Fast forward about ten years. Like most places in the mid-70s, my hometown was very tribal. The working-class kids were predominantly rockabillies and skins, the National Front having a strong presence. This pretty much covered the council estate I grew up on. The few ‘rebellious’ middle-class kids at school, on the other hand, were hanging onto the fag-end of hippiedom and prog rock and still growing their hair long. Although I was as common as dogshit, I was drawn more to the latter group. They were talkers not fighters for a start, and while the Front held sway down my way, I was already resolutely left wing, anti-nuclear, anti-Nazi and environmentally aware, as were these hippy kids.
I’d grown up under the violent shadow of my father, making me bookish and withdrawn – oddly just the same as him (my grandfather was a monster) – but also frustrated and rebellious. I hated school too, largely because of the amount of stick I got from the bloody skinheads. I was, however, already studying counter-cultural literature thanks to one of England’s first comic shops outside London, ‘Mr Tomorrow’s’ – formally a ‘Private’ shop – run by a colourful character called Lenny Brooker who loved to share his passion for underground comics. Having started out going there to get the latest US Batman, I’d started spending all my pocket money on Brainstorm, Zap, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Slow Death, American Splendour, Dr Atomic and so forth, which taught me everything I needed to know about sex (in theory), drugs (which could be acquired relatively easily through the squatter community on Argyle Street), and radical politics. In tandem with this, in a failed attempt to get off with a hippy chick from school, I had joined Friends of the Earth. (I was already active in the local CND as well, having been traumatised by a history lesson on the bombing of Hiroshima.) This was a scene in which I felt at home, which was more than could be said for where I lived, though I was aware these folk were not my class and I was self-conscious of my accent.
My closest friend was, like me, working class. Mick was a proper Cockney whose parents had moved down here for work. We met in the first year of secondary school and totally hit it off, despite living at opposite ends of the city. The initial bond was a shared interest in old record collecting and antique tech like valve radios (wish I’d kept those), reel-to-reel tape recorders, vintage toys and, most importantly, old bicycles. In one memorable summer, after several of us bunked off school and lied about our age to see a double bill re-release of Rollerball and Death Race 2000, a spontaneous and regular bicycle race had sprung up in the evenings and weekends in a local wood beyond my nearest park that was more of a good-natured running battle. Old bikes were the best for this because they were so fucking durable. They weren’t the easiest things to peddle up a gully while someone else was trying to kick you off, but they were utterly bullet-proof and lethal in a collision. Most prized of all was the trade bike, with the huge rack on the front. I think Mick had an old butcher’s one. Also, I was already tall, so 28” wheels and a 26” frame suited me. And I just liked the look of ’em, the retro design and the solidity. I had a 5-speed BSA racing bike as well, for long distances mostly, like the beach, but I wasn’t going to throw that down a ditch.
We used to talk a lot about motorcycles. Mick was already well into them, so I am basically his fault. He also had a stash of Easy Riders and introduced me to NEL paperbacks, which were soon going round the school. Chopper was hilarious, but probably the reason I ended up with a Harley… When we were still schoolkids, just, Mick and I used to meet in town on Saturday mornings and trawl the second-hand record shops looking for treasures, mostly 50s and 60s stuff. If Norwich were playing at home, it could get scary. One Saturday, around midday, the local football hooligans, ‘The Steins’, took over the city centre, marching and chanting footie and British Movement bollocks. (Seen The Football Factory? Same thing.) There were some big fuckers up the front an’ all, grown men, not kids, with some faces we recognised from the fifth form dotted about in the crowd as well. That, alone, was terrifying. I’d been chased deep into the estate over the road from my school recently by a crowd of these bastards, saving myself by diving into some poor sod’s garden and trying the back door in desperation. Amazingly, the pensioner couple who lived there let me in, gave me tea and let me sit out the hunt. (When I reported this to the headmaster, he told me if I was going to walk around with hair down my arse, I deserved everything I got.) Some of these lads later stomped a friend of mine in the same area, though they were never prosecuted, and put him in a bloody coma.
Anyway, while The Steins were advancing down Gentleman’s Walk, and we, like many others, were standing there like bunnies stunned by headlights, there was a roar of engines behind us and a pack of bikes turned up. There weren’t that many, but they rode straight at the barmy army and ploughed right into them. The fuckers scattered, with fists and chains and crash helmets swinging in the middle of the crowd, bikes abandoned on the ground. Then someone flew through a plate glass shop window, one of the skins. It was the local chapter of The Satan’s Slaves, riding up from the biker pub down the road, and they fought like the Spartans at Thermopylae. As soon as sirens were heard, they jumped on their bikes and were gone, having completely broken up the riot. It was beautiful.
I haven’t thought about that in years. I wonder if Mick remembers it? It left an impression at the time though, I can tell ya. I’d never thought anyone could beat those Nazi bastards…
Through Friends of the Earth, I also met a kid from the suburbs, a year younger than me, who was an evangelical cyclist with a passion for trade bikes and a growing interest in classic motorcycles. (I want to say his older brother had one, but that may be putting the cart before the horse.) He was known as ‘Womble’, because he was one, and on an FOE coach together heading for ‘The Last Whale Rally’ in London, we had one of those life-changing meetings.
When the coach stopped in Wyndham, a downright piratical biker – he reminded me of Blackbeard – accompanied by a skinhead who looked like a wrestler got on, both already half-pissed, horrifying the hippies to the extent that the desperate organiser was trying to explain this was a chartered coach not a normal bus. But these guys were there for the rally, largely for a laugh, but willing to be enthusiastic about the cause. Why they decided we were worth sitting near I am not sure (us commoners stick together maybe, though I think my Alice Cooper T-shirt might have swung it), but on that trip, we clicked. And though I know not what happened to Squibby, the only good skinhead I ever met, I remain close to ‘RLD’ (‘Rather Large Dave’) to this day.
Dave was connected. He might even have been part of that run that had so unsettled my father all those years ago (he’s a few years older than me). He was embedded deeply in the proper local bike scene, including the clubs in Norwich and Yarmouth, and a hilarious raconteur (still is). I learned more about what to do and where to go that day than those Hell’s Angel paperbacks could ever teach me. Dave had a BSA A7 with a sidecar he called ‘Irene’, presumably in a nod to that Moby Grape song… Sounded dead cool. (He was also in the ‘Blue Brigade’ in the ITV Quatermass reboot with John Mills.) I briefly met Tony Benn on that rally, and Jeremy Corbyn, but it’s Big Dave that I remember most vividly.
Getting home later that night, drunk (thanks, guys), there was a definite sense that something had changed. I could feel it in my teenage bones. I was on me way…