Three motorcyclists are riding on an empty road winding through English moorland beneath a blue sky

Photo by Peter Etchells/Getty



Devon, 1970s: I’m a rector’s son, hanging out with Boz the biker. My life is about to open up – what does it promise for him?

by Tim Pears + BIO

Photo by Peter Etchells/Getty

‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’
– Theresa May, Conservative Party conference, 2016

I grew up in a small Devon village nestled in a remote, crooked valley below the wilderness of Dartmoor. My father was the local rector, with a group ministry of four parishes in the valley.

I attended a grammar school in Exeter. The village boys went in the other direction, to the grammar in Newton Abbot or, more often, the secondary modern in Kingsteignton. I hated school, felt alienated from study, teachers, fellow pupils, the lot. The village lads, rural working class, were my friends. We played football, explored the woods and streams around; played table tennis in the youth club; went to the village disco; learned to smoke and drink together.

But I was never one of them. I spoke with a different accent, and our expected futures had divergent trajectories: they would leave school at 16, find manual work on a farm or at the local quarry, while I would sit A levels and follow my elder sister to a university, and a life, far away.

As it happened, I failed to follow this course, and, adrift between social classes, I left school at 16 too. I could say the teaching was poor (our O-level texts were ruined by a lazy and arrogant English teacher. It would be 10 years before I could bear to revisit those works, to discover with astonishment that this teacher had, with a kind of anti-pedagogical genius, alienated his entire fifth form from two of the jewels of the English language: Wilfred Owen’s war poetry and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). I could say I was unhappy (our mother had left the family home three or four years earlier). I could say I was uncomfortable in my own skin (I’d had operations and a long spell in an orthopaedic hospital). And, though these were true, they weren’t the whole story.

My father was a ‘man’s man’ who’d had extraordinary wartime experiences liaising with communist partisans in Yugoslavia; he’d played rugby for Bath. He was a priest committed to his ministry, for whom doubt was an intrinsic element of faith; but also, a fierce intellectual, who loved political or religious argument over gin and cigarettes. And he was also a gentle man, who’d brought up my sisters and myself alone, a tender, loving father.

I rebelled against him the only way I could: by disappointing him. I challenged the way his political convictions had been compromised; I told him Christ had been right, he should give up everything, live simply, among the people. My father was perplexed. I took on the first of a succession of menial jobs, on building sites and elsewhere. I travelled a little, without breaking away. In the summer of 1977, I was still living at home.

Suspicion emanated from him, as if he thought I had designs on his son

Boz had joined the village football team the season before, unusual in that he was a biker, generally a breed apart, who shunned social norms like sport. We played together at centre-back. Boz was tough, his every tackle and header were made with fearless commitment. I cleared up around him, but he also made me braver than I was (if only because I had the assurance that, if an opponent kicked me, Boz would sort him out).

It was months into the season before I realised that, besides his physical power, Boz was a highly intelligent reader of the game. He flew into a challenge, where the temptation was to see simply the challenge, but he could make it only because he’d anticipated how play would unfurl to that point.

Boz was soon made captain. Before each game, he drew us into a tight huddle, and said the same thing: ‘Boys. Get that fuckin ball before they do.’

I had a car, and gave Boz a lift to away games. When I called on him, walking to their council house set back from the road, his father often answered the door. The man didn’t trust me. Suspicion emanated from him, as if he thought I had designs on his son. Looking back, he was right; I just didn’t realise it. The taboos of the time – an internal taboo strongest of all – meant that only in hindsight was it obvious that Boz was the first love of my life.

I was walking through the village early one summer evening when I heard the rich throaty growl of bikes behind me. Two went past, but one dawdled. ‘Jump on, bud,’ Boz said. ‘We’re goin up the moor.’

I was generally timid, cautious; even now, the spontaneity with which I responded was passive. I did not act of my own volition but did as I was told, and climbed on behind Boz. It was the first time I’d been on a motorbike. I’d observed how passengers put their hands on a metal bracket at the back of the seat. It had struck me as an unnatural position (like watching present day footballers avoiding handball by defending with their arms behind their backs). Now, as Boz accelerated into the curves of the unwinding road before us, it felt suicidally precarious. I did what I knew I shouldn’t and put my arms around Boz. This was what a female passenger could, indeed should, do. I understood how inappropriate it was for me to, but chose shame over certain death. The greater shame would be Boz’s, though, and I prepared myself for him to bring the bike to a halt and tell me to get off. He did not.

The terrifying speed at which Boz rode was incomprehensible. Any second, an unforeseen hazard – oil on the road; a bird flying out of a hedge – could inflict death or agonising mutilation. Why ride so close to that edge?

But gradually my brain adjusted. The landscape hurtled by less alarmingly. I leaned closer to Boz, inhaled the patchouli scent impregnating his leather jacket. We caught up with his companions, and rode to a farm beyond Manaton whose taciturn tenant sold us plastic flagons of cheap rough cider. Jim on one bike, Sharon on the back of Benjy’s, I knew by sight. We nodded to each other.

The ritual reminded me of how my father’s curate carried out various arcane blessings at a communion service

We rode past North Bovey and then, manoeuvring the bikes through a gate, onto a track and up to Easdon Tor. We could have parked up and walked, but it seemed a point of honour for these boys to get their bikes all the way to wherever they were heading; to go on foot would have been a comedown. But the grass was dry and cropped close to the ground by the ubiquitous sheep, so passage was easy enough.

At the Tor, there were four other bikers – three boys, one girl, on three bikes – from Moretonhampstead, apparently. They too acknowledged me with an incurious nod. We sat around, drinking, smoking. One of the Moreton lads had a lump of Lebanese dope; he intermittently requested normal cigarettes, which he broke open and used the tobacco, sprinkled with hash, to roll large spliffs. We watched him silently. The ritual reminded me of the way my father’s curate carried out various arcane blessings and preparations of the bread and wine at a communion service. Then the spliff was passed around.

Jim pulled a battery-operated radio/cassette player out of his pannier and set it on a boulder. He inserted a tape of Sin after Sin, Judas Priest’s latest album.

‘Can you turn that squeaker up, bud?’ Boz asked.

‘It’s on max,’ Jim told him.

Now and then, someone got up and went off for a piss. When they returned, they often danced in a perfunctory manner for a bit, getting into the groove, before resuming their place on the grass. The two girls danced together for a while. The rest of us watched lazily.

‘Hear that Polson cunt give Johnny Sidwell a hidin t’other week,’ said one of the Moreton crew.

‘He’s a mean fucker.’

‘He’s a hard fucker.’

‘I’d like to see Boz here get a hold of him.’

‘Reckon you could take him, Boz?’

Boz shrugged modestly, and took a swig of cider.

I felt a thrill at the notion of acceptance into this society of rural outlaws

‘Why did he beat up Johnny, anyways?’

‘Reckoned he was eyeing up his bird.’

‘Was he?’

‘I don’t know why anyone would,’ said Sharon. ‘Have you seen her?’

Everyone laughed at that.

‘Cat’s got her claws out,’ said Benjy. ‘Come here.’ He leaned over and pulled Sharon towards him. ‘I love you when you’re mean, babe.’

Conversation limped along like this: a bit of gossip, widening into opinion and banter, then dying away. The sun was setting. Silence prevailed once more. Two of the Moreton boys got into an argument and one suddenly went for the other, and they were on the ground, wrestling furiously. It looked serious to me, I felt an urge to pull them apart, as I sometimes did at football, but the others barely took any notice except to laugh and jeer at the boys’ inexpert grappling. Then one appeared to prevail, they heaved each other up, dusted themselves off, and embraced, before hitting the cider.

I was clearly the outsider. I wore a tracksuit top over my T-shirt rather than a leather jacket, I had no home-made tattoos and, if I was to speak, then my standard middle-class accent would have announced my alienness. I said nothing. No-one addressed me, asked me anything, questioned my presence. They knew I’d come with Boz – and we all knew that his girlfriend, Mo, refused to ride on his bike – and that was enough.

Might I be admitted to the gang? Could I be, if I proved myself? If I had LOVE and HATE inked across my knuckles? If I bought a leather jacket and invited them to help me baptise it – and by extension myself – with whisky, piss and chicken’s blood; then, later, patchouli oil? If I got my own wheels? If I wrestled with Boz?

I felt a thrill at the notion of acceptance into this society of rural outlaws. Even if the activity, like the music, was kind of boring.

At home, we had a family tree, printed on a sort of pseudo-parchment. I believe my paternal grandfather had visited the British Museum when it mounted an exhibition on genealogy, and, if you could trace your ancestors back a generation or two, you stood a chance of connecting with one of a set of lineages the Museum had prepared. Thus, some weeks later our grandfather received in the post this proof of our heritage going back to and beyond Charlemagne. To be precise, to Charlemagne’s great-grandfather, Pepin the Fat.

As a boy, I occasionally consulted this family tree (hundreds of close facsimiles doubtless moulder at the back of attics around the country). It excited me to gaze at Frederick the One-Eyed, Duke of Swabia or Grayza, Duke of Hungary; Anne of a noble Bulgarian family or Adelheid of Alsace. I traced the countries these fanciful ancestors came from on maps (seeding a lifelong cartographical enchantment) and assimilated the liberating message that I was not merely an Englishman; a Devon boy. Already part Welsh through our maternal grandfather, this heterogeneous lineage meant my sisters and I had a right to multiple identities. A variety of genes had flowed through the generations, and we had a claim of inheritance on as many of them as we wished.

Boz had no family tree, fictional or otherwise. His father worked at Trusham Quarry, his grandfathers were both farm labourers, and going back further was to get lost in mists of family myth: a great-grandmother who bred hens that folk came from distant counties to buy; a great-grandfather who laid out a gypsy boxer at the Okehampton fair. What Boz took for granted was that they all toiled on the land for meagre reward, going back through time to peasants and serfs and no doubt beyond, unchanged, forever – and that this was both an inevitable and an honourable state of affairs. Boz himself had a job on a pig farm, over Hennock way, which he considered an improvement on his father’s position at the quarry; an authentic reconnection with the past.

I was disturbed and fascinated by the man, so unlike my own father

I took this at face value, appreciating the worth of working with animals, on the land, in the open air. Until, driving up that way, I realised that the farm I was passing, a large Union Jack on a flagpole by the house, was the one where Boz worked. And that the ominous row of low buildings meant these pigs were kept indoors; it was a factory.

Boz’s father was a known bully. He knocked his boys about (Boz was the eldest of three) and beat his wife when he was inebriated, which was increasingly often. Sometimes, Boz came to my house to hang out and he’d be seething. I came to recognise the particular mood: it was always to do with his father, and Boz didn’t wish to talk about it.

I was disturbed and fascinated by the man, so unlike my own father – and notwithstanding his evident distaste for me. He was an implacable force in my friend’s family. Women rarely left their abusive husbands in those days – the mother who had scandalously abandoned her family was mine, and she’d done so less for escape than excitement. Children, needless to say, had no appeal against a domestic tyrant.

I occasionally learned about him from other people. He’d had a dispute with a neighbour. Rather than bring in the council, or the police, he’d sorted it out with his fists. Except that he hadn’t: the neighbour did call the police. Boz’s father was arrested and charged, and received a suspended sentence.

When we’d come to the village, my father had visited one household after another to introduce himself. Boz’s father refused to see him: Boz’s mother had to explain that a previous rector had ‘upset’ him as a boy, by choosing a different child to light the candles before a church service. ‘He swore he’d have nothin to do with the Church,’ she said. ‘Once his mind’s made up, you can’t change it.’

Parenting has a curious way of providing an example that the child doesn’t even notice. Even as I tussled with my father, I began reading the Russian novels in his study. He bequeathed me his curiosity; my cultural antennae were up.

BBC2 was showing foreign films on a Friday night. One evening, Boz was round, and we watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). For me, it was a revelation. By the end, my jaw ached from smiling with what I can only describe as aesthetic pleasure. Boz had fallen asleep. I woke him and he stumbled out, muttering: ‘Them subtitled films ain’t for me, bud.’

As with our concocted family tree and the translated novels in my father’s library, the foreign language of the film – and others I now devoured – enticed me. The subtitles of foreign films were a window, while for Boz they were a barrier. How come I had this appetite for the exotic, the multiplicity of experience, while Boz did not?

Meanwhile, punk had burst on the scene. I bought vinyl records at the Left Bank shop in Exeter and wore out needles playing them on my record player at home. This urban, working-class music spoke to a shy, rural middle-class boy; it gave me an impetus and a confidence to start writing short stories. The Clash were playing Torquay Town Hall: I bought tickets, and played their exhilarating first album to Boz.

Cultural class barriers remained, peppered with turnstiles that let people through in one direction but not the other

He listened, and shrugged. ‘Reckon I’ll stick with metal, bud,’ was his verdict.

I’d been born at the end of an era of high and low culture, distinctions that were already crumbling: the middle and upper classes abandoned their prejudices to enjoy popular music, cinema, comedy. Bob Dylan’s lyrics were as dazzling as John Keats’s poetry; the Beatles were making music for the ages. Television democratised access: my middle-class generation may not have been taken to football matches by our rugger-playing fathers, but the game was given to us through the cathode-ray tube.

What was clear was the degree to which this democratisation of culture was a one-way ticket. Yes, the privileged saw the value of what they’d considered beneath them, and demanded access. What largely failed to materialise was movement in the opposite direction. Despite libraries and museums, despite the best efforts of teachers, curators, publishers and many others, only a select few – largely working-class grammar-school kids – seized on serious literature, opera, art. Cultural class barriers remained in Britain, peppered with turnstiles that let people through in one direction but not the other.

My father was an authoritative figure, both because of his position as rector and on account of his natural bearing. It was noticeable how the villagers changed how they spoke when addressing him: what they thought of as properly, stiff and wary, with a grammatical formality.

Boz was different. He spoke with my father just as he spoke with me (minus the swearing, I guess) and the two of them got on well. My father attended our football games when he could, and I used to wonder whether he’d played rugby more elegantly, like me, or fiercely, like Boz.

The Teign river came down from the moor, snaking through a long, wooded valley between Chagford and Dunsford. Boz gave me a lift there one August evening. It was my fourth such excursion, still an outsider, a more or less silent guest. Bad Reputation by Thin Lizzy played on Jim’s cassette player. We drank rough cider for a while; they indulged in their desultory, inconclusive conversation.

‘Hey,’ I said, during a long pause. ‘Anyone fancy a bit of target practice?’ I pulled the pistol out of my pocket. ‘It’s only an airgun,’ I admitted, ‘but we might have a laugh?’

I could hardly have made a finer contribution – other than a bigger gun. The other guys responded with immediate enthusiasm, which they masked by poking fun at my ‘pea-shooter’, as Benjy called it. I’d brought some cardboard targets and we spiked these on tree branches, and had intense competition for as long as the box of pellets I’d brought lasted. Poor shots were ridiculed mercilessly. The girls – there was an extra Moretonhampstead lass that evening – were given a turn, and teased when (perhaps just as well, given the sexism of the subculture and the era) they missed the target.

I won the shooting competition, such as it was. Of course, I had an unfair advantage: it was my gun and I’d had a lot of solitary practice, which the others were not slow to point out – along with plenty of euphemisms along the lines of Watch out, girls, this one knows how to shoot straight. Still, I could feel a new warmth towards me.

I’d noticed a bruise or two on his knuckles, but paid them no heed; he often carried wounds from his work

We’d resumed drinking and smoking dope. Boz stumbled off for a piss, and Jim said: ‘You all hear what matey boy done?’

‘Boz? No.’

‘Give him a good fuckin hidin, that’s what.’

‘Who? Polson?’

‘No. His old man.’

‘Jesus wept.’

‘You are pullin my plonker.’

‘The bastard started up again, Boz wouldn’t take it no more.’

Boz had said nothing to me. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been: Jim was his much older friend. I’d noticed a bruise or two on his knuckles, but paid them no heed; he often carried wounds from his work.

‘Yeh,’ Jim said. ‘Our boy’d had enough.’

‘I don’t blame him.’

‘Me neither.’

When Boz came back into the clearing, he received, to his surprise, a round of applause.

‘Well done, buddy.’

‘Good on you, Boz.’

Boz looked wryly at Jim, and said to the assembled company: ‘Someone’s been talkin.’

‘Did you beat him bad?’

‘No,’ Boz said, modestly. ‘Well, ask Jim, he’s seen him.’

‘Cunt’s got a hell of a shiner,’ Jim informed us. ‘Swollen’s so he can see fuck all out of it.’

‘He had it comin, Boz,’ Benjy said.

‘Yeh,’ Boz agreed. ‘I don’t reckon he’ll knock us about now.’

‘Includin your Mum?’ Sharon asked.

‘If he hits her again, I’ll kill him,’ Boz replied, matter of factly. I don’t think any of us doubted him.

It was my last outing with the bikers.

As for my own father, my absurd rebellion couldn’t last. In fact, it wasn’t rebellion at all. The fledgling writer inside me had simply intuited that he’d be best left alone to incubate whatever talent he might have, to read and write without the mediation of tutors, much less the distraction of a proper job. Psychologically, I belonged among the losers, not the winners, but temperamentally I just needed time and space. I finally left home, with years of menial jobs ahead, scribbling away.

Mobile phones were some years in the future, but back then few homes in the village even had their own landline. The council houses set back from the lane had a red phone box situated halfway up: you could dial the number and let it ring until someone was walking past; they’d pick up and, if you were lucky, fetch the person you wanted.

Late on Saturday morning on the day before I left, I called the number. No one answered. I pictured the phone ringing in the empty phone box, in a vacant world. So I walked up through the village to Boz’s house. His father answered the door. He did not say anything, simply stood there, staring at me, assessing me, daring me to speak. His black eye was almost healed: a dark purplish line was still visible beneath it.

‘Is Boz in?’ I asked.

‘Who wants him?’ his father demanded. He knew full well who I was. Why was he asking? What did he want? I was at a loss. He was being pointlessly antagonistic, and I lacked some male reflex, some pocket of testosterone, that enabled one to respond to machismo. Tall and skinny (‘A streak of piss,’ according to our stout goalkeeper, Kendo), I’d never learned to fight. The idea of punching someone, never mind being struck myself, was dreadful. I’d actually asked Boz for advice, but all he’d said was: ‘Hit ’im first, bud, hit ’im hard.’ Which didn’t really help.

Boz performed two contradictory actions: he ignored but also shoulder-barged his father

Boz’s father stared at me through hooded eyes – at midday, on a Saturday, perhaps he was meanly drunk already.

A spasm of defiance swam through my nervous system. ‘Me,’ I said. ‘I want him. Is he in?’

‘He might be.’

Our little stand-off was resolved abruptly. Boz appeared through the gloom of the house interior. Reaching the doorstep, Boz performed two contradictory actions: he ignored but also shoulder-barged his father. Off balance, the old man tottered forward, past me.

‘Come on in, bud,’ Boz said. I stepped inside. Boz let me past, then tossed some coins onto the ground outside. ‘Fuck off down the pub,’ he told his father, and closed the door.

He led the way, into the front room. I was ready to discuss his father, but Boz appeared to have dismissed him from his mind already.

‘How you doin?’

‘Not bad,’ I said. ‘I’ve come round to tell you I’m heading off, tomorrow.’

Boz grinned. ‘Finally. I was wonderin if you was ever goin to get round to it.’

I’d never spoken with Boz of plans to leave – not that I’d ever really had any. ‘Were you?’

‘You don’t belong round here. You wants to get out. The world is yours, bud.’

‘I’m going somewhere even more remote, actually. A cottage in Wales.’

Boz frowned, then he grinned again, like he’d sussed my secret intention. ‘You’re gonna write that fuckin book a yours.’

‘That’s the idea. Well, get started, at least.’

‘Good,’ Boz said. ‘Good.’

He nodded, in agreement with himself, his approval of my plan. I smiled. He smiled. I nodded. It was awkward. I’d never been inside his, or indeed any of the other village boys’ houses. Playing host, to a guest, in his parents’ home, was clearly a novel experience for Boz too. Inspiration came to me. ‘I could kill a cuppa,’ I said.

Relieved, Boz bounced to his feet. ‘How d’you take it?’

‘Milk, no sugar, thanks.’

While Boz was gone, I looked around the small, tidy front room. It felt unused; there was a layer of dust on the mantelpiece. Communal life presumably took place in the kitchen. Two armchairs faced a settee across a bare coffee table. There were paintings on the walls, landscapes with lurid sunsets. The TV must be in the kitchen, I figured, but there was something else missing. I scanned the room, and it struck me: there were no books. Not a single one.

Sitting there, I understood that the ladder of Boz’s upbringing had a rung missing, and though he was just as intelligent as me, he would likely never read a novel or volume of poetry; not watch a serious play or another subtitled film; go willingly to any of the great art galleries or museums. Was it simply that he had not been provided with a crucial example, as I had, so that his cultural tastebuds had not been awakened, but lay dormant, his access denied to an immeasurably rich realm of human experience that I was just beginning to get a glimpse of?

Boz came back with two mugs of tea.

‘What are your plans?’ I asked him.

Boz rolled a cigarette. ‘Just sold the bike,’ he said.

‘She’ll do me good. This place’ll do me, too, this fuckin beautiful country’

I was gobsmacked. Boz adored his Triumph Bonneville, he worshipped it. ‘What are you getting?’ I asked. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going Japanese?’

‘Never,’ Boz spat. ‘No, I’ve gone and got myself four wheels, haven’t I?’

‘A car? You are kidding.’

‘I’ll need it, with Mo. She won’t go on the bike.’

‘I didn’t know you two were so serious.’

Boz shrugged. ‘She’s up the spout, bud.’ He opened his palms in a helpless gesture, grinning, as if he had no idea how it’d happened. ‘I thought she was takin care of all that. She’s on about us gettin hitched; reckons we’ll get on the housin list easy.’

‘Sounds like she’s sorting you out, man.’

Boz smiled. After swallowing a mouthful of tea, he lowered his head, clearly considering something. Then he raised it and said: ‘I can tell you; I can’t tell the others, they won’t understand. They’re like kids. You, you’re leavin, and anyway, you’re not, you know, one of us, bud, no offence. But the truth is, I can’t hardly wait to have kids. Mo’s a brilliant bird and she’ll do for me. She’ll do me good. This place’ll do me, too, this fuckin beautiful country. Mac up the farm wants to step back from the day-to-day and let me take over.’

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Really? Amazing, Boz.’

‘Don’t get me wrong, bud, I loved the bikin and the birds and the dope, all that. But, fuck it, I’m 20 years old. It’s time to grow up.’

Boz took the empty mugs into the kitchen. How strange it was: my life was about to open up, to expand, into unknown terrain; his was about to contract into a limited future that was just what he wanted.

I was on my feet when Boz returned, and he accompanied me to the door. We hugged each other. I inhaled his masculine smell of sweat, unwashed clothes, a faint trace of patchouli. Neither of us said ‘Keep in touch’ or ‘Don’t be a stranger.’ Instead, Boz reached up, grasping the back of my head with both hands. He pulled me to him and kissed my forehead. Then he relaxed his grip, a little, so that we were almost pressing our brows against each other; in a huddle, a secret space.

‘Fuckin fly,’ he whispered. ‘Do it for me, brother.’

Boz let go, we looked at each other. I nodded. ‘Thank you, man,’ I said, and turned, and walked away down the garden path, and into the lane.