Two Dogs Fighting

Huyton, Huyton
Two dogs fightin'
One is black
And one's a white'un

It perhaps speaks volumes of Liverpool's curious brand of solidarity that, in a slice of doggerel encapsulating racial tensions, it's hard to tell which side – if any – is being insulted. For many Scousers outside the city's easternmost district, the attitude towards the issues of their most troublesome burgh may be considered 'a plague on both your houses'; to Huytonians themselves, it all too often depends (sadly, if predictably) on which side of the racial divide you stand.

To many Liverpudlians, Huyton has always had the indescribable yet inescapable sense of being 'different'; it may be in Liverpool, but it isn't fully part of it. This may be due to its odd history; having been its own Urban District for eighty years beforehand, it was appended to the City of Liverpool in the late 1950s, alongside Bootle and a few square miles of Lancastrian countryside around Hale, what had formerly been the county's southernmost tip. A few years later, the City Corporation built a vast new estate in the town as overspill for slum clearances in Granby; eight huge tower blocks, quickly nicknamed 'Windy Heights' by the locals as a reference to the intense breezes that used to blow through the concourses between them – and to the West Indian origins of their inhabitants.

Up until this point, Huyton – or rather, Huyton-with-Roby, the somewhat grand name of the old Urban District Council – had maintained a reputation as a fading yet still-reputable garden suburb; a haven of Liverpool's merchants and industrialists. Even today the town proclaims the eminent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as a native son alongside the football icons and music stars it is probably better-known for. This despite the arrival of several vast council estates built by Liverpool Corporation on land purchased from the UDC in the Thirties, their names now synonymous with the images of sink estates – Hillside, Bluebell, Woolfall...

Windy Heights changed all that. Almost overnight, genteel Victorian Huyton-with-Roby was swept away in a torrent of entirely predictable urban strife. Resident Huytonians resented the newcomers receiving modern homes in vast Brutalist eyesores; the new occupants of Windy Heights resented being removed from their communities and given cramped, poorly-built flats in vast Brutalist eyesores. And, naturally, each side resented the other for unquestionably valid reasons and took exception to the completely unjustified hostility shown by said others to them and theirs.

Tensions simmered throughout the 1960s – there is an infamous photograph from Harold Wilson's campaign in the 1966 general election of the Prime Minister attending an exhibition of the new, modern designs for Huyton Village shopping centre; prominent behind him is Huyton's one black councillor, Derek Aldo, and next to Aldo is the old UDC leader Peter Stubbs. Stubbs is holding his jacket open to show something to the councillor.

“He had a banana inside his pocket,” Aldo tells me, sitting in a café in a corner of Huyton Village's subterranean market beneath flickering striplights. “If you look at some of the other photos you can just about see the outline through his suit – whenever he thought no-one was looking he'd open his jacket and show it me.” He looks away, and makes a noise that might be the world's most cynical chuckle. “It was obvious what was going on, but I didn't say anything at the time – didn't want any trouble, y'know?”

There is an uncomfortable pause, and Councillor Aldo sighs. “I wonder even now if I should've. Maybe it would've made a difference.”

June 12th 1970 is a date engraved on Britain's national consciousness; the assassination of Harold Wilson during a speech in his constituency, the first time a Prime Minister had been assassinated in over a century-and-a-half, threw the nation into a state of mourning six days before a general election was due to take place, causing a constitutional crisis and heralding the strife and upheaval that would permeate the 1970s. A great deal of ink and paper has been expended discussing the event and its aftermath on a national, global and geopolitical level, analysed and approached from every conceivable angle; most infamously in the 1999 film by the Hitchens Brothers, Red Friday, which took a fringe theory – that Wilson's Neo-Nazi assassins were in the pay of the Soviet Union – and, impossibly, dragged it further to the margins by positing Wilson was in fact a Communist agent eliminated for displeasing his Soviet paymasters in such a way that ensured the election of a more 'pliable' candidate (the last plot point was executed in such a way as to provoke libel suits from both Edward Heath and Barbara Castle). Yet surprisingly little work has been done exploring the effects of the definitive event of post-war Britain at its epicentre.

Those facts directly related to the incident are well-known; a quartet of youths from the Hillside Estate – Paul O'Connor, Michael Alker, Gavin Taylor and James Barton – gained access to a speech Wilson was giving at the Huyton Suite by bribing an officer policing the event. That officer was Peter Stubbs, who believed the four were merely planning to disrupt the speech with a protest; in fact, the four were members of the British Freedom Association, a faction of the League of Empire Loyalists who had rejected their party's merger with the British National Party and rapidly become radicalised in the wake of Enoch Powell's infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech. They burst onto the stage and opened fire on the Prime Minister at the height of his speech – whilst all four were killed by police marksmen within ten seconds, it was too late for Wilson, who had been shot in the throat, leg and spine. He was rushed to nearby Whiston Hospital, but died as he was being wheeled into surgery. The role of a self-identified 'radical Powellite' group in the Premier's death was revealed a matter of days after Powell's defeat of Edward Heath in the Conservative leadership election (setting off an additional slew of conspiracy theories, and contributing to the collapse of the Rothermere publishing empire in 1971), and his refusal to resign his post in the wake of the revelations led to the near-collapse of the Conservative Party.

Stubbs' trial became the fulcrum through which most of the revelations about the assassination was made public; Stubbs himself was cleared of being a co-conspirator, finally being found guilty of corruption and dereliction of duty, and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He would become a cause celebre for the British far-right, who even today champion 'Justice for Peter Stubbs', and a bogeyman of the left, for whom the evidence of his prior racism was damning beyond the verdict of the court.

Aldo – whose testimony in court about Stubbs' actions at the planning meeting four years before provoked the phrase “Is that a banana in your pocket?”, a rhetorical question beloved of the British left in calling out dogwhistle racism – remains ambivalent towards his tormentor. “I don't think he was in on the plot, not for a second – I stood up and said as much in court, and I stand by that,” he says, jabbing the chipped tabletop animatedly as he does so. “But the man was definitely a racist, and he was proud of it, and I'm not sure he ever changed. In the four years between the banana incident and Wilson's death, I received more complaints from my residents than any other issue – about him, and his coppers. Remember, this was at a time when the Windy Heights estate was already falling down – we had rats, cockroaches, we had lifts breaking, we had all sorts going wrong, gas leaks – one woman on the top floor lost her baby 'cos the oven door leaked and the kitchen filled with coal gas. People were losing their jobs, people were being spat at in the street. Yet the treatment they got from the police – that was the worst.”

Stubbs recanted his racist beliefs whilst imprisoned, becoming a born-again Christian, and apologised publically to Wilson's family for his unwitting role in the assassination on his release. Yet he never offered an apology to Aldo or other black Huytonians who were the subject of his racism, something which has led many to question the depth and validity of his renunciation. When I press him on this, Aldo refuses to comment further; “I won't speak ill of the dead,” he says. After his release, Stubbs and his wife moved to Norfolk, where he died in 1992.

For Huyton's residents, the assassination of Harold Wilson had immediate and terrifying repercussions. As news of the tragedy broke, people from both communities took to the streets; although the racial element to the murder was not yet known, and would not be for some time yet, crowds began to gather at the boundaries of Windy Heights. Residents of the tower blocks in turn formed a 'human chain' around their homes, hoping to deter the mob – and often carrying weapons to aid that deterrence. It was only a matter of time before violence erupted, and when it did so it happened at the worst point. A fight broke out on the Liverpool Road side of the estate, near to the Territorial Army base of 33 Signal Squadron, which only a few minutes before had been cordoned off by police to prevent either side trying to make a grab for it – some theorise that it was in fact the arrival of the cops that sparked the riot in the first place. The violence was brief; regardless of what caused it, the nearby presence of a significant number of police on an edgy, nervy night meant that it died out almost as quickly as it had begun, but race relations in Huyton had taken a jump off the cliff.

“We had dog muck pushed through our door,” recalls Aldo, who had moved into a house on the edge of the Hillside Estate with his new wife less than a year before. “It went from being spat at in the street to one guy trying to ram black residents with his car.”

Intercommunal violence flared up intermittently throughout the 1970s, and the National Front found the white estates fertile recruiting grounds. Following the Castle Government's reforms to local government, the first elections to the new councils in 1975 saw Huyton's Longview ward return an NF councillor. With the Conservatives still struggling to throw off the baggage of Powellism in the wake of a second consecutive Labour landslide, and the local Labour Party tacking right to counter the perceived threat, Derek Aldo reached a political crossroads.

“I wasn't prepared to continue serving a party that was prepared to pander to racists and throw its loyal constituents under the bus for the sake of a council seat. When I joined them, they seemed like the best option for advancing the black community – well, I say best; it turned out to be more like 'least worst'. When they started coming out with watered-down neo-Nazi stuff to win votes, I quit.”

With his marriage also having recently collapsed – something Aldo now openly admits was due to his repressed homosexuality, although he would not confront this for over a decade and only came out publicly in 1996 – he took the opportunity through his union connections to spend a year in the United States. There, he conversed with leaders of the civil rights struggle from across the black community, from members of Martin Luther King Jr's old congregation to the Nation of Islam and from the NAACP to the Jamaican Diaspora. It was through the latter that he became a Rastafari, although his political activism was at odds with the majority of his new co-religionists.

“It was an odd time in my life,” says Aldo now. “The Rastafari faith offered me a lot of things I didn't feel I was getting anywhere else – even if I wasn't the most observant adherent.”

Did he smoke marijuana?

“'Course I smoked weed! It was the nineteen-seventies, you needed a spliff just to get through the day!” He laughs – it is the first time since I met him that I have seen him smile properly – but quickly becomes serious again. “That came up a lot when I got back and started campaigning again. The National Front were all like, he's a druggie, he's dealing, he'll be high in council meetings, he wants to cut in his druggie mates – funny enough, this was at the time they were basically relying on their links to the heroin dealers to keep solvent. They're flooding the town with smack, and they had the nerve to go after me for toking in the name of the lord.”

“Labour and the left actually tried flipping that on its head – they went for I only became a Rasta because I wanted an excuse to toke up. 'Course I got the edge on both of 'em by going down the educational route; going into schools, talking about drugs and why you shouldn't do them. 'Course, I never actually admitted to doing marijuana until long after it'd stopped being a thing.”

Back in Huyton, Aldo channelled his energies into a new party, the Huyton Babylon Party. As the name implied, it was not afraid to employ Rastafarian imagery to appeal to black voters – and under the new label, Aldo was elected to represent his old ward in 1981. For all the rhetoric, that was about as far as anyone including the party's founder expected the HBP to get.

“I wouldn't go that far,” says Aldo, slightly offended, when I ask him if his party was a front for his own political career. “There was a hope we could build something here for the black community in Huyton, in the longer term, but I was pretty sure that having already been a councillor I was the only person who could actually get back on the council. I was...” he snaps his fingers, trying to remember, “what's-a-thingy, the kids in the office keep mentioning it – Unbeatable Local something, is that a thing?”

The phenomenon Aldo refers to – the Unbeatably Popular Local Bloke – hadn't been identified at the time of his election under the Huyton Babylon banner, but it bears all the hallmarks. Buoyed by their success, and the support of the black Scouse pop group the Real Thing, they stood a paper candidate in the same ward a year later.

Then something unexpected happened; their candidate won. Surprising as that was, it wasn't as surprising as what Huyton Babylon realised when they began analysing the results.

“We were so surprised at what happened, we had to get an expert in to help work out how we won!” laughs Aldo. “Thing is, when we looked at our vote totals we found that they were substantially – substantially larger than the number of black residents in our ward. Okay, first time round you can say that's people voting for me over the Nazis, but the year after we only campaigned in Windy Heights; we hadn't expected to win, we just wanted to get the vote out, y'know, so why were people voting for us?”

The answer was revelatory in more ways than one. In the face of the NF's unabashed white supremacy, the HBP's pic'n'mix of Rastafari commandments and post-Wilsonian leftism – focussing on the racial and sexual equality elements of the former, and the social welfare aspects of the latter – struck a powerful chord in an area exhausted by racial strife. More than that, it suggested what few commentators (if any) had noticed; Huyton's residents were communicating across the racial divide.

“We missed it entirely,” admits Aldo with surprising candour, “we didn't even realise there was a wave until we were riding on it. Not that we didn't do a lot of good – we did a hell of a lot of good – but we can't take the full credit. In a lot of ways, we were a manifestation of what was already there, waiting to happen.”

This is not to say that Huyton was a paragon of racial harmony waiting to happen – incidents of assault and abuse were commonplace, and the NF held all three seats in Longview and were competitive in Huyton's other three wards. Indeed, the Blue Bell Riots of July 3rd 1981 were sparked by Aldo's election six weeks before, when a National Front rally attempted to march from the Wilson Memorial in Huyton Village to Windy Heights, only to be met by a group of local vigilantes and anti-fascists from across the north-West near the junction of Blue Bell Lane and Salerno Drive. The resulting brawl quickly led to widespread civil disorder and property destruction in the estates and an arson attack which gutted the new Asquith's supermarket in the Village.

In the following years, Aldo and the HBP worked tirelessly to improve racial relations in Huyton and across the city – organising school talks, holding cross-community events, lobbying the Council and central government for financial aid. Both Roy Jenkins and Michael Heseltine made visits to Huyton during their premierships, and, despite both suffering embarrassing incidents there, Labour and Conservative administrations alike pledged a great deal of support for the 'reconciliation programmes', as they were termed. Aldo today seems indifferent to these titans of politics; “I kind of find it hard to tell them apart, now,” he concedes. “I think it might be an age thing, but I did find it difficult at the time. I think they were both genuine about supporting us and getting the Nazis out, but I think they did it when they did 'cos it was easier for them then, they didn't have to worry about politics. I mean, we invited Hezza during the election, in 1985 – he wouldn't touch us, it was too risky for him. He didn't say that outright, like, but it was implied, oh yeah, heavily implied.”

1991 was the HBP's high-water mark; they won ten councillors in that year's local elections, and managed to unseat the final National Front councillor in Longview. The new Prime Minister, David Blunkett, sent a message of congratulation to the HBP, although Aldo claims not to remember what it said.

Then, in September 1991, tragedy struck. The Pies, an interracial band from Huyton who were highly-tipped for megastardom, were leaving the Oak Tree pub on Liverpool Road when a gunman opened fire from a parked car. Lee Mavers and Garry Christian, the singers and creative heart of the band, were killed; the drummer, Iain Templeton, was shot in the spine and lost the use of his legs. The attacker shot the fourth member, bassist John Power, in the hand and foot before leaving a note in his uninjured hand that proclaimed an insurgent campaign against 'racial dilution of the British folk' unless and until 'all the ungodly nigger-blood and Jewry is wiped clean from our virgin soil … and a crusade mounted against the forces of Papism even now rallying against us on the Continent'.

The HBP response to the murders was, initially, confused – not least because the band had been known to many in the party, and had even played at a fundraiser, the Huyton Vision Festival, in McGoldrick Park the previous month. Although many wanted to mourn their friends privately, others felt the party was unable to take leadership at a time when it was most needed. The party came out fighting later, but an ill-managed campaign in the 1992 locals backfired and ended up costing them two councillors.

Meanwhile, Derek Aldo had finally come to terms with his homosexuality in the mid-1980s, just in time for the AIDs scare to blow up. “I did spend a couple of nights wondering if the whole thing wasn't Jah's way of trying to send me a message,” he admits, looking pensive and drawn, “but then I came to the conclusion that any god that wanted to send me a message by killing millions of other people probably deserved more hate than worship.” Certainly, by the early 90s he was no longer a practicing Rastafari – the faith having many problems with its attitudes to men of Aldo's orientation. Yet he was still in the closet at this point, and would likely have stayed that way had he not met his partner, Neil, at a council meeting in November 1995. After a brief courtship over Christmas of that year, Aldo came to the conclusion that he could no longer hide his sexuality from the wider world. At a party meeting on January 27th 1996, he announced that he was gay, and in a relationship with a man.

Aldo was widely acknowledged as the party's driving force, and was universally respected by the membership – but the black community was sadly unenlightened in many regards, and this revelation was difficult for many to bear or reconcile. His lieutenants began conspiring to force him out, and within a year he had been replaced as party leader. He would step down from his seat in May 1997, and although he remained a member of the party he founded he found himself increasingly ostracised by the leadership.

“It was very difficult,” he tells me, “very difficult, to be all but driven out of something I'd built. Bear in mind I'd been gay all the way through the golden years – I remember pointing out to a few of them that their problem wasn't that I was gay, it was that they'd found out. I'm still proud of what we did, and I'll always love them, but what they did to me, that hurt.”

He swirls the dregs of his coffee, and smiles humourlessly. “Mind you, given what happened after, maybe it was for the best.”

For the 1998 elections, the party rebranded itself as the Highrise Babylon Party – an attempt to expand its voter base in other areas of the city like the African communities of Lodge Lane or the tower-blocks of Everton. It failed miserably – and the expense of standing and campaigning in a wider area put a strain on the party's finances from which it never recovered. Combined with an ossification of the upper echelons, decline was an inevitable consequence; the party haemorrhaged support for over a decade, before finally losing their last seat – ironically, in the same Longview ward which was once a bastion of the National Front – in 2010.

For most microparties, the loss of their electoral representation would spell oblivion; yet the HBP shows no sign of disappearing just yet. Members are prominent on the community councils that have been set up here in a bid to eradicate the last strains of racial tension in the area, and they still stand candidates for elections – their eye-catching red-green-black posters can still be seen in front windows across the new estates which have replaced the windblown towers of Windy Heights. Perhaps their most enduring legacy is in the last remaining high-rise block, now fully refurbished and being marketed as a cheap yet desirable residence in easy reach of Liverpool's booming city centre; it bears the name 'Babylon Heights'.

Aldo is sanguine about his fall from grace; although some might expect a melodramatic flounce from the party he founded (and many of those might think him justified in doing so, given the circumstances), he accepted his removal quietly and remained a fully paid-up member. “It wasn't nice, not in the slightest,” he tells me, “but I kind of knew what I was getting into when I decided to come out. I never shied away from being black, did I? It didn't seem right to shy away from being gay, not after I'd found happiness at last. Besides, I wouldn't've stayed there much longer, at the top of it, y'know – I was getting tired of the rough and tumble. Maybe if I'd stepped down quietly, the whole thing would've collapsed into egos and infighting – I've seen that happen often enough – but the way it went down, with people uniting against me for the good of the party, that kept it going and kept it together for a lot longer. Besides, maybe there's a few black kids, I've made it a bit easier for them to come out.”

He pauses, and I get a sense of what he is thinking several seconds before he says it. “Guess I've had a lot of time to think of ways to make it all better,” he says, smiling unconvincingly, before downing the dregs of his coffee in one long draught.

Today Derek Aldo, a sprightly and bright-eyed seventy-year-old, is still active as an anti-racism and political campaigner. He speaks approvingly of the younger activists he sees in the party's ranks – the children and grandchildren of those he founded this party to fight for, the forgotten men and women of Huyton's tower-block Babylon – and though he admits he “might not have much time left” – he lost part of a lung in a particularly severe bout of illness two years ago, and walks with the aid of a cane – he is confident the work he helped start here is in good hands.

“Y'know that poem – 'Huyton, Huyton, two dogs fightin'...' if there's one thing that's driven me, in everything I've done in my life, it's that dogs might fight, but we're not dogs. We're men, and the sooner we put our differences aside and learn to work together the better.”

And with that, Derek Aldo stands up, shakes my hand and wishes me farewell, before disappearing into the crowds of Huyton Market.



This vignette - which I'm assuming you've just read - deals with a lot of sensitive issues. The main character is an old gay black working-class man, whereas I am a young straight white middle-class man - whilst I have tried to portray Derek Aldo realistically, given the times he lived in and the events of the story, I'm aware it might come across as a bit of a caricature. Likewise, the assassination of Harold Wilson is the kind of thing one has to be careful depicting for it not to come across as tasteless, and I'm not sure I've succeeded. And, lastly, the depiction of the Rastafari faith as applied to the Huyton Babylon party is... selective; that's an intentional part of the story, and Aldo's character, but I also have to admit my knowledge of Rastafari is less than perfect, and the way it is depicted here may be farcical to believers. I haven't set out to cause offence, but if any has resulted by my handling of the issues I apologise wholeheartedly; please let me know so I can rectify this kind of mistake in future.

This isn't my best piece of writing; it's quite uneven, and has an awful lot of world-building info dumps. Still, I've enjoyed creating this world, and I'm tempted to build this into something more substantial if I get the chance. Consider it a first draft, rather than the finished article.

As ever, criticism is welcomed; I'll do my best to respond to all comments.
This is great. I don't think you've laid on the infodumping too thick - it manages to shine through how much more there is to this world beyond the racial issues directly mentioned.
This is great. I don't think you've laid on the infodumping too thick - it manages to shine through how much more there is to this world beyond the racial issues directly mentioned.

Thank you, that's very kind. I think 'info dumping' might have been the wrong word, but large sections of it are built on 'As You Know, Bob', a trope I have very little love for.

Any more thoughts from anyone?