A gargantuan Hells Angel smiles at me. Then his gaze travels south. His expression darkens. Wordlessly, he turns and strides off towards the bellowing bikes.
I'm at the Bulldog Bash, the Hells Angels' annual festival near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Pint-toting bikers hug each other at stalls touting tattoos and drinking horns, race their bikes down the drag-strip and sway around to classic rock. Among them – and yet standing apart – are the Angels, their presence evident in the rows of black Harleys, in their trademark logo gleaming on leather waistcoats, in the clasp of hands and the murmured word "brother".
The Bash has garnered some bad press in the past, with the case of Angel Gerry Tobin – who was shot dead on his way home from the 2007 Bash – often referenced. Yet the Global Gathering dance festival, which takes place on the same site, has a much more scandalous history, with numerous thefts, plenty of drug use, sexual assault and a death as recently as 2012 – and does not share the same notoriety. The main factor, it seems, is the presence of the Angels themselves. Their officially trademarked name and logo conjure notorious legends both urban and historical. But what do we actually know about the Angels of 2016?
There's a brief history of the club on the official website. The first Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in 1948 in San Bernardino, California, the name apparently having been suggested to the founders by a former pilot of the WWII Flying Tigers' "Hells Angels" squadron. Over time, a number of separate Californian motorcycle clubs united under the name and defined admission criteria. There are now over 400 charters worldwide, from Japan to Peru. The rest of the webpage is spent lambasting and debunking the "incorrect reporting" that has sought to tie the club to a military lineage.
My press pass is a leper's bell around my neck. Glancing down, I realise what made the huge Angel actively avoid me. The motto "When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets" may be as anti-press as it is pro-Angel. The vacuum created by the club's aversion to speaking to journalists has been filled with fear, ignorance and second-hand stories; a cycle of suspicion that I'm not sure is entirely unwelcome to the Angels and their reputation.
Take my friends, for example – some were unaware there are Hells Angels in Britain, while another says he knows one, a "lovely chap who lives next door to my uncle and helps with the gardening'. Others are alarmed that I'm attending the Bash alone, and a friend in the police will say nothing on record but quietly requests I let him know I'm OK. The Warwickshire police press office confirms that they still officially recognise the Hells Angels as an organised crime group.
So that leaves me watching face after inked face shut down. An Angel bearing a New York rocker (a curved patch generally signifying an Angel's charter) won't even slow down as I approach, curtly remarking, "I'm here to enjoy myself, not to talk to press."
Lucky, then, that a young Belgian Angel I get chatting to points out a figure at a food stall and suggests that "Robert would be the best guy to talk to... if he'll talk to you."
Robert turns out to be a charismatic 69-year-old Californian from the Daly City charter, who is showing the hotdog vendors a jar of his fiery chilli-garlic sauce. "I find their food a bit bland," he stage-whispers. He insists on buying me lunch, and we sit down to eat among a group of his brothers from several continents beneath a banner reading "Hells Angels support our brothers in jail."
Conversation is easy – until lunch is gone and my notebook appears. The Angels that fringed our bench draw in, their chatter replaced by silence. I tell them I'm only here to see and hear for myself what the club is about, and write only from my experience. They nod, although one or two snap pictures of me on their mobiles to show their brothers "the girl who's asking all the questions".
I ask if there's anything they would like to put out there, any idea or statement. "For the public?" asks Robert. "Yes: fuck off!" There's a chorus of laughter and agreement. "I don't want the exposure; it brings heat. People have biased opinions through the press, books, whatever... actually, we don't want to say too much, the public don't know and that's how we want to keep it – keep some mystique. We are the standard for motorcycle clubs. We are what others want to be; if they can't be you, they hate you and want to kill you.
"What we stand for is very simple: high standards in life. You treat people the way you want to be treated, you give and get respect. If you fuck up, though, you'll pay for it. In any organisation or walk of life there's some piece of shit that tarnishes a reputation. But it's a wonderful, wonderful brotherhood. I have a brilliant life. I can't explain what it does, but it works."
He and his brothers beam at each other, radiating genuine affection. I ask if there's been any significant changes in the club over time.
"Oh yeah – drugs used to be legal!" A resounding guffaw. "We're just more modern; cellphones, laptops, etc. In the old days, if you got into trouble and you couldn't remember phone numbers you'd be waiting a long time for someone to bail you out! We do that less now – say if you get into trouble, you sort yourself out." Robert hands me his phone and invites me to scroll through photos he's taken of old images, denim-clad Angels in the 60s and 70s. "The style, the clothes, the bikes have changed, but the people have remained the same."
The Angels line up for a photo, throwing their arms around each other. I ask them to turn so I can take a picture of the diverse charter rockers on their backs – "Only if you turn and shake your ass for us first!"
I wander up to the drag-strip to check out the action, where the wheelies and burnouts are nearly as entertaining as watching Angels submit to having sun cream applied by their wives and girlfriends. There's a missed call on my phone – I've got an interview with Taff, President of the Ashfield charter, who are the main organisational force behind the Bulldog Bash.
In a rare lull between responsibilities, Taff meets me at the back of the Custom Tent, overlooking scores of bizarre and beautiful bikes. He's tired, gruff and business-like, but takes the time to politely answer my unwelcome queries.
"We are purely and simply a motorcycling club. We have different charters all over the world – we fly and ride out to visit them; it's about getting together with our brothers. If we were gangsters, we wouldn't be out working every day! And why would you advertise that if it was the point of your organisation? The Mafia don't go around with 12-inch patches on their clothes."
I ask about membership and presentation.
"We've a range of ages in our charter, from twenties to fifties. And we wear our full kit when it's appropriate – you'd look stupid walking around Sainsbury's pushing a trolley in all your patches and leather."
He's happier talking about the Bash itself – small wonder, with the success of the festival under his charter's organisation. "It used to be run by HA England as a unit, but Ashfield took it over as we missed it, everybody else missed it... it's an opportunity for brothers worldwide to come together, but also for other people who simply love bikes."
He's not wrong. Though smaller than it used to be, with attendance nearer 5,000 than the 50,000 that showed up to party in 2007, it's cheaper, safer, more relaxed and focused on the main thing that brings everyone together, myself included – the bikes.
We shake hands and Taff's bubbly wife brings me a flute of pink prosecco. "Don't tell her anything," Taff warns her, flashing a grin. He's the second to ask to see my notes before publication.
I wander off towards the "adult entertainment zone", where B-Bob, the New Yorker who shut me down earlier, greets me enthusiastically. He's hanging out with Robert and a bunch of international brothers by the bar, largely ignoring the strippers up on stage. I'm introduced to Angel after Angel; handed drink after drink. I get chatting to a couple of Belgian brothers who take me to the members-only bar. Nico, a 35-year-old from the Belgian Coast charter, is quiet at first, but we bond over bikes, poetry and travelling.
"When they made me a full member I told them, 'I'm gonna ruin your reputation!'" he laughs. "I'm married with a five-year-old son, I went to university, have a pizza and pasta bar... and no tattoos. Every brother is different. You get some assholes, of course, but we just love to ride and hit the road with our brothers, and that's what being a Hells Angel is about for me. We know wherever we go in the world we will have a roof over our head, good company, good food... it's really humbling."
Drinks appear in my hands as if by magic, and I find myself feeling strangely safe. Perhaps I'm used to being physically and verbally harassed on Saturday nights in bars – but not here, where I'm comfortable in the knowledge that with these guys' simple philosophy I can give them respect and get it back. I'm invited to stay in the US, in Belgium, in Holland, and offered tattoo designs. The brothers are incredibly welcoming, and with the disappearance of my camera the younger ones especially are more open to chatting. At some point we move outside to hang out in the abandoned dodgems, before eventually passing out as the sun comes up.
The Hells Angels are a collective of individuals. While a few might wish some change of their reputation, many actively bolster it, and for their own purposes they hold on to their mystique – as do, for example, the Freemasons. The police's official stance is that there is "evidence to suggest they are involved in criminal activity", and there is one reported incident of an assault at the Bash this year – but I have personally witnessed no aggression among the thousands of drunken bikers.
And you can't forget the good that's done here, either – the Bulldog raises money for local charities, and historic Stratford itself is full of signs welcoming the attending bikers. I have experienced suspicion and distrust as a journalist, but only respect, generosity and good humour as a person.
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