September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Coventry heroes escaping the Ghost Town

6 min read
In 1981 - Coventry really was the Ghost Town but local heroes like Neville Staple and Errol Christie were trying to make a difference - as Tony McMahon reports

Coventry in 1981 was a tinderbox of a city primed to explode. Youth unemployment was skyrocketing as factories shut. The car industry was in terminal decline. Racial tensions were exacerbated by neo-Nazi groups fomenting division. Yet in the middle of all this, some young people were striving to create unity on the streets but also make their escape from the Ghost Town.

A decade ago, I co-wrote the biographies of two Coventry heroes of this time: the black British boxer Errol Christie and the vocalist in legendary 2Tone band The Specials, Neville Staple. I also got to know Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter and Garry Thompson who played football professionally for Coventry FC between 1977 and 1983. I even developed a drama screenplay featuring all four of these heroes that sadly never made it to the TV screen.

FIND OUT MORE: Ghost Town – my ska/2Tone optioned drama

Errol Christie and Neville Staple

I worked on Errol and Neville’s biographies (published by Aurum Press) simultaneously between 2007 and 2010. Both books involved intense research in Coventry interviewing their families, friends, and associates. Their life stories were different and similar. The overlaps could be found in their shared Jamaican heritage with identical themes around authoritarian fathers, hours spent in evangelical churches, and being steeped in the patois and beliefs of the Caribbean.

Errol’s way of expressing himself would shift from a drawling Coventry brogue, to London cockney, all laced with Jamaican turns of phrase. I once asked him what his junior school was like and he termed it as “a place of tormentation”. Clearly an expression from a pentecostal preacher on one of those interminable Sundays he hated spending in church.

They both had horror stories about their fathers – who they loved and feared. I can never quite remove the image of Neville’s father embedding a fork in his young son’s head. Or leaving him as a toddler in the snow stripped and shivering for some or other minor sin.

Neville’s outlook differed from Errol in that he was born in Jamaica in 1955, coming to England as a child. Whereas Errol was born in England in 1963. Neville was and is more respectful towards his Jamaican heritage and the beliefs of people in the Caribbean. Errol tended to be more secular and scornful. Neville felt a strong bond to Jamaica. I’m not sure Errol ever went there. But their heritage was shot through them like letters in a stick of rock.

FIND OUT MORE: Four Coventry heroes in the Ghost Town

1981 – a year of protest in Coventry

Two years into the first administration of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the country was mired in a deep recession. This economic downturn hit the industrial north and Midlands hardest. And the Tories knew it. Underlying their economic policies was a desire to break organised labour – the trades unions – and more fundamentally, tip the balance of power in society back from working-class people to the bosses. Thatcher and her economic guru Keith Joseph were very explicit about this.

The effect of a ‘monetarist’ economic policy, to control the money supply and bring down inflation, was that the jobless figure soared, especially among the youth. Black and Asian British youth were even further impacted. Add to this toxic brew, a police culture that was unapologetically racist, a mass media that regarded young people as trouble, and the activity of white supremacist groups like the National Front and British Movement.

1981 saw a summer of riots across the United Kingdom. Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool, and Moss Side in Manchester. These were the three biggest flashpoints. But other cities also saw civil disturbance. On May 23, 1981, Errol Christie and his brothers attended a demonstration protesting about the murder of a 20-year-old Sikh man, Satnam Singh Gill (see newspaper clip below and continue reading).

Five youths were arrested shortly afterwards and appeared in court accused of “making an affray”.

Far from showing any contrition, the extreme Right came down to give Sieg Heil salutes at Errol and the other protestors. One of the neo-Nazi organisers was reported by the Coventry Evening Telegraph to have been jailed for contempt of court in 1976 for refusing to take down a sign in front of his house stating: For Sale To Whites Only. He was jailed again in 1979 for distributing race hate material.

FIND OUT MORE: Coventry riot in 1981

More attacks on Asian Britons in Coventry

This kind of attack, sometimes leading to murder, was depressingly familiar in the late 1970s and start of the 1980s. I’ve blogged about this elsewhere on the site. For example, the senseless killing of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall in 1979 that sparked a major riot in the aftermath.

But I was shocked to discover in my research for this post that barely two weeks after the demonstration over the fatal stabbing of Satnam Singh Gill in broad daylight, there was an attempt to murder another Sikh man, Palwinder Singh Aluakh. He was knifed five times outside the Hare and Hounds pub in Bramble Street. A youth, aged 19 and unemployed, was eventually jailed for five years. The court heard that the deepest of several wounds “scratched his liver”, nearly ending the life of Palwinder Singh Aluakh.

Police Chief Superintendent Dennis Cubby called for moderation and an avoidance of confrontation. Then claimed there had been “a disturbing increase in the number of attacks by whites against coloured and by coloureds against whites”. Though I’ve been hard pressed to find any evidence of fatal or near fatal stabbings of white people so this tit-for-tat line from the police doesn’t hold up. The murderous violence was a one-way street from white to black and Asian.

Errol used to tell me that the skinheads indoctrinated into neo-Nazism – and not all skins were on the far Right to be clear – used to avoid the Afro-Caribbean youth because they knew, from bitter experience, that guys like Errol and his brothers could handle themselves. Errol had a small scar in his right fist where he extracted a skinhead’s tooth with the power of his punch.

“I should have been their dentist,” he once quipped.

The stream of attacks on Asians in Coventry continued apace. On June 7 1981, an Asian British doctor was left fighting for his life after two teenagers jumped him as he left a takeaway – see the newspaper article below and keep reading!

Gig for unity in Coventry

On June 22, 1981, the singer Hazel O’Connor and The Specials headlined a gig for unity in Coventry at Butts Stadium. In the run up, the press reported that extra police were being drafted into the city to address “trouble between Asians and white youths”. This was a standard approach to reporting racist hate crime at the time.

Present it as a problem emanating from both the victims and perpetrators!

Also, while there were calls to ban the National Front, New National Front, and other neo-Nazi groups from operating in Coventry – there were also demands to stop the anti-racist gig at the Butts Stadium from going ahead. Again, this supposed even-handedness was really intended to infer that the anti-racists had somehow provoked the neo-Nazis. It’s a fallacious argument that’s still deployed today.

Neville Staple and the whole movement around the 2Tone sound strove to build bridges of unity between black and white working-class youth. It’s something that Neville is still doing today as he gigs around the country and globally. Sadly, the issues that necessitated the Butts Stadium gig back in 1981 have resurfaced. Not in exactly the same way but with potentially more danger than ever.

Another account below of a racist attack in 1981 in Coventry as the Ghost Town saw a tide of appalling violence.

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