Tuesday, 27 September 2022 10:30

Penknife

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Penknife

The Pen: self-discovery, reflection, sexual awakening and redemption

The Knife: misplaced loyalties, violence, criminality and toxic masculinity

As the UK goes into an autumn of escalating industrial unrest, with a new Prime Minister who echoes Margaret Thatcher, Penknife is a timely coming of age novel set in small town Essex against a backdrop of the 1984 miners’ strike.

It is May 1984 and Jarrod Brook, a rebel without a cause, returns to Brightlingsea, Essex, after being expelled from a state boarding school, to find that his mum has given his bedroom to a striking miner. Along with his best mate, Colin, over a long, eventful summer Jarrod is drawn into petty criminality while also trying to impress Verity, an outspoken young feminist. Then the repercussions of a drunken night out conspire to test the limits of friendship and to show how a well-meaning and quite innocent young man can end up behind bars. 

Here are two extracts from Jim Westover's new book....

1. From Chapter Three....

We came to a halt when the pickets at the front were held up by coppers at the bottom of the stairs. From this position, I could see over the port wall. There were cranes moving around between what looked like huge sheds, and at least three massive black piles on the ground.

Two trains clattered past on the line below while we were still stuck on the bridge. There was an outbreak of sarcastic cheering when we finally got moving, then the chant I’d heard on the news: Here we go, here we go, here we go.

On the other side of the bridge, we were released in small batches and made to walk in single file through a corridor of coppers onto the grass verge at the left of the port gates. I kept my head down, so I wasn’t able to clock if they were wearing numbers or not, but I was convinced that this lot were the heavy mob. They were wearing boots with more holes than any punk or skinhead I’d ever seen. Were we being lured into a trap? Well, it was definitely a sun trap, cos the back of my neck was roasting. It seemed to have got very hot, very quickly.

I smoked one of my last three Bensons as the grass verge filled up slowly around me and I carried on looking out for Tony. I remembered what he’d said the previous night about stepping up the pressure over picketing rights. By hook or by crook, by coach, car or foot, they were coming to North Essex from all over. Kent had got here first, cos they found out about the scab coal coming in from Poland; then, a few weeks ago, Derbyshire had started arriving in Brightlingsea. Now there were Welsh miners holed up in Wivenhoe and I could hear Scottish accents behind me. But I still hadn’t spoken to anybody.

I looked around to see if I could catch someone’s eye, but everybody else was busy chatting, or reading the papers: The Miner, the Mirror, and the Socialist Worker. Everybody was waiting for something to happen.

It all changed when we heard the first lorry rattling down the road towards the port. I imagined this was what it was like to be a film extra. After hanging around for hours, you suddenly had to be ready to spring into action and do another take. Except this was going to be my first take, and nobody had shown me the script.

I followed everybody else and pushed into the geezer in front with all my strength. When I pressed my palms against the back of his T-shirt, it was already soaking wet. The scent of our collective sweat was pungent, but not unpleasant. It smelled earthier than the sickly sour milk odour the kids gave off at school. I wanted to believe the difference was because they were miners, but I guess it was really just cos they were men.

A new chant started, which we grunted in a low hypnotic hum: Heave… heave…heave… It must have had some effect, because we moved forward by a couple of metres, but that wasn’t enough to test the police lines.

I was relieved when the heaving stopped, even though it meant that we’d lost the first round. I’d already run out of steam, and now I had time to find my bomber jacket, which had slipped down from my waist and was being stomped into the ground.

Over the revving of anxious engines, I heard one word being spat out again and again.

SCAB…SCAB… SCAB…SCAB…

They made it sound like a scab was the most despicable thing that anybody could ever be.

I stood on tiptoes and clocked one in the flesh. He was a scrawny old geezer with greased-back hair and a roll-up stuck to the side of his mouth, gesturing frantically to be allowed to drive forwards. The scab was flanked by a line of coppers with their arms linked together.

The police had us where they wanted us, hemmed in tightly against the port wall. And not a single picket was allowed out to reason with the drivers.

After another convoy of lorries were loaded up, the chants of scab became more half-hearted before dying out completely. I could hear seagulls cawing in the sky above me and cranes moving around in the port. Once the police lines had disintegrated, many of the pickets started to walk away. If I wanted to, I could have escaped and called it a day. It had already been a day that I would never forget, and there were plenty of things on which I wanted to reflect, but I also needed to know what was going to happen next. I followed a group of blokes to see where they went and ended up in a queue for the shop. I bought a can of Top Deck and a pasty and then went to the concrete fence at the back of the grass verge to join the line of miners who were pissing against it.

The ten-box of Bensons had crushed in my front pocket and both fags were snapped at the filter. I turned one around and screwed it back into the butt, but after a crappy couple of puffs, I ran out of luck.

When the next batch of lorries came in, it was like we had a strong wind behind us or were playing on a sloping pitch. The coppers were on the back foot from the off. When their arm-linked fences finally gave way, it reminded me of being in the Shed at Stamford Bridge when a goal went in, getting carried along by the tides of bodies and ending up fifteen feet from your original spot.

2. From Chapter Six......

‘I’ve seen that before, it’s crap,’ Colin said, after studying a few seconds of a black and white sci-fi film on BBC1. Colin’s favourite programme was Star Trek, but he’d watch almost anything that showed life on other planets. He swore that he once saw a UFO down the prom, and no amount of piss-taking would ever get him to admit he could be wrong.

He switched to BBC2 and I heard a tantalising mention of Orgreave.

‘Leave that on, can you? Just for a minute, please.’

He sniggered at my pleading tone. ‘If it’s boring, I’m turning it over.’

I had to think quickly how to get them interested, cos the Tory on the telly was rambling. I was like Owen in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, trying to fit in a lecture about socialism before Crass called the painters back to work. Colin and Dennis were always going on about hating the Old Bill, so I explained how they’d stitched up the miners by allowing them to picket at Orgreave coking plant, and then ran around in riot gear beating them up. ‘Six thousand coppers,’ I said, ‘all looking for blood.’

‘I thought you wanted to watch the programme,’ Colin said.

‘I do. But there’s no point in listening to that lying bastard. Did you know that the first thing Thatcher did when she got in was to give the Old Bill a 45 per cent rise? And now look, they’re paying her back with interest. Well, they’re still getting loads of overtime for it.’ I took a sip of my whisky and reached for my Bensons. ‘And now she’s chucking the weight of the state against the miners: the army, secret services, the lot.’

Dennis took a gulp of whisky without flinching, or even wincing. ‘All right, Bogue, there’s no need to get all excited.’

‘Here we go,’ I said, excitedly, when the programme cut from the studio to the fields.

A barricade of crash-helmeted cops, with long plastic shields, stretched across the width of the screen; behind them, pigs on horses rode at a canter between two rows of trees.

Colin snapped a custard cream with his teeth. ‘They think they’re in a fucking Western, don’t they?’

The long shields parted, and the cavalry burst through, sending pickets scattering across the dry field in panic. Then came the ones with short shields, followed by regular nipple-head plods swinging truncheons.

A picket stumbled in no man’s land and was grabbed, gripped and coshed. As the nipple-head clubbed him like a seal, two of his cop mates just stood back and watched.

Even Dennis was leant forward on the edge of his chair. ‘Fucking hell. He must have nearly killed the geezer.’

‘He’ll get away with it as well,’ I said. ‘That’s why they don’t wear their numbers, so they can get away with murder.’ My hands were trembling with fury, and I spilt half my whisky onto the yellow foam of the ripped settee. Luckily, Colin was too engrossed to notice.

He got up to turn off the telly when the report cut back to the Newsnight presenter. ‘They’ve really fucking wound me up now. Makes you feel hard, does it? WANKERS.’ I could see his reflection in the blank screen as he squared up to it. Above the telly was a framed one-thousand-piece jigsaw his old man had completed, of brightly coloured fish swimming in the ocean.

‘The Old Bill have always been cunts,’ Dennis said, ‘that’s their job. If the frigging miners don’t like it, why don’t they just get back to work, like every other mug has to?’

Dennis didn’t have a clue. ‘The whole point of the strike is that pretty soon half of them wouldn’t have jobs to go back to.’

Bollocks. They’re having too much of a jolly ain’t they? I saw a few of them down the swimming pool the other day, laughing and joking like they were on fucking holiday.’

‘They’re just making the most of it. It ain’t a holiday going picketing for three quid a day, and risking getting stitched up or battered by the coppers. It’s rough mate, I’m telling you. I got a little taste of it at Wivenhoe.’

‘Yeah, once. If you feel so strongly about it, how comes you ain’t been back?’

‘I’ve done other stuff.’ I didn’t think I had to justify myself, but Dennis had managed to touch a nerve. There had to be something else I could do.

‘I’m going to buy some spray paint tomorrow,’ I announced, a few minutes later, ‘and put a message on that new pig station.’

Dennis scoffed. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

‘YEAH,’ I snapped.

Colin sniggered weirdly like the whisky had taken effect. ‘There’s no need for that.’

‘Why not? They fucking deserve it.’

‘My old man’s got some spray paint in the garage.’

Colin fished a keyring from the pocket of his fawn Farah trousers, then cackled triumphantly as he swished it from side to side like a hyperactive hypnotist. ‘I had them cut when me old chap was asleep. I’ve got ones for his and me brother’s bedrooms an’ all.’

‘Yeah, but I don’t want to get you into trouble.’

Trust my big mouth to get me into trouble. Still, at least it was going to be for something political. And if I shit out now, I’d be asking for ridicule. Nah, I would show them that I had the bottle to back up my convictions. But I needed to strike while my temper was hot.

 Penknife is published on November 1st 2022 by Silverwood Books.

Read 1624 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 September 2022 14:03
Jim Westover

Jim Westover grew up in Brightlingsea, Essex. Jim’s love of poetry, reggae and lyrics includes performing with Colchester art punks, Maniac Squat and DJing as Reggie Love. He lives in East London.