That time I sang Gracie Fields songs to prove I was British

“Do you like Gracie Fields?” asked the Landlord of the Rut & Tumble.

“Oh yes,” I said but more of that later.

I have thrown a few job interviews in my time. I think if you haven’t done that by the time you are twenty-one, you probably will be an unqualified success in your chosen field, an unemployable outcast or a member of the Tory government. Maybe all three. This piece is about racism, entitlement and the illusion of disappearing whiteness but, had I called this piece that title, none of my do-gooding liberal friends and family would have read it. They would have liked the link on social media and assumed that my progressive views generally chimed with theirs, which they do, before moving onto eat hand-smoked quinoa and vermouth-soaked avocado for breakfast or whatever the metropolitan, liberal elite that I call my friends do. So, in an attempt to justify an admittedly limited but growing readership, I have woven mildly-embarrassing, whimsical stories from my work history that, while being significant to me and explaining my chequered past, will illustrate the folly of that great myth that is the disappearance of white Britishness and British whiteness, while also dealing with notions of British identity.

Before I learned to sabotage job interviews there was a period where my need for money was so great that I would feign extreme keenness for any job I could get my hands on. I heartily regret this youthful work ethic and fully intend to bully it out of my own offspring if it appears. As a result of this character defect, I once toiled as the man that sucks the toner from used industrial printer cartridges in a small cartridge-making factory on the outskirts of town. Most people don’t realise that there was once a proud tradition of men, and they were mainly men, who’s choice it was in life to suck the toner from used industrial cartridges dating from the pre-industrialised agrarian times: the Toner Men. I worked in line next to man I will call Dean, who was a fugitive from de-industrialisation in another dieing industry. “What’ll we do when this all ends?” I asked him. “They’ll always need the Toner Man,” he told me before making a joke about Frank Bruno’s c*ck and a cordless drill. “The Toner Man means too much, man. He’s part of this country’s history,” he said before making a joke about Pakistani penises, poppadoms and curry. “We have to fight to keep our traditions pure, our hearts belong to these jobs and we have to preserve them so can keep a meaningful connection with the past. And so we can drive the Asians away from Cemetery Junction.”

In his way, Dean was right. Not about the racism and stereotypes about genitalia from other parts of the world but about the role of the Toner Man. There was a tradition and nobility to the work that stretched back for centuries. Right back to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was hard work but, as we finished each day, faces caked in black toner, we pulled off our white overalls, kicked aside the little bells hidden in each cartridge and downed our tools, we knew it was time to dance the dance of the Toner Men as so many had done before us, bringing in the seasons and sucking out the ink and we sang traditional songs:
I gave my love a cherry that has no stone
I gave my love a chicken that has no bone
I gave my love a seed that should have been sown
I gave my love a cartridge with no toner

It was moving and, as I washed the Toner off each day, I thought I about how much I respected the history of the role as Dean quoted snatches of Enoch Powell’s controversial speeches at me. Now, whenever I see Toner Men dressed up in white overalls it brings a smile to my heart to know that this great tradition, this great institution is being maintained by cultural curators. However, I am dismayed that the dance of the Toner Men, including the jingle of the cartridge bell, has been appropriated by the far right as a symbol of Britishness to the exclusion of all other visions of belonging. Especially since Dean was wrong. They did get the toner men in the end. It was the corporations and automation not Asians.

I was young and impressionable, not idle but motivated by a sense of something greater. I know it may seem stupid to some of you but I was motivated to do that job out of a sense of Britishness that was strong. My father was in the British army. My grandma worked tirelessly in the NHS. My family came to Britain to live and have me. I felt at home and, fortunately, I managed to do this job for nearly a year without getting sacked. I learned the trade and learned more and more from Dean and the others but, after a complicated incident in a stationery cupboard one Friday morning, I quit and sought alternative gainful employment as I had a small legal fine to pay.

This was a time before the time when Britain fell apart. I went to the Job Centre in the morning and had interviews lined up for the afternoon. Bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm I turned up at a pub that, although it needed a lick of paint, looked like it had my name on it. A pub that had been there for so long it seemed as if it would always flourish great and free.

“Have you worked in a pub before?” asked the golden-haired landlord, who had a tonsure just like some kind of mediaeval monk masquerading with a Paul Smith shirt and some Ray Bans cocked on his head. There was something prime ministerial in his manner. “This place has survived two world wars and the cheap deals at the Asda up the road.”

“Yes,” I answered half truthfully. A two week spurt in a theatre bar at Christmas had been like living death, serving hordes of snappy parents and grandparents as their snivelling children ran about and threw sweets and leaflets on the floor shouting ‘it’s behind you!’ I would later have to pretend to clean that floor. Those were the days when you could get away with a white lie of two in a job interview.

The man looked at me suspiciously and pulled out a cigar. I could tell he wanted to let me in. He nodded gravely, considering the import of his decision. He motioned me in, then picked out a cigarette case from his breast pocket. “This saved my granddad’s life at D-day.” He paused. “He used to drink here and my great grandad who died at the Somme did too. This pub’s always been in our hands and we’re like a family. Name a British beer,” he said after an appropriate pause.

“Grolsch,” I answered, quick as a flash.

He looked disappointed.

“Heineken,” I said.

He shook his head. The sunburnt bald spot rebuking me.

“Guinness-”

“That’s Irish,” he whispered, unable to contain his rage, his voice escaping in a visceral hiss. I thought that he would hit me and, as I was stoned and slightly disorientated by this line of questioning, I admit I was scared. “Spitfire or Bombardier,” he said, grabbing me by the wrists while shaking his head. I could tell that he wasn’t angry at me, just angry at a country that doesn’t relish its heritage enough to teach it. “Those are British beers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said turning to go.

The landlord stroked his chin and read my CV. “I can see you work hard. You told me about your time as a Toner Man. I see you’ve got an A* at GCSE history. That’s very important. You also like music – a fine occupation for a young man. Bertrand Russel once said: ‘He who joyfully marches to music rank and file has already earned my respect’. The job’s yours if you can sing the wartime classic ‘Home! Sweet Home! Do you like Gracie Fields?”

“Oh yes,” I said because I wanted to belong.

I gulped. I know lots of all songs. In fact, I thought I knew them all, but it was hopeless. As I sweated there, standing to attention in front of a signed photograph of Bernard Manning, I knew that everything was lost. The flag had gone down on Hong Kong. The steak house in town had closed. It was over. I couldn’t do it. It’s one of those songs that you know without knowing but still can’t fully sing. In my head I heard the words but they were muffled and foreign, as if in a different language, a language I should be able to speak. I free styled lyrics that scanned and finished in the right place. I can’t remember exactly. I sang something about Marmite, John Cleese, Torvill and Dean but the silence when I finished was tragic. “Get out. This is a builder’s pub,” he whispered. “That’s not good enough, son. I tried to give you a chance. If you come to our country, you should learn our ways.” There were tears in his eyes.

The taste of beer was never one of my favourites and, to be honest, I didn’t like Gracie Fields. Did that make me any less British? Born in a hospital in Reading that had been opened by the queen. Schooled on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Benny Hill, I thought I felt British. Back then I was a fan of tart-fuel, the type of drinks that the Daily Mail warned would either send you blind or give you syphilis. This was before red wine both gave me and cured of me of cancer (I think) and I set off to drown my sorrows. Fortunately I made it through the shopping centre free of syphilis but haunted by the spectre of the landlord. I went to a shop to exorcise my demons and stumbled out with a six pack of alcoholic Vimto, unsure of whether I had really forgotten the words, or whether the small changes I had made to the lyrics had been my way of resisting his idea of Britishness. As I walked, I knew that I respected the landlord for his commitment to history and the deep rooted nature of his beliefs but I wondered whether his clinging onto these ideals left him in a tragic fantasy, clutching onto memories while the world carried on: the Chinese shop selling food in the evening, South asians, West Indians and White British people bustling through the evening in this quiet town. I thought about Enoch Powell and his ideas about Rivers of Blood, aching at the pain he articulated while hating what seemed like cold calculation behind every word and then I puked up in Smelly Alley.

Boats, museums & sh*t

Our flat isn’t huge.  I mean I’m not complaining that two parents working twenty hour days, one of whom received a ransom load of inheritance from a generous ancestry, are only able to afford a smallish, comfortable space in Zone 2 of London.  That would be the ultimate in middle class problems and we all know that middle class problems are pretty much the worst kind of problems imaginable: not only because they are trivial but because they have the same relative moral value as fraudsters’ promises and Daily Mail opinion pieces.  So I’m not complaining about the gentrification, that I clearly am a part of, that is ruining my area. Those pieces sit festering on my hard drive as I rationalise my own hypocrisy.  I am not complaining about the endless procession of cafes staffed by arts students who remind me of my lost dreams, which have proliferated along the highways and side streets.  That is not my agenda.

What I’m trying to say is that me and my unidentified toddler son love to get out and about when we can, exploring London with an Oyster Card, nappy bag and a sense of shared camaraderie that grows from my inability to recognise that he is not just a toddler but a superhero in training. When we stay at home my little boy likes to use his imagination and play games, which means he makes a mess with all his toys while denying that he has done a poo, which means I have to clear them up while he sleeps after a traumatic nappy change because his attempts to clear up are endearing but woefully inadequate. The upshot of all this is that we go out a lot so that I don’t have to clear up or ever change his nappy. Basically, I have one form of laziness that trumps all of my other forms of laziness and, as a result, I spend most of my time with my son going on trips, excursions and jollies around London. Most of them are cool with him so long as he gets to walk, sing songs and loudly request snacks. Some of them really blow his mind because they hit his hot buttons, his nascent childhood desires for entertainment and adventure. I give them to you:

1. A boat on the Thames

When the weather is fine . . . .”Isn’t that expensive?” I hear you say. “It’s relatively inexpensive,” I answer. “Jonny, you’re a liar,” you all scream in unison. Well no, actually. I’m not talking about an exclusive tourist trap boat that charges tens of pounds for the privilege of someone telling you which one is Tower Bridge and what the London Eye is while about six hundred teenagers take selfies. I’m talking about the boat you can ride with your Oyster Card that goes up and down the river all day that is virtually empty during the daytime: the MBNA Thames Clipper. It is amazing! We have taken it a couple of (hundred) times – I know all the stops, all the landmarks, everything. We gazed at the churning water, marvelled at the tiger mural inside and then marvelled at the water again before having hot baby chocolate. Go check it out and socialise with informed tourists, other parents and river-faring staff who have to tie a rope.  My son looks set to be a sailor.

2. The Horniman Museum

I know what you’re going to say. “London’s full of wonderful museums.” It is. “What makes the Horniman so special?” you say. Well. As well as being free and interesting, it is set in grounds that are like toddler heaven. My boy spent half an hour enjoying an extreme slope, copying the school kids doing roly-polies down the hill and then spent another half an hour throwing the ball uphill and giggling after it and that was all before he discovered the outdoor instruments, which are so cool even reserved adults have to try them. I let him run free so I can play about with the xylophone and stuff then we meet up to go inside.  The museum itself is pretty cool.  We obviously spend a lot of time in the music room, where you can play all different kinds of instruments because I am training my son to do all the things I have yet failed to do, but the aquarium is a hit too because of the range of exotic and native fish.

3. The Tate Modern

Do you like art?  I’m not sure if I do but I sure do love the Tate Modern.  You’re by the river, which means you can’t go wrong.  As my little one’s interests include stair-climbing, noisemaking and cool things that make him laugh, this museum is a perfect place.  As we entered the Old Turbine Hall he happily pushed past lines of school kids being told to stand in order and ran down the slope.  This was definitely his type of place.   At the bottom of the turbine hall was a set of stairs that he couldn’t refuse and then, in the bowels of the building, were some wicked audio installations that made him sing and join in.  BUT they were so loud that this didn’t annoy any serious artsy folks and made his day. There is also a big river next to it and they have art upstairs, so – culture.

4.  Peckham Rye

Now, I’m not being lazy here because I am a ten-year Peckhamite.  This is probably the best park South of the River because it has all the diversity you could need: ducks, Japanese Garden, nature reserve, streams, open parks, doggy zones, non-doggy zones, climbable trees and all kinds of ball games (Aussie Rules, Rugby, Football).   It’s also pretty chill.  There’s no insane dogs, van driving park keepers or angry kids and, if there are, there’s enough space for everyone to chill out enough that it doesn’t matter.  The cafe serves good food and this is my son’s home from home right now because there are diggers building an uber-playground, by which I don’t mean a slip-n-slide for Uber drivers, that will be finished just in time for him.  Of course, South London is blessed with parks so big up the town planners for that one at least.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but I thought I’d drop a little knowledge for the Dads. Peace.

Super Hero Jonny Virgo Saves Publishing From Itself

I’ve never fallen in love with docile and nice girls. There was a groupie from my musician days that was called the Witch who did the nasty in her best friend’s bed despite the fact her best friend had been trying to sleep with me for a couple of months, dutifully following our patchy rap collective around the south of England as we searched for stardom. Then there was the Princess, who funded a drug-fuelled hotel binge with me on the credit card a sugar daddy had given her because he had refused to by her a Mercedes and left her in a VW Polo. Then there’s my wife, who has managed to out-nasty them all, her worst quality is a unceasing desire for me to adopt reasonable goals, living habits and open communication methods. She’s such a b*tch.

Anyway, at London Book Fair in 2018, I feel like a man about to throw himself off the top of a tall building with no ropes, no parachute and no trampoline. I am dizzy. I am restless as a hungry bunny rabbit. I know these symptoms as I have dealt with them all before. These are the symptoms that confirm I am ready for a life change. I’ve had them before turning down fantastic job offers and then quitting, before every break up and before every time I’ve ever said ‘I love you’. Today is one of those days. I can feel it.

I am Jonny Virgo and, in my infinite egotism, I came here today with an idea that would reinvent publishing and save all these people’s jobs, which I am SURE are under threat. With my mind synched to a playlist of inspirational music, hand-picked for such active disruption, I walk into the buzzing amphitheatre of literary commerce, cocksure and ready to f@ck up the cordial atmosphere with my super pitch:

JV: Do you want me to save your company?
Publishing Maven: From what? I don’t need you to do anything.
JV: (shaking my head) Let me show you how to save your industry.

This has not gone well. The first few people I met humoured me and looked at me as if I was one of those people that wonders the high street dressed up like Elvis Presley or The Who in their heyday when I had finished my spiel. What’s the big idea, Virgo? I hear you ask. Well, dear friends, we’ll get to that but, before we do, here are a few of the observations that I made from the floor of the throng:

1. It seems to me that lot of white women work in publishing. Does this matter? I don’t know. I am married to a white woman (eagle-eyed right wingers, I say this to insulate myself from your accusations of reverse racism ‘how dare this black man observe this!’, ‘what difference does it make what colour they are?’, ‘what are you trying to say?’) Well, imaginary straw-man that I have constructed for the purposes of this blog, I am saying that I do not know what effect this particular fact, if, indeed, it is a fact, has. There seem to be many panels claiming that it is a bad thing with catastrophic effects that must be remedied immediately. I am speculating that this explains why so many literary fiction novels refer to chablis, Prosecco, pilates and quinoa. In an attempt to gain industry traction my choose-your-own-adventure conspiracy thriller novel will now reference these concepts extensively. I have experienced all four of these things with varying degrees of success and will do some targeted research over the coming weeks to overcome my painfully obvious shortcomings.

2. Everyone in publishing is superficially very genteel. In order to establish how deep this seam of gentility ran, I tried one of my social experiments yesterday morning, deciding to jettison my natural reserve in the name of social science and push through the crowds deliberately, so as to jostle and knock everyone I could for a period of three hours. It was a heroic task which I performed for the greater good. If I had filmed it, I would be garnering political acclaim like the woman that walked around ethnically rich areas of New York in a shabby track suit while blankly ignoring compliments, sexual harassment and men who would later have a lot of explaining to do to their significant others. Unlike that woman, in my pushing experiment, which I will subsequently call The Great Publishing Push, I did not discriminate. I shoved everybody that I could: male, female, white, black, old, young, homosexual, straight, Hindu, muslim, christian, atheist. Anyone within a seven-foot diameter was summarily jolted as I continued this one-man crusade. Why was I doing this? I hear you ask. (Please don’t comment about that. I will answer in due time). I was testing the mettle of the finest figures the publishing industry as a whole and, dear readers, I was disappointed. Why? No one pushed back. No one told me to f*** off. Not one person. If I am looking for someone to generate income from my blood, sweat and keyboard blisters (yes – I do type too hard, I know . . . .huh) then I want them to be a five star c*nt, who has, for some obscure reason (probably similarity to a dead son) decided that I am a good bet. I want the type of person that I have to EXPLAIN to my friends and family – oh he/she’s very nice when you get to know her, not the type who would apologise if I spilled my scrumpy on his suit/or smile sweetly when I steal her seat. This probably speaks to my childhood.

3. There exists a mountainous *ss-dump of books that are released each year. Many of them seem exactly the same unless you read to page six or something, a task which seems to be a equivalent to travelling to a planet a million years away when you have a thousand books to read. This makes me have a sh*t load of sympathy for the people who have had to read all of the hackish drivel that they still for some reason inexplicably publish on a weekly basis, much of it with extravagant marketing campaigns. Many of the people I confronted made the tried and tested argument that they were subsidising interesting and invigorating work with blockbuster content but they didn’t convince me. I was left with a quasi-messianic urge to throw over the tables in the room and shout: where are your weirdos? Where are your eccentric authors and inspirational figures mentally idiosyncratic enough to sacrifice their lives on something that, although it does not fit what your list might have done for the past couple of years, is revolutionary, affirming and dangerous? I don’t want a smooch at an All-Bar-One! I want a tryst and shout on the Amazon with a snakes and critters urging me on to glory. However, walking from stand to stand, I saw so many stalls marketing the same protagonists, the same plots and the same book jackets that it became a blur. It made me think that the people in charge of this circus who do generate the hits, those transformational pieces of literature that change society, are either geniuses (don’t sweat the Latin plural – I know about it, I’m just not a pedantic pr&ck) or lottery winners who organise in increasingly larger syndicates while trying to maintain the appearance of working on provincial factory floors.

So, in light of this information, what is the solution for publishing? Well, I could tell you this, dear reader, but I’d have to shove your gullet full of redundant and derivative dead trees until you decided that it was a great idea to publish a novel where the protagonist had permanent mumps or something. It’s no secret, the words were emblazoned across the conference hall as surely as they were absent from the mouths of all except the most craven service providers that lurked around the edge of proceedings, picking off stray publishers and authors who recognise that something is deadly wrong but still don’t understand quite what it is. What should everyone be doing, Virgo? I won’t say. It’s probably none of my business as the publishing business will adapt and grow and innovate or it’ll wither and suffer for decades but it is a blessing for an introverted, extroverted *sshole such as myself to live in interesting times. Had I tried to write, produce, publish and market fiction as a fresh-faced teenage prodigy, I would have, no doubt, given my all to get that elusive deal with a major publishing house. The more I see of the book industry, however, the more I realise that any publisher that does publish my work must be one that inspires me, one that innovates, one with elbows, stilettos. I want a b*tch that will f*ck me in her best friend’s bed.

Dream Come True – Jonny Virgo feat. Julius Ceaz

In the 2000s Jonny Virgo played across Europe with underground smashes such as ‘Devil’s Brew’, ‘Jogging and Dogging’ and ‘The Mankini Song’, which sold Jonny himself sold on the streets, at parties and after shows.  After selling thousands of units and having a lot of good times, Jonny has returned with an album of hip hop love songs: some funny, some deep, all bangers.

Dream Come True is the first on that list, released by Dope Creation and available now.

Listen on Spotify

DOWNLOAD HERE

EastCast Show Extra – The Aftermath of The New Cross Fire

I produced this segment using some materials I collected while doing creating a documentary for Reggae TV that was never released.

Background

The New Cross Fire happened on Sunday 31st January 1981 and cost the lives of 14 young people and touched the lives of many more.  The fire happened at a house in on New Cross Road, very close to the station and the news travelled around the country with great speed.  There were public messages from many organisations and people across the nation, sent to comfort the families.  However, the official response by the authorities angered a community that had been under attack.  Black people in the UK had faced: discrimination in the provision of housing and services, racist violence including petrol bomb attacks and systematic harassment from the Police.  When the tragedy occurred there was no sympathetic statement from a prominent government figure.  In fact, victims of the event were treated poorly by the Police.  All of this negativity caused outrage in both the black and wider community and, the organisation of events in the aftermath of the fire, can be considered a significant milestone in the history of race relations in the UK.

For me the New Cross Fire was a significant but distant event. It happened a year before I was born and was as foreign to me as the story of Dr. Martin Luther King or the Tuskegee airmen.  I grew up in Reading with parents that had experienced racism in its most violent forms in the 1960s and 1970s.  They had tried their best to give me a historical and political grounding and I was aware that in January 1981 a fire had happened involving a group of young black people at a party in South London but I did not now much more.  The narrative had been set: there was a racist attack on this group of young people, a mysterious tragedy that was yet to solved or resolved in any satisfactory fashion.  So when Nubian Jak decided to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event, I knew that I had to be there to record what I could.

Kids In The Rain Part 2 Featured on BBC Introducing

Click here to listen to the BBC Introducing Berkshire Christmas Show.
Big up Bridgitte Tetteh for putting this one out on the airwaves on the BBC Berkshire Christmas show.  Click on the logo above to listen to the show.  The track, produced by J.F., is also available on Spotify, iTunes, Tidal etc. NOW so go add that to your favourites and playlists.