Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 2
Thursday, 23rd Feb 2012
Last week we introduced the multi-talented Don Letts as Guest Blogger on the site. Don has been joining the counter-cultural dots for decades and will be sharing extracts from his book Culture Clash over the next few months. In Part 1, Don set set the scene by introducing to his parents and a Funky London Childhood. In Part 2, Don introduces us to his brothers Derrick, Desmond and Norman and their lives growing up in 60s London.
What's Happening Brother?
I really don’t remember much about my eldest brother Derrick as he was from a previous relationship on my father’s side. If my memory serves me well, he came over from Jamaica not long after my parents settled. He was already into his troublesome teens and the inevitable generation clash occurred. Since we were considerably younger there was little interaction between Derrick and the rest of us. This situation was further polarised by the ‘isms’ and ‘schism’s’ of being a black teenager in an alien culture. All I remember about Derrick was the grief he got from our parents as he went through a kind of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll rights-of-passage—or at least the sixties black equivalent. He was the first one to introduce me to the concept of “style”; part of his ‘rebellion’ was his adoption of the fashion statements of the time; mohair suits, white roll-necks, dark glasses, all backed by an Otis Redding soundtrack. I guess he was a kind of black mod as he looked like one of the few black guys you’ see in the audience whilst watching Ready Steady Go. It wasn’t long before he became a regular at the Ram Jam club on Brixton Road. It was the place to be, Geno Washington and the Ram-Jam Band was the resident entertainment. Derrick also introduced me to the delights of international cuisine. To a working-class kid chow mien from the local Chinese take-away was pure exotica back then.
Now Derrick hung out with the other local teenagers many of whom were white mods all of whom looked equally undesirable to the prudish Jamaican parents who were careful to tow the line in their new homeland. My parents had framed pictures of the Queen in our living room for Christ sake. My generation was better educated and had a more worldly view, and there was no way we could follow them down that path. We thought, “Hang on, we have got f*ck all to be grateful for.” Perhaps they were a little envious of a new black British generation who were trying to find their own place in the world and create their own reality. Consequently late-night shouting matches with Derrick about clubbing, or about the ‘type’ of girls he was hanging with were the first signs. Locking him out when he missed a curfew soon led to, “If you think you’re a man now you can find somewhere else to live”. At eighteen years of age Derrick did. My father used that line two more times in his life.
Me & Des
Desmond—now there’s a character. He was from a previous relationship on my mother’s side and like Derrick he too was brought to the promised land to suffer a very similar fate. But since Desmond was much closer in age to Norman, and me we consequently spent more time together as he was frequently put in charge of ‘looking after us’. He soon worked out how to turn this burden into an advantage. For example he’d take Norman and me to the local comic shop to liberate the latest DC comics, and guess who carried the bags? When Desmond was about fourteen he got into some trouble for shoplifting with some friends in the West End. Since they were all juveniles, the police let them off with a scolding. My parents were so incensed by the fact that Desmond had caused the unbearable shame of the police knocking on our front door—and in front of the neighbours too - that she told the police she didn’t want him back. Desmond was shipped off to a home and my parents didn’t speak to him for about five years. However before he was exiled he had plenty of time to abuse and use us two ‘stooges’ with a charm that was to serve him well in later years.
Norman and the House without a Tree
He used to lock Norman and me in a cupboard when we pissed him off. Since he was the oldest and had to look after us while my parents worked Norman and I spent a lot of time in that cupboard. In those days us boys all shared one room, the toilet was outdoors and seemed miles away, especially in the winter. To relieve ourselves, we had a communal piss-pot, which became dangerously full by morning. Since Norman and I were the smallest, the deadly task of emptying the chamber pot was left to the more responsible Derrick and Desmond. The task was bad enough when Derrick was around (more people, more piss), but since he’d gone it was Des’s duty to negotiate the two flights of stairs each morning. It was only a matter of time. It was the loose carpet on the stairs. I doubt Desmond will ever forget being drenched in urine that had been left to brew overnight. We had no indoor bath so in summer Norman and I would wash in an old zinc bath in the garden. This was a source of great entertainment to the ‘Greeks’ ugly daughters and even greater embarrassment to us. Now I come to think of it, I never saw my parents in that old zinc bath. Later on it became Desmond’s duty to escort us to the public bathhouse in Camberwell every Friday night. A peculiar place, the very thought of which makes me shudder to this day. You had to holler, “more hot in number four,” when you needed more water. Of course Des decided it was more economic if Norman and I shared. But anything was better than hearing the sniggering of the ugly Greek girls.
Times had changed and so had the soundtrack! Desmond’s was Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic. Des had got a job in a Carnaby Street record shop, which in those days was a gateway to a world most people could only read about. And the sign above the door read: SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK’N’ROLL in great big letters. Des had a foot in the door, and I was his brother.
Tune in for Chapter 3 'Old School' in the first week of March. Don is currently working on a unique documentary film celebrating 60 years of subculture. To find out how your footage could feature, read more HERE