Graham Field: The Shallow Depths of Materialism
If you’ve been reading any of my columns for the last year or indeed any of my books it will come of no surprise to learn I live in Bulgaria. I moved here over 4 years ago, the decision to relocate was as easy as the math. I started my 25 year mortgage at age 27, surprisingly and way quicker than I expected I became 52. I owned my house outright, which in those intervening years had increased over 400% in price, who would have thought? I certainly didn’t see this happening, in fact, to begin with, I didn’t see much of the house at all. I left before dawn and when I got back from a long stint behind the wheel of a truck, shadows were cast by streetlights not daylight. Those were the dark days of the barely manageable mortgage.
There are many reasons that I relocated to the European Union’s most south-easterly member but they all come under the single appeal of ‘better quality of life’. In the UK I never had a high earning capacity but I did have the stamina to work long hours and the will power to save.
Now for the first time in my life I have an income greater than my outgoings, and I've got enough money to last the rest of my life as long I don’t make any changes to my frugal existence and I don’t live too long, (buying bikes obviously doesn’t count).
That brings me to the point of this month’s column. I've been able to treat myself to some shiny things that have given me a shallow pleasure, things I would never have been able to afford in the past. I have a Triumph Thruxton R, not new but it was only 2 years old with 762 miles on the clock (it may well help me time my demist with a depleted savings account) and an 18-year-old convertible Mustang (alcohol fuelled-post funeral-impulse buy). I get as much pleasure looking, fettling and pimping them as I do when I'm out on the road with them. They were immaculate vehicles when I got them but if you actually use them, inevitably, they get their road scars, stone chips, the general tarnishing of being thrust through the air at speeds greater than being moved around the shed.
It wasn’t exactly adventure riding but there was still a discovery, the downside, the sadness when they lose their shine, the shine that enticed me to them in the first place. I suffered an immense disappointment I have never experienced before as I have never had anything as nice before.
The Thruxton’s deterioration has been gradual over the 10,000 miles I've put on it, and the patina is worthy of the memory of the miles.
The Mustang however has aesthetically gone down hill faster than if it were left at the top of said hill with the hand brake off.
To top it off, last week I scraped it down the side of a foot-high wall I didn’t see. The frustration was disproportionate to the thrill of desire owing my precious car gave me, and the fury ruined my day, although now it’s fading, unlike the scratches.
I tried to put all this into perspective and recall when was the last time that an inanimate object of gratifying beauty had lost its attraction. That brought me back to thinking about my old £750 KLR that I did my trips to South Korea and Iraq on. When I see photos of it in its preparation stages, over 10 years ago, yes it looked significantly shinier than it does today.
However all those drops, falls, misjudgements and other mistakes never really distracted from the pleasure it gave me. They say every scratch tells a story, perhaps, but I can’t recall the half of them, they were daily and a lot went unnoticed. The panniers took more impact than a visor through a plague of locusts and looked all the better for it.
This train of thought made me realise the shallowness of seeking pleasure in the material. I never used to, didn’t have the option.
My KLR blended into the third world with second hand qualities of substandard modifications and we both benefited from that.
I considered the drawbacks of taking the shiny and new to the dirty dilapidation of the places where adventure is often a by-product.
I understand how easy it is to fall victim to the glossy magazine must-haves and before you know it your bike is loaded with adventure lights and all things bright and beautiful, but I wonder how it darkens the day when the lights get snapped off by a bad fall, the electric adjustable screen is scarred by an inflexible branch, or the touring seat is gouged by a passing sharpie.
Duct tape and cable ties cure all and in certain cases it gives additional credibility, but on a new machine it’s a sad face with a tear drop.
I wonder if ‘new’ is best left for someone else, to experience the heart break of the vandalised, stolen, broken destroyed, damaged and ultimately the depreciation. After the first scratch things start to change, the neurosis of protecting the pristine slowly transforms into a more reckless ‘let’s see what this thing is capable of’. It’s a new kind of fulfilment but it comes at a cost and that’s when I used to come along in a second hand, new owner capacity to point out the devaluing defects and adjust the price accordingly. For me as the buyer, the damage has a collateral bonus, for the owner of the accidental abrasions it’s only depression of devaluation. When I sell the Mustang, and I will (it was just something I wanted to get out of my system), my new indentations on the wing and door will be joy to the tyres kickers.
So, I'm thinking there is a lot to be said for the benefits of budget biking, because when the road meets anything but the tyres, the cost incurred is more than money. Last month I gave my KLR a £2.99 top end rebuild (that was the cost of the instant gasket).
OK, I’m not about to embark on another long trip with it but I can take it to a show now and the oil consumption is less than the fuel, which is an improvement. And it doesn’t look any worse with its mismatched head. There was nothing but satisfaction in that operation. I think the second hand sourcing is more thrilling, practical and pleasurable than the fastidious frustration of finding a flaw in the previously faultless.
My advice would be, when preparing for that dreamed of journey, immerse yourself in the pleasure of a bargain not in the fleeting gratification of buying something perfect, as beauty doesn’t last, even in the hands of the beholder, and an affordable dream is a more achievable one.
Ironically, I’m writing this as I await the arrival of the first new couch I’ve ever owned in my life (you can’t pick up used ones in a convertible). I suppose now I’ll be fretting about a wet cat with sharp claws taking the pristine away forever.