“Rockers look better when they’re older than mods.”

There are many red white and blue stalls
crammed around the bottom of Portobello Road; each of them represents some distinctly part of British Culture. That of Nigel Stark is specially vibrant, crammed with vintage leather biker jackets, ephemera, helmets, many of them manufactured by long-gone companies. So far, so poignant.
Yet, intriguingly, just as the glory days of British manufacturing were passing, the glory days of British Youth Culture were arriving. Today, the image of a British rocker, boot-boy or mod  is an intrinsic part of the national iconography. If we’re being optimistic, the era they represent mark the point at which the UK’s exports changed from metal objects, to ideas. Does one make up for the other? According to Nigel, maybe they have, because we’ve got by. Somehow.

How did you get into selling biker gear?
I got into it ‘cos it’s extension of my own life, I’ve had British bikes since the 1970s, so I’ve been wearing the gear I’m selling for a long time.

What’s your bike?
I ride a 1970 Triumph 750.

What was the first classic bike you owned?
The first ever, and this was 40 years ago… was a Lambretta. Some of my mates are mods, but when you do these bike shows, you see lots of old rockers, mods, skinheads, all shapes and sizes, and some big fat ones. They’re most likely my age… and rockers looks better when they’re older than mods and skinheads!

So you changed tribe from mod to rocker?
Not really recently, it was more like 40 years ago. I lived in Edgware we lived in a nice rather rich estate, me and my friends, what we were really was suburban boot-boys. Other friends were suburban hippies, who like Cream as much as we like reggae. Then I suppose I swapped a Crombie, a skinhead coat, in 1972, for a Vivienne Westwood Teddy Boy Drape jacket – the drape jacket suited me much more. It was £30, which is like a kid now paying £500. My friends all thought I was acting a bit strange. Rock and roll was my punk – when I discovered it everybody thought I was mad. But a lot of original punks went straight into the rock’n'roll scene, it was cool, and  the girls dressed up sexy.

Is there still a tribal enmity between rockers and mods?
No there isn’t.’Cos they both go to the same sort of runs, if there’s a rocker run, like this weekend from the Ace Cafe in Southend, there’ll be scooter parked up. But they don’t mix together and they don’t stand there drinking together, ‘cos they’re still two types of people.

You grew up in an era of British bikes… or rather, the era when British bikes were fading away.
With both cars and motorcycles, yes, the whole of British manufacturing disappeared.I suppose the motorcycles were the first to go. We’re talking about a 40 year period, the first  decline was in the ’60s for motorcycles. And nowadays all the clothing, the leather jackets.. none of it is made in England. The motorcycles started the whole thing falling apart, and now we don’t make anything. Because the British didn’t reinvest after the war, they were making all these bikes up to 1986, but the basic engines of Triumphs went back to mid ’40s designs. Then the Japanese came in. And the rest is history.

So the bikes were the start of it all.. a symbol of changes in both manufacturing and society.
They are. Because years ago, before the mid ’50s, motorcycles were the working man’s means of getting to work. Then with rock’n'roll, Elvis, Brando, the market started to change. But what really killed it was the Mini. Before that, working men would have sidecars and take their families out, but as soon as the Mini came out, that changed everything. At one time BSA was the world’s  largest motorbike company – and that changed overnight.

Do you feel sadness for the passing of an industry?
I suppose so. But everything moves on. Everything else is not made in England. It’s a different world. It’s sad for the people who were in the industry. But everyone seems to have got by somehow. I don’t know how.


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