Sure, keep building and burning, we’re here all night.
A decade ago, another Thursday night, two days after the twin towers fall I’m walking home from band practice, blissfully sated, crossing a junction, aware of some pointing and jostling of elbows in the boy-racer to my left. Engine revs as I cross, laughter. Older fears than the lads in the car rise up inside. Make it to the kerb, ambler gamblers off down the ave., a half-second of relieved silent self- mocking, then some real loud mocking out the wound-down window. The word shouted from shotgun is loud and greeted by much back-seat guffawing. The word is “bomber”.
Now where should the camera go, whose story warrants chasing? The doddery old twat on the side of the kerb thinking ‘what?’ Nahh, course not, follow the hate, follow the haters, the ‘questions’ they ask. Always deal with the ‘issue’, the ‘problem’ of us being here, the gift of your tolerance our only redemption. Those lads probably forgot about that high-larious moment pretty quick. A decade on I haven’t. You never do, you keep every single moment like that locked in raw, to be returned to and prodded to feel the hit, an endlessly renewable graze on your future. Public moments, riots, cases such as Stephen Lawrence, leave similar raw scars because beyond the pity the press feel, you feel an instant compassion because you’ve been in similarly charged, terrifying situations of standing tall feeling small. I can let the lenses follow those boy racers cos I’ve had cameras swooping around me my whole life, as a way of dealing with routine, and as a way of dealing with moments when you’re young and you see your kind attacked, abused, laughed at, on streets and on the screens you hide in to avoid the streets awhile, and you’re too young, and too scared, to step in and change things. It confuses you, angers you, fucks you up, and at a young age can turn you a bit stroppy and inward, never leaves. And because it happens for my ol’ generation at a young age, it’s important. It’ll keep happening (at the moment, increasingly) and even though at my age now you greet that with a shrug rather than a snarl – the odd street-level bit of outright abuse, the trains and pubs you still avoid. It’s part of you like your astronaut name, a problem unless you can stop thinking of their route here and start breaking down your own pedigree, skewering that tendency when it comes to the ‘Asian’ experience of Asians more than willing to make the whole thing into a gag, a comic series of embarrassments and cultural misunder- standings, white folk willing to be amused by Asian experience so long as it never tries to be any more than a vignette, whilst also indulging a titillated liberal excitement about those moments when white style-culture bleeds into pure out’n’proud racism.
|NF March, Bermondsey, 2002|
When I say ‘white style culture’ I mean really, white working class culture as reimagined by middle-class white culture, and for the past 2 decades that seems to be all that I’ve been presented with whether it’s current fears about blackenized white ‘gangs’, or hipper fascinations with white-power politics. The working class, so often characterised by the liberal wittering- classes as those people ‘prone’ to racism, ‘prone’ to the propaganda of the NF or BNP, are actually the pakis of the British class system, talked about as if they’re not there, fair game for whatever blowhard wants to spin their panaceas & restoratives to sick Britain, as if working-class Britain is a simpler-celled Petri-dish wherein the middle-classes can foresee a future to fear. And that cultural smugness equates to both wrong-headed condemnations and mealy-mouthed excuses: so often in discussion of how racism is rearing it’s head again (like it’s ever been away) in the ‘sink-estates’ & the white-ghettos of our cities and coasts there’s the idea perpetuated that by being working-class supporters of crypto-fascist parties people are somehow excused from being called the racist cunts they are (it’s the white working class who live alongside them who have the balls to call them racist cunts, not the fucking politicians). Uncannily mirrors the condescension that ethnic minorities get – secretly suggests that racist Britons have a mainline to a truth, instinctiveness, honesty and ‘soul’ the politician and the journalist and the bureaucrat will never get, that authority always needs to talk to and contain those concerns about immigration, those ‘concerns’ that need to be ‘addressed’ through an ever-harsher treatment of immigrants, rather than confronted in the hearts of the natives.
|From Gavin Martin's 'Skins'|
The subtle deeper lie here, uncannily like that experienced by the immigrant population, is that the working class experience is one that isn’t actually open to interpretation by the people living it, can only be objectively ‘dealt with’ by those lucky enough to be viewing it from above. The condescension & hypocrisy of talking about racist estates when the BNP have always been more electorally embedded in middle-class neighbourhoods shows how readily that class sublimates it’s own bigotry downward, the creation of a racial war in the desperate attempt to avoid the real war between haves and have-nots. Immigration is always a ‘battle- ground’ for the haves. A frontline manned with those dashed poor tracksuit-wearing blighters who have to live next door to these ululating darkies. Those poor poor blighters, they know the score that’s why they hate jonnyforeigner so much, lets turn our perceptions of that ‘hate’ into every other front page, every other policy document, every other speech at every other rally and remember – john bull can’t ever play roles, switch, be as schizo- phrenic and playful and free as the next patient in this shock corridor called England, he’s too busy belonging to the Great British Public. That self-exonerating condescencion infects deep, from journalism to art in the uk, the columns to the mini-series to the movies to the music - inevitably given that most UK pop right now seems to be made by a pack of chortling Britschool- alumni and kids-with-famous-dads who all shopped at the same fkn vegan-delicatessen through the noughties, a banishment/ vanishment of class from pop that enables the middle-classes who run the industry to choke all other voices out of existence. No-one in pop will admit it but unless you’re listening to the most underground grime, bashment or hip-hop your musical intake is almost entirely middle class, and thus unsurprisingly superficial and retrograde, in the UK now. UK indie-rock for the past 20 years has been owned by the kind of self-avowed lads who think that by calling everything ‘proper’, ‘class’, ‘top’ and ‘quality’ and walking like a monkey they’re somehow closer to the real life as lived ‘on the streets’, seemingly utterly unaware that to really survive on the streets you have to find a way to levitate, rise above, disappear, make your imagination a big enough place to live in. These people have small imaginations cos they‘ve never had to grow a bigger one, never had to save their life and remake it.
For most of Britain’s spotlit creatives and music-makers (because now being those things no longer means being politi- cally aware – i.e. something you can’t fucking learn at stage- school) there’s a self-congratulatory backslap that race, and class, has ‘sorted itself out’ in the UK. It’s the only reason I can think as to why British pop music hasn’t said a fucking single thing of any import in such a long time. If race is mentioned by whitefolk it’s in a flight to the extremes for security – the endless 'shock' at the EDL, the never-ending obsession with Skinhead culture as shown in ‘This Is England’ or Gavin Watson’s ‘Skins’ - the post- hardmod Brit-lad mindset that by engrossing yourself in the extreme-edges of white-solidarity you’re somehow going through the fire, realising what it is to be British. More often than not in these ‘artistic looks’ I find a surreptitious pleasure, a yearning for broken-times long gone. That yearning goes deep into indie rock as I become a pop writer, even if I ended up as a writer at a paper that nurtured & encouraged my fucked-offness. It was a great training which means that I could never belong the way writers belong to the music-scene now, because alternative/independent culture as I grow up, becomes less and less about ‘boring old politics’, less about trying to reinvoke genuinely lost aspects of Englishness to point to a new future, and more and more an exercise in obvious canonical nostalgia, particularly the kind that drapes itself in the union jack and that gets written about by writers who want to be on telly, the kind of nostalgia only interested in the erosion of ambivalence and the shoring up of an essentially imperialist Englishness that seeks to shut me out, fantasises easier times when our migration to your land was less visible, more ‘controlled’, more fearful. ‘Alternative’ culture has got stronger and stronger through this painfully shrunken idea of what it is to be English. My love for it has grown weaker and weaker as a result.
Of course, the cheques, infrequent and impossibly difficult to obtain, were much appreciated, the terminal and fatal retrospect of UK indie-pop has given me plenty of hatchet work over the years but truthfully, I’m more disappointed than angry, more heartbroken by a clear creativity that sought to exclude me. At a young young age, back when I’m naïve enough to think that racism is about skin-colour, I seek out the freaks for friends, the Goths and indie-kids and queers and metal kids whose playlists mirror my own and who’s superficial appearance marks them out for ridicule and loathing from the mainstream. Only later do I realise that whilst some of them understand me as I understand them, those subcultures and societies and sexualities have their own reactionary enclaves. The Smiths are at the root of my queasy relationship with the music that should’ve been my home (I was a speccy wordy spotty little ponce – how could I not have been an indie kid?). I loved them, passionately, for 2 singles. The rot set in that infatuation as I heard and read deeper. By the time I knew that Morrissey hated rap, black pop and “dislikes Pakistanis immensely”, by the time of ‘Asian Rut’ and ‘Bengali In Platforms’ and ‘National Front Disco’, I knew that his dreams didn’t include me, that me and my kind were a problem, an(other) obstacle in his vision of English pop progress/regress. There’s something about The Smiths that still has an unhealthy hold over people you’d love to love, still has an unhealthy hold over me because compared to a modern guitar-pop that simply avoids politics or Englishness apart from in the smug observa- tional agglomeration of clichés, buzzwords & trending-phrases, The Smiths were about what it truly is to be British, about nostalgia, about destroying any black trace in pop, pretty much a rights-for-whites insistence that nothing since punk had mattered. Even beyond the 60s love of Marr’s shimmer and spray, Morrissey seemed to be harking back even further, back to the 50s, back to a time when rock’n’rollers could be counted upon by Moseley to spark mayhem in 58 - Morrissey, though clearly to me a Ted-fixated pre-immigration-fantasising Granny of a man, was perhaps the only British front man to really reveal what being British and white meant, what history is getting re- enacted when a British white front-man steps to the mic and can only look back in horror at the present. Even though he laid the groundwork of morose retrospect that lad-rock would later find its spiritual motivation, I can’t join in convincingly now with the pack that pounces whenever the dumb old queen opens his mouth. For Moz to get dissed for nostalgia and fear by that shitrag the NME would be funny if it weren’t so grisly to watch.– the Peter Pan of Weltschmerz with his rotating monomania & myopia gives me an honesty about his little Englander mindset that I actually come to prefer over the cowardly political silence of his descendants, although I listen to the music of neither.
|Stephen "I don't hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely" Morrissey, indie hero|
|Music Week cover, March 2016|
White bands used to listen to contemporary black music, be inspired and fired by it, had a natural ease in their relationship with black musicians (esp. the Stones, which is partly why they’ve always been my favourite band)– now they’re more likely to pay it lip-service for the purposes of emphasising their own eclecticism, whilst tacitly perpetuating the comforting notion that the really important moves in music are always made by thoughtful polymaths like themselves, not the hardened more unsparing cultures that they thieve from. Notice how only the white underground is worthy of consideration or celebration by the mainstream. The black underground has to scrub itself clean, or plunge into full-blown tittilation (Odd Future) to even be heard by the mainstream anymore. It’s what happens when the middle-classes colonise pop-talk, colonise pop – you get people more able to tart up their ignorance of new black art (alongside a hipster-glee in the most moneyed-up & shackled emanations from the white-owned black cultural mainstream), as merely a matter of taste & aesthetics, rather than the entirely revealing political choice their ignorance implies. And if a culture like indie can’t help but yearn in its clothes and its looks and its sound for a time when black folk were excluded and powerless, when black music only exerted a hold on those ‘cool’ enough to know about it, fantasies of separatism, fantasies of simpler times when lines could be more clearly drawn become potent and persuasive. Critics at the moment are the fucking exemplifiers of this. There’s a compulsion behind rockcrit to make black music step to a monolithic movement, a fixation on the manageable ‘classic’ era that kills the need for further investigation. The collector- mentality likes ticking off genres tokenistically, making sure their racks have the requisite amount of hip-hop, or reggae, or jazz or soul or grime in there to assuage any liberal guilt, but that then leaves it at that before the illiberal compelling heart of modern dancehall or hip-hop can confuse the order or integrity of the cannon. At the moment, as always, there’s plenty of white folk standing round a hole in the ground flinging handfuls of dust over hip-hop’s empty coffin, as ever, hip-hop itself stubbornly refuses to die or disappear so long as DJs keep spinning and MCs keep spitting: the infinite possibilities of the form are too enduring for it to just fizzle out merely cos the mainstream’s being cowardly. But when hip-hop kills it, as it still does across the web across the wires and in the head, when it lashes down the spontaneous combustion that is its forte don’t expect anyone with a word-count and a deadline to be listening, don’t expect their fixations on the past to even allow them to dig hip-hop’s endless parricidal progress into the future. Like the pencil-pushers who decried’n’derided Isaac Hayes as a purveyor of ‘blacMuzakkk’, insistent that r&b must never want more than the three-minute single, the production line, the tin-shack. Like the worst, most retro-fixated anti-mod-mods who think reggae ‘degenerated’ into dancehall, who stop listening to Jamaica as soon as Heart Of The Congos has stopped: those same people who even now haven’t got an ear cocked Jamaica’s way — damn foolish considering how often that tiny island has changed the world of sound. Pronouncing a music dead or washed up or ‘in danger’ is useful in covering up the reasons for that wilfully lazy ignorance, and the deeper racial reasons behind that music’s continued marginalisation. Always the secret yearn for a simpler time, when white music dominated, a yearn that still exerts ultimate power over what we hear and what we get to hear. A nostalgia reflected in the convenient ‘cleansing’ an engrossment in white extremism affords it’s liberal fans. Course we’re not racist. THEY were racist. Back THEN.
|From Gavin Watson's 'Skins'|
Skins presents itself as documentary but it’s pure fantasy, of better, stronger times for white identity. It presents people at the bottom of the ladder, who seemingly couldn’t deal with change, but uses their obstinacy as both that which makes them heroic and supposedly that which separates them from the lovers of Skins now – tease out that hipster politrickal slickness a little and you usually find a similar obstinacy in readings of black culture and music, a similarly luddite affection for black music’s past and disappointment with black music’s present (and those ‘chavs’ – is there a more pervasively damaging word in Britain right now? – who follow it). First printed in 1994, Skins’ steely- eyed photographs of Watson’s family and friends, tooling around Wycombe with nothing to do and everything to prove in the late Seventies and early Eighties, capture the moment when skin culture became a purely provincial form of resistance at the tail end of the Seventies: a barely coherent (yet talismanic and nostalgic) refusal of changing trends, and a reaffirmation of white working-class solidarity and rabblish resistance in the emerging Thatcher era.
Wannabe hooligans and cultural studies lecturers will be equally tumescent but a couple of problems shoot out as soon as you start leafing through Skins. One – the photographs are, in the main forced, sentimentalised, unrevealing: clichéd portrayals in service to their subject’s self- aggrandisement and self-pity, and seemingly bereft of insight or energy. There is shot after shot of skins looking hard, at odds with the world, facing down the lens with a smug mob-confi- dence that barely hints at the vulnerability beneath the tats and the chrome-domes. Sure, it’s revealing of the political bubble skinhead culture willed itself into inhabiting, but the shots of skins sporting Skrewdriver T-shirts, scrawling NF graffiti and sieg-heiling down their local are too charged (and despite Watson’s foreword protestations about it not being about race – knowingly so) to be presented as apolitical verité. Looking at the shots of this supposedly oppressed minority culture (that included blacks and whites lest we forget) I remember how the mere sight of a skinhead made me feel in the Seventies, how me and my family felt under physical threat whenever a Harrington and a crew cut hoved into view. You could say that it’s the precise insularity of Skins that is revealing, that immerses you so completely in their world – I’d say Skins’ absolute refusal to deal with the wider political realities of the world it depicts is a cop- out, and the nostalgic back-pat it gives to a bunch of racist dicks who made UK-Asian life just that little bit more terrifying in the Seventies is too much for this Paki to stomach. For some, the expanded reissue was a reminder of something sadly lost to our pop culture. For someone who remembers the rise of the NF and the battles of the early Eighties, it was merely a montage of idiocy, aggression and race-hate enjoyable only as a tombstone to a thankfully dead community of cunts and fascist scum who found themselves unable to deal with a changing Britain. Prime thug-porn wanking material for Morrissey, I’m sure. Kindling for the rest of us, but don’t let British art’s use of Skinhead culture as convenient way to put racism in a safe place, now past, fool you, no matter how Skins images are dated by background detail (cars, cans of stout, Woodbine packets), no matter how pristine-perfect is the production-values of Meadows’ film (which I watched with white folk who alternately laughed at the dumb Asians & cried for the poor whites whilst I simply seethed behind my fingers). The suggestion of both mediocre works is that Asian and white culture will always fundamentally be in opposition, that the lie of multiculturalism has simply painted over cracks that are still there. In those moments straight after the latest kid has spat at you, or the latest drunk twat or sober England-fan has hollered some racist vitriol in your direction, you could almost believe that yourself. But once your breathing calms down, and the fear of the situation has subsided, you remember that multicultur- alism isn’t a concept for some of us, for most of us. Politicians, particularly Cameron and his cabal of cunts, talk about multicul- turalism’s ‘failure’ without realising that in effect he’s seeking to erase our history, the true history of this isle. For most of us multiculturalism isn’t just a sociological idea, it is the only way of life we’ve ever known. There is a much stronger history we ALL have in the UK of simply always being surrounded by, and being friends and lovers and playmates with, people from all over the planet. Up to a point, I have to admit racism’s part in making me, that’s how I’ve learned to be more English than you’ll ever be, but here be my pedigree, chum, and it’s a bit more complex than any cultural-theorist I’ve ever read can envisage.
OK, I’m Indian but I’m Cov born’n’bred, weak in the arm and thick in the head. My name, Neil, in Sanskrit, is the colour of Krishna’s skin, a shadowing blue as we face down another decade, a darkening blue as my blood thickens and coagulates and seizes up in the dim presentiment of how the likes of me, made up only of the spaces in-between cultures, are a dying breed, stranded by our dislocation. That dislocation increases with age, even if the future generations of people who are going to call themselves proud to be British will be similarly composed of phantom solidity, but in numbers will find STRENGTH from that non-alignment with the monolithic, the strength us nervous pioneers had to keep locked up, sipped from in those moments alone after the freshest latest despair. When we didn’t have the advantage of numbers, our music made us strong, gave us voices upon voices, calling us back, pushing us on. On this island so ripe for invasion, so needing of overthrow I’ve been watching you all my whole life, fascinated by the spectacle of wholeness, white skin, black skin, so pure and sure, so past being a laughingstock, so distant from my fear and resentment. The pop you made, made me, but now it’s in glut and decline I look around for a likeness and find nothing. No wonder Asians wanna blow shit up if there’s no pop around to suck up their questions and anger and make it art, if in fact their idiot teachers and gurus and imams are teaching them the lie that the prophet hates music, that god disdains the godlike, that poetry can’t save your life, that music can be tethered to something as permanent and paltry as a nation or faith. Dislocated on buses on planes on foot in streets and shops and schools and shop floors that barely- disguised loathing and faint-amusement we’ve been getting since the 30s, through the 60s and 70s that are apparently UK-pop culture’s golden age, amplified post 11-9 to a frenzied tinnitus of native anxiety about us - if all that rage created in all those Asian hearts can only find reverb in the words of warmongers and martyrs and priests and not artists then no wonder folk wander onto those same buses and planes and shops with pockets full of dynamite. Music stopped me being a martyr. I had PE to raise questions. And songs to remove my need for answers. Songs that tell you life’s a jail. That we’re only alive when lost.
Songs like 'Jag He Bandishala', from the 1960 Marathi movie Jagachya Pathivar, a Chaplinesque tale of a simpleton, a blinded girl and the gangster who kidnaps and blinds her – as is common in much Marathi film by the 60s, the plot is merely the stitching that holds the aston- ishing score together, one of Sudhir Padke’s finest, a soundtrack so good it makes you forget the racist allegiances he has back in your parents’ homeland. The song itself is the highlight, the music an almost levitating swell of resigned melody, the lyrics a heartbreaking vision of imprisonment as a metaphor for life, lyrics that for this little misery-guts cut deep back in the day and still do.
“The world is a jail, all are sinners/everyone has lost their way/Everyone is in love with his jail cell and the cell mates/One even adores his heavy shackles/Everyone restricted to their confines, their vision limited to the fence/Like worms in a fig, they live and die inside/No-one knows the length of their sentence/no one knows where they have come from/his mind panics with the thought of release/he is happier with imprisonment”
Without songs like that, without the crucial rhizome Marathi song gave and gives me to the reason I’m here, I’d be the means to my end, prone to any suggestions that might ease the anger in my head when all around is condescension and diagnosis and dismissal. Nostalgia is different if your skin’s a different colour. There’s the same emotions, embarrassment, joy, regret, but they’re amped by that queer relationship with your identity which isn’t just about finding out where you belong, but figuring out where your sense of non-belonging can belong, somewhere you’ll be able to set up shop in your own skin. The UK rap I listened to & eulogised in the 90s so often sounded like Robert Wyatt, P.I.L, Raincoats, Slits, Kevin Ayers, Richard Thompson, Fairport – because like them it, and me, were searching for a dissident British identity, a Britishness that dug deeper back than the Heath/Wilson models rotated everywhere else, pushed further-forward than the games of canonical reiteration coming out of all that denim and dead skin that was Britpop, created for itself a proudly anti-nationalist British identity closer to your skewed vision of your homeland. Thus I hid, and still oft-hide in a vintage Englishness, in old English books and films and music, not to find comfort but to find a queasy disenchantment with contemporary England that mirrors my own (yes, in a lot of ways I AM the Asian Morrissey). And by the time you’re an adult that fearful retrospect, that weary vigilance, that taste of bit-lips, the bile, the hot faced cheek burning shameful paralysis of shock (at the day-to-day scorn & revulsion that still, no matter how imagined, I feel and absorb and add to the inner-shitpile) has been so enmeshed you wonder if you can define yourself without it. By the time my 20s come and go in a blur of pissed & fucked paranoia about kids laughing at my bent shape, race & its infinite regresses into the mind had become a spiral I couldn’t escape. Songs can sometimes be the only thing to pull you out of that maelstrom, to remind you that you look up at the same sun and sky and moon as everyone else, to remind you that your mortality is the only thing that will stop the journey, that you’re older than your age and ancient by birth.
The real lasting scar that racism can leave is that it can get you to a point where you wonder if your identity is dependent upon the hatred that identity has attracted all its life, you wonder if
you’re made by racism, and part of you resists the ability of all that hatred to so foretell your future and delineate your fragile sense of self. It makes you a tad mental. It means that everyone tells you your whole life that you’re over-reacting, that you’re being ridiculous, wonder why you can’t just be cool about it, wonder why you’re so horrified when you see the Asians who arrived later than your parents engage in precisely the same kind of brainless resentment of new immigrants that my parents had to battle before them. Right now, if you wanna find a racist, go talk to an orthodox Sikh about Muslims, go talk to a 70s- immigrated Hindu about Africans, boggle at how much has been forgotten, how quickly the immigrant hates those who follow their journey, the extra numbers they feel put their security and integration under threat, the way their fitting in is something they feel they’ve gotten away with, a fitting-in they want to pursue to its logical conclusion whereby they can hate immigrants and new-comers as much as any other Englishman. Spirals of pain within spirals of pain - racism, and the spectres it sends skittering and shattering across the ice inside you, also means that today’s Tefal-brow talk of ghosts and hauntings rings awful lukewarm in the twitching traumatised tomb my head’s in. What do you do when you don’t know how to not be haunted? When you yourself feel like an apparition of a soul containing a hologram of a heart, too broken by now to ever hum whole again. When those ghosts so wispishly and wordily wended around by theorists have stalked next to you your whole life, have made your insides judder and clatter at every step, lurk round every corner, every street you’ve ever walked down and every house you’ve ever called home? What do you do when being haunted isn’t a construct or a concept or a theory but an everyday reality that keeps you addicted to your alien-ness, secretly dependent on other’s revulsion, the crossed street, the change dropped from a distance to your foul palm, the eyes never lying when they tell you just how ‘tolerated’ you are? Haunted by who you are, by the idea of being someone. I don’t lend vinyl any more but there’s a song at the heart of this. It’s a song sung by a dead woman, a ghost to her husband, warning him that wherever he goes and whoever he’s with she will be in his heart. It’s soundtracked by vamping keys, insanely heavy reverb, spooked and startling sound fx and was made in about 1965, (just before Marathi song started being bulldozed out of Indian cinema, just before my mum and dad decide to blow Mumbai for the other side of the world) for the film Paath Laag and is called Ya Dolyanchi Don Pakhare. When I hear this song, in this room, I recall last breaths, the zip of a body bag and I know who’s watching me. I know that he faced far worse than I have. And I know that he never had an enemy.
Of course, you could call that a hauntology of my own domestic creation. Clutching at forest tendrils, trying to remember, just another old romantic trying to feel alive again before the Great Uploading. Maybe so. Today fly your flag England . Celebrate. Reveal yourself. As you continually have revealed yourself. As wonderful. And shameful. Both. Accept it. Shame is easy believe me. Take it. It’s good for you. It’s good for everyone. And the wonder of this isle? I see it all around me. See, there’s a place I keep mentioning that isn’t England or India or quite like anywhere else. The place I love. The place that truly, eternally, made and mirrors me. Hope in the stones. Hopelessness always two steps on but still, an experiment from the ashes, cauldrons round the lake, cranes now. Funny people. And always new people , too mixed up a place to not have a dead strong identity. Coventry. Coventry my home. Coventry my favourite place on the planet, the only place where I make sense to myself, the only place to always welcome me back with supreme disinterest, to vanish my turmoil in it’s own. Always cameras and the clouds are mountains and the grey sky the ocean.
If Cov was just the concrete jungle of its rep perhaps things’d be simpler. It’d just be a smaller Birmingham, and we’d accept our satellite-state to England’s 2nd city, wait for the inevitable merger in about 50 years and be happy to simply retain ‘business-park’ status. But the split between Coventry & Brum, and indeed Coventry and every other town around it isn’t just down to football teams or civic-pride, it’s deeper in the psyche of Coventry-people because as survivors of the endlessly butchered experiment that is this city, we’ve emerged with an entirely unique set of attitudes, an entirely local set of broken expecta- tions that somehow seems to be inherited swiftly by everyone who comes here to stay. To me, Coventry is paradise. A post-war experiment in social engineering gone feral, a medieval whisper, a madhouse. I’ve been an inmate all my life. There are wings I don’t wander into, pockets of rights-for-whites belligerence, but that’s the same for everywhere now - the bulk of the city is deeply and intrinsically cosmopolitan, constantly changing it’s make up, living everyday disproof of Churchill’s lies and Cameron’s snide asides. Crucially the city hides very little, either about the dreams it had or the dishonest way those dreams have been derailed and defaced by successive waves of hostility from governments whether in the Reichstag or Whitehall. Prod any old fart sinking real ale in one of Cov’s more medieval boozers (the Windmill down Spon Street’s a good bet) and he’ll tell you that ‘what Hitler couldn’t finish, the council did’, but truth be told Coventry has been vandalising itself, ravaging itself naked to welcome new dawns and see new horizons, for 100s and 100s of years. Our eerie avoidance of medieval fire meant thousands of timbered buildings from the 13-hundreds on survived, unlike most ancient towns in England. From roundabout the 1600s we’ve been tearing it all down on an almost non-stop basis, widening roads, destroying priories and other places of pilgrimage, annoying our neighbours until they come take a pop at the city walls, bulldozing and demolishing to make way for more cars and more car-factories, all waved through past residents’ grumblings by careless signatures from Aldermen and councillors and city- engineers. By the mid 30s Donald Gibson & Ernest Ford in the Coventry architects’ department had pedestrianised precincts & that fatal split between people and cars planned well before the Luftwaffe lashed the city with fire and genocide. Plans worked out with their wives on their living-room carpets but plans nonetheless, plans that the Luftwaffe bought to a point of urgency and need, plans now being rolled-backwards by every city daft enough to copy us, unaware of the ghostly town centres they’d be bequeathing to the future. In 1936 the ghost-town couldn’t be seen for all the hope and the high-mindedness, an editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph gives us an inkling of the mindset, well before the skies were darkened by Junkels or Heinkels or Messerschmitts: “Coventry is now emerging from the shackles of a purely utilitarian era, ...an era of commercial revolution allied with civic stagnation...Generations of bad planning - slums, narrow streets, overcrowding, sewers - all the trouble saved up for the future from an unimaginative past must be tackled.”
The new Labour city council set up the Architects dept. in 1938 and the week-long Coventry of Tomorrow exhibition in May 1940 gave Coventry people a chance to see Gibson’s plans. Immediately clear in those preliminary sketches of wide-open roads and perfect grassy verges is that Gibson didn’t care about buildings as much as he cared about creating a civic space filled with points of view, filled with spots where the vista of a new age could be viewed clearly. Foresight would’ve maybe predicted how Gibson’s vision would be compromised by not only the populace’s preferred uses of all that space, but also the wide-open virgin-turf it was opening up to the unscrupulous and unprincipled. By late 1940, after the first, biggest blitz (although Coventry would remain a bombing target throughout WW2) First Commissioner Of Works Lord Reith is telling the boys on the board that Coventry “is a test case, for Government & for England”. The subtext there is clear – never mind the finance, make this city the future of UK cities, make that phoenix fly. Gibson’s first report on his proposals comes out in early 41 and is called Disorder & Destruction: Order And Design. Together with his plans is an aerial photo of the pre-war city, sloganned ‘This Must Not Happen Again’. Coventry ever since has been a living tableau of how socialist/modernist dreams get fucked up by corporate capitalist reality, and how the people who inhabit those dreams and walk those pastel-sketched visions of the future can end up getting turned into troglodytes, given nothing to survive on amidst the underpasses and flyovers and mosaic subways. The day after the bombing, amid scenes of panic, endemic looting and the near-introduction of martial law the need to redevelop ‘boldly and comprehensively’ emerged as a new mantra for the city council. They haven’t changed the record since.
|A waterpark - just what we need - just the latest 'artist impression' of FutureCov|
Ever since, us Coventrians have become used to seeing our future on paper, tantalising visions of our city-that-will-be on the front-page of the Cov Evening Telegraph, the city that will rise from the mess that’s been made. Always, Coventrians have looked at these draughts and prophesies aware that compromise and conflict will eventually destroy all that pristine perfection, aware of what fucked-up disappointments we are compared to the smiling obedient automatons that people those charcoal- shaded visions of the new metropolis. Gibson’s conception of Coventry is in scenes of space, there’s a futurist yet time-frozen stillness to his late 30s sketches of Broadgate and Trinity Street and the City Arcade. They’re striking, seductive images, new, rational, scientific views of a city, images that make mass- demolition seem both desirable and necessary, juxtaposing the deficiencies of the pre-war Cov (congestion, pollution and disorder) with the promise of an aesthetically and morally ordered modern city-scape. Sanitised for sure but images that seem to impart an order on the city, emphasising certain facets of urban life, but repressing others in the hope that we’d all willingly frog-slouch our way across the new space, knowing our place under-&-wondrous-at the planner’s godlike benevo- lence. No accident that Gibson was influenced by ancient Egyptian architecture, by the cities built by Pharaoh Akhenaten. There’s the same godlike benevolence to his designs, the desire to make the populace into sure and whole individuals within a bigger picture.
When those conceptions hit ground level and started being lived in, everything changed, and Gibson himself ended up bemoaning how where he had wanted to zonally separate out the civic, social and cultural lives in the city, Coventry people, who wanted dog-tracks and pubs and cinemas and speedway and more places to party, knew & insisted that those different functions couldn’t be separated. People adapted the planners idealist conceptions of civic space for their own ends, precincts never became places for grown-ups to shop, always places for kids and teenagers to hang-out, cause trouble. Those railings built in civic hope of demarcation and direction, I ended up getting tied to and spat at by 4 kids I had thought were my friends. Those wonderful womb-like subways I ended up getting chased down, pinned down, full strength. Acid and mushrooms and all the other teenage naughtinesses rendered Gibson’s vision obsolete for many of us, a decaying picture that never matched our own skewed street-level vision. The view from above the drawing-board and the blueprints, the representation that Gibson thought could be lived in, was simply destroyed by citizens trapped in the view from below, alienated from their city even if it had become a more logical place visually and socially. Cov people instinctively knew that what Cov’s redesign was attempting was a quashing of spontaneity, an entirely capitalist reordering of public space for commercial ends. And they kicked back even as they had to let things decay, played and fucked about and hid in the sculpted concrete flyovers and underpasses for what else can a rat in a maze do when the maze starts crumbling, when a blueprint decides that none of us are black or brown or white but all beige or colourless.
The only band who ever ‘got’ that precise mix of frantic hope and under-grinding despair just right were the Specials because they knew that Cov is a surreal place, never as simplistically ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ as the fuck-awful likes of The Enemy have characterised it as since. ‘More Specials’ is still such a cutting record for Coventrians because it so perfectly evokes that mix of 60s tastefulness and contemporary degeneration, how it feels to be progressively impoverished as a people whilst living in already-dated future dreams of sophisticated urbanity, how those messy bits of your family’s past, particularly how race has played a role, become things to wear with real pride when you’re constantly cattle- prodded into a future that seeks to iron out all difference.
And it wasn’t just us that wrecked the city. Government fucked it all up too. As a Coventrian, inveterate distrust of successive parties-in-power is ingrained in you, whether it’s Labour laying into immigrants or Tories laying into everyone until the poverty-line becomes something a whole city looks up at. Though Gibson’s modernist vision was comprised of beautiful curves, lines and proportions as showcased in all the movie-reels & pictures & maps the council generated during the recon- struction, that council’s willingness to let developers plonk sudden deluges of sky-high concrete wherever they wanted, darkening those sunlit walkways and creating new corners of fear, also made the lived-experience of Coventry entirely different, a blight on the memories of the old, the only memory young folk had ever had of the place. Coventrians who were meant to be excited about the rebuild rapidly had more mixed feelings of loss and disinterest, a growing grumble about public art and concrete and brieze-blocks not really addressed by council notice-boards explaining the virtues of all this apparent state- vandalism (that attracted it’s own public vandalism almost
immediately on point of construction). It’s in that dissonance between planners conceptions and residents lives that a new kind of Coventry character emerges as I’m growing up, one that oddly-enough more closely-reflects Cov’s millennia-long history of dissidence and anti-authoritarian agitation than the falsely plastered smiles and clear-eyes of the idealist 40s & 50s images. Coventrians now are almost constantly disorientated by their city, dazed and desensitized by the brutal way buildings with memory can disappear seemingly overnight. Our city is a building site and has been for 70 odd years. Our factories and workplaces aren’t ‘converted’, they’re simply obliterated, a city made of ground-zeroes and pasts erased, and we’ve got used to the anger, and the retaliatory disinterest you develop as a response.
Growing up amidst this, I slowly realised that Coventry was the perfect home for my own blasted sense of identity, a place where modernity’s hope and the endless cruelty of capital’s progress made everyone unsure, gave no rocks to cling to. It was no accident that Coventry folk overwhelmingly welcomed my family (a natural ease in the welcome that made those moments in my childhood where race stepped in, all the more painfully vivid and shocking) because Coventry folk were so blearily, confusedly getting on with survival there was no time for many to hate us, no perfect city for us to despoil, no history that could be pointed at that wasn’t already under threat from more powerful forces than a few new pakis in the neighbourhood. Coventry’s history, of witches and violence, and mystery and magic and resistance isn’t preserved, still lingers with burning lividity in the stones that survive and the air that you breathe, but crucially exerts no over-weening pompous pride to Cov’s citizens. We are all part of the same demented experiment-gone- wrong. And no matter where I am, only Coventry makes sense of me, only in Coventry do I feel at home, comfortable, to this day. Every day I walk to work past Swanswell Pool. It’s filled with ducks and swans and fish and surrounded by drunks and junkies and you and me. When you look up the hill you see a sea of tower blocks, now near-empty and ready for demolition, you see the shop that when you were a kid had a giant picture of Santa Claus on it (“When I go shopping I go to Hillfields!). You hear a million accents, see a million flyers for bhangra-raves and reggae- shebeens and walk past Polish shops and Ukrainian churches and mosques and temples and gurdwaras & you turn back atop Primrose hill street and see what your city has become. A mess of redevelopment and trees planted in metal but still, those 3 ancient spires, still that Pool that was perhaps the first place anyone round here started calling Cov a city (in the dark ages it was called Babba Lucca and the trees were HQ of a coven of dark- artists). And you feel proud, tearful, every time. Cov is living proof that the speed & cleanliness & spaciousness of the ‘city of tomorrow’ could never withstand the complexities and ambigu- ities of street-life as lived by Cov’s ever-changing, ever-arriving populace. It’s an amazing place, a city where ancient blood can still be felt seeping through the earth, no matter how many mannered layers of ready-mix idealism have been piled atop it. In Radford, there’s a hill made of blitz-rubble and innumerable unidentified corpses. 300 years from now, you sense Coventrians will stand atop it, watching and waiting for the flood-waters to subside, wondering again, how safety can be created from the latest devastation, knowing all too well how the pedestrian can poetically defy any attempt from above to erase the chaos, knowing how an improvers sky-high-pie zeal can never be stronger than a citizen’s ground-level fears.
That’s the mindset of the place, and these things I’ve learned in that ever-ready-for-the-worse mentalopolis that is Cov. Your life is an over-reaction to its roots. Your life has always been bent out of shape by the fact that whatever room you walked in, whatever street you walked down, people noticed your difference. And that difference affects every single relationship you ever have, whether it’s with people, places, or the art that ensues. The only difference between you and the natives is that you’ve been forced to acknowledge the gaps and gulfs and guilt inherent in art, the way that as expressions of personality they’re always expressions of identity whether sexual, cultural or racial. A similarly faux-welcoming sense of architectural order was imposed on my early listening by the vinyl bought for us by white friends who called my dad Matty & my mum Rita: Johnny Cash, Geoff Love, Tchaikovsky – despite these well-meaning attempts to make us fit, it was my dad’s old vinyl and tapes that dominated our shared listening, that we ran to whilst all around was talk of ‘integration’. In a way, those records were an attempt, a generous attempt, like my parents acquiescence in their name- changes, like Gibson’s draughts & diagrams, to make us Coventrians forget where we came to the city from, and join the blinkered forward vision so busily built around us, the vision Cov’s citizens, Irish, Polish, Pakistani, Indian, African have always resisted and destroyed simply through the lives we’ve led. People are made of more complex stuff than other people’s plans for them will ever countenance. Your blackness, your brownness, are monoliths within you and your life is spent in resistance, reflection, rapture in those genes, you’re a walking wounded cenotaph to notions of integrity and certitude. But in comparison to your own frantic attempts to find out who the fuck you are, the confidence of your white peers in their birthrights and THEIR nation, can feel surer, steadier but never enviable. Because Christ, if you felt at home your whole life, who the fuck would you have ended up as? That grit in yr cells, that reaction against, IS you. And Coventry, as a place of resistance, as dazed dead-end, as an experiment, as good a place as any, suits you from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. My mum’s feet are jungle-hardened, slipped in the unfamiliar snow and broke her arm carrying me, took her to Boots and asked for shoes. Coventry took us in, slow-cooked me in both honest ill-will and serpentine ‘understanding’ (more hateful, and often from posh cunts from Leamington & other satellite villages) and I sit now, in the room my father died in, hearing the trains scream their midnight prayers to the rails, the sirens zero in on their target, and the songs I’m playing make it plain that in this world, I won’t find a home, only a refuge. Fine by me. Cov gives me what little pride I have. Proud to have stayed in the wonderful city that gave my wondering parents a home, proud to be from a city whose only constant is it’s constant racial change, the constant ruination of its projected future.
|The ringroad getting built, 1973|
Such ruination we should all be getting familiar with now that capital can’t make us believe in old dreams any more, now that the fiction of progress is something we all see through. Now that there’s nothing left but a massive and endless boiling over of anger. The chunks of the West that were my fascination and I worked for are in terminal decline. The project that was the music-industry that your empires took worldwide, that bought me in Cov’s crumbling confines these black plastic lifelines and reels back to my story, is similarly in free-fall and dereliction. In such times, we cling to what we can, me to my city and my tapes but such exit-strategies and homesickness, this need to feel connected again, aren’t just my problem any more. We’ve all been told the future is where we are, and that our pasts are to be got over, energy and entropy aren’t just battling in withered old shells like me, every generation of pop fans has it’s own no-mans lands to stumble over now, it’s own ways out of the sense-killing tyranny of good and bad taste back to the freedom of listening, hearing, believing, feeling, tasting again. We need to see how we’re going to escape you from the narrowing cul-de-sac that’s squeezing out the dying breaths of Western pop. And to do that you’re going to have to take your medicine, taste the poison from your own proud history. Summer’s coming and the factory’s dying. Hear the whoop-whoop from Little Park St. police-station, the fires, the smashing and grabbing? Hear the city grinding its eyes open? Hear the birds in the black trees? Pretty soon the world out there will be awake to inspect the wreckage. We need to make plans before dawn. I’m staying right here. You’ve got to move. The next time I speak to you, we may say our farewells.