… this plain little sparrow met an exotic hummingbird.
His name was Jewels. He wrote beautiful spidery words in white ink on black paper – words that entranced me and have stayed with me forever.
I met him in Brixton, in a radical bookshop on Railton Road. He was small, probably five six, and delicate and wiry. I was smaller, only five two, and thin from a year of living as a student. He was Venezuelan and tanned – the tan ending where his cycle shorts began. I was this little white goth creature – hadn’t seen the sun in years, and still hooked on alabaster make-up. He had fabulous, lush lips which were pierced twice, and dark eyes; his nose was pierced too – in the days before I knew people did such things. No-one I knew had their lip pierced. He was from another world. He had an eagle tattooed on his chest and some other interesting ink. I was as yet ink-free. Strange how two such creatures should find company in one another.
He lived in a squat on Effra Parade – just down from the bookshop, and I ended up staying with him too. I knew as soon as I met him that this was someone with a story to tell, someone interesting. His place was a tiny four-room flat with no furniture. We travelled light in those days. Now, it’s swanky apartments that sell for £300,000 – no bigger than the place he had. Brixton at the time was this run-down, cheerful place. You got off the tube at the end of the Victoria line and it was like coming into another world. There were greengrocers selling Caribbean foods and reggae shops thick with a marijuana haze. The streets were like some amazing circus. You could walk down Electric Avenue and feel, on a sunny day, that you were somewhere else entirely. A different planet.
I don’t remember much – sadly – and I wish I did, for it now all seems like a dream – but I know he used to cook me thick pancakes in the morning. We drank milk and orange juice – he was the first guy I knew that wasn’t interested in drugs or alcohol – and we ate good stuff, all cooked on a calor gas camping stove. In the days, we’d go to the parks – Richmond most often – and we’d walk through Camden or Clapham. We’d go to the bookshop or to Brixton cycles when it was still on Coldharbour Lane; on the days when he was working on the building site, earning enough to last him a year back in Venezuela working at a bird sanctuary, I would go to the museums and art galleries. I remember going to the Natural History museum and getting back that night and talking excitedly about it all.
At night, we’d buy some juice in the newsagent opposite, then cross Dulwich Road and lie in Brockwell Park as the sun went down, lying on the grass talking some shit about the world looking at the stars. He told me if I ever needed, I could look up at the stars and know that somewhere he could see those same stars too, and that the same stuff made all of us. Sometimes, we’d walk down to Clapham and meet friends there, eating pink and yellow rice from a Turkish take-away. Sometimes, we’d stay in and read to each other, talking about all kinds of stuff: the New Model Army, riots, Marx, war, violence, de Sade, tattoos, South America, nature, the downfall of humanity. I love those times at 18 or 19 when you are just discovering the world and beginning to see it for what it really is – before you’re too jaded to be excited, and whilst you’re still naive enough to think you can make a difference to the world. I became an even more staunch vegetarian and shared his disgust for Thatcher.
He was quiet in most ways – like he let me do the talking – but then when he would talk – it was always interesting. I could listen to this guy for ever. I don’t know how we got to talking about it, but he said I would always be a fosterer, picking up the waifs and strays, and never have anything of my own. He was right. I don’t know how he knew that. He told me I was rare in that I wasn’t afraid to let go – and that was what he liked about me the most. I bleached his hair in the bathroom – long, blonde curls. I wore his cut-off jeans and he wore my t-shirts. He pierced my ears again. He was the utterly perfect Yang to my Yin. Him: tanned, blonde and exotic – a listener; me: pale, jet black hair and unusual – a talker. But it wasn’t always so clear cut. He was quiet and thoughtful in ways that most men I knew were not. He was soft and poetic, yet he could shift ten tonnes of shit on a building site. He was intelligent beyond words, yet he’d never been to school. He was an amazing cyclist, yet you would not have pegged him as an athlete. He taught me Spanish and I introduced him to Shakespeare.
I got my first tattoo because of him. With Jewels, it had to mean something, like a totem of yourself, an emblem. It was something I’d not really thought about before. Everyone I knew with tattoos had the standard skulls or hearts or crosses. I found Louis Malloy – oh he of television fame – and asked him to design me a Pegasus. It cost me £80 and took five hours. Nobody else had ink like it. That was my little tribute to Jewels, in a way. It’s funny how it still means as much to me now as it did then. I’m just as interested in mythology. It has an appeal to me I can’t explain. Perhaps it’s the story in me. And Pegasus meant and means many things to me – not least the stars I know I can look up to and know he sees too, wherever in the world he is. Legend has it he sprang from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa – she who would turn men to stone, and also the symbol of Virago books – a publisher always close to my heart. He’s a symbol of poetry, of inspiration – having created Hippocrene, source of the fountain Helicon – life blood of the Muses. A creature only ever tamed by one man. And perhaps not tamed as such – more of a willing partner. It’s also not far from my Sagittarian symbol – the half-man half-horse. It means a lot – that idea of the freed spirit, of inspiration, of poetry and mythology
I love the fact that we shared letters and poems and bits of things from books. I’ve still got all his letters. He used to post me letters in re-used envelopes and I ended up with an odd assortment of envelopes all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, when he was back in Venezuela, he would send me postcards and I like to think every urge I got to travel came from him too.
We went many places together, and I’m sad to say we lost touch in about 1997 – ish. Days before internet addresses and facebook. I wish I still knew him. He never was surprised by anything I was or became or said. I learned a lot from him. He took me to places I never knew existed and I learned never to be afraid of anything. He taught me how to see the beauty in life as well as understand its problems. No man in the world was ever so delighted to see an orchid or a bird, and yet still so angry about society and social injustice.
I like to think he’d love what I’m doing now – not that I ever sought his approval, or he sought mine. He once wrote ‘Cities interest me not’ and told me that the beauty of a hummingbird is that whilst it takes, it gives life. He said it does so with grace and without abuse. It shares freely but takes only what it needs. He said that should be our purpose on the planet. Wise words.
But last night, a series of events began to spill out from Tottenham and Brixton once again made it back into my consciousness. They call it ‘rioting’. It’s not. It’s looting, I guess. The French call it pillaging – and it’s that more than anything. Robbing in the aftermath of an event. Opportunism. But looting is too political a word for what is happening. A man is shot by the police. A protest takes place. At some point, it moved from being political to being mercenary. This is no Notting Hill. This isn’t Brixton 1981. At the time, there was a recession – a time not unlike this one. There was high unemployment and institutional racism was endemic. The police were a racist, homophobic bunch of thugs as opposed to today’s forces, stymied by political correctness, afraid to mention skin colour even when it’s the fastest way to identify someone. Most of Brixton was a huge slum. It was still like that in 1990 when I first went there.
Not unlike the events of the weekend in Tottenham, there was a flashpoint in which police brutality was suspected – which acted as a trigger for further violence. Brixton 1985. Broadwater Farm 1985. Toxteth 1981. Handsworth 1981. The list goes on. Unemployment. Race issues. A flashpoint. A trigger. A riot.
Part of me – the radical bookshop me – would want to blame it on politics and poverty and heavy-handed policing. Part of me wants to see it as something akin to the Revolution in France – the poor majority uprising. But then the internet and modern technology lays everything out to bear in lurid detail. And then you can see your own truths – make of it what you will.
So I saw rioters ‘queuing’ (how orderly!) to get in JD sports in Tottenham and coming out with bags. In fact some people brought suitcases to fill. This is so far removed from race riots or social unrest that I want to go and slap these people. It’s not about destruction, but about filling your pockets. It’s not about chaos and anarchy and ‘fuck the police’ – it’s about getting some nice Adidas trainers. Other shops looted include H&M and Carphone Warehouse. Get yourself some nice gear for free. I despise this. In many way, real rioters, filled with anger and a need to get it out of their system have at least something to stand for. Their values, if not their behaviour, are understandable. Their need to speak out, if not through the ‘right’ channels, is obvious. I get that. What’s happening in Syria, in Libya, in Egypt, in Tunisia… I don’t want to tar these ‘riots’ with the same brush.
For what I saw in that clip about JD Sports was an ugly reality about England. People without the balls to break in themselves. People with no political anger, no sense of self-righteousness. People who are like those who steal the spoils of war. And that disgusts me to see. Opportunist scavengers. They stand for nothing except a short-cut to selfishness. This isn’t about anger, it’s about greed.
And what’s most horrible is knowing that Brixton, with its strong sense of self and community – a place in which the police were outsiders – is once again under attack. This home of mine for a little while in my life, this place in which I learned more in weeks than I did in school, this is at the mercy of these opportunist scavengers, picking over the bones of other people’s battles. The media are little better.
The trouble is that I looked at the streets of Tottenham and Wood Green and Brixton – unrecognisable from the Brixton I once knew. The old flat on Effra Parade is now neat apartments that sell for a quarter of a million. There’s a M&S and Curry’s and all kinds of mainstream shops. And a huge part of me thinks where there’s shops, there’s money. There’s jobs for the people around. Someone has to work there. And if the customers are only migrant, transient, coming from other places, well the money is going to local businesses and even if they stop at M&S to buy a sandwich, well, they might nip into the local fag shop and buy a can of coke or pay to park – all of which is in some small way paying back to the local community. But you can’t tell me all these businesses have shops without clients. Look how quickly Bury town centre closed up shop when everything moved. A part of it died within a year. So don’t tell me it’s about poverty. It can’t be. JD sports don’t stick a shop in Tottenham if it isn’t going to make money. That’s life. And whilst their profits will go to national companies and national landlords, they’ll still be paying some local taxes as well as employing locals.
Some have said it’s all about Mark Duggan – the man shot dead in Tottenham – but his own family have asked for these riots not to be connected to him. I can’t decide if it’s in part an uprising waiting to happen (at least the first bits in Tottenham) or if it’s entirely mercenary – just an excuse to lash out thinking because you’re in a crowd, you won’t get caught or punished. I feel for the communities torn apart by mindless acts that are nothing to do with the real community there. It’s as if a whole load of Serbians flew into Syria just to kick off and make trouble.
The papers are quick to cast the blame at socialism or conservatism. It’s either Labour’s fault or it’s the Con-Lib’s fault. What gets me is that there’s no personal accountability any more. At some point along the line, it became acceptable to blame politics, as if politics is in some way divorced from the people it represents, turning us into mindless automatons who are not able to control our own destiny.
I do wonder though, what with the falling stock markets and ‘turmoil’ in the financial world that emerged in the later parts of last week, if this is connected in any way. No-one in Tottenham will say their behaviour is as a result of downgraded economies in the world – and yet it does make me wonder.
And it all brings me back to the choice of song to go with this piece – a song Jewels quoted in a letter I’m just re-reading. Apt that the first thing I read should be by a punk band called Conflict, in light of what’s happened.
“Emotions, if used responsibly, will light the spark for all to see: the start of our mass unity”