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A Place of Perdition
10.08.06 by Buffalo Bill

An Australian bicycle messenger named Fin once said to a girl-friend of mine that the Duke of York is “a place of perdition”. Perdition, in Christian theology, is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unpenitent person passes after death.

purgatory - thanks to Jon for pic

For me, the Duke has become purgatory, a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. I have sinned, and I have definitely suffered at the Duke. I have drunk myself insensible, been slapped and insulted by friends, and spurned by the woman I loved for another messenger. But not all in the same night. I hope that my sins have been expiated, because I no longer wish to be punished. I don’t hang out at the Duke anymore.

The Duke of York is a pub on the Clerkenwell Road, at the corner with Vine Hill. It stands on the edge of the slope at the bottom of which runs the now culverted and hidden Fleet River. Legend has it that if you lift the correct drain cover at the bottom of the hill, you be able see the Fleet. The banks of the Fleet River were to be avoided in mediaeval times, a place where lurked cut-purses, robbers and whores. It was an open sewer into which flowed the effluent and muck of the City of London that had spread across the river towards Westminster. It was a dark place. Perhaps a little of that darkness remains. The bottom of Vine Hill certainly smells like an open sewer on a Friday night.

Seb's bike takes the window seat at the Duke - thanks to Elisabeth Blanchet for the picture

When On Yer Bike moved to White Bear Yard, on the corner of Back Hill and Clerkenwell Road, the Duke was empty, a dingy, dusty edifice, furnished with purple velvet booths. It was the perfect place for a weary pedaller to pile his bag up with his fellows’ and rest his weary legs. Not only was there always a place to sit indoors, but it was also possible to stand and sit in the alley, and pick up a bit of weed and skin up. A couple of courier companies were also local to the Duke, Streetwise, Mach 1 and Holborn Globetrotters. But OYB was by far the biggest. By the time I left what had now become Security Despatch in 1993, Friday night was Duke of York night for a regular crowd of around 50 couriers.

In 1994, after visiting Toronto for the Helloween Alleycat Scramble, Boris and I decided that we wanted to start Alleycat races in London. We naively thought that London cycle couriers would jump at the chance to participate in this global phenomenon. We were wrong. The first 2 events were attended by only 6 riders. We were disappointed. So we decided that instead of holding them on a Saturday night, we would hold them on a Friday, and start them from the Duke. In the next couple of years, the addition of Alleycat racing to the mix of Guinness, weed and chips (from the chippy in Leather Lane) turned the Duke from a Friday watering-hole into the place to be for a courier. On an Alleycat night in the summer, the bikes would be piled down the alley, hung from the lampposts, thronged on the railings on the corner of Laystall Street and Clerkenwell. The crowd would be thick on Vine Hill, blocking the road in the front of the pub. It was a quite a scene.

It took a long time, maybe 2 years before Alleycat Fever took hold in London. I guess the night when I realized that it had really gotten hold was in the summer of 1997. We started in Vine Hill and brought the race back through Vine Hill for a mid-race check-point. The field was big, bigger than I could remember, perhaps 25 or 30 riders. There were plenty of people still drinking and smoking in the alley as the racers came hurtling down Vine Hill towards the check-point at the bottom. It was a little chaotic and the crowd was naturally getting a little boisterous, and the riders were enjoying showing off exactly how crazy they were. It probably was a little dangerous, and it was happening right outside the pub, almost in the pub.

The management had never really approved of us using the Duke as the start/finish line, but then they had never really disapproved either. Until this night. Douey (short for Dolores), the tiny Queen of the Duke, alarmed and angry, came storming out of the pub, saying something like: “where’s that speccy-eyed twat?” She meant me. I am not frightened of many people but Douey, maybe 15 or 20 kilos lighter than me, perhaps 30 cms shorter, frightened the life out of me that night. She was in my face, or as close to my face as she could get, the pupils in her bright blue eyes narrowed to vicious little points.

“Are you fucking mental? Are you stupid? Stop this fucking race now, Bill! Stop it now!”

Stop it? 30 slavering alleycats, scattered all over the inner London post-codes, insensible to rules, careless of cars, ignorant of danger, minds set on reaching the finish by the shortest possible route, how the hell was I going to stop them? Impossible, no chance whatsoever.

“Yes, of course, Douey, I’ll stop the race right now, sorry, sorry.” I mumbled.

I was thinking about the finish, which was due to be on the other side of Clerkenwell Road from the Duke. How on earth would I hide the finish from Douey? Fortunately, the crowd in front of the pub was such that the finishing riders were hidden from those inside, and in any case there were so many people in the pub that the staff were hard pressed to keep up with the orders at the bar. So the finish went off ok. By this time there was a crowd of around 30 people on the other side of the road from the Duke, and the pavement in front of the pub was blocked for about 10 metres in either direction, and drinkers and smokers were standing in the gutters, and the road was in danger of becoming blocked to motor-traffic.

The race had been finished for about 10 minutes when 2 squad cars, containing around 8 uniformed police-men arrived. I watched them pull up, and felt my heart sink.
I honestly expected them to be looking for me, that I would be taken away for questioning, but I have always believed that it is better to go to the police and find out what they want, rather than have them come looking for you, so I went over to the most senior looking copper (I think he was a an Inspector).

“Good evening, officer, is there anything I can help you with?” I used my best manner. I can be friendly and respectful if I have to be.

“Yes, we need to keep the public highway clear. We have had complaints about people standing in the road and blocking the highway. We need to get this pavement clear, and get those people back on the other side of the road.”

He gestured at the small crowd standing on the opposite side of the road, congratulating the racers, and swapping race stories.

‘Oh! Is that all they want?’ I thought. No problem! To be honest, I was so relieved that of all the things he might have been interested in, the illegal race, the wide-spread use and sale of illicit drugs of various kinds, he should only be concerned about making sure that passers-by could walk along the pavement, made anything short of parting the Red Sea seem an eask task.

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