Part One -
Work, let me see...
I grew up, I had decided, I was going to be a Train Driver. Not in the
'Boys Own' sense of Flying Scotsmen and the romance of steam, nor as
a childhood fancy based on the antics of Thomas the Tank Engine, but
a real working engineman on the British Railways of the 1970s, when
trains were blue and yellow and the system had not yet been reduced
to the pale shadow of itself that it subsequently became. My decision
sprang from the twin facts of my father, and his father alongside him,
having been railwaymen, and the doubtless connected circumstance of
my having been a trainspotter for as long as I could remember.
My father had left the railway some four years before my birth, so although
it wasn't exactly a daily feature in my life, it got into my blood somehow,
and remains there to this day.
He had started work as an employee of the Southern Railway, at the age
of fourteen, in the wagon shops at Templecombe. This was in 1943, before
nationalisation. Company loyalties were still strong enough to demarcate
between the Southern men at the top station, where his father also worked,
and the men of the former Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway which also
passed through the town under the auspices of the LMS. By the time he
left the railway he was an S&D man through and through, having transferred
his allegiance and worked his way up through the links to the position
of 'Passed Fireman' - a fully qualified shovel wielder capable of taking
control of a train but not yet officially granted the mantle of driver.
Father left the railway when BR's looming modernisation plan began to
whittle away at the industry and he was offered a transfer to Brighton
to drive electric trains. As neither the change of traction, nor the
prospect of leaving Somerset appealed to him he turned it down and went
into the building trade. Templecombe gradually lost its railways; the
loco shed, the marshalling yards, the wagon shop and eventually even
the station closed. The S&D itself is now little more than a series
of ditches and banks stretching intermittently from Bath to Bournemouth,
and the fact that Templecombe today has a railway service again is only
slightly more unlikely than that I, after some years of intemperate
behaviour, a delayed adolescence, and an almost Woosterian inability
to comprehend the consequences of my own actions, am still a practicing
Nevertheless, I was serious about my intended career. When I reached
my final year of school my application was successful and I was offered
a position as a Traction Trainee at Salisbury, where no doubt I would
have cut my teeth on Class 33s, or 46s on the Mendip stone trains. Tragically,
fate and folly were to intervene and dissuade me from this righteous
course, but at the time it seemed logical that I should follow in what
I like to believe is the family trade. My father I still see as a railwayman,
even after so many years, and my mother's father too had been on the
payroll of the Great Western Railway. Everyone seemed content with the
choice I had made, or, if that was not the case, no one saw fit to mention
it to me.
Except for my headmaster that is.
Shortly after I had first made my decision known he had summoned me
to his office and told me in his unpleasant nasal tones that he had
been informed of my plans by the careers officer, and felt that as no
formal academic qualifications were required for train driving I should
sacrifice my place at the grammar school and go to the local secondary
modern instead, allowing a potential insurance broker, advertising executive
or some other of equally worthy ambition to take my place. My refusal
to comply with this addled suggestion fueled his fomenting dislike for
me, and a minor vendetta ensued, in which I had my first taste of officialdom's
capacity for injustice. I had fallen foul of both parents and teachers
before over petty misdemeanours, but never, I was aware, without some
plausible justification on their part. This was different. On one occasion
he seized upon a stupid misunderstanding and swooped on me with a righteous
passion, leaving me frightened, confused and extremely resentful at
this first experience of the potential for artifice and vindictiveness
in an allegedly responsible adult. I was accustomed to that kind of
behaviour from my classmates but had hitherto been naive enough to believe
that our elders were to be trusted, especially a headmaster. Feared
maybe, but only because of his exalted position. I lost any respect
I may have had for him, and a number of my teachers as well, and although
I would hesitate to make too close a connection, the fact that I subsequently
became an easy victim to my brother's Sex Pistols records seems, in
retrospect, less remarkable.
Various people have cited differing reasons for his extraordinary behaviour.
Hopper, the careers master, to whom I took my grievance on the rather
vain assumption that I could trust him to give me a fair hearing, fobbed
me off with the excuse that the man had an ulcer. I was not impressed.
Some say it was my brilliant elder brother's eccentricities that antagonized
him. Colin was much liked by the deputy head, on account of his regular
successes in the school operas, and this, on top of his sporting prowess
and all round casual genius, enabled him to get away with lime green
socks, brothel creepers and other minor infringements of the dress code,
while we mere mortals would be up before the beak for much less flagrant
breeches. Still others claim that he was right, and that far from exhibiting
duplicity his desire for my removal was justifiable, and that all those
boys who went on to become farm labourers, squaddies, and factory hands
should have suffered the same intolerance. As they didn't, I found myself
reluctantly forced to lend credence to the words of wisdom uttered by
my old chum and fellow trainspotter, Fat Bob, who summed up the situation
with a clarity and breadth of wisdom far beyond his years.
"It could be that he's a shit-faced old cock-walloper."
Be that as it may, I have harboured a grudge ever since, and it was
no small satisfaction to me to see the fellow making an ass of himself,
some years after these events, on a stupid TV game show. What price
his dignity? Who cares? I reaffirmed my allegiance to the railway and
got on with the more serious business of copping the class 50s, which
were then arriving in the area to replace the last of the 'Westerns.'
Trainspotting - I reject the term 'Railway Enthusiast' as being a feeble
attempt to make sound grown up what is a perfectly legitimate practice
without that effort - has often been a source of both comfort and inspiration.
Nurtured in school, which was perched on a hillside overlooking the
WR main line, it has since provided me with travel, adventure and some
of the best of friends. Latterly I was quite content to rise before
dawn, after a late performance in perhaps Munich or Berlin, at the prospect
of a long morning with my cameras amongst Bavarian class 111s or ex-East
German diesels, when little else would tempt me from a warm bed. Back
in Somerset it was normally the 06.58 to Bristol Temple Meads and beyond
that provided the stimulus, and if I chose to depict myself as a struggling
railway photographer with side interests, rather than a struggling musician
who photographed trains, then it was for reasons of grace as much as
levity. One former manager was once quoted to me as saying 'If he spent
as much time on his career (sic) as he does on British Railways he would
probably be considerably more successful.' My response to this would
be something to the effect that if I had spent as much time on my 'career'
as I have on British Railways, I'd have jacked it in a long time ago
and got a proper job. No wonder he dumped us for pastures greener.
Being a trainspotter preserved me from some of the worst depredations
of mid-70s fashion crime. While my peers were cavorting in flares, trying
to cultivate facial hair or indulging themselves in aggro on the terraces
with Bristol City, I was down the station seeing out the last of the
WR diesel hydraulics. Football to me was just something that clogged
up the telly on a Saturday afternoon, and my only serious interest in
music lay in the fact that the annual Pilton pop festival, as the Glastonbury
Fayre was locally known, brought occasional rare locomotives in on special
trains from other parts of the network. As for facial hair, my chief
hope was that the miserable wispy tufts that were the pride and joy
of the early pubescent would pass me by. In this at least I was not
to be thwarted.
Music to me, up until about 1974, meant my parents' collection of Jim
Reeves, Nat King Cole and Glenn Miller records. I was aware that my
elder brother liked something called 'David Bowie', but as he also liked
his purple striped tank-top and owned a lab-coat with Bristol City rule
OK painted on the back this rather hinted that it was something to be
avoided. I was to turn out a late developer, probably the third from
last in my form to even think of kissing a girl, and the railway was
providing me with all the social life I needed so I was content.
My first real subliminal link with music stemmed from my involvement
with the railway. There is a certain combination of sounds that when
combined with a backdrop of wet railway lines and signal lamps glowing
on a wet winter's evening could move me quite dramatically, and throughout
the mid-seventies I was hearing songs, and these same sounds, that would
never quite leave me alone, and although I was only listening casually
- to Top of the Pops, or to my elder siblings playing the top twenty
on the radio of a Sunday evening - would come back and plague me time
and time again in years to come. That was why, when my hair was at its
most spiky and my trousers at their most bezipped I was driven to order
a copy of Peter Skellern's 'Hold on to love' in Acorn Records, and only
the resultant loss of face prevented me from hunting out 'If you leave
me now', by Chicago, on the same impulse. It was the strings and synthesizers
that really got under my skin, and thus it was that although a lot of
my attitudes and theoretical opinions on music were partially shaped
by my interpretation of the Punk movement in 1977, the music I eventually
found myself writing and playing owed far more to The Rubettes than
to The Damned.
I recall coming home in triumph from a long day's spotting in Birmingham
or Cardiff and writing up my numbers in neat copy, while my Mother would
be ironing in the kitchen with Tony Blackburn playing songs like 'I
can't give you anything' or David Soul's classic 'Silver Lady'. Songs
that a year or so later I would denounce utterly and never admit to
even a knowledge of. At school everyone was drawing elaborate Queen
and ELO logos on their book covers, but I had no inclination towards
rock stars. The forbidden music crept into my subconscious on a stream
of engine numbers and lay dormant for long years, only emerging when
I finally got round to heaving off the yoke of Punk credentials that
I'd clung to along with my para-boots through thick and (generally)
thin, stood up to myself and owned to the inadmissible:
"I want keyboards in my band."
There are such a lot of records from that period, 1974 - 1977, that
I only ever half knew or overheard, that to pin down specific artists
and own them as influences is difficult, but if I had to cite one collection
that epitomises the music I was hearing at that time it has to be Elton
John's 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' LP, which my brother bought on a
family holiday one summer, while I was buying Airfix kits. One way or
another I've never been without a copy of this - generally on cassette.
Side one, specifically, is almost a dictionary of keyboard sounds and
the successful application thereof, within the framework of a pop song.
Even at my most narrow minded, when I would listen to The Nosebleeds
and Slaughter & the Dogs as a statement, but couldn't to this day
hum you the tunes, I still retained an affection for this masterpiece.
Last time I bought it was in 1985, when I was a po-faced Anarcho, Elton
was as rich as Croesus, and my life's work had just been described by
the popular music press as 'dated garbage.'
Snatches of so many songs stayed with me through a decade or more of
musical Stalinism: 'I'm not in love', 'Jarrow song', 'All the way to
Memphis', 'Mississippi'. Stuff I couldn't possibly own to liking. Disco,
Soul and even on one occasion a flagrant piece of Country and Western
managed to bypass the deflector shields in the shape of Mike Nesmith's
'Some of Shelly's blues'. There was one memorable moment on a German
Autobahn in the small hours of the morning, when 'Sugar baby love' came
on the British forces' radio station, and I swear I could see, there
and then through the windscreen, the floodlight towers and the silver
flashing pointwork at the south end of Crewe station, and there were
class 24s and class 40s - and it was good!
The collapse was inevitable. Those songs caught up with me in the end.
Around the age of twelve, thanks to my sister's copies of 'Music Star'
and 'Pink' I had a fleeting fascination with The Osmonds, even going
so far as to acquire a copy of the dismal 'Twelfth of Never', although
'That's my Girl' and 'One Bad Apple' were far superior songs. This shameful
flirtation came back to haunt me at the time of the Gulf war, when my
Blyth Power was invited to stand in for Donny Osmond at the Marquee.
Due to the hostilities and the assumed threat of terrorism, a number
of American artists had decided to stay at home for the duration, leaving
the venue with a number of cancellations at short notice. Through a
friendly agent we were invited to step into Donny's shoes for £50,
some sandwiches, and an unlimited guestlist. We were, of course, flattered
at their magnanimity but, deciding that a cup of tea and an early night
was a more tempting prospect, politely declined. The only other record
I can remember owning before 1977 was 'How come' by Ronnie Lane, which
like the tedious 'Twelfth' was a birthday present. Other than these
two gems, my only exposure to vinyl was the aforementioned parental
record collection. 'The Glenn Miller Story' still has a place in my
meager stock of tapes, as will 'Geoff Love and his Orchestra play Big
War Movie Themes' if I can ever find it again.
Punk Rock had a more physical effect on my subsequent writing, but on
the arrangement, shape and the form of a song, rather than its sound.
The ideas I picked up from my extensive collection of Punk singles,
when they finally filtered through the layers of exhibitionism and self-aggrandisment,
left me with an unshakable faith in austerity. Simplicity, and the subordination
of technical proficiency to the needs of the song attracted me to bands
like Wire, The Clash, The Buzzcocks and the Ramones and although I certainly
wasn't listening to them with composition in mind at the time, they
taught me that no amount of instrumentation can make up for the lack
of a good song. Making music for me so often ended up as a series of
interesting accidents, whereby one fed in words and a tune at one end
of a group of musicians and the finished result came out at the other
end as the sum of the square of their individual abilities and influences.
For years I could readily acknowledge the overwhelming influence of
The Clash on my songwriting. Hearing Steeleye Span for the first time
merely confirmed an intuitive affinity I already possessed for the narrative
style of English folk music - although not much of its wretched lyrical
content. Adding the mood and the sweet sounds of those 70s keyboards
and successfully fusing the three forces was a goal I one day hoped
to achieve, but which thanks to my rather crude self-schooled approach
and complete lack of technical knowledge constantly eluded me. Whatever
form my creative spirit chose to take, it found itself trapped in the
body of a reluctant drummer and forced to communicate itself through
some weird and inadequate musical semaphore, which only ever enabled
it to complete part of the picture.
I never did become a train driver. First I became a whinging adolescent,
then a Punk and then - by slow degrees - a musician, which has left
me on the lineside as far as the railway is concerned.
I. FROM GENESIS TO REVOLUTIONS
the beginning of 1977 I cut, to all external appearances, a sorry figure.
I was just short of fifteen years old and sported the kind of greasy
fringe and freckles that would not have seemed out of place among the
Partridge Family. My dress sense was unfashionable to an extent that
would have been negligent had I harboured any desire for social intercourse
outside the local trainspotting fraternity and most of my clothing was
daubed with blotchy evidence of my most recent phase of Airfix kit-building.
Nature has endowed me with a lower jaw which, if not quite prognathus,
is sufficiently prominent to excite occasional comment. Of this I was
as yet unaware, being more concerned with my ears which I rarely let
escape from the thick confinement of my pudding-bowl haircut, as they
did not lie quite as close to my head as I could have wished. 'Segel
ohrige insel affen' the Germans call us. 'Sail-eared island monkeys!'
I suppose I should be proud to sport a national characteristic of sufficient
Carolean splendour to attract the envy of our square-headed cousins.
I wasn't, and hated my ears for the rest of my teens. It wasn't until
some years later when someone, in a moment of intimacy, said that I
had the biggest chin they'd ever seen, that I stopped worrying about
the dratted flaps and resigned myself to more jaw-orientated witticisms:
"Why does Joseph look like Jimmy Hill?"
"Because when God was handing out chins, he thought He'd said 'Gins'
and asked for a large one."
1977 dawned, and with it the beginning of the Jubilee celebrations,
which culminated in London with the Sex Pistols being arrested on a
riverboat on the Thames, and in Castle Cary with a disco at Ansford
secondary school. Great affairs of state had still not replaced locomotives
as my first love, but a slowly dawning awareness of my gender had led
me by the nose through an assortment of teenage crushes on actresses
and tennis players and it was this same irresistible force that drew
me to Ansford against all the dictates of taste or common sense. I was
aware that there was something that had to be done there, that everyone
else would be doing, and that I shouldn't miss out on. What it was,
or how it should be approached I wasn't entirely certain, so there was
something of the lemming about my coming out that night, as I ambled
blindly into the fray.
The 'fray', as it turned out, left me none the wiser. I 'danced' with
four or five girls, some of them twice, and neither touched them nor
left any lasting impression. I was still outwardly nerdy, but as the
whole affair was a nerd's ball, I didn't make a fool of myself either.
The whole shindig was organised by the village elders, and in this utter
shrine to dorkhood I was just one more Ritchie Cunningham going through
the motions. At the end of the night, all we children were presented,
gratis, with a newly minted Jubilee crown, worth 25p, which seemed like
a good deal at the time, but which, on my subsequent ascension to Punk
enlightenment, I daubed with red swastikas and hurled out of my bedroom
I still had my Genesis to come, however - or to be more precise, my
brother's Genesis, for these were among the first of his records that
I was slowly beginning to find an interest in. Torn between Airfix kits
and 'Selling England by the pound', the latter, encouraged by my devious
sibling, slowly began to gain the upper hand. I began to listen to selected
user-friendly tracks from 'Lamb lies down on Broadway' and 'Trick of
the tail', but the preoccupation I still retain with tunes and words
made hard work of most of it. I needed a hook or a gimmick to get me
into a song, so 'Lamb lies down' and 'Battle of Epping Forest' proved
early favourites. Queen, the easier bits of David Bowie and, of course,
Elton John found their way onto the syllabus and began to compete with
Geoff Love for my affections. Colin tried all sorts of things, with
varying degrees of success: Global village trucking company's 'Dancing
on the judgement day' was a hit, while 'Close to the edge' put me off
Yes for life. He tempted me with Lou Reed, and gave me music papers
to read with the result that by the time he bought 'God save the Queen'
and 'Damned Damned Damned' I was clay in his hands. The seeds of revolution
sown - he couldn't know how effectively - I embarked heroically upon
my first clandestine mission, and wrote 'RAEL' with a black indelible
marker in several obscure locations around the town.
By the merry month of May I had reached that difficult age of youth
when one doesn't know what one wants, one only knows that what one has
isn't good enough. I was now aware that there were girls in the world
besides Chris Evert, and I wanted one but didn't have a clue what to
do about it. My parents, I believed, could do no right and I could do
no wrong. I hated the village and Airfix kits had lost their appeal.
What was I to do?
I bought some safety pins.
As the summer holidays commenced, my metamorphosis gathered pace. Elton's
'Benny and the Jets' was no longer number one in my hit parade of revolutionary
anthems and my appearance slowly began to change. To the utter disgust
of my fellow trainspotters I failed to turn up for the passing of The
Atlantic Coast Express, one of the final workings of the 'Western' locomotives.
I developed a strange reluctance to Mrs. Alan's shopping after school,
when the financial recompense for this long-standing ritual became offset
by the compromise her shopping trolley made to my dignity. My first
attempts at fashion comprised safety pins in the lapel and a stupid
padlock and chain which I wore around my neck, just like Sid Vicious
in the photographs in New Musical Express, where Parsons and Burchill
were telling me all I needed to know about evolution. The chief beneficiary
of my dawning self-consciousness was the local newt population, which
I had been molesting, abducting, and imprisoning in fish tanks for years.
I hung up my nets and the amphibious sighs of relief from Park Pond
and Dimmer Camp must have been audible for miles around. Punks, according
to NME, did not fish for pondlife. Neither did they spot trains, build
model aeroplanes or go shopping for the neighbours. My former preoccupations
thus curtailed, I was free to devote all my energies to this newfound
passion, although in time I was to encounter pond life of a different
and much less sophisticated nature.
Punks did, however, wear unusual clothing and listen to punk rock music.
I began to experiment further with fashion, and my first serious outbursts
of creative energy took the form of heavily grafittied clothing. Painting
'White Riot' across the back of a T-shirt was shortly to become more
than just an idle pleasure. It became a sublime piece of self-expression
of a kind I'd never even dreamed of before. The thrill of anticipation
I felt with a clean white shirt in front of me and a paintbrush in my
hand, was keener even than the joy of copping my first Deltic, or bagging
a Great-Crested newt in one of Dimmer's wells. I became obsessed with
a creative need, and as it had so far not occurred to me that the punk
ethic would allow me to become a musician, without having to go through
the tedious rigmarole of learning to play an instrument, my wardrobe
bloomed with what I then considered masterpieces. I also had my hair
cut ruthlessly short, to expose the full shape of my head in all its
ghastly glory - not to mention the dreaded ears - but punks had short
hair, so short hair I had to have. Initially it clung unmolested to
my head, but this unsatisfactory state of arrangement eventually succumbed
to treatment, first with lard and later with soap until the desired
vertical effect was achieved.
By the end of the summer I had amassed an enviable collection of destroyed,
slogan-encrusted shirts. I had a three piece suit spattered delicately
from top to toe in white paint, and early unsatisfactory experiments
with dustbin liners had led to the more durable - and quaintly rural
- option of nylon string onion sacks, which could be worn as passable
impersonations of the loosely knitted jumpers that Paul Cook and Johnny
Rotten seemed to favour. To my lasting shame I even wore a dog collar,
purchased with some embarrassment at the Cary pet supplies.
Firstly, though, I had to pupate. My parents were understandably not
keen on their son's new image so I was obliged to state my case diplomatically.
My younger sister, I argued, had freely sported her Bay City Rollers
uniform: scarves, tartan trimmings, the works, and as brother Colin
had spent most of the last three years seemingly dressed as a clown
- these were the Seventies, remember - why should I not in my turn make
an idiot of myself in the way I deemed most fit? This at least was the
substance of my argument, though couched less subtly. Being the most
reasonable of people, they gave in, and let me get on with it.
So I emerged. To the amusement, and frequently the scorn, of the citizens
of Castle Cary I became conspicuous, who had previously been a non-entity.
My appearance in the High Street would be greeted by shouts of "Yerr!
Punk Rocker!" from the local bootboys. Intended, I believe, to
wound, these ineffectual taunts only spurred me on to seek greater notoriety.
I bought my first spray-can and tried out some punk slogans in suitably
low key places. Anonymity was not possible for me now, in Castle Cary,
and as there was unlikely to be anyone else in town to whom the crime
of spraying the war memorial or the Roundhouse with 'Slaughter and the
Dogs' could be traced, I confined my art to the very bowels of the public
toilets in the playing fields, and dreamed of a whole city of walls
waiting out there somewhere for me to spray.
The hitherto non-existent need for records led me to seek a holiday
job. My Thursday evening paper round was neither highly paid nor fashionable,
so I gave it up and cast about for something more lucrative. Eventually
I was taken on by a local farmer, who had played cricket with my father
for the village team, and no doubt employed me as a kindness to him.
Farm labouring confirmed my worst suspicions about work. The first day
I was introduced to a short-handled billhook, which was my close companion
all that week, hacking down thistles in huge Savannah like fields. It
was a bit like white washing coal only without the army. No doubt the
farmer felt he was performing a public service in helping to keep young
people off the streets. I graduated from billhook to shovel and pick,
and spent a further two weeks digging up chalk floors in the cow kennels,
which were due for replacement with concrete before the onset of winter.
Occasionally I would be called upon to help with the cows, which was
a blessed release from navvying. I eventually got to muck out the milking
parlour every morning, which involved a tool like a giant windscreen-wiper
with which one could send forty gallons of soggy dung, at a sweep, slithering
across the yard to cascade into the slurry pit with a gigantic soul-satisfying
"You're not afraid of a little bit of shit?" queried Tom,
"Not in its proper place" I conceded. Unfortunately farmer
Wyatt's cows had no formal toilet training and were apt to drop their
load where they stood. In the milking parlour we worked in a trench
at eye-level with their hooves. The more experienced hands knew the
signs of impending peril, but I, green and pure, was caught off guard
by the 'incoming' more often than not. This, I decided, was not punk
rock. Perhaps I would have been happier if the beasts had gobbed at
The high spots of my farming career were those few occasions when I
was called upon to help bring the cows in for the evening milking. I
got to stand in the middle of the main road, lording it over the traffic
for twenty minutes as 180 softly mooing beasts ambled past with udders
swinging. "Come on there! Come on!" I would cry importantly,
slapping the odd rump with a twig as the drivers hissed and cursed at
the delay. Power! Soul satisfying and glorious!
But all too fleeting and too little. Most of the time I was lord of
nothing but chalk, shit and thistles, but the fifteen pounds a week
I earned for these indignities were soon put to good use. The first
punk record I bought was the Strangler's 'Go buddy go/Peaches', which
had all those satisfying expletives. The milestone first LP in my collection
was obtained dirt cheap from a squat youth in Ansford who travelled
weekly to Yeovil and shoplifted to order. Records, books, calculators
- you name it! I'm sure he came to a bad end. For all my treasured punk
credibility, I wasn't prepared to steal anything unless the risks were
non-existent. A few union jack flags disappeared from patriotic gardens
at the dead of night that summer, to resurface as fashion accessories,
but that was the extent of my potential for crime.
This priceless first waxing was a live compilation called 'Live at the
Roxy WC2' and proved a tremendous find. The music, never the most important
part of my involvement in the punk scene, slowly became familiar with
repeated listening, but a lot of it was fairly tuneless ranting. Exceptions
to this were the Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, whose singer sounded like nothing
on this planet, and the sublime Adverts, playing 'Bored Teenagers' to
which farmer Wyatt's cow kennels echoed over the ensuing weeks, my shrill
voice competing with the tapping of my feeble pick-axe blows to scare
off the rats and the starlings:
"We're just bored teenagers! Dadadadadadadadadadadadada! Bored
out of our heads! Bored out of our MINDS!"
In actual fact, farming aside, I wasn't bored at all. I was discovering
countless new and fascinating worlds. But punks were bored - they said
so, and wrote songs about it. They owned a monopoly on boredom. It was
their inheritance so I would be bored too. In pursuit of the perfect
state of boredom, I closeted myself for long hours with 'Live at the
Roxy' and marvelled at all the photographs on the sleeve, even taking
notes of what some of the punters were wearing in an effort to keep
abreast of things. Of more interest to me than the music were the lengthy
spoken introductions to the songs. While Johnny Moped ranted on and
on before 'Hard lovin' man', you could catch snatches of conversation
from the bejeweled and bedecked audience - "Is Sid Vicious 'ere
tonight?" one cockney harpy asks sotto voce, somewhere at the start
of side two. I was mesmerised. It was almost as if Sid had walked into
Sid never did. It was generally Anthony or Terry, friends from school,
who while stopping short of the pitfalls of contemporary fashion were
sympathetic to the music. They were the nearest thing to fellow punks
that I possessed, but as the summer wore on I began to see them less
and less. Previously we had partaken in harmless acts of petty vandalism
together - everyone else pees in the phonebox at West Park, so why not
us - and the occasional soggy pornographic magazine, found in the long
grass by the conservative club tennis courts, had proved entertaining
and amusing while teaching us nothing we hadn't already worked out for
ourselves. My dismissal of anything that didn't strictly conform to
my new ideology made me very uninteresting company to the not fully
indoctrinated, and they still owed strange allegiances to football and
Black Sabbath, which in my book were now dark blasphemies. Anthony had
been one of my earliest childhood playmates, pre-school even. He died
young in a car crash not long after I left Somerset for good.
I wanted to be where the real punk rockers were. I wanted to be at the
Roxy, but most of all I wanted to be under the Westway, because the
second LP to arrive by the same devious means was the breathtaking first
album by The Clash. This knocked me for six and came complete with an
instant pre-packed political conscience. My slogans took on a whole
new meaning to me, and changed from straightforward band names to more
cryptic affairs like 'Sten guns in Knightsbridge' and 'Knives on west
eleven'. I didn't trouble to inquire too deeply into the meaning, as
Tony Parsons had taken care of all that for me. Instead I scoured the
increasingly punk-orientated pages of the NME and managed to glean a
fair amount of Clash lyrics from old reviews and features, including
many not yet available on vinyl that lent themselves readily to the
backs of T-shirts. I was aware that a song existed called 'Clash City
Rockers' and this to me represented the very essence of all I wanted
to be. 'Strummer saves and punk rules', these were my watchwords.
Besides my underworld connection, I had taken to spending farmer Wyatt's
cash on records in Yeovil on a Saturday afternoon. It became a ritual
for me. The 11.00 Wakes' bus took just over an hour to crawl the twelve
miles through the country villages to Yeovil bus station and the Mecca
that was Acorn records, whose in-touch proprietor kept a box on the
counter with all the latest dreadful punk 7-inch singles, which I would
spend hours browsing through and eventually bring home in triumph. Yeovil,
though not quite Clash City, was as close to it as one could get on
the bus from Castle Cary. It had lots of things that real cities had:
the bus station; the record shop; two railway stations; a Wimpy bar,
and even Teddy boys.
My first, but by no means last, encounter with these ghastly creatures
took place on the day I bought 'No more heroes' and 'Complete Control.'
King's Road conflicts between punks and Teds were rife at the time,
so it came as no huge surprise to me when the three ridiculously dressed
youths who had been following me down the High street finally overtook
and accosted me outside Woolworths.
"What are you meant to be?" they demanded. I was perplexed
by this opening line - I thought it was obvious.
"I'm a punk," I said.
"Yeah, we can see that." Clever chaps. "What's it all
about then?" This was easier.
"Music," I replied "You lot like Showaddywaddy, and I
like the Clash. You know." This was a mistake. Never say Showaddywaddy
to a Teddy boy.
"That's shit! We're into rock 'n' roll - The King!" I decided
against further attempts at sarcasm, being both small and outnumbered.
"What do you look like?" they inquired with ironic politeness.
Numerous rejoinders sprang to mind, but I instantly settled on a mantle
of stupidity as being the best means of avoiding a kicking - a strategy
I came to depend upon in subsequent encounters with these unlovable
"A bit like the milkman, my father says", I replied with an
idiotic grin. The most hideously bequiffed of my assailants spat on
the ground at my feet.
"I reckon he's a bit of a divvy", he sneered. In spite of
my apprehension I was enchanted at this hitherto unknown choice of expression.
Not since Andrew Stevens called me a 'dildo' in the third year had I
been so outgunned in the matter of vocabulary.
"Looks bloody stupid", one of his less imaginative friends
agreed, a short-arse with a blue drape coat that almost swept the pavement.
"What's that all about then?" He tugged at my shirt, which
was a particularly splendid one with 'Clash City Rockers' sprayed across
the back, and a host of minor daubings of which one was, unfortunately,
'Elvis is dead' (which he was). I assumed an expression of beatific
innocence and assured them that it was there as a tribute to the influence
that Elvis Presley's music had exerted on the punk movement. I'd gotten
that one out of the NME and thought that it was tailor made for the
circumstances. That I actually believed Elvis to be a sad, fat old bum
who had just 'undergone his terminal event while sitting on the commode'
seemed less appropriate.
"Are you saying Elvis is a punk?" The first, and most belligerent
of the three demanded.
"No, of course not - he was a Ted like you lot wasn't he?"
This seemed to appease them to some degree. Mumbling ensued, in which
the word 'divvy' cropped up a few times. They leered collectively.
"You just come with us now", they insisted. "We'll go
and meet some of our mates at a café - they'll like you!"
Relatively secure in my character as village idiot, now that their attitude
seemed to be changing from aggressive to patronising, I went along for
the ride, taking care to avoid any accidental treading on their blue
suede shoes, which I knew was taboo. They took me to a café at
the bottom of the town where they seemed well known, but their promised
friends, to my relief, were not in evidence. They bought tea - not for
me - and we sat down.
"We don't like you," big-quiff said.
"Cos you're a divvy", added short-arse. The third abductor,
more modest in his appearance, and less vocal than his comrades nodded
his agreement. I looked hurt. "Look at your stupid clothes!"
"Don't you like my shirt?" I pleaded, "It cost a fortune."
"Take it off", demanded big-quiff, " I want to make some
improvements". They helped me roughly out of the offending article.
The T-shirt underneath caused them some mirth, artistically festooned
as it was with bullet holes dripping red enamel paint. The word 'divvy'
cropped up a few more times as they spread my Clash City special out
on the table and proceeded to write 'rock 'n' roll rules OK' on the
flimsy material with a laundry marker.
"Oh bugger!" To their dismay, and my barely disguised glee,
the ink had soaked through and indelibly vandalised their favourite
haunt. They beat a hasty retreat, cursing, and left me to find my way
back to the bus station, shaken but undaunted.
I was obliged to retire my shirt, but my mother was enchanted by the
episode and laid claim to the ill-used garment. For all I know she has
returned to school that September with a new book of rules and a new
haircut, the appearance of which caused a huge chorus of ear-orientated
hilarity on the bus that first morning back. I had new quarters at home,
as Colin had had been spirited away to university in London allowing
me to inherit the downstairs front room, along with a priceless two
year collection of NME, his radio, the John Peel show, and several large
stacks of books purloined from the school library which it was now my
clandestine duty to return.
I also had some enemies, a new and interesting experience, and one that
I could have done without. The local bovver boys had decided to embrace
the strictures of youth culture and declare themselves as Teds, for
the greater glory of Elvis - second only to The Quo in their malignant
hearts - and as a good excuse for causing me grief. In fact their interpretation
of the rock'n'roll lifestyle owed more to the then popular 'Grease'
than to anything else. Perhaps they were alarmed at the prospect of
someone more outrageous than themselves in the small pond in which they
considered themselves top dogs, or maybe it was simple red-necked spite,
but they threw themselves wholeheartedly into a vendetta in which my
only defence was that semblance of idiocy that enabled them to regard
me with the requisite amount of scorn, while generally falling short
of physical violence. I was fit to be taunted and spat upon, but not
worthy of their boots.
The grudge stemmed from the results of the eleven-plus examination,
which I had been injudicious enough to pass. We had all attended the
same primary school, and some of these fatheads had been friends of
mine up until class six. We'd attended each other's birthday parties
as children, swapped newts and Brookbond tea cards together and probably
even sworn terrible oaths of secrecy and loyalty to the same nameless
causes. But that was all in the dim and distant past. Educational matters
can be a great source of emotion in some English communities and give
rise to suspicion and mistrust where matters of drinking, fighting,
football, and fornication are disproportionally uncontroversial. I find
it even possible to believe that the accidental acquisition of an education
is on a par with selling heroin to toddlers in some peoples eyes, especially
among this particular section of the working people of rural Somerset.
That was how they saw themselves - good solid working class lads with
no ideas above their station, loyal to Bristol City FC, The Heart &
Compass public house, and the bench by the Horsepond, which they had
claimed for their own, and where they loitered every evening with their
mopeds and their flared jeans. Looking back now they appear to me as
the very worst of Gilray caricatures; neck-or-nothing men, or turnip
nosed French revolutionary peasants with malevolent scowls and straggly
long hair. Of course I'm viewing them through spectacles that are far
from rose tinted, but then, they never gave me any excuse to see them
Even the names they called each other by were caricatures. Diminutives,
generally ending in 'er' in the case of Christian names, or taking the
first syllable of the surname and bastardising it with an affectionate
suffix. Thus amongst the Castle Cary branch of the 'City Boot' there
languished 'Jimmer' and 'Brakey', 'Reever', 'Stever' and 'Ozzy'. I had
other names for them.
1973 was not a good year for Castle Cary County Primary as far as the
eleven plus was concerned. Out of a handful of passes, only two of us
were boys. We were destined to go to Sexey's Grammar School in Bruton,
while the girls went to Sunny Hill, a sister-establishment in the same
village. The four miles to Bruton might as well have been forty as far
as the rest of my peers were concerned. They all went to the mixed comprehensive
in Ansford, which is, geographically at least, a part of Castle Cary.
We 'Sexians' became instant outcasts from the Ansford mob. Our black
uniforms and the fact that we had been singled out by the powers that
be for some kind of preferential treatment gave rise to a passionate
and righteous resentment which voiced itself in the frequent taunt "Sexey's
snob!" This, I believed, was nonsense, as I was there by accident,
not design, and was not sufficiently aware of the trials and concerns
of my fellow men, at that tender age, to look down on anyone. There
were as many cretins at Sexey's as there were at Ansford, and both schools
were likewise blessed with their share of sages, but the tar was as
black as our blazers, and terribly sticky.
I had made early attempts to fraternize with the 'City Boot' - the legend
that appeared on toilet walls and telephone kiosks throughout the town
that seems to have had some sporting significance - but this was before
I had burst so floridly into the full splendour of punkhood. I was getting
narky at home and wanted to get out and air my imagined grievances to
some sympathetic ears. The railway wasn't the answer, being a place
for gentler mood swings. Wandering through the playing fields one evening
I encountered several of the denim-clad ones lounging on the mechanical
"Yerr! Punk rocker!" they jeered. I saw no reason to take
offence, after all, I'd known these people for years, and some of them
were neighbours. I'd even gone to Army cadets with them for a while.
They indulged themselves in a few jokes at my expense but it seemed
harmless enough. Even when, a few days later they threw me into the
Horsepond, I still assumed it was just a bit of a joke - but then, I'm
always a bit slow on the uptake, and at the time was naively grateful
for their attention.
Relationships didn't really sour until later in the summer, by which
time I'd met Alvin, who was crawling out of the same closet as I was
and could be seen occasionally round town in a variety of ripped and
decorated jackets, dark glasses and often a black beret which gave him
the appearance of a Baader-Meinhof terrorist. Alvin had been in the
year above me at primary school, gone on to Ansford but come out with
his brain intact. He lived in Hadspen, a settlement too small to describe
as a hamlet, on the lower road to Bruton. He worked as veg chef at the
George hotel, which lay at the centre of town and boasted three AA stars
and a thatched roof. I was soon thick with Alvin, on account of his
punk credentials and genial amiability, and through him I renewed my
acquaintance with other Ansford alumni whom I hadn't spoken to since
primary school. Castle Cary became a better place to be as a result,
and any feelings of warmth I may have considered entertaining towards
the uncouth bootboys were quashed.
It was just at the beginning of September that things began to turn
nasty, if so strong an expression can be applied to the petty vindictiveness
that was to become a daily feature in my village life. The annual 'Caryland
Fair' was held in the last week of August on the cricket field, which
marked approximately the border between Ansford and Castle Cary. I had
taken to meeting Alvin after his evening shifts at the George and lurking
in dark alleyways with him, talking sedition far into the night. He
was working during the afternoon of the fair but we arranged to meet
at the disco, which was to be held in a marquee next to the cricket
pavilion. My brother, Colin, and I strolled around the fair in the afternoon
- Colin was sporting similar Clash-style gear to me, having laboriously
converted his white flares into tight drainpipes, which I was shortly
to inherit along with his room. The City Boot were out in force, allowing
the good citizens to admire their New English Library wickedness, and
the jeers on this occasion were far from good-natured, hinting at trouble
to come if we showed our faces at the disco that night. A couple of
grolleys and a beer can bounced across the turf in our direction, but
nothing more serious for the moment.
Later that evening, the booming strains of Showaddywaddy's 'I wonder
why', reaching out across the field to welcome us, caused me some apprehension.
I don't know why we went. Lord knows I wouldn't be seen dead at such
a freakshow now, but as before, at the Jubilee hop, there were things
that just had to be done. Colin, whose visits to Ashton Gate had left
him with a clearer understanding of the ways of the mob, argued against
our going, but I in my innocence was adamant, so he had little choice
but to come along and try to keep me out of trouble.
Inside the marquee we spent much of the night badgering the DJ to play
some punk records. He was not keen. Alvin turned up, along with a couple
of other partisans he knew through the hotel. We begged and pleaded
for 'God Save the Queen', while our enemies stalked us, or glowered
from the other side of the tent, but it was apparent to all except me
that the slightest whiff of a punk record would trigger off the trouble
that was obviously brewing. Colin, as the atmosphere thickened and began
to bode ill, dispatched Alvin on a secret mission to the nearby Wagon
& Horses for reinforcements, and we settled down in our corner to
Events arrived. At the onset of a particularly choice piece of Quo,
the enemy formed a chorus line and began to advance slowly across the
dancefloor towards us, kicking their Doc Martins high in a ghastly can-can
to the beat. Seated as we were, on the bare ground, we had only two
options: to remain seated and be walked over, or to stand and invite
further confrontation. Colin, with whose aid Horatius could probably
have held the bridge indefinitely, advised the latter. We rose, and
the chorus line broke, rearranging itself instinctively into an arrowhead
formation, the harder, more certain lads at the front, the more timid
at the back, ready to despoil the bodies of the slain.
It would have been appropriate at this point, for the music to have
stopped, and for all eyes to have focused on the stand-off between Colin
and the denim-clad phalanx, but this was not to be. As the innocents
tried to continue their revels, wary-eyed in anticipation of flying
chairs, the City Boot's champion invited Colin to step outside "for
"That would be stupid", he pointed out, "there are a
dozen of you and only one of me".
The enemy moved in and surrounded us. Grolleys and beer cans were thrown,
along with a venomous range of abuse and dire warnings. Someone burned
a hole with a cigarette in the back of Colin's shirt while he was attempting
to reason with another antagonist. There was one particularly rodent
like creature, known as 'Rubberlips' even to some of his fellows. He
was prominent in this, and all their subsequent misdemeanours, and I
can pronounce with absolute certainty that he was an utter 'divvy'.
We were cornered and outnumbered and things might have gone bad for
us if the cavalry hadn't shown up - although there wasn't any one among
the 'Boot' who would have dared to pick on Colin single-handed.
Help arrived in the shape of Alvin's elder brother and his mates, who
were serious greboes, and not to be messed with by anyone. Not being
motorbikes, we would normally have been beneath the level of their interest,
but they were not averse to throwing their weight about when occasion
demanded, neither were they overly fond of the bootboys, whose juvenile
approach to hooliganism they resented as throwing their own lifestyle
into a bad light by association. "That lippy one needs a good kicking",
I was gratified to hear one of them say. He was absolutely right. This
sudden change in the balance of power, while filling me with barely
disguised glee, provided a fresh problem for Colin. Being a civilized
individual, he had no wish to see any blood shed, having only come in
the first place to prevent my premature death. The Greboes, called from
the warmth of their local, were anxious to destroy someone, while the
bootboys wanted only to lynch the punk rockers without themselves suffering
any physical harm. In this difficult situation Colin provided a voice
of reason that successfully Kissengered the lot of them into laying
down their arms, and saving their bloodlust for another day. The City
Boot, unlaced, retired to sulk. The Greboes, firmly in control, strutted
their stuff, and the DJ, realising that the serpents teeth were drawn,
played 'All around the world', by The Jam, to which we ecstatically
pogoed, while the powerless foe confined themselves to cries of "Animals!"
and "Yerr, punk rockers!" My final recollections of that night
include walking out of the tent between two ranks of greasers, a seeming
guard of honour. Anxious to keep on the right side of 'Might', one of
the bootboys, a bit of a village idiot, who liked to tag along and talk
'the talk', just as long as he didn't have to walk any of 'the walk'
without at least two of the others to help him, came up and chatted
to us as if we were his best buddies.
"Yerr, what was all that about then Col? What be on then eh?"
"Nothing," we said, valiantly suppressing our collective impulse
to do him serious mischief, "Nothing at all."
I rode off in triumph to take the news from Aix to Ghent. Colin, some
years later, told me of the aftermath. To the village elders, whose
wise councils had once again engineered the event, a potential riot
between the Bootboys and the Greboes had seemingly only been averted
by the noble intervention of the punk faction. Sage heads wagged in
approval at palaver. Our part in bringing the leather jackets to the
disco in the first place remains unknown. As to whether or not the Greboes
finished off their grisly business, I cannot tell. Suffice it to say
that from that day forth the Cary 'hards' drew the line at physical
violence, the fear of reprisals forcing them to confine themselves to
pointless abuse and the occasional grolley. Only their distant cousins
from surrounding villages felt safe enough to pursue the vendetta further,
but assaults from this direction were blessedly rare. I can only wonder
at the extent to which pride must have been damaged that night - my
own suffered not one bit, but then, I was young and very, very stupid.
I had no qualms about the use of big brothers' in all this strife. It
was not of my choosing, and on more than one occasion it was very frightening.
By the end of my last year at Sexey's, my younger sister and I were
the last two at our particular bus stop, which by a regrettable happenstance
was right next to Ansford School. More often than not the bus would
be waylaid behind a herd of cows at Hornblotton - on some days not arriving
until after the Ansford buses had disgorged their maroon-blazered hordes.
On these days I would try my hardest to blend in with the background
and pray for the bus' wheezing arrival, not always with success. The
Ansford boys were jealous in defence of their turf and I enjoyed these
encounters so little that on one visit to Colin in London, I bought
a knife and began to carry it to school each day in my pocket. On another
occasion I was down at the railway station, indulging my never quite
dormant trainlust, when a large stone smashed against the wall within
an inch of my face. It came from the direction of the tyre centre, where
blue-overalled sympathisers of the City Boot were known to lurk. It
was definitely meant to hit me, and hit me hard. In light of such liberties
I felt that any measures taken in self-defence were justifiable. The
rules, not of my making, seemed to suggest that might was right, and
if I could have laid my hands on a piece of might that would have, at
the time enabled me to burst Rubberlips' fleshy namesakes across his
face with impunity, I would have had no trouble in persuading myself
that it was right, very right indeed! As it is, I have had to make do
with the pleasure of seeing him prematurely bald. Rubberlips married
the mother of another of the City boot boys and moved into a house with
her called 'Gracelands'. Henceforward he became known to his detractors
Through Alvin's good offices, I was taken on as a dishwasher at the
George hotel, working evenings and weekends for 75p per hour. Here I
learned to wash pots - an invaluable asset for anyone embarking on a
career in the music industry - and discovered not only that I was an
efficient and reliable worker, farming aside, but that a good kitchen
porter should be worth his weight in gold. That they're still worth
less than £4 per hour is one of the less remarkable of the many
social injustices under which we collectively suffer. That I, self-confessed
anarchist and enemy of the state, should, at the time, have made such
a jolly fine job of washing up all those bourgeois pots and crockery
is merely a contradiction.
Working at the George was great. I liked the people there, and got on
well with them. It wasn't the farm, which was a major point in its favour.
I was able to earn enough to keep my record collection growing at a
healthy, steady rate, and the food was pretty good too. As long as we
didn't stray down the wrong end of the high street, and avoided the
Heart & Compass we didn't see too much of the Neanderthals-in-flares
so life - except for the ongoing 11 year non-stop blot that was school
- was passable indeed.
that winter, two epoch making events occurred.
I discovered London. I paid my first visit to Colin, at the Rachel MacMillan
hall of residence, Creek Road, Deptford, in October 1977. Colin had
thrown himself wholeheartedly into the business of being a student:
drinking, eating expensive takeaway food, and cultivating an overdraft.
From my perspective it all appeared terribly grown-up, and for a while
it almost seemed worth spending an extra two years in school to achieve
a similar state of grace. I was charmed by his quarters, charmed by
his friends - particularly Sam Featherstone, who immediately took upon
himself the task of encouraging my further corruption - charmed by the
student union bar, in which I became cheaply and horribly drunk, but
most of all charmed by Deptford itself, which featured prominently in
the mythology of the punk scene, and was a concrete manifestation of
all my record collection had led me to aspire to.
Previous visits to London had been made solely for the purpose of trainspotting,
and I'd never bothered to look beyond the boundaries of railway property.
Now, as I approached Paddington station, I had no mind for the diesels
and suburban units that swarmed around Westbourne Park and Ranelagh
Bridge, being more impressed by Joe Strummer's legendary Westway flyover
and the surrounding tower blocks in which hundreds and thousands of
punk rockers lived, breathed and were gloriously and dynamically bored.
This was, quite literally, the stuff that songs were made of.
I took to Deptford like a duck to water. Just being there simply blew
me away. It was everything that Castle Cary was not: dark, evil, mysterious,
but to my eyes fantastically beautiful. What in later years was to become
a rather seedy chunk of South London, to be avoided like the plague,
presented itself to my guileless teenage self as a land of plenty and
promise, full of walls and bridges, spray-painted angst, music, life
or in the words of Deptford's chosen one, 'Action, Time and Vision'.
I was hooked. I was mesmerised. I was fresh from the sticks, and how
I avoided getting mugged or stabbed by vengeful punk-haters on those
initial carefree visits, only the good fairy knows. As far as I was
concerned the enemy was a million miles away, on the bench by the Horsepond.
On the streets of Deptford I was never afraid.
My second visit involved time off school. In a fait accompli Colin had
acquired tickets to see The Clash at the Rainbow on a Thursday night
in December. I travelled up on the Wednesday evening and awoke the following
day to the sounds from the street, and the pleasing knowledge that the
school bus might call for me in vain. I had a hangover from at least
two and a half pints of lager in the union - I was just discovering
drink, an element in which I was never either graceful or comfortable
- but above all I was not in Castle Cary, and that was something worth
waking up for. Sam and I made meticulous preparations for the evenings
entertainment. We dyed our hair green and red with carpet dye and rubbed
it full of Vaseline. The effect, after a quick dousing under the communal
shower, was less dyed hair than dyed head, neck, chest, floor, carpet,
and a trail of colour everywhere we walked. To my immense regret it
washed out, as expected, on Sunday night. I had rather hoped it might
prove stubborn enough to take to school on Monday.
This was my first live concert. The rainbow was huge. We had tickets
for the balconies so were unable to get to the front and gob at The
Zones, who were bottom of the bill. Sham 69, who had not yet turned
into the Muppet Show, had second billing, and from our lofty vantage
point I could see the light flashing off the shaven skulls below chanting
'We are EEEEEEEVIL!' and 'What have we got? FUCK ALL!' the exact significance
of which was lost on me. Sham 69 had not yet attained press notoriety
and I only knew of them because I had their first 12-inch single, one
of my many discoveries at Acorn.
When the Clash came on, the sound was so bad that I still to this day
couldn't tell you what they opened with. To my virgin ears it was all
a colossal roar - I couldn't have cared less. I wasn't there to listen
to their music.
Another visit found me outside the Music Machine, trying to lie my way
in, underage, for the Richkids and the Slits. I reached the head of
the queue and put on my finest expression of age and experience.
"How old are you?" asked the towering bouncer from somewhere
a foot and a half above my head.
"Eighteen," I lied in my piping West Country tones.
"What's your date of birth?" I paused fatally.
"February the twenty-first, nineteen sixty...uhh...fifty...uhh...eight...nine...."
"Sorry, can't let you in, too young. Sorry."
Mildly vexed, I went and sat on the steps where brutal-looking youths
with extremely short hair were lounging and eyeing up passing punks
with a menace that was totally lost on me. One of them turned and motioned
to the paintings on my jacket - reproductions of the back sleeve of
the first Clash LP, where black and white pictures of policemen with
sticks pursued unidentifiable miscreants across the streets of Lewisham.
I knew nothing of race riots, nothing of the British Movement and whilst
recognising his cultural identity, with a vague awareness of its reputation
for disorderly behaviour, still less of the type of politics he was
about to enlarge upon.
"What's that all about then?" His finger underlined the word
'Clash' stencilled underneath one of the paintings. "You like the
"Yes." He frowned.
"They're SWP ain't they?"
"I don't know". I sensed his displeasure.
"SWP - Socialist Workers Party. Communists..." I looked blank.
Politics to me were a simple matter of 'Us', the righteously angry youth,
and 'Them', the government and all their works, which were undoubtedly
evil - it said so on lots of my records. The skinhead pulled out what
looked like a large leather wallet and opened it to reveal an engraved
silver heraldic eagle, squatting over a swastika, and some words in
Sütterlein script which looked something like 'Blood and Horror.'
"Ever seen this before?"
"No." I wasn't entirely convinced that his intentions were
benevolent. Fortunately one of his colleagues intervened.
"What's up Den?"
"This'un's SWP." My protagonist sounded aggrieved. He turned
to me again. "We don't like SWP, see?" I saw.
"Oh let 'im alone."
"But he's SWP."
"No he ain't. He's all right, let him alone."
"He's just a divvy."
London had ceased to be a monopoly board. All those romantic sounding
names that had become so familiar on the peripheries of my trainspotting
trips began to fall into place. Bethnal Green, White City, New Cross.
I was to come to know them all in good time, but for now they reached
out and clapped me, welcoming, on the shoulder.
Colin moved out of the halls of residence and into Speedwell House,
a condemned block of flats just off Deptford High St. Technically they
were squatting, as the council had given up on trying to collect rent
there. The whole place was a magic maze of brickwork, stairways and
balconies, covered in graffiti and full of lost souls in which Colin
and Sam kept the flat in a constant state of devastation that I found
irresistible. Coming back one day after a hard day posing in the West
End, I found a minor music festival happening in the courtyards below.
The Realists, This Heat, and a host of Deptford's alternative heroes
played and jammed until late at night, the whole scene illuminated by
the beams of a car's headlights. This was Deptford Fun City at its finest.
Some rudiments of social awareness were creeping into my consciousness,
along with the nihilistic, but more accessible tenets of the punk ideology.
Through Tom Robinson I became aware that some people were glad to be
gay, and stopped using the word 'queer' as a term of abuse. The Clash
had made me bored with the USA, but also opened my eyes to the multi-racial
society that existed beyond the narrow limits of Castle Cary, where
the only 'black' person was an Asian GP whom half the population wouldn't
go to see until his colleagues read the riot act. Despite these stirrings
it was still largely the prospect of the bands on the bill that led
me, and doubtless thousands like me, to converge on London in the spring
for the first Anti-Nazi-League carnival. I spent the day shouting lusty
slogans on the march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, hanging
onto the cab steps of various floats and marvelling as cockney skinheads
sang that wicked song about Harry Roberts. I rode part of the way on
a flatbed with a band called Charge, who were then in the process of
bankrupting themselves for worthy causes, a matter about which they
spoke ruefully five years later, when we shared billing at the Clarendon
on Hammersmith Broadway. On the way back to Deptford after the Clash
and Tom Robinson had played, and I had gathered up about fifty dislodged
badges from the mud in front of the stage, I was threatened by three
youths with lock-knives, who thought I was 'screwin'' them. I don't
know why I wasn't frightened, as I reassured them that nothing was further
from my mind. Perhaps it was pure stupidity - it simply didn't occur
to me that anyone had any reason for wanting to hurt me. Whatever, I
never grew hardened in all the years I spent in London. I was always
'Just a peasant in the Big Shitty'. Who's the man with the smile Mom?
second life-changing experience that winter took place at dead of night,
after a late-shift at the George, up by the toilets in the playing field.
Alvin decided that we should form a band. Thus sank home the final nail
in the coffin of my putative railway career.
Alvin was to be the guitarist, as he already owned a guitar and amp.
Colin Marsh, who manned a petrol pump in the centre of town, and was
one of our small band of intimates, was to be the bassist - he played
a little guitar, so it seemed logical that he should just adapt himself
to four strings. That left me, who would have given my soul to be another
Joe Strummer, but hadn't even mastered so basic an instrument as the
kazoo, and the vacant position of drummer - which didn't seem to require
much skill beyond a vague ability to hit things in time. By one of those
little accidents that seem to have my life planned out in advance, I
became a drummer by default.
Initial workouts took place in my bedroom, where Alvin played through
his amp and I improvised a drumkit out of a school satchel full of O-level
textbooks and a fireguard, which made a passable impersonation of a
cymbal. I beat out jungle rhythms with inch thick lengths of wood, while
Alvin played snatches of Clash songs and we added what words we'd been
able to decipher. My hands became horribly blistered, huge bags of water
dangling around the base of my thumbs. It was even worse than my old
friend the billhook.
I relegated my O-levels to a more appropriate place in my priorities.
The band, still nameless, recruited a girl singer and I made a commitment
to stay in Somerset for another year at least, by ordering a drumkit
on hire purchase, from my mother's catalogue. This first step on the
road to glory cost me £180, spread over eighteen months, and was
by the illustrious 'Hoshino' drum company. Finished in shiny silver
vinyl, it comprised a bass drum and pedal, a snare, one rack mounted
tom, a cymbal mounted on the bass drum, and a hi-hat. That most crucial
of items, a drum stool, was not supplied. The cymbals were of a quality
that barely improved upon the fireguard and the hardware was flimsy
enough to bend with your teeth should the mood take you hold. To my
dismay I learned that drumsticks were disposable, and required periodic
I also discovered that a drumkit is an extremely loud piece of equipment.
After I'd spent a week or so working out how the dratted thing fitted
together - grappling with the hi-hat stand alone boosted my krypton
factor by 20%, and no instructions were provided - we embarked upon
the first serious rehearsals in the garden shed that we'd laboriously
cleared out and decorated with full page adds from the NME.
Pandemonium broke loose. Every cat in Victoria Park had kittens, and
every neighbour gravitated to the bottoms of their gardens and to adjacent
fences to stare as if hypnotised at the small brick outhouse which had
suddenly started behaving so extraordinarily. I thought we sounded great.
No one else could hear anything, as the drums were too loud. We were
obliged to shift our rehearsal space to Hadspen village hall, where
Alvin's mother was caretaker, and where the neighbours were fewer, farther
between, or too frail to make it down the road to complain. Will, our
singer, had a good turn of phrase, and an ear for a tune, but they were
lost on Mr. Sawyer, a local farmer who was prepared to spend half an
hour hiking down from a distant hillside, through several hedges, along
the valley and up the lane to ask us to turn it down. We would take
great delight in taking a strategic tea break to allow him time to get
back up the hill and then burst into song again with renewed vigour.
We settled on a name, 'The Sulzers'. My O-levels came and went and I
was largely indifferent. I left school and achieved a status which to
my way of looking at things was Nirvana itself, but which set the heads
of all right thinking people shaking in despair at the thought of my
I had gotten my drums, and gone on the dole.