. In 1922 I found George I (your old Mark I) the best thing I'd ridden, but George V (the 1922 SS 100) is incomparably better. In 1925 and 1926 (George IV & V) I have not had an involuntary stop, and so have not been able to test your spares service, on which I drew so heavily in 1922 and 1923. Your present machines are as fast and reliable as express trains, and the greatest fun in the world to drive:- and I say this after twenty years experience of cycles and cars. 
      They are very expensive to buy, but light in upkeep (50-65 m.p.g. of petrol, 4000 m.p.g. oil, 5000-6000 miles per outer cover, in my case) and in the four years I have made only one insurance claim (for less than £5) which is a testimony to the safety of your controls and designs. The S.S. 100 holds the road extraordinarily. It's my great game on a really pot-holed road to open up to 70 m.p.h. or so and feel the machine gallop: and though only a touring machine it will do 90 m.p.h. at full throttle. 
      I'm not a speed merchant, but ride fairly far in the day (occasionally 700 miles, often 500) and at a fair average, for the machine's speed in the open lets one crawl through the towns, and still average 40-42 miles in the hour. The riding position and the slow powerful turn-over of the engine at speeds of 50 odd give one a very restful feeling.  
      There, it is no good telling you all you knew before I did: they are the jolliest things on wheels. 
Yours very sincerely 
T E Lawrence. "
Note, also, that he signed his name "T. E. Lawrence" In a cover letter enclosed, He signs his name J. H. Ross after explaining:
"I don’t want to sign it Ross, since that only makes the newspapers sit up and take notice: whereas they have already made beasts of themselves over the 'Lawrence' name, and can keep it, so far as I'm concerned. 
"I don't mind your showing it to people (or sticking it up on your stand, if that is a practice at Olympia) but I'd rather you did not print it in a newspaper till after December 15, when I'll have gone abroad. This is supposing it's of use, as a chit. What I really meant it for is best thanks, for a hundred thousand very jolly miles.
It is also very interesting that he did not use his current name: T. E. Shaw:. He knew that the Lawrence name would be more impressive for the public and he first wrote to Brough under his previous name: J. H. Ross. Most later writers about Shaw revert back to the publicly popular T. E. Lawrence but I think that giving the names that Shaw used at the time of any correspondence or incident is not only more respectful to the man, but also reveals the complexities of having several identities. My wife had legally changed her name, too, (picking her mother's maiden name as the last one) and was published under two different surnames. Even the usage of her first name was "Carrie" to her friends and family and "Carin" (her birth name) for professional purposes. Some people imagined that we were not legally married because our surnames were different. the proper use of her names was very important to her, as Shaw's usage of his names was to him.

The popular "T.E.L." was used by George Brough in his contribution to T. E. Lawrence by his friends, and this excerpt  was about Shaw bringing his very dirty bike to Brough's shop one day. It was the shop practice to clean any bike that came in for servicing:
"...I was walking through the shops with T.E.L., and a boy, who had been in my employ for a few days, was very laboriously brushing and and polishing away at the hubs and spokes of the bicycle's wheels. T.E.L. spoke to the boy and said 'I do like to see a boy set about the difficult parts. It is quite easy for me to clean the easy parts like the handle-bars and tank, isn't it? Imagine that boy's feelings, being spoken to in such a kindly manner by the one rider, above all others, of the machine he had helped to make. Immediately T.E.L. had left the works, the boy asked permission to leave and run home to tell the good news to his parents."
We will hear more from George Brough in the later episode about Shaw's death. Tomorrow is Canada Day, and I will be doing much wandering about with my camera so the next post will be on Monday. Have a jolly weekend.

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