The Free George Davis Society
As a gawky youth I became dimly aware on the fringes of my consciousness of a strange artist at work in the suburbs wherein I dwelt. Like the outpourings of some 1970’s single-issue Banksy, though artistically cruder, on walls, railway bridges, outside sports grounds, several mysterious words began to appear, daubed in white paint. It was a simple message. It never varied.
It consisted of three simple words: ‘Free George Davis.” True, sometimes it said “Fred George Davis.” I began to muse that “Fred George Davis” could be some wholly separate organisation, whose aims were merely to advertise the existence of said Mr. D. Either that or a slip of the paintbrush.
Being young and foolish and with other things on my mind I didn’t trouble myself to find out who or what George Davis was. The only thing I knew was that someone wanted him free. But from what? A sense of regret? A cardigan snagged on a nail? His illusions? As the graffiti spread, – here on a motorway bridge, here on a garden wall – so the figure of George Davis began to assume mythical proportions in my mind, like some kind of Prometheus chained to a rock by Zeus. Free him, by God, all Davis did was to provide man with fire!
The Society soon moved from mere paint to protest, from slogan to streaking. It was clearly not enough simply to write their protests on various municipal brick walls, they also felt compelled to show us their genitals at various sporting fixtures. Or am I incorrectly mixing up mere motiveless streaking with the George Davis campaign? Their chronological proximity in the 1970’s perhaps is the cause of this confusion. News reports in that heady decade seemed to contain little else but items on the continuing campaign to liberate Mr. D., and naked men running across cricket pitches. Nothing else happened, apart from a heat wave and everyone having to play scrabble by candlelight. Did members of the Free George Davis campaign use streaking as part of their PR? I cannot swear.
Mr. Davis had been a petty crook who had been banged up wrongly for a crime he hadn’t committed, of that we were all certain. Plenty of people were telling us so. He had committed many other crimes, but no one spoke about them. On 4th April 1974 a robbery took place at the London Electricity Board, Ilford. Do electricity boards keep the money we give them on the premises? I find that hard to believe. Nevertheless, their offices were robbed, and George Davis most emphatically was nowhere near the place. Of that we are certain. The Free George Davis Campaign told us so.
And yet the following year, in March 1975, he was convicted. His friends were outraged. And so they should be. He didn’t do it. It didn’t matter that he’d done loads of other crimes. Oh no. He did not do the Ilford Electricity Board job.
Celebrities rallied to his cause. Roger Daltrey of the “Who” sang about him; Bishops pleaded on local news programmes, activists wept in the streets. The 1970’s was a golden age of radical groups; organisations with so many letters in their names the cost of their stationery must have been astronomical took up the cause of the East End villain. Even the Angry Brigade got involved at one point. Mind you, they got tetchy about practically everything.
One person who suffered at the hands of the Free George Davis Campaign was a chap called George Ince. He had his own campaign: the Free George Ince Campaign. It never took off like Davis’. No one sang about George Ince in the pop charts. I don’t think Roger Daltrey had even heard of him. There may have been a few slogans painted on railway bridges, but they didn’t last long. The campaigners must have used an inferior paint. I’m sure also that several of the more indolent members of the George Davis Campaign must have arrived, paint-pot in hand, at a railway bridge, spotted the rival message, and simply crossed out the “Ince” and replaced it with a “Davis.” It was a happy co-incidence that both were called George. It strikes me in hindsight that the two campaigns would have done well to pool their labour and resources. A better slogan might have been “Free the Georges Davis & Ince.” Once liberated they could perhaps have formed a double-act, “Davis & Ince” and sung comic songs in working men’s clubs.
But all the singing and all the marching and all the painting paid off, for in May 1976 the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins released George Davis. I believe he may have been pressured by representatives of the Department of Public Works, who feared the country would run out of paint. Whatever the reason, Mr. Davis was a free man.
And that would have been the end of the Free George Davis Campaign, were it not for the fact that not long after he was freed he was put in prison again.
How ungrateful. It’s as if eight weeks after Nelson Mandela were released he promptly went and robbed a post office in Pretoria. It would have been plain rude.
After his second imprisonment the Free George Davis Campaign showed a natural reluctance to revive their activities. Paintbrushes remained dried and unused in petty crook’s garages across the suburbs.
The original slogans became sad and faded. I’m sure there were plenty of people around who wanted him free again. But they stayed in their homes, and confided their hopes privately amongst friends and relatives over tea. Rumour has it that a campaign started that called itself “Don’t bother freeing George Davis,” but these rumours are unfounded.
Today, George Davis is once again free, and living a blameless life in his beloved Essex. Even as recent as May 2011 he was still fighting in the courts to prove his innocence over the LEB robbery some thirty-five years earlier. And the Judge did pronounce the conviction unsafe, though refused to completely exonerate him.
I admire Davis’ perseverance, but it is a bit like Goering at Nuremberg confessing to every crime in the book whilst being incandescent with rage that he’s been accused of jay-walking. Then devoting the rest of his life to expunging that one misdemeanour from his roll-call of aberrations. What is more, the eagerness with which every radical group in London rushed to the assistance of a known armed robber also sticks in the craw somewhat. It’s not as though Davis was a heroic freedom fighter, a Che Guevara of Barking – he was a thug who used weapons in his crimes and who was revving up the getaway car when a man was clubbed to the floor nearby.
But I cannot help wondering if he ever catches the train into Marylebone Station and, casting a baleful eye at the sidings, spots a strange fading sign still clinging stubbornly to the tunnel wall; and, a lump forming in his throat, leans back and – eyes glazed – thinks back fondly on the days when, it seemed, the whole world wanted him free.
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