Monday, May 21, 2012

'Britain observed. The voices of the kids of Toxteth' (New Society 26 November 1981)

Another article from the Ian Walker archive. Written in the aftermath of the Toxteth Riots, this 1981 article was originally published in the November 26th issue of New Society.
'Britain observed. The voices of the kids of Toxteth' by Ian Walker

Mothers picked up pieces of tinsel and inspected the toy machine guns on the makeshift stalls set up by some waste ground. The market was opened six weeks ago, by shopkeepers who got burned out in the riots Tony said, hurrying on by.

Polythene around the stalls flapped in the wind. It was coming on to rain. Tony pushed open the door of Mac's cafe.

A sign on the fake-wood wallpaper told customers to use the ashtrays and not the floor. Sitting on red plastic chairs, two old men were talking about the second world war. The other customers, all teenagers, white and black, were clustered round the three electronic game machines. It was dinner time.

Pale and thin and dark-haired, Tony looked younger than his 17 years as he stood before the Galactica machine, trying to beat his top score of 25,000. He is a Liverpool white Catholic. About £3 of his weekly £15 social security goes on the machines, he said. Out of work since he left school a year ago, Tony is hoping his father will be able to get him in at Ford's Halewood plant when he is 18.

Like his parents and grandparents before him, Tony was born and raised in Toxteth, and he said he hadn't been to many other places. Went to Southport once on his bike. Drove with his uncle to Manchester airport a couple of times to meet his parents coming back from holiday in Spain. Tony lives just over the road from the cafe, in a yellow-brick terrace on Whittier Street.

The best thing about the riots, he said, was all the publicity. When Heseltine and Foot did their walkabouts, Tony joined the entourage. "The cameras were more importnat to us, BBC like," he said. "Had to get on TV."

The schoolchildren who'd spent their dinner hour at Mac's had all left, and Tony said he was going too, home to play some singles on his parent's stereo.

Over the road in the Albany pub, at 2.30, one of the six white men at the bar pulled out a porno photomontage of Lady Di for the landlady to recoil in mock horror. A white woman called Anne sat alone in the corner reading the Liverpool Post. She was working as a hotel chambermaid, but it was only on a government job-experience scheme, she said. She works the same hours as other girls, but only gets £23.50 a week.

The story on page three of the Post was about the trial of Leroy Cooper, whose arrest on 3 July helped spark off the rioting which began two days later. Cooper, who pleaded guilty to assaulting three policemen, stood in the dock holding a copy of Lord of the Rings, wrote the Post's reporter. The judge trusted that Cooper, who had four o levels, would be able to continue his studies at borstal.

Anne walked up Smithdown Road, and disappeared into the Quik Save Discount Food Store. Behind the shop, across a triangle of waste ground, a tramp stood outside the public library. Next door is the bingo hall and beyond that, on Upper Parliament Street, a church which is now a second-hand furniture warehouse.

Half a mile away, on the other side of Parliament Street, four black girls stood around in a small shopping precinct on St Saviour's Square, part of a new red brick estate. WELCOME TO HELL, PIGS, it sais on the wall opposite the supermarket.

It was just round the corner from here, by some bollards, that a young white was killed in one of the riots. His name and date of death are written in big white capitals on the red brick: DAVID MOORE, 28.8.81.

The four girls said they often meet up outside the shops at around four, before going home for their tea. Fingering her hair, which takes two hours every night to plait and bead, Joanne said that she loves Toxteth, even though it does get a drag being on the dole.

Her friend, Lita, who is the same age, 16, but still at school, nodded agreement. "Lots of action. Good atmosphere," she said, pointing to some fading yellow graffitti next to the tobacconist's, ten yards away. RIOTS ARE GREAT, it said.

"People think it's a bad area, but it's not," Lita said. "More safe here than anywhere. You feel protected. It's worse in town." She turned to watch two policemen walking slowly towards her, and all conversation stopped as they passed. When they were out of earshot, Joanne, clucking her tongue in annoyance, said how terrible it was Leroy Cooper getting sent away to borstal. "He was only trying to stop his relation getting arrested."

Beverley, at 18 the eldest of the group, just shrugged, stuck out her lower lip. What do you expect? her eyes seemed to ask. "Babylons," muttered Joanne, staring down at her red shoes, and then saying it was about time she went home. She lives in Entwhistle Heights, the tower block which dominates the neighbourhood. She had a great view of the rioting from up there, she said. "Used to watch every night before going to bed."

Before dispersing, the girls arranged to meet later at "the Meth," the Methodist youth club they go to most nights, but always for the disco on Thursdays, and dread night on Fridays.

Billboards for Carlsberg, the Daily Telegraph, Vladivar vodka, the Triumph Acclaim and Guinness were all lit up in the dark, ranged in a great five-sided curve at the junction of Parliament Street and Lodge Lane. "Used to be a Quiki [Quik Save store] on the Lane and everything. Used to be packed, but it all got burned down," said Donna, one of six young white girls sitting in a small room in the Solway Street youth club, just off the Lane.

'It was a good laugh'
Donna, who is 14 and black-haired, introduced herself as the only Catholic in the group. She wants to be an actress some day, and has already had a bit part in an opera at the Neptune Theatre in town.

Her father, she said, was waiting for his union card so he could start work as a lagger. Her mother is a barmaid. They were both out of the house the night the riots started: so Donna went away to stay with some friends. "It was a good laugh."

One of the girls, Elaine, said that her family had had enough, and were moving out into the suburbs. "Oh, I love Toxteth," said Donna. "I'd hate to go," She started telling everyone about the conversation she had with Prince Charles when he came on a visit, but the anecdote was interrupted by a girl called Tracey who flung open the door and made a short announcement:

"I'm 16 today. I live on Ashbridge Street and I wasn't in the riots. I want to be a dentist. I got in the semi-finals at the disco dancing at Butlin's, Pwllheli. It was my 21st time at Butlin's," she said, taking her seat to polite applause.
The girls usually have disco dancing lessons on Tuesdays but tonight the instructor's on the sick. Bad back, apparently. A bottle smashed on the street outside. Elaine got up to look out of the window, but the others just carried on talking.

Over the road at the Unity boys' club, Sean, another Liverpool white Catholic, had just pocketed the black to win his game of pool. "About 25 per cent of the police are all right," he said, leaning on a cue. "The rest are just shit." He is due to appear in court as a witness on 2 December, to help a friend of his charged with stealing a car. Sean doubts he'll able to do much good, even though he says he was with the friend talking to some girls when the offence was supposed to have been committed. Magistrates always believed the police, he said.

Hearing Sean's story, three small white boys started chanting, "We rob cars. Beat up the bobbies. Kick up the pigs." Garfield and Tony, both older, and the only blacks in the room, told them to shut up. "These little kids," said Garfield. "They still have their little riots down by Falkner Square every week. Stupid."

Garfield and Tony sat down on a window ledge. Through the glass behind them, young men in the gym were running, bending, turning, sweating. The two young blacks, who both went to David Moore's funeral, said that the riots started because everyone had had enough of the police, moving them on, picking them up on sus, calling them niggers.

I asked them what had happened since the riots. "Nuttin' at all," said Tony. "Well," said Garfield. "They are trying to do some things for the young, but not for the adults. We're getting a sports centre. The other day we had to write down what we wanted, din't we? A pool table, and all that."
Unimpressed, Tony moved to his next theme, the bias of the media. "On the television it was the rioters throwing bricks and bottles and that. Didn't have the baton charges, or the police beating people up. And the papers never even put down why the riots eventually stopped, which was when the guy in charge of the police came out and had a discussion with some of the leaders. The riots stopped after that discussion. That was it."

Outside, at nine o'clock, two little boys were throwing bottles at a wall. A five-a-side football match was in progress on the Unity club's floodlight pitch. Flyposted all along Lodge Lane was a black-and-white sheet which said: "I'm angry! I am in a box and I cannot get out."

Next afternoon at Mac's cafe, an 18 year old white boy called Kenny sat looking out of the window. He'd just come back from an interview at the local post office. He's hoping to get some work there over Christmas. They said they'd give him a ring. His friend, Arna, also on the dole, also white, walked in and sat down beside him.

Arna said he never really went to any schools, just homes. The last one, Dyson Hall, he got sent to for glue-sniffing. The police caught him in the park. "Wasn't too bad there," he said. "All right. Something to do. Makes a change." The phrases are ejected like a fruit machine paying out.

The eldest one of the gang, Peo, aged 19, finished playing the Galactica, and strolled to the table with his mug of tea. Peo, who's white, has done time in borstal. He was put away for stabbing someone outside a disco. "Did twelve months and two weeks altogether. Missed Crimbo [scouse for Christmas] and the New Year. Bastards."

Heads turned to greet Yozzer, who said he'd just got the hat and rack, meaning sack, and now, like the rest of this cafe society, was signing on. His father was an Arab, although which kind, Yozzerisn't sure. "I'd like to go into office work, myself, Computers or something, but there's no chance," he said.

"Nuttin's been done here for years", sighed Arna. "Only the Barratt's estate [a private development]. They knocked all these streets down because they said they were going to build a ring road. Next thing, they're not going to build a road, and all the fucking houses are knocked down."

"Want to have a riot to get things done," said Yozzer. "Look at all these playgrounds being built." Arna and Peo said they'd believe it when they saw it.

"Since the riots I haven't been stopped by the busies as much. That's one good thing," said Yozzer, looking on the bright side. "Used to get stopped at least once a week."

The rest of the afternoon passed slowly away in conversation about the kind of drugs they'd managed to get hold of recently, about the gang of bicycle thieves that Peo used to run, about the latest misdeeds of "the busies," the police, and about who had got what chrome, brass and copper plating on their scooters. All against the distorted background of the Radio One playlist, and the manic music of the electronic machines.

A news item about Reagan prompts Arna to say he was into CND. "I'd like to join it. But I can't be bothered. Haven't got the money to go up and down the fucking country. But I know what I know, know what they're talking about."

"The government'll be safe. Those who push the button, they're okay,' said Yozzer.

It is just assumed round here that politicians are liars, policemen are bent, school is a con, and the same goes for government training schemes. Adverts are deceitful, newspapers are much the same.

It was getting dark, and the boys drifted home. Yozzer, Kenny and Arna to their families. Peo to his second floor flat above a tobacconist's over the road. On Wednesday night, Lady Diana flipped the switch on the London lights, England qualified for the World Cup, and David Steel in a Liberal party political broadcast said that class was outmoded. Men got drunk, and sang hymns to their team on the way home.

Early on Thursday evening I called round at Peo's flat. There's no doorbell. You have to cup the hands and bellow up from the street. The top-floor window opened and Peo's flatmate, Paul, poked his head out. The living room upstairs was bare except for a bed, a wardrobe and a small music centre, which played Police and thieves. the reggae single by Junior Marvin.

Paul, who works as a printer, pulled a pile of riot memorabilia from the wardrobe: some cuttings from the Liverpool Echo, and two posters, one calling for the resignation of Kenneth Oxford, chief of police in Merseyside, and another which said, "Black and white, unite and fight>" Paul is white.

"Great that. Sound," he said, sticking them on the wall with Sellotape. "People think the trouble in Toxteth was heaviness between whites and coloureds. It was nuttin' like that at all. I was standing on the street one of the nights, and there was all this tear gas everywhere. Someone grabbed me on the shoulder. I thought, 'Oh, fuck, I've been nicked.' But it was this black guy handing me a rag. All dead sound."

The reason for the rioting, Paul insisted, was the Liverpool busies, that's all. "There is no such thing as getting arrested round here without getting hit. No such thing," he emphasised, his finger beating out the time. "They're worse than us, you know."

He asked if I remembered that story about the masked raiders going round on bikes, organising the rioters. He said that those raiders were him and his friends, driving round seeing what was going on. "If anyone organised it, it was the black guys and we backed 'em up. I was nuttin' to do with looting. We said, 'Don't loot, don't loot. Just fight with the coppers, brick 'em and that'," he said, getting up to put on another single, Bank robber, by the Clash.

Peo came out of the bathroom, which he'd spent all day decorating. He combed his hair, while Paul said that when the Welsh police were drafted in during the rioting: everything was cool. "Straight up, they used to give us ciggies. Dead good."

Down at the Methodist youth club disco, Joanne and Lita stood up in the TV room, looking down through the glass into the dark of the disco floor, which was illuminated only by the neon around the record decks. Posters stuck near the bar, which sold soft drinks and sweets, carried tough messages. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," said one.

Garfield and Tony were downstairs, playing pool. One of the very few white boys in the club said his father was black, and that as far as he was concerned that made him black too.

And at the Brooke Farm pub, Paul addressed his fourth pint of brown and mild, Peo his fourth of snakebite, which is lager and cider. Pulling a fiver from his pocket, Paul said he'd be broke by the morning. They spent Peo's last giro in two days. It was supposed to last a fortnight.

The boys around the brown-baize pool table, Paul whispered, were all in a gang called the Lawrence Road Lunatics. "They don't give a fuck," he said. "They just rob and rob, get put away, rob again. It's like that. They've no chance ever of getting a job. I'd be like that too, if I lost my job. I wouldn't go on the dole."

Paul waved his hand at a bearded old man, called Frank, carrying an Athena poster of Marx, and drained his glass. "Don't you go away telling everyone how black life is round here," Paul said to me. "Tell them it's . . . bright yellow."

He held his hands up in the air.
26 November 1981

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