Saturday, February 03, 2018

GUTTER FEELINGS my first book - extract.

my first book

This is the longest post I have ever clicked to you from The Leaning Towers of Pip Wilson dot com.

It is an out-take from my first book 'Gutter Feelings' ........ it disturbs my comfortable ......

So take a seat and enter in ........... 
it is about when we travelled first to live in East London and work with Street Gangs there ..............

CHAPTER 3: Axe holes in the door (part)

I remember well leaving St Helens YMCA with tears in our eyes. 
The YMCA family had taken us warmly into their lives. 
The granddads in the snooker room right next to our first floor flat loved our little girls, 
now aged one (Ann) and seven years old (Joy). 
The 200 pensioners in the lunch club responded generously to my rather loud humour and often repeated one-liner jokes.
The hostel residents were our community - homeless once - parentless once - maybe still drug users? 
but importantly our family in residence with us in this big YMCA building.
Now, in January 1975, following the removal van down the M1 in our blue caravanette, 
we were entering a new life for our family, and new kind of youth work.

I was struck first by the sheer ugliness of the Youth club building in Canning Town. 
I would describe it now as non-shalom. (Shalom is a Hebrew word meaning peace, but also with implication of wholeness and completeness; I will discuss it again later.) Outside it looked like a square lump of concrete-no windows and steel-lined front doors. I know now why there were hammer and axe hole on the front door of the club. It was non-shalom.

Inside it was painted almost entirely in some horrible green gloss paint that had been donated to Mayflower. 
It gave me and, I am sure, the member a distinct intuitional feeling. 
This, coupled with the long Pentonville-type corridors, with solid locked doors on both sides gave me a trapped, 
oppressive feel. 
It was totally depressing. 
What sort of kids can come in here and enjoy it? 
What does this place do to kids? 
It was so disheartening and yet it challenged me to change it. 
(Eventually I had most of it painted matt black and bought a lorry load of green fluorescent tubes and colourful pop music.) 
It had been built for relief work in the 1930s, and on top of that it was really beaten up. 
Yet it was big-so big that it had two coffee bars, two gyms and a large outdoor football court, an air rifle range, snooker room and boxing room. 
There were numerous other activity rooms in various states of disorder including one full of four foot high blocks of Scalextrix car racing track. Another sported a new disco unit and sound system.

One of the few pieces of equipment that was available in the open club was a table-tennis table with a plank of wood nailed across it instead of a net. As two kids played - another walked across ‘the net’.

I always make written recording of my Youth Work sessions, I still have them. 
I can look back now at my notes from my very first night in the club:

Some friendly contact and interest in my arrival, some busy and interested in football outside, plus snooker, table-tennis. 
Some silly, bored kids messing about-boys barricaded themselves in the beat-up room and then smashed down the panelled walls to get out. 
Others jumped over canteen trying to nick sweets and money. 
Remember a few names. Ro’ a black kid, Maria and Carol (bangaged arm), Jim, Skunkie. . . little kids running. 
Several groups around – girls standing!
Building far too rambling and terrible to supervise-leaders just policing. 
Activities severely limited.
Conclusion – No one focal point. No warmth of atmosphere – although some team members have good relationship with kids. Great for positive activity and discipline boundaries.
Decisions – redesign toilets, block main corridor, move all refreshments to coffee bar – ONE FOCAL POINT, develop office. . . .

I notice in my second evenings recordings that ‘Carol’s arm is now unbandaged’ . 
That sort of detailed observation is important in youth work. 
The recording of it helps to concrete it in the mind alongside many other personal detail relevant to them. 
Even now, years later, I can remember that Carol, now a local mum with two kids, once had a injured arm. 
It makes me smile to think of approaching her ten years later and asking if her arm is better! 
But the point is that the first duty of love is to listen. Listen to your eyes.

There was much love practised at this level of youth work – but what did the kids do in club? For a start, try to imagine holding back up to a hundred kids who want to get in quickly, mostly without paying their 5p. ‘Steaming the door’ meant a lot to most youth workers at Mayflower over the years. First interactions were always hostile, and conflict had to be used as a starting point for relationship. We started the evening with at least three of the biggest male team members manning the door. I still have the ‘reception sheets’ for those early days and the first dozen name who came in were always the biggest and toughest. Now in their late twenties, most of them are professional criminals in or out of prison.

A typical evening might be like this. The oldest and toughest, the eighteen and nineteen-year-olds, took their choice of football pitch. In good weather it would be the outside yard, otherwise they opted for the cage gym, a converted theater only useful for mad games. The slightly younger toughest opted for the top gym and football there. The youngest males, aged fourteen and fifteen, headed for the beat-up room, which was equipped with ropes and cushions from old settees, and let go their energy and aggression by beating each other up. Youth workers often joined in and it was a great place for making contact (and collecting a bloody nose!). The table-tennis table as , and a large snooker table with slashed cloth satisfied some. Mostly they came, I think, to enjoy and meet with others, get rid of energy and bait the middle-class workers!

Amongst all this - some workers had developed wholesome relationships with some kids. Little groups of kids cam in to do various activities and discovered real love from people who came from very different cultural backgrounds.

My second night in club was my big showdown and I had to be rescued by John who had been acting leader before I came. Young fifteen-year-old Johnny had handed his knife in and at the end of the club he demanded it back. My reasonable suggestion of handing it back at the door on the way out was met by my first confrontation, and it shook me to the roots. 
Such power, will, determination, psychological dominance and aggression! In ten years full-time youth work I had never met such psychologically strong kids. There were many more such confrontations to be experienced.

As well as individuals in Club we also has gangs with names. In 1975 ‘The Snipers’ were a gang who dominated club. They were all seventeen to nineteen-year-old boy who were notorious in the community and much wider afield. They were pub and street fighters, football supporter of the violent kind, and Mayflower was their club.

There were many positives about them. They loved good times and had lots of ‘real characters’ among them with genuine humour. There was also a whole range of skills and trades represented. The real hard men, the expert ‘cat burglar’, the quick thief, the quiet handler of stolen goods – the gang could do anything. They were planners and sophisticated. They were also cocky cockneys!

Doug, on of my colleagues, tells of one of his first experiences of taking The Snipers out in the minibus on an ice-skating trip. Approaching the car park and the single arm barrier, Jimmy said, ‘hang on’, jumped out the bus and broke off the barrier like a matchstick.

One member wrote this poem, which will give an idea of the image they hoped to project:

The Snipers Poem

Oh, to be Sniper,
To be feared far and wide,
To be on the dole for all my life,
To even go inside.

I’d walk around Canning Town,
Right stroppy like you’ll know,
I’d never smile or be kind,
Cos roughness and niceness don’t go.

I’d scare the shit out of everyone,
I’d make them really spit,
I would be the top man,
I really would be it.

We have got no leaders,
What would we do with one,
If anyone tried to rule us,
We’d get him with a gun.

The Snipers are the bravest,
The Snipers are the greatest,
If you mess around,
Then they really put you underground.

I don’t want you to think I am exaggerating or confused due to a ten year time lag. I’ve always recorded on paper the activities, incidents and people and these help me to give and authentic account now. One particular evening, I went home later after club and spoke into a tape recorder. The purpose was to give the Christian Publicity Organisation an idea of our situation at Mayflower, as they were producing material for us. But I started off by telling them of that particular evening’s club. . .

I have just got in from club, and just to put you in the atmosphere tonight, we had all members come in, and a big gang from the club called ‘The Snipers’, and every one of them was armed. Some had hammers, some had breadknives, and one had a bayonet, one and axe; other had all sorts of ‘tools’ as they call them. They came into club, paid their subs. I was on the door and didn’t see one of them with a tool, and yet when they were inside they were brandishing them, flick-knives and breadknives. . . They stayed for an hour, and then they went down to a local fun fair to ‘fight the blacks’. It isn’t unusual, of course, to have this sort of trouble; we have run trips to football matches and people have got stabbed, and we’ve had fights in the club, and three weeks ago someone faintly resembling, in their language) a ‘Paki’ got beat up just outside the entrance. And all these are members. Not that I’m bragging about it – because I am ashamed. But it is people who are real, real members, real Canning Town kids-and we work with them.

It is absolutely horrible to work with them, love them, and yet see the sorts of things they do. 
We work with them all the time, and it makes you so sad.

The last time we were open before tonight was Friday. They were talking about how the night before they had jumped on a little Pakistan boy at the same fun fair. Only little, nothing to fight against really, and yet they jumped up and down on him, on his face, so that blood spurted out.

What we have to offer in club, the game and facilities, cannot compete with the thrill and kicks they get out of the violence with makes us feel repulsed, and yest to them is the really exiting thing in life.

One of our other members got stabbed during the evening, in the arm, but we don’t know the whole story.

I am telling you this really so that it will fill you in with what is happening night after night, and facing this tension night after night by going to clubs in my relationship with; others you do not. And if they carry a knife it is very difficult to lovingly discipline them, and still keep a relationship. 

Just tonight I was talking to on of the girls. She and her boyfriend are both regular members, but he was picked up a week ago in an armed robbery (he’s only seventeen), and I was telling her how I had written to Billy and sent him some comic strip booklets. She said she thought they were good. When we sent them to Borstal, everyone reads them, not just one lad.

The first year and more was full of incidents like the one.
More in the book 
Gutter Feelings