Historical novelist (and, as it turns out, former flick-knife-owning hoodlum) Conn Iggulden shares another story of his misspent youth…
My father is ninety years old. Last week, he returned an Opinel lock-knife to me that he’d confiscated thirty years ago, saying he thought I was probably mature enough to have it back at the age of forty-three. I have it here and holding it in my hand brings back an entire summer.
When I was thirteen, back in 1984, I spent my school holidays in the local park: Warrender Park in Eastcote. One year, I spent all August playing cricket every single day with three other lads. We even borrowed the park-keeper’s roller and mowed a proper pitch. By the end of the summer, I could bowl and bat pretty well. We tried the same thing the following year and to my vast irritation, the other three took it up where they had left off, while I had to relearn the set of skills from scratch. As a physiotherapist exclaimed in shock years later: “You have zero body awareness!” Feeble co-ordination, coupled with lightning reflexes makes a very poor slip fielder, that’s all I’m saying. I could get a hand to anything, no matter how fast, but it almost always bounced off.
(I had those reflexes measured once and my reaction time came out consistently as 0.06 secs – six one hundredths – less than a tenth of a second. Olympic 100 metre sprint starts are set up so that if anyone moves faster than a tenth of a second, it’s declared a false start. Just so you know. The sad thing is that reflexes fade, while coordination – or the complete lack of it in my case – is for life.)
I’d bought that lock-knife at the tender age of ten during “The Best French Trip of All Time“. It was a fearsome great thing and I’d used it to whittle things, mostly. I’d read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and whittling was then something I wanted to be good at. Before I describe how I used it to get myself into huge amounts of trouble that year, I should explain about the Ruislip Younger Firm.
I told him to hang on and ran home to get my lock-knife. I don’t think he expected me to come back, but I did. I arrived, puffing and waved my knife at him.
In those days, there was a local biker gang of adults who called themselves “The Ruislip Older Firm”. By all accounts they were a very serious outfit indeed. There was even a huge fight organised in the park one long evening, broken up by the police. I wandered around afterwards, picking up bike chains. Bike chains were very popular as a weapon at that time. For some reason, they’ve gone out of fashion now, which is a little disappointing. They were terrific, like a sort of British version of Nunchucks.
Off the edge of the park were some woods, a school and some council swimming baths. Beyond those were streets of council houses, known as “The Blue Roofs”. I don’t know for certain that there was any real connection, but the boys of the Blue Roofs had formed a gang who rejoiced in the name of “The Ruislip Younger Firm”. They were led by a boy named Damien, with a Spanish-looking sidekick named Diego and a big mixed-race lad called Tom, who had a red arm. The reasons for him having a red arm were never properly explained and we just accepted it, but it really was quite red. He used to say it was because he had a Cherokee grandmother and I thought that made sense at the time and didn’t ask again.
Now that Diego, well he was just a little bit of a nutter. He used to rant and shout and threaten anyone walking their dog past him. On one beautiful summer evening, he had picked up two bricks and was waving them around. I’m afraid I laughed at him. There was just something funny about the bricks. With one in each hand, he would have been fearsome, but these ones were cemented together in a big lump. He couldn’t really do more than heave them about, though he seemed to think it was very intimidating. He rushed at me with them and I thought “Well, I have a proper weapon at home”. I told him to hang on and ran home to get my lock-knife. I don’t think he expected me to come back, but I did. I arrived, puffing and waved my knife at him. He waved his bricks at me in return and we glared at each other. He threatened to throw the bricks. I pointed out that if he did, he would have no bricks.
It went on for a while like that, before we both retreated, calling threats as we went. In the game of life, knife beats bricks, but what I hadn’t counted on was him being a member of the Ruislip Younger Firm.
My brother Harry hadn’t been with me for that exciting stand-off. We often went to the park together and what happened next usually went like this: we’d arrive to have a go on the swings, or the climbing frame, or the slide. We’d be spotted, either by some keen informant, or a single member of the Blue Roofs kids, who would then go haring off to fetch the others. We’d wait a little while, knowing there was quite a bit of distance for the kid to run, then stroll off home, often leaving the park just as ten or twenty lads appeared at the other end of it.
As blissfully innocent as I then was, none of this worried me at all. It just seemed part of the colourful tapestry of life and I was certain they’d get tired of it, eventually. They didn’t though. The leader, Damien, was an extremely determined young man – and presumably he had Diego baying in his ear for vengeance.
Harry and I were buying sweets and comics in the newsagents one night, unaware that the Younger Firm had spotted us and were gathering outside the door to the shop. Some of them had bike chains, I remember, and were whirling them about with enthusiasm. The shopkeeper was an elderly Pakistani man named Charlie. Bless his heart, he refused to let them in and called the police. They escorted us home under the eyes of the gang. I might have taunted them a bit. I’m not certain, but it sounds like something I might have done. Either way, Damien decided to raise the stakes once again.
I was out at the cinema when they knocked on my parents’ door. My brother Harry was on his own and like a complete idiot, he put the barking dog into another room so he could open the door. Apparently, he had time to say “Yes?” before Damien punched him and he fell over. The gang ran away after that. When my parents came home, they called the police again and took photos of my brother’s swollen head. I told Harry he should have held on to the dog. He said he knew that, thank you very much. He was not grateful for the advice. In fact, he seemed to hold me responsible, which I thought was unfair.
About a month before, I had completely accidentally broken off one-and-a-half of Harry’s front teeth, when he jumped out at me and I hit him in the face with a toy gun. He holds a grudge, Harry does, there’s just no other way to explain it. He was very keen for me to end the dispute with the Ruislip Younger Firm. I knew Damien’s mother worked in a shop in Ruislip, so I went there and asked her nicely to have a word with her boy. It didn’t work, but I did try.
I looked in the window and recognised my nemesis on the passenger seat, holding a bloody cloth pressed to his face! My mother was driving him to hospital.
The event that actually brought it all to an end began on top of the hill in Eastcote, just by the Metropolitan line station. Apparently, Damien and his mates were there, kicking over bins and jeering at passers-by. One of those passers-by happened to be a young motorcyclist, sitting on his machine, a few years older than all of us. They mocked him for his leathers and may have questioned his sexuality. His response was to calmly pick up a glass bottle in the gutter and smash it over Damien’s head before riding away. Damien was pouring blood and needed help. The closest house of someone he knew was mine.
I was walking back from school with my bag slung over my shoulder, when I spotted my mother’s brown Morris Marina driving along the road, about to pass me. I looked in the window and recognised my nemesis on the passenger seat, holding a bloody cloth pressed to his face! My mother was driving him to hospital. “Surreal” doesn’t begin to express how odd it was to see that.
Now, after Damien had been stitched and bandaged, he didn’t feel he could honestly continue his feud with the son of the woman who had driven him to hospital. He and the Younger Firm had a new enemy in the form of that motor-cyclist and I’m told they searched high and low for him for months, but never found him. Either way, Harry and I were free to play in the park once more, without one of the Younger Firm spotting us and running for reinforcements.
The story could end there, but there is an odd post-script. Years later, I started teaching in a school named Haydon, in Northwood Hills. The first year ended and as the summer holidays began, I came back in to do some marking and lesson planning. In those days, the school was in the habit of employing convicted criminals on Community Service to trim the hedges. They wore orange jumpsuits for the work and as I walked down a path, I suddenly recognised Damien, clipping a hedge with shears. My heart thumped a bit, I remember. I decided to stroll past him. It had been ten years and I didn’t think he would know me.
He looked up.
“I know you don’t I?” he said.
“Perhaps. I think so, possibly…” I said.
“I do know you!” he said. “You’re Harry! Harry Iggulden!”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes I am.”
Conn Iggulden, for Waterstones.com/blog
Read more from Conn in The Best French Trip of All Time
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