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Life’s a Riot – Reading the Writing on the Wall

Liverpool Rising




No-one seemed that bothered by the chalked on words scrawled on a wall in the centre of town. That’s if they even noticed them as they bustled past on that busy week day lunchtime. The words were easy to miss if you weren’t looking for them, but for those who knew what was going on, and others like me whose eye accidentally caught them, they read like a call to arms. 


I’d left school that summer, and had stumbled into a Youth Opportunities Programme with British Rail for £23.50 a week. The YOP scheme had been set up so Thatcher could massage the dole queue figures down to below the million they really were. I spent most of my £23.50 at Probe, the punky-hippy record shop where I’d probably just been when I saw the chalked on words, which stopped me in my tracks.


That April in Bristol there had been what came to be known as the St. Pauls riot, which happened after police raided the Black and White Café on Grosvenor Road in the city. The Black and White was a Caribbean food café dubbed by the Observer newspaper as recently as 2003 as ‘Britain’s most dangerous hard drug den’. The café was closed shortly after and subsequently demolished a year later. 


The St Pauls riot happened against a backdrop of poor housing, economic disparity, racial tensions aggravated by indiscriminate use of the police stop and search SUS law and a community ripped in two by the M32 motorway. The 1980 raid prompted several hours of unrest that saw a bank, a post office and police cars and fire engines damaged in the melee. 130 people were arrested, and 90 charged, though in the end no one was prosecuted. 


Events in St Pauls prompted a copycat riot in the primarily white working class area of Southmead. More significantly, it was one of the most volatile moments to occur during the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s first term as  prime minister, revealing a tinderbox of simmering tensions in a disunited kingdom that looked set to explode once more any minute.



Police and Thieves


Britain has always been a police state. Up until recently, those running it were really clever about it most of the time, hiding it in plain sight shielded by a very British form of Newspeak. Only occasionally did those in charge get found out after pushing things too far, like they did in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In that case, they stopped trying to pretend things were being dealt with in a civilised manner, and the two-channel news bulletins were full of shaky-handed footage of rubber bullet and petrol bomb loaded confrontations on Belfast and Derry streets.


Other than that, in an era where politics in the UK appeared civilised to the point of dullness, a riot was the last thing likely to happen here. Nah. Riots were the stuff of grainy news footage of civil rights and anti Vietnam marches being broken up in1960s America. It was Bob Dylan singing The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964), and Nina Simone singing Mississippi Goddamn (1964). It was Sly and the Family Stone releasing There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), and Neil Young writing Ohio (1971). 


Things were changing, however, as the death of Blair Peach in 1979 while taking part in an Anti Nazi League demonstration against the National Front in Southall exposed. During the demonstration, Peach, a 33-year-old schoolteacher from New Zealand, was hit over the head, and died in hospital later that night. A report later concluded that the fatal blow was struck by an officer from the Special Patrol Group, a unit set up by the London Met to tackle such incidents. What happened to Peach revealed a rare crack in the police’s armour. It was the shape of things to come.



Send in the Cavalry


To a wet behind the ears young shaver like me, me, at least, ‘LIVERPOOL LIKE BRISTOL 1980 - RISE UP!’ sounded inflammatory and hard to imagine. In England’s dreaming, The Clash’s own call to arms with White Riot sounded like posh boy posturing. The Mekons were nearer the mark with the shambolic glory of Never Been in a Riot. And who had ever been in a riot? The idea of extended displays of street violence in Anfield Liverpool 4 where I lived sounded mad. Except on match days, when a steady exodus past our front door towards the football ground beyond would occasionally erupt into something more raucous, but nothing serious.


Visits by Manchester United made life on the street after the game particularly treacherous. In truth, though, the only real sign of aggro I ever saw was one Saturday teatime after a Liverpool v Man U game. I was doing my paper round, delivering the Echo, and a gang of red-scarfed youths pegged it past me, scattering in different directions with police on horseback in hot pursuit. 


One young terrace terror scrambled his way over the wooden fence of my old infants school, making up in desperation what he lacked in stealth. He was followed shortly by Merseyside Constabulary’s version of the cavalry, which saw the uniformed officer and his trusty steed gallop towards the same spot where their assailant had attempted to dodge them. 


Displaying equestrian skills impressive enough to suggest they were leaping Beecher’s Brook at the Grand National rather than into a primary school playground, policeman and horse vaulted vigorously over the wooden fence, and charged on, presumably getting their man. But that was a football thing. A riot like the one in St Pauls was different.



On the Street


My dad always warned me not to dare go anywhere near Liverpool 8, or Toxteth as it came to be better known on the news a few months later. Liverpool’s most multi racial area was akin to St Pauls in terms of social deprivation, and formed the red-brick backdrop to numerous concerned TV documentaries made by Oxbridge graduates trying to be streetwise.


To be honest, I wouldn’t have known where to find what I was gradually learning was a bohemian district of cheap flats in rundown Georgian and Victorian houses. The fact that my dad warned me not to venture down there made the prospect even more alluring.



Children of the Ghetto


In 1977, Liverpool 8 sired soul group The Real Thing, led by Chris and Eddie Amoo, released their second album, 4 from 8. The record was originally going to be called Liverpool 8, before the record company vetoed it, though they seemed to have let the rest of the band’s concept for the album pass unhindered.


4 From 8 came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured a 3D photo montage of the band flanked by images of graffiti strewn houses with ripped open corrugated iron doors. A stray dog standing in the road in front of a deserted street corner pub peered out through the broken red brick frame. Above it, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral loomed forebodingly over chimney tops. On the inside cover, the cathedral’s full expanse was revealed, standing in what looked like a post-apocalyptic bombsite. 


The record itself featured a Liverpool 8 triptych, centrepiece of which was Children of the Ghetto, a slow burning lament that sounded more like something to have come out of Harlem rather than Liverpool.  For a band who had scored a number 1 smash hit in the singles chart the year before with the disco friendly You to Me Are Everything, with the follow up, Can’t Get By Without You, going to number 2, this was quite a statement. 


Other than having a minor hit with Love’s Such a Wonderful Thing, taken from the album, 4 From 8 was a commercial failure, with a second single lifted from it, Lightning Strikes Again, failing to chart. 


Despite this, Children of the Ghetto became an anthem for black youth in the face of everyday bully-boy tactics from the local constabulary. It was such heavy handed tactics that led to what happened four years later, not just in Liverpool, but in the similarly multi racial Moss Side district of Manchester, and in Brixton too.  


Children of the Ghetto was later covered by former Earth, Wind and Fire co-vocalist Philip Bailey on his 1984 album, Chinese Wall. Two years later, new-jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine recorded a version of the song for his debut album, Journey to the Urge Within (1986), featuring former Supreme Susaye Greene on lead vocal. Children of the Ghetto is now regarded as a modern classic.



Ghost Town


By the summer of 1981, I’d just finished my second six month YOP scheme, this one working in the post room and loading bay of the John Moores Centre, headquarters of the Littlewoods catalogue and football pools empire founded by Moores, who founded a biennial contemporary art exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. After two YOPs, and no permanent offers forthcoming, Thatcher couldn’t massage me out of existence any longer, £23.50 or no £23.50, and I was officially on the dole.


I’d long forgotten about the ‘LIVERPOOL LIKE BRISTOL 1980 – RISE UP!’ graffiti. I had bands to see, books to read and records to buy, even if, like the rest of my generation, I was terminally skint.


I can’t remember where I first heard about what had kicked off in Liverpool 8 that July, but it was probably on the 6’O Clock News. Seeing footage of burnt out cars and buildings on fire while groups of people scurried about in the dark or else lay injured on the ground suddenly brought back the chalked on call to arms I’d seen the year before. 


The riots began following the arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Granby Street on July 3rdled to an incident in which three police officers were injured. As with Bristol, tensions in Liverpool 8 were high on poverty-stricken streets where unemployed youths were aggravated by seemingly indiscriminate use of SUS laws. Over nine nights of rioting, around 500 people were arrested. 


Even so, seeing it on telly like that, it didn’t feel real. Here was something happening a bus ride away, where history was being made by the first use of CS Gas in mainland Britain. Footage of the Toxteth and Brixton riots would later be used ad nauseam on TV clip shows set to a soundtrack of Ghost Town by The Specials. The song was that summer’s number 1, and had been written partly in response to the Bristol riots the year before. 


Before all that clip show history, watching the Toxteth riots on the news as they were happening looked as distant as the reports on what was happening in Belfast, or the civil rights demos and anti Vietnam marches on the other side of the world. In Anfield, Liverpool 4, meanwhile, there most definitely wasn’t a riot going on. 



Piggy in the Middle 8


In the wake of the riots, responses from Liverpool’s fertile music scene were many. They included Piggy in the Middle 8 (1981), a reggae tinged single by indie band, Cook da Books, and the self explanatory Toxteth (1982), by punk outfit Public Disgrace. Arguably the best record to have been inspired by inner city unrest appeared several years later. The Trumpton Riots (1986) was a single by Birkenhead post punk satirists Half Man Half Biscuit, who fused classic children’s TV references with a crunchy post-punk shoutalong to lay bare the full tragicomic absurdity of urban unrest. 


All these records, incidentally, were released on Probe Plus, the label offshoot of Probe, the record shop where I‘d spent much of my hard earned £23.50 YOP scheme pay packet before clocking the chalked on  ‘LIVERPOOL LIKE BRISTOL 1980 – RISE UP!’ call to arms.



English Civil War


After all that, it seemed to kick off everywhere. In the summer of 1984, the Miner’s Strike threw up what came to be known as the Battle of Orgreave, later reconstructed and filmed by artist Jeremy Deller.


There were more riots in Liverpool in 1985, the same year things flared up in Handsworth in Birmingham and Tottenham in North London. Later, there were the anti Poll Tax riots in London that arguably brought Thatcher down, and on it went, people rising up across the land. 


Somewhere along the way, a poet I knew a little bit called Keith Whitelaw wrote a poem called Rise Up. It was only twelve lines long, its three verses more an incantation than anything. ‘Rise up the pulses / Rise up the heart / Rise up the conscience / Rise up and start’went the last verse. I’d heard him read it once, though I didn’t see it in print till years later, when I stumbled across Beautify the Nation (1992), a slim volume of his work, which told me he’d died of cancer in 1988 aged 33. Keith Whitelaw had worked in Toxteth Library when the riots happened. I wondered if he’d seen the writing on the wall the year before as well. 



News of the World


Forty years on from what has been historicised as the Toxteth riots, Liverpool 8 looks like another world. Hipster bars and cafes proliferate on previously run down streets. The new face of the neighbourhood was cemented when design collective Assemble won the 2015 Turner Prize for their development of houses in the Granby area in association with local residents.


This doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Far from it. There was further unrest in Liverpool 8 in 2011. This followed outbreaks of rioting across London that began in Totttenham Hale following the fatal shooting by police of local resident Mark Duggan. This also provoked protests in other cities across the country. Two years earlier, newsvendor Ian Tomlinson collapsed and died after being struck by a policeman during the protests against the G-20 summit in London.


Since then, there have been many, many more riots great and small I’m either half aware of, barely aware of, or else haven’t even registered they’ve happened. They don’t seem to get shown on the 6’O clock News anymore in the way they used to be. They’re considered too commonplace, I imagine, and the TV news is bollocks anyway most of the time, so how do we know if its true or not?



Rising Free


At time of writing, barely a day goes by without police breaking up some protest or other. Black Lives Matter. Reclaim the Night. Kill the Bill. All these have seen police use the excuse of lockdown restrictions to break up peaceful socially distanced gatherings with what on footage that did make the news look like what might politely be called undue force. All of which are clear indicators that those in charge of the police state we live in have stopped being clever. 


Maybe it’s that they were never clever in the first place, and are simply incapable of pretending any more. Either way, in the current climate, anything looks possible, and a riot in Liverpool or anywhere else like Bristol 1980 doesn’t sound remotely as inflammatory or as hard to imagine as it once did. Rise up.

This essay was originally intended as ESTATE Edinburgh Papers 1, to be published in SPECTACLE, the programme for the Edinburgh leg of ESTATE, Jimmy Cauty's dystopian model village in a shipping container, which was in residence in the car park beside North Edinburgh Arts, May-June 2021. 

The essay was eventually withdrawn, partly for space reasons, partly due to the realisation that it didn't really fit with ESTATE, and would have sat better with Cauty's previous model village in a shipping container, The Aftermath Dislocation Principle. 

It was eventually published in FRETS litzine, in The Creeping Bent Organisation's Patreon page,, in July 2021, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the 1981 Liverpool 8 riots. 

It was later published as part of ESTATE Edinburgh's archive website,, December 2021.






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