Why I Wrote Micka
'Why I Wrote Micka' by Frances Kay
I grew up in Notting Hill in the early fifties, when it was mostly mentioned in the papers in connection with race riots, Rachmanism and Christie’s grisly mausoleum at 10, Rillington Place. In my [40 strong] class at primary school were Irish, Polish and Italian kids and later on, the first West Indians to arrive in London. But school was not where I first came across Micka and his family.
We lived in a crumbling Victorian three-storied house off the Portobello Road – not the whole house, just the a semi basement flat with use of a small, uninteresting back garden through which I could and did, frequently escape into the seemingly limitless communal grounds, to have unsupervised and often unwise adventures. In those immediate post war years there was no money to spare for municipal gardening. The ‘keeper’ had a basic shed with no tools except a rake and a spade. His job was mostly to walk about with a wheelbarrow, smoking Players, the butts of which were eagerly collected by bad boys, or run wheezily after us ‘juvenile delinquents’, shouting and waving his fist. It was a mad jungle with its own laws, where the grass grew tall, the stunted hawthorn trees survived us climbing them [not allowed by the bylaws] and the huge plane trees were just asking to have our initials carved on their barks [the rumour was that if we got caught, we would end up in juvenile court]. Children of all ages ran wild and had lives their parents knew nothing about. This square was just down the road from Ladbroke Grove, the favourite territory of Rachman type landlords -slum properties rented by refugees and the poorest families, the ones whose kids got free vitamins and nit inspections at school, ready to be exploited.
I loved the Big Garden, but there were some boys I used to dread encountering. They moved in packs. Most of them had viciously short crew cuts and knees armoured with scabs [even teenagers wore short trousers then]. They talked in a fast low Cockney monotone and thrust their head down in my face, far too close for comfort. Once one of them took my treasured two wheeler bike [a family hand me down, painted bright blue by my Dad, with solid tyres that gave a bumpy and unreliable ride]. This boy, probably called Roy or Paul, wobbled a hundred yards and back, watched by his gang, their expressions unreadable. I knew that if he wanted the bike, he would take it. I had no idea where he lived.
Years passed and we moved to Chiswick. Somehow my parents managed to find exactly the same kind of primary school for me to be miserable in. I’d been away at a boarding school for two years, and to come back to a London playground and have a bullet head thrust in my face and the words ‘You’re a fucking cow, what are you? ‘ was familiar and avoided only by refusing to answer, giving him - probably named Barry - , the look called by my parents ‘dumb insolence’, before running to the safety of teacher-on-duty and the infants holding her hands, hiding behind her comfortable large overcoat.
These boys haunted me for years, long after the restful interludes of a girls’ grammar school and the delirious pleasure of university where boys were for the first time not out to bash me up, do me in or punch me up the bracket. Boys were no longer attention-demanding class clowns or savages, in fact they were fun. Not surprisingly, I ended up with the one who was most fun, one who unfortunately had a compulsion to change the world for the better, which of course involved finding an urban black hole to live and work in. I managed to dissuade him from taking a job as adventure playground leader on a project in the Falls Road, Belfast – vacant because the previous leader had been shot in the face in his own flat, by men whose kids he had worked and been friends with for two years – and we came to Handsworth, on the edge of Enoch Powell territory, with its parallel strands of cultures, never seeming to meet, Asians, Africans, Caribbeans and deeply depressed, mostly unemployed Brummies whose kids played out their parents tribal posturings on the supposedly neutral territory of Handsworth Adventure Playground with two young, idealistic play leaders to keep the peace. Nights were enlivened by police hammering on our door [we had no phone, like most people in and around the Soho Road], to tell us that the ‘hut- ’ the space built by and dedicated for use of all the local children - had been set on fire again, most likely by those whom John had spent the day talking and listening to, doing activities with, intervening in knife and bottle fights with. They were so alienated from society all they wanted to do was destroy, even something that was nominally theirs. It was here that I first met children – well, boys – whose actual ambition was to go to grown-up prison. Here, I heard the story of two thirteen year olds who had walked into the terraced house of a wheelchair bound elderly local woman, so used to neighbours popping in to help with her shopping and cleaning that her front door was always on the latch, had demanded money, threatening her when she said she had none, and finally suffocating her with a plastic bag over her head, before stealing the one and fourpence they found in her purse [this was just before decimal coinage came in]. They were caught and sentenced. We heard about it because some boys who were playground regulars were excited that they now knew someone famous, they’d been in the papers, they were MURDERERS and weren’t they great?
I was just a Saturday volunteer, and a girl, so what chance did I have to get them to feel some vestige of empathy for the victim, about whom they said nothing except she was a stupid cunt to leave her door open and a stingy cow to have an empty purse.
That was the beginning of a ramshackle career spent with children on the fringes of society – travelling families in Perth and the West Midlands, community projects in York and Edinburgh, sink housing estates in Newcastle and Tyneside. I thought nothing could surprise me, yet every week I was surprised. By the poverty of some of their lives – not only financial, of course, but the poverty of culture at home, parents too depressed by unemployment and social stigma to engage even in free entertainments like conversation, larders empty of food except for the next basic meal, parents whose spare cash was spent forgetting their misery down the pub, and poverty of ambition and aspiration – who did they ever meet in their lives who would lift up their horizons, give them practical hope, something to work towards? The ‘heroes; in Newcastle were the fifteen and sixteen year old school dropouts who managed to sign up for the army and who boasted about getting their hands on machine guns and going berserk on the streets of Belfast.
When I read in the papers now about babies being killed in their own homes or the terrible actions of child criminals, I think of how nothing has changed for some families. Born into low expectations, ignored for the most part by the media until they hit the headlines in court cases, some brutalized, abused and murdered by those very parents in whose care they are forced to live, who’s going to speak up for them?
I didn’t write Micka to accuse anyone. I wrote this story in hope. I hope that one day more people will wish for change, believe it can happen, and work for it to happen. Change in our present preoccupations that make celebrity and wealth the only measure of a person’s worth to us, and a change in the individual so they are able to feel empathy and treat others as they would like to be treated. We need a fundamental change in a society where the top layer has no idea, really no idea, how the bottom layer is surviving day by day.