Archive for the ‘Social Observation’ Tag

Skinheads: A Short, Sharp Shock…

Foggy Street at NightIt’s well past midnight and the pavement is dusted with a fine sparkle.  The gig was cramped and sweaty; the beer lukewarm; the band cool – the parting of the ways no more than a casual embrace.  Outside a cold that wraps around you like an intimate yet lives beyond the physical.  Intrusive: disturbing… every footstep is amplified.  Even my own solitary notes contain an absurd menace that is measured by the jerk of electrical pulses to ragged nerves.  The emptiness of the early hours arrives on a silent winter chill and my breath shadows me in the frosty air.

In the near distance urban church bells chime the quarter-hour with a towering clarity that shows no consideration for the eternal slumber of their graveyard tenants.  Shouts of indiscretion from those who think they’ll live forever echo like the guitars in my ears yet make no more sense with the repetition.  Happiness is a four-letter word they seem to say.  Swearing comes naturally to this unseen enemy and is easy guerrilla tactics when the streets are deserted.

Traffic drones intermittently on a main artery.  Occasional headlights strafe the horizon: softened northern lights muzzled by the night.  The flickering urgency suggests the search for a quicker way out of town – while I’m left to face the flak.

In the dead velvet blanket of a layered mist a dog barks; a car backfires in a side street and a dustbin clatters.  Lamp-posts stand like watery eyes.  Someone turns on a bedroom light in a flat above a kebab shop but just as quickly extinguishes it.  A warm bed and the urge to not get involved exert a stronger pull than anything taking place outside the window.  That someone knows this town well.

“Tension: muscle tight and stomach churning.  Number one cut scraping my face to induce number twos.”


Anonymous… as inconspicuous as I can be, I head for the last train home.  In a shop doorway a cigarette glows orange in a severed hand; a raking cough is evidence of bodily connection: smoke less of a giveaway as it melts into the consumptive lungs of the night air.

I can still see a teenage apparition with shoulders hunched and chin buried in a turned-up collar.  It’s me: I’m in a hurry.  Then – as before in this nightmare; one that I can still almost taste and hear – I see them and my stomach turns a back flip.  A sick feeling rises with the fog.  A bitter taste from beer and bile and the storm about to hit.

Three burly figures in outsize coats that flap like sails propelled on a coarse wind barrel around the corner… It’s now too late to cross the street to the station and the desperate negotiation between losing self-respect or losing teeth continues loudly in my head.  I curse my highly refined sense of pride – as always both during and after the event.  I walk on enveloped by that curious mix of fear, arrhythmia and resignation that are peculiar to the small hours.

Have they seen me?  Of course they have!  They’ve slowed down deliberately to eke out the pain and possibilities of the moment… it’s all part of the tribal games: the power; the reputation that precedes them and the pose.  They strut in slow-motion and gather up their attitude from its relaxed mode – although it’s a relatively short process – then smile and sneer… it could be indigestion but even if it were heartburn at that time of the night it would still come across as sneering.  Before they get to me they make sure that I know this for a fact.

They’re ‘hard’ in the vernacular of the time although the finer points of linguistics are of little concern when you’re the target; the easy prey.  It’s three against one which is fair odds, Marquess of Queensbury rules where they come from.  Avoiding eye contact I could still see atknuckle hate a glance that they had the full requisite style package: high-laced DMs barely disguised by tight bleached jeans that were in retreat as if the result of an argument to crotches teased by low hung loose chains.  Two had braces; one a crimson-coloured handkerchief that protruded neatly-folded from the top pocket of the open swirl of his full-length coat like some sartorial afterthought: the sensitive fashion conscious one obviously.  Ben Sherman shirts – check – completed the look.  If you’ve simply got to beat someone to a pulp then at least live up to the part while you’re doing it.

Memory and nightmare are awkward companions.  They walk the same narrow road but one gives nostalgia a good kicking.  It isn’t just policemen who look younger and smaller as time passes… These weren’t the two-bit Chav rat boys who terrorise estates now in feral packs of roaming malcontent spreading their four-letter incontinence and lack of education on anyone who passes while abusing the concept of safety in numbers.

These were proper Skins: men in their late-twenties; early-thirties with love and hate across their knuckles and razor-sharp stubble across their skulls.  And grammatically/socially incorrect concepts of bovver agitating their minds.  These three were muscular in an untrained era when work was more physical than a keyboard click: this was down to genetics; nature and nurture and sheer bloody-mindedness where the accompanying hint of a paunch was a badge of honour to the love of a drink.  Their incongruous ‘love handles’ added to the air of unreality.  Reinforcing the feeling of a situation out of control.  The chiselled physiques of today were not the superficial be-all and end-all.

The inevitable stand-off followed.  The what have we here push and shove scruff of the throat-grabbing invasion of personal space… Stale beer and verbal barbs with a glisten of sweat and even staler threats.  Pounding heart settling in my throat.  Unable to speak… even squeak.  Cat and mouse.  Tension: muscle tight and stomach churning.  Number one cut scraping my face to induce number twos.

I can feel the hot pin drop flecks of mainstream lager spittle mixed to a poisonous cocktail with the roughage of indigestible shadowy right wing meetings.  Provincial politics; comments from the marginal outposts of democracy: vacant lots of immigration caps – of them and us – and piles of pamphlets marked dubious.  And the hear a pin drop moments arising out of their total studied disregard.  It was an era when aliens stalked our streets and close encounters were regular and commonplace.

It’s here that I always wake up… truth to tell this is usually as far as it got: threats; pushing and shoving; intimidation: mutual laughter – for them – then if you were lucky you just weren’t worth the trouble.  Pushed out of the way; out of breath at the platform.  Scramble aboard the safe haven of the slam-door: the B-road of transport away from this satellite town.  The rock’n’roll of the tracks the sweetest music to my ears.  Heart rate normal: muted like the mist.  A slow beat until the next inevitable chorus…14 hole dms black


Another Wet Sunday

"Oh Mummy it's got the test card, music and everything!"

“Oh Mummy… it’s got the test card, easy-listening ambient music and everything!”

Britain never invented the wet Sunday – that would be too preposterous: blasphemous even – but if there were intellectual rights to claim over a natural phenomena then Britain would have a case in any court.  “What the British have added to the stock of this ancient Christian calendar day M’lud is theirs – and theirs alone – and should be recognised as such.  I therefore rest my case.”

If only it were that simple…  how could it be when the main elements are a combination of the deeply melancholic; the emotional; the absolute core of the British psyche and – even from these essentially secular times – the spiritual: a crammed bottom drawer of everything that can’t be measured empirically.

It’s a secret compartment that is only occasionally opened and surreptitiously at that; behind the process of shoulder-shrugging aloofness – awkwardly flirting with embarrassment – that is our defining lot as a nation.  Botox may have replaced the stiff-upper lip as facial indicator of choice but reaction to a wet Sunday is still more likely to be about turning up the collar to experience than exploring how we feel.

There are heatwaves – 1959, 1976, 2003 and all that – they really aren’t just a rumour; or three days and a thunderstorm of the regulation summer but ultimately the wet Sunday is the vanguard of our default mode: the grittiest underlying strand of our British fibre.  Barbecues and shorts: lying in the sun in the park and street café culture can last for a whole summer but deep down it is strangely unnatural here: a collective daydream postponing the inevitable.

The point of Sunday

The point to Sundays…

Rain will always come to wash away the warm memories.  And there is a curious romanticism/resignation to a wet Sunday that embodies stoicism, duty, and repression – both religious and cultural – that are reflected back as we look wistfully into the oily puddles on pot-holed streets.

Growing up saw a combination of both the pervasive and the universal reaction to a typically British Sunday from foreign visitors.  Their second remark – after denigrating the weather as an opening conversational gambit – was almost always; where can we find a drink around here?  An open shop?  A proper hotel?  A point even?

"Get on the shots you said!  It'll be fun you said!"

“Get a round of shots in you said!  It’ll be fun you said!”

To many that was the problem that gnawed in a nutshell.  Sunday was a day where it was difficult to make a sale in what was avowed to be a consumer society – let alone discern a sense of service to the customer beyond the one at the local church at eleven.  It’s difficult for anyone under thirty to transport to a time when the Sunday genie was firmly in the bottle – no long-licensing hours; no glimmer of the twenty-four hour society: no internet, no mobiles, limited hours and channels on TV.  Sunday the test card of the week: nothing to do…

Those forever damned in sermons – which was most of the population – went to the intense lunchtime session at the pub or read the scandal sheet about the tart and the vicar’s sexual congress.  Those unsure of their status could go to church, shift uneasily on the hard pews and learn exactly where they stood in line to the eternal kingdom while musing about the extra-curricular activities of the vicar of their parish.  Today we are much less likely to be assailed by a fire and brimstone breathing religion that kept the soul fit for purpose: more likely the aroma that fills the nostrils is of a flame-grilled burger adding to the contrasting barometers of rise in the obese and widening moral vacuum.

There was a time when it was in fact easier to buy the News of the WorldHello Reverend! – than to buy a bible.  Liquor was the ultimate minefield where the collected anomalies in the law were essentially leftovers from another more pious age.  Remember the conscience-stirring visits of the Salvation Army to the Sunday session with the War Cry that stifled even the most hardened drinker’s protest?  Or the Sunday teatime street corner gathering promoting temperance and Jesus as twin saviours via a few stirring hymns?  As the worm turned and business interests became more resentful and organised there was an at times bitter and eventually losing campaign for Keep Sunday Special that nonetheless still stutters nostalgically into life every so often at the current perceived excesses.

Keep Sunday SpecialSpecial!? That was a word for the young to consider… frogmarched to Sunday School or made to do their weekly chores; or catch up on homework after Saturday.  Saturday always had a big relaxed, relieved smile on its face: it was facile, fun, films and football – and for the adult members of the family the Saturday option.  A cornucopia that Sunday held at bay by dint of more than an accident of the calendar.  Saturday meant  the week was over – thank God – albeit a day early: Saturday was part celebration, part getting your retaliation in quick: big plans; the family shop; the get some living down you because tomorrow you can’t touch a drop.

For many Sunday was less characterised as a day of rest – more a day of recovery.  Alan Sillitoe’s classic 1960’s presentation of working class factory life in the novel – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – is as much about the come-down day as the night before. There is something of the fresh air antidote to hard living in the novel’s pages.  However, it shares the long-held view that Sunday is essentially the aftermath and the repercussions: from that big night out; from drug session; Saturday sexuality or when high on everything life superficially had to offer.

It is of note that a key part of the campaign for broadening out opening hours was as an answer to the social effects of this one day of concentrated hedonism that was perceived as encouraging a live for today mentality.  The possibility that every day becomes a Saturday as a result seemed to elude those who argued loudest.  Where economics are involved common sense often goes out the window.

Sunday – and a wet one at that – was pinched and compulsory.  It was a family day which meant doing what others wanted so you could all be miserable together.  It was presented as a time to think; a time to breathe; a time to get ready for the week ahead and connect with loved ones.  This is Sunday as a chance to get in touch with the internal side: the time to consider events but without the self-consciousness of today’s definitions.  The abiding trouble was that the time to think concentrated the mind on how little there was to do, how the milk had run out; or how depressing Sunday was with the rain that added a harsh gloss on proceedings.  It became like a mini-Christmas once a week: a test run for all the family enmities that school, college and the working week kept a lid-on.

For what was the ‘normal’ Sunday than British cliché on a cinematic scale.  Of happy families and Sunday roast; brisk walks and rosy cheeks; dunking biscuits in front of a roaring fire, snoozes and board games.  Definitely not bored games – for there was no place for ambivalence and double-meaning where Sunday was concerned.  A family that prayed together stayed together.  There was no space in this for festering lie-ins where alcohol and the smell of dodgy food slowly oozed from pores as major organs looked forward in desperation to their only down time.  None of the small town suburban boredom.

It was a day to promote culture and sporting prowess – healthy pursuits of the mind and body as opposed to the latent evil of Saturday.  H&E with none of the top shelf connotations.  Now the highlight in any love letters to Sunday are extended R&R, B&Q, DFS and a chargrilled brunch from M&S

"Now let's see... I Spy with my little eye..."

“Now let’s see… I Spy with my little eye…”

What was available on Sunday TV made us experts in old films, classic serials – although this often reminded of school – and antiques.  The no-man’s land of afternoon and its resigned catatonic state stretched into the early evening when the point of Sunday was reiterated by the schedule.  We had no songs of praise for Sundays… Sunday was a psychological pit pre-school return: first day of work.  Mood low-key, expectant and depressed.  Nerves disturbing the weekend equilibrium – the strange unsettled feeling in the tummy on the run-down past teatime.  Yes, it was all over for another week as you put your clean school clothes or work gear out for the morning fumble.  Whatever your sentiment this one part of the weekend will forever be damned as Sunday Bloody Sunday: that it’s the bridge – the corollary to Monday.  Given this it was a brave person or a fool who went out on the lash on Sunday evening – that’s if they could find somewhere open to indulge such an outrageous exhibition of hedonism.

In increasingly busy lives the novelty of this old style wet Sunday might be seen as a blessing; a respite where able to get some peace or withdrawal.  But for those in the know it was essentially boredom with a Craig Revel-Horwood pronunciation; clock-watching and a ‘character-building’ long day.  The Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday Afternoon might be a classic of the genre but the Sunday they described was bucolic… a summer ideal of Cockney small talk and dozing; big skies, music hall traditions and psychedelic imaginings – all dreamy church spires with bell towers calling out to the converted over a green timeless landscape.  The very antithesis of the wet Sunday.

Alright Steve you can Roody-doody-do  A-roody-doody-di-day  Right Off.  We're talking a wet one here.

Alright Steve you can A-roody-doody-do, A-roody-doody-di-day Off.  We’re talking a wet one here, OK?…

The humour of Tony Hancock is more painfully accurate to what was endured.  You might laugh but this was trench humour from deep down and a vaulted window into the hurt inside.  His performance in the Galton and Simpson-penned Hancock’s Half-HourSunday Afternoon At Home stands the test of anytime.  Hancock says more in a sigh – “Oh dear; oh dear… oh dear me about the overwhelming, grey alienation of a typical British Sunday than successive generations of gloomy British novelists’ psycho-traumas ever could.  The last word in repressed sexuality, limited opportunity, social pariahdom and buttoned-down emotion.

Grey is our colour and we should celebrate the fact with our one hundred and one varieties of slate and other nuanced shades.  Let’s have a National Grey Day.  So much more apt than all the mock carnivals that jam our streets.  Dulux Paints missed a big promotional trick here.  Imagine a chart for visitors or even an app… The creative space for naming the shades an even bigger opportunity for involvement and celebration/commiseration.

Remember… that with the classic wet Sunday we’re not talking about any hint of set fair.  This was an experience without hope and optimism.  The slowest moving of clock faces ticked toward oblivion.  The day was set; the die cast – the threatening or dead grey skies existed from dawn.  You want appreciation?  Then appreciate the subtle shift from deadly dull to black.  The study of rain was more fundamental.  No endless supply of bodycon wearing weathergirls; technological implements and computer predictions then.  Lord we felt the rain in a way that spoke through the generations.

Celebrate the various types of rain that were our birthright including: the cold drizzle; the deceptive light rain or colourfully-colloquial flight of gnats that was our gift to the world – the ‘dry’ day that still made you wet to the core; the wind lashed downpour where the window-hammering crescendo turned a view of the horizon a mixed media blur. Or the tin-roof timpani – the clattering deluge on garage or out-house that provided the onomatopoeia to the complete lack of physical percussion inside.



Watching the rain drift down the window was almost a national sport.  Drawing faces in the condensation on your bedroom window the lightest of reliefs.  It was a time to live in the moment – a gift that is increasingly a disappearing trait – that conversely/perversely led to personal creativity, resourcefulness and the positive rebellion of making do.  Without too many Sunday-worthy connotations it was a valuable life lesson.  If there was any sermon needed here it is that we made our own entertainment instead of receiving it all electronically drip fed.  Self-reliance eh?  Sounds like the language of one of those public-information films that filled the space between programmes that are valuable selling spots now.  The latent spirit of a wet Sunday.  And if anyone needs reminding… there’s sure to be another one along in a week or two.  You can rely on it.

“I Am Eighty-Two You Know”

parked mobility-scootersHilda:  “… and he walks right out in front of me; and then – he says it’s my fault!  I said excuse me dear but I am eighty-two you know and …”

Win:  “Yoo-Hoo!  Hilda!  Yoo-Hoo!”

Hilda:  “What?  Win?  Is that you?   Er… Sorry darlin’ I’ll have to let you know what happened next time I see you, Ok?  Bye.  Bye.  Now Win – what on earth are you doin’?”

Win:   “Ooh… I can’t quite… oh damn… I can’t get it up on the pavement… oh youyou… Oh, thank the lord – I’m up!  Damn that kerb!

Hilda:  “Steady Win you’ll blow a gasket.  You know what the doctor said… What you’ve got to do is give it some gun to get it over the kerb – then straighten it up… if you can try to do that without scraping my paint work dear I would be most grateful.”

Win:  “Ooh; that’s got it.  Ooh a little bump… Sorry Hilda but you’re so much better at manoeuvrin’ these things than me…”

Hilda:  “Yes I know I am Win but you’ve had a lot more practice than me.  Guess I’m like that Lewis Hamilton – a natural.  He should drop that Shirtwringer and give me a go!  I’d tell him – I’d get your pole into position Lewis even though I am eighty-two you know….”

Win:  “Sorry Hilda but I just can’t seem to get it right: don’t think I’ve got your co-ordination.  I’ve had this thing for years but I still can’t quite get the hang of it.  I know I’m a spring chicken compared to you but I just can’t seem to… never mind these things are sent to try us after all.”

Hilda:  “Yes you are.  Anyway enough about that – you’re here now… so what did you want?”

Win:  “Ooh I’ve forgotten what wiv tryin’ to get this machine parked up.  Ooh… I keep picturin’ you and that Lewis.  He is a bit of all right though.  Maybe he could introduce me to that Jenson Button…  Hey, we could double date!  At least I’d have someone to park this damn thing!  Anyhow what was I gonna say?  Let me think… has someone died?  No; that’s not it… it’ll come to me in a minute.”

Hilda:  “I might not have that long left at my age.”

Win:  “Ooh don’t tempt fate like that… Jim Barton; you know him; he’s big and fat and bald and wears that Fairisle cardigan wiv’ the unexplained stain on the front – lives in the sheltered housin’ on the corner of the estate – he says to his wife one night… he said: ‘I might not be here in the mornin’ when you wake up’ – and he wasn’t!  Mind you, he hadn’t died or anythin’ – he’d got the early bus to Asda: didn’t stop his wife panickin’ though…”

Hilda:  “It’s him!”

Win:  “What – Jim Barton?  Has he got that cardigan on still?  I swear he never takes it off… I wonder exactly what that is on the front?”

Hilda:  “No!  Not him… over the road – outside Tesco: the one with his hands in his pockets.  That was the little sod who threw chips at me outside the Chinese the other night when I drove past.   The Hard Wok Cafe they call it.  Believe me dear there’s precious little hard work goes on in there – have you tasted the chips?  Less grease more elbow needed if you ask me…”

Win:  “Whatever did you do Hilda?  I bet you were scared.”

Hilda:  “No… I turns round… drives right up to him and looks him straight in the eye – both of ‘em.”Hoody

Win:   “Ooh Hilda… what did he do?”

Hilda:   “Not a lot… I parked on his new trainers.  Anyway he fixes me with an evil look; couldn’t help it I suppose he was born wiv’ it; then he pushes his hoody off his head – horrible it was…”

Win:   “His head?!  What was wrong with his head?!  I thought you said you’d stopped on his foot?”

Hilda:   “One of the chips that he threw had shifted in me scarf and was sittin’ on me neck like a slug.”

Win:  “Urrrgh…”

Hilda:  “I threw it on the ground and when I looked in the shop window the tomato sauce had left a mark on me neck like a hickey from one of them gigolo fellas.   Anyway by then he had grabbed me by the scooter.  He says – ‘Move out the way grandma and die!’  You old people – well, he actually said somethin’ beginnin’ with a ‘C’ that on my dear dad’s dead body I would never let pass my lips…”

Win:   “Crikey!”

Hilda:  “No, that wasn’t it… he goes on that I shouldn’t be allowed to be on the road and that anyone my age – I told him I am eighty-two you know; you should have more respect – but he says we should all be put to sleep by vets like dogs when we reach fifty so that he can have a job – us and all them immigrants too!”

Win:  “Ooh Hilda that’s awful…”

Hilda:  “I tells him don’t you start – any pensioner over eighty who goes in the Health Centre on Curtain Road under that new consultant Dr Chandra dies within the year they say – they reckon it’s like them badgers: a controlled cull by the government because they don’t want to pay the old folk their TV licences.  Final Curtain Road they call it.  I’m a bit breathless these days but I didn’t tell him cause I ain’t havin’ him nick me remote when Corrie’s got good again.  Anyway he leans over me – little bits of spit went on me face…” chips

Win:  “Dr Chandra?”

Hilda:  “No hoody-boy; no manners, mouth wide open while he was eatin’ like I said it was horrible – and he says let me pimp your ride Grandma then you can drive into a wall quicker and that’d save him the effort.  He had tattoos on him and he was playin’ hippy-hoppy on his Pea –Pod.  Anyway that’s him over the road there.”

Win:   “There’s a community policeman outside Poundland – shall I get him to come over and have a word wiv ‘im seein’ as he threatened you like that?”

Hilda:  “No, what use is a clockwork copper?  Even the real things no good these days – if you can find one!   No what you do is you drive over to him real slow, wave at him – well get his attention somehow – and call him that ‘C’ word and don’t worry Win I’ll be right behind you… and when he gets off the pavement to come towards you I’ll drive like my mate Lewis at his skinny jeans and break his scrawny legs!”

Win:  “Ooh Hilda; what right in front of that special constable?!”

Hilda:   “That’s alright Win… I’ll tell the copper he walked in front of me – tell him I’m confused because that Dr Chandra has me on medication: then I’ll pretend I can’t control this thing and roll back over the little sod’s legs while he’s still on the ground.”

Win:  “Ooh Hilda; what if he wants to press charges?”

Hilda:  “I’ll give the copper my confused old woman look and say – Sorry Officer,  I am 82 you know…”

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