June 10, 2011 5:15 pm

We’re all easy riders now

As you grow older, you seek solace in those who share your youthful passions

And to think I was only looking for an overnight stay in a cheap motel. Somewhere in northern France, to give the family a painless drive to Calais the following morning. We came off the motorway just south of Rouen and straight into a wrong turn, which ended at a convention centre. As we approached, there was the unlikely sound of furious revving, like the start of a Grand Prix. And then the yet more unlikely sight of around 500 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, cruising past each other in solemn procession.

I have to confess that I am not up to date on motorcycle culture. The last time I engaged with it, it was not a wholesome subject. Back in the day, if you rode a Harley-Davidson, you were either tripping (in all senses) across America or about to take part in some initiation rite that involved very old jeans and sundry bodily fluids. Then there was the violence. “Don’t mention Altamont,” I whispered to the family. They didn’t know what I was talking about.

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Peter Aspden

But the riders all around us, the Ducs de Normandie, certainly would have: their average age was north of 50. But Altamont – the 1969 festival when Hell’s Angels fatally mismanaged security – seemed a long way away. The mood here was wholly benign and the spectacle splendid. There were some wondrous drooping moustaches and the girths of lives well-lived: that’s what you get when you put together the on-the-road spirit with the lure of the French patisserie.

The croissant existentialists put on a joyful display, preening and posing next to their sacred vehicles and, wouldn’t you know it, retiring for an early night at the very same motel I had booked earlier that day. They were even more charming at breakfast, exchanging carburettor anecdotes and smiling politely at the only family not decked out in black leather.

The occasion put me in mind of another holiday some years ago, on the Greek island of Hydra. It is as romantic a getaway as you could wish for: no cars, pretty bays, tasteful architecture. But while it is relatively easy to get away from the horrors of modern urban life, other facets of culture are more resilient. Hydra was famously the home of Leonard Cohen for many years and who should be sharing the romance with my girlfriend and me that summer week but a hefty delegation from the Leonard Cohen appreciation society.

Every rickety taverna we found, every starlit night, was soon overwhelmed by dozens of elderly dreamers basking in the warm air that had inspired their idol. Once, we thought we had escaped them, only for the strums of an acoustic guitar and an imitative baritone voice to come wafting from a nearby hall: “You can spend the night beside her/ And you know that she’s half crazy/ But that’s why you want to be there ...” We hadn’t even dipped into the taramasalata and we were way more than half-crazy.

Fandom used to be the preserve of impressionable youth. You fell in love with an act, you devoured its recorded output, you analysed with friends, you waited keenly for a local live performance, or even a TV snippet. You never thought about what you would do with all that passion, all those fervent feelings, when you grew old. What did it matter?

. . .

Here is the surprise: they don’t go away, those feelings. And as you grow richer and plumper, and a little battered by the stuff of life, you seek solace in the company of those who share your youthful passions. You roam the globe to recreate the vibe, whether you are clumped together around 500 throbbing engines or the melancholy chords of a bittersweet love song. There is a lack of complication about these get-togethers, a purity of experience that is unmatched in the grimy, compromised life you have patched together as you watched your youth slide by.

All very wistful, I hear you say. But also very profitable. There is commercial opportunity in every poignant recollection of past vitality. Here, for instance, is what you can buy at a Christie’s auction of rock and pop memorabilia in London on Tuesday: a cymbal formerly owned by the Who’s Keith Moon (estimate £800-£1,000); the tone control from a guitar owned by Jimi Hendrix (£1,000-£1,500); Marc Bolan’s mint-green jacket from the early 1970s, deliriously festooned with treble and bass clefs (£5,000-£7,000).

It costs, to turn your memories into something solid. What are you paying for? A kind of guarantee: they really were great, those days. They had significance. The passion wasn’t wasted. You surround yourself with peculiar objects, or like-minded people, as an affirmation.

But the word “nostalgia” is partly derived from the Greek word for “pain”. It hurts, that all those great names from the past are just that: names, symbols, brands. They don’t actually mean anything. They are infinitely reducible to whatever you want them to be.

That well-known Harley-Davidson rider, Sarah Palin, roared into Washington last month for the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally. She had a soundbite for the occasion, of course: “I love that smell of emissions.” It was counter-cultural, in its own way, and I’m sure the Ducs de Normandie would agree. We are all easy riders now, our most vivid experiences turned into one great big Tea Party.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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