Misspent youth in north London

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1983 – 1984 continued to be eventful. After failing my A levels I went into school to meet the head, she recommended I retake them at college and mentioned Southwark College, this was like a homecoming after spending my first 11 years in that borough. The General Election which played havoc with my interest in English Literature and Geography was a disaster for the Labour Party nationally as the SDP – Liberal alliance sucked our supporters away and gave the Tories a landslide. However locally my efforts did help to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as the candidate in Islington North.

So off to Southwark I went, but my efforts at making a fresh start were sabotaged by the news the Education Secretary Keith Joseph was scheduled to make a visit to our college. I and some others were outraged so we organised a boycott of our classes. Whether as a result of our protest or perhaps because it was never scheduled Thatcher’s golden boy never came. We attended one of about three sites but we claimed it as a success because we kept him out. In truth our protest had mixed results.

What it did do with hindsight was enable those of us who were on the left to find each other very quickly and we put ourselves up for student union elections coming up and we campaigned hard. Or at least I did and I got elected. My prospects of ever passing A levels and taking a course in Town and Country Planning at either Coventry or Oxford Poly were receding into the distance. My academic year consisted of rolling into college at 11 in time for a tea break, going to the pub for a lunch break and occasionally attending lessons. Student Union meetings were late afternoon and were followed by, you guessed it, a trip to the pub. I had a new circle of friends during this year, who I sadly have no contact with at all despite efforts to find Gary, Damon, Annette, Dawn and Hamish and Fascist John, well allright he was a Tory but in 1983 we didn’t see much of a difference.

This new group of friends didn’t mean I was losing touch with my Islington mates, hell no as Ed might say. The weekends were brightened by parties all over London, as some of them were now at art school and as ever, an invite to one was an invite to all.

In the summer I arranged a holiday to the south of France (see pictures) which I, John, Andreas and Ben went on. We travelled by coach and enjoyed a week on a limited income which became more limited by the consumption of litres of beer and Orangina as a hangover cure. We eventually got used to being waited on instead of barging to the bar and telling the barman what we wanted. Funds became so limited that our food intake had to be carefully managed. We ate only one meal a day for the last few days. I also had my one and only near death experience being pulled away by the waves on the seafront, but eventually finding my feet on the ground managed to drag myself to the beach where I lay flat on my back with exhaustion for half an hour, unable to move any more having expended so much energy to stay afloat.

Back in Islington the Militant Tendency obtained a list of all members under 25 and attempted to set up a branch of the Young Socialists. Initially I went along to a few meetings, including one in Paddington where I argued with the hacks on the way back. In the next meeting they held elections for positions and they put me up for Chairperson. I didn’t ask for this and with no opposition I was elected. And never attended a meeting afterwards.

In the Spring of 1984 the miners started their year long strike and it was during this period I went on a coach trip to the Kent coalfield organised by the local party. Knowing no one else I sat by myself and then another person on their own sat next to me. I’d like to boast about how Jeremy Corbyn and I enjoyed each others company along the way but my shyness got the better of me.

Things I recommend; holidays with your mates when you’re young, free and single

Things I don’t recommend; holidaying with limited funds.

As my sister remarked to me, whilst I was drinking and partying, not studying (and working at Sainsbury’s I’ll have you know) my family had little insight into my social life. I was just ‘going out’, I didn’t want to alarm or court my mothers disapproval by telling her all the details such as sleeping on floors when at a party and returning the following morning, or on one occasion walking back from Southwark through to Islington on foot during the early hours.

I’ve been blessed with good health mostly, I’m 50, have a full set of teeth, a head of hair and haven’t spent a night in hospital since I was 14 years old when I contracted appendicitis whilst on a Geography field trip and spent an extended week in Yorkshire in Airedale General Hospital in Keighley. A day or two before we were visiting some limestone caves and we were told how pure and natural the water was dripping from the roofs. Well, I just had to have a taste of this water. My classmates were convinced that was why I had stomach pains but the truth was much more serious. I also had two other admissions to A&E. The first time I was working at Gibbers of Holloway Fruit and Veg Emporium, (that last bit is made up) and I stabbed myself with a small carving knife. This wasn’t an act of deliberate self-harm but more the result of a crate of fruit being lifted off a shelf and lowered down the length of my body, where it drove a carving knife I had in my overalls into my upper left thigh. I was dashed to the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway Road and sewn up.

The last time was when I was in Linda’s café with a few mates playing pool. Most old men’s cafes and kebab houses in those days realised that if you put in a pool table and a few arcade games you could attract young males who weren’t interested in the traditional Cypriot pursuits of drinking Turkish coffee, playing cards and backgammon. Linda kept an Alsatian for security in her back yard and it escaped her control one afternoon and chased us. My clever friends jumped onto the pool table. Not me. I just ran round it. The dog ran faster and got me on the bum. So another trip to the Royal Northern for a tetanus jab.

Linda’s café was also where I went to clean myself up after the Gonzo Incident. I’ve made reference to this before so I should reveal the mystery now. I’ve already said violence was a way of life in the inner city. I wasn’t an aggressive person myself but I would be prepared to defend myself if attacked. Which thankfully didn’t happen often. One evening after drinking in the Osborne Tavern me and two mates left to go home and were followed by a group of males, one of whom had been disparagingly referred to as Gonzo on account of his big nose. Unfortunately within earshot of one of Gonzo’s mates. They set upon us as we left and being outnumbered there wasn’t much we could do to prevent being bloodied and bruised. The following evening one of my mates brother rounded up his mates and went menacingly to Gonzo’s house and demanded he come out. Gonzo remained inside whilst his mother shouted at them to go away. Honour restored. You can’t live being protected from a beating by your mum and we could hold our heads up high. And never drink in the Osborne again. For us it was The Tolly from now on.

One other violent episode was when me and Robert and our work mates went to a party in Edmonton. I don’t exactly know what happened but one of our party offended someone else. We were upstairs in one of the rooms and they were outside trying to get to one of us. Eventually they broke through and attacked who they were after. My instinct for self-preservation enabled me to survive intact. The girls in the room were visibly upset and the men not so visibly by the time the police arrived.

A Saturday night late shift at Sainsbury’s was often followed by a pint or two at the Kings Head next door. One colleague I remember was Dean who wasn’t blessed with good looks but did have a trick up his sleeve that brought him another kind of attention. Dean could drink a pint quickly. Seven seconds. I think Dean still holds the world record in my mind, unless you know different?

The staff room at Sainsbury’s had a pool table and the polite Queensbury rules culture of respect held sway when two men played a game. Not when me and Robert played. A bad shot was greeted with laughter and mockery. We would try and put each other off by crouching down within eyeshot of each others moves and do our best to put each other off. In this way we brought the Australian culture of slating to the gentleman’s game of pool.

Things I recommend; self preservation and self defence.
The National Health Service. The best example of socialism in practice.

Things I don’t recommend; trying to outrun an Alsatian.

Robert’s family was from Barbados, and I think he was my closest of all friends for that period of my life. I was fortunate to live in a diverse part of the world. One of our Sainsbury’s colleagues explained to another, not in the presence of Robert, that he aspired to join the police force so he could beat up black men. Once when out with Robert and a few others the police stopped us all to enquire what we were up to. We gave an explanation and they allowed us to continue. This was a surprise to some of our group but not to Robert, to whom this had happened before. On another occasion a party was being held in the local Conservative club but it was explained to me that they had a ‘no blacks’ policy so no invite to Robert. One school trip to Hoxton was boycotted by some of my black classmates whose parents wouldn’t let them visit a National Front area. London was a melting pot of cultures, but this could provide some problems as we got used to each other. Which we did. And which Londoners continue to do.

There were various political movements around in that time. There was growing self pride in West Indian community and artists like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had moved on from singing love songs to commenting on the position of black people in the United States. The drama Roots came out in the mid-70s and that was another significant moment in people’s self-realisation of who they were and their history. Then there was Bob Marley and other roots reggae artists including Misty in Roots who sought to explain the oppression in people’s daily lives in a historical context. So there was Black Power. But there was also White Power, which was pushed aggressively during that period by first the National Front and then the British Movement. I worked with a skinhead at Gibbers which was a Jewish run grocers and he turned up to work with an SS tattoo on his head. He joked that it stood for Super Skins. He wasn’t around very long. But I also remember some graffiti around Finsbury Park hailing Half-Caste Power. I think it was satirical.

One event I do remember in 1983 is knocking on John Lydon’s dad’s flat in the nearby Six Acres Estate. His son might be a bit all over the place politically but his dad seemed more grounded.

As I stated in my previous post I was losing my way academically but not politically. During this year I attended a Student Union Conference in Hull and became friendlier with Neil who was physically disabled and was supported by his Community Service Volunteer as he had mobility needs. Through chatting to Neil and his CSV I wondered if a career in care work might be for me? Neil has a minor role in the film Walter which Channel Four showed on its opening night and which dealt with the issue of disability. Sadly Neil died a few years later after I knew him, whilst still in his 30s.

George Davis Is Innocent. So said the graffiti around the Old Kent Road where I grew up. A test match was once cancelled because campaigners for his freedom ruined the pitch. He was released as the case against him was flimsy to say the least and the police prevented some evidence from being presented to trial. Well, although George was a bank robber he did get stitched up on that occasion before being released by the Home Secretary. Whilst living in Finsbury Park George and a few accomplices were caught holding up the Bank of Cyprus in Seven Sisters Road, and he was questioned in the local Holloway Police Station in Hornsey Road, around the corner from our Andover Estate. Walking home one evening the police were short of numbers and asked if I could participate in an identity parade. Never one to miss out on a new experience I said yes. I don’t know if I was of any use to them or not but they let me go. And didn’t so much as offer me a cup of tea or a biscuit. Another time I saw a job for work in a kitchen and set off in the morning to get to destination. When I arrived the address was a police station. Did I really want to work with coppers? I wasn’t sure, but I’d got up and travelled so thought I’d go through with it and see what happened. After a short interview it was established that yes I had experience of making my own breakfast but none of making it for others and I was saved from a career of serving bacon and sausages to police.

One final event in this year was a house party hosted by Ben. Ben’s parents were due to have a holiday and he was agreeable to having a party at his house whilst they were away. We trudged up to Hornsey with records in arms to make up cassette tapes to use for the event and Ben even designed a poster and some invites. It was a great event but I got a soaking in the middle of it because I took my cousin Ahmet out to garden to show him this nude statue and stepped into the little pond that was inconveniently located next to this art work. The morning after was spent cleaning the place up. A friend from college called Sarah Marchant-Vogel (who had been at same secondary school as my sisters) was there and she, Ben and I were good friends for some time afterwards as a result of that party.

So ends 1983-84, it was only just over twelve months, but what a great year it was.

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