Friday, 23 March 2007

Urban fairytales

In the winter of 1981-82, the local newspapers of east London were all agog with stories of the mythical "Hackney Bear": my hazy memories of this, as an 11-year-old, were that there had been a number of sightings of a bear on Hackney marshes, stomping in the distance across the unkempt scrubland at dask and dawn. My uncle worked on the Hackney Gazette at the time, and at every family gathering he'd bring us updates. It was thrilling stuff, the area's very own Loch Ness/Yeti story, and covering the story must have been the very essence of what local journalism is about.

Of course, it turned out to be a bloke in a bear costume, playing a hoax and taking the piss, as was a pale imitation that apparently appeared a few miles west a couple of years later, the Hornsey werewolf who "stalked" Highgate Woods; it was just an oddball kid who went to my mate's school. But one can only salute the pointless indefatiguability of both the bear and the werewolf.

Another slice of inexplicable non-wacky weirdness from my childhood concerned a bloke who waited at our bus stop going to school throughout the autumn of 1983. Throughout the term, he'd turn up at the same time, as straight-laced and suburban-looking as they come: shirt, tie, overcoat, briefcase, copy of the Telegraph - but no trousers. He maintained this kecks-less state for months, never looking around for attention, never speaking to anyone, provoking suppressed sniggers from us but surprisingly little wider reaction. Wonder why he did it?

I'd like to think that these sorts of pointless traditions are being maintained - though it's actually the opposite of the sort of contrived wackiness of a David Brent or Colin Hunt off the Fast Show, which has been so regrettably nurtured by Comic Relief and their ilk. No, the bear, the werewolf and the trouser-less commuter were part of a richer scene, which preferred anonymity and got on with it. Truly, a scene without heroes.

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