I have co-authored a couple of well-received biographies about two young, black British talents who got out of Coventry. One via music and the other through boxing. Two gripping stories about being black teenagers in Coventry during the 1970s. Neville Staple escaped the ‘Ghost Town’ by becoming a lead vocalist in 2Tone pop sensation The Specials. Errol Christie got out by using his fists and becoming a top boxer on TV in the 1980s. Working with both Neville and Errol for years on their books gave me insights into Coventry and the 1970s black British experience that I could never have discovered myself. I feel privileged to have been allowed into that world.
And how relevant it still is today!
Neville – young, black and British in 1970s Coventry
Neville and his mates grew up in Coventry when tensions between racists and black kids were only just beginning to boil up to the surface. They would head down to the Locarno night club for Saturday morning teen dances around 1970 where a miner-turned-DJ called Dancing Danny would play the chart hits. Soft drinks only as they were all underage. Then Pete Waterman took over as the DJ introducing his passion for reggae. Yes – that Pete Waterman! Who would go on to be a pop mover and shaker in the 1980s with his firm Stock Aitken Waterman – launching the career of Kylie Minogue amongst others. Pete would also eventually manage The Specials for a short period after Neville joined.
Around 1972, Neville and his mates were involved in ‘the battle of Primrose Hill Park’. You won’t find it in any history books. But it is detailed in my biography of Neville, Original Rude Boy. The park had once been a medieval quarry. But on that day, it would be the site of a major fracas between black rudeboys and local skinheads. Nev’s rudeboys lured an unsuspecting group of skinheads from their favourite pub, the Mercer Arms, into the park and then ambushed them. I’ve interviewed both Neville’s side and the skins – who are now all getting on a bit – about that fateful day. Rex Griffiths, who went on to be a roadie with The Specials, was bailed for his involvement with the battle. It must have been quite a scene!
Being young, black and British in 1970s Coventry was tough. Life was lived on the edge. A daily battle for survival. But also coping with boredom and violence on the streets. The Locarno provided regular relief in the form of music, dancing and sex in the upper reaches of the club. In order to eat, black guys from not just Coventry but other towns would converge on a well-known bedsit on Wren Street where meals would be served by a very charitable gent called Henley Gordon. This was community based welfare.
Life could be short for some. A friend of Nev’s called Johnny Stevenson had come over from Jamaica for a better life. But he fell in with the wrong sort and his battered body was found in the stairwell of a tower block in the Hillfields district of Coventry. Such was the sad ending of too many black youths back then. Unmourned and forgotten. As for the police, they were the last people you went to for help. One detective, called ‘Seamus’ in the book, delighted in harassing local black youth and finding any opportunity to bring them in to the cop shop.
Neville fell into crime and did a stint in borstal – the youth offending institutions of the time. Tough places that were more about punishment than rehabilitation. Once he emerged from that experience, Neville knew he had to redirect his life. Music helped him find a path forward. Initially that was through the ‘sound system’ scene. To create a sound system involved getting a cupboard and converting it into a ‘house of joy’ for big speakers. The DJ would then play the latest ‘plates’ and somebody like Neville would ‘toast’ over the music – an early form of rapping. Rival sound systems would compete at ‘blues parties’ – no doubt creating hell on earth for the local neighbours. Who could then be relied on to call the local police bringing the whole thing to an unwanted conclusion.
One day at the Holyhead youth club while packing away the sound system equipment, Neville chanced upon a group called The Coventry Automatics jamming in a room nearby. He was intrigued that they were playing an old Jamaica kind of music from the 1960s called ‘ska’. The band was led by a hyper-intelligent, inquisitive guy called Jerry Dammers with an eclectic taste in music. Neville saw salvation and would eventually become part of the pop success known to all of you as The Specials.
Errol – young, black and British in 1970s Coventry
While Neville was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK at a very young age – Errol was British born and bred. He was also about eight years younger than Neville and this meant a slightly different experience of being young, black and British in 1970s Coventry. By the late 1970s, when he came of age, Errol was having to contend with a skinhead street culture that had been infiltrated by extreme Right groups like the British Movement and National Front. This was a sad development given that the first skinheads understood their musical and sartorial debt to Jamaican culture. Now, you had skins who still danced to black music but somehow squared that with fighting black kids on the streets and supporting neo-Nazis groups.
The big change was economic decline and a massive jump in youth unemployment. This bred resentment and hatred among some working-class youth. Where were the factory apprenticeships that were rightfully theirs? The neo-Nazis whispered in their ears: the blacks and Asians took them. Completely tripe but desperate people will believe anything.
From the age of seven, Errol and his brothers began boxing at a car factory gym. This was part of the amazing infrastructure that existed in working-class communities before the collapse of manufacturing industry under Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. The Triumph gym became Errol’s second home and his first amateur boxing manager was a shop steward from the production line.
However, once Errol left the gym, it was time to resume the ceaseless combat with the Radford Boot Boys. The local youth always out for a bust up with black kids. As Errol said to me, his life was once long continuum of fighting. Either in the ring or on the streets. But the injuries that plagued him later in life – his ‘battle wounds’ – were always attributed to the ill-disciplined rucks on the street and not boxing. I remember noting a scar on Errol’s knuckle and asking how he received it. Incredibly, he’d planted his fist so hard into a skinhead’s mouth that he’d managed to extract a tooth – that became embedded in his knuckle. He joking called himself ‘a dentist to the skins’.
What rankled with Errol more than the bust ups were the petty humiliations. Seeing his parents treated like idiots and even ripped off by so-called financial advisers. Unpleasant sarcasm from teachers. Piss-taking in the playground on the grounds of his skin colour. Shopkeepers who became vigilant as hawks the moment a black kid walked in. Friendships with white school pupils that didn’t last because the parents would intervene ushering their child away. Being arrested for a burglary committed by another black person and only the incandescent fury of his mother at the cops getting him released.
Boxing would be Errol’s salvation. A ticket out of the ghost town of Coventry. His last hurrah was participating in a relatively small riot in 1981 following the murder of an Asian youth by racists. That was part of a summer of riots that engulfed cities across the UK that year. A fitting statement to the disastrous unemployment-creating policies of Margaret Thatcher in her first term of office.
Music and sport lifted Neville and Errol out of poverty and a lack of life chances. Many never made it. They were brutal times in many ways but our two heroes were pioneers who refused to be held down by the system.
Postscript: Since penning this blog post, Errol Christie was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in 2017. I saw him the day before his untimely death. Below is a tribute to him from Steve Bunce who wrote the introduction to the biography I wrote with Errol – No Place To Hide.