Friday, 19 May 2017


I travelled to Cheltenham to play in a Brasserie on the basement level of a (relatively) posh hotel.  It wasn’t the sort of place I often played, or ever went, but I’d been asked by someone I knew who often put on really good gigs in ‘Nham (as the locals call it), in a variety of venues.  He was trying this place out for a couple of gigs and booked me in.  So, y’know, why not?  It’s only 40 minutes on a train.

Cheltenham is one of those places where all the creative people know each other.  Which is good.  But the reason they all know each other is that there’s not that many of them, venues for good live music are also few – and venues that will give unknown and/or unusual local bands a chance are fewer still.  It’s also a posh spa town, traditionally dominated by the old-school land-owning class, but with a significant proportion of very non-posh residents.
So, here I am in a basement restaurant under a hotel in ’Nham, being fed and watered in preparation for an odd gig.
Naturally, I decided it would be the perfect time to do my intimidating/charming opening: walking through the crowd singing, occasionally stopping to whisper in someone’s ear.  It’s a bold gambit, and it does grab attention, even in a bar/restaurant where everyone is sitting down and no one is there to see the music.  The year is 2011, and This Is My Life. 
Well, I say no one is there to see the music.  There’s actually a few people I know from Cheltenham, who’ve seen me play before and have made the effort to come to this unusual venue to see me again.  There’s also a youngster from Gloucester, who I have met once or twice before. 
The first time I remember meeting The Youngster was on Corn Street in Bristle, where I was sound-checking for a gig.  The show was an after-party for a demonstration in town (I don’t remember what for, it was a long time ago and I’ve played a lot of these types of things).  But that’s a story for another time.
Anyway, he says Hello and we speak briefly and he mentions he has come from Gloucester for the gig and I thank him for coming.  (Probably.  I don’t remember exactly, it was a long time ago and I’ve played a lot of gigs.)
So, I play the gig and it goes ok.  My Promoter mate is a wee bit apologetic about the venue, the lack of interest shown by the punters and the general unsuitability of the venue.  I poo-poo the idea, waving his apology away.  It’s fine, I assure him.  (I may have said “pish-posh”.  I can’t remember.  It was a long time ago, and I’ve used a lot of odd and/or archaic phrases.)
Anyway, speaking to The Youngster after, he asks if I’m going back to Bristol.  I am, of course, it’s where I live/d.  You may remember a time of rioting in the summer of 2011, in London and several other major cities of the divided kingdom.  Well, this is before all that – but there had been a riot the previous Thursday night in Stokes Croft in Bristol, with two tenuously-linked (but also proximate) flashpoints: one, a squat eviction attended by hundreds of police (including many from Wales), for some reason; the other, a newly-opened mini supermarket just opposite, the kind that tried to replace every local corner shop in the world. 
This particular supermarket had a particularly dubious history, involving some highly selective interpretation of planning laws and some serious popular opposition in the local area.  If opening a shop can be considered a political act, then this was one of the most provocative political acts of the time, and had the predictable effect of provoking people.  One might even say, inciting them.  (If one were at liberty to make such an allegation.)  The events were documented at the time – not well, mark you.  But that’s a story for another time.
This being the following Thursday, a demonstration was planned to protest, specifically, the Police violence of the previous week – as well as, more generally, the politics and economics behind it.  Those who would argue the Police are not a political organisation have, presumably, never seen them in action.  But that’s a story for another time.
Needless to say, it is a strange, and (for some, at least) worrying time in our city’s history.  But it is interesting.  The Youngster certainly thinks so, and tells me he is heading to Bristol to “check it out”.  I’m not sure what he means by this, but he adds that his sister lives in town so he is planning to meet with her, having assumed she will also want to take part in the demonstration, or at least “check it out”.  (He may not have used this phrase, to be honest, but it was a long time ago and I’ve told a lot of stories.  It conveys the true spirit of the occasion and personalities involved, even if it’s not empirically true.  If you follow.)
So, being on my bike, while The Youngster was on his feet, I raced down to the train station after the show.  Eventually he turned up and we got on the train.  We chatted on the way home, with him interrupting the conversation intermittently to send one of those “text messages” that the children of the time enjoyed so much.  He is At That Age, bless him.  He also speaks to his Mum on the phone, and she and I exchange “Hello!”’s. 
The Youngster does not, however, manage to contact his sister.  We arrive at Temple Meads and he still has no word.  Not wanting to leave him alone in a (relatively) unfamiliar city, I walk with him towards Stokes Croft, with The Youngster being at best vague about his plans for the evening.
We get to the St James Barton roundabout to find Stokes Croft completely closed to traffic, as indicated by police vans parked across the road on both sides.  We hear the noise of a crowd, but there is nothing much to see.  We press on, with me assuring The Youngster that I can find a way through, as I knew all the wee side streets and that, and him still making a show of trying to text his sister, who I am starting think doesn’t exist. 
We bump in to Ratman, who is surveying the scene.  “I just wanna see what’s goin‘ on.  It’s in my neighbourhood, but if you don’t see it, all you get is all the shit people chat about it innit.”  (He may have said that, I can’t be sure.  I think my paraphrasing is a fair summary of his point.  But it was a long time ago, and I’ve done a lot of summarising since then.  And not a little paraphrasing.)
We hang about with Ratman for a time, chatting while bottles (“projectiles”, they’d call them on the news) flew around.  And then we press on, The Youngster and I.  We have one dodgy moment when suddenly the wind changes and we are caught up in a surge by the police.  We duck down a back alley with other youths, try to get round the lane, before realising the police are closing in from the other end, and so head back up to the main drag to find things have calmed a bit, although the battle lines seem to have moved closer to us.  (I think that’s what happened.  It was a long time ago, and I’ve done a lot of rioting since.) 
Eventually, we reach the real flashpoint, which is, as the week before, at the junction of Ashley Road.  So, here I am, with my bike, my guitar, and a minor in tow.  In the middle of a riot.  I’m thirty years old.  How is this my life? 
The atmosphere is febrile, but seems to lack the chaotic urgency of the previous week – if the accounts of that are to be believed.  Which, as Ratman had wisely counselled, they are probably not.  I have several excitable accounts to go on, as well as the surprisingly sober, calm reflections of a friend who had taken a bit of a pasting off an officer of the crown who was most keen that my friend not find his way home.  The Friend, not being familiar enough with the area to know any alternative route, pleaded his case and inquired politely as to how he should get home.  The officer was apparently in no mood for a discussion, and put his training in intimidating young people into practice.
A riot is somewhere between a massive brawl, a tense stand-off and a carnival without the rides.  In political terms, it’s somewhere between a public meeting, a picket line and a party conference without the big speeches. 
The Youngster’s sister is still apparently off-grid.  My housemate Dez texts to say “Whoops: Riot Town’s kickin off again…fancy a pint?” (I think that’s what he texted; but it was a long time ago, and…).  I put it to The Youngster: “Let’s get a drink with my mate Dez, and then you can crash at ours, yeah?”  The Youngster seems happy enough with this, and I look at him to try to guage whether following me home from Cheltenham had been his only plan all along. 
No matter – we have a riot to get through.  The Youngster, by this point, seems less intent on getting involved with said riot, now that he’s seen it close up.  I’m not about to tell his Mum he’s been hurt in my company, so I bid him follow me and we make our way around all the backstreets I know so well.
Now we have a plan.  The world makes some sort of sense again.  We weave through the backstreets I know like the back of my hand, always able to see the action down the sidestreets that run parallel to each other, linking the one we’re on to the one where the action is – and come out at The Arches to meet Dez.  We tell him about the riot, about which he has the relaxed, almost blasé attitude of a seasoned campaigner.  “I grew up in West Belfast.  This is fucking nothing”, he tells us cheerfully.  (He may have told us this, and he may have told us cheerfully.  I don’t remember exactly.  But it was the kind of thing he might have said, and says something of the situation and his character/background.  So, it’s true in a sense.  If you follow.  But it was a long time ago, and he and I have implied and understood each other a lot since then.)
In the more convivial atmosphere of our local café bar, we assess the motivations of the rioters of that and the previous weeks and parse potential gains of This Type Of Thing.  With Dez quietly wondering what The Youngster is doing here, it emerges his sister actually lives waaaay out of town and there was no chance of him getting there tonight.  But that she therefore does exist.
So the three of us walk back to the house and round off a nice evening of restaurants, gigging and rioting.  Everyone asks me (very discreetly) what The Youngster is doing here.  I know by now, but don’t really want to admit.  (At least, I think I didn’t.  But it was a long time ago, and I’ve not wanted to admit a lot of things since then.  But this feels like a substantial memory, one that says something in the wider context of Memory and its place in our consciousness – both collective and individual – as well as managing to take in a discussion about history and rioting, with asides about police-community relations, opaque planning laws and the city council, the politics of shopping and the journey of a young man following his favourite Folk Rapper home.  If you follow.  Which you may not, since you (presumably) didn’t ask for my life story.  But that’s a story for another time.)
In the end up, no sinister motive was revealed on The Youngster’s part, despite all the jokes The Lads made about me waking up with…..well, you know what The Lads are like.  We all get up the next day and have a cup of tea and The Youngster skips off to whatever it is Young People do These Days, and I get on with whatever it is I do These Days.
And The Youngster?  Well, that little boy who followed his hero home for some reason, turned out to be…..
A Friend.

The End.


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