Last Sunday was an odd one. I went to Ben’s so he could take me to the Brighton Mod Weekender, and as Ben is an ex-mod, without so much of the “ex-” about it (it presents mainly in his clothes and his incredible, to me, tidiness – I’m amazed he lets me into his flat), being shown round by him is like being shown round Cape Canaveral by an astronaut. But I was in a strange mood. I had a beer on his balcony and all I could think about was the 16-floor drop (vertigo) and how the beer wasn’t making the thought go away.
So his brother, his niece and an old school friend turned up and we went to look at the scooters. I was a bit worried that I didn’t have the right gear, but in the end I managed to dig out a pair of desert boots. I thought they weren’t too shabby, but Ben’s brother was wearing a pair you could have eaten your dinner off. Not that you’d have been advised to try.
Ben explained why so many Mod scooters have extravagant numbers of wing mirrors and headlights.
“When they started, the Old Bill would pull them over and do them for driving without a mirror or a headlight. Of course, sometimes they’d smash them or knock them off. So this was the mods’ way of taking the piss.” Every day’s a school day.
We were joined on the promenade by Mat Snow and his partner. Mat used to edit Mojo and once round his place we played the entire A Hard Day’s Night album and bounced like lunatics to every song, singing along too. It was one of the happiest nights of my Brighton life. So I like Mat. (I was once asked if I knew any music journalists in Brighton. “Are you kidding?” I replied. “Everyone in Brighton’s a music journalist.” I am barely exaggerating.)
I did like the spectacle of the Weekender, though. The scooters, a huge number of them vintage, were impressive; there were generations of mods, from toddler mods (moddlers?) to the originals, some pushing 80. The air was heavy with the reek of two-stroke and buzzed with the tinny sound of their engines. Ben told me a story about interviewing an early mod for the 50th anniversary of the first proper bank-holiday scrap, in 1964 (there’s a famous photo of this mod flattening a rocker with a deckchair).
“Don’t you look back on it now and think it was all a bit silly, getting into all those fights with people from the same background just because they had different bikes and clothes?”
“Yeah,” said the mod, “I suppose you’re right, now you put it like that.” There was a pause. “I still hate the greasy s***s, though.”
I peeled away from the group. I was feeling psychologically out of sorts, and I wasn’t sure why. I’d been in bad mood all weekend because a friend had thought it would be amusing to get ChatGPT to write an article in my style. The first time someone did this it was mildly amusing. The second time it read as if I’d had a stroke, or it had been written by Adrian Chiles. This time, the third, I seriously got the hump. If they tell you AI learns on the job, they’re deluded. It gets worse.
This bot decided that one of my stylistic quirks is to mention the school I went to. “It forgot to mention,” I added icily, “that I want every single school of that kind burned to the ground, possibly with their head teachers still in them, just to drive the point home.” I do not like people who went to public school unless they have performed conspicuous acts of decency. I have very few friends from that background. I know their arrogance, their entitlement, their savagery, concealed under a graceful veneer. I would go so far as to say my lack of worldly success is a deliberate repudiation of those formative years.
Ben called me the next day to see how I was: he could see something was off, and asked what was wrong.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I just wasn’t feeling very sociable.”
At which point he said something extraordinary, out of the blue.
“It’s funny: the thing about you and Mat is that you’re the only people I know from that background who aren’t inveterate, compulsive bullshitters. You know, the kind of people who pretend they know everything. If you or Mat don’t know something, you both say, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s really rare. And that bullshitting attitude has not really served this country well over the last decade or so.”
So that cheered me up. As I was on the phone, a wasp flew into the room. This has not happened at all this summer. And, as you probably know, the Italian for “wasp” is “vespa”.
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain