ALL QUIET ON THE WESTON SEA FRONT
Twenty years ago, youths on one of Britain's worst council estates formed one of Britain's most notorious gangs. For over five years, they terrorised Weston-super-Mare; no Bank Holiday weekend passed without a battle. Today, they are adults - but are they grown up? The photographer John Gilliam, who knew them in their heyday, tracks them down
Sunday 26 May 1996
They called themselves the Squad. At first they stuck to the Bournville, defending its honour and its territory; later, as the Seventies and their schooldays drew to a close, they broadened out, recruiting from neighbouring estates, waging pitched battles against rival gangs, vandalising, terrorising surrounding villages. I first came across them when a train on which I was travelling to a football match was stoned, allegedly by them.
By 1980 there were around 70 of them - more, if you included people on the fringes, like me. Their fame spread, and gangs who fancied themselves as fighters came to Weston from miles around to confront them. They always regretted it.
There was stealing, too; but the object was to relieve boredom more than poverty. Looking back, former Squad members recall "the buzz" - and the tedium it displaced. Few consider that there was anything vicious about their activities.
There was, of course. Violence is nastier in real life than in the imagination. But alcohol took the edge off the experience (the local scrumpy was called Screech, because it made you screaming mad). Time has softened the memories that remain.
It couldn't last. Trouble breeds more trouble. Banned from every pub in Weston, the Squad became even more cut off from company other than their own. Trouble came looking for them, whether it was the Bristol skins or the Avon constabulary. Bank Holiday Mondays were worst, invariably ending in pitched battles on the Weston sea front. They were branded both physically - one member was an aspiring tattooist - and metaphorically.
Eventually, the intervals of detention in young offenders' institutes grew so frequent, the police harassment so insistent, that the gang began to fragment. Some settled down with girlfriends; others found jobs. By the mid-Eighties, the Squad existed only in the memories and crude photographic collections of its erstwhile members.
I have been tracking down those members, and their collections, for much of the past year. It has not been easy. Few have moved far from the Bournville, but in other senses they have come a long way. Most have jobs, families, homes of their own - and a respectability that does not always wish to be reminded of a misspent youth. None of those I spoke to has been in trouble for a long time. But few faces failed to light up when the old photographs were eventually unearthed. Those days, they all seemed to agree, had been the most exciting of their lives.
Young men have always tended to be hell-raisers, except when there have been wars into which to channel their aggression. "I would that there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest," laments the Shepherd in The Winter's Tale. "For there is nothing in between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting ..." Somehow, most of them grow up, usually in their mid-twenties. But a recent Home Office report, Young People and Crime, expressed concern that, for the first time, many young men aged 25 and over are not growing out of crime, apparently because they are still in the state of dependency, of not having "responsibility for themselves and others", that tends to accompany delinquency. Poor prospects of "stable, full-time employment" seem to be partly to blame, along with the breakdown of the family.
The former Squad members interviewed here might thus be seen as a throwback to a golden age: perhaps the last generation of rowdy youths to have fully grown out of their delinquent ways. As former Squad member Dennis Cooper puts it: "For us, the Squad just fizzled out, and then we got on with our lives. But for the kids now, with all the drugs and shit, their misery just seems to drag on and on."
His use of the word "misery" in the context of what his friends generally describe as the most exhilarating days of their lives highlights the paradox of delinquency. On one level, gangs enjoy thrills, laughs, excitement. Yet their behaviour has its roots in misery and boredom. MIKE DAVIES: 33, single, currently employed as a telephone engineer
I'm respectable now. I've got a job - I'm a telephone engineer. I pay my tax, stay the right side of the law, like a game of golf. I don't live down the Bournville any more. But we were respectable then, too. No one took drugs or dealt them, no one was w hat you'd call a criminal. It was just a few pints of cider and a punch-up on the sea front. The only trouble anybody really got into was fighting. But that happens everywhere, doesn't it? Very rarely did people get really hurt. They were exciting days, but, obviously, they couldn't go on for ever DENNIS COOPER: 33, married with four children, self-employed builder
When I was with the Squad I got done for breach of the peace five or six times, but you grow out of it. Now I think, "Why should I get arrested and spend the night in the cells?" I've got a family to think about. I work seven days a week at a building si te - I'd hoped to become a professional footballer, but things don't always pan out, do they? I suppose most of the fights I got into were to do with booze. Now, I can't afford to spend my money on booze. To be honest, I find sitting in a pub boring. I worry about money, when I haven't got any. But if you're prepared to work, you'll get a job. I wonder what kind of future my kids will have. I know why I got into trouble and the root problems are the same: there's nothing for anyone to do on the Bourn ville. Plus nowadays older kids are carrying guns and knives. I wouldn't think the Squad was funny now ADRIAN CLARK: 35, single, works as a Red Coat at Butlins
I was never a nasty sort of guy. It was just a bit of a laugh. It was our way of saying, "Here we are - we're the lads." I'm a Red Coat at Butlins now: I suppose it's better than working on the bins. I never get into trouble now: only the nutters do at our age. I sometimes get a bit edgy, when I'm walking on the same side of the road as a gang of pissed young lads, thinkin g about what I did then. But I don't regret a thing. Those were good days. They made me who I am JASON DAWSON (pictured left, on far right): 34, married, two children, unemployed
I can feel the adrenalin rush just thinking about those days. I don't regret any of the trouble we got into. People might have said we were idiots - we were - but at least we enjoyed ourselves. And I made all of what I consider to be my real friendsduri ng that time. I'm unemployed, but I regard myself as respectable. I'm happy just bringing up a family. Sometimes I find it difficult to handle the responsibilities, but I love watching my kids growing up. I'm much stricter with my kids than my dad was with me. I'm try ing to do my best to keep them out of trouble. I think my dad let me get away with too much. There's never been as much trouble on the Bournville as there was then. But there were no guns or knives - we didn't even take drugs. I don't get into fights now. I don't go out much so I don't get the chance PETER LONSDALE: 32, married, three children, landscape gardener
I'll never forget those days - nothing I do now can compare. We were respected wherever we went. I don't get into trouble now, though. I go to work at 8am, come home at 5pm. I keep weekends free to take the kids to football or rugby. Almost all theSqua d are married. I've calmed down a lot. I try and teach my kids morals, like "Look after your own and show respect"; "It's easier to earn than take." I don't want them to do what I did. I'd like to see the authorities come down harder on young offenders. You get probati on now for a stabbing. For us, it'd have been a year inside. I regard myself as respectable and law-abiding. I earn about pounds 500 a week doing landscape gardening - it took me 12 years to build up my business. I take the family on holiday as much as I can, Majorca or Blackpool normally. I'm trying to do mybest for them ! Additional reporting by Simon Dudfield
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