Nothing short of a slight return


Research for a new work of fiction* commissioned for publication in 2012 to accompany forthcoming exhibitions by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson took me back to Leeds in September. I lived there for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, so it was good to have an excuse to visit now, even for a day. The nature of the research in question was consulting the archives of Leeds Other Paper, or LOP for short, an independent journal that was published in the city (first monthly, then fortnightly and finally weekly), by an evolving collective that itself took several forms, from 1974 until — after a final name-change — it closed down in 1994.

Former ‘Lopper’ Tony Harcup’s short but fascinating and comprehensive book, A Northern Star: Leeds Other Paper and the Alternative Press 1974-1994, quotes an introductory editorial from the first issue:

Leeds Other Paper exists to provide an alternative newspaper in Leeds, i.e. a newspaper not controlled by big business and other vested interests. It is our intention to support all groups active in industry and elsewhere for greater control of their own lives.

LOP is classified as a ‘serial/periodical’ by the British Library, so is not held in Colindale with the national newspaper archive proper, nor according to the British Library’s Integrated Catalogue do they hold any issues from the period that I wanted to look at. Hence my visit, and the pile of bound issues (right) that awaited my attention in Leeds Central Library’s local and family history section.

This scan of a photocopy from the original (above right) is a detail of a typical Leeds Other Paper cover and gives a good flavour of the design although it doesn’t quite do justice to the print quality that was achieved on very limited means. Another reason for reproducing this particular cover here is that having heard Ted Chippington on the John Peel show, a couple of us went along to the LOP benefit concert advertised. After Chippington’s set I bought a copy of the record that he’s holding in the photo and asked him to sign it. ‘Cheers Tony,’ he wrote in felt-tipped pen on the label of side one. ‘Ted.’

A short piece in the following week’s LOP thanks ‘top performer’ Chippington, as well as artists including Ginger John, Olulu Olulu, The Shee Hees and others. None of whom, apart from Ted, I’m sorry to say, I have any recollection of at all. Sixty pounds was raised on the night after costs had been covered, so the benefit was deemed ‘a success’. I may have misremembered, since he is not thanked here, but I’m pretty sure Seething Wells made a brief appearance on stage at the Trades Club that night, too. I could be wrong or maybe it was another time, and just because I remember it doesn’t mean it happened, but I would swear that I saw Swells doing his ‘Tetley Bittermen’ routine on stage there.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ted Chippington’s relatively small body of work, there’s a nice film about the influence of his contrarian stand-up routines that was made by comedian Stewart Lee for BBC TV’s The Culture Show a few years ago.

(Coincidentally, Stewart Lee is hosting and headlining a benefit for London community radio station Resonance 104.4fm at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 1st November 2011. I was going to give the benefit a late plug here, but it is now sold out!)

It is not quite the period that I went to Leeds to research, but these few editions of the Leeds Other Paper are a reminder that the spring and summer of 1985 was an eventful time in the UK, and not just in the north of England. The miners’ strike had only finished a month or two earlier in March of the same year, and the Conservative government of the time already seemed to be looking for another ‘enemy within’. It didn’t take them long to find one; another load of heads to crack. The same issue of LOP that reported on the takings at the Trades Club benefit carried an anonymous and eloquent ‘eye-witness account’ of what would later become known as the Battle of the Beanfield but here is referred to simply as ‘The Battle of Stonehenge June 1st 1985’ (click on the image for a larger version).

The riot police were unleashed on sleepy Wiltshire on Saturday 1st June, in a co-ordinated attempt to prevent the Stonehenge Free Festival from taking place. Bearing the brunt of the police assault was The Convoy — a travelling community who are frequently pilloried in the media.

Right into this interregnum between the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, and either blithely missing the point or maybe kind of nailing it, or both, limped some other — unlikely — travellers in the form of the final, indeed terminal line-up of The Clash. There was no Mick Jones or Topper Headon. Instead Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were joined by drummer Pete Howard, ex-Cortina Nick Sheppard and Vince White.

If this is referred to at all it is usually called ‘The Clash busking tour’, although that seems like a bit of an overstatement because even by the media standards of the time this ‘tour’ was a low-key affair. There were no ads in the music press or the broadsheets, no announcements, no press releases or friendly music journalists tagging along with their photographers. There were no publicity campaigns or photo-ops and no daytime TV coverage. Neither were there tour T-shirts, posters or merchandise of any kind. On May 3 1985, the band set off from London to Nottingham on modes of transport that vary according to who is telling the story, and didn’t go back home for a fortnight. During this time they played up to about thirty-four more or less impromptu and almost all undocumented gigs of varying length in locations around Nottingham, Leeds, York, Sunderland, Newcastle, Gateshead, Edinburgh, Glasgow and possibly Manchester.

I saw two of their Leeds gigs; one by chance, the other not. The first was a short set they played for a couple of dozen people in the garden of the Royal Park Pub on 6 May. My own story of that afternoon — which involves me and a couple of friends, a late night watching Eek-A-Mouse at the Cosmo Club and a hair of the dog in the May sunshine the next day while The Clash play ‘La Bamba’ a few feet away — is no better or worse than any other of the handful of accounts posted on the Black Market Clash site. But I have been amazed, recently, to see this really great colour photo of the gig, [UPDATE: image archived here] and not least because it must have been taken from just a couple of feet to the right of where we were sitting.

There are a few other pictures of the tour on the Black Market Clash site, including this one (left) which is supposedly of their gig at The Station, Gateshead, but something about it looks naggingly familiar and I’m sure that this, too, is the garden of the Royal Park.

It’s odd to see these pictures. I don’t even remember one person among the handful of us at the Royal Park taking photos, let alone two. But there must have been, because just visible over Paul Simonon’s shoulder in the colour photo I’ve linked to above there is a man or woman (see detail, right) who is looking through their own single lens reflex camera. And this is where it gets complicated, uncanny even, because not only is she/he (let’s say) pointing the camera almost directly at the man taking the colour photo and therefore looking out at us who are looking at the photograph now, but she/he is also looking directly at us then.

I also saw The Clash play on the steps of the Leeds University Student Union the following day (photo on Vincent White’s site here). I don’t know where Black Market Clash got this set list from though. According to them: ‘The band played Cool Under Heat, Movers and Shakers, White Riot and Clash City Rockers to more than 500 fans.’ I would say five hundred to a thousand people, but that set list is wrong.

Blimey, what’s that saying about old punks becoming postmen? Perhaps it should be that the scantness of the archive forces them to become pedants: arguing the toss over ephemeral scraps, contesting the uncontested. More ‘slight return’ than ‘total war’, and frankly who cares? Today there would be no disputing something as simple as a set list, because a dozen videos of a gig like that would be tweeted in close to real time, or posted on Youtube within the hour, but in that almost unrecognisable media landscape of the mid-1980s all that’s left are a couple of photos and the stories that some of the people who were there have told and retold; my own version of events probably no less contingent than any other. If you asked me, though, I would tell you that they opened with a blinding version of Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’, then went into ‘Garageland’. They might well have done ‘White Riot’, but I’m pretty certain they also did ‘Police on my Back’ and a cover of ‘Johnny Too Bad’ by The Slickers. The gig was broken up after just a few songs, and most people trudged around the corner to the Faversham pub, where they played a longer set. We thought about it, but figured that the Royal Park gig — a handful of us chancing upon The Clash in our local and then following them outside to watch them play live on a balmy May afternoon — would be a hard one to beat and we went home.

Here (right) is how the gig on the Union steps was reported in the Leeds Other Paper a week or so later.

No-one seems to have posted a set list for the Royal Park gig. I could be wrong, but the way I always told it is that they played around half a dozen songs which included ‘Stepping Stone’, ‘Jimmy Jazz’, ‘Brand New Cadillac’, ‘La Bamba’ and — most memorably — ‘Straight to Hell’.

There are a couple of recordings of ‘Straight to Hell’ from the busking tour, but this one (click on the player above) from Gateshead on 11 May seems to pick up Pete Howard’s fantastic drumstick work better than the more guitar-heavy York bootleg. One thing: I’m sticking to my guns here, but the fact that ‘La Bamba’ doesn’t appear on any other set lists nor the two live bootlegs from the tour does make me wonder if I completely imagined that. I’m sure they played a couple of crowd pleasers, too — ‘Bank Robber’? ‘I fought the Law’? — but just because it happened doesn’t mean I remember it.

I was right about the photo though.

That is definitely the garden of the Royal Park pub.

In the background of the picture between Nick Sheppard and Joe Strummer — as a quick cut-n-paste from Googlemaps Street View which matches perfectly shows — is the familiar, two-windowed gable-end of a Leeds back-to-back terrace, in this case the southern end of Elizabeth and John Streets, which is visible beyond a minicab parking lot that (unlike the garden, which has been built over) is there to this day; cars still parked on a triangle of wasteland on the opposite side of Royal Park Road.

UPDATE April 2019

* In fact this body of research contributed to two works of fiction. First the novella Dicky Star and the Garden Rule (Forma, 2012), which is set in Leeds during April and May 1986 and was commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster of that year, and published to accompany Jane and Louise Wilson’s touring exhibition Nature Ahbors a Vacuum. ‘Dicky Star…’ (for short) which was written using an Oulipo-inspired ‘mandated vocabulary’ turned out to be a test piece for my latest novel The Fountain in the Forest (Faber and Faber, 2018), the first in a trilogy of novels that explore the legacy of that 90-day interregnum between the end of the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June 1985.

The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White, out now in Faber paperback

When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a Covent Garden theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King?

Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.

Buy The Fountain in the Forest direct from publisher Faber and Faber

Read Sukhdev Sandhu’s review in The Guardian