This month my youngest child became an adult. This year I’m going to turn 50. My oldest friend, Anna, says turning 50 is the new ”midlife crisis” and inevitably, as I find myself free of parenting after 25 years, I am faced with a confusing search for myself. I don’t feel in crisis as such – I just want to effortlessly be myself. The trouble is, ‘myself’ got lost long ago amidst the need to earn money, feed kids, have a “career”.
I’ve written a lot about the places I’ve been. I’ve written a book about my time in Iraq. I’ve been paid to write about my travels in Afghanistan, Asia and the Middle East. But I’ve never really written about where I am from. Born and raised in Bristol, I’ve delighted in meeting every Bristolian along the way, despite feeling that Bristol never treated me very well. Recently, I’ve revisited the city and reflected on the music, art (and dance) that inspired me in the 1980s – and laid some demons to rest.
RACE & CULTURE
I was ten when the race riots hit St. Pauls in Bristol. I grew up a mile away in Bishopston and my next door neighbour was a policeman. He was a kind man, but in those days his kindness didn’t extend to black people (he later softened when his mixed-race grandchild arrived). His family were very worried about him – riots were sweeping the country at the time.
Racist language was routinely used by my step-dad and I knew no different until I started secondary school at Fairfield Grammar a year later. My mum and step-father had wanted me to go to Cotham School, as Fairfield was a school virtually in St Pauls, and had many black and asian kids. It was a matter of weeks before I was experiencing my own, internal cultural revolution. Fairfield was a heady mix of kids from St Pauls, Easton, Montpelier, Bishopston and one or two from Redland – there was a smattering of kids from overseas too, but most were Bristol born and raised, despite multi-ethnic backgrounds. I learned that black people weren’t stupid, didn’t smell, and didn’t just eat bread and condensed milk sandwiches. One or two of my teachers were passionate activists – inspiring champions of equality. My world opened and I was fascinated by the discovery and furiously indignant at the prejudice displayed at home. As I grew older, I slowly began to drift down the hill from my school to St. Pauls, and as a creative person, it sparked my neurons. Houses were painted brighter colours, music was played louder, food smelt and tasted better, people laughed a lot and partied. It was a hell of an awakening.
There was something else special happening in 1980s Bristol. Hip hop had arrived – not from London, but from America.
For some reason American hip hop chimed strongly with 1980s Bristolians – and it was the same for me. Not just hip hop, but reggae, ska – music that described a struggle, especially in an urban setting – spoke directly to my teenage self. Getting access to good music was hard and to some extent competitive. DJ’s didn’t reveal whose music they were playing. I remember crouching next to the TV and recording a documentary about Bob Marley from the Old Grey Whistle Test. I was delighted to have captured Concrete Jungle, which I played over and over. However stupid, it was about finding something nobody else had – whereas today it seems the opposite. Tapes got passed from friend to friend, but the artists were rarely known. Music was all around – in clubs, in cars, on people’s shoulders, in Walkmans, even on window-ledges as DJs threw open sash windows and wired speakers up outside. I managed to get hold of a couple of cassettes – one favourite mix just labeled ‘wildbunch’ in barely legible felt tip pen. I wish I still had that one.
I’m not sure when I started writing and speaking raps myself – and I kind of cringe when I look back – but I did. Together with my two next door neighbours, Sarah and Lisa – best friends for years – we would spend weekends writing lyrics and looking for any piece of instrumental music to recite them to. Herbie Hancock’s Rockit took a bit of a hammering (we actually saw him at the Colston Hall too). I was always better at writing than speaking, but we actually began to start speaking our amateur rhymes out and about in Bristol. All three of us were keen ice skaters – not the figure skating stuff – we had hockey boots and we were slight menaces on the ice. So the first time we shared our words would have been to the clicks of our fingers in front of a crowd of fellow skaters on the steps outside the rink. Looking back it must have sounded terrible (I can still remember some of the dreadful lyrics) but people were interested and showed us support, not least as we were three white girls, rapping about being girls. Somehow we picked up a “Manager” – a guy called Derek, who had both the confidence and the full length felt coat way beyond his years.
The three of us were also getting body-popping lessons from Dean Smith of Street Connection down at Hotwells Dance Centre – we felt like a crew (and had matching shirts), although I have to confess, like my rapping, my sense of rhythm was the worst of the three of us. In those days everyone was so positive and supportive. Every break-dancing film that came out was well attended and the cinemas were filled with people dancing through the film. It was the closest thing to belonging I had felt.
Derek arranged for us to perform on stage during a break dancing event at the ice rink. As you can imagine the acoustics were dreadful, but we looked the part. We spent a lot of time on our ‘look’ and were inspired by the Soul Sonic crew and the Furious Five – with studded fingerless gloves, racoons tails on our hats. I shudder at how bad it was. Somehow Derek (or someone) arranged for us to be interviewed on GWR radio, down at the Watershed – I had the tape for a few years, but those sounds are now lost to time. After that I drifted apart from my ‘crew’. I think they were ready to settle down with their fellas before I was and I had a few bad experiences which made me feel a bit separate, but I still rhymed a bit. The best tape I ever made was at a guy called Steven’s house – people were scared of him, but I heard he had some decks, so he agreed to make a tape of me rapping. His bedroom was wall-high with stolen car-radios – but I have to say, despite his reputation, he was the perfect gentleman, and very talented on the decks. I heard later that he had spent a long time in prison. For every one that did, there must have been many creative talents in Bristol in those days that never made it – it’s worth thinking about.
Although I stopped rhyming, I still wrote poetry and words and enjoyed music. As I got a bit older I sought out all kinds of musical experiences – even sneaking into Ajax when I could (a Jamaican Blues club) and I was a regular at the Moon Club on Stokes Croft and still on the lookout for mix tapes – often provided by my friend, the late, great, Errol Irie.
But by the time Wild Bunch became Massive Attack in 1988, I was already in London. I’d packed up my Public Enemy tapes and left Bristol behind, fleeing a violent boyfriend. In London I was exposed to a whole new culture of ad-hoc raves, pirate radio stations and ecstasy – but it never quite felt like the same belonging.
Having known Adrian Thaws as that intriguing outsider kid from south Bristol who you would see magically pop up at a club or a park or just roaming around town, I nearly fell over when someone pointed to his face on a television screen years later and said, “isn’t Tricky from Bristol?”
“What the fuck!? That’s Adrian!” Pretty much the same thing happened with Roni Size many years later in Glastonbury. I was with my daughter and I said, I’m pretty sure that’s just “Ryan from St Andrews.”
One lunchtime I had been beaten up in St Andrews park by a group of girls from Monk’s Park school – and it had a pretty hefty effect on me. I began to vary my route home from school to avoid future encounters, and school lunchtimes began to be spent playing pool in the Inkerman, and eventually I went to school less and less. One route home that I favoured was down Station Road. It was a bit of a shortcut, a backstreet that was filling up with graffiti. I was in awe of it. In the evenings, back in Bishopston, a group of us would meet in a derelict building near St Bonaventure school, which we imaginatively called ‘the den’. This space became our practice ground for spraying and it wasn’t long before some of us (notably the very talented Lee) were running around with sports bags filled with stolen rattle cans. I remember tagging Station Road and a few places around town, but I also remember not really being taken seriously. Maybe because my tag was so long it took me ages to spray! I had sketch books with pages and pages of graffiti designs, but only ever assisted others or kept look out.
There was a big event at the Arnolfini arts centre, which a load of the graffiti boys went to do (don’t remember a single girl). I wasn’t much more than an onlooker – but I remember the party with Wild Bunch playing. It was a great event, but perhaps because it had been arranged by an arts centre, it felt a bit patronising and the ‘permission’ to make graffiti meant it lacked soul somehow. I’m happy to say that to this day I still make street art – and although I have a Masters in Fine Art (and have assisted famous artists in their work) I earn a living spraying cars, not making art. That way I don’t need to compromise my art by being commercial in my work. Not even a gift shop to exit through. My art these days is not territory-marking tagging, or garish graffiti, it is something less ego-fuelled, more of a quiet offering than a loud statement. I can really thank Bristol for that journey’s beginnings.
Bad things happened to me in Bristol. I’m not going to go into detail, but I was taken advantage of by people (more than one) that should have known better and it is only now – so many years later – that I understand I wasn’t to blame. I was a young, naive and wounded person, but I know now that I wasn’t simply that bad girl who attracted trouble. Guilt is so often piled on you by your abusers – I encourage everyone to consider this. I made some bad, difficult and dangerous decisions too, but in writing this and revisiting Bristol recently (with my old mate, Anna), many things are laid to rest. If I’m going to piece together who I am, I perhaps need to pick up from there.
A couple of years ago I went to see Tricky playing at Motion. It was quite a moving evening for me – it was the first time I had partied in Bristol for decades. And here’s a thing, Tricky really doesn’t seem to like being called Adrian anymore – certainly not by me. All I managed to say to him was, “bloody well done, mate. You’ve done pretty well for yourself.” He was such a well known face about town in the 80s, I imagine he gets that so much when he comes home – a sea of Bristolians reminding him of who he was. For me, at last I can look more positively at some of the inspiration I drew from a rich multi-cultural experience in a very exciting place. And as I turn 50 in a few months, my youngest child, barely an adult, can be found drinking in pubs in Montpelier. And like, another Bristol icon I may have mentioned already, he too likes to wear dresses.