Monday, 6 April 2015

From the Guardian's archives - 4 April 1964: 9pm at the Ace Café


Sally turned up to take photographs in the black leather jacket she uses to cover Fascist demonstrations. It was no use. “That girl’s square,” said a voice as she picked her way past the benchfuls of Rockers to the cafe counter, where the man with the presence of a bouncer was dispensing sweetened tea at 50 per cent under British Railways’ prices. 

It was 9 p.m. at the Ace, on the North Circular close to Stonebridge Park Underground, and at the door there was a stab of headlights, a chuckle of exhausts. About a hundred young men and women, owning collectively perhaps 25,000 c.c. of motive power, were settling down for the evening. After Margate, after Clacton - and with a handy canal just outside the door - one was slightly nervous of one’s reception.

There was no need to worry. At the Ace they are drawing their skirts away from that kind of thing, rather like experienced rock climbers sniffing at a careless hiking party. Many of them are members of the 59 Club, an open, largely rule-less motor-cycling club centred upon the Church of St Mary of Eton, Hackney Wick. 

“Violence?” said Bill, a film processer. “No. Of course, there are plenty of people who wear the 59 Club badge without ever coming near the place - or without owning a bike either. I’d say there aren’t more than four shady characters in this room - the sort who borrow parts and so on - and they’re mostly on their own.” 

Shady, but not quite on his own, was the resident dope pedlar, “doing well by doing good.” Flanked by his “lieutenants,” this pasty-faced young man with near-black hair and deliberate speech favoured the inquirer with some highly coloured trade gossip. “Purple hearts,” he said, “are going out, though the price is rising in anticipation of Mr Brooke’s bill becoming law.” The young man broke off. “Can you get me 1,000 by the weekend? “ he inquired of his senior henchman. “There’s a big punch-up on.” 

“Yes,” he continued, “I sell to Rockers during the week mostly, Mods at weekends. About 150 customers. I make about £300 a week out of ‘purple hearts.’ Buy at 1 ½ d, sell at 9d. Of course, I have to pay my lieutenants out of that. Then there are the ‘black balls‘ - dexedrine. They bring in about £70. And an occasional parcel of ‘snow,’ for very special customers. 

“There’s a new pill about too - gelatine capsule, black and green. Don’t know what it is. May be a mixture of heroin, thiamine, and dexedrine. I tried it on my bird this afternoon and she’s still trembling.” 

The pedlar’s party disappeared into the night wearing an unloved look. A young Rocker started shooting his story down. “ I don’t think there’s more than 1 per cent of the chaps here take drugs.” Jim, a pleasant young man who expected to give up riding soon because he was getting married, admitted to occasional marijuana. But then, Jim had had a spell in the Scrubs, for breaking and entering. 

“Yeah, My best mate squealed on me. I was in with George Clark, before he won his appeal. The CND held a demonstation outside. Father Shergold (the motor-cycling parson who heads the Eton Mission and founded the 59 Club) visited me in prison. He’s a good geezer.” 

Even if only for traffic offences, the police keep a heavy hand on the Rockers “We think they’re a little bit prejudiced,” Jim said, spinning out the last word to make it rhyme with “sliced.” “ You practically never get a Mod coming into work and saying he’s had a nick.” 

Unlike the Mods, with their fur collar and eyebrow make-up, the Rockers almost invariably wear crash helmets. But bikes are twice as fast as scooters. The Ace café group has had two fatal accidents in the last month, and in cash terms, too, it is an expensive hobby. Devon, an 18-year-old Jamaican chromium plater nine years resident in Britain is paying off a £20 fine - his second - at £2 a week. He has owned 10 bikes in two years. His present one, a Triumph Tiger, was bought “rough“ for £100 and done up. 

In the courtyard of the Eton Mission where the 59 Club meets every Saturday night (Father Shergold is taking himself his 650c.c. Norton, and his club off to a parish in Paddington later this month) the 83-year-old wall is scrawled with signatures and slogans : “Up the Mods,” “Up the Rockers.” And also - for this is, after all, the Eton Mission - “ Up the Chelsea Set.” 

The Rockers would be too polite to stress the point, but anyone who has ever encountered a gang of Old Etonians looking for a giggle might seasonably think himself and his property safer in the Ace Café.

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