Chapter 7– The BC (Before Charlie) Years Part 2 - No Nukes
(in which our hero fights the good fight, smells Jonathon Porrit's feet(!) and generally gets up no no good).
It was a fairly thankless task – attempting to save the world in 1979. By day my journey to ‘work’ would lead me to a dingy and unprepossessing room in a large community building in Clerkenwell, where the Anti-Nuclear Campaign had its offices. Here I planned the next demo, schemed the next outrage against the establishment, and plotted what should appear on posters, leaflets, placards and t-shirts. I didn’t get paid for this, but believed passionately in the cause, one that would see the ‘squares’ and ‘death dealers’ swept away and replaced by the peace lovers of our generation. Next to our office the sisters of ‘Spare Rib’ resided, and my abiding regret was that I never met Germaine Greer as she swept majestically to – or from – editorial meetings. I actually had no idea whether or not Germaine had any connections with Spare Rib, but I just assumed she must have.
Sam had moved in with me by then, and by night, the large kitchen in our Croydon flat would be occupied – if not overrun - by revolutionaries of all denominations and sizes. Endless meetings on a variety of subjects were fuelled by copious quantities of coffee, tea, fags, blow and vast amounts of righteous indignation - booze of course was completely bougeous and therefore generally to be avoided. This rule could be broken only if working class ‘ale’ was imbibed in the local pub, OK because that’s where the ‘real working people’ met, and the ‘real working people’, heck, they were going to be the harbingers of the revolutionary tide that would soon dispose of the tyrants and oppressors.
These get togethers, which sometimes lasted all night, generally resulted in more disagreement between the various factions (SWP, WRP, Militant etc) than actual concrete planning, but we all felt that, well man, we were making a stand. We once argued until three or four in the morning about whether or not Nuclear Power stations could be construed to be a ’good thing’ as long as they were run by workers who were armed, and could therefore, at the moment of insurrection, sieze control and execute the bosses. The weapons it was generally agreed by those in favour, could be stashed safely in broom closets, away from the prying eyes of the idiot bosses, who obviously were too stupid to tell the difference between a broom and a bren gun. I was violently opposed to this whole idea (as much as I could get violent about anything), but failed to recognise the completely delusional nature of the discourse in general.
Don’t Believe What you Read in the Papers
Alexi Sayle tells a marvellous joke in his stage show about how his parents, being members of the CPGB, were charged with selling a certain number of papers every week. This they signally failed to do, and would put the unsold papers under his bed as a way of ‘hiding’ them. ‘ I woke up one morning with my nose touching the ceiling’ runs the punchline, and I think that one reason there is so much enthusiastic appreciation of the gag is that a lot of his audience have been there, and got the same scars. Week after week Sam and I would pretend that we’d sold the requisite number of ‘Socialist Workers’, and week after week we’d be in meetings or otherwise engaged – sometimes going down the pub and engaging in questionable supping of non-approved substances such as the aforementioned ‘ale.’ Almost anything, in fact was preferable to standing in the cold and rain of Surrey Street Market, competing with the woman who would shout in approved fishwife fashion every thirty seconds or so ‘get yer luvverly mushrooms ‘ere. Only 20 pee a panhnd! This injunction to purchase the old edible funghi was always followed with the complete non-sequitur ‘Yer must be berlind.’ Why she was insulting the visually impaired element of her clientele we never found out, but trying to sell Socialist Worker was a non starter in terms of competition. In fact, we were quietly secreting the papers in a box room in our flat (described in the agency particulars as a ‘bijou second bedroom’), and secretly hoping they’d just go away.
This mad irresponsibility could only have one outcome – a demand from the local SWP branch organisesr for the requisite amount of money to back up our claimed sales. This poor man – who in another life might have been a used car salesman, pencil mustache, ferret face and all – was sympathetic but firm in a way only bureacrats the world over can be. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your problems’ he’d whine at us, after listening patiently to our latest range of pathetic excuses, ‘but I really need the money to give to the Central Committee by next week.’
Ah – the Central Committee. How we hated them. Every week they dispatched one of their faceless minions to our meeting, and this soulless and often acne ridden individual would spend an hour and a half telling us about the latest position on Russian grain harvest production, and what to think about the crisis in Afghanistan. How little times really change – this is now a hot political issue once again. We’d listen with bored indifference, and hope he’d go away quickly, but unfortunately there would always be one brown-noser in the audience who’d ask interminable questions and vigorously nod in agreement when treated to the interminable replies.
I think the crunch for me came with the SWP when we were exhorted to support the ‘Right to Work’ march which would be coming through Croydon that week. As a result of my involvement with an organisation called NATTA (Network for Alternative Technology), I had spent weeks before researching renewable energy (before it became cool), reading Undercurrents magazine and getting fired up by the brilliant example of the Lucas Shop Stewards - who had put their bankrupt factory to use making kidney machines. With my head stuffed with ideas about sustainability and socially useful work, I mildly enquired of our latest Central Committee visitor what sort of work he was thinking about. ‘Any work where they can unionise and overthow the dictatorship’ came the stock reply. ‘Crap’ I rejoined wittily, ‘what about socially useful and enjoyable work. Why can’t that be a priority? What’s wrong with trying to make stuff that benefits everyone?’
This mild and inoffensive plea was greeted with what can only be described as a tirade of abuse and derision. I was by turns accused of being a ‘revisionist’, a ‘Trotskyite’, a ‘capitalist’, and judging by the escalating hysteria in my accusers voice, the most heinous crime of all, ‘a Bennite.’ ‘Oh yes’ thought I, ‘in that case I’ll find out more about Tony Benn – sounds like a good guy.’ I did, and he was, and still is. A quintessentially decent, honest and principled English man, not to say gentle-man in the true sense of the word, unfortunately fast disappearing as a species in a way that, if replicated in the animal kingdom, would bring David Attenborough out in hives.
My inability to fake political orthodoxy, allied to the ever increasing and completely unpayable amounts of money owed for the non-existent paper sales combined to end my tentative relationship with revolutionary politics. I resigned there and then, a move away from delusional politics that I never regretted.
Looking back, Monty Python got it completely right in ‘Life of Brian’ on at least two counts – the ludicrous divisiveness of The People’s Front of Judea versus the Popular People’s Front of Judea type non-distinctions so beloved of the left as well as religious zealots everywhere, and the endless need to have meetings which reach no conclusions, but look good in the minutes. Since my split (splitter!) with the SWP I’ve adopted Groucho Marx’s dictum that ‘I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me as a member.’
Ha Ha Ha. Smelly Socks, Camberwell Carrots and other Assorted Wierdness
Still, there were some lighter moments: ‘I had that Jonathon Porritt geezer in the back of my kitchen once.’ The now Sir Porritt, adviser to that paragon of green, sustainable thinking David Cameron, graced our flat to take part in a Croydon Friends of the Earth meeting, but I’m afraid that my abiding memory of him was not his rapier like dissection of establishment failings, but rather that he took his socks and shoes off and put his feet on our kitchen table. Not very well bought up, I thought, subconciously reverting to my mum’s social mores, and I haven’t spoken to the man since.
It was a lot of fun living in Croydon. By then we had acquired friends like The One Armed Bandit, and Mark, a stoner very like Danny out of Withnail & I (‘If I medicined you, you’d think a brain tumour was a birthday present…’). Mark rolled joints a lot like Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, and having smoked a few we would invariably repair to the Blue Anchor (‘Eric Clapton played here once you know’ the barman informed us every time we went in) or to the flat owned by the aforementioned ‘Bandit.’ This was a weird one, in all the other wierdness: the Bandit wasn’t called that for no reason; he had indeed lost an arm in a motorcycle accident. Thing is, he’d also lost part of a leg, on the same side as the missing arm. If ever anyone had an excuse for a lop-sided and bitter view of life he did. On the contrary however, in between consuming alarming quantities of dope and smiling a great deal, he was to be seen every night down the pub, or by day out at the market or record shop, letting his disability trouble him not a jot. His cheerful demeanor may have had something to do with the dope, but I think the fact that he was always surrounded by multitudes of gorgeous women, hanging on his every word and tending to all his needs, probably helped as well. There were two in particular, lithe limbed, bronzed, implausibly wholesome godesses, who to the amazement of every male around, seemed to share the Bandit without jealousy or rancour, and would regularly repair to bed with him for a threesome. Every red blooded male’s dream, but alas, one we were never destined to participate in.
The Bandit also liked his animals. He kept a number of ferrets, but unlike most people who have small furry creatures in their houses, he let these athletically supercharged friends have the run of his flat. A visit then, was quite an adventure, between the Bandit hopping around on one leg, the two godesses floating serenely by in the background preparing food and rolling joints, and everywhere, lightning quick flashes of fur zipping in between bits of furniture and diving in graceful pirouettes off the sofa. I was petrified, in line with the joke about ferrets and trousers, that one of them would indeed try to invade my nether regions, but fortunately it never happened.
One of the Bandit’s favourite tricks was to wear what appeared to be an oversized jewelled brooch on his velvet jacket. He would hold court in the pub and wait with barely suppressed anticipation until the ‘brooch’ moved. The general merriment that ensued was generally down to the fact that whilst most of the regulars were in on this little trick, there would always be some hapless punter who would choke on his beer at the sight of a moving ‘brooch.’ The brooch was of course a small animal – a monitor lizard – renowned for remaining motionless for considerable periods. Unfortunately for the Bandit, these pesky creatures kept getting too large to be of use in the trick, so he had to continually replenish his supply of reptiles.
Camberwell Carrot Mark also favoured cold blooded friends. In his case, a six foot python which he kept in a large glass case in his tiny bedsit room. Local children would be drawn from miles around when the python was given its weekly meal of a live mouse, but I could never bring myself to witness what I regarded to be a somewhat over the top spectacle of barbarism and bad eating habits. What’s wrong, for goodness sake with a good vegetarian bean stew? The python unfortunately nearly got the better of Mark one day when the latter had one of his regular epileptic fits, and fell aginst the glass case, breaking it and releasing the reptile. The python, with an asounding lack of gratitude for all the live wriggling mice Mark had fed it, proceeded to attempt to do away with him, and it was only the fortuitous intervention of a would be punter – come to share some Carrot that saved Mark from a terrible fate. The snake subsequently had to be destroyed, and we could all see that it affected Mark quite deeply. If you can’t trust your pet snake for goodness sake, who can you trust?
Freedom for Tooting - er Croydon
I never did cotton on to the innate ridiculousness (is there such a word?) of trying to save the world whilst based in Croydon. Land of imposing grey concrete monoliths, home to the ugliest and most exposed shopping centre ever (the Whitgift Centre) and boasting several impassable underpasses, Croydon has been unfairly maligned as being bland and tedious, like Worthing only without the beach and the night life (alright, I made the night life up). To my mind however it was the hub of the counter culture, having as it did a variety of ‘head’ shops, a wholefood co-operative which had a zen tea garden out back, and a great market – the aforementioned Surrey Street Market. In my imagination I was the Wolfie Smith of Croydon, every day just minutes away from bringing the whole capitalist conspiracy crashing down, putting the pig dog conspirators and running dogs of imperialism to the sword, and having my handsome mug tie-dyed onto a million t-shirts just like good old Che Guevara.
Besides, being a revolutionary was also a brilliant way to get girls! Jo had left me, and Sam was soon to follow in her footsteps, but Ruthie, Becki, and most importantly Katharine – all fell at my feet in adoration! But more of that later.
Why am I boring you with all this political nonsense in a missive allegedly about VW camper vans? Well for one thing, I need to pad out the number of words in the vague hope of turning this whole exercise in self indulgance into a successful book, for another I hope you might find it interesting, but mainly, because it gives me a great excuse to show you pictures of Charlie with our range of huge smiley sun No Nukes stickers. Every so often we’d get one in a new language, so ‘Nuclear Power – No Thanks’ gradually morphed into ‘Nucleaire – Non Merci’, and just to show that we’d totally gotten over the horrible war and all and loved the Germans really, ‘Atomkraft – Nein Danke’! I haven’t been able to find any pix of the last one, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Also, and let’s be frank about this, the title you’re dealing with here is ’Travels With Charlie – Life with a Volkswagen Van’, so elements of my life in general are bound to creep in somewhere along the line. And, if you don’t like it, you know what to do.