A FEW YEARS OF THRILLS AND SPILLS.
By ERIC PEACOCK.
(Readers of MOTOR SPoRT will be interested in this article by the well-known one-armed trick rider and variety artist, who performs such amazing stunts on a motor cycle).
EVEN whilst at school I had a desire to go on the stage, but receiving no encouragement from the” folks,” either financial or otherwise, I had to follow my second ambition of going into the motor business, until I had saved sufficient ” doings” to purchase the necessary props, which consist of two Velocette motor-cycles and a Watsonian sidecar. Although two machines are always travelled, I use one only, the second being a standby, because in the event of, say, only a sooted plug, there is no time for adjustments when a few thousand people are expecting you to “get on with it.”
The machines were chosen for their oiling system and exceptionally strong frame, which were particularly suitable for the type of work in view. Although I did not know it at the time, I was to bless that mechanical oil-feed.
Where I should have been with ” petroil ” lubrication I don’t know, because I found on my first visit to London that the fire regulations allow only half a pint of petrol, which must be soaked in some absorbent material. Now that everything is fixed up, it is remarkably simple, but I must confess to having missed a few nights’ sleep before a really workable idea materialised. The container had to be detachable too, otherwise,the machines would have had to be kept outside the theatre. Then I had to get used to the altered driving conditions, and this took some weeks. However, we got it more or less perfect in time, and the only trouble I have now is when the wick loses its absorbentqualities and causes the engine to ” spit-back ” half way through the show. For safety’s sake, I have a spare tank ready filled standing at the side of the stage during each performance. The Watsonian was chosen on account of its lightness, strength and quick fittings. I think I must hold the record for fitting sidecars, for without any assistance, I can fix it up in less than a minute. The nuts of course are only finger tight.
My motoring record dates back officially to 1913, although I was fined in 1912 for driving without a licence and being under age. An ambitious constable noted my youthful appearance, and that was that.
In 1916, I ran away from school and started driving a motor-van, much to everybody’s disgust, but that job did not last long, and the same year I donned a suit of over-ails and started overhauling motor-bikes for a firm in Barrow-in-Furness. After two years of transfering grime and grease from refractory machines to myself, I graduated into the sales-department and managed to make one collar last all day. During this period I had a bike of my own, and entered for several competitions, amongst which was the Open Hill Climb at Orton Scar near Kendal. In 1920, I made the fastest time in the 500 class on a Norton. Unfortunately in the same event the following year, poor Guy Jefferies was killed.
Sta:ting a New Career.
By the early part of 1921, I had managed to save enough money to start my present act, and in August of that year, severed my connection with the old firm and started rehearsing at a local music-hall. As a youngster of five or six, I could ride a tricycle on two-wheels and in later years could balance a sidecar in the air indefinitely, but when I started to run round a stage, there seemed to be no room for anything. Ask Graham Walker, who tried my bike at the Villa Marina in Douglas during the T.T. week in 1923 ! After a couple of months’ hard practice I thought I had achieved wonders by doing a figure eight without dropping the sidecar wheel. Now I can do a double figure eight round three times in a nineteen foot square. Practice certainly makes perfect, but practice is often painful. My an
atomy looked sun-burnt in places during the first few months. I remember being in the sidecar once when the foot-board rod caught in a hole in the stage and the outfit overturned, depositing your humble onto a bunch of keys from a height of something like three feet. After that I called it a day and could not think of motor-cycles for a couple of days. One of Mr. Moseley’s Float-on-Air Cushions could have been usefully employed in those early days, but it would not have been fixed to the saddle. Funny how new tricks suggest themselves at times. One morning during practice, a spectator expressed a desire to have a ride in the sidecar. Thinking to put the wind up him, I did a really hefty right-hand turn, without keeping my weight over the back wheel, with the result that the latter reared up and almost deposited
us both into the orchestra pit. Now I can ride in this position as long as the machine will keep going. My first week in front of the public went through without a hitch or accident. Wish I could say the same of all those that have followed. Slippery stages are .my biggest dread. I struck a very bad sample over in Liege when I had a lady assistant. She was doing a balance with her head in my shoulder and her feet in the air, when both wheels went at once. I immediately lost all interest in the proceedings for thirty seconds. Not a long time perhaps, but when the orchestra stopped playing and there was dead silence, believe me, it seemed a lifetime. We managed to carry on with the show, however, and the audience thought we were wonderful. So did I. The Itorum Theatre in Liege is a wonderful place, and we worked the act in the middle of a revue. The scenery was very appropriate—an 18th century village setting. There were approximately fifty villagers
present when I made my entrance, but three minutes later, it might have been a flag day in Aberdeen. That is only a rather be-whiskered gag though. I am writing this in Aberdeen, and must say that everybody I have come into contact with this week has been exceptionally nice, like the town itself. Last week I was in Preston, and as I do all my travelling by road, you will see that I had my fair share of fresh air on Sunday. I run a car (when I have any money), with a bike strapped onto each running-board, and the sidecar in the back seat. Looks like a first class breakdown waggon rolling along, and attracts quite a lot of attention. One garage proprietor wanted to know where the blood was. (Morbid sort of merchant). And another asked me if I didn’t trust cars in general and my own in particular. I can always think up a witty
reply to these inquisitive people, but unfortunately it usually strikes me a few miles up the road. In spite of long journeys and bad weather, I should hate to go back to train travelling, and although 200 miles of country is enough for anyone to look at in one day, I have frequently done well over 300 without any ill-effects. Lady Musical-Directors are the exception rather than the rule, and I have only met one so far, and I don’t think she was very glad to see me either. Very few orchestras are, and you can hardly blame them. I used to have a habit of miming down to the footlights rather quickly, and stopping right on top of them. This lady stuck it up to the point, then let out an unearthly yell and collapsed over the back of her chair. Perhaps there is something wrong with my sense of humour, but this disappearing trick handed me a grin, and several more to the audience. After the first shock, the lady cheered up somewhat, but each night when my Velocette started
up, she sought refuge behind the cornet player, leaving the orchestra to make its own time. This happened just at the time when the Daily Mail introduced their free insurance, so we got a few laughs on that. In Paris the authorities are very hot on fire restrictions, and the fire-men, all complete with their polished brass helmets, were rather upset to see a ” motor
cyclette ” upon the stage. One night when the first turn was ” on,” these upholders of the public safety went round my auxiliary tanks with matches. Fortunately for everybody in the theatre, the tanks were as represented, otherwise there would have been no show that night. How the machines ran on their ” essence ” beats me, I think paraffin vaporises more easily. On the Continent, smoking is prohibited even in the dressing rooms, and as I did not relish spending so much time without a cigarette, I put one into the set, and lit it whilst driving with my feet. Being part of the show, they said nothing. Punctures are not very frequent, but occasionally there are a few odd tacks lying about, and I just managed to finish one night at the Alhambra, Paris, when my front tyre went down. I mended that and then told the stage-manager a few things in English, but I’m not going to say it was good English.
There is one thing about this life, you certainly do see the world, and sometimes get paid for it. I say sometimes, because I signed my Continental contracts when the franc was fifty to the pound. When I got back to England they had depreciated to 90. My assistant was paid in the equivalent of English money, so I was lucky not to be owing myself something. It is very nice on the other side of the Channel for a change, but I should not care to be over there too long. I have never played in Germany, although I should very much like to visit that country. Perhaps we will some day.
I am rehearsing a new act with a bath-chair against the time when I shall be too old to climb on board a motor-bike.