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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Len Shelley RIP

Len Shelley and his wife, Ang, have both died of cancer. He has had an obituary published in the Guardian which speaks of him in very factual terms. Hopefully, I can add some colour to the picture of this wonderful man.

I lived with Len from 2002-2005 in his big old house on Undercliffe Terrace, just off the St Leonards seafront.

In late 2001, I was working at the Hastings Observer as a reporter, earning peanuts, living in a bedsit in Bexhill. It was an attic room, and I had to pay pound coins into the heater. I was miserable and lonely.

One day, a South African woman called Hazel arrived at the Observer offices to promote a gig – some sort of world music thing called the Baghdaddies. I ran the ents pages and promised to put her gig in. We got talking and I explained I needed a place to live. She said I could live in her boyfriend’s house. She drove me down there after work in her retro-style car, looking sexy in a fake fur coat.

She let herself in to the house and I saw a big man with long hair, wearing a waistcoat, billowing shirt and green jeans, mopping water in the kitchen. The place was freezing. She introduced me to Len and he started apologising for everything: the leak in the kitchen, the lack of heating, the chaos.

They showed me round the house. All the rooms were big, with exposed floorboards, old rugs, OS maps of Sussex running up the wall next to the stairs. Everything was peeling, falling apart, damp walls, strange art lying around the place. I remembered a Dylan Thomas story about him moving to London and finding himself in a house full of furniture and thinking it the best place he had ever been. I felt the same about Len’s place. I moved in.

Len was mostly away, living with Hazel. We went on occasional cinema trips down to Bexhill or for Harvey’s in the Horse and Groom pub. He was both very warm yet clearly uncomfortable with other humans. He wouldn’t look you in the eye and nervously fiddled with blu-tac.

We always talked about music – it was the way in which we could safely connect with each other. We liked the same freaky shit: Parliament, Beefheart, King Tubby, etc. He introduced me to shit like Fela Kuti, Gang of Four, Can. He only had cassette tapes and vinyl. He loved cassettes, the way they rolled from one side to the other. He also liked that he could pick them up from second hand shops – the only places he ever bought anything.

After a year, he and Hazel split up and he moved back in. He brought his two cats with him. I am allergic to cats, but I didn’t want to leave the house. I wanted to live with Len, so I spent my time enjoying life, but not breathing very well.

Len was in quite poor condition at that time. He was coming off anti-depressants. He wasn’t doing his art – these strange, glass fronted cases with still animated scenes made from found objects. He spoke very little. It was a big house and we gave each other a lot of space.

He loved to read the Hastings Observer and liked to hear about what was going on. We had very polite conversations in the kitchen, chatting about the cassettes he was playing or my work or my drinking, which was going well at that time. He made a big pot of tea in the morning and got about his day before I went to work. He would potter in his garden, digging with no great purpose.

Slowly, his life began again. Word got about Hastings that he was single and he had a number of suitors. He was an incredibly attractive man. Dark skin, brooding eyes, a genuine artist among all of the much more loud and much less talented artists with which Hastings is filled. He got together with Angie, a painter. She was a warm and more gently encouraging presence than Hazel. She got him to get the basement turned into a studio and generally able to see the future in less bleak terms. The depressive cloud lifted somewhat.

I, meanwhile, was drinking with my friends in Hastings. We’d use the house as a late night hangout, getting up on the roof if Len was out, drinking Lynx lager, looking out to sea. I developed an obsession with the Libertines, which sent me into a manic state of hyperactivity which channelled my energy and frustrated creativity.

Len was invited to be part of an art show in Romney churches. He loved the Romney coast, both for its bleakness, and for the opportunities it offered to pick up flotsam and jetsam, which formed his art. The work he displayed in one of the Romney churches showed all of his mordant humour, surreal imagination, and respect for his surroundings, yet his desire to subvert them. Drinking wine at the opening, he still seemed uncomfortable, but he was back. He was pleased with the show. (See Len’s work at www.lenshelley.co.uk.)

Living with Len was both beautiful and remarkable in many ways. He grew rhubarb in his garden, only to let it sit there and die. He said he liked the shape of the leaves. I would often come home from my office in shirt and tie, to the sound of loud African music in the basement, and the sound of banging; the artist at work.

One day, I came home to find a large, strange object on the dining table. I couldn’t work out what it was at first. I walked round it, to discover it was a horse’s head. It would form part of a show in Tunbridge Wells. I loved that.

When his relationship with Ang became serious he started taking an interest in making the house more civilised. He got the house damp-proofed. He painted walls. He wanted her to move in. I had finally managed to get a girlfriend and so I made my excuses. It had been three years and it was time to move on.

I still saw Len on occasion in more recent years. He was working, he was doing well. He and Ang were in love. Ang was keeping bees and writing poems about them.

When I started on the road I am now on – writing performance poetry – the first piece I wrote was about him. It took the structure from My Old Man, by Ian Dury, who we both loved. It might not be on the level of his art, but it’s all true, a poem from me to him.

Len was a mentor for me in those years when I had no direction and was struggling to know what to do with my life. His love, support and friendship – and that of Ang’s – meant everything to me. He was a true bohemian, a true artist, and a true friend.

RIP Len and Ang.

My landlord

I saw the house in the winter
Boiler’d broke, it was cold
There was a flood in the kitchen
Wasn’t normal I was told
Rugs and sofa were all ancient
Maps of Sussex on the wall
Maps of Sussex on the wall
My landlord

My landlord he was an artist
Only worked with things he’d found
Brung in seagulls, foxes, badgers
Dreamt of ships run aground
Created strange dioramas
Gothic visions for the home
Gothic visions for the home
My landlord

My landlord, the women knew him
He weren’t like other blokes
Had himself romantic notions
Always wore an old waistcoat
In the summer, he had a boater
See him cycle down the coast
See him cycle down the coast
My landlord

Ol’ Len he never done much talking
Always showed a great reserve
He liked digging in his garden
Think it helped him with his nerves
Played me all his vinyl records
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
‘Tribal beats, son, have you heard’
My landlord

Three years in he met a painter
She was blonde and had two sons
He became quite dynamic
Got the damp and the pointing done
In the end we hid our feelings
Shook hands and I moved on
Shook hands and I was gone
My landlord
My landlord

Memories of Hastings Pier

When I saw footage of Hastings Pier up in flames earlier this week, I almost burst into tears. I didn’t feel anger because it seems that all the best piers meet the same fate: fall into disuse, owners not prepared to invest, and then up in flames.

Hastings is a romantic place. It is full of artists and chancers and wasters and dreamers. I fitted in nicely. I’d only been living there a few weeks, back in 2002, when the pier ballroom was being reopened. I was doing the ents pages for the local paper and got accosted by a bug-eyed fella by the name of Paul Hutchinson, plus beautiful accomplice.

They had designed a night called Phase:02, which was pretty much a shout out for everyone who liked to get mashed up – ie the whole town – to come and have a party. I went down there with a son of an artist called Jonathan, and we joined the happy throng.

I grew up in Romford where club nights are pretty much the preserve of the young, or very young. But in Hastings you pitch up at nights and you will find everyone from teenagers in hoodies, right up to grandparents. There’s no cliques or little subcultures, you either want to crack on, or you don’t.  Most do.

Needless to say details of the night are sketchy at best, but it left me feeling good about living in this seaside town.

Over the course of the next three years, I saw all manner of people in there: Jimmy Carson, Nick Cave, Chas & Dave, and, three weeks before he died, Joe Strummer. I interviewed Strummer over the phone before the gig and he had a desire to come back to do the pier, to a place where the Clash had played, where the Stones had played. It was a legendary venue.

I often wrote stories about the pier. The possibility of new ‘boutique’ shops, the rent prices, the need for investment. The pier did get some investment while I was there, but it was never enough. The place was always getting patched up, while the traders just about hung on.

Hutchinson soon flew the nest, a string of debtors shaking their fists, and in his place came Dave Preedy, a man designed to run a cabaret venue. He was all tattoos and tall tales, another man placing his dreams in a crumbling edifice above the sea. He didn’t last long after what money he had ran out.

But the fact is that people just like piers. It’s great to be on land but over the sea. It’s wonderful to look back at Hastings seafront and see the line of grand old houses, and Pelham Crescent and the castle above. It was good to sit and have a cocktail on the pier apron, with the fortune teller in her little hut down the way, and the smell of frying burgers and onions over the other side, and a couple of old people having a fag outside the bingo hall.

The pier closed again a few years later, for safety reasons. And, as the place was always quite rickety, you imagine those reasons were fairly compelling. But people were determined to get the thing reopened. On one of my more recent visits I was walking past the pier, feeling a pang of sadness to see the place bolted up, even if it was a windy and rainy winter’s day. And there outside was a couple of old women, collecting money for a fighting fund. I gave a couple of quid, knowing it was probably futile.

It seems now, a few days after the fire, that if people really want to save the thing, to stop it going the way of the West Pier in Brighton, it could happen. I bloody well hope so, but they’ll probably need an awful lot of cash. Piers are romantic places, but like theatres, they eat money.