CJ Stone's Britain: Wild West heroes (Renfrew)
'Did you know that William Wallace prayed for inspiration in Renfrew, and that he got it?'
The Guardian Weekend February 8 1997
Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
Fibres of love from man to man thro' Albion's pleasant land."— William Blake: Jerusalem.
"Hey Scoob: did you just break into my house?"
"Little Jimmy told us. He says he saw you..."
"Hey listen. I don’t do that. You know me. I don’t break into people's houses."
"Jimmy says he saw you with Linda carrying all our stuff away. She's taken the wains toys. Left the video, but took the toys."
"Oh no! I helped her to carry it. I was just doin' my gentlemanly bit, you know. She was strugglin' with all this stuff, an' I just helped her to carry it, that's all."
There's a bunch of us out on the street by now, standing in the relentless West of Scotland rain, little Laura (Scoob's niece) paddling in the puddles, me watching her, two young women, Scoob, a couple of men just wandering by, Scoob's Mom leaning out of her flat window calling to Laura to get out of the puddles.
"Can you believe it," says Scoob to the men. "I was just helpin' a lassie with her stuff, an' now it turns out that she's broken into someone's house to steal it. There was a bit missin' from one of the toys. She even told me: 'if you see a little yellow bit, pick it up for us.' I can’t believe this."
"The usual fuckin' madness," one of them says: "Toon-town craziness."
The thing is I'd watched the whole scene unfold earlier on from the window of Scoob's Mom's flat. I was just looking out at the rain and I'd seen this girl struggling with all these black plastic bags; and then later Scoob had come back in looking for fags saying he'd just met his friend Linda, she was a nice girl but a bit messed up, and he was helping her. And after that there was this gaggle of people around the telephone booth. I was just watching it all, you know, bog-eyed with a whiskey hangover, not putting any of the pieces together, seeing the relentless rain washing down over that grey scene out there, drinking in that sweet, damp Scottish air like it was water, and even then I was thinking, "this sums it up. This is Renfrew for you."
Well Scoob is panicking by now. He's caught in the working class equivalent of a philosophical dilemma. On the one hand he's likely to get beaten up for stealing all that stuff. On the other he's just as likely to get beaten up for grassing on poor Linda. He's talking frantically, waving his arms about, explaining the situation. And that's when I first see it. Something's going on here. It's like he's sending out little filaments to bind these people together, web-like fibres of some psychic material woven out of his own good-intentions. Of course he didn't steal those toys. Everyone knows that. The knot of people unravels suddenly and Scoob and Laura and I walk away.
"And this is the sort of community street life the high-rise block is killin' off," says Scoob, quoting from The Young Ones.
Renfrew. It's this hotchpotch of tenement schemes, all grey, like a Lego-land toy-town put together by some grim child without any imagination. Glaswegians refer to it as "the Wild West" because of the drug wars that have claimed so many lives in the last year or two. Scoob himself has seen twenty two of his friends die, mainly to do with drugs. But he also tells me it's the cradle of the Royal Stewarts, the historical capital of Scotland. There's a mystery here, a secret lodged between these dark, rain-smeared tenements. Did the Knights Templar land here after their ejection from France in 1307? Were they the secret source of the early Scottish Kings' great wealth and power? Is Renfrew the site of the Templar's New Jerusalem?
Interestingly, the Knights Templar were followers of John the Baptist; and it's Renfrew's own John the Baptist that we're on our way to see now, having dropped Laura off at the Nursery. John Plott: "A plot's a plan or a small piece of land, but I have the Big Picture." That's how he talks, in Capital Letters. John the Bastard, the maddest and yet the sanest man I know, a real warrior-type, as brave as the hills. He's mad because he has the sheer audacity to call himself a prophet. He's sane because he's almost single-handedly changing the face of Renfrew.
"Look at that," Scoob says, pointing to a huge chunk of plaster that's fallen from the wall near the door frame. I know what he means. We're in this grey concrete stairwell in a council scheme tenement block, in one of the poorest parts of Britain, and behind that door Something is happening. It's hard to specify what, exactly. Superficially, it's the seat of Renfrew United, the organisation set up by John to tackle the drug problem. But there's something else too: something more difficult to define at first. John invites us into what he calls "the office". It's his bedroom. There's a weight frame in the middle of the room, and a punch-bag dangling. Scoob soon has his shirt off, and he's laying into the punch bag with all these marshal art dodging manoeuvres. There's posters with quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the wall, and a crucifix. A picture of John with Mohammed Ali, his hero. A prayer or two. John launches into his spiel. "I had this dream, that I was being attacked. So I asked someone to look it up in her dream book. She says it means a message will come to me. An' that night there was a knock at the door, and this feller says, 'did you know that William Wallace prayed for inspiration in Renfrew, and that he got it?' He says, 'it could have been right here,' pointing at the floor in our living room. So that was the message. I'm like that... Whoaaa..." And he raises his hands like some old-time preacher, and falls back against the wall, his eyes sizzling with intensity, as if he's just had a jolt of electricity from the heart of the Universal grid. "Tune into Radio God," he says. "Thoughts are things."
So what is it that's happening in this small insignificant town in the West of Scotland? John would call it spiritual: the Scottish Renaissance. Scoob talks of community. But me, I think it's an intellectual thing. It's the stuff of the mind. People are talking, talking, talking, trying to make sense of their poverty and their own sense of worthlessness, trying to take on the drug-barons and the money-merchants and all the powers of corruption that are holding them down. John is at the centre of this because he's the wisest and bravest of them all. He's the only man, maybe in the history of the world, to get 20 junkies to leap from an aeroplane together. What John has is a vision, of how it might be. Amidst these gross, grey concrete lumps there's a sense of pride and self-worth just beginning to grow, a sense of belonging. It's like filaments of love binding the whole town together. People care.
Later Scoob says, "if we want somethin' we're just gonna take it. And what can they do? We are the community."
- CJ Stone's Britain: Ghost town (Coventry)
It’s where I ran away to when I ran away from home. I took my first drugs here: a cough medicine called Dimerol. The Guardian Weekend March 8 1997
More by this Author
How could a man of such compelling genius as Steve - so at home amongst these strange plants, so immersed in the life here, so knowledgeable - be left on the scrapheap, unemployable at the age of 44? ...
Greenwich is where the Britain set off on its great Imperialist adventure. Charlton is where they dug the grit for the ballast...
Some people never reach rehab. CJ Stone lost his friend to an overdose. He describes how a kind and witty man was destroyed by the romance of heroin. Big Issue, March 17-23 2003