The Fictionalisation of Real Happenings
By Dr Charlie Taylor, Associate Editor
A sociologist would say that any writing (indeed any discourse) is a negotiation of reality. We write, converse and make sense of the world via the idiosyncratic interpretation of symbols and it is the skilful manipulator of such symbols who makes a good orator, a skilled writer and, yes, a successful confidence trickster. We see the world in our own peculiar fashion and we describe it in a similarly peculiar manner. If we are fortunate, the way in which we describe the world, verbally or otherwise, is comprehensible to those with whom we attempt to communicate. But comprehensibility is always a matter of degree, as many a misunderstood wife or husband in a failing marriage could testify.
And so, after that potted version of semiotics, what relevance did this have for me, a nascent writer, serving police officer and, yes, sociologist in 1980s England? The answer: I had emerged, battered, bruised and thoroughly, thoroughly changed by my experiences on the thin blue front line during one this country’s most violent riots in Toxteth in June, 1981. And I wanted to write about it.
As a serving officer, I was constrained on all sides not to put pre-computer pen to paper. Senior officers would have stopped me, claiming disloyalty but, in truth, wishing to avoid embarrassment, and my professional representative body advised me against it, so I allowed the matter to rest there, more or less. Other than giving talks about it to criminology students at my old university, the notes I had made lay festering in a drawer and, worse, took deeply entrenched synaptic form inside my head. It chewed away at me.
However, the time came when I left the police and felt free to either vent my spleen or tell-it-as-it-was, depending on one’s point of view. To me, the two approaches were not mutually exclusive and I wrote my first book, Unreasonable Force, which focused on the Toxteth Riots but also broadened out to show the policing culture generally as background to the riots.
My sociological dilemma quickly acquired a moral dimension. How does one write the-truth-as-one-sees-it without inflicting great hurt on others who were involved in the same traumatic events? It’s no problem if one doesn’t care. But I cared. I cared very much and that was one of the reasons I was itching to write about it. And so I fictionalised the whole book. I took my own experiences over the years as a police officer, mingled them with the reliably told experiences of others and with hearsay-led experiences; I changed all the dates; I changed the names and conflated personality traits/physical descriptions; I invented scenes ‘as if’ they had happened. My reasoning was this: I wanted to give a flavour of a reality I had worked in for many years without pretending that, in detail, such things had actually happened.
In the preface, I write:
I have blended fact and fiction to disguise characters and events, as much to avoid causing embarrassment to good colleagues as to avoid provoking retaliation from bad ones. All the things in this book will have happened at one time or another and in one form or another, though, believe me. And while the forensic accuracy of the events might be challenged, the flavour of real policing practices they describe is spot on.
And the reader can be assured of this: the events I describe at Toxteth on the night of the main riot on July 5th, 1981, happened exactly the way I describe them. They are the God’s honest truth and they are the reason I wrote this book.
Now, when I say ‘the events I describe at Toxteth… happened exactly the way I describe them’, that is not quite true. To be accurate I should have said ‘more or less’ because such was the chaos and confusion on the night, and so many years had passed before I wrote the events down in hard form, that the recounting of the events can only ever be ‘more or less’ accurate, and set down in good faith.
This is how Chapter One begins:
It has taken me over twenty years to write this story. Is that slow progress or what!
Real writers would call it a rather lengthy gestation period, no doubt, and lecture in their lucrative creative writing classes on its importance. They’d be wrong in my case. Gestation had nothing to do with it. For me, it’s been a recovery period. The events are only now far enough away in time and space for me to recall them without feeling that I’m still there, under threat.
Trouble is, I don’t know whether I’m able to recall things vividly enough for the recounting of it to be anything other than therapy. Or whether the act of recall will set me back several years. Or whether the subject is any longer topical. I suspect it is – rioting and looting and trying to kill coppers is always topical. And entertaining.
And there’s only one way to find out… the Toxteth riots of 1981, here I come. Again!
And so to Chapter Ten and my enforced plunge into the riot, unprepared, confused and about to be assaulted to within an inch of my life:
How can I possibly write about the hours I spent at Toxteth? I could write it in a few dozen words, or a few hundred, like the smart-arsed instant analyses I read in newspapers in the days following the riots – hack journalists with a ready take on the world, all the world, any world. Those who can, do; those who can’t, write about it in newspapers!
I step off the coach that brought us to this dreadful place and:
The mass parts around us, the new arrivals (the cavalry’s here, lads!), and reforms behind. It does this without any instruction. It resembles a single-celled organism as it flows around us. We are an obstacle to be avoided as it loses forty yards of ground. We are not absorbed by it, we are as a foreign body, devoid of wit and purpose and instruction, that the organism must negotiate as it flows backwards from an as yet unseen pressure somewhere ahead.
We are bemused and we stand there, in a group, in a huddle, trying to make sense of this chaotic world. The noise overwhelms us. It is as invasive as the heat and it, too, hits us in waves. The noise is coming from the mass. It is a confusion of shouts and curses and boots on tarmac and shield edges dragging along the floor and over boots. Above it and below it and all around it there is an insistent rumbling, a basso profundo of a noise that palpably vibrates the air.
We are still standing there as the policeman-mass ceases to exist in front of us. It is all behind us now and the noise and the heat of the uniformed crowd is slightly less. We can now see why it has moved back. Less than thirty yards in front are several hundred people who want to kill us.
The mob attacks and:
The single most enduring image of those first minutes is that of the road between us and our would-be murderers. It is carpeted with the stuff of a demolition man’s dreams – half-bricks, lumps of concrete paving stones, shattered glass, iron bars, misshapen lumps of, well, of anything really. A street lamp on the left leans forwards at a drunken angle, peering down at the crown of the road and looking foolish. And still we stand in a huddle, wondering what to do, wondering why we’re here and wondering what it’s all about.
It is easy to see that these extracts are not academic-speak, nor are they dry-as-dust-police-officer-speak. Instead, I have used a fictional style to bring the events to life in a way (I hope) that takes the reader to the place I found myself that June night in 1981 – Upper Parliament Street, Toxteth, Liverpool. The style does not make the recounting of that night untrue even though I am negotiating an historical reality – looking back on time-space occurrences and imbuing them with feeling in a way that academic work or police reports could not. Fictionalising of real happenings can be a powerful means of getting one’s view of the world across, much more so than stating the bald facts.
And suddenly, with as big a shock as any of the concrete missiles hitting my shield, I realise I am tired. It hits me out of the blue. I am more than tired, I am exhausted. I yawn. In the middle of a battering, I am yawning. My arms feel weary, my back is aching from crouching behind the shield for just a few minutes but what feels like hours, the strength has gone out of my legs and sweat drenches me from top to toe. It runs in rivulets off my face and drips off my nose onto my shield-wielding arm. My nose runs and I feel snot joining the sweat. I can hardly breathe, hunched over in full uniform, breathing in my own sweat and the odour of hundreds of other sweaty bodies.
And this is what I think: I’m in a position that I have no control over whatsoever – it’s a nightmare – they are trying to kill me.
So how does the riot end for me? Some hours later, after being on the receiving end of a frightful battering, for me it ends like this: CS gas is used for the first time on the British mainland and my would-be murderers scatter:
Young denim-clad Scousers wearing trainers are too good for me and I give up the chase. It is now dawn and I realise I must have advanced more than a mile from where my shared nightmare began. I sit down on the kerb and wait. What do I do now? I have lost sight of Jason and Kenny and looking back down the road, as morning finally arrives, I can see groups of policemen straggling all along its length, picking their way through the rubble-strewn mess that used to be Upper Parliament Street.
I start to wander back and bump into Mike. We don’t say much but we are pleased to see each other, relatively unscathed. I drag my shield along the floor. It doesn’t seem right to have no noise at all after all I’ve been through. Besides, I haven’t the strength to carry it.
We get to the burnt out Rialto again and Mike finds some of his own unit. They are sitting on the floor smoking fags in front of a large poster which proclaims: ‘Jesus Saves’.
“You’ve been sitting here waiting for a miracle, have you lads?” says Mike.
“Well, we thought we’d turn to Jesus given that our bosses weren’t for saving us,” one replies.
We gradually collect policemen we recognise as we amble back to where our coach dropped us off. The coach is still there, and so is our Merseyside PC guide.
“Thank you, lads,” he says as we climb into the coach. He means it and we need to hear someone say it.
Names have been changed, minute by minute happenings have kaleidoscoped in my mind after over twenty years and, then, on the paper as I write. Every word I have written about the Toxteth Riot of 1981 is true. It all happened but that which is laid out in the book is a fictionalised version of a certain reality, of my reality, of a reality I have negotiated via the slippery symbols we know as words so that somebody, anybody, for God’s sake, will understand what it was like.
Fiction or fact? You choose.
Charlie Taylor lives in Devon and has been retired from a senior executive position in a public service body for a number of years. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Lancaster. His area of expertise is social norms which, as he says, fairly well encompass the whole of human social action. Charlie has published many articles and short stories (an example can be found at East of the Web). He is the author of a handful of novels, including Scotch Mist.