In which The Author and his friends go underground
On Saturday morning, my mate Tom F. posted a news item on Facebook which chilled my blood. In a frightening echo of Nazi Germany, the Freedom Bookshop in London’s East End had been damaged in an arson attack. Founded in 1886, the Freedom Press and its associated bookshop have been an important focal point for anarchists across the UK (and beyond). I subscribed to Freedom for some years, and I still have four issues of the theoretical quarterly The Raven on my bookshelves at home, as well as books by Colin Ward and Lewis Mumford. The bookshop was an obvious target for far-right activists, who have become more vocal and visible over the past few years. I shared the story on Facebook, and Maria commented on it a little while later: I’ve been there. I think I was with you.’ (Although what she actually said was ‘I’ve been there. With you I think it was.’ – I’ve translated her Jedi Master’s syntax into Standard English.)
She was right. We went there years ago, when the National Express Rapide coach was still running from Aberdare. It wasn’t the primary purpose of our visit, but I wanted to visit the place anyway. A few days before, my friends and I were chatting in the pub when we decided on a day trip to London. Maria was going out with my brother, so they were in from the start. We managed to rope in Slim, Rhod and Jeff as well, and decided to travel up on a Saturday. I can’t remember whether it was their first time in the Great Wen. I’ve got a funny feeling that at least one of the boys was a London virgin. The coach used to leave early and came back in the evening, so we’d have six hours or so to explore the city. The rest of the gang gave me their ticket money, and I booked the seats during the week.
I didn’t notice anything remarkable on the journey up, as I’d done it many times before. Maria and the boys chatted and looked at the scenery, and I think I had a nap. Sitting a few seats in front of us were two girls in their teens – we guessed that they were sisters. Our theory was confirmed when they started talking to an older lady, who turned out to be their mother.
When we passed Reading, I convinced the others to jump off at Heathrow, and catch the Tube in from there. (My old trick of getting off at Earl’s Court had been superseded when the airport stop was incorporated into the timetable.) That way, we could be at the heart of the action while the coach was still wending its way through the suburbs.
We bought our one-day Travelcards, made our way to the Tube station, and boarded the train. The stretch of line between the airport terminals and Hounslow is subterranean. However, I think everyone else was surprised when we emerged into daylight and stayed above ground until Barons Court. I used to travel in regularly from Uxbridge, either via Wembley or via Ealing, and you don’t actually go into the tunnels until a good way into the journey. Three or four stations further on from Hounslow, Maria remarked on how brief the station stops were. I think I read some years ago that the train doors only stay open for twenty-eight seconds. It’s nothing like the Valley Lines, where some people faff about for ages while boarding and alighting.
[A digression: A few years ago, Naj and I were on the way home from Cardiff. When we got to Cwmbach, a young girl stood up and made her way to the doors in front of us. The light on the side panel came on, supposedly to draw her attention to the ‘door open’ button. She ignored it. I can only assume that she was a stranger to these parts. She stood there for a good half a minute or so, waiting for something to happen, before the train pulled off again. Naj and I chuckled quietly to each other as she retook her seat. As we disembarked, we glanced back at the girl, who was waiting to travel back down and leave the train at a second attempt. She had her earphones in. The chances were that she wouldn’t have heard us pissing ourselves laughing (which we’d been desperately trying not to do).]
In retrospect, Maria probably shouldn’t have tempted the Goddess of Chaos to get involved. As we approached the city itself, the train had begun to fill up. By the time we went underground, the six of us had our seats – Jeff, Rhod, Slim and I in one little cluster, and Phil and Maria some distance away. We were hemmed in by strap-hangers, and I warned the lads that we’d need to be ready to disembark when we arrived at Piccadilly Circus. Phil and Maria knew where we were heading as well, but they were further down the train, away from the door.
[A digression: When my old schoolfriend Darren B. and I were on our way to a Lou Reed gig in 1984 (see Snap, Crackle and Pop
), we noticed that the population density of each underground car seemed to approximate a Normal Distribution. There was hardly anyone in the first or last cars, and the middle cars were rammed to the gunwales. I bore our observation in mind subsequently, and nearly always managed to get a seat as a result. Some years ago I acquired a little map of the central part of the London Underground. It takes some getting used to, but as long as you plan ahead it makes getting around the city a lot more convenient. You look up your destination, and it tells you which car to board in order to alight more or less opposite the exit. Instead of having to walk along the platform against a tide of commuters, you can just shoot through and hit the streets before anyone else. It might skew the Normal Distribution, but that’s Real World Science for you.]
You can probably see where this is going. Unfortunately, Phil and Maria didn’t. When the train arrived at Piccadilly Circus, the four of us got off in good time and waited on the platform for them. They failed to force their way to the doors before the time elapsed. We caught a brief glimpse of their faces through the glass as the train pulled away, and then they were gone.
Now we had a problem. The train would take them straight through to Cockfosters if they decided to stay put. I had a quick word with the boys and we agreed to catch the next train, only a few minutes behind. On our arrival at Leicester Square, we’d check whether they were there. If they’d had the presence of mind to jump off, we’d catch them up. If not, we were buggered. At least Phil and Maria had their own coach tickets and their own Travelcards. It might take them a while, but they’d be able to meet us at Victoria Coach Station for the return trip.
[A digression: On Facebook on Saturday, Maria mentioned that this adventure took place in the days before mobile phones. That surprised me, to be honest. Even if we’d had mobile phones, they’d have been useless on the stations. Maria had been nursing in London during the July bombings in 2005. I was surprised she didn’t remember the chaos when the emergency services were working underground in a complete phone blackout. Since then, much of the central Tube network has been retrofitted with radio relays.]
As the next train arrived, an idea occurred to me. I told the lads, ‘Keep your eyes open when we get to the next station. If I get off, you get off as well.’ I sprinted the length of the train and boarded at the No 1 end, behind the driver’s cab. I’d realised that, from that vantage point, I’d be able to scan the whole length of the platform as we went through Leicester Square. The boys got on as well, about halfway down the train.
Now I had a double dilemma. I not only had to make sure that Phil and Maria were waiting for us, but also that the boys didn’t get off if they weren’t. If we’d been separated again, I think Rhod would probably have taken charge. I’d have had to rely on him to get them all safely to Victoria. He’s resourceful and knew London vaguely, so he’d have coped. I think …
Luckily for us, Phil and Maria had come to the same conclusion we had. When we got to Leicester Square, I spotted them on the platform. Jeff stuck his head through the doors when they opened, and I signalled him to get off. They alighted fairly near where the others were waiting, and we were reunited, much to everyone’s relief.
I can’t remember our route to Aldgate, but that was where we set off in search of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In 1984/5, on my first visit to this part of London, I spotted a white-clad little chap standing at a roadside barrow holding pre-packed jellied eels. According to the sign on his barrow, his name was Tubby Isaacs. I’m sure there was a photo of him in Dad’s old guide to London, dating from about 1972. He’s probably long gone, but he must have been a well-known character in the district.
After a little while we located Angel Alley, where the Freedom Bookshop is located. It’s deep in the heart of Jack the Ripper’s manor. The body of Martha Tabram (aka Martha Turner) was discovered not far from here on 7 August 1888. She had died from multiple stab wounds, but her body had not been mutilated in the same fashion as Jack’s later victims. One theory I’ve read is that the killer fled upon hearing exiled Russian anarchists heading for a clandestine meeting in the Angel Alley premises – possibly even Kropotkin himself! It’s an interesting idea.
The bookshop itself was (and still is) run by a group of volunteers, many of whom have been active on the anarchist scene for decades. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the old guard had opposed the British Union of Fascists, and might even have been involved in the Battle of Cable Street.
On this particular day, the chap in charge was a large man in late middle age. He was standing on the pavement outside with a side-handled beer glass in his hand. There was a pub not far away. Like most old-school booksellers (including Jeff, Laurie and me), he must have made a lunchtime pint part of his daily routine. He’d taken advantage of the quiet period to nip out and wet his whistle. He looked quite astonished when five mad Welsh guys and one mad Welsh bint rocked up at the shop to have a look around. There was a steep flight of steps up to the showroom, and as the old boy made his way up ahead of us, he unleashed a loud fart. We had to struggle hard not to piss ourselves laughing.
The shop itself is fairly small, and with seven people in there it was difficult to move about. The shelves were crammed with slightly foxed copies of books about labour relations, alternative technology, and gender politics. There were reprinted editions of old books warning against the false hopes offered by Stalinism and Maoism. I could have spent a fortune in there on translations of works by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon, Tolstoy, Malatesta, and other great thinkers of the anarchist movement.
In the event, I came away with a copy of Peter Marshall’s William Blake: Visionary anarchist (which cost all of £3.00), a load of pamphlets, a catalogue, and the current edition of Freedom magazine, which I’d first encountered at an anti-apartheid demo in 1986. I don’t know what the rest of the gang made of the place, but for me it was almost a place of pilgrimage.
We caught the Tube back towards the centre, but by now Rhod was fed up of being crammed in like a sardine. We got off at Tower Hill and decided to walk through the City and down Fleet Street to Trafalgar Square. It was a beautiful day to walk around, look at the scenery, people-watch, and drink in the atmosphere of one of the world’s great cities. That was exactly what we did, and I remember everyone’s shock and awe at their first view of the spectacular edifice that is St Paul’s Cathedral.
At Trafalgar Square, we decided to split up deliberately. Phil and Maria fancied a pint and found a pub nearby. We arranged to meet them back there in good time to return to Victoria. The rest of us went back underground and set off towards in Kensington High Street. The acclaimed guitarist Joe Satriani was doing an LP signing that afternoon, and Jeff and Slim wanted to meet him. The shop was close to Kensington Market (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane
), so the boys went to Tower Records and I went for a nose around the stalls before meeting them later on. The queue to meet Mr Satriani was huge, but the boys were chuffed to bits when they got to shake his hand. For guys who were heavily into rock music, that close encounter with their hero was probably the equivalent of my visit to the Freedom Bookshop.
We made our rendezvous by Nelson’s Column as arranged, the coach made good time back to Aberdare, and we managed to grab a couple of pints before stop-tap. In spite of the early hiccups, we’d all had a great day out.
There’s a interesting postscript to this little adventure. Some years later, two girls named Lisa and Claire started drinking in the Carpenters, and after a while became part of our little set. It turned out that they were the same two sisters who’d been on the coach on the journey up to London. They were both slim, dark-haired, punky-looking, and very attractive. Claire soon regenerated into the Immensely Rogerable Claire, and went out with my mate Leigh for a while. Meanwhile, Lisa and Jeff paired up and remain together to this day. Their older daughter appeared in the school production of The Sound of Music a couple of weeks ago. That gave me a handle on the approximate date of this expedition – it must have been the best part of twenty years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun.