Saturday, 3 August 2019

'The Ace was tea ... chips ... and speed'

Amazing what you can find in churches. On the same day that I called in at Shere Church I also visited St Thomas's, Chilworth, an odd little building that didn't begin life as a church at all. But we can talk about that another time. They had a secondhand bookstall with some oddities scattered among the commonplace popular novels and cookbooks. I found this for a pound - Winston Ramsey's 2002 account of the Ace, the bikers' café on the North Circular Road, and its role in the popular culture of the 1950s and early '60s. It was not a waste, it turned out. I had a vague memory of having heard a radio programme mention the 'ton-up boys' (and occasionally girls) who raced their customised bikes around the night-time North Circular in the Ace's vicinity in those years, and this densely-packed book put a lot of flesh on that uncertain recollection. Beginning with an account of early motorcycle gatherings in the area and how the North Circular developed (talk about covering all the bases), the volume is largely based around personal recollections and news reports, and there is an awful lot in it. It brings home both the excitement of racing at high speeds around rather hazardous suburban roads and the dangers of doing so in the records of accidents, court cases, and lists of deaths - the media hype, the errors in reporting, the nostalgia of remembering being part of an exclusive club. One section is based on the memories of one of the few girl bikers, and one on those of a traffic policeman who chased them round the roads, which rounds off the perspective neatly: the last page has a photo from 2002 of him with an old antagonist, Barry, who he'd last met when arresting him 41 years before.

My Dad had a bike in his younger days, which was one of the reasons his prospective father-in-law, my grandad, wasn't too sure about him at first, but remember he was a Ted rather than adopting the leathers of the ton-up boys. Teds wouldn't have driven too fast for fear of messing up their gear!

A big chunk of the book is devoted to an unexpected figure, the 'biker priest' Bill Shergold who reacquainted himself with motorcycling in 1959 having moved to the parish of the Eton Mission in Hackney Wick and finding it the best way of getting around. Earlier that year the curate at the Mission had inaugurated a new church youth club and somehow cajoled Cliff Richard into playing at its opening night. This '59 Club' was a great success in its own right, but from 1962 Fr Shergold edged it in a different direction. 

Having heard about a special service held for motorcyclists at (of all places) Guildford Cathedral Fr Shergold decided to do the same. In the course of the planning, someone from a local motorcycle club said to him the fateful words, 'of course the people you really ought to invite are those young hooligans who go blasting along the North Circular Road', and so he set off on his bike on a Sunday afternoon for the Ace Café armed with a roll of posters and flyers - not, he admits in the book, the most auspicious time of the week for going if he actually wanted to speak to anyone. He was so nervous at going to what he had been led to believe would be a den of Hells' Angels that he covered up his dog collar with a scarf and drove past it twice too afraid to go in. Finally he screwed up his courage, pulled onto the dreaded forecourt, parked up and entered. The place was almost empty. He sat with a cup of tea, finished it and left without speaking to anyone apart from the barman, a middle-aged clergyman panting with nerves. 

I can recognise myself in the fact that Fr Shergold's next attempt to penetrate the Ace was the night before the service was due to take place. He must have fretted himself into resolution and made a last- minute decision with no time to change his mind. This occasion, at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night, the café was jammed: but apart from one youngster suggesting he 'rev up and fuck off', to be reprimanded by a mate, everyone was remarkably interested and Shergold didn't actually make it inside as so many people spoke to him. Far from 'losing my trousers or landing up in the canal' it was instead 'the most fantastic evening I have ever spent' and he didn't get away until midnight. That was the start of the 59 Club becoming a dedicated Church motorcycle club, as it still is today (sort of). 

The story of how this came about (a great and unsung instance of Anglo-Catholic mission, by the way) is a fine example to all clergy, for four reasons. First, because of Fr Shergold's non-judgemental care for the bikers as individuals - very incarnational. Second, because he was able to connect with them not as a patronising outsider, but because he had something demonstrably in common with them. Third, because of his persistence; and fourth, because of his sheer terror at dipping into an unknown world. What an encouragement to all us cowards!

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