This one's a little bit topical, although recent public events have changed this topic somewhat. I've had it in mind to give this one up to the blog for a while. This is a fiction made from real elements run up together although the final scene is in essence true. Picture from here.
Years ago, back when I had more time than I wanted, I was given a little lesson about public violence from a guy called Ravi.
I had been asked to provide some physical protection. A group of Asian students and their lecturers organised an afternoon demonstration outside the French embassy, protesting the republic’s ban on religious symbols, directed primarily at Muslim women’s headdresses. It’s a noble cause but I wouldn’t have attended but for one other thing. The English Defence League said they would counter this demonstration.
These days EDL might mean Early Dawn Light or English Disco Lovers but back then it meant the English Defence League, an alliance of neo-nazis, football firms and moneymen. They had a brief rise. Their idea was to bring back the far-right street marches of the sixties and seventies, use old school violence to win control of the streets and through that the national political debate.
I had a call in the morning. Someone was clearly shaking the phone tree quite hard because my friend Fergus was on the other end:
“We need to just be there, you know, protect this demonstration… I wouldn’t ask but, well, they're desperate.”
They must have been. Fergus had already been roped in. He was a slip of a ma, but he had some facility time that day and now he was calling on me.
“So there’s no one, none of the RMT boys are around?”
No. They were really desperate. Fergus convinced me to come though.
“It’s not about being hard” he said. “That’s the point. We do it because we’re not gimlet-eyed street fighter.”
He emphasised that point, repeating it several times, slowly winning me over with the nobility of the thing. It’s the kind of simple, moral imperative that can only really work on a good friend. But I still had a question:
“Do you think they’ll actually turn up?”
“Who knows, mate, who knows…? Are you in…?”
I was in. But there was something else I had to do first.
There was a friend of mine in town. Ravi his name was. He was a rare beast in that I didn’t want him as a friend, not so much because of anything he did to me. Ravi never did me wrong. He was a loose cannon though, a serious madman, but I had, apparently, saved his life.
Ravi was a gangster, a goon and a drunk who lived and plied his opaque trade in Cardiff. He wasn’t particularly left wing, but he loved lefties. Ugandan Asian, he came to Britain aged ten, with his family, into a society under the thrall of Enoch Powell and the National Front. But young Ravinder didn’t spend his life dodging skinheads. He loved lumping white power idiots and loved anybody who liked the idea as well.
I still don’t quite know what he did for a living. I think he was a bouncer for some years. He said he ran a catering firm for a while. In some stories, it had to be sold to pay for a divorce. Ravi had one son, who I never met, but who I was told was now grown up, not much younger than me. He also said was a martial arts instructor and that he often drove around Cardiff with a sawn-off shotgun in his car boot. If that sounds implausible it may well be because his whole life was implausible. He would remind anyone he knew: “I am a law abiding citizen. No convictions.” He’d usually add something like: “The police can’t touch me. They can’t even get near my fucking house” and laugh.
The day before
The day before the call from Fergus I had Ravi had been on the phone. He had come to London on a business trip but had been forced to cancel said appointment after:
“This fucker, right, this yuppie bastard… I was running for the train, see? Everybody was. I had me best suit on, best shoes and everything and this fucker, right, this yuppie bastard, treads on the back of my shoe, my best shoes mind they were, and it goes flying, down under the train onto the tracks. I couldn’t reach for it. I would have been a fool to try, so I did the next best thing…?”
My silence begged the answer.
“I was looking around, like I was seriously pissed off, you understand? I looked around and I saw who it was because he was the one about to say ‘sorry mate.’ So I turned round and punched him, quick one in the gut and hopped on before the doors closed. Ha...!”
“Really…?” I was actually intrigued. “So you’re not worried?”
“About what?” asked Ravi.
“Well, witnesses… CCTV…?”
“You forget, mate, I used to be a security guard” said Ravi (another job). “Most CCTV, right, you can’t tell shit from shoe polish. It was over in a flash, ha...! So uh…” He paused. “Anyway... do you know if there’s a place I can crash for the weekend and also where can I get some good shoes from?”
Business trip indeed; even so I said I was sorry but I didn’t know about spare sofas or rooms, just in case the story was true. I suggested a few good shoe shops and Ravi was very grateful, like he’d never set foot on a high street before.
“No worries. I still owe you from That Time.”
That Time or Ravi and the Racist Hippie
That Time being when we were at a squat party in Russell Square (an anarchist group had taken over a, then abandoned, block belonging to the University of London). It was summer. A group of friends decamped round the corner, between the Institute and SOAS by the statue of Buddha that’s not actually a statue of Buddha. A young ginger dreadlocked fellow had insinuated into our company. He seemed friendly enough but, out of the blue, he dropped the P-Bomb. Everybody heard it. I don’t have a clue why he did it. There were a few winces and groans while people tried to size up whether and how to take this guy on. Then he repeated the same phrase, again. Ravi, who was wildly drunk at this point, solved our vacillations for us by tearing after him, roaring:
“I fucking do you, you pasty c[word]!” which only added to the indecision. Now it was oppressive language versus oppressive language.
“Say that again…! Say it again…!”
The Hippie took off, at top speed but he was no match for Ravi’s fury. I followed as best I could. I realised there was something bigger at stake. Round the corner was the regular police stakeout. Every night, throughout the squat, there were always two cars right outside, cops taking furtive notes and filming every now and then. If Ravi caught the Hippie they would see everything.
“Rav…!” I yelled. “Stop…! Dave’s just around the corner…!” Dave was our super-silly code word for the police, a relic from the days of flyposting. He’d almost caught the Racist Hippie as well. Ravi stopped, slowly, turned and walked back. He said:
“You’re right, mate. We need to move on…” He took a deep breath. It sunk in. He looked very sober now. “Let’s go see what’s happening in Charlotte Street.”
Back to the phone call
“No worries” Ravi said. He always meant it as well. “I might see you around though, yeah…?” I said yes, meaning no but, with that we both hung up. Twenty-four hours later I changed my mind. Now I really could do with him being around.
Of course he agreed to come along.
Outside the French embassy
It was a warm spring day. I was late, ten minutes or so. I thought the demo would be directly opposite the embassy, but no. I soon realised there was a small crowd on the corner of William Street and Knightsbridge, orbiting around a little undecorated table set up by a potted tree. The table was supporting piles of leaflets and a stack of placards. Everyone else who was going to be there was there. There were maybe ten or so FE students, some university socialists, maybe ten, and three lecturers. I saw Fergus pacing up and down. Ravi was nearby chatting to a small group of Asian lads in designer gear. Perhaps he’d brought them along. There were some TU members on days off/facility time and a few of the professional (so to speak) anti-fascist milieu too, like Jacob, a journalist and Lebanese ex-Falangist, Kim a teacher and adrenaline junkie from Walthamstow who trod a fine line coming to events like these, and Saul, a professional leftie, former roadie to a well-known punk band who was allegedly present at the White Man in Hammersmith Palais incident.
The event itself was dull, very little mixing of groups. I mostly hung out with Fergus, talking shop and occasionally 'seeing' the EDL, all false alarms. Ravi though moved between us all, completely at ease.
“Bring them on” he said to me. “I’m not afraid of a load of spotty boys and their fat dads.”
There were a few megaphone speeches, mostly inaudible, and some organised chanting, to keep people pepped up. The leaflets and placards were mostly for decoration. There was little point trying to appeal to the locals.
Time passed and nothing happened. The organisers were about to pack up when I saw a group of young-looking people, plainly not Sloanies, striding up Knightsbridge toward us from the direction of the tube station. I said to Fergus:
“Is that them?”
The hooting chants answered my question. It was them. There was a ripple of adrenaline. I could feel it. There they were, in plain sight, about a dozen EDL. We formed a line as best we could to stop them from reaching the students, determined but silent, bracing ourselves. Then, to my immediate horror, I heard the chants coming from another direction. I turned to see another group of EDL, another twelve or so, advancing down William Street. I backed off, a step or two, trying to find where the students were, partly because it was no good blocking the EDL at one angle but letting them in at another but partly also because it is hard to hold the line when someone is coming and they are coming for you.
“It’s not about being hard… We do it because we’re not gimlet-eyed street fighters.”
This was it, I could see, whatever it was going to be. Things flashed through my mind. I wasn’t scared any more now that I was trying to size up what I could do. There would be a fight of some kind. What could I do with balsa wood placard sticks in a ruck? They continued to advance on both sides chanting and puffing themselves up. I heard one of them yell at the FE students:
“You’re all traitors!”
Which made me immediately think, what to France? I wish I’d said it back but the important thing was about to happen.
The EDL closed in on us until they were about six feet away on either side then, suddenly, they stopped. I saw they were not confident. They had been puffing themselves up, trying to psyche themselves into doing something that they weren’t prepared to do. I looked at them. They were spotty boys, young, really young, not street fighters let alone Aryan supermen. Face to face with the EDL we seemed to get our confidence again. We started chanting, matching them for noise, if not drowning them out. One woman, a trade union member tried to poke one boy with a PCS flag on a cane. The young man grabbed the flag, whipped it off then snapped the cane over his head with a comical roar, but that was all he did.
They choked. They were not prepared to follow through on their threats. They were not prepared because the nature of violence has changed. Back in the day street violence was endemic because it was realistic. CCTV has changed things less because of what it does than what it does to us. Even if we are not being watched we feel like we are being watched. If you want to indulge in public violence you must assume sooner or later to go to prison. We didn’t want trouble and neither did the EDL, at least the members that turned up didn’t.
Before the police arrived however Ravi, the exception to every rule, cool and casual, hiding in plain sight, snuck up to one of the EDL members, another spotty boy, and give him a swift, expert kick in the balls before retreating back to our side, as casual as before.