Two - North West Passage
“Crikey! The Jerries are counter-attacking!” As our front
line wavered and began to retreat I turned and loped, half-doubled,
back the way I had come.
It had all looked so promising at first. Flora, the venue, was a big
squatted cinema, well organised and well looked after in the manner
of most German anarchist establishments. The food was excellent, and
the bar sold no alcohol in a responsible attempt to spare the neighbours
the worst excesses of home going revellers. We were impressed. We had
completed our soundcheck and were relaxing, waiting for Salad From Atlantis
to do theirs. The first indication that all was not well came when the
sound engineer began to take down the microphones and stow them away
in a locked case, then a succession of serious faced Autonomen began
to stock pile pick-axe handles by the door. Across the hall, a bespectacled
youth in baggy judo whites was limbering up against a concrete pillar.
Bottles slipped into pockets and a crowd began to gather inside the
“What's happening?” I asked.
“Some Nazis,” I was informed. “They come to attack
the house.” I digested this. Right wing agitators were on their
way to attack the venue, presumably with some determination given the
precautions that were now in hand. What was I going to do about it?
Something smashed outside. Voices shouted. The crowd at the door streamed
out into the street and I followed them through the sally port, eager
to see what was afoot.
The conflict was still at stone-throwing distance. Figures at the street
corner at the end of our building were hurling rocks and bottles. I
couldn't see how many of them there were, but our side seemed to be
growing in numbers as the efficient anarchist grapevine did its trick.
I followed our chaps along to the corner to see the Nazis retreating
up the road towards their HQ - a local bar whose proprietor allegedly
harboured a grudge against Flora. We seemed to be holding our own as
the battle wavered up and down the street, neither side getting close
enough to actually engage, but the barrage of stones becoming increasingly
determined. I bent down and picked up an expended piece of rubble, weighed
it thoughtfully in my hand, made up my mind and then hurled it at a
hairy looking chap, whose allegiance could be readily determined by
the direction in which he was hurling his stones. It hit him. Enthralled,
I bent down and picked up another and flung it as hard as I could up
the street. It bounced off the side of a car and skidded between the
feet of a denim-clad stranger. I fell to with a will. As fast as the
spent missiles rolled to a halt around our feet, we hurled them back
again. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Suddenly a fresh wave of leather and hair surged out of the enemy stronghold
and charged towards us. “Crikey, the Jerries are counter-attacking!”
flashed through my mind, as we fell back around the corner. They chased
us to the steps of Flora, then broke off, partially as a result of a
fresh barrage of stones, and partially because the riot-police were
now gathering at the far ends of the street.
A fresh attack went out from Flora, and all of a sudden we seemed to
be charging up the street yelling “Nazis Raus!” and flinging
anything we could find at the advancing enemy. I could plainly see them
coming - one man was carrying a huge axe, which scant seconds later,
and thirty yards or so further on, I passed lying abandoned on the ground.
The judo expert dropped it down a ventilator grill, taking care to leave
no fingerprints. Our rush gathered momentum. In my enthusiasm I picked
up a discarded bottle and hurled it over-arm, like a cricketer or an
Airfix toy soldier with a hand grenade. It went spinning wildly away
to the left and burst against the wall showering some of our troops
with friendly fire.
“Divvy!” shouted Jamie, running past with a handful of concrete
fragments. Overhead, anxious motorists were shouting from upper floor
balconies as the battle overran their vehicles. Non-motorists, and those
high enough to be well clear of stray missiles jeered and egged us on.
One or two hurled refuse. The riot police - of whom I was far more afraid
than the, by now, far outnumbered Nazis, didn't seem about to intervene.
About 10 yards in front of me, a boiling mass of limbs and threshing
pick handles marked the target. There was a crash of breaking glass
and then dense clouds of black smoke began to pour out of the enemy
den. This final act of destruction seemed to signify full-time. We made
our way back to Flora and sat defiantly on the steps, while the riot
police packed away their picnic hampers and went home.
I never tried to convince myself that there was any justification for
my actions that day. I wasn't ‘caught up’ in the event or
‘carried away’ by it. I was in full, sober control of my
faculties, well aware that I was behaving irresponsibly, and the fact
that I enjoyed it all immensely only makes it worse. Moral of this story:
people who live in glass houses should move, because the world is full
of evil children with no respect for other folk’s property.
V. OF VEGETABLE MAGMA
children we are, on the whole, scoundrels and liars. Only the young
George Washington knows the true depths of calculation that went into
his famous decision to own up. Why, we ask ourselves, did he chop down
the tree in the first place unless he thought he could get away with
it? Little monsters we may be, but not entirely stupid, and most of
our lies stem from our sense of self-preservation. Our George, realising
the extent to which he had miscalculated, must have weighed up the odds
and cut his losses by owning up with an expression of beatific goodness
upon his face. It seems to have paid off.
Most of us, however, are not very good at managing our lies. We lie,
lie, and lie again so frequently and shamefacedly, that we become accustomed
to a climate of untruth, and our lies lack conviction accordingly. Time
after time they are brought back to us, and we are obliged to brazen
them out with more fibs, denials and shameless protestations of innocence.
Nasty little weasels that we are, we don’t even conserve our capacity
to dissemble for those occasions on which it would really serve some
purpose, wasting our efforts instead on matters of pettiness and irrelevance
with as much energy as an Honourable Member denying sodomy, so that
frequently the very baldness with which we lie is a greater sin in itself
than the original transgression we are lying to conceal. These are not
situations that we set out intentionally to create, but like snowballs
on a steep incline, the original germs of untruth collect others as
they gather momentum, and these become woven together into great webs
of deceit in which we are ultimately caught by the gills and hoisted
up into the glare of discovery, where we flap and squirm in agonies
of abashed contrition.
From our earliest days we learn to rely on dishonesty and deception
to win us those small comforts that circumstance places beyond our reach,
and nothing places before us a greater temptation than the prospect
of a day off school. Upturned, soulful eyes and plaintiff voices have
melted the steely resolve of many an anxious parent, while behind the
winsome facade, their offspring’s hearts are secretly black and
scheming. As children we Hatchers observed regular rules of conduct
regarding the taking of sickies. Once the initial gambit was played,
and our mother convinced, we would lie on the sofa all day underneath
an eiderdown, sighing and spitting pathetically into a plastic bucket,
trying to collect sufficient saliva in the bottom to resemble a genuine
puke. How hard we would work for a meagre tablespoon full of liquid
to produce as evidence of our malady. What lengths we would go to in
our attempts to cover the bottom of the vessel with simulated sputum,
and oh what priceless value a real regurgitation would have represented,
if only we had had access to emetics, or courage enough to stick our
chubby fingers down our throats.
I remember, in about my tenth year, waking before dawn and spontaneously
sleep-vomiting on the floor next to my bed. I don’t know what
caused it, but being only half conscious, I went back to sleep without
remarking the event. Mother woke me next morning at eight, failing to
notice the mess, which was hidden from view by the open door. I arose,
and prepared to face another day at school, when suddenly my eyes lit
on the stale sick, and I remembered in a flash. I was delighted. I summoned
Mother and showed her the sticky pool, pale and horrid on the brown
linoleum. “Mum! Mum, I was sick.” Mother was unable to deny
the evidence of her own senses, and I inwardly rejoiced as I was granted
a day off school.
The sick bucket was an institution in our house. A red plastic affair
with a white handle, stored under the sink along with the washing-up
bowl and an enamel affair in which nappies used to soak menacingly.
In later years I had cause to use this bucket for more mature purposes.
After mixing drinks stupidly at the George Hotel, I would spew my ring
and groan into the red cavern, nauseated and wretched - I never could
hold my drink. One night, after a particularly adolescent bout, in which
champagne cocktails, gin beer, and finally whisky had all been poured
down my tender throat, I fell foul of my mother by using the washing-up
bowl. That I had fallen asleep fully clothed, my head in a bowl of vomit,
cigars stubbed out on my bedroom carpet, and a record (first Boys’
LP) revolving endlessly throughout the night, bothered her not a bit,
but in my drunkenness I had abused the washing-up bowl, and so my name
I gave up drinking shortly after I moved to London, and am happy to
say that I never again spewed up in the wrong place, but I have a nagging
fear that one day, when I am called to answer for my transgressions
before some dreadful tribunal, the assembled saints will turn from me
in disgust, not on account of my sins of greed, spite and envy, with
which they must be all too familiar, nor at the beds of lust, malice,
covetousness and pride upon which my soul has been racked, but for that
one small oversight, that one misplaced bowl of vegetable magma, I shall
spend an eternity in the uttermost pit of hell.
then, did this demon grown of wicked childhood bring with him to fair
London Town, to offer on her shining altar, in token of his love? “Peasant!”
she sneers with scorn. “If you would walk these streets that are
paved with gold, you must pledge something in return - what is your
So I gave her my body and soul. It wasn’t much of a soul, being
housed in a grubby little body, with not a lot of scope for expansion,
and precious little in the way of prior spiritual nourishment. My parents
had not been inclined to interfere with their children’s morals,
beyond the everyday virtues they taught us by example. In matters pertaining
to religion, philosophy, astrology and the transmutation of base metals
into gold, they had left us to our own devices, and I don’t believe
we turned out any the worse for it. As for the body that housed my struggling
soul, this had been put together out of left-over spare parts under
the sign of Pisces, a matter about which I know little, and care less,
having enough paperwork already, without adding birth charts and horoscopes
to my In-tray, but as body and soul are inseparable, I dare say it behoves
me to attempt to describe my physical being, although it was, and remains,
little more spectacular than the mental one it contained.
Physically, when I first set foot in my new home town, I resembled nothing
less than a mutant bastard offspring of Dr. Goebbels and The Alien (you
know - the one at which in space no one can hear you scream), but while
lacking the former’s engaging limp, and the latter’s athletic
dimensions, I had nevertheless manage to inherit many of the worst features
of both. I am short, though being neither squat nor stocky it is as
if there is a section missing from my leg region, rather than a balanced
overall smallness of stature, in consequence of which I am neither petite
nor fully dwarfen. My hair, which is an undistinguished brown, I wear
short, but, suffering from a lifelong inability to express myself to
barbers, have been condemned to an endless series of unflattering crew-cuts.
This stems from long years in the hands of Castle Cary’s village
barber, who only knew short-back-and-sides, so choice was never an option.
Turned loose into the world I found myself all too often tongue tied,
watching in the mirror as the clippers passed the point of no return
when, given an ability to articulate the fact, I would have favoured
something slightly more three dimensional, in an effort to offset the
heaviness of my lower jaw.
My ears, as I have told, are inoffensive unless backed by a strong wind,
and my eyes are a fairly presentable shade of blue. That my nose is
in no way distorted is the last in a short series of facial blessings,
for the overall impression, when seen from the front, is of something
long, and like my siblings’ cruel etchings, ready to break into
a carping whine at any moment. My lower lip is full, and my beard -
like both my stature and my academic rating - falls into the category
‘unremarkable’, being neither pale and wispy enough to ignore,
nor dark and full enough to wear as designer stubble. Its lank weediness,
and the stupid shape in which it grows, oblige me to scrape it off every
third day. Finally, there is a weird depression on the right hand side
of my chin, which only becomes visible when I close my mouth, so on
successive passport and railcard photographs I am seen either with mouth
agape, looking completely gormless, or mouth closed to reveal this small,
curiously right-angled dent distorting the symmetry of my jaw.
I did not bring my maidenhead to London, as I had lost it previously
in the company of a nice girl from Shepton Mallet, who undoubtedly deserved
better, but would probably have been lucky to find it among the teenagers
of Avalon’s mystic vale, for whom the term New Man conjures up
only images of that famous lady on the washing up adverts. Our relationship
foundered on the intractable rocks of my punkhood. I wanted us to be
like the people on the cover of Live at the Roxy, while she wanted a
life. It occurs to me now, with the wisdom of age, that others may have
been endeavouring to win my sweet young heart, at village hall parties
or discos, but at the time, they would have had to advertise the fact
in foot high letters in order to get the barb of cupid’s arrow
through the wall of my reserve. No doubt it would have ended in tears.
Not many girls would have been content to listen to the monotonous dogma
of new wave theory, and “I’ve got a great seven-incher”
may be an exciting chat-up line for some, but in my case it would have
been an original Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch EP, or Remote Control,
in picture sleeve, by The Clash.
This was by far and away the biggest part of me: my record collection,
and so I brought to London with me the complete-to-date works of so
many crucial bands, among whom were numbered The Adverts; Alternative
TV; The Art Attacks; Battersea; Bethnal; Blondie; The Boomtown Rats;
The Boys; The Buzzcocks; Chelsea; The Clash; The Cortinas; The Damned;
The Dead Boys; Dead Fingers Talk; The Drones; Eater: Elvis Costello:
Generation X; The Heartbreakers: Ian Dury; The Jam; Johnny Moped; Larry
Wallis; London; The Lurkers; The Members; The Motors; Nine Nine Nine;
The Nosebleeds; Penetration; The Radio Stars; The Radiators; The Ramones;
The Rezillos; Richard Hell and the Voidoids; The Sex Pistols; Sham 69;
Siouxie and the Banshees; The Skids; Slaughter & the Dogs; Stiff
Little Fingers; The Stranglers; Talking Heads; Tom Robinson Band; Ultravox;
The Valves; The Vibrators; The Wasps; Wire; Wreckless Eric; X-Ray Spex;
and XTC, to name but a few. Each of these artists had been checked,
and filtered through the censorship process to ascertain their credentials,
and each had been somehow found pure, although the gulf that existed
between bands like Talking Heads, and the more direct approach of something
like The Cortinas required a deal of cultural gerrymandering. When all
was said and done, however, if NME said they were a punk band, then
who was I to argue?
This priceless trove ceased to grow, from the moment of my arrival in
London, for I became swiftly, and suddenly poor. I had in my pocket,
three weeks wages from Unigate - including my week in hand and untaken
holiday pay. Prudence suggested that I disburse this carefully over
the coming weeks, until I had found a new source of income, but prudence
would also have gotten a job, something I had no intention of doing.
My plans were made. The railway was calling to me - as it still did
from time to time - and I was going to celebrate my new found freedom
with a massive binge of trainspotting in Scotland, after which I would
sign on the dole, and stay there for as long as they would let me while
I endeavoured to make my fortune as a musician. The first night in London,
I took Sam to see The Deer Hunter. The following morning I took off.....
light of my devotion to all things punk, this sudden craving for trains
seems incongruous, but it wasn’t the first time since I’d
cut off my hair that the old love had reasserted itself. Throughout
1978-79 I’d made various expeditions to the North, to satisfy
my soul, and Scotland had always been a classic place for old diesels,
and its inaccessibility had kept it out of bounds for too long. I’d
spent a week there, with Fat Bob and his parents in 1974, and the experience
was profound. This time there was no holiday camp to return to each
night. I would sleep rough on the internal overnight trains, or on the
stations themselves, which to me was truly the freedom of the open road.
Armed with a return ticket to Carlisle, and a Freedom of Scotland railrover
ticket, which gave me seven days unlimited travel north of the border
for a paltry £24.50p, I climbed aboard the down Royal Scot at
Euston. The railrover became valid at midnight, so even a leisurely
start would give me ample time in the border city to sample the local
traction and make use of the permit I had thoughtfully applied for in
advance, granting access to Kingmoor depot. As we pulled out of platform
12 behind 87031 Hal o’ the Wynd, leaving prudence vainly protesting
at the carriage window, I knew that I was doing the right thing.
I have since spent many nights on the Citadel station in Carlisle. This,
my first, was enlivened by the fact that a tunnel collapse north of
Berwick was causing trains to be diverted from the east coast route,
many of which were producing Deltics, the prospect of which, so far
off their regular beaten tracks, had lured swarms of fellow spotters
to the temple to worship. A carnival atmosphere prevailed, and not even
the scant hours sleep on the uncomfortable slatted benches in the Citadel’s
waiting rooms could dampen my enthusiasm for the coming sport.
I went everywhere that week, and saw everything in Scotland that was
worth seeing: pairs of 27s on push-pull shuttles between Glasgow and
Edinburgh; 40s on the Highland trains from Queen St.; 06s at Markinch
and Kirkaldy; and Inter-City DMUs on the Ayrshire coast line. All the
best of blue and yellow diesels were still going strong, north of the
border, with indigenous species of a rarity and beauty not to be found
I fell in with a plumber from Crewe, who was making a similar pilgrimage
to mine. He had permits to every shed in Scotland, although in the easy-going
seventies a polite request for admission was rarely refused, and in
his company I went to all the lowland depots, and even into Glasgow’s
BREL works, which was a major coup.
Eastfield was a must for any spotter in search of the good life. Now
closed, it was in the Springburn area of Glasgow, a district noted for
unruly conduct and not a feature of the town’s tourist maps. Spotters,
casually enquiring after directions to Eastfield shed, were usually
warned off by railway employees, or advised to take a taxi, as the local
footpads had become wise to the frequent visits of meek gentlemen with
expensive cameras, and had taken to watching from the stairwells of
their dark tenements for the approach of likely targets. Many a hapless
enthusiast has been done down by these lawless brigands, and the alleyways
used to be thick with the ground remains of their shattered spectacles.
Fat Bob himself received an unprovoked thick ear on our first visit,
but the prospect of up to fifty locos simmering away on the depot was
too great a temptation for most.
Haymarket, in Edinburgh, was another major diesel depot, whose allocation
of Deltics made it another essential feature of the itinerary. The plumber
and I, guided by the stench of the adjacent brewery, duly did the rounds,
and reaped our rich reward.
Coming to Haymarket for the first time in 1974, Fat Bob and I presented
ourselves at the foreman’s window and made our traditional piping
“‘scuse me, can we go round the depot please.”
Now this is part of a ritual that goes right back to the origins of
the railway, and to which the correct response is “Certainly lads,
be careful, and let me know when you leave.” Generations of pimpled
youths have acted out their roles, and generations of foremen have obeyed
the catechism and granted the simple boon, untrammelled by the dictates
of European commissions on Health and Safety, the august legislators
of which have nailed up their demands on engine shed doors like latter-day
Luthers. But the Scots have always been non-conformist when it comes
to doctrine, and it should have come as no surprise when the thread
of the litany was broken by his unorthodox answer
“Whit part o’ the country are ye from lads? That’s
reet strong accents ye have there!”
“Somerset,” we replied, anxious to please.
“Somerset! Och, they’re gey fine singers in those parts,
I ken. Gi’e us a sang lads and I’ll let ye gi roond.”
We hesitated. Outside, on the sun-baked pads, Deltics were basking,
and the whistling of 40s mingled with the thrum of Sulzer engines. The
price was high, but so were the stakes. We quickly weighed up the odds,
came to the only possible conclusion, opened our tiny throats and sang:
“Number one, number one, now my song has just begun
Wi’ a rum-tum-tad’lum, old John Bradl’um
Eh what country folks we be!”
The plumber and I, armed with his permit, received a more traditional
Our last move together was a ride behind Deltic No. 55018 Ballymoss,
which was operating a shuttle service between Edinburgh and Dunbar.
As the engine was waiting to commence the return journey we tremulously
approached the cab door, where a traction inspector was talking to the
driver prior to riding back with him on the footplate. “Scuse
me”, the plumber ventured, “any chance of a trip back in
the rear cab?” It was a long shot, but it just might work.
“What do you want to ride in the back for?” he replied.
“Come up the front with us!”
Scarcely able to believe our good fortune, we clambered aboard, almost
wetting ourselves with excitement. The driver took us up to 103mph,
and I still have a photograph taken through the unmistakable squint-eyed
window, of a blurred class 47 coming down the line towards us on the
opposite track. We blew! my lords, we blew!
Arriving back in Glasgow that evening, still in a state of delirium,
I found that I had messed up my timings and missed the 23.30 to Inverness,
which I was using to sleep on most nights. It reached its destination
at about 05.30, which whiled away the hours of darkness quite nicely,
although changing for the southbound mail at Blair Atholl achieved the
same end, and allowed for an early start on the Glasgow suburban network.
On this particular night I was accosted, while milling about on Central
station, by a policeman. According to the dictates of punk lore he should
have hoisted me off to the cells and given me a kicking, instead of
which, on learning of my plight, he very kindly put me to bed in an
empty train, already half full of snoring dossers. “I’ll
wake ye ‘fore it leaves in the morning laddie,” he promised.
Is this useful, and hospitable, facility still available at Glasgow
Central? If so it should be advertised.
Another night, I prowled the sidings in Aberdeen, finding shelter in
an empty brakevan, sleeping fitfully in the freezing northern air. I
was constantly tired, constantly dozing off on trains, sprawling helplessly
in my seat and probably smelling like an old sock. One morning I had
come into Inverness early, and successfully done the depot. I elected
to take the next train to Aberdeen, which was a two-hour journey in
one of the seven Swindon-built units that were based in the area at
that time. I boarded the train and settled down into my seat to compose
myself for slumber. Summer tinted the hills; the heather was purple
and I was content. I sank into a deep, deep sleep and dreamt..
I woke with a start, and looking around me guiltily, hauled myself up
from the near-horizontal position into which I had slumped. The final
throes of an erotic dream had pierced my consciousness, and woken me
up in the hot flush of an involuntary emission. I groped for reality,
found it and realised my dreadful predicament. When I dropped off, I
was vaguely upright, now I was supine, and Lord knows into what contortions
the untimely orgasm had thrown me. Had I thrashed? Had I groaned? Had
I touched myself in intimate places? Oh cruel fate to leave me thus,
alone and disgusting in a crowded railway carriage. No one said anything,
no one was looking at me - but it was the way they weren’t looking
at me that said it all. This was the way in which they would have pointedly
looked away from the anti-Christ, if he had been writhing on the bench
beside them. Guiltily I slunk out of the carriage and found a seat at
the farthest end of the train, hoping my infamy had not preceded me.
Scotland has changed now, and all the things that came to draw me there,
year after year, are now vanished into dust. The 06s, the 26s, the 27s
and the 40s are all gone. The Deltics went years ago, and the Ayrshire
coast electrification put paid to the fascinating DMUs that used to
work there. Depots like Dundee, Townhill and Eastfield are closed and
the sites redeveloped, or like Haymarket and Inverness, pale shadows
of their former selves, with nothing to offer but a handful of sorry
looking sprinters. Through all this change and trauma, I often wonder,
as a trainspotter, what became of TBS no. Sc59681, the hapless carriage
whose gentle undulations proved too tempting for my teenaged libido?
What was its fate? Where is it now - and what would I do if I were to
become reunited with this old paramour? This, like so many other questions,
must remain unanswered, and like so much of my life has passed, unremarked,
Dirty, fatigued, I roamed Scotland for seven days, taking in Motherwell
and Hamilton, Polmadie and Ayr. I scoured the inner-city network for
Glasgow’s blue trains; I sought out the remaining half dozen Andrew
Barclay shunters, and signed the visitors book at Dundee TMD before
copping the last one. I got round the depots at Inverness, Hyndland,
Millerhill and Perth, and amassed unheeded mileage behind dozens of
My initial plan had been to make a diversion to Holyhead on the way
back to London, to clear up the surviving two class 01 shunters which
were still working in the docks. On my last evening in Glasgow, however,
while waiting for the train to Carlisle, and another night in the Citadel,
I saw a group of punks ambling across the station concourse. Suddenly
the railway receded, I took in their crazy-coloured hair, their painted
leather jackets, and the casual arrogance with which they swaggered
among the hurrying commuters. I checked out the departure board. There
was a fast train to London that would get me in to Euston before the
tubes stopped running. I made my way over to the designated platform
and climbed aboard.
There was something I had to do.