TV presenter, world land speed record holder and former heroin addict. Henry Cole talks to Ann Chadwick about his new memoir as he heads to Harrogate this week.
Henry Cole has travelled a long way from Malton, where his father grew up on the edge of the Castle Howard estate, before he was posted to India during the dying age of the British Raj.
“Yorkshire to me is God’s Own Country in a way – great motorcycling and my old man came from there.”
His life has been a ‘rollercoaster ride’ – and that’s an understatement. “I started life as a session drummer, then I became a news cameraman, then I went on the road for years with rock ‘n’ roll bands, then I directed a movie about heroin addiction based on my life, because I was a heroin addict for five years.
“After that I started driving round the world in cars for TV shows and riding bikes, and now I have a motorcycle brand.
“I’m not quite sure where I fit in society so I’ve always tried to rebel against it; rebelling against what I know not, I always say I’m a rebel without a cause.”
Henry’s great-great uncle was Prime Minister William Gladstone. He was educated at Eton and his ‘stifling upbringing’ fuelled his rebellion. “It all went slightly wrong at Eton when I started smoking weed.”
As to his upbringing he says, “I knew there was love, but it was masked by the stiff upper lip attitude of an army major father. I lived in a great Rectory in Norfolk with 14 bedrooms, me, a dog and mum and dad, and I wore a little tweed jacket and went to prep school...
“When I got to Eton, it was even more intense – you were with these elite people.”
He recalls all this in his hard-hitting memoir – A Biker’s Life: Misadventures on (and off) Two Wheels – which he will be discussing this week in Harrogate.
It’s a searingly honest account. “I felt I had a story to tell of people who have lost their way in life and didn’t really know what they were rebelling against but demanded in some way, however small, to be an individual. Motorcycling is an intrinsic part of that ethos.”
The years 1983 to 1988 were, he says, the hardest to write: “I don’t actually remember a lot that happened to me because I was out of my head.”
Several friends have died from drugs. “It’s an incredibly lonely place being an addict. You can’t actually share your life with anyone else apart from other junkies.
“It took me a long time to realise there is more to life than tin foil and heroin, genuinely – because I didn’t understand what life was all about.” Now, he says, life is about ‘contentment.’
As presenter of the World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides on the Travel Channel Worldwide, Cole is one of the most recognisable names in motorcycling.
However, he is scathing about celebrity culture. “If you’re famous for something great, if you’re famous for being famous you’re an idiot. If fame goes I’ll revert to my shed with my friend Sam and we’ll build beautiful bikes.”
In 2013, Henry was at Bonneville Salts Flats attempting a world land speed record for a vintage bike. “I went and set that record. You don’t need to be a rich kid to do that. You just have to be a person with a little bit of pride and ambition.
“I did a TV show on it, and couldn’t help myself collapsing in tears because 25 years before that day I was on £250 of heroin every day, my company was bust and I tried to kill myself twice. You know, there is hope in that, and if someone gets a little bit of that message, then there’s a reason to write this book.”
He hopes audiences in Harrogate will leave with a new understanding. “That, and to go and buy a motorcycle!”
Henry Cole is at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival this Fridat at 4.30pm, The Crown Hotel. Call 01423 562 303.
A Biker’s Life: Misadventures on (and off) Two Wheels is published by Quercus.