When first I heard that Coventry had been named Britain’s City of Culture for 2021, I imagined it was a weaselly, corrupt joke, like when Qatar won the right to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
I had moved to Coventry in the 1980s, and the culture of the city was racism, football and violence.
In 1986, I had my head kicked in by five drunks I met on a Coventry bus. I remember the boxing bulldog tattooed on the butcher’s forearm of the man who knocked me down.
Last month, I went back to Coventry to visit a friend and see what might have changed.
Coventry remains an unlovely place. The city’s once magnificent mediaeval heart was blitzed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. On a single night in November 1940, 525 German bombers destroyed more than 4300 homes, shops and factories and killed about 568 people.
The Nazis laid waste to the 14th-century Gothic Cathedral Church of St Michael, which was deliberately left as a hollow ruin in the broken heart of the city. It is supposed to stand as an international symbol of reconciliation, but it looks as though something very big has fallen down and nobody could be bothered to put it back up or clear it away.
After the war, Coventry was the centre of a thriving British motor industry, attracting enterprising migrants from the West Indies and, particularly, South Asia. When British manufacturing was run to the ground in the 1970s, Coventry became a working-class city without work.
Many white Coventrians felt that the immigrants had “stolen” their jobs, and Nazis wrecked Coventry once more, with waves of racist thuggery fanned by the unctuous National Front and the moronic British Movement.
Against this background of hate Coventry ska band The Specials was formed, and their very existence, as black and white Britons playing Jamaican dance music like angry punks, was a challenge to the racists. And their art – most especially, the 1981 single “Ghost Town” – could feel touched by God.
The Specials’ Coventry-based record label, 2 Tone, served as a launching pad for other ska-influenced, often multiracial acts such as The Selecter, The Beat and Madness. But the violence in their home town raged on.
In April 1981, 20-year-old Satnam Singh Gill was kicked and stabbed to death by skinheads in Coventry city centre. In June that year Dr Amal Dharry was stabbed in the heart by a skinhead in the suburbs. His killer admitted he had done it for a £15 bet.
2 Tone responded with a festival for racial harmony headlined by The Specials, but fewer than 1000 tickets were sold and the vicariously murderous National Front marched through the city on the same day.
The Specials and their label mates are celebrated today in the Coventry Music Museum, which is the centrepiece of a small 2 Tone Village that includes souvenir and clothes shops, a Caribbean restaurant and a cafe with toilets labelled “Rude Boys” and “Rude Girls”.
The music museum looks like a house made up entirely of teenagers’ bedrooms, crammed with posters, records, music magazines, photos and badges. The largest single exhibit is the 1961 Vauxhall Cresta driven by Specials bassist Horace Panter in the music video for “Ghost Town”.
The museum was founded in 2010 by veteran local music journalist Pete Chambers. “Years ago,” Chambers tells me, “a friend of mine was approached by two Japanese girls in Coventry city centre. They wanted to know where ‘the 2 Tone’ was. And, of course, my friend had to say, ‘There isn’t any.’ ”
So Chambers resolved to make some 2 Tone. His first realised idea was a 2 Tone Trail, a path of pilgrimage that led around sites such as recording studios, pubs and nightclubs, marked with plaques to explain their significance. Visitors could follow the steps of The Specials from Coventry University, where several band members once studied, to the Heath Hotel, where they played their debut gig (as the Automatics).
His next plan was a “walk of fame”, featuring Hollywood Boulevard-style stars (although Chambers got the idea from a similar project in Sheffield) dedicated to local personalities. The subjects were chosen by popular vote, and The Specials made the cut, along with The Selecter. Another plaque on the walk is dedicated to Sir Henry Parkes, the only Coventrian to have his face on a banknote – glowering quizzically from a 2001 commemorative Australian $5 note.
The Walk of Stars (Walk of Fame turned out to be a trademark) was dedicated in 2008 and can be seen outside the BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio, not far from the university.
This was followed by the music museum, which, Chambers stresses, is not just a 2 Tone museum but a repository of the entire history of music in Coventry and Warwickshire. Which just happens to be mainly 2 Tone.
The museum has a section dedicated to The Beatles: in June 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono planted acorns for peace in Coventry. “It was the only place they did plant them,” says Chambers, “and they got stolen within a week. But that’s Coventry for you.”
In 2005, Ono returned to plant oak trees in the Coventry Cathedral walkway. “They look a bit strange for oak trees, but apparently they’re Japanese oak trees,” says Chambers. “There’s no plaque or anything. The idea was to get her to come back, but she never came back.”
Chambers is a devout 2 Tone lover and a staunch Coventrian, and there’s something faintly disturbing about the way in which his museum covers the homicidal racism of the time and the place. Chambers accepts that it was a big problem and that he cannot fully understand it because, as a white man, he was never on the receiving end, but he insists that “generally people got on reasonably well … We didn’t have riots, like Bristol and Liverpool and London.”
This is sort of true – although there was a battle between black youths and police in the 1981 rioting season – but the riots were, in part, acts of resistance, whereas Coventry’s murders were simply hate crimes.
As well as the music museum, the city has an official museum, the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, where I once worked in a vaguely fraudulent government scheme to aid the long-term unemployed (me).
The HAGM has a small display about 2 Tone – as well as an online archive of an exhibition, “2 Tone: Lives and Legacies”, that includes a photograph of the friend I’d returned to Coventry to visit, along with one of her T-shirts.
Thus, we too become history.
On sale in the museum shop is a pamphlet, “Racist Tones”, which records the memories of four South Asians who grew up in Coventry. It’s a sickening catalogue of bricks and bullets through the windows of family homes, of spittings and bashings and casual terrorism.
It’s wonderful that 2 Tone is celebrated today but, for me, the historical culture of Coventry is still represented by the fists that punched me to the ground and the feet that encircled me, and the beating I took for the unspeakable crime of not being from around there.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "Sent (back) to Coventry".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription