If you’ve read any of the Single Track Mind or Memorable Motorcycle features on MotoUSA, you have some sense of the style of Frank Melling’s writing. There’s wit, humor, honesty and a healthy dose of historical context woven into nearly every piece he submits, as well as a radiant love of motorcycling. His recent book, “A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest,” is no different.
“Penguin,” which I’ll use as shorthand going forward, is as the subtitle suggests, “The Story of a Freelance Motorcycling Journalist.” It was born out of a lifetime telling stories of his motorcycling past to family, in particular his daughter, and wanting to commit some of those memories to paper to share with the wider world. It starts with a 16-year-old Melling painting shelves to help his family make ends meet and charts some key points in life that led to a wide variety of motorcycling experiences. Meeting and developing a relationship with the higher-ups at BSA, becoming a works rider for BSA, accounts of numerous bikes tested throughout the years along with parallel anecdotes from his professional life as a team owner, helmet salesman and racer populate the pages of “Penguin.” Also included are chapters on Melling’s development as an educator, following him through college to his first classes and on to later roles in supervisory and administrative positions. There’s loads of advice for young freelancers too, and plenty of reflection on how life’s travails can ultimately lead to unexpected and unbelievable opportunities.
It’s autobiographical, but not a complete autobiography as it ends before what Melling calls “the second part of my life.” Its segments read like extended articles you’d find on MotoUSA and has the feel at times of being a collection of stories rather than a fully-fledged book, but the narrative trajectory of Melling’s developing professional life gives the piece its forward motion and entwines the tales into a remarkable story of perseverance and passion. The prose is direct and easy to read, without pretense or bravado and the stories themselves are at times unimaginable. Squeezing through the gates with a box of spare parts for the last works BSA B.50 (Melling was the last works rider for the British manufacturer) as bankers descended to close the gates for good. Finding a way to sell more than 5000 helmets that no one previously wanted in the space of a few months. Inadvertently providing a path to the development of the future Triumph Adventurer. And all the while writing furiously for American and British magazines, earning his stripes as a teacher and maintaining various business ventures along the way.
Honestly, as a comparatively young person, hearing stories like these, whether from Melling or anywhere else, of motorcycling in the mid-20th century is always astonishing. My perception is that there was a particular freedom and definite reward for the truly passionate, dedicated individual in that time that spawned motorcycling as we know it today. I felt the same after watching the “John Penton Story” or reading about Preston Petty, hearing about Kenny Roberts’ rise to glory or Mike Harper’s experiences as a factory racer in Japan.
But what’s really affecting about “Penguin” is that Melling had all of these truly unique experiences and remained as grounded as he was at the start. This isn’t some rags-to-riches story where from the ashes is risen a superhuman deity whose wisdom must be professed from the mountain tops, but the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary situations.
Even the production and distribution of “Penguin” lends itself to the essence of many of the stories Melling tells, a self-published book distributed out of the family garage.
But is it a book you should go out and buy? As you’ve probably guessed, I’d say, wholeheartedly, yes. If you’ve ever enjoyed Melling’s articles at MotoUSA, reading “Penguin” will be a familiar and satisfying experience. If you are new to his work, it will take you down the path of a meandering and incredible life that was made possible at its core thanks to an insatiable love of motorcycles. This feature alone will resonate with riders of all ages, since it demonstrates as fact that anything is possible on two wheels.
To purchase a copy of “A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest,” head on over to www.frankmelling.co.uk. The price is $32 US dollars. Pricing is also listed for various other countries throughout the world, as is a link to the Kindle e-book version.
Disclaimer: I have worked with Frank Melling since my very first days at MotoUSA, albeit from afar and for the most part only through email correspondence and conversations on the telephone. I’ve enjoyed his work from the beginning and have learned much about what it takes to be a motojournalist from his pieces on the site and from his advice regarding my own professional development. Perhaps one of most important lessons he’s imparted is that one should always write as an enthusiast, not from some artificial place on high but from the common ground we all share as riders of motorcycles. With that in mind, the review of his new book, “A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest” is my objective attempt to asses a book on its merits to a rider/reader and not, as it may appear at times, a shameless heaping of praise upon one of my respected MotoUSA colleagues.