STM: Hatching “A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest”

Frank Melling | August 3, 2015
A Penguin in a Sparrow's Nest

If there has been one consistent factor in my life it has been the way apparently simple things spiral out of control. As an example, take a very light-hearted conversation with my daughter on a lovely summer’s evening last year. We were both very relaxed and the talk drifted round to the stories I used to tell her as we were driving home from race meetings. They were about growing up as a young man in the 1960s and the scrapes and adventures I was constantly getting into. Carol would be sleeping after a hard weekend as mechanic and team manager and I would entertain Elizabeth for hours with what became family folk tales and legends.

Elizabeth can still twist me round her little finger – daughters are good like this with dads – and so it was easy to agree when she asked me to write down some of the stories for her to read now that she has set up her own home.

So, in spare moments at the beginning and end of the day, I began jotting down bits and pieces of the tales she knew and then adding some things from my childhood which she hadn’t heard before. Including the early part of my life was a bad mistake because I ended up remembering things I really wanted to forget so the first draft of what was eventually to become Elizabeth’s book was a disaster – so much so that it never saw the light of day. Even I found it depressing!

The second version of the story started when I left school aged 16 because it was at this point that my life really began. The problem was that the Mk II book was very disjointed. When the stories were told in the car, and Elizabeth and I were able to chat about them, they made sense. When I wrote them down, they raised as many questions as they answered. A third version was needed – and 25,000 words from the first two variants went in the bin!

Now there was a narrative and a real story was being told. Elizabeth was happy with what she was receiving but then Carol started to take an interest in what was quite a bit better than a first draft of a commercial manuscript. She liked what she read and then made the killer comment: “You know, this could be a book…”

Without saying anything to either Carol or Elizabeth, I was beginning to think the same thing. I had written 11 other books so the thought of producing 95,000 or more words wasn’t a problem. The real issue was that by now I had a very clear idea what I wanted the book to be – even down to its title.

It was to be called “A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest” and this immediately caused utter confusion with editors at the publishing houses we approached. What the heck was the book about? Penguins? Sparrows? Birds’ Nests?

Then there were the questions from the more literally minded test readers. How on earth does your penguin get into the sparrow’s nest? Is it a sci-fi novel? Are there werewolves? Is it like Harry Potter? And this was just the start…

I explained that it was the story – the wholly true story – of a young man, very much from the wrong side of town, growing up in an industrial city at the end of 1960s and how a love of reading and motorcycles took him from fairly abject poverty to rather more than a modest degree of success.

This caused a further tsunami of disbelief. Reading and motorcycles – are you mad? Bikes, sex and drugs we can understand. Bikes and crime we know about. Bikes and the champagne lifestyle we’ve read. But bikes and literature? You must be crazy!

Now, the sirens really went off on the editors’ desks. The kinder ones explained that I should drop all references to motorcycles because they were unnecessary in a “rites of passage” book which – in many ways – “Penguin” is.

Another tranche of experts explained that the references to growing up were an irrelevance and a distraction and I should concentrate just on the bikes I have ridden – and there have been a lot!

The third group stressed that it would be better to forget both bikes, and my personal experiences of adolescence, and simply write a social history work describing life in an industrial town at the height of Beatlemania and rock ‘n’ roll.

All the publishing houses were convinced that I would miss every single target audience by producing the book I envisaged and they were also united in their belief that the title was wrong and should be burnt on a bonfire.

It was at this point that Carol and I looked at each other and smiled: we were going to have the book we wanted.

Frank Melling Penguin in a Sparrow's Nest

Melling in his first garage, true trailer park.

First, why the title? The answer is easy. My home circumstances meant that I had to leave school aged 16. No debate or discussion. Bring some money in: the family needs it. So, I got myself a job as a shelf painter. At lunch-time, the other manual laborers would lounge around the crew room picking horses to bet on or looking at porn magazines whilst I sat in a corner reading poetry or high-brow literature. Truly, I wasn’t so much a cuckoo in the nest but a giant, half-ton penguin which, somehow, fate had plonked down in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The second reason for being militant about retaining control of the book is that I wanted to write something rather different from everything else on sale. Most autobiographies are written by (or more accurately, ghost written for) famous people or about famous people. The stories of the ordinary, blue collar, trailer park folk are rarely told.

Read about battles and it will be the generals and officers who get the coverage – not the poor grunt wading through the mud with a 56-pound pack on his back.

I was blue collar. I was also Social Housing – British trailer park – and I was the Private soldier struggling in the swamp and so, I wanted to tell my story on behalf of all the other unknowns in history. I wanted to let the world know that this is what it was like to be at the bottom, the very bottom, of the social ladder in 1965.

I also needed to say how important motorcycles are, and were, to me. Bikes have been my love and my passion as well as my profession for all of my life and I wanted to shout from the rooftops how proud I was, and am, to be a motorcyclist.

Finally, I wanted to write a hopeful book – which, although set in England, very much reflects the American dream. Get up early, go to bed late and work hard all day and every day, and you can change your life without the help of family, friends or social advantages.

I owe much to America and it’s a debt I will never forget. It was an American magazine which first published my work – caring nothing for my background, professional qualifications or personal circumstances but only that I could do the job I was being paid to do. America was a hard core meritocracy and I loved it.

Frank Melling Penguin in a Sparrow's Nest

Melling aboard a 500 Works BSA.

“A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest” is an unusual story and one which owes everything to a love of bikes, literature and writing. At 16, I was a shelf painter and four years later I was being collected by a chauffeur to meet the Managing Director of BSA Motorcycles. Here’s how I arrived at BSA – complete with pink shirt, flower tie and shoulder length hair.

“I skipped off the train at New Street and almost missed the immaculate, grey-suited and peak-capped chauffeur, holding up the meticulously printed sign bearing my name.

“He sounded just like an English manservant should and addressed me as “Sir.”

“After asking if he could carry my coat, the chauffeur escorted me to the grey, London taxi cab bearing the registration BSA 1 and opened the door for me. This was serious stuff.

“We purred through Birmingham with the chauffeur being the most impeccable example of a gentleman’s carriage driver:

“Did Sir have a good journey?”

“Was Sir familiar with BSA?”

“Was there anything Sir needed on the way to the factory?”

“Bear in mind that, just the day before, “Sir” had been queuing up outside a history seminar room and getting ready for his second Teaching Practice…

“As I sat in the back of the taxi and listened to the gentle, solicitous enquires from the front of the cab I really did expect the Angel of Wrath to reach in through the door, drag me out of the sumptuous leather seat and chuck me into a puddle. Sooner or later, I had to be found out.”

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Frank Melling

Contributing Editor |Articles | Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

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