Tuesday 29 October 2013

Concrete Jungle

Sukhbender Singh is the author of Concrete Jungle, a radio play performed on the BBC Asian Network which shares its backdrop with Bob Eaton’s Three Minute Heroes and my novel, Ghost Town.

"As the storm of racial tension in Coventry rises, two young Asians, Harri and Rudy, each have to make a choice about what's most important to them - music, girls, or standing up to be counted."

Here he talks to me about growing up in Coventry in the 1980s, and the trials and tribulations of getting
Concrete Jungle produced.

Sukhbender, what are your memories of Coventry from the early 80s? Did you take part in the protest marches that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill? 
I was born in India and came to Coventry when I was two. In 1981, I was fourteen - too young to be directly involved. My mum would never have let us!  What I do remember is that going into Coventry City Centre could be a bit of a tortuous trail. We used make sure we went shopping early because the skinheads didn’t come out until later.

Most of those involved in the protests were around five years older. Nineteen, twenty. It was one of the first times that young Asians took a stand against racism.  For the older generation, it was all about keeping your head down, not being noticed. But now there was a new generation who felt British. I know some of the older ones got involved in vigilante patrols, protecting their communities.

How did you come to write Concrete Jungle?
Concrete Jungle was one of the first things I wrote. A classic example of ‘write what you know’. It started off as film script. I first tried peddling it around in 1993, and then again around 2000.  The first time they all wanted it to be more like My Beautiful Launderette.  The second time round it was, “can’t you make it more like Bend It Like Beckham?” The only thing Concrete Jungle has in common with either of those is that it’s about Asians! After a while, I decided there was no point. I had to move on.

I started working on Silver Street, which was a radio soap opera for the BBC Asian Network.  When that was canned, the BBC decided to put some one-off dramas on the Asian Network, so I pitched Concrete Jungle to them. I cut the film script down to 50 minutes, hoping that they might do a longer piece, or maybe a two-parter.  But in the end I had to squeeze it all down to 25 minutes, which didn’t give much scope.

2011 was an interesting time for Concrete Jungle to come out.  Not only was it the 30th anniversary, but we were in a recession again, there was another Royal Wedding ... I was working with the producer, James Pereis, who was brilliant and fully understood the script and the times. But the BBC controllers didn’t know the history. They were concerned about the riot scene and they didn’t like my using the word Paki.  How can you tell the story of that time without using that word?  They wanted to sanitise it.

The play used comedy to highlight the tensions of growing up Asian, which wasn’t all about racism. It was about not having a job, unrequited love, all that stuff. It wasn’t overtly political, but there were political undertones.

The playlist for Concrete Jungle includes tracks from Two Tone Bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. Yet Horace Panter has said that not that many young Asians would go to The Specials’ concerts.  How do you think Coventry’s Asian youth viewed Two Tone and Ska? Did it speak to them, or did they feel excluded? Were you a fan yourself?
A few Asian kids were into things like The Jam and The Clash. But most of them were listening to Bhangra or Filmi (Bollywood music). My brother loved Two Tone, though and so I got into it. No one else captured the zeitgeist quite like they did.

When The Specials announced their Concert for Racial Harmony, we were very excited.  But we couldn’t afford the tickets. And we were all scared things would kick off again.  Everybody thought the National Front would use it as an excuse to make more trouble, though in the event, that didn’t happen. 

This is potentially a huge question – but how do you think things have changed for young British Asians in the past thirty years? Is Coventry in particular a better place to be growing up than it was thirty years ago – or a worse?
It’s hard for me to say.  As an adult, your cognitive map of the city changes.  But the vibe is not the same as it was during the 80s recession.  There aren’t the same tensions. 

It feels like a calmer place.  I understand it’s now one of the safest cities in England. There was a small demonstration by the English Defence League a while back, but hardly anyone turned up.

Thank you, Sukhbender.  

Coming soon:  Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts, the first Asian Theatre Group in Britain (founded in 1977).

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Three Minute Heroes

Bob Eaton was Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from 1996 to 2003.  During that time, he wrote and produced Three Minute Heroes, a “jukebox musical” about a young Ska band in Coventry, set against a background of the same events that inspired Ghost Town.

Here he talks to me about why it was so important to him to put on a play about the Two Tone era, how he approached writing it and what Coventry is like today.

First can you tell us a bit about your background.  Are you Coventry born and bred?
No. In fact, I was Manchester and Liverpool during the Two-Tone era. So, really, my experience of Two Tone was much the same as the rest of the country - seeing the Specials and The Selecter on Top Of The Pops.

So how did you come to write Three Minute Heroes ?
I started work under Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke on Trent.  He pioneered the idea of developing work for the stage that was based on real local events, which made me think a lot about how theatre relates to the community - the ‘soil in which it grows,’ as it were. 

There was also a bit of me that was a bit of a wannabe rock ’n roller who had been persuaded to do my exams and go to university instead... I guess that was why, in the late sixties and early seventies, I started developing the idea of what these days you’d call ‘jukebox musicals,’ using actors who were also musicians, which was a new idea back then.  When I went to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981, I put on a show called Lennon, which is still being produced now.  That was a local story, and timely, as he’d been killed the year before.

So when I came to the Belgrade Theatre, I knew from the start that I wanted to do something about Two Tone, even if it took me a few years to get round to it.  It was a local story, it was exciting, and it had a political dimension to it.  I spent a long time talking to people like Pauline Black, Neol Davies and James Mackie from the Selecter, and Horace Panter and Roddy Byers from The Specials, finding out how Two Tone had come about for them.

It was a strange period musically. Punks and latter-day mods were coming together with musicians with a soul/funk/Caribbean background. And then you had people like Pauline, who was mixed race but had grown up in a white (adoptive) family, and (as she herself says) the nearest she had come to Caribbean music was Joan Armatrading.

At the same time, this wave of fascism and racism was building, and musicians were reacting to that.

Three Minute Heroes wasn’t a documentary.  We decided to tell it as the story of a group of young musicians coming up in the wake of bands like The Specials. We had five young actors, some of whom could play a bit.  And then we had a live band, directed by Akintayo Akinbode.

As well as the joys of the Two Tone era, Three Minute Heroes also addresses the rising tensions between skinhead and Asian youths, and the protests that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill. How did you go about portraying those events on stage?
We dealt with it indirectly, I guess.  One of the members of the band – a Rasta – is set upon in the Precinct late at night and badly beaten up.  Their roadie – the unmusical one who feels a bit left out -  becomes a skinhead.  But then, appalled by the violence he sees around him, joins CovWAR* and goes on vigilante patrols.
[*Coventry Workers Against Racism – which in my novel became CovARA – the Coventry Anti-Racist Alliance]

And though the band breaks up, they come together again one last time to play at The Specials’ Concert for Racial Harmony.

Your play had two seasons at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, in 2000 and 2001. How was it received by a Coventry audience?
The audience was always very mixed – but on the nights that were the most packed, there were a lot of men of a certain age and waist size – ex rude-boys, jumping on stage and dancing at the first opportunity.

On one amazing night, after the end of the show, the band on stage was joined by Neol Davies, then Pauline Black, then Horace Panter ...

I’d love to put it on again.  I’ve been talking to the current Artistic Director at the Belgrade.

There was a screening a couple of years ago, at Coventry’s Two Tone Central, wasn’t there?
Screening is a bit grand. It was a video I’d shot on a hand held camera, with the stage half-blocked out by someone’s bald head. I think about seven people came.

Earlier this year, you were involved with Shaun Prendergast’s Re-Creation Quartet, shown as part of Coventry’s Mysteries Festival.  Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Re-Creation Quartet was a cycle of four short plays focused on different periods in Coventry’s history, each one to be staged in a different square in Coventry. The last of the four plays was a Two Tone story.  Shaun didn’t really know the history, so I more or less re-wrote that one.

We worked with kids from Ego Performance, and we had a band, including Harrington Bembridge, the drummer from The Selecter. They performed it in Broadgate, which is now all pedestrianised. We had kids of all races dressed up in 2-Tone gear. Skinheads with shaven heads. Maggie Thatcher and Arthur Scargill on stilts. Dancing riot police.  The audience were all skanking.

Those kids were all far too young to remember the events from first time round.  But they were all so into the whole 2-Tone thing, it makes me think maybe its time has come again.

[Click here and scroll down to see some fabulous pictures of the performance from John Coles ]

You still live in Coventry now.  How would you describe the city today?
I think it’s much more chilled. A nicer place to live. It had a bad reputation at one time for late night violence, but that’s all abated. For my kids, growing up in Coventry, racism isn’t even a question. There are poorer areas of the city of course – Foleshill Road and Stoney Stanton Road. But unlike some cities, it isn’t ghettoised. People from different backgrounds mix.

Thank you, Bob!
Coming soon to this blog: Sukhbender Singh, author of Concrete Jungle, and Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts, the first Asian Theatre Group in the UK.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Cover Design and the Power of the Author Collective

In five week's time, almost to the minute as I type, I shall be sharing a platform at the Chorleywood Literary Festival with my fellow writers from the Triskele Books author collective.

This week was especially exciting.  Not only did the brochures for the Lit Fest come out (hey, we have a whole page to ourselves!) but the cover designs were revealed for the three books we are launching at the festival.  And it's because of those cover designs that the power of the author collective has been particularly on my mind the last couple of days.

My cover, as you can see, borrows shamelessly from the same source from which I took my title - the Two Tone album covers of bands like The Specials and The Selecter. So far the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. But it could so easily have gone very differently.

I had been thinking about the Ghost Town cover for months. I'm not a terribly visual person, so I may have been a bit sketchy on the details, but I had a very strong concept of what I wanted it to be like. I wanted that look of a Two Tone album cover.  I wanted black and white. I wanted silhouetted figures.  I wanted the sense of protest and threat.

Most of the elements were no problem. Working with the brilliant Jane Dixon-Smith, we quite quickly came up with a style for the title and author name, and brought in that dominant image of a boot print. But once I'd spent a few evenings ploughing through options on sites like Shutterstock, it was obvious that unless I could magic up a cover artist who could actually create bespoke images for me, adding the silhouettes was going to involve a certain amount of compromise.

And that's where things started to go wrong.  I got hung up on finding images that looked like my characters - and in the process I lost the energy that the cover needed. The cover design I was on the verge of approving failed to encapsulate the book's themes.

Then one of my fellow Triskelites stepped in.

Like an old-fashioned publisher's editor, JJ Marsh first encountered Ghost Town as a complete manuscript, but when it was still in need of some significant re-writing.  And like that old-fashioned editor, she has been both the book's greatest champion and its harshest critic.  Whenever I veered off the rails, or failed to live up to the standard she set for us, she would have no hesitation in giving me a good hard slap (metaphorically speaking).  And she wasn't about to stop just because the book was now written.

"I'm not happy," she told me. "That cover is not going to attract the right audience for Ghost Town. You'll be letting yourself down."

Starting over was a pain - for me and for my long-suffering designer. But it was the right thing to do.  I couldn't have seen it for myself.  I knew I was compromising, but what I couldn't see was that I was compromising in the wrong direction. But someone else, equally committed to the book but more dispassionate, could.

And that is the power of the author collective.  The indie author retains responsibility for choosing the book's title, its cover, the way the interior is laid out, the way it is marketed.  But they don't have to do it all alone. An author collective provides a trusted set of eyes and ears who will tell them when they have got things wrong and who will help them find the right path without compromising their vision.

So JJ Marsh:  this is for you, girl!  Thank you.

PS And here are the other two fabulous covers that Jane Dixon Smith has designed for us.  Aren't they wonderful?

Overlord by JD Smith
Wolfsangel by Liza Perrat

Triskele Books will be at the Chorleywood Literary Festival on Saturday 16th November.  From 11:00-12:30 we will be running a Human Reference Library on self-publishing.  And from 12:30-13:30 we will be holding a Q&A on the Rise of the Author Collective - discussing our new novels, why we chose to publish with a collective, and why 'self-publishing' doesn't mean doing it all yourself.

Both events are free, but tickets must be reserved via Chorleywood Bookshop. Please call 01923 283566.

Coming Soon:  an interview with Bob Eaton, former Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and author of Three Minute Heroes, a play based on the same events that inspired Ghost Town.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Sir Horace Gentleman Interview

It's no secret that my novel, Ghost Town takes its name from the single by the Specials that, for many, was the soundtrack of 1981. So for the second of my series of interviews with people involved in the real-life events behind the novel, it's a particular honour introduce a member of the band that was for a time synonymous with Coventry: bassist, HORACE PANTER, otherwise known as Sir Horace Gentleman.

Like me, you first came to Coventry as a student in the 1970s. Can you describe what the city was like back then?

"Sir Horace Gentleman"
I was a student from 1972-75 and came from a small market town.  From the off, we were worried that Coventry was a violent place; it had that reputation. I lived in a house in Bramble Street and from the back bedroom window we could see the hordes of away fans being frog-marched by the police from the train station to the Coventry City football ground on Highfield Road. 

During the punk era you could see a band almost every night of the week - I got swept up in that.

What was your first introduction to Ska? How did that come about? What kind of music were you listening to before that?

I started by listening to the pirate radio stations in the 60s then John Peel at the BBC. The first single I bought was by The Byrds; the first album was ‘Freak Out’ by The Mothers of Invention. I was very impressionable on those days.  

By the time I got to Coventry, I was into Free, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac - blues/rock. I got into soul music - Tamla Motown and Booker T and the MGs. I didn’t play reggae before I joined The Specials and we didn’t start playing ska until Christmas 1978. Ska was like blues, but the guitar played the off-beat, so for me, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. Reggae was harder to play.

What do you think it was that made Ska take root in Coventry in particular?

Ska, along with soul, was the music of the mods and by the time The Specials rose to prominence there was something of a mod revival going on. Coventry, I have now realised, was a multicultural city before multiculturalism existed.  This worked for musicians as well. You got the gig because you were a good guitar player, not because you were the ‘right’ colour.

The Two-Tone label stood squarely for anti-racism. Yet there was sometimes a disturbingly ambiguous relationship with a certain section of the fans - with gigs sometimes attracting skinheads who weren’t exactly ‘on message’. How hard was that to deal with?
Horace Panter today

Racially-motivated violence at Specials' concerts was very rare. I can think of three concerts in our entire career where this happened and it was during our 1980 ‘More Specials’ tour.  The main problem at our shows was young, over-exuberant males suffering from the effects of alcohol and football partisanship. Also, you had to know your skinhead: original and into ska/soul music; gay, or ultra-right!

Black and white kids alike saw Two Tone as ‘their’ sound. But what about young British Asian kids in Coventry? Sukhbender Singh’s play ‘Concrete Jungle’ suggests they, too, identified with the music.  Did you used to see them at Two Tone gigs?

Our concerts were predominantly attended by whites. We bemoaned the fact that there were not more black/Asian fans. There were some, but a very small minority. At that time though, ska was seen by most young people in the black community as being music for old men so it wasn’t groovy.

In Coventry young Asians hadn’t quite found their feet as their culture conflicted with local culture; also, they had reason to be nervous of the skinhead uniform. They did seem to like the music though as it later influenced the emergence of Bangra music which also started in Coventry.

My novel covers the period in the spring and summer of 1981, when the student Satnam Singh Gill was murdered in broad daylight in the city centre. The resulting protests sparked violent battles between skinheads and Asian kids. The Specials’ response to the violence was to organise a Concert for Racial Harmony in the Butts Stadium. My memory of that time is that something in the city changed afterwards. There was a release of tension. Certainly it’s true that, almost alone among English cities, Coventry did not experience riots that summer. How did the concert come about? And do you have a sense of what pulled the city back from the brink?

I remember Coventry as a ‘grimmer than usual’ place in 1981, but I viewed my world through ‘rock star’ tinted glasses back then. We were aware of racial tensions in the city, not helped by the growing presence of the National Front and the murder of Satnam Singh Gill. It was obvious we had to do something about the racial tensions in the city and this was the best way to do it. 

The weather wasn’t great but it didn’t rain. Attendance wasn’t that good; I think people were wary about the whole place becoming a focal point for rival factions to congregate and cause trouble, but they didn’t. The National Front had threatened to show up but, again, they didn’t. It was definitely worth it. As you have noted, there was no repeat of the civil disobedience that infected other British cities in the summer of 1981. It would be nice to think we had a part in that. 

[Follow this link to see photographs from The Specials' Concert for Racial Harmony, held in the Butts Stadium, Coventry on 20th June, 1981: http://thisthen.co.uk/bands/specials/festival-against-racism/?nggpage=2 ]

How has Coventry changed since those days?

The factories have closed.
The pubs have closed.
The independent stores have closed.
The precinct has been rebuilt (badly).
Horizon Studios got knocked down and they build the Central Six shopping mall.
The Polytechnic became a University and has expanded dramatically.
I daren’t even mention the football team!

I jokingly say ‘Coventry: European city of low self-esteem - 35th glorious year’ but it’s a joke! If you’re from Cov, you’ll get it.*

That would have something to do with Coventry City winning the  FA Cup in 1987? Ah, the glory days! Thank you, Horace.

Read more about Horace Panter on http://www.horacepanterart.com/