MONDAY SEPTEMBER 18th, 2017
The Globe and Mail
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THE JANE AUSTEN MOTOCROSS CLUB
Full disclosure: the Club is not large. At this point, it has but one member that I know of.
But since this year is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, now seemed like the time to come out of the Georgian wardrobe, so to speak. Time to ‘fess up.
I made a Faustian deal with the diabolical powers of Georgian literature and motorcycle racing in my romantic youth: If I’d not deny my affection for Miss Austen’s stories, in return I’d live a long life filled with a lot of good dirt bike riding.
So far I’ve had the long life and the (sometimes painful) good motocross riding, but I’m having a devil of a time dovetailing it with the world of 18th century English romance.
Its as if I’m afflicted with a strange sort of schizophrenia, a double life. I’m all Mr.Darcy one day, planting out roses with my daughter, chuckling at Mr.Collins, watching a re-run of Emma with biscuits and tea.
And then the buttons pop off my silk waistcoat and another me bursts out, a motocross dark side to the genteel side of light-filled parlours and country dancing. Motocross, to the uneducated, has nothing at all to do with Austen’s world of provincial Georgian towns and comedies of manners. Hers is a world of trivial incidents finely written, quiet conversations in libraries, heart-to-hearts in dappled orchards.
The motocross world, in apparent contrast, is a high-revving universe of endurance, fueled by adrenalin, testosterone and speed. Its a sport on the edge of the extreme sports column, peopled largely by males preoccupied with flying higher, farther, and faster on the knife edge of control, one bad move away from an ambulance trip.
Inside my steaming helmet, there is no internal dialogue on gooseberries, local vicars or matters of the heart. On the racetrack, things tend to be dog-eat-dog, and as I gain on a Yamaha rider heading for that double-jump, I find myself paraphrasing Jane as I reel in my opponent: “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I want to pass you in a hail of rocks and mud.”
Jane’s world is a gentle one of polite ladies and rich young suitors. But its also a study in sexual politics, class and the human heart. Not unlike motocross. (Okay, maybe not the sexual politics part.) Riding torturous terrain in an adrenalin-fueled rush is to look into your soul and ask: “What on earth am I doing, at my age, with a family to support?”
Motocross can hurt. It can lead to intimate acquaintance with unsympathetic chiropractors. It can place one in a social category far-removed from the finer class of vicars and local gentry-folk. Emma Woodhouse’s anxious father would never have approved. And yet, after a good day of near misses, long jumps and bruising laps, I again hear an echo of Pride and Prejudice as I stand back and admire my mud-caked Honda 450. “You have bewitched me, body and soul and I love you. And wish from this day forth never to be parted from you or ever play golf again.”
My wife rolls her eyes at this sort of thing. But she understands. She has come to realize that it should be a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a Honda CRF450 must be in want of a good BBC period drama.
Bruce Fierstein’s 1982 book “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was published to great acclaim, selling over 1.6 million copies. It poked fun at the sensitive new-age man, living an insipid life marked by an interest in things perceived to be anti-masculine. But Fierstein missed the mark. Real men eat anything they want (quiche included.) They also read what they want: books about motocross racing, books about Elizabeth Bennett’s love life.
I’m sure there are other men out there, settling down to a night of Sense and Sensibility and eating quiche while they Instagram photos of the muddy crash they had last Saturday. Masculine and feminine don’t have to be slotted so quickly into time worn pigeon-holes. At the local track last week, a young woman laid waste to the field of wannabe male racers who could only admire her skill and speed. She crushed it. I only hope that she pulled off the track and picked up her copy of Northanger Abbey between motos.
Such men and women can send in their applications for club membership. The world needs more extreme sports types who wear waistcoats (or petticoats) and read gentle books about sensitive people. The broader implications are heartening indeed, especially in this world where bluster and conflict runs rampant. Imagine a world, for a moment, where riot police contemplate Fordyce’s sermons on their breaks, where rodeo riders take harpsichord lessons, where jet fighter pilots practice needlepoint between sorties. Where’s the downside, dear reader?
As Jane herself once said (and I paraphrase): “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good lap on the motocross track, or a good Jane Austen novel, must be intolerably stupid.”