I remember when I first met Graham, around tea time on a watercolour grey afternoon in the East Field at Runton. I was with ‘Anton’, and Joe had introduced us as a couple of fellas from East London. I believe I once said that Graham has the manner of someone who has been standing in the rain for thirty seven years – this is true, but is not to suggest that he is a downtrodden figure. Quite the reverse, in fact. He is every inch the rural beast master, with a weather beaten face and clothing a mixture of tweed and oilskin that often contains live mammals other than himself. By contrast, ‘Anton’ and I looked like a couple of Disney orphans as we stood by ‘Anton’s car, which had all but skated across the field in grass made slick by days of rain. No, I don’t know why we didn’t just park and walk over, either. At length, Graham stopped what he was doing, which was putting fishing rods or shotguns or something in the back of a Land Rover, and took stock of us.
‘Are you the feckin’ Kray twins?’ he enquired in a voice that the strength of his Irish traveller accent made appear louder than it actually was.
‘One of us is black, though,’ I said, ‘kind of breaks the spell a bit’.
There was a pause.
‘Him,’ I added, pointing at ‘Anton’.
‘We could be the Kray cousins, if you like,’ said ‘Anton’, by way of reconciliation.
There was another pause, and I noticed the first drops of what would turn out to be a four hour deluge on my jacket. We were Londoners out of our environment, like the first Romans to splash ashore and encounter the ancient Britons. We felt slighted.
‘You don’t want to sling a bit of tarmac on this, mate, do you?’ I said, indicating the field, ‘we’ll never get the car out otherwise’. This was, in hindsight, not a diplomatic triumph.
‘You want me to tow yez out?’ offered Graham, climbing into the Land Rover.
‘Yes mate, please,’ replied ‘Anton’.
‘Ah be useful now, wouldn’t it?’ said Graham, starting the engine and driving away. We followed, twenty minutes of stationary wheel spinning later, during which ‘Anton’ remarked that the one time he didn’t want a pikey to fuck off, he actually had. We agreed that they were a tricky bunch.
Things have, of course, improved considerably since then. Graham is a genuinely skilled man, able to breed, kill and make things out of any animal you care to name, and I regard him as the only person on the Runton Estate who actually knows what they’re doing. This is perhaps harsh on Becka, who has built a successful forest school out of nothing, and Joe, who as a fence mender and livestock wrestler is among the region’s finest, but you get my drift. Graham regards ‘Anton’ and I as lost, overgrown children. We repay this with a sense of reluctant awe. While mourning the loss of porn in carrier bags as we manhandled still-beshitted fittings from the crumbling pigeon loft last time, ‘Anton’ and I discussed other sepia memories of our vanishing childhood world. These included aerials on cars which, not being a legal driver, it took me until 2014 to realise were no longer a thing, and aging council estate teddy boys. The father of the first girl I ever kissed, in an alley in Plaistow, was a council estate teddy boy, and they are a fixture of a late twentieth century British upbringing which I consider worthy of dwelling upon.
The father of the first girl I ever kissed, who must’ve been 60, was typical of the breed: wiry, tattoos all over his arms and neck, and as game as you like. It was law to have one every four streets or so, and you could tell where they lived by the Southern Comfort mirror glimpsed through their front room curtains when you did your morning paper round. They all had these, presumably either stolen from pubs or donated by grateful sovereign ring manufacturers after decades of loyal custom. Graham has no Southern Comfort mirror, but what he does share with the council estate teds is the pervasive air of avuncular menace. The thing is, they know stuff that you don’t about things that directly affect you, and manage to convey this by way of bootlace ties (council estate teds) or familiarity with soil types (Graham). What they transmit isn’t necessarily dislike, but more akin to an absolute understanding that you need them more than they need you, with a further absolute understanding that both of you know this. The first girl I ever kissed’s father worked ‘on the scrap’, which in London at the turn of the nineties meant dismembering stolen cars – the stealing of cars is something that also doesn’t happen anymore, come to think of it – and distributing the parts to far flung scrap dealers in outer London. Members of my own family were notorious for this around Mile End and Canning Town, and could have a Vauxhall Astra chopped to pieces and in scrap yards in Alperton, Uxbridge and Southgate in three hours, presumably via a network of council estate teds. Incidentally, my first paid employment was related to this, and involved walking along lines of parked cars in Highgate with half a tennis ball which could be pushed against the passenger side door in such a way that compressed air deactivated the central locking, for later theft by persons unknown. At the time, middle class people could eat peanut butter on toast without collapsing from anaphylactic shock, so were at least able to console themselves while reporting their missing Volvo 740 to the old bill.
I once asked Graham why he had left the travelling community. He explained it was ‘alright if you don’t mind all the travelling’ but that he’d subsequently recognised the importance of registering his children with a local primary school, and then never sending them to it. He considers primary school a purely social activity, and that they will have a far richer one hurtling around the Runton Estate with an eagerness for territorial confrontation rarely seen in children aged four, eight and ten. It is hard to dispute this. Secondary education is a different thing, however. When they finally get there I believe they will thrive – when I taught the eldest two to read (receiving Archie as part payment) they were eager pupils once past the stage of trying to intimidate you by asking why you’re a wanker a hundred and forty nine times. Interestingly, Graham’s children are formidably well versed in current affairs. This is because, in lieu of primary education, he only allows them to listen to Radio 4 in their caravan, and it amuses me how they will shut you up if you talk over the World at One. I look forward to their future adolescent tantrums and hearing them stamping up the stairs, slamming their bedroom doors, and blasting out the shipping forecast at full volume. This will never happen, of course, because you don’t have stairs in a caravan, but still.
Main: Elderly pigeon bedrooms recovered from the East Field.
Top insert: Another crumbling building on the Estate. I think this may once have been an ice house.
Middle inset: Exciting mechanical digger for mucking about on.
Lower inset: Aging council estate teddy boy. Very few still left in the wild. They declined at the same time as the second hand car parts industry – coincidence?