Coventry & A Spirit Of Unbelonging: Terry Hall Remembered By Neil Kulkarni

I have a theory about love. It’s not about taste, or compatibility or about ‘fitting’ with someone. It’s about finding someone who has a mix of hope and hopelessness that matches your own. Find someone too cynical, and you will feel foolish, hopeful, idealistic. Find someone too hopeful, and you will feel too bitter, pessimistic, needlessly doomy. Either way someone will be always playing catch-up. But when you find someone whose querulous blend of hope and hopelessness perfectly balances your own? So their hope matches your doom and their hopelessness forces you to find hope for them?

That’s love.

And that’s what I felt about Terry Hall and The Specials.

It was an Asian drapers shop down Foleshill Road, Coventry 1981, where I was first able to prove my love. You wended your way between the dazzling array of saris and Punjabi suits and handed your Harrington over at the counter. They would iron-in letters, Cooper Black, 5p a letter. I had 40p. Friends had ‘MADNESS’, one even had ‘ROCK ON TOMMY’. I had to have ‘SPECIALS’. I was a tiny kid but that’s the thing about The Specials, and Two-Tone, they were as much ours as they were everyone else’s. Even us tiny kids felt part of it, because the music was eye-popping, funny, deeply danceable, and in no way excluded us. A big part of that appeal was just the swinging riot that The Specials looked like on stage and on Top Of The Pops. A still greater part of that appeal was the mordant, still, faintly smiling, never sneering presence at the centre of it, Terry Hall.

A few years can make so much difference. For my wife, The Specials – Jerry, Terry, Shipley and Lynval – were people she knew. For me, six years younger, it was dizzying to think that these figures walked our streets. My sister and a friend went to Terry’s flat on Michaelmas Road, rang the doorbell and saw him dive behind a sofa. Beyond these sporadic sightings, listening to The Specials made it clear that not only were they from round here, they crucially could only have been from round here. This wasn’t as simple or mawkish as a band talking in the argot or dialect of your locale. Rather it was more that The Specials could not hide the spiritual and political ambiguities of coming from Coventry, the precise mix of resignation and resistance that living in a city of boom and bust, a city of bombs and rebirth, a city where the medieval and modernist are crushed together so abrasively, bequeaths you as your birthright. Taken together the two Specials albums perfectly summate this place’s ambiguities. Coventry is a concrete jungle. It is the city of ‘Niteklub’ and ‘Blank Expression’ and ‘Stupid Marriage’, can literally feel like life in monochrome, always in danger of being interrupted by a crimson shot of violence. It’s also the city of ‘Pearl’s Cafe’, of ‘Stereotype’, of ‘Do Nothing’, where your reveries wander around this post-war experimental zone of derelicted possibility and faintly suspect that compassion (far from being a weakness in a warzone) might just be the only thing worth pursuing to drag you from this place’s pre-ordained harsh constrictions.

As a poet, Terry Hall instinctively tapped into those twin impulses in this city, the directness, honesty and hard-boiledness that feels inherent on a cellular level to all Coventrians, but also the gallows humour and the lacerating laughter that enables you to survive it, that allows you to process the horror it will throw your way. Coventry endlessly tumbles and rebuilds, continually and brutally tears down vistas you’ve grown up with to build monstrosities you’re not prepared for, always destabilises and renders perilous any kind of psychogeography you might want to throw around it. Terry tapped into that lack of sure ground but knew that what was sure, what is still sure, is that fuck-it spirit of shared fuckedness that still connects all of us born under these three spires, the spirit that bought together black, white, middle-class and street-level into this miraculous band. For Coventry kids it wasn’t the sense that we belonged or that we lived in a ‘cool’ place that made The Specials so exciting. It was the sense that our unbelonging, our unfashionableness, our fractured uncomfortable relationship with the dazed and deranged reality of our hometown, was being rendered without bullshit, without self-pity, and with the rancour and romance of being a Coventrian both intact.

Fuck Larkin, who disavowed us anyway, and whose racism showed he wasn’t fit for the city we had become. In the death of Terry Hall we have lost our greatest ever poet. It would not have been remotely interesting to Terry Hall to be the ‘voice’ of a city – whatever he did after The Specials always reflected where he was at that point in space and time. But I would argue that Terry knew how a place of birth can’t simply be shaken off, and how coming from here simultaneously means it affects your work forever, but also can’t be called upon as a badge of anything so revolting as ‘pride’. What this place gives you is a stance – nothing can faze you, ‘cos you’re from Coventry. It gives you a sizeable immunity to bullshit. You are not going to be able to get away with self-regard here unless it’s perfectly poised, infused in the eyeliner and the look and kept at that level of aware superficiality. It gives you an innate mistrust of surety and privilege in a place where nothing is sure bar that daily cramped walk around all this wreckage.

Forty years after I got my Harrington done, I’m in Brum, in a hotel lobby, chatting with Horace Panter for Bassplayer magazine. It’s difficult not to be starstruck, even though Horace has knocked my door before, done a painting of me which I still can scarcely believe hangs in my hallway. I’m a fanboy when Terry strolls past, when I muster all I can muster: ‘Alright mate?’ and he answers with ‘Alright?’ himself. A supremely Cov interaction (no answers, just a hung and hungover language game we’re both aware of) but I’ll never forget it. There was so much I wanted to say to him, which I’m only getting to say too late, here, now.

Overwhelmingly what I need to say to him now is thank you Terry. Thank you for making so many of us from this town feel that this weird rub within and without us, this accretion of ruinous fate within coupled with the sense that if we just thought carefully and lashed out we might gain joy amidst the carnage, might just be a way to live and a way to be. He would invariably shake off any such ‘iconic’ claims. It’s all a load of bollocks. But in a huge way he’s a part of why I love this city, part of why I long ago realised I can never leave.

He’s Terry. And he’s going to enjoy himself first. Rest In Power x

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