It has been 42 years since I started working for a motorcycle magazine full time. I was a callow youth – well, I was 32 – and I took my job painfully seriously. Well, I took everything, including myself, terribly seriously. Although I began as Associate Editor, the only staffer apart from a supercilious receptionist, it was not long before I was offered the editorship. This had little to do with my abilities and more with the bigger fish my predecessor had to fry, in the form of a much larger and more prestigious title that he was also editing.
When he appointed me in the first place, he just wanted to be sure that I could be trusted with the stationery, I think, before moving me to editor. I had been writing for the magazine for a couple of years while travelling overseas so he knew that, at least, I could write.
The magazine was a monthly, and he had let it slip two months into arrears. This meant that I would have to effectively produce three magazines in my first month on the job if I was going to catch up. Needless to say, I was paid monthly not by the issue, so the publishers were getting three magazines for the price of one.
Not that I cared, of course. Editor of a magazine! My dream job when I had allowed myself to soar that high in those dreams. Working 20 hours a day, eight days a week – the standard hours for the editor of a small specialty magazine, ask one of them – was worth it.
I was pathetically serious about the job, especially when answering readers’ letters. You can imagine me at my desk, a pile of letters in front of me – ‘letters’ were words written on ‘paper’, folded to fit into an ‘envelope’ and then ‘posted’ by ‘mail’ with ‘stamps’ stuck on them and delivered to the recipient every day! Oh yes, that really happened.
One of the most commonly asked questions was “what bike should I buy? I’m looking at (followed by the names of three or four vastly different motorcycles)”. I would send back a sincere and perhaps just slightly boring and condescending request for more information. What sort of riding do you do, I would ask. How tall are you, and how much do you weigh? How much can you afford to spend? Do you do long distances, do you go scratching on the weekend? And so on.
A letter would come back supplying the requested information, and I would wrack my brains trying to come up with a reasonable suggestion. Once reached, this would be delivered by way of the letters pages, and in most cases I would never hear back. When I did, it would be a note to say thank you, but I bought the XYZ instead. It took me years to work out that these people did not actually want a recommendation at all. What they did want was reassurance that the bike they had already selected was not a dud. When they rode their new acquisition down to the pub and someone said, “you bought a what!?” they wanted to be able to say, “well, the bloke at Two Wheels magazine reckoned it was the duck’s guts.”
That was their hope. If I didn’t recommend the bike they wanted me to suggest, they’d buy it anyway and wear the possible hilarity at the pub. Or lie.
As I said, this went on for years. The hopeful letter, me faithfully doing my research, and the eventual return advice that, ah, yes, well, you know, thanks but I bought the one I wanted in the first place. So eventually – I might be slow but I am not entirely hopeless, I hope — I developed an answer to that “what bike should I buy” non-question. I no longer ask about potential usage, state of the piggy bank or length of the inside seam. No.
What I do now is write back to say, “Buy the red one.” That might sound flippant, but it is not. It serves both the questioner and the questioned well, every time. How so?
Look at it this way. As long as you don’t interpret it too obsessively, you will see that the colour ‘red’ emphasizes and supports the passion which the questioner feels. The bike he or she has their heart set on is not necessarily red in colour; but it glows red in the sights of desire. The red one is the one you want, and in many cases, it will indeed be red anyway. So how much use is advice that simply says, ‘do what you want to do anyway’? It is lots of use, because it reinforces your innate desires, making you feel less tentative and afraid of making the wrong decision.
And think of this: answering the question that way means that it has not taken up precious riding time for me. Why did it take me so many years to work this out?
(Photos by The Bear at EICMA in Milan. Can you guess the year?)