Sadly the 2013 heat wave is over and the sound of heavy rain outside the door brings back memories of many interrupted youthful summer days. The drops hit the concrete. At first they evaporate, flicking up the dust, until the deluge pours off the paths and in to the gutters. One minute you’re eating an ice cream in the blazing sun, and the next you’re huddled in a doorway wishing you’d brought a coat.
Through the echoes of time I can hear my father saying that it’s just as well, the garden needs it and I can imagine the much younger figure of my mother dashing out the back to gather up the almost dry sheets in her arms. She is hauling them off the line, scattering the pegs across the newly mowed lawn. It’s a time without mobile phones, there are only books in the library and there are no more than three channels on the television, though in a year there will be four. Eternity’s clock is striking 1981. As far as years go, for me, it was a blister about to burst. You can feel the build up of toxins, a rumbling quake of dissatisfaction about to erupt through the tarmac and fill the streets with poison.
The most common phrase to be heard back then was ‘Being made redundant’. Political correctness and spin hadn't gained a hold of our language yet, so there was no ‘opportunities for re-employment’ or ‘Voluntary work force re-structuring’. This meant an initial wad of cash and then perpetual unemployment. It wasn't just the dads of the kids at school, it felt like it was the whole place being laid off. Nowadays my hometown is a shopping Mecca, cinemas, retail parks, even a bloody aquarium rising from the riverside wasteland. The marshes now branded with motorway and slip roads, oil refineries and car dealerships rubbing up against each other. Back then shopping wasn't recreation, you worked and that’s all you did every day. If you couldn't, well that seemed like the end, and there was no end of ‘the end’ in sight.
I was an unlikely looking rebel. I’d like to think of myself as everyman’s urban guerrilla, ready to raise the red flag above the burning barricades as rubber bullets whistled past my ear. I’d love to say that I had a whole collection of those ridiculous Bobbie’s helmets in the shed, trophies of baton charges I had survived, but I was more Porta-loo than Peterloo. My front line was the garden shed, or the entry where I tried hard to keep my shoddily built, two year old, red PX125 in barely road worthy condition. For anyone unfamiliar with this two wheeled ‘Icon’, and please try to appreciate the irony, it had two drum brakes, a single-cylinder engine with an aluminium head and a steel chassis. Legend has it that it even had improved front suspension and a revised rear axle for more stability. With my ‘war time coat for the wind and sleet’, a pair of slightly faded lee cooper jeans, ox blood loafers from the town market and a check button down from Littlewood’s, I was ‘The Face’, just as every lad just like me believed they were.
But there was a malevolence cradling; something was going to spoil our innocent dances at the youth club, our Saturday morning congregation near the war memorial, and the inevitable migration to the Wimpey bar. That year Toxteth, Handsworth, Brixton, or Chapeltown suffered serious riots. The disease of racial tension, unemployment and inner-city deprivation would erupt on Britania’s skin. The riots were caused by a distrust of the police and a response to a disinterested and unsympathetic government. You could even feel a frisson of antagonism in the air of my small hometown. Desperately clinging to the wrong side of the Mersey, half of it was angrily facing up to its industrial decline, the other half was trying to bury itself in rural Cheshire and pretend it would all just go away. Two years of Thatcher and her henchmen had seen the disappearance of at least two of the towns main employers, and its easy to forget four thousand men losing paid employment in a town of just over sixty thousand takes out nearly half the bread winners in one pass of the scythe. It would have happened anyway, but living in a Labour stronghold and suffering under a Tory government made it easy to find a figure of hate. Lets face it none of them had faces you could love.
I’d been a Mod for about two years, but on a good day looking at my disparate group of mates you’d not always know that we weren't Rude Boys or even keeping company with a couple of Skins. I’d saved every penny I earned on a market stall to buy my scoot, a decent suit and keep myself well supplied with cheap cider on a weekend. There was nowhere to go except the park, the youth club disco on a Friday night or meet up with your mates on ‘Oil Sites Road’. This was a greasy stretch of tarmac that dawdled past the canal and through the refineries that turned the night in to a scene from ‘Blade Runner’. There were melancholy looking sheds and abandoned workshops along its length where you could squat in the dark and even build a small fire. The local plods would move you on, but unlike the city police they never seemed to look for trouble. You could see them coming from miles away. The blues would flash in the distance, but they wouldn’t start the siren, and if you were lucky your scoot would whisk you away in good time. Otherwise you’d stick it in the bushes and hide on the canal bank until they’d gone. They never got out of the car.
We were lucky. Our local law enforcement was averse to work. The worse that was ever reported in the local rag until that point was the odd drunk and disorderly or the well known local burglar being arrested for the umpteenth time. In the city it wasn't like that. Big cities had large ethnic minority communities. We had Willy, a lad who’s family had come up from Coventry when he was eleven. His dad was from Jamaica. Willy was one of us, and it never seemed significant to us that he was black, but if we ever did get stopped even our local bobbies seemed to zero in on him. It occurred to me years later, sitting in a pub together that he actually felt singled out. Not by us, but by his teachers, the police and even the staff at the job centre. Like most us he has gone on to prove his decriers wrong, but at the time the penny never dropped that he was actually suffering from a deep seated discrimination.
Thousands like Willy’s dad had come to Britain from the Commonwealth in the late 50s and 60s to do low paid jobs. Like the Irish migrants a few years before, the areas they were housed in suffered from poor conditions. Eventually the changing economic tide caused this area of the community to suffer high levels of unemployment and consequent problems with racial tensions. Sure that is an over simplification of the situation, but at the root of it was institutionalised racism and a less that sympathetic indigenous white population.
The Scarman report, which was subsequently commissioned by the government, the riots were a spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular events. Lord Scarman informed the powers that be, that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest". As you can see the spin had started to creep in. It highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and urban decline, warning that "urgent action" was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic disease threatening the very survival of our British way of life. I think the report was actually only a surprise to the government and the police. It sure didn't come as a revelation to us. It seemed to be stating the bleedin’ obvious to anyone that didn't live in Westminster or go to school in Eaton.
One of the catalysts of the trouble, and one that still causes conflict, was the stop and search powers given to the police by the Conservative Party. It had instituted new powers for the Police under the 1824 vagrancy act to stop and search people based on only a 'reasonable suspicion' that an offence had been committed. The infamous ‘Sus law’. Needless to say the largely white police force applied them disproportionately to the black community. Unsurprisingly they caused widespread resentment amongst young black British men, who were often stopped because the coppers didn't like the look of them.
Add to this 2.5 million unemployed, mostly young men, some of whom had never worked. This level of unemployment, not seen since the economic nadir of the 1930s, had led to mass discontent in the working class areas of Britain most affected by the recession. Merseyside was one of these places and I remember thinking that I didn't fancy a government scheme when I left school. After all where there’s a scheme there’s a schemer. Twenty five quid a week for forty hours? Even I wasn't going for that and I saw myself as an optimistic, well behaved citizen.
That January The Specials were singing ‘Do nothing’ which was all some people reasonably could do without a living wage. But UB40, named after the unemployment benefit card, were telling us that the ‘The Earth Dies Screamin’ which combining Thatcher and Reagan’s love of Nuclear weapons and an equally stubborn Russian government it certainly looked like it may. Both these bands from the midlands were microcosms of British youth. A mix of races. Clever, erudite and feeling disenfranchised. But most of all aware of the government's indifference to their plight. By then I was worried that youth culture was loosing its edge. There were fewer mods around and some people had started to dabble with new Romanticism. As far as I was concerned this was sticking your head in the sand, fiddling whilst Rome burned. Ultravox at Christmas singing Vienna on the telly. Vienna was Rigsby’s cat! I could feel a little anger inside, and even secret Motorhead binges didn't rid me of the seventeen year old angst. I started feeling tense, argumentative and jumpy. In Brando’s movie ’The Wild One’, he is asked what he is rebelling against. His reply is in the region of ‘What have ya got?’. I understood perfectly.
On 13 January, thirteen black youths died in the New Cross Fire. The police quickly dismissed a racial motive for the apparent arson attack and the local Black community were dismayed by the indifference shown in the press towards the deaths. In response over 15,000 people marched in the largest black issue demonstration ever seen in the UK at that point. But it wasn't just the Afro-Caribbean community that felt under threat. In July the "Bradford 12" , a group of Asian youths, members of the "United Black Youth League" were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs. They claimed it was to protect their community from a threatened attack. The trial ended when they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self defence. People marched in the largest Black issue demonstration seen in Britain.
During March and April, the Metropolitan Police begin Operation Swamp 81, a campaign against burglary and robbery. In Brixton, over only six days, 120 plain-clothes officers stopped 943 people, arresting 118 predominantly Black youths. As a result the first disturbances began in Brixton over the weekend of the 10 to the 12 of April. These were not your standard race riots, street battles between races. The conflict was with police as symbols of white authority, with state racism and criminalisation of black communities.
But this wasn’t the only thing that was winding people up in 1981. There seemed to be tension everywhere and I think if there was ever a year when the world, or at least civilisation as we know it, had a chance to end, then this was the year. There was still trouble in Ireland back then. Thatcher’s government weren’t renowned as peace makers. Protestant gunmen shot and wounded Bernadette Devlin, someone who had tried to get the peace process going. In March Bobby Sands, a Provisional Irish Republican Army member, began a hunger strike, demanding political status in Long Kesh prison. He he died on May 5. He was the first of 10 men. So Northern Ireland was more of a bubbling cauldron than normal. Then on the 30th of March, U.S. President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C. hotel by John Hinckley, Two police officers and Press Secretary James Bradyare also wounded. Though its not uncommon for the American’s to assassinate their president, this came as a shock. Couple this with both Russia and the USA developing very itchy nuclear trigger fingers and it really did look like the beginning of the end to me. Seventeen isn’t the age of optimism. I remember a poster around this time with Thatcher and Reagan’s head superimposed on a ‘Gone with the wind’ poster. In the background a mushroom cloud can be seen. It read…’She promised to follow him to the ends of the earth. He promised to arrange it.’
April saw the Brixton riots. May saw Bobby Sands die and the whole of Northern Ireland erupt in anger. Then as if that wasn’t bad enough on May 13th Pope John Paul II was shot and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish gunman, as he enters St. Peter's Square to address a general audience. If that had been a recent event, you can only imagine what the reaction would have been. Later in the Month Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty of being the Yorkshire Ripper. He is sentenced to life imprisonment on 13 counts of murder and 7 of attempted murder, though not everyone believes the police did their best, or approached catching him in an intelligent way. Then on June the 13th, at the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London, Marcus Sergeant fires 6 blank shots at the Queen. This was direct assault on the British establishment. Ok so the President and the Pope was one thing, but an attack on the Queen is another. It was what the government needed to prove we were in a state of anarchy and with the press on their side they could demonise any dissenters they wanted to.
Across the river, the Merseyside police force then had a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the city. The heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on the 3rd of July, watched by an angry crowd, led to a disturbance in which several policemen were injured. The proximity of Liverpool to my home town, which also had a substantial ‘scouse’ overspill community who had been moved in during the early seventies, meant that people had relatives or communication with the people involved. Some for justifiable or more spurious reasons fancied a bit of trouble. Many of these people had been forcibly rehoused, given no choice but to move from their home city. Add this to the fact that there were several elements in the town who thought having a riot of our own might be a good idea. There simply wasn’t a big enough immigtant community in town to justify a riot on grounds of racism. However there was strong left wing element, several of whom were in ‘Militant’, who wanted to create tension with the police. There were also a cadre who saw an economic opportunity in looting a few shops and a large section of the youth community who just liked a fight. But there were plenty of angry unemployed lads with nothing better to do, who thought they’d found a voice in protest.
The following Saturday, packing away the gear from my bosses market stall I could see a group of youths gathering on the square just below the walkway leading to Woolworths. Mostly Punks and skins at first, but a few minutes later the members of a notorious local scooter club turned up. Dressed in Para boots and olive green monkey jackets it was clear they meant business. They were older by a few years than myself and my group of friends. They were big brothers and lads who ‘had not finished school’ to coin a phrase. I peeked through the heavy swing doors of the market hall and I swear you could smell the aggression, a heavy pheromone scent on the summer air. My boss told me to get on with it double quick and I could see everyone around me boxing up gear and busying themselves to get out of the area swiftly.
Market traders don’t pack up early too readily, not if the shopping day isn’t over. It must have been clear something was going to happen as the car park was empty of vans by just gone five. I wandered round the back of Asda to retrieve my PX, only to see a whole flock of much better machines surrounding it. I realised that if I wanted to ride home that night I was probably going to have to lift it above my head to get it out. The owners of the other scooters were by now beginning to face off with the few policemen who normally patrolled the town centre on a Saturday afternoon. I turned on my heels and ran back in to the hall, my cheap loafers skidding about on the warm tarmac. I began to wish for my addidas three stripes.
Still packing away a few trellises was a friend who imediately told me ‘They,’whoever they were, are ‘Bussing them in!’. Not coppers, but other would be rioters from out of town. We bundled back in to the car park and started to extracate my trusty wheels from amongst the other machines. It wasn’t easy, even two brawny young lads were no match for the PX which seemed to twist and turn as soon as it left the ground. The uneven distribution of the weight and the awkward shape didn’t help one bit and we came close to toppling several other scoots, which in my imagination would have fell like Italian dominoes and leaving me with no choice but to spend the rest of my life in whitness protection.
For once the PX started up first time. I donned my fake aviators (obtained with loyalty coupons from the local Esso station), open faced Centurion helmet complete with peak and gunned the throttle. It sounded good, but it also stopped the motor from dying which it often did, enabling me to buzz off out of the car park and on to the slip road. By now I could hear shouting and jeering from the crowd that had built up. I could see a few Harrington jackets now, a parka or two and a few more policemen. It was one of those several moments in my adult life when I wondered about how sensible it is to have a target on your back. Strangely the main road was empty, so I cut across and headed in the direction of home. Then I saw why, the road was coned off at the Park end and a phalanx of police, complete with riot shields and visors were moving in unison down the road sticks in hand. They were intending to catch the crowd in a pincer movement, appearing unexpectedly behind them from the far side of the market hall. Self preservation is a strong instinct within me, an instinct which shares a room with cowardice on a regular basis, so I made a u-turn and bombed off the other way.
The other end of the road was around a bend which I discovered was blocked by two Panda cars and coppers in flat caps. At the time this usually denoted a higher rank. The cars were Vauxhall Chevettes with white doors and sky blue body work. I turned again, mounted the pavement and rode over a grass verge towards a row of red brick houses. It didn’t occur to me until several years later that I hadn't actually done anything wrong, but even so I felt guilty of something. Almost like the rage I had felt for a few weeks had somehow fuelled what was currently going on in front of Woolworths. I could see in my rear view mirror that one of the cars was now in pursuit, or at least I believed it was. Of Course it wasn't, it was just driving a bit closer to the trouble, but a guilty mind sees what it wants to see. In my head I was now as wanted as Ronnie Biggs and I was determined to escape.
Ahead of me was an alley, a ginnel between two rows of terraces. I made straight for it, knowing it emerged on to some waste ground, which in turn faced on to the road past the speedway stadium. There was no way the Chevette could get there in time to stop me without circumnavigating the whole estate and I would be home free. I tried to make myself narrower by breathing in but the leg shields didn't understand and I must have hit every bin on my way through. I was a great big pinball bouncing off everything. No plastic wheelie bins back then. Galvanized steel, two sharp handles and a rubber lid. I emerged still upright but worse for wear leaving the bins I managed to kick out of the way rolling about behind me. The almost perfect red paintwork was ‘scratched to buggery’ as my father would have put it, and I continued to bounce up and down like a space-hopper across the ruts and hummocks until I reached the road.
The rest of the country was literally going up in flames, but that was my only brush with the law, and an imaginary one at that. When I did reach home my parents were watching the news with their tea on their laps. My father was venting his disapproval at the attitudes of modern youth and explaining to me that they should organise themselves through the union movement rather than acting like hooligans. I was in no mood to argue. I went to my room and put a record on. ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen hoping that the beat would override my paranoia. I was sure they had my number and any minute now a Z-car would come screeching up the street and hand break turn in front of the house. It was whole five minutes before my mother called up for me to turn it down a bit.
After this I felt a certain serenity descend upon me over the next few days, and though I'm a republican through and through I was one of 700 million people watched the Wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's Cathedral in London. Well not all of it, just enough to moan about the swelling of the civil list. For most people though it seemed to be an indicator that the country was pulling itself back together. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Then more evidence of common sense descending came when on November 12th The Church of England General Synod voted to admit women to holy orders. It was followed later in the month in Geneva, when representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union begin negotiating intermediate-range nuclear weapon reductions in Europe. I breathed a sigh of relief; the world wasn't going to end after all.
That Saturday night in Town had seen a few windows broken and even a report on the national news. I don’t think it was as bad as it was reported to have been. But I wouldn’t know as I had done a runner, so it may have looked like the barricade scene from Les Miserables. Woolworth’s was looted of some of its finery. A few deckchairs and the odd rubber ring. Plate glass from several well known chain stores including my beloved Littlewoods needed replacing. Plenty of heads were broken too, but none that didn’t mend.
By Christmas everyone seemed to have forgotten it had almost been the end of days. I was saving up for a Crombie, but some lads had started wearing make up and shirts that looked like blouses. Other than that it was quite a quiet December, observed through the golden haze of ‘Strongbow’. I read in the paper that Arthur Scargill had become President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers. Good I thought. I looked forward to a quieter future.