Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Happy to pull some strings to resolve a little mod-life crisis

Martin Newell

Martin Newell - Credit: Archant

The phone rang the other morning. The voice on the other end asked did I know of any buskers? I might, I answered. Why? A group of scooterists and bikers intended that Saturday, to ride en-masse to Colchester General Hospital. There they would distribute presents to children and to silver citizens, many of whom would be in hospital over Christmas.

They would meet in the yard of the Kawasaki Centre, on King Edward Quay in Colchester. Gary Youngs, for it was he, explained to me that they’d had some buskers booked to come down and play in the yard; something in the way of an hour’s cheery entertainment, while the two-wheelers congregated before setting off. The type of music would preferably be Sixties, Beatles, old blues, stuff like that. But the buskers had cried off, said Gary. So, he asked again, did I know of any?

I said: “Let’s recap here. You’d like a busker, or buskers, to play outside by the snack wagon at the Kawasaki Centre, Saturday morning, from about 9.15 till 10.30, before you set off for the hospital. There’s no amplification, it’s completely acoustic and there’s no money, because it’s for charity.

“Yes”, said Gary. I considered the situation. I couldn’t think of anyone, no-one who immediately sprang to mind. “Will I do?” I asked.

That evening, I said to Her Outdoors: “If we could get to Wiventrose supermarket by no later than 8.15 Saturday morning, sprint round the aisles, you could drop me off at the Kawasaki Centre, then I could do the mission and take a train back from the Hythe afterwards. Bish-bosh, job jobbed and all that.” She agreed. She even offered to come with me and give me a lift back. And so it was that on a magnesium bright, if freezing, December morning I came to be standing, strumming and hollering old 60s songs in the Kawasaki Centre down by the Colne.

Gary, an insurance broker based at Elmstead Market, provides insurance for many of the local two-wheeled community. His club, the Mod n Casuals Scooter Club, ran this year’s event in association with Colchester Trinity Rotary Club. “Quite a few scooter and biker clubs organise toy-runs to hospitals at Christmas in different parts of the country but it has not been done in Colchester for a number of years,” he said. Local businesses had been tremendously generous in supporting the event, he added.

I considered this. The scooter enthusiasts and the bikers, many of them, are of now of vintages which span middle age – and beyond. The old mod and rocker wars of the mid-60s are long over. With age has come a certain wisdom, along with an awareness of mortality, which was never the province of sweet youth.

Most Read

I realised that many of the club members, because of the very transport which they use, would be familiar with the good work of hospitals. They’re of that age, I thought. They like 60s music, scooters, motorbikes – and having fun. Talking to one of the scooterists a few years ago he described the situation as “a mod life crisis”.

Playing in the frosty yard on that icy morning, my hands went so numb at one point that I could barely feel them. I lasted about seven songs before I had to retreat to the Kawasaki showroom to warm my fingers up. Upon re-emerging into the cold to resume busking, as they roared in singly or in pairs, it occurred to me what a cheerful bunch these scooterists were. They are, after all, genuine enthusiasts.

I knew mods and rockers when I was a very young teenager. In fact, I did my first ever busking for Hells Angels in Piccadilly one idle Saturday morning in 1969. There I was standing on the Dilly, smoking a Players No 6 – at that time the official School Cigarette – when a group of them loomed up: “Can you play that ******** thing? “ one of them growled. “Yeah, a bit ” I quavered. “Well play it then.” As I struck up, one of them held out his chain-festooned peaked cap while nervy-looking tourists began throwing money into it. Three songs later, we had enough to go into the nearby Pronto Cafe for tea and toast. They were very kind to me and allowed me to live.

As for mods, they seemed to be a dying breed for about a decade, until the 1979 release of Franc Roddam’s film Quadrophenia. Then, with a bit of a push from Paul Weller, there was a new generation of them, complete with the razored hair, the bands and the scooters. The 1979 mod movement must have been single-handedly responsible for the re-instatement of the scooter as an object of desire.

Thirty-five years after Quadrophenia, mods are now a British institution – like James Bond, fish and chips and rainy bank holidays. The bikers and mods – there were always fewer bikers than mods – have more in common with each other than they do with most other road users.

The other Saturday, with my busking session over, I watched about 70 scooterists and bikers head off en-route to the hospital, with a great puttering and revving of engines.

I found it to be a genuinely stirring sight. I felt vicariously proud to be there. Age has not wearied them, I thought, nor have the years condemned. They just take out more comprehensive insurance policies nowadays, that’s all.

Read more from Martin Newell here