One Man's Madness / Part 04
Up the lane, across the other side of the main road, directly over the intersection, was a little agricultural enterprise we called “the cress factory”. This was run by a small extended family headed up by Mr Bamford, a sprightly middle-aged man with not a lot of hair but plenty of quiet energy. He was one of those practical thinkers who saw problems as only temporary impediments to getting a day's work done. He could put his hand to anything and have it sorted out in a calm and timely fashion. He had one or two siblings and in-laws and their associated offspring involved in the business of growing cress in large steel trays stacked up in long corrugated sheds. The natural production line would see domestic consumer sized plastic punnets being placed in one section of the shelving with a smattering of earth and cress seed. In the managed warm, wet atmosphere of these sheds the cress would prosper and become fully grown in their punnets within a fairly short space of time. At the end of the production line the plastic punnets would be transferred to cardboard trays, 24 at a time. The cardboard trays would be stacked up 20 or 30 high and loaded by fork lift into the back of Luton Box Ford Transit vans. (A “Luton Box” is one which extends forward over the cab of the truck, adding volumetric capacity.)
Three or four times a week these Luton vans had to be driven into London to the various mainstream wholesale markets for re-distribution out to the grocers of the nation and the Bamfords were constantly on the look-out for drivers. After an interview process which involved Mr Bamford looking me up and down, I was taken on.
We, the drivers, would negotiate our way through the London labyrinth, find the five or six different depots (Spitalfield, Smithfield, etc), reverse in to the loading bays, and unload the requisite number of trays at each drop off. To begin with I would unload trays five or six at a time, but as my skill, stamina, and cockiness grew, I would stagger across the market floors carrying as much as twenty at a time. It was a great way to work out and my back, arms, and legs found a level of fitness they hadn't seen for some time.
The added perk as far as I was concerned was that, on the way home, after all the drop offs, I could visit friends in London. As these visits became more drawn out, I checked with Bamford that it was okay to return the van late, and he said, “As long as it's back by sun up I don't mind when you get back.” In fact it turned out that my drives became the most fuel efficient of the entire fleet because, coming home in the early hours, I would encounter long stretches of empty road with no senseless idling in infinite traffic queues.
Among the people I would drop in most regularly to see were the guys who lived in the flat above Peter the Shrink on Holland Park Avenue, between Shepherd's Bush and Notting Hill Gate tube stations. These guys, Jim, Dave, and Steve, always had copious amounts of hash on hand but were also messing about with electric guitars. It was these sessions that set me off, relatively late in life it must be said, on my love affair with those instruments. Although I played a bit of banjo and harmonica, I'd never really got to grips with guitars because it always seemed so naff to try to learn when all the guys of my generation were doing it for the sole purpose of getting women to look at them.
I'd never even picked up an electric guitar until Steve shoved his at me and suggested I have a go. I was mesmerised by the thing. For a start, the three chords that I knew suddenly sounded impressive and other-worldly, with immediate variations available in terms of tone and volume such that it sounded like I suddenly knew maybe eighteen chords. And the strings were so much lighter than on the acoustics I'd occasionally messed with that my fingers felt instantly more nimble and competent. Inspired by Steve and Jim I learned new chords and became vaguely familiarised with the fret board. I eventually bought the guitar - a black Hohner Les Paul copy - from Steve as he graduated to a Stratocaster and we ended up having mindless stoned jamming sessions that lasted all night. As day began to break I would stagger down stairs, out on to the empty street, and clamber into the Luton van. I would reach Bamford's well after cock crow but before there were any visible signs of human life. I'd park the van, cycle back down to the cottage, and roll into my bed to sleep the sleep of the contented dead.
Sometimes I would bring friends out, bit like a human trafficker. Only two passengers seats in the front, so any extras would clamber into the box at the back with blankets and sleeping bags and snooze through the journey. If I had passengers I would roll up to the cottage first, disgorge the traffick, then take the van back to the Cress Factory, drop it off, and pedal home on my push bike.
Best job I ever had. The Bamfords even gave me a christmas cake for the holiday.
At one point in the course of all this, unbeknownst to me, the police were apparently staking us out from the stockbroker’s palace opposite. Apart from the fact that some of us had long hair, it seems the periodic appearance of the Luton cress van in the early hours had convinced the stockbrokers and thereby the local plods that we were wholesaling bales of weed. When the plods came, I was actually away but they didn’t skimp.
In a daring early dawn raid, they surrounded the 2.5 acres such that no evil-doers could escape and closed in with uniforms, plain clothes and sniffer dogs. They even had a helicopter! God knows what it must have cost the Essex rate payers. In the cottage they found two bemused women (one heavily pregnant) and a couple of children. In the lower meadow they turned a sleepy couple out of one of the caravans. They spent the whole day there, with flashing lights and crackling radios and urgent comings and goings of glittering ranking officers, ransacking and upheaving and sniffing. When all was said and done, they’d come up with one sorry solitary spindly struggling ganja plant languishing in a cracked neglected flower pot in a forgotten corner of the field. Whoever planted it had given up on it and simply forgotten it was there. The only adult male present was charged with possession, but even this was later dropped. All in all, a magnificent effort by the plods, and an honourable mention for one of their number who had supposedly gone courageously deep undercover to “infiltrate” one of our mini-festivals (presumably via the sly ploy of purchasing a ticket) to report back on the nefarious activities he’d witnessed there.
A testament to police intel and prioritisation at its best.
- One Man's Madness / Part 05
The story of one man’s 60 year love affair with 2.5 acres of Essex countryside.
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