At the time they were simply angry. Their actions were instinctive with no awareness that they were creating a legend. Yet another poll tax had been levied, this one three times higher than the last. Yet another poll tax to keep funding an unpopular, seeming unending war. A war championed by powerful and loathed individuals with disproportionate levels of power. A tax system that was corruptible, built with loopholes that allowed some to pay less than others. It was inherently unfair.
This wasn’t recently, this was 1381. The war wasn’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was the latest phase of the conflict with France that with hindsight would become known as the Hundred Years War. The unpopular aggressor was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who ruled as regent for his nephew, the teenage Richard II. And the angry mob? Well, they were just like you and me. They were just normal people who’d had enough and were going to do something about it.
Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and all the others were ordinary farm labourers; men with children and wives and desires and fears like everyone else. Although, because they lived with the feudal system their wants were probably more focused around a day of rest and not being frightened that the local nobility would conscript them into the army. Today, our concerns seem more trivial, but that’s today, who knows what tomorrow will bring? Above all, though, Tyler and Straw were charismatically angry and they knew it.
In a world before multi-layered communications networks, through a miracle of blind coincidence and rumour spreaders who ran from village to village, groups armed with pitchforks and scythes and bad moods marched from Kent and Essex into London. There was no democracy, no power of the vote, this was the only way to have their say and they were determined to do so.
They came out of Kent and congregated on Blackheath with the smouldering hustle of the city still a few miles away. I wondered as I squatted down in the middle of the grassy expanse, if they could possibly imagine what I saw, over seven hundred years later: Gleaming spires, congested traffic, the dull background noise of an easy life.
Whilst Tyler organised his men and women, Straw had already started rioting in Stepney, and with a wink I was there too, walking through sandy smudged streets of mid-rise flats tumbling over structured leisure space; a cacophony of a century’s enthusiastic rebuilding mish-mashed into a community. The winter chill made the walls shiver whilst the mob ripped open one of John of Gaunt’s palaces scattering his wealth to winds and the dirt. The violence echoed through the centuries.
My morning train lurched into New Cross Gate. The doors hissed open and fresh cold air flooded inside to an audible aaaah from those pressed too close to each other. Then the band got on board. I knew they were in a band because they were implausibly trendily dressed in skinny jeans and open shirts over strategically holed t-shirts, dark shades and stubble that looked deliberate (unlike mine which looked simply not arsed to shave). Oh and they had guitars. They fought their way aboard with their flight cases and inch by inch they helped squish the tiny woman on the far side of the carriage into the wall until the words ‘open’ and ‘close’ were imprinted onto her cheek.
All the way into London Bridge, for eight stifling minutes, they tried to out cool one another with increasingly mad stories of girls and drink and drugs and more girls and always guitars and dark lights in back rooms of pubs and all I can think is not about how I wanted to be that rock and roll, but: ‘why aren’t you still in bed?’
Not so long ago the new brunette and I had found ourselves in Tate Modern, lost deep inside the engineered black cavern that sat in the centre of the turbine hall. Detached voices bounced off the walls and all it needed was a warming breeze or a waft of sulphur and it’d be like the entrance to hell. Somewhere in the murk a child ran away from its parents, the flickering red lights in the heels of his trainers suggested an aircraft falling out of the starless night sky.
‘Where does it end?’ she asked.
I leant closer and took her hand in mine, wrapping our fingers together and raised her arm, pressing our link hands against the felt covered wall.
‘There,’ I replied, ‘that’s as far as it goes for now.’
She smelt of sugared strawberries on a Sunday summer afternoon.
Later, watching a band perform songs that reeked of early sixties girl groups pop in a bowling alley that felt stolen from the fifties Americana that only existed in Happy Days, the guitarists seemed familiar. They weren’t the same guys as from the train that morning, but they did appear to be cut from the same identi-kit template for young obnoxious musicians. That said, they were still pretty good.
I glanced over at the new brunette, but she was looking distractedly into the middle distance and in that moment I reminded myself what I’d thought in the first the moment we’d met: ‘Too pretty for me, unfortunately.’
In Romford, Conservative campaign literature promised to cut immigration levels bemoaning (once again) “we can’t go on like this.” The fact is, though, they’re lying. The only large numbers of immigrants in recent years have been the economic migrants, those mainly from Eastern Europe and that means their travel and work permits are written by European law. No government can deny them access. The Tories are lying and playing on base, unfounded fears. They are encouraging hatred and bigotry and badly informed decision making and people wonder why I fear their possible victory in May.
But not to worry, here comes Gordie Brown to sort it out. The football is carefully placed for him to belt it straight over the Conservative goal. It’s a sitter, an open target, even he can’t miss this one, it is almost too easy. Here he comes, lumbering through an unexpectantly dour and long winded run up, Harriet Harman lies on the ground, her index finger holding the oval ball carefully on end. Boom, boom go the PM’s clomping size tens as he gallops onwards. Crumbs this is going to take the back of the net off.
‘I think Fabio Capello has sympathy for me.’
What? Where did that come from? Oh, look he’s spinning through the air, arse over tit once again, and now he’s landed in a crumpled heap in the dust.
Good grief, indeed.
Somewhere out of the way Nick Cleggy, Foggy Cable and Compo Kennedy are careering out of control down a narrow country lane in a rowing boat strapped to the top of four wheel barrows, but who really cares what they’re up to? They can keep retelling the same jokes forever and a day as their fanbase slowly dies out and they fail to evolve or change and gain new followers.
Tyler and Straw’s trouble makers persisted through the night and the following morning’s sun rose, the rioters gathered together in Smithfield. Then, like now, it was a meat market, a centre of commerce surrounded by the wider bastions of the city life politely ignoring it. Now, unlike then, the glass arched Victorian roof peels over chilled packaging rooms and articulated trucks shoehorn themselves down narrow roads built for totally different forms of transport. Then, unlike now, it was open space where thousands of aggressive country folk could congregate.
Surprisingly the boy king came forth to speak. He slid out of his crimson and purple silk sheets and mounted his purely bred horse. Poised on the far side of the square, kept deliberately apart from the mob, they waited whilst Tyler, flush with the arrogance of success and the dizzy thrill of his new found power, sauntered across and proceeded to act in a most uncouth fashion in the presence of his alleged betters. He was loud and brash and disrespectful. The first thing he did was ask for alcohol. John Terry probably channels his spirit through an ouija board.
The details of the negotiations are now lost to myth, but it appears that at some point Tyler found cause to draw his dagger which resulted in him being stabbed twice. Once in the neck by the Mayor of London and once in the gut by a knight of the realm. Boris would have loved the middle ages.
Seeing their leader felled the peasants murmured surly half-hearted threats to start further trouble. But their passion for the fight seemed to have been extinguished along with Tyler. Richard rode over and promised them safe passage, that their demands would be met, that a degree of equality would be created and somehow managed to persuade them that Tyler had been knighted, not killed. The voice of the king, the boy anointed by God to rule, made them disbelieve their own eyes.
The voice was, of course, forked like the devil. Richard lied.
A hastily assembled militia broke the trudging mass of tired workers apart and sent them back to toil the fields. The leaders were isolated and arrested. Jack Straw lost his head in the grounds of the Tower of London, the final act of the revolt the thunk of an axe through skin and bone, embedding itself in the wooden block below and the tumbling of a decapitated head rolling across the dew heavy stones, eyes rolled up in their sockets.
I am writing all this from memory, but I am unsure whether it is the memory of history learnt or the memory of Peter Ackroyd’s Clerkenwell Tales read. Does history become fiction regurgitated as fact? Our past is fluid in its definition. Our understanding limited by our standpoint. Our knowledge restricted by gaps that can only be filled by the imagination. Where does reality end and myth begin? Does the distinction even matter?
As I walked back through the lateness of Covent Garden the street lights reflected a shimmer in the puddles of rain water stretching across the cobbles. A girl with dark hair, a black puffa jacket and perfect skin, stepped alongside me and touched my elbow.
‘Hey,’ she said smiling a little deeper.
‘Hey?’ I replied cautiously.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Um, Charing Cross? Home?’ I stopped walking and looked at her. ‘Why?’
‘Do you want to come to a strip club with me?’
‘No, you’re alright,’ I chuckled and started to walk away.
‘Why not?’ she asked my back.
‘Not my sort of thing, thanks,’ and as I walked away I found the world implausibly funny and my laughter echoed out around the damp city, following me into the night.