Speedway Fiction

Great stories for speedway fans!

Home

Speedway Fiction

Great stories for speedway fans!

Home


MICHAEL HANSEN…

…is the only author writing novels specifically aimed at fans of motorcycle speedway racing.

Sadly, speedway in Britain today is very much a niche sport but it was not always the case. In the years between its introduction in 1928 and the war, crowds at dirt track meetings were huge and speedway riders were some of the highest-paid sportsmen. Again, in the 1970s, speedway enjoyed a revival in Britain and became what was described at the time as England’s ‘second most popular spectator sport’.

These are the periods in which Michael Hansen’s novels are set - when Britain was the centre of the speedway world.

Michael Hansen’s Blog Blog Home Page SpeedwayFiction Michael Hansen's Blog Home

Earlier articles…

Heavens, the noise!

Cobble Street Speedway Star

Riddle of the Sands

Speedway Beginnings

Speedway Advertisements in 1929

NEWS OF A NEW BOOK

The closure of an unlicensed track by the Manchester coroner in 1931, following the death of 28-year-old rider James Kenny, was inevitable and probably long overdue. By the end of speedway’s first full league season in 1929, the death toll on British tracks had already reached double figures but the rushed and tragic way the sport was introduced across the country reveals much about the lure that it held for young men of the time.

Kenny was from nearby Salford, the ‘Dirty Old Town’ of Ewan MacColl’s iconic song and the setting for Shelagh Delaney’s harrowing depiction of working class life, ‘A Taste Of Honey’. His situation was that of many in an age of mass unemployment: desperate for work of any kind, attracted by the glamour and potentially high earnings of the speedways and at the mercy of unscrupulous entrepreneurs. It was James Kenny’s story that provided the inspiration for Cobble Street Speedway Star, a novel about the earliest days of dirt track racing in Britain.

So much happened so quickly in that first, ground-breaking year.

Michael Hansen’s Blog Cobble Street Speedway Star Drawing Room of the SS Oronsay, which brought AJ Hunting, Johnnie Hoskins and their riders to England in 1928

Drawing Room of the SS Oronsay, which brought Australian entrepreneurs AJ Hunting, Johnnie Hoskins and their band of Australian riders to England in 1928

‘He doubted whether he had ever seen such a purposeful looking machine…’

James Brennan is 22 years old. He and his younger brother Harry are face-workers at Pendleton Colliery, earning little more than £1 per day in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Their father had been killed at the same mine four years earlier in a freak accident in which the floor of the seam had risen up suddenly, crushing men against the roof.

They share the larger of two bedrooms in their mother’s two-up-two-down terraced house in Tolson Street - the cobble street of the title and one of hundreds in Salford’s concentrated back to back housing. The other thing they share is a love of motorbikes. James’s Rudge is his pride and joy while Harry’s ancient AJS is all he can afford.

When dirt track racing comes to the Albion Stadium, just across the River Irwell from Tolson Street, James is captivated and determined to try it for himself. You can read more about the story here.

In his 1999 paper ‘A Wild Orgy of Speed’, Dr Jack Williams, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, quotes the reaction of noted author and future Oxford MP, A P Herbert on witnessing speedway for the first time:

‘Even as a spectacle the horrid motor-bicycle wins.  True, it does not jump hurdles, and true, there is not much beauty about the dirt-track; and yet it has a kind of modern, macabre, Stravinskian, Capekian beauty.  The vast stadium by night, the track lit brightly at the rim, the sea of shadow in the centre, the mountainous black stands behind packed with a shouting, invisible multitude, the starry sky of London above...

Heavens, the noise!  It is like ten million mechanical drills performing in unison. It swells and falls as the riders take the corners; it echoes about the cavernous concrete halls, drowning the feeble acclamations of the crowd; it dies slowly as the riders stop, and the end of a race seems like the end of a battle.  It is titanic and terrible and monstrous; and yet in that enormous place, made by those monsters, it seems appropriate and right.  And I do believe I rather liked it.’

Williams is in no doubt that the principal reason for the introduction of speedway into Britain was one of commercial gain. He writes:

‘Promoters saw speedway as an opportunity for profit. When Hunting came to Britain in 1928 he described his intention as “purely and simply the commercialisation of a wonderful sport”.’

The close link that has always existed between speedway and greyhound racing, is also attributed to a common commercial interest:

 ‘Fears in 1928 that the greyhound racing boom of 1927 had burst meant that greyhound promoters were interested in the rent which speedway could provide.  Links between speedway and greyhound racing have always been close.  A representative of the NGRA was on the board of International Speedways. Most speedway was held at greyhound tracks, with the rest at grounds where other sports were played.  Only a tiny number of dirt track stadia were purpose-built before 1939 and none of these could be regarded as among the major venues of speedway. (It is sometimes claimed that the Belle Vue track at Hyde Road, Manchester, was a purpose-built speedway stadium.  My impression is that Belle Vue (Manchester) Ltd., the company which owned the zoo, exhibition facilities and the amusement park, was already developing this stadium before deciding that it could be used for speedway in 1929.  From 1929 to 1933 Manchester Central, a semi-professional soccer club, played also played at this stadium.  After 1933 the rugby league club Broughton Rangers shared the stadium with Belle Vue speedway).  Nine of the ten tracks of the speedway National League in 1933 also staged dog racing.  Without the availability of greyhound stadia there may well have been no speedway.’

At the end of the 1928 season, a group of riders, wondering how to make a living during the winter months, arranged to go out to Egypt, (at that time under British control), and take part in some speedway racing in Cairo.

In Britain, on-course betting bas always been forbidden at speedway venues but in Cairo, it was decided to allow it. This was in accord with the great popularity of gambling on the horses (at Gezireh and Heliopolis) as well as on greyhound racing. The locals, despite being mystified by such things as rolling starts, did enjoy a flutter on the races. However, the riders, too, realized that betting on their own races presented an opportunity to make more out of the venture than their 50 per cent share of the gate receipts would provide.

That was bad enough but when the less scrupulous among them began to fix the results in order to boost their earnings still more, the wily Egyptians spotted what was happening and the whole project, not surprisingly, collapsed. Perhaps that is why so little was written about it after the event.

In any case, it was the tour on which James Brennan found himself, with serious consequences for that fledgling star of the dirt tracks.

Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo, the most famous hotel in the world. It was always said that if you sat on the terrace at Shepheard’s long enough, you would see the whole world walk by

Zamalek Speedway, Cairo. The top picture shows the greyhound circuit as it was. The lower image was taken during construction of the speedway circuit inside the dog track

In the book, the location for the Egyptian episode is split between the speedway at Gezireh/Zamalek and possibly the most famous hotel in the world, Shepheard’s in Cairo. In the golden age of travel from the 1850s to the 1950s, the great hotels of Cairo played host to writers, artists, diplomats, army officers, film stars, painters, scholars, archaeologists, explorers and the international elite. Among them, Shepheard’s had a cachet all of its own. It was written of the hotel, ‘It was not the people who lent atmosphere to Shepheard’s, but Shepheard’s to them’.

And what story set in Cairo could fail to draw on the mystery of the Great Pyramid of Giza? An innocent sightseeing tour to the Giza plateau ends in a dangerous encounter for James Brennan but what is the connection with the speedway at Zamalek?

As with the Joe Barnes novels set in the 1970s, I have tried to follow the historical facts as closely as reasonable and to weave the stories around the real events as they occurred. Like the others, Cobble Street Speedway Star is a story first and foremost about speedway and speedway people. But it is also a story of its time. Speedway may have been born in America and spent its childhood in Australia but, in Britain, it came of age.

If you would like to comment on this article, you can get in touch with Michael Hansen via the Speedway Fiction contact page.

© Michael Hansen 2014