1970s Britain, African American, Asian community activists, black British, Boxing, class privilege, explanatory models, Gerald McLellan, hipsters, Kevin Mitchell, Lewisham riot, London, memory, Nigel Benn, politics, race, radical chic, skinheads, Summer of Sam, War Baby
There’s a West Ham souvenir shop in Bluewater. Don’t ask. So bored waiting for someone down there the other day, it ended in the usual staring competition with a couple of surly teenagers. Little chancers, lucky yours truly was too tired and apathetic to go over and actually do something about it. Don’t these malingerers ever go to school? Maybe they need to learn it’s a dangerous world out there and Double Geography’s not the worst option for them.
Speaking of school, the only thing worse was Eltham Baths, where in another lifetime they’d take us swimming, and where turds would regularly float past unlucky stragglers in the shallow end. The same bit of that chlorinated fishtank which the trailer trash also favoured as a toilet. For some reason (the first signs of webbing on those feet perhaps?) the little inbreds were always really good swimmers too, which meant you were the one left looking like you’d drawn mud as they dolphined it away from the scene of the crime. Still, the happiest days of our lives and all that. Play for Today and Parky, cod wars and cricket. Lost decades which never hurt anyone, eh? Not if you don’t count stagflation and the SPG, though some might argue they were the inevitable flipside of The Specials and a failed socialist experiment. In any case, if the pundits on those Top 100 TV programmes are to be believed, the dog days of old Labour are really just shorthand for ‘retro’ now. History mined for its hilarity, though never its horrors, so tinned peaches rather than Blair Peach and a strong line in selective amnesia. Some genius, curiously enough never from south London, recalling the triumph of Abba or ‘kitsch’ or pet rocks but omitting to mention those other period features: marauding boneheads, bent coppers, and the stomach churning, wade in the water indignities of floating poo.
The present’s hardly a step up either. Just for starters all those London originals with their baby strollers and smug expressions – enough to make anyone reach for the Oldboy solution. And that’s just the men, class privilege barely concealed behind all those tats, an existential sneer beneath all that fastidiousness: that bread, this pastime, these friends, that beard.
There they are, setting up little colonies of taste and distinction, a handlebar Victoriana spreading due south from its eastern heartlands. Dalston rehabilitated and, but for a café Otto, Lewisham well on the way too. The chutzpah (or is that ‘neck’?) on these: so achingly metro in their big swag homes, or more precisely ‘live/work’ surrounds, but still finding time to offer a knowing smile to the immigrants serving them moccha in recently sprung up ‘neighbourhood’ cafes. Thinking ‘ah well, if you work hard one day you can be like me, lounging, relaxing with my paper and new fangled interest in football and beer and ‘birds’ and chap hop in a gastropub where the only boardgame is ‘Risk’ and the only team is Chelsea.’
Never once imagining the waiter’s true thought process:
‘Cunt, hope however low i sink i’m never like you, because, pinche cabron, back home they used to throw people like you down the nearest well and wait weeks before reporting you missing. Plus, i spat in your little maricon drink. But you can call it cream if you like.’
Bistros, delis, dinner parties where the talk is of getting young Josh or Toby or Lucy into a school without such a ‘challenging intake’ but one which still demonstrates their parents’ passionate commitment to the state sector. The joys of paying a small fortune for the right catchment area so that the principled attachment to education for all can be maintained. Without a hint of irony. And fingers can carry on pointing in between all that artisanal fare, the only thing sweeter than these organic tomatoes a locally sourced school and the reassuring sight every morning of a Josh/Toby/Lucy crocodile zig zagging its gifted and talented way to a first rate education and perhaps just as importantly to unequivocal moral authority.
Bloody hell! This is what it’s like upstairs, whenever it’s time to replenish the stocks. Although to be fair back home there’s usually far more happening in the aisles.
‘You looking at my pet food?’ Smack. ‘You’re in the way of my fags’. Smack. ‘I’m still angry about that time Jedward survived the vote.’ Smack.
This place is a little different though. Here they’re always pushing samples of free food down the suburban shopper’s neck, foie gras for the free born, but they’re starting to get wise to that guy just working his way through the freebies while the missus wonders where he’s got to, having promised her he’d be right back with some honey and cilantro.
Cilantro! Dhania. Coriander, motherfucker! You’re from a culture where we actually eat this stuff, so stop pretending you learned it five minutes ago from some ese.
Easy to see how Walker as played by Lee Marvin was bemused and slightly annoyed by the shiny surfaces and rictus grins in La La land. A car in every drive and murder never far from the freeway.
Always used to think much of south London was one big suburb…until this place. Yes, the peace and quiet is wonderful but in the end it drains your soul. Such surface manners as there are bequeathing their own gift of madness, of the slow burn variety, the drip, drip, drip of politeness marinated in botox and empty smiles and relentless tract housing. ‘Activism’ in this crazy the preserve of the already comfortable, of seekers on the lookout for that latest theory, for some gap in the chainlink that invites them in. No need for these high born heroines to hide in the shadows though, the Bina screech of their deception the echo of another catchment area, a distant fraud. And again, well manicured fingers are pointed and the enemies of good taste identified. For ‘principled’ London hipsters in their expensive (but state educated) ‘nappy valleys’, read the coddled offspring of model minorities paying lipservice to rebellion in the land of the nominally free.
What a treat it is for the casual bystander, better than television, or perhaps a bit like telly, but in real time. Picture the scene: so many angry little heroines and this, their one season at the circus before pushing hard for that opening at the accountancy firm. And because it’s a flirtation, how they like to wrap their tongue around those lyrics: they’re just so racist, and the men, eeuw, especially those FOBs. So lame. Yes, everyone’s a winner, baby, except of course all those who aren’t. But like that tune, a weekender classic around the perimeter fencing of nappy valley, everybody wants to be…bourgie bourgie. Just don’t bring any of this up when the righteous are filling in their Fulbrights, or is it their Guggs? Eyes down, mind focused and methodically ticking all the right boxes. Ethnic minority, check. Woman, check. Non traditional constituency, check. As well as whichever standardized metric transforms them from know nothing no marks into contenders – the predations of ‘social impact’ forming its own dismal chainlink stretching from one side of the Atlantic to the other. No wait, my bad, it’s all about ‘people of colour’ here, a semiotics worthy of Ladybird books, everyone schooled in the same tactics of self delusion.
So why be so pissy about this, then? No doubt there’s the usual litany underscoring the complaint: bitterness, envy, who knows maybe even a touch of regret. Some free advice though, don’t rain on their parade, mention petrojunkies, first world problems or the fresh cravings of empire. Else whatever courtesy as once existed will soon evaporate and faces drop, lips curling up like enraged primates, politesse and botox and all that Ladybird shit heading south.
Best you don’t mention Nigel Benn or Gerald McLellan either, though more likely those names will just elicit a quizzically raised eyebrow. Boxing after all remains well beyond the purview of this applied semiotics, beyond a vaguely intuited loathing almost as strong as its enduringly visceral lure. Still, that’s another world, another lifetime again, though we’ve felt that equation of flesh meets blood meets bone before. Kevin Mitchell lays it all out in his poignant, lacerating account of that calamitous night, War Baby – the glamour of violence. Somewhere in the pointless feud and its tragic consequences rests our complicity. Oh yes, we shadow boxed with big Frank ringside and then we chose not to look, but to look away. In that depth charge across the Atlantic so many boasts which hint at terrible violence yet really speak to thwarted love. But be honest, McLellan was no good guy, and like the dogs he claimed to love but forced to fight anyway, he needed his ‘taste’ every so often. So when the G Man’s entourage rolled into London that fateful evening, the scent of blood was already in the air, and before the night was out one man would be maimed and the other a shadow of his former self, the Docklands once more the delivery system for a primal traffic in souls.
Black Britain and Black America, two strikingly different beasts in spite of everything you think you know, and especially what you might have heard from tenured fantasists. Sure there’s hyphenation, and don’t we just know it, each time we’re reminded not to say ‘black’ lest we offend the African-Americans in our midst. In the way of these things, the hectoring generally supplied by anyone but an African-American. And it can get confusing, the ins and the outs of this new doctrine. So people of colour, yeah, but black, nay. If in doubt though, there’s usually an (invariably light skinned) Asian ‘community’ activist on hand to set you straight, provided you’re not black of course, in which case she’ll just go along with any old crap you feel like coming out with. A fringe benefit, really, of being the presumed passport to someone else’s radical chic. Still, some things don’t change no matter what. For instance the Atlantic’s there for a reason, its murky depths disclosing terrible secrets. And no amount of intellectual imposture can conjure that out of sight, common threads (or were they ‘hyphens’?) stretched to breaking point by all that distance, the umbilical preserved somewhere hidden. Buried so deep that for those few fateful rounds in the former engine room of empire the G Man forgot it was even there while the former British soldier belatedly remembered that he was at war and that he was the Dark Destroyer. Though you’d have to be of a certain salt and pepper vintage to remember any of that. Otherwise you’ll find yourself written off as just another Meldrew shaking an angry fist at something, anything, nothing. The subject of youthful giggles – what a bellend – or the object of scorn – let’s merk him anyway. And by the way WTF is wrong with that guy?
As for that other thing, don’t really want to ask what you were doing down in Denmark Hill, just hoping there’s no penicillin involved. Years back, during an extended stint ‘in between jobs’ someone we both know went down there to make a donation to the jizz fairy and to be honest it sounds like she’s still there, still sickened by the clientele and still untouched, which, by local standards, is quite an achievement. Mind you, that mag you mentioned is a step up from the oldies. Fiesta and Readers’ Wives, which for some unknown reason always seemed to feature a Linda from Lewisham (or was that Barbara from Braintree?), routinely described as ‘lively’.
But the same rules don’t seem to apply over here. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of decent folk but to be honest where’s the common ground? Chipping the fares and being ‘liked’ by five-oh for ‘the things we never done’ is still a world away from lowriding cholo culture. And further still from a living memory of the lynch mob. Even so, under this desert sky it’s all a bit lacking at a grassroots level – everyone more worried about their cribs or their rides (‘whips’, FFS) or their Pendletons or some such bollocks. Maybe it’s the same back home (where every cunt from south London acts as though he’s from the south Bronx) but luckily that’s not a familiar orbit. Oddly enough, for all the posturing and the reputed drama, the reality of one of the world’s largest economies is a bit mainstream, as if the whole place got cornholed by corporate raiders with its Chinos barely on. And then did nothing to resist when they came back for more, Chinos round its ankles, still kidding itself that its dignity remained intact. Which, when you think about everything that has unravelled since the Lehman Brothers, is more or less the ‘how’ of this very Atlantic decline. And once again, without wishing to bang the drum, it’s surely not right the way people pretend everything’s fine when in truth whole communities are falling apart (bankruptcies, foreclosures, despair) and there’s a million killers in their midst.
Time was. And it ain’t just nostalgia, it’s something more than that which has been lost. A feeling of decline to match any of the lines or the grey etched into older faces. Time was, my friend when the lights went out in New York City. Crown Heights on fire and London wrestling with its own demons, the Front wrapped in the flag, assembling behind police lines. Yet if the summer of Sam is remembered both sides of the Atlantic for very different reasons, there were at least some common threads, communities both lost and found through the altered state of fear. It is not just that ordinary people rose up to meet fascists or malign influences head on; the greater significance perhaps lies in the understanding that there was a here and a now, most of all an ‘us’, worth defending in the first place. A collective heartbeat restored after the defibrillations of panic and violence. It is probably worth reminding ourselves of that simple fact any time we find ourselves overly susceptible to a lazy cynicism and the sloppy binaries which are its favoured travelling companions, and which have between them degraded so much of the public sphere. Us, them, here, there, you’re either with us or… because we’re surely better than that.
Equally we’d do well to hang on to some London ‘particulars’ beyond the fog. It is not that we share nothing other than language and a bizarre fascination with royalty. It is that all too often we forget what resides at the bottom of the ocean that divides us, all those secrets and lies, all that shame. And instead of following Raymond Chandler’s sage advice and looking for ‘some bony structure under the muck’ we content ourselves with second hand fabrications of sameness; finding succour in a fiction of equivalence transplanted wholesale from the foundational shame of the New World to the shrunken glories of Old Empire. Memory and experience amongst the first casualties of this self-deception, Lewisham no more Louisiana than Nigel Benn was ever the Dark Destroyer. The threads holding this fiction together already unravelling long before the breaching of police lines south of the river or of the G Man’s stricken defences to its east. And we’re left to reflect – if only he’d read the signs, if only. If any of us had even bothered, for those signs were always there, smuggled away in that ‘bony structure under the muck’. The telltale blinking, the mouthguard half out, the increasingly demented counterfactuals issuing from the G Man’s corner. Instead we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the scent of blood rising from a primal soup, and that night, February 25, 1995, the dogs got their taste alright.
Make no mistake, we played our part. Conveniently forgetting everything we’d learned that summer eighteen years earlier while Marvin was riding high in the charts with ‘Got to Give it Up’, when communities were lost as well as found on both sides of the Atlantic. For a time the lights went out and fires raged, but some places remained cloaked in darkness even when normal service was resumed. Lewisham remembered its manners under extreme provocation that Jubilee summer while over in Queens/Brooklyn, fear bred moral panic and a distinct lack of couth. The irony being that the staid old city of empire learned it could also be another kind of place, open hearted, inclusive; whereas the city that never sleeps fell into one long slumber from which it never truly awoke. Like the G Man, blinking the long goodbye of disbelief, the image of the city across the sea, a frozen tableau of self regard.
But the clock’s been ticking, of course it has. And it’s a generation on from the outrages of Berkowitz or the Front, and almost twenty years since the tragic events in the London Docklands. Ever since Freddie Laker and his ‘Skytrain’ venture made cheap transatlantic travel a first time possibility for the English working class, something else has been gestating in the details. Rising to the surface from that box of buried secrets the profound misconception of an ‘us’ beyond the shameful traffic in human cargo. Some ordinary fiction wrenched from the gut of this transatlantic decline, and here it is bobbing up and down in full view. Here too are its co ordinates. Florida the promised land, Mickey Mouse the sound and the fury. Suddenly we’re there again, shit floating past, only this time it’s a tide of human effluent, and still no one’s taking any responsibility.
That can’t be right. Can it? Can it?
It’s not just me. Is it? Is it?