In which The Author doesn’t want to be in your gang
Respect seems to be the buzzword amongst today’s wannabe gangstas. (I’m deliberately using the US slang term here!) When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair launched a half-baked policy called the Respect Agenda. It was designed to bring some rogue elements of Britain’s inner-city youth back on track. In the inner cities, gang-related crime, violence and murder are a real problem. Almost daily, the media report ‘postcode rivalries’ where kids from one part of (say) London will declare war on kids from the neighbouring estates, simply because they aren’t from the same part of town.
We all used to do that, of course ‒ our ‘gang’ was that in all but name. Ian, James, Phil, Slim, and a couple of other boys were ‘a gang’, to all intents and purposes. As I sketched out in ‘Where Do We Draw the Line
‘, our areas weren’t even defined by postcodes. The Mill Street Mob were constantly doing battle with the Trefelin Terrors, the Broniestyn Beasts and the Llwydcoed Lloonies. (I’ve made all these names up, by the way!) Occasionally a scrap would break out and everyone would walk away, bloodied but unbowed. Sometimes a real feud would ensue, which split an entire school intake along fault lines delineated by families’ and friends’ allegiances.
I met people in university who attested that the same things happened in their areas. That’s why people from Abercwmboi couldn’t possibly consider playing for Mountain Ash RFC – even though they’re only about half a mile apart. In fact, it’s probably possible to kick a penalty in the Abercwmboi ground and get it over the post at Mountain Ash. It’s tribalism at its most ridiculous, when you think about it. On the whole, though, these things didn’t descend into murder and mayhem.
There are some pathetic youngsters to whom I’ve often referred (most notably in No Future
and Not Born Beautiful
) who seem to have mistaken the South Wales Valleys for South Central Los Angeles. There’s a terrific scene in Joel Schumacher’s film Falling Down
, where Michael Douglas’s pissed-off commuter finds himself in the middle of an LA turf war. Parts of Britain’s inner cities are heading the same way, if the media are to be believed.
There are kids in the Valleys who think they can live the same lifestyle. I overheard one of them on the train a while back, as I related in Strangers on a Train
. They’ve adopted the American style of dress, manner of speech, and the ridiculous swaggering walk that film characters use. (Swagger
– or ‘swagga’, as they spell it – seems to be the Word of the Year so far.)
Aberdare even has a new ‘designer clothes shop’ called Swagga or something similar. Primark would be more appropriate in the current economic climate. For fuck’s sake, even the pound shop closed down a while ago. Meanwhile, a so-called disco in a neighbouring town has launched a dance night, also called Swagga. I’ve seen posters for it. The girl on the poster looks attractive and quite hot. In reality, it’ll be full of pissed-up teenage single mothers fending off the local steroid boys in their best JJB Sports purchases.
In their slavish attachment to American ‘yoof culture’, these boys and girls seem to fancy themselves as ‘gangstas’. Not even proper gangsters, but the imported US variety.
The Krays, the Richardsons, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie were gangsters. They were legends of the Swinging Sixties, equally at home in London nightclubs as in East End pubs such as the Blind Beggar. I once met a man who knows a man who knew some of these figures of London folklore. (I saw him briefly on Wednesday, in fact.) He’s a friend now, but here’s an interesting fact: I didn’t have to prove myself ‘worthy’ of his acquaintance.
He knew some friends of mine through the tattooing scene in Aberdare, and that enabled us to strike up a conversation in the pub one night. He was standing at the bar and so was I. I worked in a bookshop, and he wanted to know if I could get him a particular book on tattoos. (I could, of course.) Job done!
There was no complex initiation. I didn’t have to kill anyone in cold blood, or rob someone with a shotgun in my hands, or undergo any sort of terrifying ordeal in order to become his friend. I’ve never been involved with illegal drugs, or crime, or violence (if I could help it). But he wanted a book, and at the time I was the go-to guy in Aberdare.
[A digression: Yes, okay, I know we’ve got The Works in town these days, but I’m not sure whether that really counts. A mate of mine suggested it to me as a possible employer when it first opened. He meant well, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling that he was taking the piss. He’s not a big reader (as he’d be the first to admit), but he’s a huge music fan, so I put in terms that he could understand: ‘If you wanted to buy a CD, would you go to Spillers (a shop in Cardiff, which claims to be the world’s oldest record shop), or to Wilkinson’s in Aberdare?’ He saw the point of my argument once I’d phrased it like that.]
Anyway, even the headcases who used to drink (or, rather smoke) at the back of the Carpenters gave my friends and I some grudging ‘respect’. Whether it was just for having the sheer balls to walk into the place, and then sit and talk about films and books and art and music, I don’t know. None of us ever had any grief in there that I can recall. We got to know some of the Cynon Valley’s Most Wanted (and some of its Least Desirable) while we were drinking there. Some of them remain mates. Not many of the others are still around, for one reason or another. A friend of mine pointed out a couple of years ago that the area’s ‘going to be missing a whole elderly generation’ in twenty years’ time – so many people have died prematurely in the past few years.
Now, there’s a whole generation of kids who’ve grown up on US ‘pop culture’ – films, (c)rap music, video games, and so forth – and see themselves as bit-part actors in a Spike Lee film. There’s only one problem with this, of course – we don’t have that many black, Asian, or Hispanic kids around here.
Consequently, we have loads of fake-tanned wannabe gangstas swaggering around, openly drinking cans of lager in the ‘Alcohol-free Zones’ of Aberdare, fighting, shoplifting, and dealing drugs in full view of the general public. They’re all known to the police and the PCSOs (as Ken Bruce once suggested, this might stand for Police Community Something-or-Others). A mate of mine suggested the other day that half of them are police informers, which is why their presence in town is condoned. And you can bet your life that in any confrontation, the one thing the enemy will be accused of is ‘disrespect’.
Well, okay, let’s analyse this in more detail.
My friend Ross Dinwiddy wrote and directed a film a number of years ago. It’s never seen the light of day owing to a legal dispute with the distributors, but it exists. That’s the main thing. Now he’s written a children’s book. My friend Josie Henley-Einion is also a published author. My photographer friend Rob Hudson self-published a fantastic coffee table book on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, an often overlooked part of the country.
In a related field, Pam is a web designer and CGI artist. I’ve already told you (in Connecting People
) about how I arranged for her to meet my mate Stuart, who writes screenplays. That brings me to Geraint Benney, an actor – he’s turned up in an episode of Doctor Who
, and regularly appears in the Welsh language soap Pobol y Cwm
I’ve got musicians coming out of my ears. Three lads I knew from Cwmaman used to play the Great Valleys Songbook in backstreet pubs, calling themselves Tragic Love Company. Apparently they changed their name subsequently – I’ve no idea what happened to them afterwards.
Talking of music, my old schoolfriend Darren Broome works as a radio producer for BBC Wales. We were in the same class as Dai Evans, who sat his Maths A Level in New Zealand while touring with the Wales Under-18 Rugby squad. Other friends of mine from school went on to become doctors, or teachers, or engineers, or (in one case) a petroleum geologist.
As I said in Connecting People
, I’ve got a wide network of friends in all sorts of interesting, creative, fulfilling lines of work. One has recently set up in business with a friend of his installing solar panels. He’s always been passionate about the environment, and they’ve got in at the right time.
Through my own work I’ve met world-famous scientists (Prof. Steven Pinker, Prof. Steve Jones, Steve Grand), actors (Simon Callow, Roger Lloyd Pack, Joan Collins), writers (Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett), and even shaken hands with Cardiff City’s former manager Peter Ridsdale. Further out, in the Expanding Sphere, there are chefs, fashion designers, photographers, and film stars with whom I can claim One Degree of Separation.
And what it all boils to is this: They’ve done something with their lives. Not all of them will go on to become world famous, of course. For every Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of people knocking out books in their spare time, while holding down full-time jobs and juggling family responsibilities. On Saturday afternoons during the autumn and winter, playing fields across the Valleys echo to the sounds of amateur club rugby (possibly even a local derby between Abercwmboi and Mountain Ash). One of these players, Ian Evans, got lucky, and is in the current Welsh squad. The rest of them don’t get discouraged, they soldier on in the true sense of the word ‘amateur’ – doing it for the love of the game.
There are half a dozen amateur theatre companies around. Once in a blue moon one of the youngsters might break into the professional stage. It doesn’t matter whether they go on to conquer the world, but they’ve all made a small contribution to society. These, and the people like them, are the people who deserve respect, in the true sense of the word.
The junkies, criminals, drug dealers, wife beaters, and other assorted scum of the Valleys, inspired by the whole gangsta phenomenon, seem to think that people should show them some ‘respect’.
For having managed to live into their second decade? That might have been one of Prof. Steve Jones’s evolutionary hurdles a century ago, but now it’s nothing to shout about. A lot of them have cleared Prof. Jones’s other hurdle as well – bringing children into the world. Well, congratulations! At least they’ve proved that they’re qualified to do something – even if the children are immediately placed into care, and they end up paying through the nose to the Child Support Agency.
And they’ve got ASBOs galore, of course. Criminals see them as a ‘badge of honour’, we’re told. I don’t. The only thing I’m going to show these people is contempt.
My respect is reserved for people who’ve done something to increase the sum total of human happiness. Gaining it is not a right; it’s a privilege which has to be earned – and I’m afraid that no pathetic smackhead has done anything yet to prove himself worthy of it. If you’re only capable of adding to the sum total of human misery, don’t demand my ‘respect’, because you won’t fucking get it!