|From Punk Rocker To Village Protestor
Alice Thomson asks Toyah Willcox how she became
the unlikely head of a campaign to block the building of an asylum centre
in a leafy English village.
Toyah leading the campaign against an asylum centre
in the rolling hills of Worcestershire? Impossible. The first concert I
ever went to was Toyah's. Back then, I saw her as the high priestess of
punk, in her orange make-up and crown of blue hair.
She spat, swore and lisped her way around the
stage, singing It's a Mystery. We knew she'd always been a rebel: using
a coffin as her bed and drinking heavily from the age of nine. In the film
Jubilee, she throttled a man while having sex with him. Sir John Gielgud
nicknamed her The Animal.
These days, she does voice-overs for the Tellytubbies,
as well as making albums and touring the country. As the only woman to
have got away with presenting both The Good Sex Guide and Songs of Praise,
she frustrates attempts to pin her down.
Even so, it came as a shock to hear that Toyah
Willcox had joined the ladies in headscarves and wellies to protest against
an asylum centre being built among the cowslips in Throckmorton. Why would
she get involved in such a middle-class, provincial issue?
She laughs. "I'm not some terrible racist Nimby,"
she says. "And nor is anyone else in Throckmorton. This is about protecting
our environment. I've known the area all my life, my parents live there,
my house is five miles away."
But what drove her and her husband, the American
rock musician Robert Fripp, to stand near a banner saying: "Our backyard
is already full"?
"Because it's true. Throckmorton was chosen as
the burial site for 130,000 dead cows after foot and mouth. For months,
24 hours a day, we'd hear the lorries trundling past. We could smell the
smoke from the incineration plant and feel it in our hair - and I'm a vegetarian.
We didn't think it could get any worse."
Then, they heard they'd been chosen as the hosts
for 750 asylum seekers. "They'll almost be on top of the cows. I wrote
to Number 10 to say it was a bad idea.
"All I received was a standard reply, saying that
it would be a wonderful opportunity for the area, bringing in 200 new jobs."
Toyah's first worry is for the refugees: they
shouldn't be stuck so close to the burial site, she feels. "What about
any seepage? Throckmorton is a tiny rural community: the residents are
not anti-asylum seekers - they just believe the Government has chosen the
wrong place. It's utterly irresponsible to plonk a new town down in the
heart of the English countryside, on top of a graveyard."
We are sitting in her small suburban flat in Chiswick,
eating chocolate-chip cookies and drinking tea to the accompaniment of
Her hair is now a sleek platinum blonde that matches
the platinum discs on her walls. There are Buddhas and crosses scattered
around the room, her bed is a futon and she keeps a a glittery skateboard
in the kitchen. This seems more like the real Toyah.
"Oh, no! I grew up on the River Avon, near Throckmorton,
before I rebelled. We used to go at weekends from Birmingham, on my parents'
boat. It's beautiful, with apple orchards and high hedges. At 10, I was
helping the farmers pick fruit.
"There's a real mix of people - that's why I came
back. They're not all toffee-nosed. People have just enough money on a
Saturday night to get tipsy. Everyone knows their neighbours and shops
for them if they're ill. I've got prescriptions for the elderly in town.
"In the summer, when the pickers from Birmingham
arrive, it becomes multi-cultural. You hear so many languages floating
across the fields."
Surely, the asylum seekers have to go somewhere
- so why not here? "Of course, we could house some, but not 750: they'd
overwhelm us. We only have a bus two times a day, the nearest shop is two
miles away - the Evesham to Worcester road has enough fatalities already.
No one here speaks any of the necessary languages to help make people who
may have been tortured or persecuted feel at home."
She wrote to the Home Office, pointing out her
concerns. "They tried to convince me that the asylum seekers would be so
busy filling in forms that they wouldn't have time to leave the base. But
the asylum seekers will have nothing to do. I can hardly see them pulling
on their wellies to stride across the fields.
"The nearest cinema is Worcester. The nearest
school is tiny."
So, like the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, she's
worried that the local community might be "swamped". "I don't think children
of asylum seekers should be educated separately. After September 11, we
need to break down prejudices, but they can't just take over the local
The steady stream of stories about young men from
Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey terrorising the locals of Sangatte and shooting
each other on the streets hasn't helped. "We aren't hearing about women
and children needing sanctuary - it's all about young men, and that terrifies
the older residents. They're having nightmares about being knocked down
in the street or burgled."
What would she do if she were Tony Blair? "I love
coming back from London to the sun on the fields; in a perfect world, we'd
be left untouched. But Britain can't just shut out would-be immigrants.
We must show camaraderie and help them; in return, they must show camaraderie
in adapting to our lives.
"A few asylum seekers wouldn't threaten the village.
But they won't want to settle and make friends here. I can't see them ploughing
the land - they want to get to the cities."
The proposed asylum centres could be smaller,
she suggests. "A manageable unit would be 100, based near airports, trains,
shops and hospitals. But that's far more expensive for the Government,
and they don't want to anger the cities."
Toyah voted Labour at the last election. "I feel
like an idiot now - it's all illusions and gimmicks," she says. "They haven't
even been to the sites. They talk about asylum seekers as rubbish to be
ditched, rather than seeing immigration as a potential way to enrich this
country. They're not proud to be British any more.
"We can't celebrate anything about this country
without being called racist. We can't honour our culture and say that the
English language is great and that it would give these immigrants a flying
start if they learnt it first.
"We're an old island, with an old empire - culturally,
we have an island mentality. It's awful to be made to feel guilty. The
Toyah bought her parents their retirement cottage
on the River Avon because she was worried about them living in the city.
"I wanted them out of Birmingham. Some white kids stole a car and rammed
it into their door; it was the last straw. My parents couldn't leave the
house after 6pm."
The wild child is now protective of her parents.
"I have no children - they're my family. My father put me through private
school, even when he lost his money. I was born with a twisted spine and
hip defect - my mother helped me through that. For 30 years, it was all
about me. Now, I'm nagging them to eat better. I ring them every day."
Would she ever consider selling up? "Nothing would
make me leave," she retorts, "even if they turn the place into a prison
once the asylum seekers have gone."
It worries her that the Government has plans to
build asylum centres in other rural areas. "This is only the first of 15.
The sheer scale is mind-boggling. This is a small country - it's all happening
"The Government can't even deal with its own homeless,
with desperate single mothers and poor children. In London today, I saw
a man begging and people were shouting at him to get a job. Their sympathy
has worn thin. People aren't as kind. It terrifies me that if our Government
and Europe don't take a grip, more people will swing to the far-Right."
In September she begins her next tour, so she
doesn't have much time to save Throckmorton. "If the Government forces
this through, I won't go to the camp as a do-gooder with a basket of provisions
- but I won't ignore them on the street. And I'll keep pestering the Government.
"It's difficult, because I'm an actor and a performer.
I have no instinct for politics. But I'll fit this in. I don't do drugs,
drink, smoke or even take coffee, so I've got loads of energy."
Twenty-five years ago, during the Queen's Silver
Jubilee, Toyah was starring in Derek Jarman's film, Jubilee. "Now, I'm
a woman in her forties who enjoys her career," she says. "I think my generation
have become mentally and physically much healthier and happier. I never
thought I'd live past 30."
However, she remains proud of the punk generation.
"We broke down so many attitudes and made life easier for gays, women,
all classes. Some of us will never stop fighting."
25th May 2002