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The riot of ‘85

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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

at University.

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

the carabinieri

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.




◄ Land of Hope and Mercy

My name is Silence ►


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Tim Ellis

Mon 21st Sep 2020 19:25

Thanks Greg. Yes, it took several weeks to write, and it’s taken me 35 years to get my eyewitness account down in writing, but I’ve included everything I remember about that day and tried not to embellish the story like I usually do!

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Greg Freeman

Mon 21st Sep 2020 16:57

Blimey, Tim, what a poem. What a story. I'll leave it to others to draw conclusions. But a cautionary tale, to say the least.

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