It took a riot to make a man

Dave Potts and Lord Heseltine

This week, I was proud to sponsor two major events featuring Lord Michael Heseltine. At a private dinner exactly 40 years to the day, I was able to tell him my experiences as a 20 year old policeman in the Toxteth riots, and ask him a question regarding the bumbling actions of the Chief Constable and the force hierarchy at the time. His answers, and others from those assembled were illuminating, completely honest and showed his incredible insights into exactly what had happened in our city. Sat across from me was our current Chief Constable Serena Kennedy who was listening intently.

In 1981, Michael had taken it upon himself to transcend the warring factions, not to take sides and to actually listen. Whatever the agenda, whatever the rights or wrongs or whatever the bandwagon he took it all in and then after three weeks he decided to act. The legacy of those three weeks is all around us in the vibrancy of Liverpool as it is today. The city quite rightly has a lot to thank him for.

In 2011, my play ‘Last Dance at The Rialto’ was performed at the Unity Theatre in Hope Street, behind what in 1981 was Merseyside Police Headquarters. I passionately felt that the only ‘side’ who had never had a voice were the frontline constables, sergeants and Inspectors who took the full brunt of the violence. I brought together a group of four fantastic Liverpool actors and wove a narrative around a friendship between two young men on both sides of the divide.

Hundreds of retired officers who had their own ‘precious’ story to tell assisted me with getting the facts right and from the precision of their accounts I was able to forensically choreograph the key events of that evening.

One retired officer from Greater Manchester Police wrote to me stating that he had been speared through the leg by a 4 foot long steel fence pin. He had no recollection of the incident and 30 years later I was able to tell him exactly what had occurred as it had happened right in front of me. For thirty years he had blacked out those memories. I was able to tell him the exact location and even identify a Merseyside Sergeant who going to his aid had been knocked unconscious. It was a cathartic experience for us all.

Apart from the events of that Sunday night, one other event had haunted me and that was the death of Constable Ray Davenport of the Merseyside Police Operational Support Division – Ray who was 35 had been killed in Roe Street arresting the driver of a stolen car. His death occurred on Friday 5th July. The next day there were running battles and serious disorder and Sunday the events of The Rialto. Due to the riots I had always felt that Ray’s murder had been overlooked but I still remembered the deep dread and emotion of when I had first heard of it. That same dread had been reinforced on the Sunday when at 11.30 in the morning we lined up outside Hope Street headquarters.

Constable Ray Davenport

We were given Klaus Fisher football shin guards (a German footballer of the era). A cricket box without the strap and a piece of plastic which inserted into the point of our helmet. Whilst we ranked up – there were rumours that a police officer had already been killed and that one had been decapitated. To my mind Ray was dead and what was to stop it happening again. Later that afternoon as we formed up at the top of Upper Parliament Street I was soon to find out that there really were people out there who wanted to kill us – to kill me. From milk floats to a JCB, to a fireman’s axe and building spikes, every conceivable weapon was launched with total venom and hatred against us. The fighting was prolonged and medieval.

Early on Monday morning in Princes Road I recognised two ‘old arse’ officers from my division in plain clothes – Derek Frankland from Traffic and Billy Bird who had showed me round my Bootle beat. Derek had a pump action baton gun and Billy a spotting scope. I said hello, pleased to actually see someone I could relate to. I then stood back and watched the first CS rounds ever shot on the British mainland.

Derek Frankland and Billy Bird

An hour later I was at the Eye Hospital as the older bobby I had been with had realised that the Royal Hospital would be ‘chocca’. It was a good move , the hospital was empty and they sorted his painful eye and my head wound. My body ached and my shoulders, arms and shins covered in bruises.

I returned to Headquarters and went into the open quadrangle at the back. Bobby’s were sprawled around drinking blue mugs of tea and eating biscuits. I was fascinated by a group of GMP officers from their forces Tactical Aid Group – They looked to me like soldiers or rugby players – not one of them was under 6ft 4. They were relating the ‘fun’ of the nights events to each other. Their unit had been decimated and I believe without their bravery the city would have been overrun. Entranced by the scene I heard a familiar voice – ‘You alright Pottsie?’ – It was Tony Jones one of my section sergeants who had come on day duty. He normally had a beaming bearded smile and dry quip for everyone but this time he solemnly studied my face – ‘Yes Sarge – I’m Ok’. He tapped me on the shoulder ‘Good lad’.

Ten years later I was with Tony at a ‘leaving do’. We sat down and had a beer (or ten). At one point he turned to me ‘I always remember that morning in Hope Street – seeing your face Pottsie – That day you became a man’ – I thought about it for a while and for a split second I was back at Grove Street with a JCB coming towards me like a raging dinosaur – fencing pins reigning down like a Roman war – the GMP bobby falling to the ground in agony. The same dread came over me when I had first heard of Ray’s death. I took a long sip of my drink – ‘Perhaps I did Sarge – perhaps I did’.

When I agreed with Downtown in Business to sponsor the Heseltine visit I thought it fitting that I should contribute something back. Apart from my question about Ken Oxford, both events were filled with total positivity. There was no talk of the divisions, the violence, injuries or hatred. The business community quite rightly reflected on the amazing transformation and regeneration of the city.

Of course for those who were there, for those who were actually involved the events will never be forgotten. Ray Davenport will certainly never be forgotten.

Last Dance at The Rialto

In 2011 I wrote this in the plays programme notes:

For thirty years I’d lived with the still vivid memories of July 1981 and for the last two years I had spoken and corresponded with over 150 police veterans and numerous rioters. I had studied virtually all the contempory accounts, film and radio footage. I thought I knew it all. Then a few weeks ago a young black actor walked into an audition room in Liverpool City Centre and read a few lines of my ‘precious’ dialogue. In the intensity of his voice, and in his eyes was the realisation that my so called ‘unique’ experience was completely worthless. I needed to let go – stand back, watch and listen. This play is about what happens when people don’t listen.

In 1981, one man had listened and this week it was an absolute privilege to meet him.

Dave Potts and Lord Heseltine