He first appeared on Devonshire Road in the summer of 1975. We watched him go by from behind the hedge that bordered Drake Court. He had the strangest gait I’d ever seen; head tilted back, chest puffed out like a cockerel, hands balled into fists, arms pumping at right-angles, all topped off with a self-satisfied grin. His greasy, dark brown hair was parted in the centre, his face liberally spattered with spots, his teeth prominent. He was wearing a hooped tank top and flared trousers that entirely covered his stacked shoes, as were we all.
I’d recently stopped hanging round with the kids from Stanford Path because it was too far away and was now knocking about with Garry and Terry Penny, the new kids on my street. They’d recently moved into the flats over the road and like me, didn’t have a dad. Shortly after getting to know each other they knocked for me one Saturday morning. “Come on, you’re Millwall now”. Their mum was a big, white, stentorian mama that would take us to Jamaican house parties at the weekends—far more fun than my mum who thought that the flat was bugged, the phone was tapped and she was being followed all the time. They were equally vicious when it came to dishing out beatings, though. Sue Penny, probably wishing to emulate her friends, would go buck wild Jamaican-stylee on her kids asses, whereas my mother preferred the ‘calm Nazi interrogator suddenly flying into a frenzy’ approach to child abuse.
Chrissie Clarke lived a few doors up from me with his mum, sister, five brothers and several dogs. They were all totters and thieves, even the dogs. When you went round their house the mum would shout down the stairs, “Mind the dog shit on the way up!”
Everyone would sit around watching telly and smoking fags. A round of fags could be half a packet and would occur about every fifteen minutes, and everyone (except the mum) took turns at making cups of tea—all with full-fat milk and white sugar. Now and then, a brother or cousin would turn up and empty their jackets and trousers of stolen goods; car radios, carriage clocks, Levi’s, joints of meat, mostly ripped off from cars or shoplifted.
The Penny brothers and Chrissie Clarke were the baddest kids I’d ever hung around with. It goes without saying that at thirteen I was already smoking and drinking but these lads were on another level. Breaking windows was in the past. It was all about breaking into cars now.
We would arrange with our mothers that we were going to stay round Chrissie’s house then we’d sneak out in the dead of night. Back then, it was so quiet in the early hours, you could hear a fox fart. We had a kind of master key that would get us into nearly any motor. None of us could drive so we didn’t nick them. Although on one occasion we did let the handbrake off a Merc to watch it roll down Canonbie Road; one of the steepest hills in South London. We stood there doubled up, pissing ourselves laughing as it careered down the road smashing into one parked car after another. Then the upstairs lights in the elevated houses all came on, quickly, one by one, so we legged it up and over the hill, giggling like morons. But mostly, we would just pilfer any loose change and fags we could find and rip out the radio/cassette players. We’d then pass on the Motorolas, Phillips, Grundigs etc. to Chrissie’s brother Neville, who would fence them and take the lion’s share of the money and grin in our faces.
After a hard night’s thieving, with the sun coming up and birdsong in the air, we’d head out again for our customary breakfast. This meant robbing the ‘The Hut’ on Perry Vale of its crate of baked goods and taking them back to Chrissie’s for the whole crowd to enjoy with a nice cup of tea. The casual idiocy of our youth took this set-up for granted; so as we helped ourselves to cheesecakes and apple turnovers it came as a total surprise when the cops—who were waiting for us in a panda car just over the road from the place we’d been stealing from every Sunday morning for the past few weeks—jumped out on us. We scattered. Chrissie went one way with a constable on his tail and Garry, Terry and me scarpered through the subway and down the alley that ran alongside the railway track. They jumped over a wall and beckoned me from the other side but I couldn’t make it so carried on running until my teenage smoker’s lungs couldn’t feed me no more and I sort of fizzled out to a halt and the little copper who was chasing me just had to walk up to me and tell me to come with him.
When my mum came to pick me up from Sydenham nick, Old Bill gave me a sympathetic look that said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, sunshine”. My mum gave me a look that put the fear in me. The day after the thrashing I had to go and apologise to the bloke who owned The Hut. This was particularly awkward because I’d been a regular customer for years. It didn’t go down well, he just glared at me then told me my words were worthless as he was pretty much sure that I hadn’t come of my own volition.
I was banned from hanging around with the others, which wasn’t so bad because soon after we were finally offered a council flat on the Honor Oak Estate in Brockley. I knew a load of kids from school over there and best of all, we’d have a bathroom and separate bedrooms. The bath was massive, with taps that looked like big, brass udders and my own room meant I could get down to some serious wanking. I now had a proper crowd to hang around with; we’d go to Peckham Rye Park, Nunhead Cemetery, Ivydale Youth Club and church hall discos. And the smell of punk was in the air.
Come 1979, I was working at the Fox & Firkin in Ladywell. One Saturday afternoon, Garry and Terry walked in and they were all, “Alright Dave, look at you. You’re a geezer. Fuck me.”
They had a few pints of ale and left, I haven’t seen them since. One Saturday night after work, I was in a rough little nightclub called Knights, in Catford. Think Millwall geezers wearing crash helmets and carrying claw hammers. That kind of rough. I was standing out of the way with my mate Andy from work, drinking awful lager and concentrating on not catching anyone’s eye when Chrissie Clarke sidled up to me.
“Hello Dave. Cor! Look at you.”
I jumped a little.
“Long time. What you up to nowadays?”
I told him that I was a management accounts clerk, a barman and worked on a shellfish stall in Woolwich Market on Saturdays. He told me that he’d given up the horse and cart down in Deptford and that he had a new venture which he ran from his flat in St Asaph’s Road, just round the corner from my gaff on St Norbert’s Road. We carried on until the death then me and his little crowd picked up some takeaways and shared a cab back to Brockley.
Back at his, I was introduced to one of the great loves of my life—cheap amphetamines. These babies were crudely made little, blue pills. Chrissie’s new venture. I popped half a dozen and ended up chewing on a small piece of moistened chamois leather; just to give my champing jaw something to do. We all drank and talked bollocks until the sun shone through the gap in the swirly curtains and he offered me a go on his bird.
“Don’t be shy mate, she’s up for it. Aren’t you Miche?”
She wasn’t and neither was I. I never saw Chrissie again in person. That evening I had my first comedown. I’d never felt so wretched or so glamorous. I dragged myself into work looking like a bag of pale, old shite and copped some very knowing looks and sardonic, tuts from the older heads. Like I gave a bollocks.
I did hear about Chrissie again, mind. I saw his face on the front page of the Sunday People some time in the 80s. He’d smashed a young woman’s face in with a half brick and left her dead body in a front garden on Wickham Road. At the trial, his family all turned out to hurl abuse at the victim’s relatives. This didn’t help his defence, he got life. I guess he couldn’t handle his speed.