I have spent much of the last week in a strange kind of time warp. It has been a week of late night drives and early morning drives. The motorways of the northern half of Britain bathed in moonlight or the first rays of the sun. And every mile of the way I have had my ear phones firmly in place and guiding my wandering mind all the way back through four decades of my life.
Driving empty motorways and walking dogs down quiet country lanes in the company of David Peace and the first two books of his ‘West Riding Quartet’. Maybe you saw the film ‘The Damned United’. David Peace wrote the book that spawned the movie. The West Riding Quartet runs from 1974 to 1983 and as I write this, I'm about half way there. Peace is a Northerner who writes about the North. Not just any North. The north of the 1970’s and the 1980’s. He is a quite extra-ordinary writer. At times his sentences are almost painful to read, or in my case, to listen to. His words are violent, often brutal. He is one of the best I have ever read when it comes to picking out the sights and sounds and smells of a time gone by.
Time and time again I found myself yanked back four decades to the North I grew up in. 1974. A fourteen year old me. 1977. A seventeen year old me. Unformed and then a little more formed. Framed by the hardness of Blackburn and all it entailed.
At the time, the sheer violence of the world I grew up in didn’t seem remotely unusual. It was all I knew. It was how things were. Being taken back there makes me realise the unbelievable extent to which the world has changed. Alt too often we measure change in terms of gadgets and technology. We reminisce and chuckle at the clunky black and white TV’s our parents once upon a time rented from Granada.
‘Great service you get renting your colour set from Granada….’
We recall boxy cars, kipper ties, platform shoes and flared pants. We shake our heads at archive pictures of Shawaddywaddy and the Bay City Rollers. We wince at the sight of Jimmy Saville and Gary Glitter.
What seems to have been lost is the constant violence of the times. The violence was multi layered. Across the board. At a headline level, it was the violence we watched every night on the news. Another body on a bleak Ulster street covered up by a makeshift blanket with blood leaking into the gutter. Huge street riots in the Ardoyne. Petrol bombs, half bricks and rubber bullets. Strikes, strikes and more strikes. And these weren’t strikes with songs and banners. These were full on. Hard, hard men with long hair and sideburns waging full scale war with lines of policemen. Twisted faces all coated in hate. Bloodied faces. Smoke and sirens.
Other violence was closer to home. Every Saturday afternoon provided a close up view on those crumbling terraces of the football grounds of the north. A constant electrical tension which would in a second explode into a surge of kicking and screaming. Bike chains and hammers and broken heads. And then the police would wade in smashing the guilty and innocent alike with their truncheons.
Nobody particularly minded. It as just how it was. It was the norm. You developed instincts. You developed a sixth sense about when things were about to kick off. At the football. In Friday night pubs. On Saturday night streets. In the Mecca in Blackburn or Angels in Burnley.
But it always kicked off.
Every single time.
What was normal then would be front page news now. Getting caught by the cops in the act of drunken idiocy on a weekend street meant summary justice. There was never any due process. Instead two or three of them would march you into an alley and beat the living daylights out of you. And when it was done, you had no particular sense of grievance. It was just the way it was.
Of all the street mobs of the 1970’s there was no mob quite like the police.
I had quite forgotten the brutal language of the time. Racism was a constant. Sentences littered with words which if used now would land you in court. Wogs and Coons and Niggers and Pakis and Spades.
On the rare occasions that an opposition team fielded a black player at Anfield, the terraces would rock with the song ‘Get back on your jam jar…’. Was it everyone? Not quite. But it was most.
Smoky working men’s clubs where a thousand manifestations of Bernard Manning had them rolling in the aisles with Irish jokes and Paki jokes and Nigger jokes. Accepted. Paid for.
Behind the casual violence of the day was a constant sense of underlying fear. The fear of getting jumped on a late night street. Fear of being picked up by the cops for the crime of being there and taken to a cell smelling of vomit to be knocked about. Fear of being put up against a wall at an away game in London or Birmingham and forced to answer a series of questions. So they could assess your accent. So they could give you a kicking if your accent was wrong. Fear of walking down the street on a run of the mill afternoon only to be shredded by exploding shop windows. Lacerating glass care of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army.
And the biggest fear of all the fears. The constant, nagging, gut churning fear: the four minutes to put you affairs in order fear. A fear talked about over pints of bitter in pubs stained brown by a hundred years of nicotine. Stained and never rubbed clean. Why would it be rubbed clean?
What would you do if you heard the sirens go off? And it wasn’t just a practice? The real thing. Am armada of incoming Soviet missiles to end everything? The worst of it was that we knew exactly what the sirens sounded like. From time to time they tested them out. Physics on a slow afternoon. Grey skies outside. Hard desks bearing years of carved graffiti. And suddenly the wailing of the sirens would climb up the hill from the valley bottom and turn our stomachs to jelly. And for a few desperate seconds, your life would flash before you. And then the teacher would have a laugh at our pale faces and let us know that it was just a practice. Of course they could have let us know us in advance. Of course they could. And of course they didn’t. This was Blackburn in the 1970’s where no opportunity for casual cruelty would every be passed up on.
The pages of the West Riding Quartet are stalked by another deep and constant fear that ran through the North like a nagging cancer through those half forgotten years. The Yorkshire Ripper. Out there. Somewhere. Waiting to pounce with his hammer and his Philips screwdriver. The girls at school would never go anywhere on their own at night. Not then. Not in the North. Not with the Ripper out there somewhere. In the curtains of rain. In the red brick alleyways behind the terraced streets. On the waste ground left litter strewn and vacant when they flattened the old cotton mills.
And of course he had to come from Yorkshire. He had to do most of his work in Leeds. These were the days when Leeds was somehow the very epicentre of the violence of the times. The darkest of the dark cities. The violent heart of a violent time. Leeds United Football Club and the National Front and the Yorkshire Ripper. Going to watch Liverpool at Eland Road was like traveling across the Pennines to a war zone. The ultimate hostile territory. A post industrial wilderness of gaunt broken mills and broken glass. Walls casually daubed with casual hate. ‘LUFC’. ‘NF’. ‘WOGS OUT.’
“We’re going Paki bashing, we’re going Paki bashing, we’re going Paki bashing.......na na na’
The waves of hatred that poured out of the Kop End at Eland Road were like nothing else. No banter. No humour. Just pure, unrefined hate. And there would always be a few of them ‘going the match’ clad from head to toe in the white sheets of the Ku Klux Clan.
Jesus. Bloody Leeds.
I remember one afternoon at University when three of us had driven out to the country one sunny afternoon to get stoned. We sat out in the sun and a hundred yards away there was the brow of a low hill.
One of the lads suddenly sat up and pointed to the skyline.
“Just imagine if about thirty Leeds came over there right now. Just imagine it.”
We imagined. There would only be one outcome to thirty Leeds suddenly appearing over that hill. A&E
There was no need for him to say ‘thirty Leeds United fans.’ Just '30 Leeds'. Leeds. A word that said all there needed to be said.
The Red Riding quartet takes the reader into the darkest corners of those violent times. The merciless, laughing brutality of the police.
‘This is the North and we do what we want.’
It is scary to look at the early evolution of the out of control beast the Yorkshire Police Force was to become. The out of control beast that did Maggie’s bidding with such enthusiasm during the Miner’s Strike. The out of control beast that stood by and laughed whilst 96 of us were crushed to death at Hillsborough. The out of control beast that covered up what they had done for 25 years.
As the motorway miles drifted by, I was amazed at the extent to which my memory had erased the violence of those formative Northern years. The bleakness of the landscape. Brutality in every corner of life.
The hard North.
I took a break from David Peace and downloaded a podcast from the Guardian website. A journalist’s memory of 30 April 1975 when the helicopters evacuated the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Extraordinary pictures on the six o'clock news watched by a wide eyed fifteen year old me. And it had seemed like the marauding communist hordes were another step closer to engulfing us. The propaganda was wall to wall. Grainy footage from desperate looking grey streets in Dresden or Leipzig. The hard faces on the Kremlin balcony watching a huge procession of missiles driving by below. Documentaries laying out the stark facts of how it would be should the Red Army ever let their vast columns of tanks rolls west. Machine like athletes from East Germany sweeping the board at every Olympic Games. Women that looked like men. Men that looked like supermen. Faces like the faces on the giant posters on the giant walls of Moscow and East Berlin. Hard eyed, chisel cheeked and utterly focused. Brainwashed to one day come and get us.
Almost worse than Leeds.
But not quite.
The memorial to 30 April 1975 wrapped up with a small fact that seemed like the perfect full stop in my time-warp week. When an American soldier finished his 13 month tour in Vietnam, he would hunt for a present to take home for his mum and grannie. Most of them were teenagers away from their small town homes for the very first time. After months of gnawing fear and extreme violence, they just wanted to wrap it all up and go home.
With a present.
Something far removed from the napalm strikes and carpet bombing. The most popular choice was a two and a half foot tall ceramic elephant, delicately painted with bright colours. A small town twenty miles from Saigon built up a whole industry making these elephants for the returning GI’s. They were flat on top which made them idea for putting down a coffee cup or holding a pot plant. They could be kept indoors or outdoors. And they weighed a tonne. But this wasn’t a problem for the returning GI's as the US Postal Service was hugely subsidised. A ceramic elephant could be had for a handful of dollars and shipped home for even less. On some days at the height of the war, literally thousands of these ceramic elephants were weighing down the planes of the USAF transport fleet. One day, a particularly agitated Colonel lost his rag at all of his capacity being used up by the ‘Bloody Useless Fucking Elephants’
Soon his words were translated into intitials in the way just about everything is translated into initials by modern armies. ‘Bloody Useless Fucking Elephants’ became BUFE became ‘Buffies’.
And thousands and thousands of those Buffies are still out there in front rooms and on patios in the small towns that stumped up the conscripted cannon fodder of the Vietnam War. Holding coffee cups and pot plants. Carrying the quiet memories of a violent, violent time when brutality was so very much the norm.
My how things have changed.
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