The Lady in Red

The Lady in Red

Marple was another stubbornly middle-class, whiter-than-white town, full of self-satisfaction, tennis clubs and masonic halls. Follow the yellow brick road, high up in the Cheshire hills. Out of the blue, an invitation had arrived on our doorsteps and the Spiffs were off to mingle with the great and the good of the Marple Rotary Club. Upon arrival, our forty-something hostess, looked us up and down quizically. Dressed to kill in a scarlet evening dress she announced ‘Hello and what are you?’ I was tempted to reply ‘human beings’ but muttered ‘Graphic designers’. ‘Oh no, not more graphic designers!’ We were shooed in. At our Moss Side rented residence, a young man from China had come to stay. He was a student by the name of Mr Shuang-hua Xia. ‘Call me Ken’ he said. We became good mates and enjoyed a fierce game of badminton. Ken had never seen Marple or anything quite like this. There were canapes, glasses of Cristal, cucumber sandwiches, shiny people in shiny power clothing. Soft eighties muzak purred in the background. The conservatory lead onto a veranda and beyond were the freshly cut lawns of Cheshire. The smell of freshly-trousered Thatcherite privatisation money mingled with the sweet odour of newly-cut grass. We were in the English version of the Great Gastby. Any moment now, Jay Gatsby and his entourage would pull up in a silver phantom and he would say ‘Good evening, Old Sport’. Commie Ken was thoroughly enjoying himself in these new bourgeois capitalist environs, holding forth on his ground-breaking research into Nuclear Fusion at Manchester University. He was exotic, new and the Marple-ites lapped him up. As the sun went down and the Cristal kicked in, suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder. It was our hostess in red. ‘Paul’ she said fixing me with a stare that must have brought many a Rotarian to his knees, ‘Would you like to dance?’ Soft melodies filled the house, the lights dimmed on a summery night and the place had an air of escapism. Moss Side was so, so far away. All night The Kid and I had maxed out on the glorious food, quaffing thirstily from the chalices of wine. Yet I sensed he was not with me that evening. Though he smiled munificently throughout, I discerned a flirtatious indifference. Imperceptably Chris de Burgh began to sing and I found the hostess was clutching my shoulder.’The Lady in Red, is dancing with me, cheek to cheek, I hardly know this feeling inside. I will never forget the way you look tonight’. Very hazily, I recall seeing the silhouette of Mr Shuang-hua Xia swaying gently to the music behind the folly, a flickering smile in the shadows. Years later, long after Ken had left Manchester with The Imperialist who owned a Renault Four and drove him around town with his chinese lackies, I was teaching Mr Wong, the chairman of a multi-national in Bournemouth. The vexed subject of a win-win negotiation came up. Momentarily there was a glint in his eye that transported me back to that magical Marple night. Was it all connected?

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It’s Tricky

It's Tricky

On the face of it this looks like it could be the gig of the decade, and it gets better, because the support band were The Beastie Boys whose riotous paean to soflad self-indulgence ‘Fight for your Right to Party’ had just crashed into the charts. Run DMC’s duet with Aerosmith, ‘Walk this Way’ was a mid-eighties air-guitar dream and when I found one of them was called Simmons I felt part of the family. They added a swagger to my post-student UB40 gravy days. One of the last intake at St Clements Road was a jovial blond southerner called Richard AKA ‘Tricky Dicky’. Whenever we saw him around the library at this time we broke into a chorus of Run DMC’s follow-up single ‘It’s Tricky’. It sure was. With tabloid terror tales of hoodlum teenage gangs ripping badges off Volkswagens to dangle from their necks, blue flashing lights and Anderton’s alsation-wielding head-crunchers on stand-by for The Riots, Round Two, how did it all go so wrong at The Apollo that night? It just left me feeling a little flat. I was twenty four at the time and it was a bit of a wake-up call that I was growing up and had left certain things behind or maybe just never acquired them in the first place. The whole baseball-cap-on-backwards pose just didn’t do it fo me, the chains and the jewellery, baggy pants hanging off raggedy arses. Not my thang, baby. Perhaps it was because Big Alex wasn’t with me to cause mayhem down at the front but this wasn’t his thing either. Instead I was perched up on high, looking down at what appeared to be a convention of ugly softlads in bad ill-fitting clothes, a sea of ridiculous movements and gesticulations accompanied by a cacophony of shrill pre-pubescent voices and whistle-blowing. The average age seemed to be about fourteen. The giant inflatable penis thing which was supposed to be so hilarious just left me feeling flaccid. I felt middle-aged and ready to move on. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a little bit of rap and hip-hop but all the other accoutrements were not for me.

A Land of Cotton

I Wish I was in a Land of Cotton

The two blockbusters of the hour are Django Unchained and Spielberg’s Lincoln. What’s that got to do with any of this? Well, in 1986 a statue of Abraham Lincoln was moved from Platt Fields to a location round the back of Albert Square. It commemorates the words of the US President, spoken as a heartfelt gesture of gratitude to the cotton workers of Manchester who chose to support the fight against slavery at immense personal cost. When the US Civil War started there were half a million cotton workers in Lancashire and the main source of raw material was the good ole cotton-pickin Confederate states of the south, pumped in via Liverpool and the Ship Canal. When Lincoln’s Union imposed a naval blockade on those states, this supply dried up. A huge slump known as ‘The Cotton Famine’ followed. By November 1862, sixty percent of the workforce were idle. Many mill owners and shipping bosses sided with the South and petitioned for military intervention. Liverpool largely supported the Confederacy and it was noted that there were ‘more Confederate flags flying there than in Richmond Virginia’. However in an outstanding show of humanity and moral courage, a huge majority of Manchester workers, unionised and politicised, showed solidarity with the anti-slavery movement. At a mass meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, on New Year’s Eve 1862, a motion was passed urging Lincoln to continue the war, abolish slavery and supporting the blockade. All this in spite of the fact that the action was by now causing the workers to starve. A year later Lincoln wrote the words that are inscribed on the statue: ‘I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country’.

The Great Satan

The Great Satan

A smiling septuagenarian called Ronald Reagan was tasked with making the USA great again after the shambles of Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis had taken the gloss from the American dream. I remembered him from a horrific scene in a 1940s film called Kings Row where he loses his legs in a railway accident and wakes up screaming ‘Where’s the rest of me?’ He was no genial buffoon though and his tough-guy stance sent a wave of Anti-Americanism around leftish circles at this time. Ronnie may have been grinning and waving at Diana’s wedding and strolling around hand-in-hand with his bosom buddy Maggie Thatcher but his aggressive foreign policy made him Public Enemy Number Two in student eyes. It really took something to knock Chief Constable James Anderton off that perch. In 1985 there was a horribly violent action pic called First Blood in which Sylvester Stallone played a soldier called Rambo. The musclebound snarling bullet-festooned image became an icon for militarism and aggression. Even the Old Trafford t-shirt floggers got in on the act. There was one of a gun-toting Norman Whiteside in combat gear and bandana which I bought on Warwick Road – ‘Normbo, No Scouser can Stop him now’. In 1984 the US invaded Grenada and then bombed Libya. In 1986 they were illegally selling weapons to Iran to fund anti-communist contras in Nicaragua. They were up to no good in El Salvador. I saw Oliver Stone’s film about that in The Cornerhouse and its still one of my favourites. With his Star Wars and Evil Empire posturing it seems almost unbelievable now but it really did feel that we were on a collision course for all-out nuclear oblivion. John Lydon wailed about world destruction and even Sting had a mournful hit with ‘I hope the Russians love their children too’. Blimey. When Yuri Andropov shot down a Korean airliner in 1983 everyone stood still. There were no Russians or Easten Blocers at the Los Angeles Olympics – though there was one on Oldham Street selling vinyl. Everyone was boycotting or blockading, fingers were on triggers. There were pinkos and subversives under every bed. Kenny Everett captured the mood with his charicature of a broad-shouldered medal-festooned US General ‘Round em all up, put em in a field, and bomb the bastards’. But maybe it was the ever-astute Johnny Rotten who summarised it all most succinctly ‘The human race is becoming a disgrace’.

Task Force

Task Force

Mid-eighties Manchester, the music scene diverse and vibrant after the intellectual post-punk explosion. As Spiffing Images, launched from the front room of a cosy terrace in Moss Side prospered, so did our list of contacts; Roadrider, the imperious Bicycle Doctor of Rusholme, Gypsy John Martyn, Ian McLager-Top, Pete Patter and Devious Dave. Mike Slaven, Bernie of T-Dynamix and Earl Stephens. The latter trio were black and savvy. All three of them had upbringings a million miles away from ours. They were the descendants of Jamaican and Carribean families who had emigrated to Moss Side in the 1950’s, to sweep the roads and drive the buses. Mike often spoke about his house-cleaning Mum. This was six years after the Moss Side riots, ten years after footballers like Clyde Best were refered to as coloured and at a time when my two favourite players, Dave Bennett of Man City and John Barnes of Watford were regularly booed. We had beautiful inflatable bananas on the terraces but I had never seen a real one chucked at a player until Millwall of London came to Maine Road. This bemusing race problem was exacerbated by the fact that in our sunday team, the legendary Teenage Kicks FC of Chorlton, we had recruited Alan Robinson, a former City youth player who in the Gorton under-14 team had scored more goals than his colleague Dave Bennett. As a white middle-class lad growing up in Hale Barnes, Cheshire, I had no accurate comprehension of these cultural problems.

Release the Pressure

Release the Pressure

We met Earl Stephens of Smile Video enterprises as he opportunistically flogged his ‘complete and exclusive’ video package at the Polytechnic graduation ball. Later as enterprise and start-up agencies like Project Fullemploy and the Prince’s Trust hit Manchester as a social response to the riots and economic deprivation, we met Mike Slaven and Bernie of reggae band T-Dynamix. Racially, socially and politically they were right on it and ostensibly we were all in the same boat as young entrepreneurs. Long before the world bought Reggae-Reggae sauce, start-up agencies such as Project Fullemploy were helping bakeries, window cleaners, computer firms, plumbers, fruit and veg merchants and small graphic designers to name but a diverse few. In post-riot Britain, these heavily critcised small business agencies in our inner-cities made a significant difference to many young people. When in the late eighties, Bernie of T-Dynamix invited me to a gig in Hulme, I felt really accepted. 28 years on, I still recall his intro before each song – ‘Drop it’. Similarly Earl Stephens introduced me to his sister in the Deansgate Library car-park. As she stepped into her Merc we would see Earl in his distinctive smilemobile blasting soft melodic tunes out on the streets of south Manchester. Yet it’s Mike Slaven who sticks most clearly in the memory. He was a Liverpool University economics graduate with a calm authoritative manner who got us an entree into the Moss Side and Hulme Task Force team. The Moss Side Centre not far from Alexandra Park where the Task Force was situated, had a foreboding look to it. Before our first meeting, I did a recce of the place and stumbled across three youths ‘Hey rude boy, watcha doin ere, mon? Come to do some good Mister Social Worker?’ Deadpan I asked them where the Task Force office was and although laughing at me, they pointed the way, resuming a Jamaican patois I later learnt. It was ok and we were on their manor. I felt comfortable, especially after our controversial designs for a new brochure were accepted by Hartley Hanley, an outspoken and charismatic community leader. Bernie and Earl were buck-chasing entrepreneurs as were we. Both had flair, guile and street nous and both were successful. But Mike Slaven had vision and tranquility with problem-solving qualities, the like of which I had never seen before. He later took his team and about twelve young businesses on a residential training weekend at a posh hotel near Wilmslow. Here, as we trooped in, I saw him clock the disdainful shocked look of the all white staff. We all learnt much that weekend. Sometimes in life you learn a load of important stuff and don’t always realise it at the time. Slaven had natural empathy and a strong faith in God, allied to intellect and modesty. This was 1987-88 – when in 1992 a drugs civil war broke out between the Cheetham Hill gang and the Moss Side possee I did not see Mike Slaven. A scout on a BMX bike and a young boy were shot, several men seriously injured. On national TV Hartley Hanley spoke out – ‘Stop killing the sons of your mothers, your own flesh and blood’. His speech and his plea to the Afro-carribean community stirred some national hacks into action. More broadcasts followed and eventually the killing stopped. I suspect though that it had very little to do with Fleet Street or Eddie Shah. Karlene E. Smith wrote a novel, Moss Side Massive. Try and read it sometime.

Devious Dave

Devious Dave

Not long after The Kid and I met Devious Dave, Morrissey wrote a hurtful yet accurate song called Dagenham Dave. We were designing and handing out leaflets and had just hit our prime, sunny days in south Manchester, cash in our pockets and shiny new u-locks for our bikes. The cash-rich seam of Mancunian nightlife with its 90,000 students had been penetrated. Thatcher’s mirror image faux prosperity of Harold Macmillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good’ was in full late eighties swing and gave birth to many an entrepreneur, not least Devious Dave. One day he invited me to see his empire. I got on my bike and rode up to the curiously fashionable but seedy Oldham Street area, just north of Piccadilly Gardens. Factory Records hadn’t yet opened their cute leftfield watering hole Dry Bar part-owned by New Order, but this area at the time had classy vinyl record shops, Afflecks Palace and style in abundance. Devious Dave was Tim Wetherspoon with bells on, only fifteen years ahead of his time. They might have come from different backgrounds but they shared a similar vision. They also understood alcohol. Tugging my arm conspiratorially, Dave led me down a dark alleway into a huge musty old Victorian public house. It was a Tuesday lunchtime and the place was packed with punters, pints in hand, Motown blaring out of the jukebox. This was a smokey boozer with real edge, in fact, at any moment you expected a good old-fashioned OK Corral punch-up to break out before normal business resumed. ‘I OWN THIS PUB, PAUL’ HE SAID – ‘LETS GO UPSTAIRS’ . We entered his office, a large spacious boardroom with leather chairs and a massive framed diploma hanging on the wall. It was awarded for ‘business administration’ from the University of ‘I-have-paid-for-this’. We got on well, talking football and politics, but when I broached the subject of the imminent expansion of our firm Spiffing Images Design, he cut me. ‘Paul, I worked bloody hard for that qualification and my business consultancy fee is eighty pounds an hour’. Devious Dave also owned several other hostelries in Manchester including a bierkeller near Piccadilly train station. We continued to work for him and were paid handsomely. In fact I grew to like him, always buzzing around, holding forth on any punt, from horse-racing or who would win the next election. A few years later when I was working for the Guardian newspaper just before Thatcher was deposed by her own and replaced by a grey dull accountant by the name of John Major, I heard he had opened a nightclub called The Factory. I never saw it. I imagine Devious is sunning himself on the Costa del Sol right now, drinking DP and enjoying himself taking a bird for a ride on his yacht. Good luck to him. November spawned a monster and the eighties spawned many a wide business tyke. Some prospered and many did not. ‘Danny will stand you a pint at the bar on your way out, mate’. Dave never drank in his own pubs.