This Town: Chronicling the Racial Tensions in Coventry

August 1981: The Face examines the areas where conflict has caused fear and segregation from marginalised groups, as well as tackling the root cause.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Paul Tickell

“[Founder/editor] Nick Logan had his eye on anything that was of the moment, and that was what The Face was about. I don’t think he was overtly political, but he was au fait with certain social issues that were going on in the country and he wanted The Face to reflect that. “Earlier that summer there had been racist stabbings in Coventry carried out by skinheads. I went there and it was like being in a lot of other British towns because of the shopping precinct and so on. You could feel a kind of tension… That wasn’t particular to Coventry in that broader sense, but you had something much more specific there and worse with those stabbings and actual murder. I was very aware that not all skinheads were racist, but some were card-carrying members of the National Front and the British Movement. But it’s no good if you’re just observing them and letting them drift away: you’ve got to engage on some level, which I did. Ghost Town by [Coventry band] The Specials had just been released. It was a huge song and it got me the sack from reviewing the singles column at NME. I made it runner-up, which made me a much-despised figure at NME for some time. But you could say history has absolved me: instead I made Single of The Week a song called Gotta Stop (Messin’ About) by a then rather obscure artist called Prince. The response to the article was very positive, and certainly it gave the socialist worker-types pause for thought. They’d been dismissing anything to do with The Face as a frippery and part of a conspiracy concocted by Steve Strange and a couple other fashionable conspirators.”

Paul Tickell wrote for The Face, Melody Maker, NME, Time Out and Elle, before moving into TV in the mid-Eighties. He was a producer/director on Network 7 and The South Bank Show. He has since directed dramas and feature films, notably Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, and continues to make documentaries on subjects ranging from Matisse in Morocco to Going Postal, about school and workplace shootings in the US

Bristol, Brixton, Southall, Toxteth, Moss Side. It would be unfortunate if the increasing conflict on our streets was allowed to obscure the degree of everyday racial intolerance and violence that inflicts many more urban areas than those listed above. Coventry is a case in point since it is the birthplace of 2-Tone and its message of racial harmony. Yet Coventry is developing an unenviable reputation as a place where there is a growing pattern of youthful – often racial – violence. Why is this happening, and what part can The Specials play in changing the prevalent mood in their hometown? The Face went there to investigate.

Throughout Britain attacks on black and Asian people are on the increase. Petrol bombings of homes and meeting places, kickings and beatings and murders are getting more vicious – and open. On April 23 this year in the centre of Coventry in broad daylight, 20-year-old Satnam Singh Gill was stabbed to death. Two white teenagers have since been charged with murder.

As a response to growing violence the Coventry Committee Against Racism (CCAR) – a grouping of over 40 organisations including the Indian Workers Association and the Anti-Nazi League – was set up. The Specials, many of whom still live in the city, also thought it was time to make their kind of stand and late in June organised a gig, a peaceful protest against racism, at Butts Athletic Stadium in the Earlsdon district of Coventry where they were joined by other musicians with Midlands connections – Hazel O’Connor, the Bureau, Reluctant Stereotypes, and The People.

In the current fraught climate, the early 2-Tone exhortation that black and white should unite and dance like crazy sounds brave rather than cosmetic and liberal. Here were The Specials putting their money where their mouth was. Good job ‘Ghost Town’ has sold well! They lost a lot of money that day.

There wasn't a big turn-out, maybe because Tory councillors had been making ominous advance noises about what would happen if shopkeepers didn’t board up and if good citizens didn't stay indoors... Maybe because the Coventry Evening Telegraph had been less than enthusiastic about the gig, maybe because there were fears that the New National Front, in spite of a ban on their nearby march, would still rally in force, maybe because the admission price of £3.50 was too high for a town with 14 per cent unemployment and 5,000 teenagers on the dole.

Specials manager Rick Rogers told me that he wasn’t that concerned about the “maybes”, the point was that the event passed without incident and that the band made their show.

PRECINCT

A week later I returned to Coventry to generally test the temperature and find out how The Specials’ gesture had been received.

In a bar in the town’s central precinct, the band’s tour manager Pete Hadfield introduces me to someone who for obvious reasons will have to be called X.

X is a young Asian who played his part in the setting up of CCAR and also the more militant Committee for Anti-Racist Defence Squads (CARDS). These squads, which often operate from cars, are less vigilante groups than crude intelligence-gathering units. Although they do maintain a low-key presence on streets where attacks have occurred or are likely to, their function is to monitor the activities of any fascist or racist organisation. They now know, for example, where the British Movement have their HQ in Coventry.

Many racist attacks are spontaneous, but it's as well to keep an eye on those likely to be handing out the encouragement – and other things: known fascists have been observed priming skinheads with beer and cider. If the police were doing their job properly, CARDS wouldn’t be necessary.

X feels that the Asian community, music lovers or not, are heartened by The Specials making a show. He helped organise 200 stewards for the gig. Skins were allowed in as long as they weren’t wearing Nazi insignia. No point in discriminating against people for being skins: not aII of them are racist, and they don’t carry out all the attacks.

RECORD STORE

“There’s got to be something positive to say about Coventry, but what?,” says Tim Strickland who used to be vocalist with The Specials before Terry Hall and who now, with the help of former Swinging Cat Chris Long, manages the Inferno record shop. It’s situated in that precinct, of course, the city’s concrete heart, planted there brand new in the ’50s and ’60s after the area had been bombed to rubble during World War 2.

After a pause, Tim does hit on something positively paradoxical: “Everyone in Coventry is an outsider, there’s no such thing as a Coventry person: anything innovative has had to come from the outside.”

When the city started to turn its old devastated sites into a huge postwar new town, labour flocked in from all over Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. Multi-cultural melting pot or not, Coventry remained a small town in outlook. Tim, together with Pete Hadfield, broadcast this fact to the populace last year in Culture, a short-lived fanzine which also berated the youth for doing nothing about there being nothing to do.

Years ago Coventry’s proud civic elders forgot to make provision in their plans for youth entertainment facilities. The most swinging and image-conscious the city got in the ‘60s was when Jimmy Hill came along and gave the football team a new strip and nickname. The Sky Blues didn’t win much but the thing that mattered, the Coventry thing, was to be go-ahead.

Even now when unemployment has caught up so rapidly with the once prosperous city, the go-ahead streak won’t go away: the local education authority is in the process of introducing a work training scheme for 14-year-olds – factory fodder for factories which are closing down!

“This town is coming like a ghost town”, The Special’s lament. In spite of its nationwide success Tim hasn’t moved many copies of their single in the shops. Perhaps, lyrically, the song is too uncomfortably close to home.

THEATRE

Ron Hutchinson’s play Risky City, put on at Coventry’s Belgrade by the Youth Theatre, tries to do some home-truth telling, too. It packed the audiences in a week after The Specials played; not just your middle-class drama types but lots of young working-class people.

The play centres around three teenagers who beat someone to death; it draws on Coventry’s long-established reputation for violence. The precinct has always seen its fair share of violence, notably at weekends when the large number of pubs and clubs empty out. It's a “rough town”, the play speculates: talk about the Yukon...

In spite of its energetic production and borrowings from the work of Peter Terson and Barrie Keeffe, “Risky City” tums out to be emptily rhetorical, a series of cliches about bored kids lost to the urban sprawl. Too punk and too pat, it ends up being a bit like The Wild Boys, a local band who at strategic points during the play trot out their derivative concoction of SLF, Clash and Buzzcocks.

And so it drones... Author Ron Hutchinson ends up saying little that is illuminating or specific about violence. There is no racial dimension to the drama, for a start.

The Specials song ‘Why’; Lynval Golding's contribution to the Ghost Town EP, has more to say on the subject. It's pop but it's far less narcotic than Risky City. ls this why people have been filling the Belgrade Theatre and not making the appropriate purchase at the Inferno record shop?

PUB

Everybody told me that Ken Brown is a good bloke. And he is, as nice as his wife with whom he runs the General Wolfe, a pub whose large back-room has for four years been the city’s only regular reliable live music venue. During the day it’s where The Specials and what's left of The Selecter rehearse.

Ken had The Scars in while I was there, but he caters for all the tribes while avoiding Rockabilly (because nobody comes) and Oi! (because he doesn’t want trouble).

The Wolfe is on the Foleshill Road where Coventry’s largest number of immigrants live. Ken is scornful of the media which usually presents the area in terms of a big “problem”. He thinks that Asians, West Indians, British and Irish – Ken himself is from Enniskillen – mix well locally. Certainly, Foleshill hasn’t seen the sort of racist attacks which other parts of the city have.

Ken says that these incidents are the doing of hooligans and extremists, both black and white, left and right. This line is depressingly close to the police one, but from Ken's perspective (a well-integrated pub, a daughter whose boyfriend is Indian) it's almost understandable until you consider that racism isn’t just the work of a few pathological individuals, but is part of the very fabric of our society. We have a Conservative Prime Minister who's talked about being swamped by “alien culture”. The Labour Party don’t have a good record either: they’ve passed some draconian immigration laws in their time. Who needs the NF...?

SHOP

Jas is an Indian in his thirties. In ‘67 he got a job as an apprentice electrician after great difficulty. Whites with lesser qualifications were routinely chosen before him. After he served his time, he did an engineering degree and got a job at Rolls Royce, but left to help in the family shops on Foleshill Road.

Jas told me that he’d have gone to The Specials gig if he hadn’t been working. During a march organised by the CCAR last May, he closed down his premises in support. Although many blacks and Asians are out of work, the success of a small businessman like Jas makes some unemployed and poor whites resentful. “Paki bastard! It's your fault!” It’s easier to find scapegoats for the present economic crisis than it is to think or do anything about the actual mechanics of the recession – like the Tory monetarist determination to unswervingly (no U-turn!) run down British industry.

Jas won’t visit the precinct unless he’s with friends.

PRECINT AGAIN

Skinheads are the most visible tribal presence in Coventry. They descend on the precinct after football matches. In the summer it tends to be earlier on a Saturday afternoon: nowhere else to go. They congregate around the Lady Godiva statue and the toilets at the top half of the precinct.

Lower down, past Mothercare and a police incident centre, young Asians and West Indians hang out. Their presence shows a refusal to feel intimidated. They also want to keep an eye on the skins who have a habit of picking on older Asian shoppers.

A group of young Asians tell me that The Specials’ gig has had an effect; the town has been quieter. One of a group of white and West Indian lads is less sanguine: he doesn't think a cultural event can help to change anything. A white kid in a Union Jack T-shirt describes being picked on by other whites because they don't like him having black friends.

I talk to a group of skins. One says that he isn't in the British Movement but is a strong sympathiser: because blacks are taking jobs and white women. How does he explain Glasgow, where there are few blacks yet still no jobs? "Yeah, I'd like to live there: did once for six weeks. It's a rough town.” No explanation.

One of the other skins, just out of police custody and with bruises to prove it, seems to be in broad agreement with these views. Another one, Dave, is less sure, and Gerry, an ex-skin, disagrees completely. Gerry once saw an Asian beaten up in front of his family; the children weeping – that turned him off bovver.

A lot more skins arrive on the scene and the police make arrests after an attack on passers-by. Gerry tells me, a few minutes later, that one of the victims “wasn't coloured, just Italian looking.” He adds that bystanders – “stiffs” – had joined in, trying to fight off the skins: that had shook them up a bit.

In Gerry’s opinion half the skins don’t really mean it: they’re just children trying to prove they’re men: it's a fashion thing, too. All sorts of people in Coventry mentioned that to me: just a fashion thing which, like “Paki-bashing” in the late '60s, would go away. Maybe. The contexts are very different: the early ‘80s, another planet almost, compared to over a decade ago.

In the meantime, The Specials aren't speculating. Pop might not change anything, but that’s all the more reason to make a show.

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