Sunday, June 28, 2009


In 1989, I was really fed up. My dad had had to quit work due to arthritis, my brother was on heroin and missing presumed dead and I had a load of sticky brown discharge flooding out of my left ear. It fucking stank, and other kids at school wouldn't hesitate to remind me of this fact, every, what, 10 seconds? Eventually they all just gave me a wide berth. They were just lucky they didn't have to smell it 24/7.

Then, my parents decided to move to Luton. I became a recluse, the hearing starting to fade in my afflicted lug. The teachers complained about me drifting off in class, but I actually couldn't hear them properly. I didn't really get bullied about it - the odd 'deaf-o' remark, but I think the filth dripping off my earlobe and onto my collar freaked people out more than anything.

By the way, my dad was SEETHING about having to leave London (money reasons aside, he always blamed my mum for this) - he refused to take me to the Luton & Dunstable Hospital, figuring they were "useless cunts", and drove me down to the old clinic back in Burnt Oak. Anyway, it was Dr Patricia Ryan, the Irish, chain-smoking, mini-skirted NHS ultravixen who sussed out I had a perforated eardrum. Apparently, a load of water from the swimming pool had flooded through the split some time beforehand, and had basically sloshed about behind my eardrum, becoming stagnant. I was told to come down to London and check in at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in the West End, for a week or so of having pus sucked out of my ear with a mini hoover, strong antibiotics and a simple operation under local that'd sort me out.

My dad dropped me off at the ENT on the evening of Friday 30th March, 1990. I had a walkman, a copy of 1984, a change of clothes, some sweets, 20p and nothing else. The nurses asked me if I wanted to go on the childrens' or adults' ward. Being 13, there was no contest, it had to be the latter. I didn't want to be surrounded by a load of snot-nosed fuckers and their parents.

Right, so here I was - a week off school, a week away from my parents, free drugs - and a load of nurses aged between 19 and 26. Was this a result, or what? The bloke next to me had a splint in his nose and loads of tattoos. I was there all of 20 minutes, just lying on my bed, thinking, what's the deal?, when he had a massive sneezing fit and drenched his bedsheets in blood. Everyone in the ward looked fed up, bored to death - sitting in T-shirts and jeans on their beds, watching the communal TV. The ward really complemented the grim vibe of 1984 - with some fit nurses thrown in.

Saturday, I went exploring around the hospital. There was a way of getting onto the roof and I spent a while up there, surveying the West End, the sound of drums drifting across the skyline. Fuck Luton, I had to come back here as soon as possible. There was something electric in the air, and not just the whirring laundry vents.

Later that afternoon, I went back and reported to the nurses for some more drugs. Going back to sit on my bed, the TV was broadcasting a newsflash about rioting in Trafalagar Square, promising an update later. I was so bored I used 10p to ring my sister. Then, footage of the riot erupted on TV. It was immense: cop car windows being taken out, police charging forward and then retreating under a hail of masonry. Everyone in the ward was now sitting up and watching. As the evening dragged on, a loud clanging noise began to build up outside, like dustbin carts having a fight. Rioting and looting had spread to our end of town! Everyone was at the window, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on. I went up on the roof for a better look, but still couldn't see F.A. But you could hear it - noise, sirens, turmoil.

Everybody seemed to open up - the whole ward was chatting away to each other, the nurses were laughing, one saying she was going to bring in her "Stuff the Poll Tax" T-shirt tomorrow, others going to the kids' ward to check their colleagues had the TV on. The next day, my sister turned up to take me out. The streets were shimmering with broken glass, it was something else. The bloke next to me turned out to be an ex-squaddie, and he'd been summonsed twice to appear in court for non-payment, until he'd given in and coughed up (bad pun). I sat around telling him and his girlfriend about the state the West End was in.

A week later, I left the place, my ear patched up and volume gradually restored. But fuck it, something had changed. I didn't want to go back home. I was sick of my mum invoking Jesus and telling me my brother was a no-good junkie and I should forget him, and I didn't want to go back to a load of 14-year old kids bragging about getting blow jobs off girls they'd never talked to. It was a pretty fucking big comedown from hanging out with foxy Thatcher-hating nurses and feeling the magnetic throb of the Smoke.

When in hospital, my sister had taken me up to Camden and given me a fiver to buy any album I wanted. I went for something I knew had a vague connection with my brother - at this time, I didn't know quite how, I was formulating a plan to find him, and I wanted to hear something he might have been listening to before he disappeared. Getting into his head, if that makes any sense? I ended up buying a 7" and an LP by a band I knew he'd been into and had gone to see. I left both platters out on my bedside table - well, it was something to look at, hospital wards are pretty boring. Back home, I waited til my parents had gone out, plonked the LP on the JVC turntable and was blown away. Then I played this -

Conflict are still one of the angriest, most passionate bands I've ever come across and (though they'd no doubt disagree) the most important band to come out of the anarcho-punk scene. They were banned from playing in the UK, under surveillance by Special Branch, despised by the press (both music and tabloid) and probably the first band to get the Animal Liberation Front's message over to an international audience. If you wanted polemic about Jesus digging the graves of Auschwitz, or 4th rate Bakuninite musings on the nature of human freedom, it was pretty thin on the ground with this mob: they were too busy providing physical back-up to Hunt Saboteurs or knocking together any bouncers who dared intimidate their audiences at gigs.

There's plenty of Conflict stories, the funniest of which involves sad nazi arse-scratchers Condemned 84, who once tried to attack the punks at a motorway service station, figuring the 'commie veggie scum' would crumble like a lentil bake. It's funny checking out C84's 'hard man' LP covers, knowing the cowards and their assorted bonehead mates had barely clambered out of the van before they were wearing the windscreen - and, rather than 'Face the Aggression', the master race (Ipswich branch) fled back down the M1 instead.

1980s Conflict records all have a sense of urgency that, years on, still make them utterly essential to me. Sure, some of the lyrics grate with age, but in terms of attitude and atmosphere, they've never lost that spark. "IF YOU DON'T WANT TO HELP - FUCK OFF" ran the scratched-in run-out message on one of their platters - to Conflict, involvement in the 'anarcho-punk' scene was pointless unless participants were willing to work together to take direct action of some sort. Then again, the group were basically a bunch of mates from South East London, who dismissed hero worship or Crass-style purity of intent. It was a tense position, one that seemed to backfire on them. I don't know of any other band that came in from such a venomous assault from their 'own movement'. Some of the criticisms aimed at them border on the loopy, with the band accused of being sell-outs after the singer bought a car (er, wasn't exactly a major consideration on the Conflict agenda...and anyway, how do you think the ALF make their getaways from laboratories? Balancing liberated cats, dogs and mice on the fucking handlebars?) and wore a white shirt - with a collar! - at one gig (thus transgressing the Anarcho - Pacifist code of dressing like a vampire that's just deserted the French Foreign Legion).

They had a massive scene of people to work with in the 1980s; in 1990, living in Bedfordshire, how did I get to meet the seething, anarcho-hordes? What happened after the Poll Tax Riot?

Maybe cos of the pressure and demands, bans and accusations of 'selling out' (pretty ridiculous, considering you can now hear Black Flag and The Fall on TV ads - and, as for Iggy Pop, don't go there) Conflict were already on hiatus when I first heard them. In 1994, they released an excrutiatingly awful, lacklustre album and promptly vanished again until what seemed like 2000. Their releases this decade have been much better, though I still think little compares to their '83-'87 period. To A Nation of Animal Lovers is definitely one of the strongest attacks from that era. This disc will never be played at a dinner party. It will never make you look unspeakably hip and retro. I have a feeling the harrowing pics of laboratory cruelty won't be making it into any 'classic punk 7"' sleeve design compendiums either. It's a ferocious statement of intent, created as part of a campaign that still rages on to this day.

Sadly, ALF founder Ronnie Lee went on to make a complete tit of himself, claiming that Hunt Sabs groups should accept the (few) openly neo-nazi members who drifted into that movement - as, allegedly, everyone's welcome to play a part in the struggle for animal liberation, regardless of their politics. Saving foxes by day, planning attacks on non-whites by night - er, hello? While Lee's obviously gaga, there's unfortunately some AR supporters who do give the impression they'd be happy living in a fascist state as long as it's meat-free, or that it's perfectly justifiable to drop a firebomb through a lorry driver's letterbox, regardless of the fact that lorry drivers don't exactly get much of an opportunity to debate the ethics of the companies behind the goods they're hauling, especially when someone else'll do the job in an instant.

At the same time, I do sympathise with vegetarians and vegans - having been friends with some, I'm aware of the shit they have to put up when meat-gobbling tosspots decide to raise the subject in a confrontational manner. It got to the point that one person I knew eventually said he'd given up meat for health reasons, rather than endure another smug, time-wasting lecture on what'd we do with the cows if everyone gave up beef, and mmm, those fluffy bunnies look so much nicer stewing in a pot. I did try to go to vegetarian once, but it was a half-hearted attempt, partly cos a) I was doing it for ulterior motives b) I couldn't cook for shit back then. I've since perfected a tomato / pasta / garlic / peanut / Thai chilli / pesto mash-up that makes me wonder if I couldn't have held in there a bit longer. Baked beans and the odd packet of cheese and onion didn't really have the same appeal.

As for razor blades in Mars Bars? Urban myth. I'll put money on it.

Conflict never did help me find my brother - rather, he ran into me years later - but it did lead me down some interesting avenues over the coming years. That's probably not a bad pay-off for having to suffer gloops of brown gunk in my earhole. But after the Poll Tax Riot, things were happening across the spectrum, from Riot Grrrl and raves to a resurgence in anti-fascism. Never have seen Conflict live, though - on both occasions I made it to the venue, the gigs had been cancelled!
I was into Conflict in the eighties, I think it was. You couldn't really whistle the tunes but the aura and the rebellion it inspired was top. Great post.
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