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Rachel Kushner on The Hard Crowd and the motorbike crash that nearly killed her

In her new book of essays, The Hard Crowd[1], the American writer Rachel Kushner recalls the time 30 years ago when she took part in Cabo 1000, an illegal motorcycle race that began in San Ysidro, north of the US-Mexico border, and finished 1,080 miles south in Cabo San Lucas. The race took place in a single day, during which riders would navigate “a winding series of blind corners and hairpin turns”, often while travelling at 130mph. When another biker pulled out in front of Kushner as a lorry was coming the other way, she was knocked sideways.

“I see the tyre leave the road,” she writes, “and then I am up in mid-air over the bike, separated from it, high above the instruments and handlebars.”

Kushner, who somehow sustained only minor injuries, still owns the helmet from that day, complete with a large crater on the back – a memento of her brush with death.

“Girl on a Motorcycle”, her story about the race, which was first published in 2001, is the opening piece in The Hard Crowd, which brings together autobiographical essays, arts criticism and reportage spanning 20 years.

On revisiting the original version, Kushner – who has since moved into writing novels including 2013’s The Flamethrowers and 2018’s Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room[2] – began to wonder whether she had remembered the details correctly.

“Some of it seemed so unbelievable to me, and I do exaggerate for a living as a fiction writer,” she says. So she sent the essay to two friends who also rode in the race – “and they said: ‘Yes, this is how it was’.”

Kushner was initially resistant to the idea of publishing an essay collection, “because it seemed arbitrary. It’s not enough for me to simply have written things and put them into a book.”

If she was going to do it, she wanted it to read less like a random compilation than a portrait of her life and changing interests. The Hard Crowd underlines Kushner’s non-fiction work as personal and immersive, much in the style of Joan Didion[3], and reveals the author as an inveterate outsider who embraces adventure.

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Highlights include a vivid report from a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem and a lyrical reflection on sea captains who abandon their vessels. Elsewhere, in the title essay, she recalls her teenage years in San Francisco amid a wild crowd of hustlers and addicts, some of whom died young, while, in “In the Company of Truckers” her vintage Chevrolet Impala breaks down on a highway during a rainstorm, prompting her to seek help from passing truckers.

Many of the stories find the young Kushner entering male-dominated realms seemingly without fear. Was safety ever a concern? “Only now you’re asking me,” she laughs. She rejects the idea that she is fearless, however, “because it suggests impulsivity or thoughtlessness or recklessness, and I don’t think of myself as having those traits.”

Instead, she says her life and work are informed by a curiosity passed on from her free-spirited parents and the authors she grew up reading, among them Jack Kerouac, John John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren, who are “emblematic of a freewheeling spirit where to write about a world, you have to plunge yourself headlong into it”.

Another story in The Hard Crowd features an unlikely encounter with a Rolling Stone. The year was 1994 and Kushner was working behind the bar at the Warfield Theatre, a music venue in San Francisco. One day, she was asked to work at a private party being given by the Stones for their road crew and which, in accordance with tradition, required the band to act as waiting staff. Kushner discovered that her wingman for the night was Keith Richards.

“We poured drinks side by side, and he drank Jack Daniel’s and ginger. At 5am, Keith and [the band’s] business manager were the last people standing, and had to be kicked out. He was the real deal.”

What I’m reading now

Minima Moralia, By Theodor Adorno
“My husband is teaching a class on it this semester, and I’m attending informally.”

What I’m reading next

Wayward, By Dana Spiotta
“For me there is only a handful of living writers where I will read whatever they write, as I want to go where they’re going, and Spiotta is one of them.”

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020[5] is published by Jonathan Cape, at £18.99

Teenagers saved couple from flooded cellar as bombs rained down

Hull looked very different this time 80 years ago.

It was on May 7 and May 8, 1941 when the city endured one of the worst night of bombing raids by the Germans during the Blitz.[1]

Referred to at the time only as the ‘north east town’, Hull was decimated by the Germans and was one of the most bombed cities during the Second World War with only London and Coventry targeted more.

Between 1939 and 1945, Hull suffered 82 air raids, and by the end of the war it was estimated that 1,200 people had been killed.

But amid the tragedy and destruction were incredible tales of bravery and selflessness as communities rallied in stoic defiance.

Richard Foster got in touch with Hull Live to highlight the incredible night his dad Fred and his friend Gerald Shakespeare braved the bombs to help a couple trapped in a flooded cellar.

To sign up for the Hull Live newsletter, click here.[2]

The entrance of the Hammonds store after it was hit by bombs during May 7-8, 1941
Pictured: The entrance of House of Fraser (the Hammonds store) after it was hit by bombs during 7-8th May, 1941 (Image: REACH PLC)

Richard has a copy of the statement his dad gave 80 years ago,

According to Terry Geraghty’s book “A North East Town” the following bombs were dropped on the on May 7 and 8.

  • 10 clusters of incendiaries
  • 45 x 50 kilo bombs
  • 47 x 250 kilo bombs
  • 6 x 500k kilo bombs
  • 26 x 1000 kilo parachute mines
  • 2 1000 kilo G. Mines

It was about the third heaviest bombardment of the City, with 217 people killed and 160 seriously injured. It was also my Dad’s (Fred Foster’s) 18th Birthday

Richard says his dad Fred spent the night fire watching at his employer’s business Gilbert (Hull) Ltd (Gramaphone Factors), at 23 South Street in the city centre.

He was sharing the duties with his friend and colleague Gerald Shakespeare.

Bombs falling all around

Fred gave a statement to the police shortly afterwards.

Despite the rather formal style of the statement, it does not take away from the incredible drama of that night.

In the report Fred said: “About 11.30 pm on May 7, the sirens sounded the Air Raid Warning and at about 12.03am on May 8 planes came over and dropped a number of incendiary bombs in the streets and property around us.

“We at once-started putting them out with sandbags and the East Yorkshire building adjoining us got on fire.

Historian Mike Covell discussing the blitz

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“We got a stirrup pump from our place and we found an incendiary burning in a room on the top floor. We had to break through every door in the premises to reach this room.

“We then fixed up and started playing on the fire with a pump, Shakespeare having hold of the nozzle while I worked the pump.

“We did our best but the smoke and fire beat us, so we came out and reported it to a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). At that time an AFS lorry came up and we saw the cover of the lorry was on fire.

“We chased after the lorry and overtook it in Jameson Street and we informed the driver and assisted him to pull the sheet off and put out the fire. During this time HE bombs were exploding all round.”

Rescue mission

But that was just the start of the night’s drama.

Fred said: “We went back to our shop and I heard a bomb coming down I shouted ‘here’s another one coming’.

“I laid flat and Gerald got in a doorway. We saw a large cloud of black dust and smoke at the corner of Osborne Street, Anne Street and Myton Street.

Damage along the the River Hull in May 1941 after German bombing
Damage along the the River Hull in May 1941 (Image: Hull Live)

“I got up and we saw an ambulance. We asked the driver if we could be of any assistance and he said, ‘there is a canary whistling, there might be somebody in there’.

“We went to the Myton Arms and found it was demolished. We shouted ‘is there anybody there?’ We got no answer, looked under the demolished roof and debris but could find no one.

“We then heard a whistle. We again shouted, ‘who is there?’. A woman shouted hysterically and then a man shouted ‘we’re in the cellar’.”

Clawed away debris

The two men then frantically began their rescue attempt.

Fred said: “We cleared a large quantity of debris, seats and concrete and found a small trapdoor leading to the cellar.

“We prised the door up and found Mr and Mrs Pizzey in the cellar. They said to us, ‘look sharp the water is rising” and I prised a very heavy seat back, which was trapped at one end by a lot of debris and held it while Gerald pulled the woman out.

“We then pulled Mr Pizzey out. I asked if there was anybody else in and he said there was not.

“We walked along and an army officer came up and told us to take them to the Station Hotel and we walked a short distance and the man then said he could manage.

Hull history

“He asked for our names and Gerald said, ‘never mind about that, there maybe someone else wants help’. Bombs were still falling and there were fires all round.

“We then went to Wm Jackson and Sons, Paragon Street and assisted to salvage goods from there until about 4.30am. We then saw our own premises were alight so we went to our shop and salvaged as many goods as we could.

“I went home about 6am. I had got a hit on the head with a brick and it made my head ache. I was ready for a rest. Gerald states he stayed at work until 10am.

Demand for recognition

The rescued Mr Pizzey sought out Mr Foster and Mr Shakespeare and found them on the May 12, 1941 at their place of work.

Mr Pizzey, 39, asked them if they were the people who had rescued them and they acknowledged that they were.

Mr Pizzey contacted the Police authority to recommend them for some form of recognition for their bravery.

In a supporting statement he said: “I was manager of the Myton Arms[3] in Osborne Street, Hull which premises were destroyed by bombing on the night of the May 7 and morning of May 8, 1941.

“On Wednesday, May 7, 1941, following an air raid alert being sounded I, with my wife Florence Ethel, went – as has been our custom during the Alert period – to the Smoke Room.

Views of the entrance of the Hammonds store (on the corner of Jameson Street and South Street) in Hull after it was hit by bombs during 7-8 May, 1941 raid
Views of the entrance of the Hammonds store (on the corner of Jameson Street and South Street) in Hull after it was hit by bombs during 7-8 May, 1941 raid (Image: REACH PLC)

“Enemy action commenced while we were there and bombs were dropped in our vicinity. In consequence, I with my wife, went to the cellar for additional safety. At this time we were the only occupants of the premises.

“The enemy action continued and at about 12.55am on the 8th May 1941 a large explosive bomb fell outside the premises and the whole of the Myton Arms above ground level was totally demolished.

“I made attempts to get out the cellar, which is 6ft high 14ft wide and 20ft long, but found that the exits were blocked and we were trapped.”

Feared they would drown

But it got worse for the couple as they realised the cellar was filling up with water.

Mr Pizzey said: “After the dust in the cellar had settled I found water was percolating through the brick walls and the volume of water increased when spurts commenced to enter the cellar at about twenty different points. I made further attempts to escape from the cellar fearing that we should be drowned but could not do so.

“At this time my wife started blowing a whistle and she continued to do so for an hour.

“This attracted the attention of someone outside and they shouted to us, ‘who’s there?’.

“We told him and he said ‘you’ll have to hang on till I get some help’ and he then went away. At this time there was about four feet of water in the cellar and my wife and I had mounted a gantry and boxes to escape it. We had to crouch down with our heads touching the ceiling.”

Race against time

It became a race against time to save the couple.

Mr Pizzey said: “I heard them commence to clear debris from the Osborne Street side of the cellar, in spite of the fact that terrific enemy action was progressing. Eventually they succeeded in clearing a space about two feet square through which I pushed my wife and I followed her.

At this point the water in the cellar had risen to about 4 feet 6 inches leaving only 18 inches of air space between its surface and the ceiling of the cellar.

“When I reached the street I found the debris above the cellar was alight and that the roads were flooding with water apparently from a broken, large water main. Enemy activity was still maintained at a heavy pressure and huge fires were blazing in the vicinity.

“The two youths, Shakespeare and Foster, treated the matter quite casually; refusing to disclose their identity and remarking that someone else may be needing their assistance while they were talking to me.

“After conducting me by the safest road towards the Paragon Station Hotel, they went away.”

They saved our lives

Mr Pizzey searched for the young men afterwards to thank them and even approached the authorities to have them recognised for their bravery.

The King Edward pub on Anlaby Road in the city centre
The King Edward pub on Anlaby Road in the city centre (Image: Google Street View)

In a report asking for them to be recognised, Mr Pizzey said: “My wife and I would, without doubt, have been drowned but for their promptitude.

“There was no one else in the street when we were rescued and considering the youthfulness of those men and the fact that they were following a voluntary occupation as fire watchers, I cannot but make this effort to obtain for them some of the recognition which they were, at the time, so anxious to avoid.”

Mr Shakespeare also made a statement which was similar to the one made by Mr Foster.

The Myton Arms was sited approximately where the King Edward Pub is today.

Mr Pizzey contacted the police[4] which resulted in a recommendation for official recognition by the Hull Chief Constable to Regional Commissioner but it is not clear whether that recognition was ever formalised.

References

  1. ^ the Blitz. (www.hulldailymail.co.uk)
  2. ^ click here. (www.hulldailymail.co.uk)
  3. ^ Myton Arms (www.hulldailymail.co.uk)
  4. ^ police (www.hulldailymail.co.uk)

JAILED: Lorry driver used phone before crash which killed father

AN HGV driver was distracted by betting apps on his mobile phone before he “cannoned” into a car that had broken down on the A34 killing a father-of-four.

Dean Moffat, 48, had been using gambling apps on his phone in the two minutes before his MAN lorry crashed into a Toyota Corolla at 56mph parked by the side of the carriageway.

Ric Mboma, 60, was killed and his two teenage children, Witley and Heaven, were seriously injured. Mr Mboma, of Feltham, London, died at the scene after suffering serious head injuries.

The fatal crash took place on the southbound stretch of the A34 close to Sutton Scotney services at around 8.10pm on November 11, 2019.

Mr Mboma was taking his daughter back to university in Winchester when the fatal accident occurred.

Catherine Donnelly, prosecuting, said that Mr Mboma’s pulled up in the inside lane of the A34 after his tyre had deflated and started sparking. He had put his hazard lights on and was looking in the boot.

Dash cam footage from the lorry shown in court revealed that Moffat swerved onto the rumble strip of the road just minutes before the crash. It also showed Moffat would have a clear view of Mr Mboma’s car for seven seconds and would have been visible for “some time and distance prior to the collision”.

The car was seen by an eyewitness to “leave the ground and spin in the air” and Mr Mboma’s body was thrown to a nearside verge.

Ms Donnelly added: “The vehicle he (Moffat) was driving continued with no variation in speed or direction.”

Ric Mbomas family and friends outside court after Dean Moffat was jailed for seven years

Ric Mboma’s family and friends outside court after Dean Moffat was jailed for seven years

When interviewed, Ms Donnelly told the court, Moffat said that: “He didn’t see anything in lane one, he confirmed he didn’t see the vehicle until he collided with it.

“He said it was because he hadn’t seen the car, when asked where he was looking, he didn’t know.

“He admitted that he had been using his phone earlier in the journey to use Facebook and the (his employee’s) tracker app.

“He said using his phone doesn’t distract him when driving.”

But Ms Donnelly said that an examination of his phone revealed that in the two minutes before the crash he placed a bet on a greyhound race – he tried to hide his actions by deleting the Skybet and Bet365 apps just 14 minutes after the accident.

Judge Jane Miller QC, who described the HGV as a “lethal weapon”, said: “You took no invasive action whatsoever and cannoned into the vehicle.”

The judge continued: “You know, in my judgement, what exactly caused the accident.

“If you had not been looking at your phone you would have had ample time to move around the car as all the vehicles in front of you.”

Moffat had written a letter to Mr Mboma’s family but Judge Miller said that he “did not get anywhere near admitting what actually happened”.

Julie Kendrick, in mitigation, said that the former Army solider of 22 years “apologises unreservedly for his behaviour on the day of the accident and he apologises to the family and friends of Mr Mboma”.

His letter to the victim’s family, he said: “I fully accept the devastating impact that this has had on you and will continue to have on you.

“I am not a bad person – I did not intend for any of this to happen when I set out to work that day.”

In March, Moffat, of Robson Avenue, Peterlee, County Durham, pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, two counts of causing serious injury by dangerous driving and perverting the course justice by deleting the betting apps from his mobile phone.