Riot roots and riot branches

One

I was slouched outside Hastings Magistrates’ Court, reporter’s notebook in hand, when I saw a kid I knew. He was a foster child who lived with the family of one of my friends. He was 16, but looked younger. Last time I’d seen him we’d been fooling about at a party, enjoying the traditional manly pleasures of the belly-slap and rough-and-tumble.

‘Hello, Rich!’ he said brightly.
‘Alright, mate!’ I rejoined.
‘What you here for?’
‘Reporting. Nothing special. You?’
‘I smashed this bloke’s window.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘I was walking past and he was looking at my girlfriend. So I smashed his window.’
He showed me the cuts he had on his wrist from the incident.
‘Oh, mate,’ I said with a sigh. ‘You shouldn’t’ve done that. You know that, don’t you?’
‘I know, Rich. But I just don’t give a fuck.’

Two

I’m on a team away day at Recipease, Jamie Oliver’s horribly punning shop/eatery/cookery establishment in Clapham Junction. We are there to be taught how to make spinach and ricotta tortellini by a Jamie-approved cheeky-chappy Irishman. He suggests that before we start cooking, we have a look at some of the great food and cookery items on sale, some at a discount.

Wine is brought and we sit and have a glass at rustic tables, where Jamie’s books are casually placed.

‘This is nice,’ says someone.
‘This is nice,’ says another.
‘This is nice,’ says a manager.
‘This is revolting,’ I think.

I wander around this suffocatingly-branded heaven and stroll to the front of the shop, where I look out and see a Starbucks and a Waitrose. A familiar feeling of hate and self-loathing rises up inside.

Did Jamie Oliver's Recipease eatery inspire the disenfranchised youth of Clapham Junction to riot?

Three

Hastings Magistrates’ Court. I’ve been in a session, hearing a 14-year-old boy get sentenced after breaking the terms of his Asbo. He’d stolen a car, gone for a ride and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself and two of his mates.

In normal youth court you are not allowed to name the youth involved in order to protect the child’s identity. But for Asbos, publicity is part of the deal, even for kids. Name and shame. Teach them a lesson. A nice front page lead for Purnell.

I strolled out of the court, and get stopped by a small kid with a lot of gel in his manky hair.

‘Were you in court?’
‘Yes.’
‘What did Jake get?’
’22 weeks.’
’22 weeks.’ he paused for thought. ‘What’s that? Five months. He’ll do half, be out in two-and-a-half. Not bad.’
We shake hands and he gets on his mobile to excitably tell his mates the verdict.

Four

I’m at a friend’s party in Battersea. We used to be reporters together in Hastings. Now we are in London and it feels good to have that connection with my recent past.

However, we are on slightly different social strata. I went to comprehensive school; she went to public school. I went to Leicester University; she went to Bristol. I’m living with a journalist who works at the Daily Express; she’s living with a journalist who works at the Daily Telegraph.

As soon as I arrive the necessary and sufficient questions are asked by smirking, chino-wearing men.

‘Where do you work?’
‘What university did you go to?’

They know, instinctively, that I did not go to Oxford or Cambridge or Bristol. They know I am not earning as much as them. Still, they like to have the point underlined, just to be sure, just for fun.

Once they’ve established I am not worth talking to, they ignore me. I’m left on my own, telling myself not to do something bad, so I don’t embarrass my friend. I drink punch and pretend to be interested in the DVD collection, wondering when it would be polite to leave.

Eventually another girl from Hastings arrives. We spend the rest of the evening on our own, out on the balcony, happy in our lower-middle-class ghetto.

Five

Monday 8 August 2011. I am walking through Brixton. Police are everywhere. The town centre is blocked, the tube station closed, so I get on a bus. When I see the devastation, I think: good.

A suit on my bus, shocked to the core, takes a picture of a smashed-up bus stop on his iPhone. I think: prick.

Tuesday night, 8pm. I catch a bus from Brixton. Everything is shut, even the fried chicken shops. On the bus I see men outside blocks of flats, having a beer, having a smoke, making sure.

Wednesday. Laura from the Ritzy emails, saying they are back open and can I host the open mic tonight? I tell her it is folly – none of my nice audience will show up so soon after the riots.
‘Let’s do it anyway,’ she says.

I get down there after work, heavy of heart, angry at everything and nothing. I stick Dexy’s Midnight Runners on. If it’s the early ’80s all over again, may as well do the job properly.

Laura greets me on arrival, says two Brazilian dancing girls have been in touch. Is it okay if they perform?

Well…all right.

A soul singer arrives and we get chatting about the early years of Mariah Carey, a subject on which I speak very impressively. A couple of kooks arrive to play blues, a shabby spoken word artist arrives, a comedian, an Asian singer whose been before.

We get going. I do a poem about Hastings, about those early days when I was happy getting paid £10,000 a year to report on the lower echelons of our finely stratified society. People are listening, small smiles of recognition on some of the faces.

Our soul singer opens. Turns out she’s good, really good. Everyone is performing well, everyone is happy, and those layers of hate and loathing start to peel off of me.

We take a break and I clear the stage for the dancing girls. I get everyone – even those cool people in fine clothes looking thoughtful over laptops – upstairs to watch.

Then, when the place is full, and buzzing, I get the soca rhythms on, make the introductions and the dancing girls, wearing full carnival costume, by which I mean virtually nothing except a lot of make-up and enormous, brilliant head-dresses, and the clapping and dancing begins as they shake and dance with visceral energy, shaking and bouncing, head-dresses brushing the ceiling, men drinking beers quickly to hide their feelings, and it is a party, a party, reminiscent of Rio, reminiscent of Brixton on any particular evening. Seventy-two hours after the riots, everything is forgotten.

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Why a Kindle is not for me

 

I was recently in the British Heart Foundation shop in Brixton with my friends Shonagh and Alex. They were buying a sofa bed, and were spending an age getting it measured, looking at the price, wondering whether it was too much, and generally procrastinating in fine Sunday shopping style.

After a while I became tired of this charming scene, and wandered off to the records and the books. Flicking through the vinyl, I picked up some absolute crackers: a 12-inch single of ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon, and a Boney M album.

Holding an armful of vinyl,  I ambled over to the bookshelves and saw a nice volume, entitled Modern Short Stories, on Faber. This had a few old favourites in it: Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other worthies whom I’d never read. It was a pound, so I bought it before rejoining my friends at the sofa bed.

When I got home, I read the F Scott Fitzgerald like a greedy child eats ice cream. Having sated my Fitzgerald craving, I settled into a more relaxed perusal of the contents. On the inside cover I noticed a name and year written: Gordon Smith, 1987-88. There was also a stuck down sheet, torn so it only said, ‘The Edinburgh…’ So, this was a school book. Perhaps something to be read at ‘O’ level, as it would have been then.

Flicking through, on p41 young Gordon had written ‘I want to die!’ My heart went out to him, all teenage and Scottish back in the late ‘80s. What could have caused him to despair so?
 
It may have had something to do with the story on which this plaintive statement was written: ‘My First Ball’ by Katherine Mansfield. It appeared that Mansfield’s prose style was not appealing to Gordon. I imagined him there, sitting at his desk in an austere Edinburgh classroom. All he wanted to do was get out and listen to the Proclaimers on his Walkman, but instead he was forced to read about some girl going to her first ball.
 

I turned the page and found that Gordon’s spirits had returned somewhat. He had defiantly drawn a dick and balls. This took me back to my own school days. I remembered a period of about a year, at the age of twelve or thirteen, when the first pubes are growing (or perhaps not quite) and all a boy can draw is the dick and balls. However, Gordon had gone further. No doubt feeling insulted to have been made to read Katherine Mansfield’s girly nonsense, he drew a shower of piss coming out of the dick.

Yes, that’s right, Katherine Mansfield! Gordon Smith is pissing on your prose. Pissing all over your silly story. Gordon Smith doesn’t care about Leila or her first ball! Doesn’t give a damn about it! He’s got a great shower of urine cascading over your turn-of-the-century vignette!

A fine example of the 'dick and balls' school of art

On the following page (I had almost totally lost interest in the actual story by that stage) Gordon returned to his artistic theme. But this time he had drawn just a dick, arising mischievously from the bottom of the page. He’d arguably done a better job here, with detail to suggest the foreskin, and a more mature shower of piss.

Gordon made no further artistic additions to Modern Short Stories, clearly feeling his work had been done. He had survived the Mansfield ordeal, and was possibly stronger for the experience.

What path that book took from the Edinburgh classroom to the Brixton charity shop we will never know.  What I do know is that I felt a gentle thrill from having held the book that provoked such despair and defiance from a Scottish schoolboy.

It also made me realise why I will never get a Kindle. Books are more than words on a page. They are things to be loved and hated and, if necessary, drawn upon. This was an experience I could never have had with a Kindle. Books develop a character over the years whereas a digital file will always remain useful, convenient, but ultimately impersonal.

Thank you to Gordon Smith, and indeed Katherine Mansfield, for reminding me that books, quaint though they might be, remain things to be treasured.

Showing greater artistic maturity: G. Smith's 'dick with piss'

Tonight Grassy Noel saved my life

So, I died on stage tonight. That was to be expected, considering I was reading poetry in the public bar of a Brixton pub.

People were coming in. Saying hello to friends. Ordering drinks. Going for a piss. Whatever.

What they were not doing was listening to my tender words. It’s hard to keep going when only the promoter of the night, the estimable Dennis Just Dennis, is watching you. No one else, not even your mates, could give a shit.

Up there on stage, without some sort of human response, you have that feeling perhaps akin to being in purgatory. Someone is going to send you to hell in a minute, but not before they smoke a rollie out back in the beer garden.

It was a truly horrible experience. It wasn’t Dennis’s fault. He usually has the room upstairs, where people are up there if they want to be there. But tonight, there was some sort of party and we got moved to the public bar.

Dennis put a positive spin on it. ‘It’s a chance to get people from off the street, win over the crowd down here.’ He and I knew that was small talk. It was going to be a hard night.

After I’d done my slot, I fucked off to the back of the bar and drank Guinness for a bit.

But then Paul Birtill was on. He is one of my favourite poets. A scouser living down south. Bone dry wit. Micro-poems. The kind of poetry I’d never produce but love to hear.

I encourage my mates to come up the front and listen to the man. He reeled off his set, battling against the woman with the machine gun laugh at the back of the bar.

He got some laughs. Less than usual, but still, he’s a pro. He did well. Much better than me.

Then it was time for a break and after that was Grassy Noel and his band, Ape. Grassy had witnessed proceedings, sipping orange juice in the wings (he’s teetotal).

His band I had seen at Kid, I wrote back. They were absolutely incredible, and went down a storm.

This time, Grassy, in trademark black trilby and black jacket, was in full attack mode. I liked to think that he’d seen the way his fellow poets had suffered up on stage, and with his band behind him, was meting out some justice.

He started off not using words. Just noises, bellowed into the mike. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty effective. Quite a few people left the bar.

The band started firing up, the stand-up double-bass with bulldog clip on the strings, the better for producing harsh clipped basslines. One of his colleagues was playing the vuvuzela, the instrument of choice at the last World Cup in South Africa. The other fellow was producing strange sounds from a lap top.

And then Grassy started naming wartorn countries. Libya…Afghanistan…Pakistan. For ages, not looking at the crowd, down in the microphone, juddering, shuddering.

Then he got onto Humpty Dumpty, in his preacher-like Irish tones, got down, deep down into the nursery rhyme, which, by christ, has never sounded more sinister.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…

One of the band started clanging two ancient fire extinguishers together.

More people left. Beer garden, out front, whatever. Just out. Fucking brilliant.

His band got the horns out, the cornet and the alto sax. This is where they sound all Radiohead, in the Amnesiac era. Freaky as fuck. Really really good.

Now Grassy’s going on about the Seventh Seal. Who know what he’s talking about, but it’s dark. Dark and incomprehensible. But I understand. This is punk. This is brutal attack music and poetry. This is living without compromise. This is G-Force poetry. If My Bloody Valentine did poetry, it would sound like this.

By the end of the set, it was just me, my two friends, Dennis, a few more freaks, and the band. Everyone had wisely got the fuck out.

People have the right to enjoy a drink without being assaulted by poetry. And poets have the right to bring their words into pubs and carry out assaults. Everyone is right. And not everyone can be happy all the time.

I died on stage tonight. And tonight Grassy Noel saved my life.

How I became a vegetarian

When people discover that I am a vegetarian, they are often surprised. They look at me and find none of the deathly pallor commonly associated with the veggie.

When conversing with carnivores, I concede that I haven’t been one of ‘them’ for that long, only about three years.

Put at ease, they become fascinated by me as a specimen. Their scientific and sociological impulses are aroused. How can I, all healthy looking and energetic, be a veggie? They want to know how it started. The story goes like this.

For shame, I became fascinated by vegetables, and uninterested in meat

Back in 2007, I was living in Brixton with my friend Dan. He is from Wigan, the pie-eating capital of the UK, and probably the world. He’d been brought up to regard vegetarianism as something weird that southerners get up to, like dogging. It was beyond his comprehension.

In our happy Rushcroft Road flat, Dan and I would cook for each other (sweet, isn’t it?). He would roll in from work and pop some chops under the grill, or I’d roast some chicken breasts. He was quite advanced as Wiganers go, and only ate pies or sausages three or four times a week. We occasionally grilled salmon, as a nod towards cholesterol levels and a healthy lifestyle.

Things were going fine. The household was steady. But for whatever reason, I became unnaturally attracted by vegetables, to the point that I saw them not as a side dish, but the main part of a meal. I started making pasta with vegetables for dinner, or perhaps a tomato risotto. Dan was a tolerant fellow and put up with it.

One day, however, he came home and excitedly showed me some sausages he’d picked up from Moen’s, the posh butcher’s in Clapham. I said that I didn’t fancy them, at which point his equanimity broke.

‘ARE YOU A VEGETARIAN?’ he said, using the v-word as a pejorative.
‘I think I might be,’ I said quietly, eyes downcast.
‘Oh,’ he said. Neither of us expected that.
‘Does this include fish?’ he said hopefully.
‘I don’t know.’ It was all so new.
‘So you don’t want these sausages, then?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, what are you going to eat?’
‘Some vegetables, I suppose.’

Then, like all big news, it became a matter of telling people. I told my mother, who told my father. She took it in her stride. I’d dabbled in environmentalism, which she knew can lead to vegetarianism. She saw it as an opportunity to cook different meals, expand her repertoire.

My father, however, is northern, from Leeds, and wasn’t prepared at all. He was as unsettled as Dan by this turn of events. I imagined him sitting at home, casting his mind back across the rearing process and wondering where he had gone wrong. Had he shown rather too much interest in some sprouts in the early years? Not finished a second portion of roast beef? He would have concluded that his carnivorous credentials were impeccable, and blamed my mother for being ‘soft on the boy’.

My first Christmas as a vegetarian was a fraught affair. Blood relations kept asking me ‘what are you going to eat?’ in worried tones. They believed my vegetarianism to be a sign of a deeper malaise, a mental unravelling of some sort.

I assured them in a ‘there’s-nothing-to-look-at-here’ way, that it was all right. I’d just have the vegetables, thanks. My mother heaped roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, red cabbage and carrots on my plate and wondered whether I had enough, eyeing me nervously throughout the meal.

With time, my nearest and dearest realised the new me was very much like the old. I was still the same greedy bastard they’d known before.  I still ate as much as I possibly could on any given occasion. Apart from the meat.

Dan and I went our separate ways a few months later. I can’t say the vegetarianism didn’t play a part. However, and this shows the live and let live attitude of the man, we remain friends, despite my unorthodox lifestyle.

What probably saved the friendship between me and this connoisseur was that even if I am unduly fascinated by the aubergine, I still like to tuck into the cheese and wine. And, as I like to say, without the meat, you have far more room for a good bit of Stilton.

A lovely head and shoulders shot of a Stilton. So good, some French don't sneer at it. Occasionally.