Monday 23 May 2016

35 years ago today: the disrupted Peace March in Coventry at the heart of my novel, Ghost Town

It is 35 years since the Peace March in Coventry, organised to protest the murder of a young Sikh student, was met by skinheads yelling Nazi slogans.

The end of the march turned into a pitch battle between skinheads and young British Asians and their anti-racist supporters.

Today, the Coventry Telegraph has published a gallery of photographs taken on that day.  I have never seen most of these photos before - many of them were not published in the paper at the time. But many echo strongly the scene as I described it.

Here is the gallery of photos:

And here is my description of the scene as the march disintegrated into violence:

The protestors came to a halt at the edge of the road, fists raised. Over their heads Baz could see the skinheads ranged across the entrance to the bus station. In between, two double lines of police, linked arm to arm, were trying to hold them apart by sheer weight of numbers. Dissonant shouts reverberated off the concrete walls of the surrounding buildings.

A little to the left, a lamppost stood on an island in the middle of the road. Baz elbowed his way out of the crowd and scrambled up, his feet balanced on the widest part, one arm wrapped round the upright, the other holding his camera. Bricks and bottles flew in both directions. A skinhead sat on the kerb, holding his arm. A young Asian stumbled away, blood running down his face. All the while, the thin blue line holding the two groups apart was washed this way and that, like seaweed on the tide.

This was no longer his city. The buildings were the same, but nothing else was familiar. It was as if the ground had opened up and spewed out a special kind of hell. Even the desi kids he’d marched with were barely recognisable.

As he thought this, the roar from the crowd reached a new pitch. Part of the Asian line stormed forward, arms linked, heads down. Baz spotted Vik at the apex of the charge, Saeed next to him. Across the road, the skinheads saw what was happening and stampeded towards them. They ripped through the police line and suddenly the opposing groups were head to head.

Baz zoomed in on the vortex of the action, and a face flashed across his lens. A broad face, reddened with acne. A face Maia had picked out in a photograph.

Startled, he pulled back, then struggled to locate him again. Anger, thickened with helplessness, seethed through him. No way to reach the bastard through that press of people, even if he tried. Nothing to do but keep the camera running.

And suddenly he saw him, in a space carved out of the mob, like a fighting ring without ropes. He had Vik in a headlock, but he must have been thrown off balance because Vik was driving forward, using his shoulder in the bastard’s gut. Then the two of them went down and all Baz could see was a shifting space in the roiling movement of the crowd.

He’d been praying that Vik didn’t have the knife on him but now, for a sick moment, he willed him to pull it out and plunge the blade into that bull neck. Then a police van came down Priory Street and more officers spilled out. They waded into the crowd, wielding truncheons, and heaved out Bull Neck. He had blood on his face. A few moments later, four more officers staggered out, carrying Vik by the arms and legs. They’d dragged his jeans and jacket half off him and several skinheads spat at his bare flesh as they passed.

Baz’s knees buckled and he almost lost his perch on the lamppost. But before he had time to think what might happen to Vik, he heard a pounding in the road. A line of mounted police officers galloped towards him, spread across the width of the road, their long batons raised high. Others had seen them too. People were screaming. Shoving frantically for the edge of the roadway. A young woman in a shalwar kameez tripped and those nearest to her yanked her to her feet.

If he stayed where he was, he was a sitting target. He managed one shot of the charge then let go of the lamppost and ran, heading for the protection of the arches. The road vibrated from the impact of the hooves. As they swept by, a baton caught him a glancing blow to his shoulder and pain shot up his arm. He lost control of his feet and stumbled over the kerb. His arms instinctively wrapped round his camera and his face hit the pavement. More pain, in his jaw this time. He curled into a ball as others scrambled over him, fleeing the charge. He got to his feet, spitting road grit.

His left shoulder ached from where the baton had struck him, as did most of his right side from where he had hit the road. But he seemed to be more or less in one piece, and the camera was undamaged. He took out a handkerchief and blotted blood from the graze down the side of his chin.

The horses wheeled for a second charge. At the same time, a phalanx of police moved down Priory Street, escorting a group of community leaders from the rally. Three or four of them were helped onto the roof of a police van. At the front of the group, Gurinder-ji stooped and took a loud hailer that one of the officers held out to him. He had egg splattered across the front of his jacket and his hand shook at little. A beer bottle sailed past the van and crashed in the road beyond. Gurinder-ji flinched, but stood firm. The loudspeaker squawked, then his voice came through, clear and steady.

“… remain calm and disperse quietly. I repeat, we ask you to remain calm and disperse quietly …”

You’re too late, Baz thought. They’ve got Vikram.

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