The riot of ‘85
Not so infamous as ‘81
when Liverpool went feral
and anger blazed for nine whole days,
the riot of ‘85 arose
in Toxteth when someone
was stabbed and four men’s freedom hung in peril.
I didn’t know that then, although I was
stranded in the middle
thinking “What the fuckin’ fuck?!!”
In ‘85 there was a lack
of means to know the cause.
We had no internet to solve such riddles:
at ours we didn’t even have TV…
I jump ahead too far!
My own concern in this began
that September when I’d gone
off roaming, bringing me
one evening to a Neapolitan bar.
It was the break before my final year
My friends and I were only young
and deemed the strife in ‘81
no valid cause for fear:
to us that riot was distant history
so seeing a house on Princes Avenue -
the leafy boulevard
that midribs Toxteth - up for rent,
we’d clinched a deal: two months upfront,
and then a brief ado
installing treasured vinyl and guitars
at which we went our individual ways.
My own way was a bargain
but most delightful trip I made
by Interrail along the Med
which placed me, like I say,
in Naples, in a cafe sipping lager,
a TV showing revolutionary
scenes, I thought, in Rome
with petrol bombs. I vaguely wondered
what this was all about, and when did
start wearing helmets like police back home?
...when Margaret Thatcher loomed up on the screen.
A surge of consternation
thrust my thoughts back to my nest
in Liverpool, although I must
confess to having been
more anxious for my LPs than my nation.
But next day, scouring papers on the news-stands
I learnt the riot was not
in Liverpool but Birmingham,
so mosied home via Amsterdam
contented that this nuisance
didn’t jeopardise my worldly goods a lot.
With duty-free allowance in my backpack
I disembarked the ferry
at Harwich, called on Mum and Dad
then on to Toxteth with no dread
I’d find my new flat ransacked.
Leaves glowed gold on maples, limes, and cherries
that last September day, along our street.
Tall Victorian houses
peered down on the laid-back pace
of urban life. I felt at peace
amid the steady sweep
of taxis, cars, and green double-decker buses.
Only one of my mates had yet arrived:
Alan, first-year post-grad.
He’d bagged the “front room left, ground floor”
and I picked one in the flat upstairs,
accessed from the side.
I’d a fine view of the avenue from my pad.
New term some days away, we hit the pub
and rolled home quite replete,
and would’ve crashed except I found
my duty-free, and my good friend
was too polite to snub
a little nip to make the night complete.
As so often happens when you’re young
one nip became a brace,
and two progressed to three or four.
At length the drift on Alan’s floor
subsumed a bottle wrung
of all the spirit it had once encased.
I’ve hinted something I now make explicit:
although we students were
in Liverpool, we were not of it.
We studied there for our own profit,
our loyalty illicit
and left with Honours grudging to confer
much honour on the city that conferred them.
We spent our most time shut
away from inner city Hell.
It’s no surprise that on the whole
the unemployment burdened
local youth detested students’ guts;
and sheds some light on why I’d missed the tension
brewing, spilling over
to the streets and now exploding;
and goes some way towards explaining
my sluggish comprehension
on that fateful first day of October
when the light of afternoon found me
squirming from my sheets,
my temples clamped in red-hot tongs,
a taste of diesel on my tongue
and looking out to see
a line of cars reversing down the street.
I’d shuffled to the bathroom, had a pee,
brushed my rancid teeth,
rinsed a mug, put kettle on
and puked...before I’d bare begun
to think why there might be
a line of cars reversing down our street?
I went to check the scene outside again
and spotted something new:
armed with sticks and stones, a gang
was bearing down, a hundred strong,
which adequately explained
the hastily regressing traffic queue.
Bewildered, I beheld this wayward troop
occupy the road
below me. Mere autumnal fire
had toned the trees the day before
but now the hell-bent group
had organised to make a car explode.
Whose car it was and what offence they’d caused
I’ll never know. I doubt
the mob had any notion neither,
but bare hands hoicked and heaved it over.
Redundant tyres like claws
on a wounded raven, writhed about
when someone prised away the petrol cap
and a live match was pitched
into the broadening pool of fuel.
The bird of fire, on wings of foul
black vapour flapped
in vain up at the trees but grasped no perch.
My drunkard part assumed hallucination
born of booze-cruise vodka.
My health-kick hope that it was not
was sanctioned when I came to note
a rising altercation,
away to my right, bloom into bloody fracas.
I couldn’t see the centre of the brawl
from my lonely lookout;
just a milling scrum of thugs
up towards the synagogue
who now and then would roar
like ringside punters relishing a knockout
and people sparking outwards clutching prizes,
ripping off the wrappers
thrilled like kids on Christmas Day,
lit-up faces warped in joy
while coldly I surmised that
our post van had been ambushed by attackers.
“What the fuckin’ fuck?” I kept on thinking.
In Birmingham, I knew
two men had died when arsonists
burnt down the Handsworth Post Office
and this had delivered an inkling
that such an act could polish me off too.
And then I thought of Alan: the ground-floor flat
was easier to invade
should someone turn their mind to looting
or fancied duffing up a student.
It seemed quite likely that
he was still down there, equally afraid,
but neither of us had a telephone
and though I could have dashed
from my side door around to the front,
prudence decreed that such a stunt
could make our presence known.
I chose to stay put until the worst had passed.
All afternoon no rozzers could be seen
until a siren warned
of a blue light meteoring down the road:
a transit van with a metal pole
skewered through its screen
like the magic tusk of a unicorn.
Later, in a lull in the affair,
looking down I saw
Alan sprint, his clear intention
the sanctuary of my side entrance.
I hurried down the stairs,
let him in and double locked the door.
We waited in the haven of my flat
for respite from the white heat.
At six o’clock as night came down
A TV camera crew came up
to film some action that
we couldn’t see, further down the side-street.
I watched it on the News once we’d attained
safe refuge with some mates
who rented in a part of town
more central and not so well known
for gangs and drugs and strained
relations with the forces of the state.
On ITN we were the leading story:
beyond our house, another
car was going up in flame
and knowing how this piece of film
would lead them all to worry
we went down to a pub to phone our mothers
since every call-box in that sorry place
endured a changeless state
of vandalism, and it was only
pubs that held the means of phoning
(provided you could face
the prospect of a twenty minute wait.)
How long ago that was. A different time
before the mobile phone
put everyone in instant contact.
It was a long decade of conflict,
a golden age for crime
with inner cities feared as danger zones.
“Toxteth Burns Again!” the papers bugled,
but Autumn’s social tension
hit a peak when five days later
a man was hacked to death by rioters
in Tottenham. If you Google
you’ll find what I recount here barely mentioned.
But I remember every detail still,
and that short, violent storm
must also always haunt the driver
of the post van, bludgeoned over,
kicked, and almost killed
because he was a man in uniform.
I later heard a woman had been blinded
in the transit van
I witnessed speared with an iron lance.
Does this thought not make you wince:
you’re sent out on assignment
to do your job, and never see again?
I write this poem because I find disquieting
some calls I hear for stiffer
action from the Left to halt
greed, or climate change, or hate,
from friends who think that rioting
might help to mend the world. I beg to differ.