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Hate Thy Neighbour – Racism in the 1970s

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When I was nine years old my parents did something to me that I would never dream of doing to a child. I know this because I was talking to my wife about this over the weekend and we both agreed about the damage that it can cause. What they did was move me away from my school in Burnley, Lancashire, to another school in Bristol, Avon (as the county was called in those days).

No big deal. People move house all the time. But while there was certainly no malice involved on their part, no evil intent, the 200 miles or so of separation had cataclysmic consequences for me. All at once my cosy life in a small but friendly Northern working class town was over. I had lost my place. I was suddenly dislocated. Everything about my life was different in every way. And the relocation gave me my first taste of what it was like to suffer racism, or rather its distant cousin ‘regionalism’.

The journey from North to South marked me as something outside the norm. Sure I looked the same as my new schoolmates: I was and remain whiter than white in complexion, however much I lie on the beach. However, the moment I opened my mouth I was a marked man. My deep northern accent presented a huge contrast to the west country Bristolian dialect sported by practically everyone I came into contact with. It marked me as an outsider. I was different to almost everybody else in school. And my schoolmates inevitably reacted to this difference in a variety of ways.

Some seemed not to notice it and treated me no differently to anybody else. Others saw it as an opportunity to improve their standing in the school at the expense of my own. And a small minority saw it as a chance to bully somebody who wasn’t the same as them. But I was a relatively hardly child; in an even battle I could usually give a good account of myself. Black eyes and bruises became a regular part of my school uniform; and they gained the approval of my father, who saw them as a badge of honour. When I was outgunned I simply used my wiles – pretending to be unconscious on the floor, for example, when a much larger boy once attacked me.

It didn’t help that I went to two other schools in Bristol (thus I was put through the thoroughly harrowing process of relocation three separate times) before eventually settling in a large comprehensive with probably a 3:1 ratio of white school kids to black. It was there that I encountered others who were also outsiders. Because that’s what they were. Black people were outsiders: objects of ridicule, objects of fear and misunderstanding. And subjects of all the sorts of things that I as an outsider had been experiencing. It was small wonder that they tended to keep to their own groups.

This is was in the 1970s. And if you think we’ve got it bad now you’ve only got to take a look at some of the TV programmes that were around at the time and how black people were depicted in them.

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To name but a handful there was ‘The Black And White Minstral Show’, in which white people ‘blacked up’ and sang to white audiences (I remember that one show actually had white people ‘blacked up’ wearing kilts and singing in pigeon Chinese while pinching their eyes to depict Chinese eyes!). There was ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ which celebrated British colonialism by simultaneously attacking anybody who happened not to be born in England (the Scots, Welsh and Irish were also fair game) or was homosexual (woe betide you if you were gay in that era).

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There was ‘The Comedians’, in which an ugly array of working class ‘comedians’ took savage pot shots at black people, at Asian people, at gay people, at fat people, at women; in fact, anybody who wasn’t a working class ‘comedian’.

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Last but not least there was ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, in which a black couple move next door to a white couple and are subjected to untold jibes about cooking pots, tribal dancing and their inherent laziness while routinely being called ‘nig-nog’ and ‘Sambo’ by their smug, beer swilling, pot-bellied neighbour. Even in those days it was utterly amazing that such a program could be shown on mainstream TV. Even more incredible was the fact that some 7 million viewers regularly tuned into to watch this racist, reactionary celluloid disgrace. (In an attempt to redress the balance, the black couple got the chance to call their neighbours ‘white honkies’.)

No small surprise then that is this climate of institutionalised racism trouble was not always far away in the playground. Fights between groups of black and white boys were a regular occurrence. In the home, too, racism was commonplace. Whenever she was looking for someone to blame for anything at all, large or small, my mother had no problem at all pointing the finger at ‘those coons’ as she called them (like many people she would deny it these days). While my father played it another way, boasting about the fact that he drank in the pub with a number of black people and that ‘there’s not a lot of difference really’. Apparently some of his best friends were black.

Yet from all this I somehow managed to emerge relatively liberal. Not politically I hasten to say, but ethically. And I think it was all down to the fact that like many of the racial minorities at my school (West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese) I knew what it was like to be different. Even though my difference was in only in the way that I spoke it was enough to set me apart from the majority. And that’s often enough.

Because isn’t it true that we live in a world of racism? That it’s hard-wired into our very essence? I’m always fond of pointing out that our sense of tribalism is so deeply ingrained that if you walk down the street in North London wearing white on a Saturday afternoon you’re quite likely to get a smack from somebody wearing red. And it was the same in Bristol all those years ago when I was a kid: if you wore blue on a Saturday you were at war with those who wore red.

And this is why my wife and I we are staying put. We could easily put our London flat up for sale and get six or seven bedrooms in Kent in return. But we both understand the potential damage this could cause to our daughter, who is at a crucial stage in her development. Because to this day that move from North to South all those years ago still leaves me an outsider.

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Five Star Treatment – Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert

Originally posted on Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life:

five-star2Today a book that has received rave reviews on a number of sites.  Johnny Nothing is the latest book from best-selling author Ian Probert.

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About the Book

WARNING: This book will seriously damage your funny bone. The poorest boy in school has just inherited £1 million. But there is a catch: If he can hold on to his cash for a whole year he will earn ten times that amount. Enter Felicity MacKenzie, the ugliest, sweatiest, vilest, cruelest, hairiest mother in the western world. When she steals her son’s money and goes on the spending spree to end all spending sprees it seems that Johnny Nothing will stay poor forever. However, Johnny has a plan – he will imprison his parents and force them to do homework and go to bed early as punishment. Join Johnny Nothing, Bill and Ben the bouncer men, Ebenezer Dark and a cast of literally…

View original 995 more words

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Reading Johnny Nothing to the kids.

The last time that I did a public reading of any of my work was way back in 1998. It’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Nerves aside, it’s tremendous fun and really does put you face to face with your readers.

Last Wednesday I undertook a short tour of primary schools in Cambridgeshire. Apart from appalling the odd headmaster I can report that things went swimmingly. It was really enjoyable, so much so that I’m doing it again in London tomorrow. Here’s a brief excerpt:

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My Gals Call Me Sweet Dick

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Even though I don’t necessarily disagree with Oscar Wilde, who said that we write ‘to impress the ladies’, I can claim with a fair amount of honesty to have never written anything with the sole intention of bigging myself up. CVs accepted.

What follows is a particularly shameful episode from my past. I won’t bore you with the details but in a nutshell the year was 1989 and I’d just become the most unlikeliest boxing correspondent for that truly awful newspaper The Sunday Sport.

I can’t say I was particularly proud at the time to be employed by them but I’d spent the last three years penniless and living in a London squat. I needed the money badly. But even so I wasn’t aware just how far I was prepared to go to keep the job. To this day I am ashamed that I allowed myself to be manipulated in the way that I did. There’s no excuse really. At 28 I was certainly old enough to know better.

See what you think in the excerpt from my book 1999 Rope Burns

Betrayal

At ten o’clock on the morning of 7 March 1989, wearing the first suit I had ever purchased in my life, a dark blue polyester effort which had cost the princely sum of £30 and looked like it could well have numbered Norman Wisdom among its former owners, I finally began my new career as the boxing correspondent of the Sunday Sport. My responsibility was to provide boxing-related features of an appropriate length and atheistic quality to nestle comfortably between advertisements for 0898 numbers, baldness remedies and battery operated sexual implements that the Sunday Sport’s proprietor, one David Sullivan, elected to adorn his newspaper with.

Sullivan, a small man who liked to dress in white, endowing him with the appearance of a kind of miniature Marty from Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, had built an empire on soiled tissue paper. He had once been the lover of the late Mary Millington who, before her untimely death in 1979, had starred in a number of soft porn flicks, including the semi-legendary Deep Throat. Whilst still at university Sullivan had allegedly served notice of his entrepreneurial tendencies by starting a mail order business which supplied pornographic bubblegum cards to anyone with a taste for such exotica. Within a decade he had become one of the richest men in the country.

Sullivan’s success owed little to quality, the appeal of his publications was distinctly below waist level. Almost single-handedly he had been responsible for taking away the soft focus and airbrushing of traditional American sex magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse and replacing their idealised view of womanhood with images of a decidedly meatier nature. If you bought a copy of one of Sullivan’s soft-porn mags the term ‘centre spread’ had an entirely different meaning to the one used by its American counterparts.

Sullivan was also a boxing fan and liked to entertain top fighters and managers among the elegant marble columns and lush white interiors of his airport-sized country mansion. Accompanied by a fanfare of naked flesh, he had launched the Sunday Sport in the mid-eighties but despite the diet of oversized breasts and celebrity exposés that the paper served up for its readers, Sullivan had seen circulation figures dwindle until the Sport’s editor, one 28-year-old Drew Robertson, had hit upon the idea of following the example set by America’s National Enquirer. Headlines such as: ‘WORLD WAR II BOMBER FOUND ON MOON’, ‘KILLER PLANT STALKS QUEEN MUM’, and ‘GIRL CHOKES ON BLOWJOB’ soon provided the publication’s unlikely salvation and even went so far as to attract a more middle-class, trendier readership who, instead of discreetly concealing the newspaper between the pages of the Sunday Times when they picked it up at the newsagents, could now reply ‘Because it’s a laugh, isn’t it?’ when asked why they were carrying a newspaper that contained an average of six naked breasts per page (currently the average ‘nipple count’ is around 60 per issue).

Now David Sullivan was my employer, and although I very much doubt that he even knew who I was, along with boxing he was indirectly responsible for the quite unprecedented transformation in my recent fortunes. For the first time in years I now had a steady job with a regular income. All of a sudden I could afford to do things that only few months ago would have been quite beyond my scope; simple things – things that everyone takes for granted like going to the cinema or eating at a restaurant, taking the occasional cab ride, buying clothes. It was like a whole new universe had been opened up to me; one, it has to be said, that was surprisingly easy to grow accustomed to. However, I was soon to discover that holding down the position at The Sport held its own particular kind of price.

Upon entering the newspaper’s offices, which were close to the Old Street tube station in North London, I was immediately hit by that deep sense of disappointment which often grips visitors to the Sunday Sport’s offices when they realise that the reception desk is not manned – or womanned – by a possé of semi-naked busty blondes ready to ‘do it five times a night’ with an assortment of textile magnates, politicians and grey-skinned extraterrestrials. In fact, the majority of my new colleagues would not have been out of place sitting in an accountant’s office. One or two even appeared to be asleep at their desks.

Soon I was introduced to my fellow reporters in the sports department and given a short lesson in the newspaper’s journalistic etiquette:

“At the Sunday Sport,” I was told by a Northern accent that was destined to become gratingly familiar to me, “we don’t use commas, we don’t use semi-colons, all our paragraphs are once sentence long, we use lots of exclamation marks and we like lots of capital letters.”

Or, in other words:

We DON’T use commas!

We DON’T use semi-colons!

All our PARAGRAPHS are one sentence long!

We use LOTS of exclamation marks!!!!!

AND we like lots of CAPITAL LETTERS!

(In reality, however, working as a reporter at the Sport required no journalistic ability whatsoever; the real bulk of the writing came from the subs’ desk, who took whatever they were presented with and magically transformed it into Sportesque whether you liked it or not. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the article that appeared in the newspaper on Sunday morning with your by-line beneath it bore little or no resemblance to the copy you had originally supplied.)

The owner of the Northern accent was called Tony Livesey. Strangely enough, he also hailed from Burnley and, like myself, had moved to London looking for work a few years earlier. At twenty-four-years-of-age his ambition was matched only by his aggressive pursuit of anything that remotely resembled a story. Although he was by no means an expert on sport he was employed by the newspaper as its sports editor; he was in charge of a team of three full-time reporters and a network of freelancers that, as well as the great Bobby Moore, included a number of retired footballers such as Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles. Livesey, as they say, drank with the right people and ate with the right people. By the time he was thirty he would be editing a national newspaper; two years later he would be at the helm of The Sunday Sport’s daily incarnation, before going on to minor celebrity status with a surprisingly accomplished appearance as panellist on the BBC 2 satirical quiz show Have I got news for you?

“What’s happenin’ in boxing this week?” was the first question that the Northern Accent asked me that morning when we had finished my Sunday Sport grammar lesson.

“Nothing much, really,” I shrugged, it being a relatively quiet week in the world of boxing – no major fights, no minor controversies, no real stories floating about on which I could cut my ‘journalistic’ teeth. “There’s a heavyweight named Derrick Williams fighting soon but that’s about it.”

“What’s he like?”

“He’s not bad,” I replied, “probably good enough to fight for the British title one day.”

“Give him a ring, then,” said The Northern Accent. “See if you can get him to say something interesting.”

Before starting at the newspaper I had been advised to purchase a small portable tape recorder and a sucker microphone that could be used to record telephone conversations. This instrument was fairly essential: not only was it far easier than trying to write down what the subject of your interview was saying, it also acted as a fail-safe in the not-uncommon event of the newspaper being sued by the subject of your interview. Feeling surprisingly professional, I took out my new toy and prepared to record my first ever interview with a boxer for the Sunday Sport. I called Williams’ number and a sleepy voice with just a hint of Jamaican answered.

Derrick “Sweet D” Williams lived in a council flat in Hackney; it had been Michael Watson and Eric Seccombe who had first introduced me to him on a visit to the Carnaby Street Gym, where he was sparring somewhat unsatisfactorily with a fighter named Proud Kilimanjaro. Since then I had bumped into Williams a couple of times at fights and was on nodding terms with him. He was an impressive physical specimen: standing some 6’4” tall and weighing over fifteen stone; in a dark alleyway he would definitely be one to avoid. He was, however, largely ignored by the public and, though still at a relatively early stage in his career, had already lost a fight to a nobody. Although he would eventually hold the European heavyweight title for a brief period in 1991 before losing it to Lennox Lewis, as a prospect Williams was perceived by those in the know as not so much hot as mildly lukewarm. Despite appearances, however, he was a very gentle man, politely spoken and friendly to anyone that came near him. However, so few reporters had bothered to talk to him that he immediately recognised my voice.

“Hi, Derrick,” I called down the telephone. “How’s the preparation for your next fight going?”

“Good,” he replied. “Yeah – good.”

“Listen, Derrick the Sunday Sport want to do a feature on you for Sunday’s paper – would you mind if I asked a few questions?”

“Not – go ahead.”

“Okay – let’s start by asking you the name of your next opponent?”

“I dunno, my manager hasn’t told me his name yet.”

“Oh, right. What about after this fight – who are you looking to fight in the future? Mason? Bruno?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna be fighting those guys sooner or later.”

“Do you think that you could beat them?”

“Yeah – I’ll beat anybody that they put in front of me. Mason… Bruno…”

“What about Mike Tyson?”

“Yeah, I could beat Tyson. No problem.”

This line of questioning continued unabated for several minutes. Until it began to dawn on me that unlike some fighters, who were able to make going to the bathroom sound like a some kind of superhuman feat, it was not within Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams’ powers to say anything that might come across as even mildly interesting on the printed page. He was not a natural self-promoter in the way that Naseem Hamed is today, nor did he have the deep, cloying voice that was the trademark of housewives’ favourite Frank Bruno. I was beginning to understand why most reporters had steered clear of him and gone off in search of more compelling quarry. It was, however, my first day in a new job and, naturally, I wanted to come up with something that would impress my employers. In desperation I tried another approach: I would simply keep him talking, make him relax: get him to speak about anything in the hope that something vaguely printable might emerge. “What about fans?” I asked. “Do you have a large following?”

“Yeah,” answered Williams, suddenly growing more animated. “I have hundreds of fans – I get girls queuing up outside the dressing room after my fights.”

This apparently innocent comment, I was soon to learn, was to be a BIG mistake for Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams and myself in more ways than one.

***

“What de say?” said the Northern Accent when I finally got off the ‘phone.

“Not a lot, I’m afraid,” I replied, deciding that honestly was the best policy. “He doesn’t know who he’s fighting next and didn’t have anything remotely interesting to say.”

The Northern Accent frowned; his nostrils flared and he eyed me with a look of deep suspicion. “Do us a favour, will you?” he announced. “Type out what he said and let us have a look at it.”

With a shrug I followed my instructions and turned my attention to the battered old manual typewriter that sat gathering dust at my newly-appointed desk. About twenty minutes later I handed a transcript of my interview with Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams to The Northern Accent.

It was not long before I felt an urgent tapping at my shoulder and hot breath on my neck.

“This stuff is dynamite!” exclaimed The Northern Accent, visibly shaking with excitement. “You’ve got to get him on the phone again!”

I cannot really recall what my exact response to this comment was as I tried to find some means of comprehending my sports editor’s words. Was I really so naive? Was I missing something? How could the Northern Accent possibly conclude that there might be anything remotely exciting in my nondescript interview with Derrick Williams? Surely all I had produced was just a bunch of banal questions accompanied by equally banal answers. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for my new career.

The Northern Accent drew closer to me and spoke again. This time his voice was almost a whisper. “Ask him if he ever sleeps with any of his fans,” he said conspiratorially.

I looked at my watch. It was 11.15 am. I had been working in my new job for just seventy-five minutes and already here I was faced with my first moral dilemma. “I can’t do that,” I stuttered awkwardly.

“Why not?” asked the Northern Accent.

“Because it’s…” I searched my mind and tried to procure an answer to this question. “Because it’s got nothing to do with boxing,” I said blandly.

“What do you mean it’s got nothing to do with boxing? Of course its about boxing. It’s boxing news isn’t it?”

I quickly concluded that there were two ways in which I could react to this statement. I could do what the Northern Accent demanded, get back on the phone and ask Williams about his sexual habits, or I could stand up in front of the whole office and tell my sports editor to go fuck himself. There is little doubt that the latter reaction would have made me feel a whole lot better about myself, but images of North London squats and drink-crazed wrecking sessions were still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t ready to return to that just yet and so, to my eternal shame, I did the dishonourable thing. Yet even as I was picking up the phone and pressing redial, my mind was already seeking hasty justifications for my forthcoming actions. In common with every journalist that has ever picked up a notebook I was looking for a way to lie: except on this occasion the person I would be lying to was myself. However, before I could find the excuse that would exonerate my future sins the voice of Derrick ‘Sweet D” Williams could be heard once more.

“Yeah. Hello,” he said.

“Hi Derrick – it’s Ian,” I declared jauntily.

“Hello again.”

“Listen Derrick, we’ve been talking in the office about the piece I’m doing about you and I need to ask a few more questions.”

“No problem,” replied the boxer, obviously feeling flattered that a boxing writer working on a national newspaper had called him twice in one morning.

“It’s that bit you mentioned about your fans,” I continued.

“What about them?” asked Derrick.

“You did say that most of them were female?”

“Yeah – that’s right.”

“Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

“What sort of question?”

“It’s nothing really,” I lied. “It’s just that my sports editor would like to know if you ever end up in bed with any of your fans.”

“What’s he want to know that for?”

“Well, he just feels that our story on you would have more impact if we could tell everyone how popular you are.”

“Oh, right.”

“So do you?”

“What?”

“Ever sleep with any of your fans?”

“Yeah – now and then.”

It was not the kind of conversation that I’d anticipated holding in my new career, I could feel my face redden and the anxious silences that followed this staccato line of inquiry were even beginning to unsettle Derrick Williams. I decided to hang up as quickly as possible.

“Okay Derrick,” I said hastily. “I think I’ve got everything I need – good luck with your fight.”

I put the phone down and caught my breath; I stole a glance at my colleagues seated beside me: Kevin a large Scot who was responsible for putting the words on the football pages; Nich, a Charlie George lookalike who was a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades. I wondered if they were aware of what I had just done, I wondered if they even cared. How many times had they been forced to do something similar themselves.

“What de say?” said the Northern Accent as I slumped into my chair and attempted to regain some dignity. “Did you get him to say that he beds his fans?”

“Yes,” I said weakly. “I got him to say it.”

“Fantastic!” said the other man as a broad smile spread over his features. “Type out the quotes and let us see them.”

Once again I did as instructed and returned to my typewriter and the bottle of Tippex that stood beside it. From the corner of my eye I could see that one of the reporters on the newsdesk was now slumped over his typewriter, snoring heavily.

It was over an hour before I saw the Northern Accent again. This time he made his way to my desk holding the transcript of my second interview with Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams; there was a heavy frown on his face.

“I’ve been talking to Drew,” he explained. “We both think these quotes aren’t bad but they’re just not good enough to go really big on.”

“But I got him to say that he sleeps with his fans,” I spluttered. “Surely that’s enough?”

“Not quite,” said the Northern Accent. “We want you to call him back and ask him if they ever suck his dick.”

For a moment I thought I’d misheard The Northern Accent. By the tone of his voice he could have been telling me to call Williams back and ask him if he ever flossed his teeth. He spoke the sentence like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“You’re kidding!” was my numbed response.

The other man shook his head slowly. “No, I’m not kidding,” he said, “go on – give him a ring and ask him.”

“I can’t do that!” I protested.

“Why not?” said The Northern Accent.

“I can’t do that!” I repeated stubbornly, hunching my shoulders. “I just can’t.”

“Course, you can – its not going to do any harm is it?”

“But what has it got to do with boxing?”

“It’s a story innit? Everything’s a story.”

One more I considered the situation and those same two options immediately sprang to mind: Stay or go. Stay or go. Should I stay or should I go? I knew what the moral thing to do was but I had already discovered my price: it had taken less than a morning at the Sunday Sport for me to realise that I wanted the job – in particular, the salary that came with it – much more than I valued any principles I’d imagined I possessed. I rang Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams for the third time.

“Another question for you, Derrick, I’m afraid,” I said nervously.

“Yeah. What?”

I cleared my throat: “Remember when you told me that you occasionally slept with your fans?”

“Yeah.”

“Well the sports editor… Well, he wants me to ask you a bit of a personal question about them.”

There was a silence.

“Are you still there, Derrick?”

“Yeah.”

“He wants me to ask you if these girls, well, if these girls ever perform oral sex on you.”

“Oral sex?”

“Yes, you know… oral sex.”

“You mean blow jobs?”

“Well, yes – I suppose I do, actually.”

“Do they ever give me blow jobs? Is that what you’re asking?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Yeah, they do sometimes.”

Once again there was a silence as I tried to take in what had just happened. What did Derrick Williams think he was doing? Didn’t he realise that he’d just admitted to an almost complete stranger that he allowed his fans to perform fellatio on him after fights? Was he mad? Did he have some kind of death wish?

“Are you sure about that, Derrick?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, “they give me blow jobs.”

Then for a few moments Derrick Williams seemed to lose all sense of reason. His voice raised in pitch and his words became more urgent, there was no stopping the boxer as he proceeded to provide graphic detail about his amorous extra-curricular activities. Williams left nothing to the imagination; frequency, duration, size of – no aspect of his love-life remained untouched. When his soliloquy was finally over I felt that I knew more about Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams than I’d ever wanted to know about any man.

By the time that I had said my goodbyes and put the telephone down on Williams, the Northern Accent was already standing at my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his hands were shaking in anticipation. “What de say?” he asked again.

I looked down at my feet as I answered the question. “Don’t worry,” I mumbled sullenly. “He said what you wanted him to say.”

“Did he?” chortled the Northern Accent, his face lighting up like a magnesium flare. “Did he really say that his fans suck his dick?”

“Yes.”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“Let me hear the tape!”

I wound back the cassette and replayed the part of the conversation that the Northern Accent wanted to hear.

“My God!” exclaimed the other man. “He really did say it! Hold on a minute!”

With that The Northern Accent sailed off in the direction of the editor’s office and disappeared for about half an hour or so. When he finally returned he grasped my hand in his and shook it firmly. He was smiling as he told me: “Me and Drew think your story’s superb!” he gushed. “You’ve done a great day’s work!”

It was lunchtime and I’d seldom been so confused in my life.

***

After this episode things seemed to quieten down slightly. It was as if the whole event had been some kind of strange mind game; the more I thought about it the more I came to believe that The Northern Accent had actually been testing me, seeing how far I was prepared to go when pushed, attempting to mark his territory and establish who was boss. If this was indeed the case, I had proven to be a bit of a pushover; I had lost that particular battle of wills in unequivocal fashion – a first-round knockout. Still slightly dazed, I was left more or less alone and allowed to get on with the job that I assumed I’d be doing prior to beginning my term of duty at The Sport. I interviewed boxers, went to press conferences, visited gyms, went to more press conferences and attempted to write about boxing.

By the time that Sunday’s paper came out, the publication, I might add, which contained my inaugural efforts as a professional tabloid sports journalist, I had almost forgotten that awkward and bizarre Monday morning. However, when I turned to the back pages and found my story nestling amongst a menagerie of pink nipples, I was forced to take in a deep gulp of air. Set in 120pt lettering that dominated a whole page was the headline: ‘My gals call me Sweet Dick!”

Beneath a photograph of Derrick ‘Sweet D’ Williams was a picture of myself and the words: “Exclusive report from Ian ‘The Truth’ Probert”. Such was my debut as a boxing writer – it had taken me less than a week to become the lowest of gutter journalists.

***

Back in the office on Monday, it was not long before the telephone rang and I once again heard the voice of Derrick Williams. This was the part that I’d been particularly dreading. How was I possibly going to defend my betrayal? All that Williams had wanted was to see his name in the paper and I – along with a little help from The Northern Accent – had turned him into the laughing stock. He wasn’t going to be happy about it.

“Hi Derrick,” I said timidly, “did you see the paper on Sunday?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I thought it was a good article.”

Now, once again, it was my turn to be lost for words.

“Still there, Ian?” asked Derrick Williams.

“Yes. You mean you liked the article?”

“Yeah. It was good – all my friends liked it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Then Derrick Williams said something that was infinitely worse than any of the howls of outrage, unprintable curses or threats to my personal safety that I’d been expecting from him. “The only person that didn’t like it was my mum,” he muttered softly. “I showed it to her and she got all upset about it.”

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Stealing Sgt. Pepper

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One of the difficult things about having kids – in my case having one kid – is being forced to defend immorality. Specifically, my own immorality.

This morning while walking my soon-to-be-twelve-year-old-daughter to school I took it upon myself to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic. We were talking about music: and my sentimental tears were almost palpable as I took Sofia back to my youth and the days before cassette tapes (which she has never seen!) when for some reason my dad bought me a gigantic industrial reel-to-reel tape recorder. I think he bought it in the pub.

It was a magical thing. It enabled you to record sounds. You could speak into it and then replay what you had said. I felt privileged to own it.

The first thing I did with my new machine was to start borrowing my friends’ records and taping them. By taping them I mean holding the microphone up to my dad’s giant Russian radiogram’ speakers when everyone was out and not making a sound for the entirety of the record.

This was quite illegal, of course. But I was my daughter’s age at the time and had no concept at all of morality; well, morality in relation to stealing recorded music from a vinyl disk as opposed to stealing sweets from a concrete and glass shop (which I also did). I wasn’t a lawyer. It didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything wrong. When you played a record the sound simply drifted off into the ether. Didn’t it? And what could possibly be wrong with recording that sound as it made its journey into nothingness? In actual fact, wasn’t I merely giving that music the respect that it deserved?

As we walked I told Sofia of my friend Dean Hooper. And how I would sometimes walk home from school with him and call into his house. There, his brilliant mother, a Beatles fan who owned all of the LPs in original mono, would lend me records to tape. Thus in 1976, at the height of punk and fully nine years after its release, I finally got my hands on a copy of Sgt. Pepper. It was then, I told Sofia, that I first heard the epic and amazing ‘A Day In The Life’.

This was my cue to wax lyrical about that endless E-Major chord, the strange voices on the run-off groove that said ‘We’ll fuck you like a superman’ if you played the record backwards; the allegories and similes and metaphors that critics have droned on endlessly about ever since. But then Sofia interrupted my musings with a simple question. ‘Wasn’t that stealing?’ she asked.

Sofia is a bright spark. To digress, I received a letter from her school yesterday telling me that she was ‘gifted and talented’ in something called ‘Design Technology’. When I mentioned this to her she told me it was cooking. But back to the story:

I spluttered a bit and tried to think on my feet. Of course it was stealing, I said. But not really stealing. Oh, OK it was stealing. But not intentional stealing. And then I spluttered a bit more.

It wasn’t an argument that I was ever going to win. Because unlike myself at her age Sofia is well aware of the implications of illegally downloading music and movies. She knows that it is called pirating and is not to be done. She knows that it robs creative artists of their upkeep (and being an alleged ‘creative artist’ myself, I should perhaps know better!). And she knows that by recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (stupid title) I was robbing the Beatles of an honest income.

But, to quote Paul McCartney from a quite dreadful song on Venus And Mars ‘then it occurred to me. I couldn’t be bad…’. Because when I thought about it I’ve actually purchased Sgt. Pepper six times since I stole it all those years ago.

First there was the stereo version that I bought in a record shop in Gloucester Road in Bristol in 1977 for £3.60 (Yes, I really do have a memory like this!); then there was the second-hand mono copy that I bought in 1983 because mono is better, don’t you know? Then there was the CD copy that I purchased in 1987 because the sound was supposed to be ‘clearer’ (it wasn’t and it never will be because vinyl really is better than digital (it’s scientifically proven)). Then there was the copy that came with the Beatles remastered CD box set that I bought, what… four years ago? That was followed by the Beatles remastered Mono box set that I purchased soon afterwards (because mono is better, don’t you know?). Then there was the digital Beatles remastered box set on a USB card that I bought because it might become a collector’s item (it’s still sealed if you want to make an offer).

And I’m not mentioning the fact that I own a copy of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album – not the original 1971 album but another that came out in 1989 to accompany a film by that name. This also has ‘A Day In the Life’ on it, making it in all my seventh copy of that song. Quite ridiculous.

So I think, all in all, that the Beatles have had their money’s worth out of me. And that, I believe, opens up an interesting question: Would I have bought Sgt Pepper legitimately had I never have bootlegged the LP as a teenager?

The answer? Most probably yes. In fact, definitely yes. But I can think of lots of other records and indeed movies that I have later purchased after listening to or watching a pirate copy.

I bought them because I wanted to own them. I wanted to own them because they brought something into my life that a pirate copy did not.

5

Johnny Nothing intro trailer

In March I’m going to be doing some readings of Johnny Nothing in schools around the country. As such I’m putting together an interactive show. Instead of some old codger sitting there reading his book I want to get the kids involved. There will be jokes, silly voices, quizzes and slide shows.

Here’s a brief trailer that I’ve put together as an intro to the readings.

Incidentally, if you want a copy of Johnny Nothing for your kid, your husband, your wife, your bank manager or your postman it’s available here:

http://geni.us/3oR8

And here:

http://geni.us/eKm

And here in paperback:

And here if you want to steal it:

http://www.ebooks4free.us/142/book9781500670139.htm

11

Maisa My Dear – Chapter 02

I was so surprised by all the very nice comments I had yesterday after I upload an aborted project from 2011 that I’m putting up chapter two. I’m amazed that anyone would want to read this but – never one to turn down the chance of a bit of shameless self-promotion – here are links to my latest kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’ and some other stuff contained swear words that is probably not for kids.

Johnny Nothing

Other stuff

Chapter 02

1964 – That Boy

I’ll always remember 1964 as a momentous year in which so much happened that it is difficult to know where to start. First there was sadness: sadness that was felt the world over when the American president was shot and killed by an assassin. Although this had happened late in 1963 it seemed to me that the world was in mourning for months and months afterwards. President Kennedy had been young and very handsome, too handsome to be a president. He had been sitting in a car with his wife when he had been shot. Everybody you met was talking about it, even the teachers at school. Maisa and me even saw Mr Trenchard, our rather strict and gruff geography teacher, start to cry in the classroom. This made some of the boys laugh and some of the girls cry.

Our house became a centre of mourning, with everyone from the street gathering around our TV to watch the news reports. My mother cried, too, and so did Auntie Florie, who was really my great grandmother but refused to be called that by anybody. Since the arrival of the TV Auntie Florie had more or less moved into our house. Although she actually lived in a small house just across the street from us she spent most of her time sitting in our living room watching anything that happened to be on the television. She was a nice old lady, and kind to me, but she had the annoying habit of providing a running commentary on everything that was happening on the television. “Oh look,” he’s being chased by that car,” she would say in her broad Nelson accent if she was watching an American crime thriller. Or “Oh look, the piano’s gone down the steps again!” she would say if she was watching Laurel and Hardy. Whenever she did this I would start giggling and mum would shout at me to stop.

As well as sadness there was excitement: excitement at seeing my boys conquer America. In February 1964 the Fab Four, as the press called them, had flown to America to be met with hysteria. When their aeroplane touched down there were thousands of screaming teenage girls waiting for them. Later, they had appeared on American TV and had gone down a storm. They were more famous than it was possible to imagine. Everyone was calling it ‘Beatlemania’.

By this time I was officially The Beatles’ Number Two Fan. Maisa was still Number One, of course. Although I was catching her up fast, she still had more pictures of them than me but unlike me, she was allowed to stick them on her bedroom wall. On Maisa’s urging, I had saved up my pocket money and joined The Beatles Fan Club. Every month I would receive a newsletter written by the Beatles themselves and at Christmas I received a floppy record that contained a message to their fans. It made me feel really special, like the boys were talking just to me. I even managed to persuade my mum to buy a few of their singles, although I had nothing to play them on. Because John was already taken by Maisa, my favourite Beatle was George. He was very handsome and always had a serious look on his face. He played lead guitar in the group and was very good at playing, it seemed to me he was the best guitar player in the whole world. I didn’t want to marry him, although deep down I thought that would have been nice, but he did make my heart beat a little faster whenever I looked at a picture of him.

Maisa and I were very proud of the Beatles’ success but were also a little jealous. We were jealous because there were only four of them and now they were so famous that every girl in the world seemed to want a piece of them. There was only so much to go round and we felt that we had more right than anybody else to the Beatles because we had discovered them first. It wasn’t so long ago that the grown-ups in our living room were shaking their heads and tutting in disgust and now it seemed that everyone wanted to be like the Beatles. The first sign of this was when some of the older boys in our school began to grow their hair. Prior to this the long established school hairstyle for boys was called a crewcut. This consisted of wearing the hair at the top of the head very short and having the hair at the back of the neck shaven away. It wasn’t a very flattering style but none of the boys seemed to mind too much. But now some of the boys grew their hair so long that they were called in to see the headmaster and ordered to cut it off or face detention or the cane.

Even worse, even more embarrassing was the fact that my father was now also growing his hair a little longer. “A singer’s got to keep up with the times…” he would say as he left the evenings to go out and sing in the clubs. He had even changed how he dressed. Instead of his smart black suit he was now dressing a little shabbier. Mum laughed at this and said he should stop trying to look like “mutton dressed as lamb…” But Maisa had a different opinion. “He looks gear,” she would say, which was a new word that had been invented by the Beatles. It meant ‘good’.

***

Maisa and I were now officially best friends. In fact, she is probably the first and last best friend that I have ever had. I was an only child and she became the sister I secretly always wanted. Slowly but surely we began to spend as much time as possible together and became privy to one another’s closest secrets. I learned that in Pakistan it was the custom for parents to choose a husband for their daughters. Unsurprisingly, Maisa’s parents had not in fact chosen Beatle John as a suitable candidate. Instead they had selected another Pakistani whose name was Raj Patel. Maisa showed me a photograph of him one day and I was a little shocked to discover that he was more than ten years older than her and worked in a bank. Not only that, he had no hair! Maisa crinkled her nose up in disgust as she looked at the small black and white image. “He’s an idiot,” she said. “I’m going to marry John.”

Having Maisa as a best friend was a double-edged sword. On the one hand she showed me a world that was completely new to me, she turned my life from black and white into full colour. And she she gave me the Beatles, without whom I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today. On the other hand it wasn’t easy being Maisa’s friend. One day we were walking to school and I heard a sound behind us. Following closely was a group of more than a dozen boy and girls. They were laughing at us and chanting ‘Paki! Paki! Paki!” Maisa ignored them but I turned around to face them. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.

One of the group, whom I recognised as Helen Walker, the girl that I had fought with, came forward towards me until her nose was almost touching mine. “Shut your cake hole Paki lover,” she smirked.

“You shut up!” cried Maisa, suddenly beside me, her fist raised and ready.

It was at that point that I discovered a had a talent that I had not been aware of. I could run. And so could Maisa. And we ran, ran as fast as we could away from this gang of bullies. From that point on we would run a lot. And it was lucky for us that we were generally much faster than those who were chasing us. Every day we would run – from the gang of boys and girls who waited for Maisa and me near the school gates. At break times. At dinner times. And in the afternoons, when we would run all the way home. We didn’t really mind running. In fact, we rather liked it. We liked it because we had each other.

Once I asked Maisa about the word ‘Paki’. “Why do they call you that?” I said.

“I don’t know,” replied Maisa, “I only heard that word when I came to England. It’s not a very nice word but it’s just a word. It doesn’t hurt me.”

Deep down, however, I knew that it did.

***

Yet another momentous event occurred in July of that year. For the first time ever I was allowed to go to the cinema without my parents. In those days were called it ‘the pictures’ and I was luck enough to have already been to see quite a few films. My mother had taken me to see The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins and Bambi but on those occasions she had sat beside me and held my hand. Now, after pestering my parents for weeks and weeks, I was given permission to go and see the Beatles’ first film with Maisa. It was called ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. My mother had been against us going and it was only when Mrs. Ahmed herself had knocked on our front door and asked in person that she finally grudgingly relented. Mrs. Ahmed took us on the bus to the small cinema in Nelson town centre. The queues outside the cinema stretched for miles and we had to wait patiently for more than two hours before we finally got a seat. As the lights dimmed we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of teenage girls, most of whom were wearing Beatles badges and Beatles scarves. The film was in black and white and opened with the Beatles running through the streets being chased by hundreds of fans. But as far as what the story was about we had no idea because as soon as the film started every girl in the cinema began to scream frantically, some were even crying. After a couple of moments of this Maisa and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Then we, too, began to scream. We screamed for the whole of the film, we screamed until our voices grew hoarse and we could scream no more. We screamed for John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The day after the film neither of us could hardly speak and after the excitement of seeing the boys on the silver screen it was a terrible anti-climax to be at school, dressed in our PE kits and out on the muddy running track. Because we ran everywhere together all the time, Maisa and I were soon far ahead of the rest of our class. It was the 800 metres – two laps around the playing field – and we even had the luxury of being able to slow down a little towards the end of the race. I won easily and Maisa was second, with other classmates trailing miles behind us.

After the race Mrs. Roberts, the PE teacher, came up to us. Mrs. Roberts was a fearsome woman with sandy grey hair and a body like a walrus. She never smiled. All she did was bellow out orders and occasionally administer a whack with the back of her hand to anybody she thought wasn’t trying hard enough. Readying ourselves for obligatory telling off we were surprised when Mrs Roberts actually smiled at us. “That was very good, girls” she said, leaving us literally gobsmacked at receiving a compliment from this fearsome dragon. “But you spoiled it by slowing down at the end. Next time I want you to run as fast as you can until you finish the race.”

A week later we did as we were told, too scared to risk disappointing Mrs. Roberts. This time Maisa came in first with me close behind her. The rest of the class were a long, long way behind. Again Mrs Roberts came up to us afterwards as we caught our breath. Once more she was smiling. “That was excellent, the both of you,” she said. “I’m going to be writing to your parents about this.”

***

At first we thought that we must have done something wrong. When a parent of one of the pupils of Stoneyholme School received a letter from a teacher it was never a good thing. Usually, it was to call the parent in to school because their child had been exceptionally naughty. We knew, however, that we had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the both of us spent a couple of sleepless nights waiting for out letter to arrive. Mine arrived on the following Saturday morning and my father opened it. “It’s from the school,” he said, looking over at me as I ate my cornflakes. “What have you done, Sofia?”

He read the letter in silence for a few moments and then looked over at me again. His face showed no emotion. Then he handed it over to my mother, who also read it in silence. By the time she had finished reading the letter a smile was on her face. Then she passed it to me. I still have that letter. This is what it said:

Dear Mr Probert

I teach Physical Education in year four. Your daughter, Sofia, is showing unusual promise at running. With your permission I would like Sofia to take extra running lessons with me after school. This will be free of charge. I believe that with extra tuition Sofia might well be capable of competing at a much higher level.

If you agree to my proposal Sofia will need running shoes and kit.

I await your reply,

Julia Roberts,

Stoneyholme School.

Maisa’s letter was identical and that’s how it all began. That was how Maisa I began running and running and running. But more of that later.

***

There were also other letters to think about. Because in that year Maisa and I began writing letters to the Beatles. It was Maisa’s idea. She said if she was going to marry John then it would be a good idea if he first knew who she was. And so, once a month, she would write a letter to her future husband asking how he was, what he was doing, how he was feeling. She suggested that I do the same with George and we would see who got a reply. I did as she she said but there was one big problem – the meagre pocket money that my parents gave to me could barely cover the cost of my subscription to the Beatles Fan Club. I needed to find a means of making some more money.

Maisa didn’t have the same problem. Every night when she came home from school she served in her parents’ shop for a couple of hours. She enjoyed doing this and her parents even paid her a small wage that was more than enough to fund her passion for the Beatles. Maisa suggested that her parents might let me come and help in the shop and also pay me a wage and when we asked them they seemed quite pleased about it. They didn’t really need another shop assistant but they were glad that Maisa had a friend to keep her company. Before I could begin work, however, I needed my parents’ permission.

“You must be out of your tiny mind,” said my mother, when I nervously broached the subject with her. “You’re not working in that Paki shop!”

Everyone in our neighbourhood now called it the ‘Paki shop’. And it was disturbing to me because nobody seemed to realise how insulting this was. Everyone, that is, except my father.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said, “The girl’s got to learn to make a living – and don’t call it the Paki shop!”

“Well it is the Paki shop, and think what the neighbours will think if they see Sofia working there. The shame of it…”

Mum and dad had very similar backgrounds: both were Nelson born and bred and both were the children of coal miners. But when it came to people from other countries they had very different attitudes. Mum was staunchly against anybody who wasn’t white and wasn’t from Nelson. Nowadays she would be known as a racist but in those times the word simply didn’t exist. Dad was different; I think it was his love of singing and music that did it. He was a very strict man but he was also very tolerant of others who were different than he. To my mother’s obvious disgust he even boasted of drinking beer with black people when he was up in the clubs in Manchester. I was very impressed by this because apart from on the television I had never even seen a black person in the flesh.

So there was another argument and in the end my father got his way. This was the way it was in Nelson. It was the men who made the decisions. Or rather, as I was to learn, it was the men who thought that they made the decisions. And I was allowed to work two evenings a week in the Amheds’ corner shop so that I could earn enough to keep myself in stamps, posters and records. I was overjoyed.

But then there was more sadness. One Saturday afternoon I called around to see Maisa to be told that she didn’t want to come out to play. “Maisa’s not feeling herself today,” said Mrs Ahmed when I asked what was wrong. “But why don’t you go and see her in her room. Perhaps you can cheer her up.”

I climbed the stairs and knocked on Maisa’s room but there was no answer. I knocked again and finally pushed open the door to find the room in total darkness. Buried under the bedclothes could be seen a small bump that was Maisa.

“Maisa, what’s wrong?” I said but there was no response.

I sat down on the bed and repeated my question. Slowly, the bedclothes peeled away and there was Maisa, her face streaked with tears.

“Whats the matter?” I asked again. “Has somebody hurt you?”

“Yes,” came a feeble response.

“Who?”

“John,” came the answer.

My sobbing best friend sat up in bed and told me what had happened. This morning she had picked up a copy of the Daily Mirror newspaper and seen a picture of John. Maisa’s parents always allowed her to look over the Daily Mirror. If there were any pictures of the Beatles she was allowed to cut them out and stick them in her scrapbook. She picked up what remained of the crumpled newspaper and handed it to me. On the front was a picture of John smiling at the camera. Holding his hand was a pretty blond woman.

“He’s married,” said Maisa. “He’s betrayed me. He’s already married. What am I going to do?” And with that Maisa pulled the bedclothes back over her head and burst into tears. I put my arm around her sobbing body and cuddled her. I cuddled her for the whole of the afternoon until she had cried so much that there was no more tears left to cry.