The first time I saw Ken was at some political demo in the early 80’s being held in some park in South London, can’t remember the park, what the demo or festival was for, all I can remember is that Billy Bragg was playing, some comrades pointed to a group of young anarchists and said ‘do you see the guy over there with the flat top? He’s one of us’, and as I was later to learn it was a privilege to be included in the same us as Ken.
Our paths crossed numerous times at various anti-fascist and anarchist activities, but I didn’t really get to know Ken until I moved down from Doncaster to London for work early in 86. Things were pretty grim up North, unemployment was high and jobs were non-existent, me and a mate decided to sit in the Job Centre for a whole day. We arrived before the doors opened and sat there until it closed. Even when one of us nipped to the public toilets, less than 50 metres away, the other remained; for the seven hours it was open not one job was posted on the board. OK, I exaggerate, we were enticed off our feet once when one of the workers stood up, slowly walked through the concourse, and took their time carefully fixing a card on the notice board, a drawing pin in each corner. Aircraft armaments technician wanted in Saudi Arabia, as I was saying jobs were hard to come by in Doncaster.
Ken had offered the opportunity to share his squat, which I eagerly took, the flat was just south of King’s Cross train station, which was handy when I arrived by coach at Victoria station. Ken opened the door to his single one bedroom flat, with a living room/ kitchen and a tiny bathroom. Things were rough up north but at least we didn’t have a housing problem. Ken let me know that the settee was all mine.
I started working with Ken doing renovations and improvements on people’s homes, when I say ‘people’ I mean the chattering classes of Islington. We did the work while an architect put in exaggerated prices and creamed off the majority of the income, most of the time he did nothing, other than tell us what needed doing, we turned up, planned the job, ordered materials through the building merchants and did the job. Numerous times people wanted extra work done and Ken would explain to the client that me and him could do it for half the price, they would be better off, and we would earn more, what is known as a win-win situation. Despite Ken’s best efforts, references to Marxist economic surplus value and anarchist class politics, which you would think would impress the champagne socialists, it was all to no avail. The bourgeois, despite their leftist politics, chose to stick with their own class. I recall Ken being told he was like the ragged trousered philanthropist, and no doubt he would have been the centre of some praiseworthy anecdote across the table at Islington dinner parties. Ken was not so complimentary – ‘bastards like those go running to the Communist party or even the fascists, whenever there is a revolution just to be with people like them because they don’t trust people like us’.
If there was one word to describe Ken’s building work it was perfectionist, which is why he always did the best job possible and opposed my suggestion to seal food waste behind plasterboards when the client pissed us off by turning down our offer to do any extra work behind the architect’s back. Doing a better job was part of his resistance, if 9mm plasterboard was required by building regs we put in 12.5mm, if we only needed a 6 inch concrete beam he ordered a 9 inch, if we only needed a 4 tonne skip an 8 tonne arrived, providing a service for the local community. As he said our wages are the same but less profit for the exploiter. OK I had to lug a 9 inch concrete beam up numerous flights of stairs but Ken was oblivious to this as his strength made picking anything up child’s play.
Ken was obsessed with food, obsessed is the wrong word, he was well aware of what he was putting into his mouth – not in a faddy diet or mystical “tomatoes contain toxins” way, but in a nutritional plenty of veg, lots of protein and carbs in proportion. And the man could eat. I first noticed his food consciousness as we were walking home from a day’s work, he nipped into a shop and came out munching a bright yellow fruit. He was astounded when I asked him what it was – ‘a pepper’. In the 80s green peppers had only just appeared outside specialist shops in Yorkshire, red and yellow ones were unheard of. After he had eaten not just one pepper but two, he then proceeded to consume the contents of a brown paper bag which were various nuts, when finished he went on to explain about protein and vitamins. His focus on what was good to put into his stomach led to a domestic in the local supermarket, which went something like this:
Ken: ‘Why have you put those in the trolley?’
Me: ‘They’re cheap’
Ken: ‘These ones are better’
Me: ‘They’re more expensive and there are less of them.’
Ken (following an expletive): ‘They have more protein’.
Neither of us was backing down and the raised voices interspersed with regional based insults resulted in other customers taking detours down different aisles. I don’t recall the outcome of the argument, but we probably got a separate packet of sausages each.
Ken was probably in his physical prime back in the late 80s, eating well and working hard, not only was a good-looking bloke, he had what could be described as a ‘presence’. Numerous times the pair of us were sat on a tube with our tool bags and levels, either returning to or setting off to a job and I would amuse myself counting the number of female office staff covertly clocking Ken from behind newspapers or paperbacks. If it wasn’t for the fact that Ken was oblivious to the fact, the numbers would have been irritating. The only time Ken ever made a special effort with his appearance was on some anti-fascist activity when close contact was expected. I won’t say it was hours of preparation, but when the pair of us could get out of the flat to go to the pub in less than half an hour when changing out of our work clothes, boiling water to have a strip wash because the hot water didn’t work, any extra time seemed excessive. He would be up early shaving, trimming his hair, dabbing on smelly stuff, selecting the ‘right’ clothes to wear. He was like a teenager on a date. The reason I remember this so vividly is when one time, after I had been sat there for what seemed ages, he eventually came out of the bathroom wearing my black 501s. For those of you too young to know, 501s were a thing – check out the Nick Kamen 501 advert on Youtube. After years of unemployment with clothes getting shabbier and difficult to replace, I bought myself a pair of black 501s out of my first wage packet – just for best of course. Somehow Ken had managed to pull them on, I was much slimmer than Ken.
‘What the fuck are you doing wearing my best jeans?’
Now I don’t know if he had practiced the look, or if it was generally felt but he had the ability to look really hurt and shocked. After Ken explaining that he needed to look good (for confidence, I think) and me shaking my head numerous times – we went off to oppose the fascists with Ken still wearing my best and only pair of 501s, on the proviso that he didn’t get any fascist blood on them.
After this anti-fascist activity, it may have been another but why let chronology get in the way of a good story, when we were down in a tube station (not at midnight) waiting to catch the tube home. There used to be Nestlé chocolate machines in every station. They were notorious for taking your money and not dispensing any sweet stuff. Ken was hungry, and despite advice not to bother he pushed some coins into the slot, of course when he pulled the draw expecting some bar or other nothing happened. Ken then pulled a claw hammer from inside his jacket and attempted to lever the drawer open, this was of course before the days when everywhere was covered by CCTV cameras. Fortunately, our tube train arrived, because Ken was getting more irate at his failure to prise the machine door open, it felt like it was only a matter of time before he used his hammer to break through the wire reinforced glass to liberate the chocolate which he rightly perceived as now being his. For some reason the other passengers on the platform opted for different carriages than ours.
‘Do you know this one?’, and the answer was always no. The question was either asked after Ken had recited a few lines from a poem, or he would ask whether I knew of such and such poem, again the answer was always no prompting Ken to burst in a recital. He only ever did it when we were in the flat together or working as a pair on a job, I never saw him take centre stage when there was a large group. Ken was not a performer, but he had an active and curious mind and sometimes there were times when he just needed to share his knowledge and understanding of the world. It was never wasted time to listen to Ken, it may not have been the fastest conversation because he never felt the need to respond instantly and would take time to consider his thoughts and structure a response.
Eventually me and Ken parted ways on the work front, he was responsible for picking up our money, there were delays and my pay packet started to seem lighter than I had expected. The penny dropped years later when other friends and comrades told me about his dependency. I was brick-laying on a development south of the river with a great view of Battersea Power Station when my chest started to hurt, and I found it difficult to breathe. Another brickie let me use his blue inhaler. My chest had always been poor from being a kid, and I was prone to attacks of bronchitis, but this was the first time anything had come on so rapidly. I left the site early and managed to make it back to the block of flats where the squat was. I then had to climb 3 flights of stairs, by the time I got to the third storey I was on my hands and knees. I dragged myself up by the doorknob, unlocked the door before falling back to my knees and literally crawled into bed. I laid there, still in my work clothes, and became resigned to the fact that this was it.
By now I was in the bed, because at this time Ken had moved out, or was at least spending the vast majority of his time at Helen’s. I am not sure how long I lay there but it was dark, so to this day I am not sure if it was the next day or not, when suddenly I was aware that Ken was in the room. He had come to get something from the flat, when he saw how bad I was he swung into action.
‘We need to get you to the hospital.’
‘There is no way I can walk down those stairs.’
‘Not a problem.’
Ken got me to my feet and supported me until we were on the landing. Then in one move he picked me up. I am 6 foot and even thirty odd years later I still have a 32 inch waist, but Ken carried me down 3 flights of stairs, not over his shoulder in a firefighters lift but as a babe in arms or as a bride across the threshold. I said he was strong.
Once we got to the entrance to the flats, as laid coiled on the floor, Ken ran off and flagged down a black cab. He arrived in the cab, made sure I had money, OK he asked if I had money, it was a good job I did because I am not sure if he would have put his hand in his pocket – he would have had to run up stairs to get some of mine; Ken was always short of ready cash. He instructed the cab to take me to St Barts and he was off, he obviously had somewhere important to be. You know it always bothers you when doctors and nurses start running about, much better that they tell you to wait or come back in a week or two. The cabbie helped me into A and E and one look at the state of me and I was sat in a wheelchair and pushed past all the broken bones and bloody noses into a cubicle. A few hours on oxygen, steroids, antibiotics, and a good night’s rest saw me discharged the following day, with half a dozen different tablets and inhalers – good old NHS. A couple of days’ bed rest and I was back laying bricks. Of course, being blokes, me and Ken never talked about it other than a simple ‘you better?’, ‘yeah’.