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11 March 2021

Personal Story: Street fighting girls

In 1980s Sheffield, we dressed in jockey silks, danced like we meant it and fought because we had to.

By Rachel Genn

I once left a letter for Tracey Emin behind the bar of her local, the Golden Heart, in Spitalfields, London. It was after I saw her film about auditioning in Margate for the British Disco Dance Championship, the crowd chanting “slag” when she began her routine. I knew as well as Tracey why the audience was afraid. Dancing tells them something about how you will fuck and fight.

You could get into Turn Ups nightclub in 1980s Sheffield if you were 15, but only if the bouncers fancied you. If they did, you could be wearing whatever you liked: jodhpurs, Prince of Wales check suits; you could even be carrying a walking cane. We weren’t fully out of the shadow of A Clockwork Orange, and so found ourselves getting away with a tasteless mix of aristo and militaria. It would be nearly ten years until Bikini Kill released “Rebel Girl”, but we already lived by the lines: “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood/I got news for you, she is”.

In my kitchen, there’s a photograph from that time of the area surrounding Turn Ups and the markets beside it. It is a land of war – a desolate, bombed-out, black and white time, before European money slaked the thirst of a parched South Yorkshire. This was Sheffield with its tongue still out. The Durham Ox pub could have dropped from the sky into that photo. In the foreground there’s a ruptured path, crusted with snow. In the mid-ground, a lamppost slants.

Back then, I was wagging school to spend days with a lad who had worked out how to put speakers in the bathroom of his mum’s house in Manor Park. We spent a lot of time in electrical shops and getting the train down to his dad’s terraced house in Leicester, with its arcade game in the living room. I wore his oversized onyx ring engraved with a centurion’s head, taped up at the back. Someone older would drive the speakers down to Spring Street Youth Club, where the lad refused to play reggae to spite his dad and I danced to US house imports, showing, if you were interested, how I would fuck and fight – while getting dirty looks that said I should keep my hands off.

By day, to escape my new enemies, I had to jump in the back of the school minibus sharpish and slam the door while three lasses hammered the windows with their palms, shouting what they were going to do to me. A lad with braces said, “I think they want you,” and he pointed at one of the girls with her forefinger crushed crossways against her throat. Her skinnier accomplice slammed a hefty kick above the wheel-arch, halting the driver just as some goz, intended for my face, hit the window. The lad with braces stared straight ahead. The driver set off.

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For Christmas Eve’s Soul Night, 1986, I had bought some spats from Ravel and they were getting worn, snow or no snow. My auntie had made me a camel coat with heavy pleats released from under the yoke. I was like Chris Eubank, but a lass. And white.

They found out where we were going and appeared at the planned brawl after Turn Ups chucked the last of us out. I never went out to fight, but I was always ready to defend the girls I was with, even when I hated what they were fighting over. Homemade clothes in what looked like jockey silks became banners declaring battle.

Sitting in court to support hooligans up for affray was expected of us. No one asked what you were so angry about. The answer was there in the reluctance, the weariness, in the “do we have to?” feeling, the unbearable torpor before a fight. You were battling the wrong people but having to celebrate the wins anyway.

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For most of that time, we lived between harsh contrasts, discovering that our job was to be wanted enough but not too much. No one knew I longed to be a nun. I wore a Victorian sailor’s jacket and spent hours looking in the window of Ricky’s jeweller’s on Division Street at a belcher hung with a horn of plenty, furious that I didn’t own it. Paying weekly, you could buy a cameo, an opal, but never a sovereign. Battles over property escalated to war. I sometimes wondered if we fought just to talk about it.

There were near misses, like the time my adversaries found me and I was carried out of the club by the neck, begging the same bouncer to let me back in at the cost of the Chelsea Leather lace-up sweatshirt, because it wasn’t mine. It belonged to the lad who I had to keep secret; while he stayed out of things, I got further in.

If my mother were a gif, she would be someone washing their hands of something. Hilariously, I asked her what to do about “them lasses”. She dealt only in splinter-free fact. “Fight ’em and win ’em,” she said. I stopped running.

And of course they got me. I was stoned, and so didn’t get the jolt I usually got on seeing them. Once a fight begins, you leave yourself – when you come back there’s more of you, even if you’ve lost. They’d properly connected with a couple of punches. I was in no way up for it that night. A kick in the chest and I was sunk, heavy on my arse. Two black eyes after, and a broken cheek.

I didn’t try to get back up off the floor. Someone skimmed a wodge of serviettes at me, saying, “clean yourself”. I finished with that lad not long after.

Next day I asked my mother for a day off school. “Not a chance,” she said.