Ranting, Reggae And A Rallying Cry Against Gentrification

“Every time I see a bit of graffiti my rent goes up,” Tim Wells laughs. It’s a familiar refrain from the East End poet renowned for lager-fuelled lines decrying the gentry coming to sweep the working class under the carpet — even more so since the 2011 London riots.

We’re at Maggie’s Bar in Stoke Newington, where there’s a sense of community you’d be hard pressed to find in the craft beer and burger place which replaced Tim’s local “Kurdish gangster bar”. He finishes off a cheese roll, downs his pint and orders another before we sit down among the regular punters to chat. He’s wearing a yellow windowpane check shirt and black tank top combo — signature Suedehead style.

Everything Crash — Wells’s third full collection — is mostly set around Stamford Hill, Whitechapel and Brick Lane — areas at the forefront of gentrification. He’s exasperated by the Ripper tourist industry that has sprung up in Whitechapel and went on three protest marches against the recently-unveiled Ripper museum. “Gentrification is bad enough but now they’re gentrifying the past. It’s a fetishisation of people’s lives, no different to the benefits porn you get on TV,” he grumbles.

Described as “thug” by the NME and a “working class hero” by The Morning Star, Tim’s boozy, anti-establishment poems resonate today more than ever but the prospects for him growing up in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t great: “We went through school thinking we’d either never be in work, or we’d be factory or army fodder. It was rough out there, and we were part of the roughness.”

Attracted to the girls, free drinks and gigs, Tim began performing shouty, sweary material in 1979 alongside ranting poets Michael Smith, Seething Wells, LKJ, John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker. Ranting poets stood in solidarity with the miners’ strikes and anti-apartheid but Tim has since gained a reputation for doing the rounds in East End pubs defending the working class against the hipsters moving in on electric skateboards (one zooms past as we chat).

He admits that there was no literary merit in his poetry in those days but the point was to get the message out there. “My early political lessons were solid: never cross a picket line, challenge fascism.” Yet he’s realistic about poetry’s political potential, much preferring to be out on the streets than adding his name to an online petition. 

“The proliferation of social and corporate media has served to isolate people. When I was a lad, people mixed in the markets and pubs. Different generations drank in the pubs and you learnt how to behave. Ideas were shared and talked about. Some of ’em were even good ideas. Now anywhere that working class people have a good time is under threat. Beer prices are through the roof and what’s under the roof is being sold off as flats for toffs.” 

Hipsters have appropriated what’s ours. There’s probably an ironic tattoo they can have done about it too.

On the topic of working class youngsters today Tim isn’t optimistic: “I think it’s probably harder for kids now. Wasn’t easy for us, but we did have community. No Future was a punk slogan — seems to me kids today haven’t much of a present. Education, housing, work and opportunity are all being taken away from working class youngsters. Not only that, hipsters have appropriated what’s ours. There’s probably an ironic tattoo they can have done about it too.”

Culture isn’t as politicised as it used to be and when it comes to music Tim’s all for “more Sleaford Mods, less Little Mix.” The politics, rhythm and song titles of London’s rich reggae scene fuel Tim’s collection. “The reggae DJs like Ranking Toyan, I Roy and Trinity were important. They communicated to people — a reggae dance was like a newspaper: the DJs would run down what had been going on in the world and also on the manor.”

East London’s nightlife has shifted dramatically with the closure of pubs like Robey on Seven Sisters Road or reggae clubs like The Four Aces in Dalston. “They were noisy, rammed and had a lot of character and characters. They ran late and you’d get beer in bottles or cans. The music was intense, the speakers were piled high and you could physically feel the bass through your stomach.

“The walls would be lined by blokes cupping draw and nodding their heads to the music. The DJs would name-check people or say something salacious and a cheer would go up.”

Few of Tim’s early haunts have survived redevelopment and the steady march of gentrification. “Most of the pubs are dead or have gone gastro. Most of the music venues have gone, I think the Dublin Castle is the only one still there. The Scala cinema was a particular fave. I used to love the all night horror films there. It’s a club now — record shops were great. I’d hang about learning about records, hearing choons, meeting mates and drinking beer.”

“There’s a new record shop on Stoke Newington Road — it’s full of wankers.”

When he’s not drinking and ranting his way round East End pubs, he’s gigged at the British Library, Southbank Centre and the Sunday Assembly. But who would he most like to see reading his new collection?

“I’d like the poetry crowd to read it, some of ’em will get it and some of ’em will hate it. But we’re who we are because of who our enemies are as much as anything else. I’m pleased to say that a lot of old skinheads, mods and punks read my poems, and it makes me happy that I get published in as many ‘zines as I do poetry mags.”

“I’d most like to see Charlotte Church, the Sleaford Mods and Jackie Collins reading the book. In a decent pub.”

For more on reggae, ranting and East End history check out Tim’s blog Standup and Spit.

Everything Crash is published by Penned in the Margins on 9 September. You can buy a special edition with badge, poem postcard and vinyl sticker included for £20.

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4 September 2015 | 9:00 am – Source: londonist.com


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