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Tales from a Northern City: Zed

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Zed – a dead-end meet leading to nought

The Dog and Whistle is Zed’s almost-local. He uses the pub quite often but lives nowhere near it, and when he does visit, he never buys a drink. I sit at the bar nursing a pint, trying in vain to look mysterious and threatening. There’s a group of shady-looking young lads crowded around the bandit. One of them is inserting a steady stream of pound coins, and he becomes increasingly animated as the machine fails to yield any reward. His face is flushed and he’s swearing and banging into the machine. The heavily made-up barmaid tuts before turning on her heel and heading off to the back of the pub. There are two old geezers sitting at a table close to the bar and another group of young lads sitting at a table by the door. There is no roaring trade at the Dog and Whistle today, and it’s not hard to see why. The carpet would once have been brightly coloured, a collection of geometric shapes of different sizes. It is mostly red with patches of brown, but in those areas of the pub that experience heavy foot traffic, it has degenerated to a matt black with the texture of chewing gum. The wallpaper has a flower design to it, mostly the colour of yellow, and there’s a faint smell of stale beer and cleaning products. My pint is flat and soapy, and I know for sure it will last me until Zed arrives.

Zed explodes into the bar at the expected time, about 45 minutes later than we agreed. He is wearing a pair of grey sweatpants, and a matching grey hoody which swings open to reveal an impressive physique covered up with a one of those brightly coloured weightlifting vests with massive arm-holes. On his feet are a box-fresh pair of Nikes. He immediately greets the group of young men sitting next to the door in the exaggerated style to which I have become accustomed. There are hugs and back slaps, and the theatrics of the happy group momentarily drowned out The Jam’s greatest hits coming through the sound system. Zed makes his way over to the other group of young men and shakes a few hands before shouting: “Ow Sandra, turn this music off. It’s shite man. Put something new on.” The barmaid returns and the two engage in some idle banter before Zed slaps me on the back and says “Come over here mate, away from these fuckers.”

‘Alright mate, aye? He telt ez to give you a ring but I lost the number. What you after like?’

I’ve known Zed from around 4 years, but we’re just nodding acquaintances. We’d occasionally bump into each other in nightclubs. The initial introduction was made by a bouncer and some time cocaine dealer known to us both. We went through the usual getting-to-know-you rigmarole: do you know X? Yes, do you know Y? Round and round. A mutual acquaintance told me he sold drugs, a fact I added to my mental rolodex of crime factoids from the north east, something to be pursued at some future date.

Zed is loosely connected to a group of young criminals who the local press call a ‘gang’. By piecing together snippets of information, I’ve slowly developed what I now believe is a fairly accurate idea of what Zed is up to. Similarly, I’m sure Zed knows roughly what I’m up to. This meeting has taken over a year to set up. These things cannot be forced.

‘So what you after mate? I haven’t got a clue what’s going on like. Jimmy said you was after ez for something.’

I give him the line about writing a book.

‘A book on crime? What for? You want me to be in this book?’

He seems incredulous but also intrigued. He is now talking quietly and staring at me intently. I give him more details, drop a few names and talk for a good few minutes about various bits and pieces that I’ve managed to pick up. All of this geared towards providing him with a few names and details he can use to check me out. I will need people to vouch for me if I’m to gain any useable data from Zed, and there also needs to be something else, some vague, intangible thing that will make the act of telling a partial stranger about your criminal activities a chance worth taking.

I have been in this position countless times. Most of these opportunities never make it this far, but if I can put myself in a face-to-face situation in which I can tailor my pitch to suit my audience, I have a reasonable chance of success. Sometimes I play to vanity. Other times, I offer them the chance to vent, to complain and relieve themselves of stories and episodes from their past. I’ll be the always-enthusiastic audience who gapes in awe at the criminal ingenuity of some small-scale drug dealer, thief or would-be titan of the criminal underworld, if that’s what I need to be. With Zed, the most obvious precursor to an eventual conversational topic of my choice is ‘training’, that is, working-out, weightlifting; the wilful sculpting of one’s body for pragmatic and aesthetic ends. Get them talking about something that animates them, something that allows them to claim some kind of superior knowledge. This tactic doesn’t work with everyone, but in my judgement it might work with Zed.

A fulsome discussion of diet, supplements and training regimens ensues. Today is Wednesday, and that means Zed is on ‘legs’. He hates training legs. We discuss steroids: what works, what works with what, who has what for sale and so on. Zed is not a huge man. He has a well-developed physique, but he is by no means ‘one of the monsters from down the town’ as he puts it. We discuss who’s big, who is getting big, who is using what. An hour slips by.

Out in his car now, I force things a little - enough of this ‘getting to know you’ shite:

‘So. Jimmy said you were getting some good coke’. A make-or-break moment, and, looking back, one in which there may well have been a subconscious hope that it would all amount to nothing, and I could head home.

‘Well, I know a fella. This bloke out in County Durham. He’s the man. Me, I just do a little bit of running around up here like.’

A car journey ensues, and numerous stops are made. We talk. Gradually it becomes clear exactly what Zed is up to. He buys regularly from some nameless bloke out in County Durham, enough that he can cut in, but not so much that he needs to involve others in his enterprise. He has regular customers, the majority of whom are buying for their personal consumption. Others buy in bulk in order to win a discount, and then pass the product on to friends. Zed himself pays up front ‘just to keep the bloke sweet’. He doesn’t use cocaine himself anymore, and he is keen to maintain a good working relationship with his supplier. Zed’s business is steadily growing and, as ‘the facts’ are gradually revealed, I reconsider the measure of the man.

Zed is well-situated here on the South Side. He has friends. From what I can tell, he is being allowed to operate entirely independently. The local gangsters are not demanding money, or a shift in loyalties and the establishment of new trading relationships. His supplier isn’t known in the neighbourhood and shows no desire to get involved in its politics. Zed is just Zed. His friends allow him a measure of protection from those who would seek to interrupt his business, but apart from that, it’s a one-man-show.

Zed is driving a relatively new Ford. It’s his, all bought and paid for. He is always immaculately turned out, and likes to strut his stuff in the city’s restaurants and cocktail bars. He rents a small two- bedroom house with a friend. He is not rich, but he wants to be.

Zed is a man of singular ambition. He wants more. He is beginning to buy more from his supplier, and plans to draw some of his friends into his scheme. The motivation remains unstated, pointless in its obviousness: money, and the things that it brings.

I ask Zed about some of the hardcases and lunatics who also populate this fine borough. He isn’t keen to talk about them, and that is understandable enough. His anxiety is less about the practical content of our interview and more to do with the fact that talking about these people can in itself be quite problematic. Nobody wants to be heard speaking ill of these men, but a further problem presents itself: who can be sure of exactly what will offend them? They are mercurial and dangerous, and anyone who is sensible around here errs on the side of caution. As with other interviews, the thing of real interest is destined to remain undisclosed.

So far, Zed appears to have been protected by his friendships. He knows some pretty notable people. I know this already. But negotiating the snares and pitfalls of friendship in these places is always difficult, especially when one party is making money and the other is not. If Zed’s business continues to grow, those friendships will be tested to the limit, and chances are they will move to a more formal mode of operation, with the exchange of currency filling the gap of former affection. He isn’t willing to discuss any of this, and makes gestures to end our talk. He doesn’t want anything repeated to anyone. I make the pledge, offer assurances and thanks, and, as always, the promise of a favour to come. He drops me off at my car and drives off into the night, skidding away in his nice new Ford with loud but muffled techno music sounding his progress.


Jade D’Anthro

From a fieldwork encounter on 12 June 2004

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