In the mid-1980s I thought I’d try my hand as a columnist, but I needed an alter ego, so my ‘opinions’ did not cramp my style as a reporter and researcher.
I decided to adopt a stratagem infamously employed by a former colleague. He invented a ubiquitous character called ‘Edith Grove’, who was always on hand with a pithy quote whenever he covered stories on the streets of East London. When challenged he explained that the name came from a street around the corner from his Chelsea pad. But he could never explain why, so I added that letter to my chosen nom de plume, from round the corner where we worked, and I once lived, in Bethnal Green.
Much good it did me. I never managed to place any of these – so only now are they seeing the light of day.
- CYCLE MANIA
- BLACK MOMENTS
- THE BREAKER STRIKES
- WHAT THE PORNOGRAPHER DID TO ME
- CYCLE MANIA
I’m convinced that someone is trying to kill me. It’s either a bus driver or some bloke at the wheel fo a battered old delivery van, or an articulated lorry (or it could be a woman driving a snazzy little Golf or a big white Volvo).
Whoever it is, I know they’re out there waiting for me, every time I go out cycling.
I sweat most at traffic lights, but stops, and roundabouts, or near sharp corners. That’s were they try to kill me most often. So I’ve developed a survival technique. i get off my bike, swear, then shake my fist. You may have seen me. Sometimes I’m really brave and bang of the side of the killer’s vehicle. Other times I come off the saddle awkwardly and people laugh at me. Remember me now?
I’m sure they’re all in league. They all seem to know where I am, without even looking.
Wy do they have wing mirrors? If I were paranoid I’d say it was to calculate the angle of collision, but they never use them anyway. Perhaps they just want me to catch a final glimpse of their profile, hunched over the wheel chewing tasteless gum, sucking hard on a cigarette, or stuffing a finger up their left nostril.
Perhaps I’m wrong. It may be an insurance policy. “I looked in my mirror, officer, and never saw a thing. He must have crept up on me from nowhere.”
And what are those red and orange lights on the back fo cars and lorries> I once thought they fulfilled the same function as and me sticking out my arm before turning corners. But then, what do I know about motors? When the right hand light flashes I never knew if they’re overtaking, turning right, fiddling with their instruments – or just trying to keep me guessing.
Mind you I’m wise to the truckers’ trick off flicking on the parking lights to make me think they’re going to stop (as if they would). It’s all part of a sneaky scheme to soften me up.
Then there’s the hydraulic brake frightener. I’m sure they must have to let off steam, or whatever the technician expression is. But why do it just as they are passing me, or when I roll alongside at traffic lights?
Know, they want to unnerve me before the next bus stop. thats when I really get the wind up.I always thought bus drivers and cyclists and a lot in common. We both use the bus lane and we both represent cheap, fuel-efficient transport. I even use the buses when I’ve got a puncture.
So why are they out to kill me? They have nothing to fear form my clapped-out 3-speed,. I don’t take passengers- apart from my kiddies and they’re too young to pay bus fares.
Sure, I might scrape a bit of paint if I fell heavily against a double-decker, but I’d ooze enough claret to cover the damage. No, it’s another part of the plot. Some of them even display reminders to the other conspirators – ’Think Bike’!
I pedal hard to keep away form bus stops but the bus drivers always catch mea and swing in front at the last moment – testing my brakes, my resilience to cardiac arrest, and my lifelong support for public transport, all in one go.
And then, just as I’ve regained my equilibrium, and decided that enough people are getting on to allow me to pass – they pull out. Evasive action doesn’t work – I just end up in the path of some other would-be assassin. Or another bus. (They work in threes, you know.)
It’s not as if i took up cycling to avoid paying fares – I’ve always done it. Mind you, practice doesn’t seem to make perfect. I wobble a lot these days.
Hardly surprising, really, when so many people are trying to knock me off.
2. BLACK MOMENTS
This piece seemed both sad and prescient when I came across it again in the wake of the 2018 Windrush scandal. I wonder how many other Afro-Caribbean people were persuaded to get passports from their ‘newly independent islands’ instead of confirming their British citizenship? I was retyping it on the very day Twitter was full of indignation about a fat white man’s racist rant against a Black grandmother returning from a holiday with her daughter on a Ryanair flight.
After checking-in at Frankfurt airport en route for England, I notice a Black family – a young woman, her elderly mother, and three young children – sobbing the departure lounge. There is bitterness and bewilderment in their tears.
The airport authorities wouldn’t allow the grandmother to board a plane back to England. The three children were to be handed over to escorts for their journey home. Gran would have to stay in Germany with her daughter, who worked with the British Army of the Rhine.
Gran was a cleaner with a London Borough. She had a letter to prove it. She had asked her boss for it just in case there were problems with immigration control at Heathrow.
If having to carry such a letter isn’t indignity enough, she now found the German authorities treating it as irrelevant – and no guarantee that their British counterparts would let her back into England.
Having brought up a family, she automatically took charge of the her grandchildren when their mother went to Germany in search of work. Paying for this holiday was her daughter’s way of saying “Thank you”.
It was the first time Gran had used her British passport since arriving in England in the Fifties. It was out of date when the tickets arrived so she went to Petty France [then the London Passport Office] to get a new one. They told her it would be quicker to get a fresh passport form the Embassy of her now independent island.
No-one told her she would be exchanging nationalities along with her passport.
On arrival in Germany she had been locked up in a detention centre for not having a visa. British passport holders don’t need one. Rescued by her daughter, they had spent their two week holiday traipsing from one Embassy to the next – Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich – to regularise her position. Nw the Germans would not allow her to leave for fear that the British would simply send her back.
One of the children noticed that I had the same immigration stamp as her Gran in my Irish passport. All six of us marched up to the flight desk. I produced my Press card and the two identically stamps passports, Suddenly everything was in order and we travelled home together.
Soon afterwards I was cycling along a main road in South London. Just in front of me, or the nearside pavement, walked a middle-aged Asian man dressed in the traditional regalia of an English civil servant. Suddenly a young white man leapt upon him, cursing and laughing, and beat him about the head with a rolled up newspaper.
I swung off my bike to confront the lout. His victim was doubly petrified – was I going to attack him too? The assault turn his attention to me, but I was two stone heavier than him and a verbal battle ensued.
The youth defended his cowardly attack: “It was a joke!” He squared up and more violence was only a blink away. We debated what to do next – call the police or fight it out? The Asian man demanded, and got, an apology and the youth wandered off, chastened and puzzled.
His victim decided not to report the incident to the police. He had lived in England for 15 years, and had never seen his assailant before. His work colleagues would not believe such things could happen, he said, and as for the police…
Everyday incidents. Nothing to make the headlines – just the casual racism that all Black people face daily. Like the fear caused by NF [National Front] stickers in a lonely street, and abuse shouted from passing cars. Or the sense of not belonging because shops don’t sell anniversary cards or comics featuring ball people.
Little things can mean a lot – like whites taking sides with you when the going gets tough. It helps to feel that you are not alone.
It is easy to join a demonstration, coin a slogan, or shout in a crowd – but it’s no use protesting that you not racist if you ignore the racism all around you.
A successful Black woman friend recently told me she wanted to be a white, middle class male in her next reincarnation. Wouldn’t she be saddled with a massive guilt complex, I asked. “Oh no,” she said. “Most for them don’t have one.”
3. THE BREAKER STRIKES
I imagine this one may have the the clincher for the rejection slip. The character I had created had obviously flipped. Even so it still has an extraordinary resonance in any 21st century city. I do hope if it gives anyone ideas, it will be among motorists who convert to courtesy parking, rather than to zealots with access to scaffold poles.
One day I’m going to go berserk. I’ve worked it all out already. Several times.
I shall take a sawn off scaffold pole and put ti through the windscreen of every car that is breaking the law. Or even local by-laws.
It will be a busy day.
And not just for me, There will be plenty to do for all those who come in search of the car-breaker. In fact, I might even get a Queens’s Award for Industry, the amount of work I shall create. Proof positive that my actions are in the common good.
Of course there will be work for the police – or rather another diversion from the things they should concentrating on, like rape and racial attack and City fraud.
And then there are the courts. mind you, the clerks are always kept busy, whenever they’re not fiddling the books. and the legal profession hardly needs me to make work for it – how many solicitors have you me on the dole queue?
But think of the new-style, paramilitary Traffic Vigilante Force (TVF). Gimlet-eyed, pencils at the ready. ‘Tough? Virtuous? Foolhardy? Join TVF and get your rocks off on naughty motorists.’ better still – have a go at the new-style urban vandals who follow in my footsteps.
And we mustn’t forget the emergence of a new industrial sector- reinforced replacement windscreen making, replacing and waiting around to catch the burger who attempts to break it. A new type of minding for private security firms.
What irks me, you see, is that the demands of the motor car have become woven into the weft off the entire social fabric. Now I’m not too sure who is heading up this particular conspiracy, it could be the road hauliers, road builders, planners, the motor trade, or those lunatics for whom the automobile is God. But there is one thing I do know.
Pensioners, little children, and the much maligned pedestrian are all in constant danger because of the beastly motor car. I know they’re convenient. A form of status even, they tell me. And they do provide work for thousands. But they also provide coffins for thousand too. And they poison the atmosphere, burn up pricey fossil fuels, kill almost at will. And they park.
On pavements. On double and single yellow lines. Near dangerous junctions, and zebra crossings. Outside schools and playgrounds. In the middle of estates where children need the space, and they have a nasty habit of double parking in narrow streets.
That’s where I’ll start, I think. It’s nice and quiet and the absent motorists don’t think anyone goes by. They don’t see people struggle along with double buggies, the washing, or shopping. I’ll get a cheer from them.
It’s cars that jump tragic lights, and hare across zebra crossings as it they don’t exist. They’ve never heard of the common sense dictum that no pelican crossing allows sufficient time for an Olympic sprint champion to get across. Let alone my gran. That god-forsaken, high pitched bleep seems to set them off. I’m sure it’s the sound the Angel of Death gives out when your time is up.
Mind you, the town and country planners have a lot to answer for. There is a special kind of lunacy that takes a map and plans a traffic system; dreams up a one-way system based on traffic flow instead of the age-old human habit of walking from here to there. Never a thought for the local residents and the patterns of their existence.
I’ve never met a road-planner round our way. They never seem to live in your neighbourhood. “Never shit in your own backyard,” as the saying goes. Too right. But let me catch a traffic manager in my backyard and I’ll change my ways.
It’s like the architects who convert old mills, oast houses and warehouses , where we should be working, They live in them and design the cramped old council flats the rest of us have to put up with.The people who run the roads should be make to live in a matchbox the middle of motorways.
And when they do spare thought for the hapless pedestrian, what do they come with? Subways. Dark, dank caves of untold errors. With steps leading down. And up.
Have you ever tried subway crawling in a wheelchair? Or a double buggy? And when they provide a ramp, because there is a little more land to spare, it takes you eight times as long to reach your destination.
But my avenging scaffold pole cannot deal with faceless planners, and there are quite enough holes in the roads anyway. It is the motorists who compound the felony, so they must take the consequences.
And before you smirk self-righteously at my paranoia, think a little about the penalties for murder on the roads. A ban? A fine? A short stay in the slammer?
When one distraught parent took out his anger on the motorbike that killed his daughter, he ended up in jail, with hefty compensation to pay. The killer got off with a fine. “It seems that I have got to pay for the weapon that killed my child,” was the father’s comment on the values of this motor-mad society.
Luddism is not mindless violence. It may be a symbol of hope. The truly mindless violence is that of the machine. Are scaffold poles classified as machines?
4. WHAT THE PORNOGRAPHER DID FOR ME
Just came across this deliberately provocative but oddly innocent unpublished ‘Malcom Playce’ column from way back, long before the internet made things so much worse.
I was a teenage browser. It was The Carpetbaggers that started me off. It was on a bookstall at the local church jumble sale, and my mum said I wasn’t to buy it.
I found it later in my dad’s wardrobe. The self-same copy. I read bit by bit while he was at work, carefully putting it back where I found it. My mum caught me once and said they had removed it from prying eyes at the jumble sale and were discussing with the priest what to do about it.
I moved on to the second-hand bookstall outside a local antique shop. If you pulled out the fat paperbacks they had a habit of falling open at grimy pages.
Now I hadn’t liked the violence of The Carbetbaggers but I had git a bit of a strange feeling in the groinal area at some of the other bits. And when I found a tattered copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a junk shop I thought I was very grown up. It was all over the papers at the time – one of the big moments of the so-called Swinging Sixties. ‘Filth’ in the High Court. And here it was, In my hands. It did almost nothing for me.
Soon I was skimming through mucky American and Scandinavian potboilers. Press against the table outside the antique shop in case anyone should notice anything untoward happening. It was one way of learning about the facts of life, but there were so many unanswered questions I couldn’t ask my mum or dad, because then they’d know I had been reading dirty books.
It was later that I discovered ‘girlie’ magazines. `Surprised? Well I lived a sheltered life of sorts and in those days they were tucked away on top shelves. And I always preferred reading words to pictures, as they got my imagination going. It was when I sneaked off to a distant town to buy my first cigarettes. I had seen the odd torn out picture of naked women in the playground at school, but nothing like the racks of erotica in this corner shop. And they were on stands.
I had covered my embarrassment about buying fags by flicking through the tawdry junk on display. A lot of my questions were answered at once. And while my imagination ran away with me when I was safely tucked up in bed, it never occurred to me that some men actually masturbated onto the pictures themselves.
Until, that is, the night-watchman on a local building site had a heart attack doing just that. It shocked me then; still does. But I can understand the lonely inadequacy of the man who does. Surely that is not a violence against women, but a pathetic attempt to seek comfort in sex. Or is every wanker to regarded as a psychic rapist?
There are other, subtler forms of violence which pornography brings on. For the teenage me, the lush and often extraordinary pictures that I saw provided an already romantically inclined imagination with what I believed were the raw materials of a woman’s body. Together these elements warped into an idealisation as much as an objectification of the female form.
Nurtured by the cinema, where people seemed more real than in tatty bookshops, these mistaken identities of women got in the way pf personal relationships. There was reverence, awe, desire, and total confusion in my perceptions of the girls I went out with.
Were these women really like than under their clothes? And if they were – which was their real image – dressed or undressed? Any notion of them as people was obscured by imagery which had nothing to do with them and who they were.
This was the work of the pornographer. Turning women into things, symbols, totems. Creating in the minds of impressionable youths an image of what women should be like. Should be. By distorting.
Small wonder that the pornographer’s ‘art’ has been adapted by the advertising industry. They have the same aim in mind – to make people want their product. The naked woman spreadeagled over a centrefold has become just that – a product manufactured by men in their own tortured idealisation of women.
Small wonder that eroticism, whether blatant or obscure, has become the tool of the television advert. What better place, safe in your own home, to fantasise about all the tings you desire?
And so we come full circle. Books with sexy bits sell well. The comic book equivalent for those lacing imagination needs sexy picture. Whatever turns you on?
But if sex sells, why aren’t the women in these pictures the true fat cats of capitalism? Because it is not their sexuality that is being sold. It is just an idea, an image, a product called sexual arousal among men that the men behind the scenes are manipulating (for money, of course). There is and never can be a human relationship between an image and a flesh and blood person with an intellect.
And that is the tragedy which the pornographer cannot or will not, see. Justifying their work by offering sexual gratification at one remove, or even claiming the status of erotic art for something which reflects no human dignity or warmth; these are poor excuses for a guilty conscience, if any exists. Pornography is about making money, and to hell with the consequences.
As a callow youth I did not see that. I saw only beautiful women with beautiful bodies, who sometimes visited me in my dreams. I never met them, and never will. But it might be far better if the notion of depraving and corrupting so beloved of wrong-headed moralists who hate sex, were applied instead to our ability to relate to one another as people. Pornographers make it more difficult. Moralists can make it near impossible.