Memories from 1981
Way back in 1981, I was a student, and set off on a Saturday in July to a Rock Against Racism event in Leeds. These were times when the Thatcher Government was in full swing, knowing that their unpopularity had plenty of time to abate, they were merrily presiding over an unemployed population quickly approaching 3 million.
Already that year there had been “riots” and mini-riots in places like Handsworth and Brixton, and the newspapers were still fresh with the news from the Toxteth riots in Liverpool. There’d also been disturbances in Chapeltown in Leeds. Though many of these disturbances were christened “race riots” – as a white working class young man I identified absolutely with the populations involved. Whether that was a real connection or one just in my own mind I don’t really know – but all my friends seemed to feel the same – and they were mostly white and mostly English.
The Specials – at the time, top of the charts with “Ghost Town” – were set to headline the ‘Carnival’ which was preceded by a march from Leeds City Centre, to the concert venue at Potternewton Park, Chapeltown. The venue had not been chosen coincidentally. It was in an area that had previously had problems with race relations and rioting.
If I’m honest we were half expecting some kind of riot or disturbance to occur that day. If I’m really honest we weren’t just expecting it – we were actually rather hoping for it. Why ? It’s hard to explain now – certainly there was lots of anger at the government, certainly unemployment played a part – although at the time neither me nor the friends that I went on the march with, were unemployed. A lot of the feeling though arose out of the excitement of being able to hit back at … well hit back at someone, be it the police or the Government or whoever, in a way that made the headlines, and felt invigorating and exciting. Maybe some of it was just because it was Summer, and there were hot nights when you wanted something a bit out of the ordinary to happen.
You might think well think that is pathetic.
I’m not saying it wasn’t – I’m telling you what we felt like – back then, when we were 20 years old.
The march got underway. There were lots of placards handed out – some of them round Anti-Nazi League “roundels”, and others with the legend “Socialist Worker : Black and White Unite and Fight “, We were given the latter, and immediately started doing what had become a habit – we started tearing off the bit that said Socialist Worker. We’d pretty much decided that the Socialist Worker Party were an extreme left version of the extreme right National Front, (that were more or less the reason we were here) and in many respects little better than them.
The irony did not hit us until some years later, that both the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were formed by the SWP, and in many ways were a front and recruiting tool, for that organisation.
The cardboard didn’t tear off easily, and the sticks holding the placards came away before we could customise them. Great ! We now had some nice sticks to carry round – these would surely come in handy as we marched to the “front-line”. The police were way ahead of us though, and a few pleasant men in uniform came and took them from us “Why are you taking them off us ?” we angrily demanded. “Because we wouldn’t want to be arresting anybody for carrying offensive weapons if we didn’t need to” came back the genuinely cheery response.
As we approached Chapeltown, you could sense the tension – if things were going to kick off they would kick off here. The whole place felt different. Colourful, and slightly foreign. Yet also hyper local – terraced red-brick streets, with black people selling Red Stripe and Coca Cola from plastic dustbins filled with ice (which you tended to see when England played the West Indies at Headingley). A stall here and there selling stuff like Curry Goat and Rice & Peas. We were excited and a bit anxious. Were we going to be in a real riot ? If one had started we’d certainly have been part of the mob, and would have need little encouragement.
But no we- weren’t – the event was impeccably policed. Any sign of rowdiness politely and sensitively addressed by the boys in blue. They didn’t seem phased when we chanted “Bah-Bee-Lon Bah-Bee-Lon” at them, and we arrived at the park ready for the gig.
It was a sunny day, and we had a great time. In no time at all we’d hitched up with two girls from Manchester, and we had innocent youthful fun. We kissed and cuddled and flirted – but most of all we danced and danced and danced. The girls were young, pretty, intelligent, witty – but most of all they were black. In later years we’d question our values in deliberately trying to get girlfriends purely because they were black – but it wasn’t a thought that crossed our minds at the time. I don’t think either me or my friend could have felt any more “cool” than we did that afternoon. It’s more than probable also that the girls’ attraction to us, was also based more on our whiteness than on any other qualities we had. Whatever, at that precise moment, we didn’t see how life could get much better, we had sun, we had The Specials, we had cute black girls from Manchester – what more could anyone ask for ? Well to be honest we were still ever so slightly disappointed that we hadn’t seen any police cars torched – but you can’t everything
Highlight of the afternoon had to be The Specials singing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more” – which from that moment became the anthem of the Summer. Remember we weren’t actually unemployed, although we experienced unemployment, and knew lots of people who were.
The end of the day came, we kissed the girls goodbye at the coaches, and quickly exchanged addresses – we were going on holiday next week and would send them a postcard.
And so to the next week. We were going on holiday. Of sorts. We were planning to hitch hike to Cornwall, and see what we could find by the way of bed & breakfast – but we weren’t setting off until the following Saturday.
During the week though the riots which never happened in Leeds, started happening in other parts of the country. I can’t remember where it started first – perhaps Birmingham on the Wednesday night.
On the Thursday we picked up the NME – the New Musical Express – the bible for all young dudes like us who fancied themselves as urban guerrillas. It was full of the latest on all the riots and disturbances, and sure enough on Thursday night, there were lots more reports, of looting, rioting and other disturbances around the country – the expression “copy-cat rioting” started to be used, when we read about this in Friday’s press.
We didn’t do any copy-cat rioting on Friday night, as we were due to set off for Cornwall early in the morning, and found ourselves on the slip-road of the M62 at about 6.00 on Saturday. In no time we were in Manchester. Unfortunately though we didn’t seem to be able to get a lift on to the M6 southbound, and did a few fruitless journeys around the Greater Manchester area, ending up God knows where waiting for about an hour and a half before getting a ride anywhere.
Eventually someone picked us up, and took us to Manchester Airport. (I’ve never quite understood why). On the way though we realised something quite spooky, and the rest of the day sort of changed my life – it took me a good while to realise it though.
The street we were driving down in a stranger’s car, was in fact the street where the girls we’d met the previous week lived. A few other things were apparent :
For one thing there were bricks and broken glass, and various other debris strewn around the road. At one point there was a big box or something in the road. The driver slowed down – clearly wary about what must have gone down here. We looked round, the house numbers clearly indicated that we were bang outside the front door of one of the two girls. Across the road was a pub. It was boarded up completely and a sign pinned to the door just said “Closed”. It looked grim.
We progressed down the street. A little further on there was a shop – what would once have passed as a supermarket – but not a big one like we have now. It looked like it had once been a Co-op. It had no windows, no doors and no stock. It had clearly been subject to an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to burn it down – and the charred stains ran up the wall at one end of the building. So this is what a looted store looked like.
In the distance we could see a huge plume of smoke rising from what we presumed must be the local shopping centre. We didn’t hang around to find out.
The eeriest thing though was the complete and utter silence – it felt like 6.30 on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t though – it was about 11.00 on a Saturday morning. A busy residential area like this should have been buzzing – but we were the only car on the street – there weren’t any parked up either. No people on the streets either. All inside.
I don’t know where we thought these girls lived – I think in our minds eye we were thinking somewhere like Chapeltown, somewhere vibrant and multicultural where you could nip out and get Ackee and Saltfish at three in the morning. This wasn’t like that – it was just like the council estates that we’d grown up on, only much bigger, and on this particular morning it was a horrible frightening place to be. The bonfire smell of burning building in the air only added to the chilling atmosphere.
The driver didn’t say much, but dropped us dutifully by the airport. What was the first thing we did ? Nip inside and buy a paper of course – and boy did it make salacious reading. It seemed that the whole country had erupted into spontaneous riots – there were riots everywhere – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, London, Bristol, Birmingham – it seemed as if every centre of population had “kicked off” on the Friday night we’d stayed in. Smaller places were getting a mention too – including Dewsbury and Heckmondwike – where we came from.
Dewsbury and Heckmondwike ?
Riots ? Really ?
This seemed far fetched. Especially Heckmondwike. The Asian community would never risk losing their customer base for the numerous small shops, restaurants, take aways and taxi companies they ran by doing something as risky as rioting; and the white community could make most Friday nights end up with police vans in the market place, but when it came to “beating down Babylon” they really weren’t that clued up.
So for the first time we started to doubt the veracity of what we were being told by the news media. Even so, if things carried on at this rate, we’d presumably have a revolution by Monday. We felt slightly euphoric in the middle of this – on the one hand the riots that we’d have happily joined in with only a week earlier – if they’d happened – were now happening thick and fast, spreading at a speed that was difficult to comprehend.
On the other hand, what we’d just witnessed on a Manchester council estate, was giving us a proper reality check, and making us realise that riots were not a leisure activity, or a method of protest – but a frightening and violent crime.
Anyway, we were no nearer to Cornwall – we got a bus back into Manchester. It dropped us at a bus station, and by chance we realised we could get a bus to Devon in the morning. We booked tickets, and found a bed at the YMCA, got changed, and went off for a night on the town in Manchester.
Except our plan was once again thwarted. All the pubs were closed. Well, not all of them. Just most of them – and there was no one out on the lash – it was a very quiet night. We found a pub that was open close to the Arndale centre, and had a few pints – it closed just after 10 – mostly due to lack of business – there were only about 5 people in there. We set off looking for somewhere else to drink.
We got about 50 yards down the road and looked down a side street. What I saw there will stay with me forever. There were dozens upon dozens of police vans, all with grills on the front, and all with police in full riot gear waiting in side them . A bit further down the road, and the next side street was just the same, and the one after that. I have never, before or since, seen so many police men – and that’s quite something for a football supporter to say.
A policeman not in riot gear strolled up to us, and asked us where we were going – we told him we were looking for somewhere to get a drink – he directed us back to the pub we’d just come from. We told him it was closed, and he said “Yes most of the pubs are”. He asked us where we came from, and then where we staying, and advised to go back to the YMCA – which we did. He was perfectly polite. As far as I know there were no riots in Manchester that night.
The next morning we went to catch our bus to Torquay. Obviously we got the Sunday papers before we went. Strangely though, the revolution wasn’t happening. Or perhaps more to the point – if it was happening the papers were not reporting it. It became clear that some kind of block had been placed on the reporting of riots. Where the previous night virtually every town and city in the country had a riot, on Saturday night there were none. None reported.
Over the next week we kept checking the papers, there were no more reports of riots. We bought the NME on Thursday. There were no reports of riots. And strangely we found that “this town” wasn’t coming up a “ghost town” – Torquay was balmy in the late July heat, full of French students looking for adventures in England; Newquay was full of surfers by day and drinkers by night – which is what we decided to become.
We quickly forgot our angry youth status, and were no longer looking for a riot. It seemed pretty much the rest of the country did too – at least for a while.
I don’t think either of us ever viewed civil unrest with quite the same casual attitude again though. For my own part I decided that rioting, looting, destruction of property, is not a mode of protest. It’s not a means that is justified by any ends – it’s simply a way of trying to use violence to intimidate and frighten. It’s wrong – it has no place in politics. Neither is it about left wing or right wing politics – it’s just not acceptable.
So when I see the riots happening across London now, and the rumours of riots further afield, I remember back to 1981 – remembering that it was only by good fortune and good policing that I didn’t get sucked into becoming a rioter. I remember pretty black girls, and ugly glass strewn streets, and looted shops. I remember lines of police vans and deserted city centres.
And my advice to the people involved today is this – go home, switch the telly off, put the barbecue on, listen to some decent music, and forget about rioting. It’s just not worth the pain.
Last week the inquest for the victims of the 7/7 London bombings completed its deliberations and published its report.
Nine recommendations were made – the final one of which concerned the air ambulance service which was so vital on the day of the attacks. The coroner called for a review of the level of cover the London Air Ambulance is able to provide and its funding. She went on to note the reliance of the service on volunteers (source Guardian : July 7 inquest: coroner’s recommendations )
“I am concerned that London, a major global capital, host to the Olympics in 2012 and a prime terrorist target, should find itself dependent upon corporate funding and charitable donations, and upon professional volunteers giving up their limited free time in order to provide life-saving emergency medical care. It is equally concerning that the capability to provide such care is limited.”
It’s difficult to disagree with the implications of that observation – and I feel sure that the London authorities and the national Government, will ensure that the recommendation is addressed.
I’m certainly not being facetious when I say that I feel that it’s very laudable that Mr Cameron should seek to promote community empowerment, and the notion of people working together – freely and voluntarily – to promote the common good of their local neighbourhoods. Volunteers are a powerful force, and the act of volunteering is one which can provide enormous benefit for the individual as well.
What I disagree with is the underlying Conservative philosophy that the big society is needed because big Government is not. The notion that Government is not and should not be involved in the minutiae of daily life, because our society should be big enough and strong enough to let people run their own communities and lives.
It sounds very noble – in fact it sounds almost socialist – but be under no illusions – what it really means is starving essential services like the London Air Ambulance of public money, and public accountability – and leaving them to the vagaries of charitable donations, and voluntary help.
I feel that the terrible events of 7/7/2005 tell us so many things.
One of them is that some services are so important that they can not be left to chance – they require a Government that is strong enough and big enough to ensure that they are provided effectively.
- 7/7 inquest: coroner’s nine recommendations in full (telegraph.co.uk)
- 7/7 inquest: London ‘woefully’ unprepared for terrorist attack on 2012 Olympics, warns coroner (telegraph.co.uk)
- 7/7 inquest: Breakdown in communication did not cost lives – The Guardian (news.google.com)
- The Big Society is happening; but what is happening? (politicalpromise.co.uk)
- My daughter and the Big Society (newphilanthropycapital.wordpress.com)
In the last two days I’ve found my self in two very different, but superficially strikingly similar, coffee bars.
The first, a branch of Costa, in a semi-rural middle-class market town within easy commuting distance of London.
I ordered a black Americano.
“What size would you like that ?”
“Small please !”
“Er, well we do medium & large”
“Well I’ll have the one that’s the smallest please”
I was starting to get a bit tetchy, and before I could reign myself in had already blurted out in my best “I know bloody everything” voice :
“You know, by definition, you can’t really have a medium size unless there’s at least one size smaller and at least one size larger !”
I regretted it before I’d finished saying it, my shortness due to similar conversations I’ve had in other coffee shops – including a particularly stroppy one in America – of which more later.
However the young woman behind the counter was made of pleasanter stuff – “Yes I see what you mean that is true”
“Actually I’m not sure that we do do medium and large, I think it might be small and medium”
Anxious to redeem myself, I quickly struck up a more friendly conversation, after glancing at the menu which showed the two sizes “Primo” and “Medio”
“You know in America some branches of Starbucks won’t take your order unless you use the words Tall, Grande, or Venti”
“Yeah, I know – they come in here asking for Tall – what’s it supposed to mean ? It’s supposed to be Italian – but my Dad’s Italian and he’s never heard of it. In Italy they’d ask for ‘piccolo’ if they wanted a small one – only they wouldn’t anyway, because Italian coffee tends to always come in the same size. I suppose Primo means ‘first’ and Medio is medium – but yeah it doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a large”
And with that she gave me my Primo Black Americano. (Which was pretty large by anyone’s standards)
It might be worth recounting the experience I had in America some two years earlier. I’d gone into Starbucks and ordered exactly the same drink – A small black Americano.
I learned many years ago that an English style black coffee is not easy to get in Italy, and after drinking a heck of a lot of Espresso, and Cappucino in my efforts to get the drink I wanted, I finally made the break through and asked for it “American Style” – Americano ! This of course is a black coffee – an Espresso topped up with hot water, to resemble the filter coffee drunk in America, Britain, Germany & Northern Europe. There’s no white version – because there’s no problem ordering white coffee because English and American white coffee lovers really like the Italian milk versions. I’ve learned though that in the world of the modern coffee shop, it pays to specify “black Americano”
“What size would you like that ?”
“I just said ‘Small’ ”
“All our sizes are Italian sir – we do Tall, Grande or Venti – which would you like ?”
“I’d like the one which is the smallest”
“It’s part of Starbuck’s ethos – all of our sizes are in Italian”
“I don’t speak Italian – could I have a small black Americano – per piacere ?
He huffed around and slammed my change on the counter
It stuck in my mind.
The day after my Costa experience I visited Starbucks this morning – this time in central London – Bloomsbury to be exact.
“I’d like a small black Americano please ?”
“I’m sorry” – the woman serving had a strong Eastern European accent – not Polish – I’d guess at Latvia or Lithuania, but it would be a fairly wild guess.
” A small black Americano please ?”
“black Americano – certainly sir – and what size would you like that ?”
Surely I wasn’t going to get a repeat performance of my American Starbucks experience
I kept my cool.
“A small one please” as politely as I could
“Would you like that to take away ?”
“No I’ll drink that here”
She grabbed a paper cup. “No – I’d like to drink it here please”
“You want to drink it here ? Sorry !”
She carried on writing on the paper cup. Ticked a box that said Americano and then asked
“Would you like any milk in your black Americano ?”
I stood there dumbfounded for a second or two – and she asked me again
“Would you like any milk in your black Americano ?”
“Er .. No ! …. I’d like it black !”
“Tall black Americano !” she shouted across to the “barista” – (I half expected to see Magic Johnson walking in the door – but no she was talking about the coffee.)
When I got the coffee it was in a paper cup. The rest of the customers had ceramic mugs. “Could I get this in a real cup please ?”
Blank Looks. I repeated my question
More blank looks, and then they handed the paper cup to me smiling and said “Tall Black Americano !”
I took it away and sat down.
Now I’m not really making any kind of point here – just expressing my frustration. If it’s so difficult to order a cup of coffee in your own capital city, or in a country that speaks the same language, then what chance do we have for eliminating world poverty, and promoting lasting international peace ? Much as I felt only anger towards the smart alec in the American Starbucks, I felt only admiration for the intelligent young woman in Costa in England – dealing effortlessly with a potentially difficult customer (me), and demonstrating a knowledge of English and Italian, whilst engaged in a relatively menial job.
I felt quite sorry though for the women in the London Starbucks. Clearly struggling with English – I suspected also that they struggled to communicate with each other because of different first languages, and in all likelihood were paid a very low wage, barely enough to pay the rent demanded in a city like London. Their lives must be difficult.
And if that wasn’t hard enough, things are made even more difficult for them by asking them to do business in a mock Italian language, which neither they nor their customers (including the Italians) understand.
So I relate all this only because it made me think a little – I hope it makes you think too.
If you are interested in the size’s of coffee at Costa and Starbucks; Starbucks originally served “Short” and “Tall” coffees – as was the custom in English speaking Seattle – they then introduced the Italian “Grande” – which is large or grande, and eventually dropped the “short”, and introduced the Venti – which again is Italian – but means 20 – referring to the number of fluid ounces in the cup. Bear in mind though that these are are US fLuid ounces – so a 20 ounce contains around 1.20 pints – 24 Imperial fluid ounces (It’s not there to make it easy for Latvian baristas is it ?). So in effect they have Large, Very Large, and Stupidly Enormous.
Costa have primo – which is “first” – and “medio” medium – but many of their stores also have “massimo” – maximum.
Oh and by the way – if you ask for a Latte in Italy, you will be served with Milk not coffee – you need to ask for Latte Macchiato.
If you ask for Lartay however they will know you are English – and you may or may not get the drink you were after.
Well here I am with a Saturday night with everyone else watching Saturday night clap trap or in bed already. Perfect blogging environment right ? Except I can’t think of anything to blog about.
Is it because it’s High Summer ? I experienced the sheer joy last night of a couple of drinks in a pub in central London on a hot Summer’s early evening, and can honestly say that it’s a city that compares favourably with the coolest and most fashionable places on the planet.
Coming back home and reading a few political blogs, I honestly can’t believe how some of the trolls on some of the websites can be bothered getting so angry – what miserable lives some of them must have.
And I certainly can’t be bothered getting angry. I tried drafting something on the pros and cons of moderating comments on political websites – but then thought – “Oh what the hell, it’s nice weather – let them moan a bit”, and stopped.
A couple of days ago I got a bit worked up about the new Education white paper, but then I thought – it’s just the usual headline grabbing stuff – the reality will be much more workable and sensible – and stopped my blog.
So I guess that’s bloggers block – or maybe just that sometimes nice weather makes people feel happy enough not to have blog about things.
That’s me done then. Off to get a cold Diet Coke from the fridge.
I’ll be back to sort out the evils of the world next week (if it rains)
I think it’s difficult to argue against the greater transparency that The Daily Telegraph’s revelations on MP’s expenses, and the publication today of expenses details by the Government, have brought and also will continue to bring. It seems clear that some MP’s were taking advantage of a very lax system.
There are downsides though. An MP’s basic salary is around £63,000 per year. A lot by many people’s standards, but for those working in Central London it’s certainly not a massive amount. Considerably less than most headteachers for example, in Inner London. They also have an unusual need to HAVE TO work in two different places. They need to work in their consituencies, and they need to work in Westminster. They also keep some of the strangest working hours known to mankind.
Bearing in mind that a Season Ticket by rail from around 40 miles from London costs around £4,000 and you start to realise that the expenses are going to be rather large however you do it – if they don’t have homes in two places they are going to need hotels – which may well cost more.
There’s also the hidden factor that many MP’s actually need a third home – because they are representing a consituency that they didn’t orginally live in – but are there because their party considers them worthy of a “safe” seat. I hear lots of people saying that this shouldn’t happen – and I can sympathise to a point – it’s nice to have someone local, but does that mean that a Labour Party activist from say Henley on Thames can never be Prime Minister ? or a Tory from Barnsley ? of course not – that would be ridiculous.
Last night I was fortunate to talk with a Conservative councillor – mainly about politics. I asked him casually if he’d considered standing for parliament, and was surprised at his answer. He had indeed considered this, and in fact had stood as a Conservative candidate more than once – losing narrowly each time. He’d now decided against it though – he felt that in the current climate, if he became an MP, due to the fact that he was not “independently wealthy”, then his family would be seriously disadvantaged financially.
Now bear in mind that this is a man who lives an a rather nice part of inner London, and may not be independently wealthy, but is certainly more independently wealthy than headteachers like me (in other words a sight more wealthy than most). His logistical difficulties would be less than those faced by most MPs.
Yet this issue alone has put him off standing again. And here’s someone who isn’t just being philosophical – he has a real chance of becoming an MP should he so wish, and he’s done his homework
This is a great shame.
Taken to it’s conclusions I can see a situation where only the rich and the foolish will endeavour to become MP’s. So I urge my readers to think about that before they go vilifying the next batch of MP’s to fall prey to the Telegraph.