Author – Steve Piper

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Old Dog Books

Who am I?

Good question. All I do know is that I was born in the glorious year of ’69 among the royal hunting grounds of Epping. Born an accident but thankfully loved enough by one. The other only seemed to love himself. A sister soon followed me and then he upped and followed his own dream soon after, leaving us with our mum, nanny
and grandad.

Mum did well and I remember being a happy child. Mum met Al, a real diamond with a ‘70s moustache. We all moved in together on Chingford Hall estate, mum, me and Jo; Al, Adrian and Elaine. A ready-made Waltons! If only things were that simple. Always having to play catch up throughout my childhood was exhausting. Money was hard to come by but somehow I blagged it. I was a tearaway, ripping around the estate, vandalising, setting fires.

My oldest friendship was formed on that estate; a bond that was initially made through music, fashion, circumstance, tolerance and understanding; I was a hard one to get along with. We are still in touch today. A move to Walthamstow accelerated further forays into fashion, music and occasional criminality. And there I remained for the best part of 14 years, eventually leaving school with 4 cse’s, finding work as a carpet fitter and spending my evenings and weekends with mates, listening to music, fighting, riding scooters, drinking, visiting seaside resorts with hundreds of others, taking drugs, meeting girls; one of whom, Melissa I eventually settled down with and had two children, Charlie and Rebecca.

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Then came the wilderness years; long hair, beards, surfing, camper vans, grunge, US punk and rock music, all resulting in a move to Cornwall where we lived happily for 14 years. Renewed and newly formed friendships made by chance and through the ‘net softened an aversion to all things past and we began exploring the revitalised scene that had once been our life. It was fun.

Kids grew up, moved up to London and Brighton (no work in Cornwall, poorest county in England by all accounts), we followed. And here I am…

01. How did you get started in the world of words?

I’ve always had a hunger for the written word. As a kid I was an avid reader, a fantasist; I played out stories in my head. The first proper books I read were probably ‘The machine gunners’ by Robert Westall; I love it and still own a copy, and the Enid Blyton books. I would imagine that I was part of the gang; Secret Seven, Famous Five. Most of my early reads tended to be about belonging.

As time went on I suffered from a lack of parental persuasion that meant that I never got to explore any talent that I may have had for the written word despite my English teacher at senior school singling me out for praise and encouragement. I loved English at school. I was also a good actor but these things didn’t seem to matter in the East London of the ‘80s.

My first writing in print came about as part of the ‘80s mod movement. I produced a fanzine called ‘Listen here’ with my best mate Darin Gosling. The title was a nod to the Brian Auger track on ‘Befour Befour’ (Forget the release date; it’s a great mod club dancer!).

LH was a London-centric rag but I think it was well put together. It ran for 4 issues. I would be interested to know if anyone has any copies. I have none. After this initial dip of the toes I didn’t write for a very long time.

02. Has it been a struggle getting your first book published?

Soul destroying! I’ve never thought I was good enough to be worth anything so I took any perceived ‘rejection’ badly. I wrote ‘Too Much Too Young’ approximately 10 years ago after a difficult period in my life. It was initially a very naïve attempt, full of typos, timeline errors and poor grammar and yet it got some interest from mainstream dealers.

Feedback was that I had something that was commercial and interesting but that they were unsure how they would market it despite me explaining why I thought it was marketable (The Specials had reformed and were touring, Amy Whitehouse and the Ordinary Boys were name checking them).

One lady found my prose too ‘street’!! All those who expressed initial interest lost their bottle. I lost heart and put it away, got on with paying the rent. This summer just gone, my daughter Rebecca completed her journalism course and we were having a chat in the garden. She asked if she could get it out and have a look. She encouraged me to punt it out again. So I sent Paul Hallam a proposal which he liked and bob’s your carbuncle as they say.

03. Where did you see the first piece you had written in print, how did that feel?

I once wrote a piece about the London mod scene for Teletext in the ‘80s. That was my first experience of how hacks can take something and weaken it. The finished article was a very watered down version. It was edited to death. I was embarrassed by it.

I wrote for mate’s fanzines but this didn’t feel like ‘real’ writing although I felt I had a knack for it. I also wrote some pieces for George Marshall’s
‘Skinhead Times’.

My first proper piece in print was for Scootering magazine. I wrote a piece about a very eventful journey to Exmouth mod rally. I think I still have a copy of
it somewhere.

I find it anxiety inducing to know that a piece I have written is about to be scrutinised by many. I have a tendency to focus on what has been edited out rather than the fact that they have decided to use it. It’s a natural default of mine. I am getting better at enjoying the exposure. An old friend Guy Joseph once told me ‘even bad press is good press’. I’m not convinced. We live in an ultra-critical age and it takes strength of character to absorb some of the diatribe that can be
flung around.

04. What were the main reasons that you started to write seriously?

My overactive imagination and noisy brain is my driver. I have tons of ideas with lots of gaps to fill. I like to use a very expressive, descriptive style of writing; I visualise as I write. I can taste, smell and feel when I write. I also found a lot of writing about youth culture, fashion and music was too intellectualised and analytical. I am not convinced that this is how it should be. What is there
to analyse?

It was what we did; it was exciting, inspiring, violent, heart breaking, adventurous, brave but mostly it was just good youthful exuberance. Through my writing I try to get those feelings across to those that weren’t there and to remind those
that were.

You can’t rewrite history, though many try, but you can use it to make a very enjoyable story. I believe that any observational piece about bygone eras, fashion, music, whatever, is ‘a truth thy own’; disputable but hard to disprove.

05. What’s a typical working day like when you are writing?

Real life gets in the way. I write in the evenings and at weekends mainly as I have to hold down a day job. I carry a notebook around with me and try to write ideas, thoughts, down as I go. I’m not very consistent to be honest and often kick myself if I forget something later on. I get frustrated if I start something and it loses its flow. I have tons of unfinished bits and bobs lying around and I am my own harshest critic.

06. What were your teenage experiences that helped to shape your later mind set?

I would suggest that my old man fleeing the nest when I was 3 years old had the biggest impact on my teenage years. This shaped me in many ways and caused me to seek out qualification through association. I was drawn to the company of others, gangs: the more ‘on the fringe’ and tougher the better.

Adopting rudeboy fashion in the early ‘80s helped fuel an early interest in Jamaican music: a flame that was initially ignited by finding and listening to Prince Busters ‘Al Capone’ from my mum’s collection of two 7” singles at a very young age. Bravery of curiosity and exploration rewards those who step outside
the lines.

To choose a different path to others, through deliberation or circumstance, takes effort, dedication and often courage; strength of character to continue doing what you want to do despite negativity, abuse or ridicule from those who would never understand. This was a long lesson I learnt from those who I hung out with as a teenager and all through in to my adulthood.

Many of the most creative people I have met have interesting and often chaotic stories to tell about their formative teenage years. They were those
curious explorers.

07. What was it like to be involved in ‘80s Street Cultures, what were your pointers and outlook?

Tribalism; and it was great. The lines were drawn and obvious unlike nowadays. It made the world an interesting and often violent place. I have been a rudeboy, casual, mod and skinhead. I loved them all.

The most important thing to remember is that the fashions and movements I got involved in were without question created and promoted on the street. Wearing the wrong or inferior item could create hell for you. We had no internet to guide us. Specialist shops were exactly that. We watched the older lads and learnt. Word of mouth was the key.

It was innovative, even the casuals; a happening that surprisingly seems to be so fondly remembered by many nowadays, were creating and evolving all the time. I have a memory of two lads with the same size feet buying Adidas Gazelles in different colours then swapping one over so they could wear one burgundy and one ultra-blue at the same time!

As far as my mod influences went: the East London and Essex mods were top (I know others will dispute this). I liked the fact they dressed smart but weren’t prissy. They weren’t scared to fight back and I liked that. They also promoted R&B sounds rather than the glut of Northern Soul that was doing the rounds at clubs. R&B felt so much more authentic to me, so much more mod.

I was lucky to have a cousin Jim Watson who edited a fanzine called ‘Right Track’, another London-centric ‘zine, with Garry Moore. He used to send me copies which I initially found confusing as I was a Who/Jam mod at the time. What I read though influenced me greatly. I have loved hard, sharp styling, dark well-fitting mohair, great shoes and the blues ever since. My mates used to joke that I was a skinhead in mod clothing.

I loved the mod scene but jumped ship when it became too ‘Austin Powers’ for me. I had always admired the smart and sussed skinhead styling of the Camden crew and this just seemed a natural progression for me as I was already mixing with them. This was the period that had the biggest impact on me without a doubt. Collecting reggae records, wearing good gear, great friendships, drinking hard and having a rep: it was the best and most influential time for me.

08. What was that 80s period in London like for you as a young man (outside of the Music world)?

Despite high unemployment in Britain at the time I never felt the impact. I lived in London. I left school and got a job the next day. It was a busy time. Most of my mates and me were well employed and flush. And we spent it like water. London was evolving as it always has done from the beginning of time, not always for the better (I worked on the Docklands developments) and as always it was a hive of activity. It was easy to take it for granted.

What we also took for granted was the gradual degradation of the estates, areas and community that we grew up in. Funding was squeezed, leaving maintenance and repair short. Thatcher’s reign seemed intent on destroying the working class and our environment. I’m not entirely convinced that she didn’t succeed in this. Violence was a regular occurrence. I witnessed a murder of a youth I knew in my home road and lost a couple of school mates through the ‘80s, stabbed and hacked to death.

I was partial to a scrap myself, never spiteful or malicious but it became a habit. I found myself in serious trouble in the late ‘80s, three court appearances in one year. I narrowly avoided imprisonment. It was a big turning point for me. I knew I was not kitted out to do bird. My favourite place to hang out in the mid to late ‘80s was Camden Town. It’s hard to explain how youth-driven, how creative a place Camden was. There were punks, rockabillies, skinheads, metalheads, blacks, whites, French, Italian, Spanish; all sharing the same space and it was okay. Fights happened as they did everywhere folk happened to drink but the next weekend we went back. In the ‘80s I worked to live. Now I often wonder if I am living to work.

09. How did the Media distort what was going on with youth culture at that time?

Mods were seen as a joke by anyone but mods. Even scooter boys took the piss out of us. When the media cottoned on to something we were doing they always made it look like a boy scouts movement, too soft, insipid, twee. Being ‘revivalists’ allowed the implication that we were rehashing something that had died a natural death. What they could never see was how any cult can be reinvented and
enjoyed further.

You only have to look at the second generation skinheads in the late ‘70s to see how far any re-shape can go and though it is not everyone’s idea of progress or improvement, politics aside; it was their own creation and their right to do it. Any exposure of youth culture through the media was usually poorly researched and/or edited. It was always trivialised and made to appear quirky or presented as idiotic and anti-social.

Those I knew who were part of any youth cult, whatever that may be, took it very seriously and tended to demonstrate a distrust of the media. Football violence was harder to distort. It was real, in their faces, and after the ‘70s skinhead crews, came the ‘80s casual firms but the media never really caught on to this movement. Casuals are probably the least documented youth cult of all times.

10. What music, films and books helped you to the pathway of all things alternative?

I love my sounds deep, dark, heavy and gritty; organic and real. As a young teenager I was surrounded by reggae, 2 Tone, new wave and punk. I was immediately aware that you could dress in a way that told those in the know where your allegiances lay. Madness and The Specials were without any doubt my earliest fashion influences. Those brogue shoes the Nutty Boys wore! The MA1 flight jackets, Fred Perry’s and sta prest trousers! 2 Tone introduced me to early reggae; Trojan, Pama, Studio 1. This was an almighty revelation leading on to further exploration of roots, dub and version galore.

The Clash, Ian Dury, The Jam and Joy Division among others set me up for alternative sounds in turn leading me on to heavier sounds; American ‘hardcore’ (read punk) bands such as Fugazi, Bad Religion and Jesus Lizard. Proper, original blues and R&B continue to season my senses; Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Freddie King are favourites and get regular spins in my home. I’m also listening to a lot of R.L.Burnside and Junior Kimbrough at the moment. It’s all strands of the same web.

Image-wise I have always had an affinity with outlaws, oddballs and the hip whether in film or music. Quadrophenia was the film. Not the most original influence I know but the most honest. Although to be fair I was already exploring pastures alternate by the time I saw the film. Remember we did not have the vast media that youngsters can access nowadays. Richard Barnes ‘Mods’ and Nick Knights ‘Skinhead’ were books I stole from the library.

At the time these provided the best, if not, the only reference to the original styles we sought. I was surprised when I met Richard recently that he was quite unaware of the impact his book had on second-generation mods and if you check out the pencil drawings in Nick’s book too, you will get it. Dicken’s Christmas Carol and MacInnes ‘Absolute Beginners’ ‘City of Spades’ are books close to my London heart. If you read them you will understand why.

11. What other books do you wish you had written?

The one’s still in my head! I have something in the pipeline which I am hoping those Old Dogs will like! Watching the first Rambo film ‘First Blood’ lead me to read the novel of the same name by David Morrell. This read highlighted the power of descriptive writing for me. The novel is a darker and more claustrophobic tale; more dangerous, more tangible than the film it inspired.

12. How has the internet changed what you do?

It hasn’t much to be honest. I am still quite a novice regarding formatting, promoting and things like that but I have a lot of support. What I have found the net invaluable for is research. When I proof read ‘Too Much Too Young’ I was able to cross check and ensure that details were kept as accurate as humanly possible. The instant accessibility is something we all take for granted. Before the ‘chip it was a trod to the local library for referencing.

13. Do you have any advice for wannabe authors?

Find your own style and be confident in presenting it. There are many copyists and only one you. If the writing works the right person will notice it. It happened to me.

14. What projects are you planning for the future and please feel free to plug your latest book?

‘Too Much Too Young’ is a fictional story set in East London of a friendship between two very different lads who are brought together through a love of 2 Tone music and the associated fashion of rudeboy. Set in the early ‘80s it explores their coming of age in parallel with Thatcher’s first term in office. It’s a good mix of teenage naivety and gritty realism; a strong blend of dark and light; black
and white.

The aim is for the first press to be released in December all things being equal then I am looking to get out and about promoting it with plans to get to Brighton, Bristol and hopefully the Midlands.

Following this I intend to get my head down and complete a novel I am in the process of writing; a crime caper set in the ‘80s that provides an intimate insight into that elusive cult; the casual. It’s going well and I hope it will be a well-received follow-up to ‘Too Much Too Young’.

I am also thinking of approaching a well-known ‘80s band member with a view to co-writing his biography. I cannot exaggerate the stories he can tell. This chap has lived a life!

I am also writing articles for publication. One of which will be in the next edition of ‘Street sounds’.

15. What has been the re-action so far to your first book?

Paul Hallam at Old Dog Books has shown belief since I first presented him with the proposal for ‘Too Much Too Young’. His enthusiasm is an antidote for any doubt or lack of motivation one can experience. My favourite email from him (of which there are many) is the one where he said that a scene in ‘Too Much Too Young’ gave him vertigo!

We have already received interest from the 2 Tone museum in Coventry and shops have already put in advance orders. I can’t give too much away as Paul would feed my knackers to the old dogs but ‘Two Much Too Young’ has already got the stamp of approval from very special quarters.


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