Thursday, 6 August 2009

Hells Angels and the Party Poopers

Bikers get a bad rap, or at least they used to, back in the days of motorbike rebellion and Motorhead. These days, you're as likely to see a businesswoman speeding through the middle of early morning traffic as you are to see a bearded Harley rider on the roads of Leeds, and if I'm completely honest, as much as it pains me, most people riding fast bikes round my particular patch of the UK are of the more chavvy disposition.

I grew up around motorbikes; my mum first met my dad in bars around Lancaster favoured by the grimy biker set, and I'm imagining my grandparents weren't especially thrilled with his long hair, piercings, ripped denim and general oil-stained appearance. In the Eighties, this grungy attitude was not cool, it was a rebellion, much like my pink hair and Pantera fixation was during those dreaded teen years. My mum quickly developed a love for bikes (not that she didn't already like them before she met my dad, of course) and so when little baby Katie was born, the house was filled with baby bottles, engine parts and Jimi Hendrix. I have pictures of me as a toddler playing around with bike helmets and wearing Bulldog Bash tee shirts. It was an interesting way to grow up, and I like to think it's shown me that being different probably means you can have more fun. I definitely learned that even as an adult, you can still act like a kid sometimes. Bikers to me were my parent's friends, and I wasn't scared of them, they smelled of leather and petrol (which still happen to be two of the most soothing smells in the world to me - along with fumes from a two-stroke engine). Every so often though, there's a news story that reminds everybody that certain bikers are somewhat violent, and a little bit bad. It nearly always happens right about the time of year the the Bulldog Bash is about to happen again.

Once again, Warwickshire council have been trying to ban permission for the Hells Angels to host the annual Bulldog Bash bike festival in Long Marston near Stratford-Upon-Avon again this year, after last year's mini-riot at Bradford International Airport between the Angels and the Outlaws. There are several rival biker gangs in Britain, but the prominent three are the Outlaws, the Bandits, and the Hells Angels. Tensions aren't always high between them, but every so often news surfaces to the outside world that shocks the rest of the country. What people seem to understand about bike gangs is that they deal with a lot of illegal businesses, and that huge amounts of violence can happen between the groups. Drug and weapons trafficking as well as other shady dealings is what people expect from these outlaw gangs. Last year, Hells Angel Gerry Tobin was shot dead while he drove home on the motorway from the Bulldog Bash by members of the Outlaw gang. Those involved have now been jailed for life, and although this seems like an isolated case, what really goes on between the gangs really isn't known. It isn't any of our business after all, we aren't members...and if you were in a group like this, you'd keep your mouth shut. No snitches allowed!

I don't have a favourite gang per se, but growing up around them means that the Hells Angels seem less scary to me. I can remember camping and being a part of the Bulldog Bash weekend experience even as a kid, and however irresponsible that makes my parents sound, I believe that it would have been far worse to have been left out. I always had a great time at these weird and wonderful places - yes, there were drunk people everywhere, but I wasn't exactly left to my own devices, and I must say, the Hells Angels made seriously effective wardens for the old air force landing strip that the bash calls it's home. One of my earliest memories is being scared and upset because I'd wandered off and lost my mum in the crowds near the market stalls (the Bulldog Bash can only be described as a mish-mash of music festival atmosphere and alternative fashion and motorbike stalls. I was always fascinated by the thousands of tiny parts you could put inside motorbikes, and the stalls were covered in shiny things to look at). Wandering round, crying and sure I'd have to live in the tent forever, I tugged at the sleeve of a tubby bearded Angel who was standing by the Ferris wheel. Somehow deciphering my childish sobs, he took my hand and helped me find my furious and worried mum. In my experience, they are friendly people, these biker types. Having this kind of memory of them makes any violent shenanigans they become embroiled in seem just that - a comedy fight with barely any grounding in real, serious lawbreaking. I'm wrong, I know I am, but how can ginger Santa Clause lookalikes shoot people or cause riots? They carry knuckledusters and meat cleavers? But when I had my ears pierced by one as a toddler (the only cool fact about me) he could barely do it in case I cried! These aren't criminal masterminds! They just like drinking beer and driving bikes and looking at bikes and wearing leather jackets with fringed sleeves and watching drag races. They like Lemmy and Jack Daniels and look after other bike riders. I think I'm suffering from positive stereotyping. I see the Hells Angel badge, and I think "Cool!" or "Nice guy". There's clearly something wrong with my neural processes in this area. I just can't seem to thing anything but nice things about those funny people with bike fixations and a cheeky wink.

The only anecdote I have that shows "bad stuff" is a real threat at places such as the Bulldog Bash is a memory of going one year as an older kid, perhaps aged seven or eight. It was hot and there was a traffic jam as we tried to get into the campsite, which was irritating because we'd already been driving for about three hours. Trying to find out what was going out, my dad got out of the passenger seat (he could only drive a bike until I was about nine) and was immediately told to return to the car by Hells Angel stewards. We all got our cars searched, and it turned out that rather than drug trafficking, a rival gang had threatened to bring homemade bombs to the festival. Quite a scary thought for a child. Probably. Chloe - my sister - and I just thought it was quite exciting. I blame the parents.


xthemusic said...

Very interesting article, especially getting the view from someone who has experienced being in contact and interacting with these gangs.

The only view that I get is from the news that paint them out to be thugs and nothing more. This may be true, but i'm sure they have reasons for doing what they do - right or wrong.

In an interview with head of the Outlaws about the murder, he just seemed to shrug it off as an 'oh well' situation. I can only hope that the majority at least value lives more than he does.

formulaic666 said...

I have pretty mucht he same outlook as you to be honest. Back in my DJ'ing days I used to do a few sets for the Angels at their clubhouse in Sunderland and found them to be for the most part really lovely, funny people. Sometimes the atmosphere seemed a little 'charged' (such as when someone came in to do stand up and made a joke about a guy who had clearly had a spill. Oops!) but overall a nice bunch.

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