Very few people live lives exciting or memorable enough to have films made out of their life adventure whilst they are still living, but Cass Pennant hasn’t had a normal life. Abandoned, when born in the late fifties, Cass was a Barnado’s baby, relying on the warmth and safety of an elderly white family in Slade Green, Greater London. What followed was an up and down roller-coaster of love and lost, of friendship and of darkness, of bullets and books. Arts London News met up with the self dubbed “hooliologist” on a dark damp morning in Central London, to ask; who is the real Cass Pennant? The violent hooligan that has been caricatured over the last thirty years via films, books and courtrooms, or the sensitive writer living a dignified and respectable life as an author and publisher.
Talking about his childhood, Cass told me that although “being the only black kid in Slade Green was tough”, his upbringing wasn’t to blame. “I started up in a gang and I ended up in prison”, he informed me, eyes locked onto mine. “I had a very violent teenage life but you can’t blame that on my parents all they ever gave me is love.” Love and affection seems to be an important part of Cass’s life. He talks lovingly of his son studying at Bristol university, and he talks lovingly on his life – both the good and the bad, which is reassuring to hear in the world we live in of constant malaise and regret.
The life of Cass Pennant has never been an easy one. Imprisoned “at least twice”, he speaks bitterly of the way he was treated inside by the “racist screws” who made life unbearable for him. A youth of violence on the terraces, amidst the gloom of the recession hit early seventies has clearly left an impact on his life. Looking at the man, so big and strong you would have to make the assumption that his favourite music is something booming and grandiose, but he told me that his favourite album was the greatest hits of Van Morrison, the erstwhile singer songwriter who found fame in the seventies with gentle hits such as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. “Do you remember when we used to sing”, went the song, and I asked Cass if he remembered what he used to sing on the terraces, and who his heroes were.
“John Charles and Clive Best.” he immediately replied, referencing two of the early black footballers in England. Multiculturalism in football, and sport in general within Britain didn’t really take off until the early eighties. Ron Atkinson, a man lambasted and vilified for racial slurs at the early dawn of this century was one of the first managers to regularly pick black footballers, and those players, people like Cyril Regis and Lawrie Cunningham certainly gave a black voice to the often snow white voice of football. Race is a subject Pennant is particularly vocal on, no surprise considering some of the abuse he experienced in his earlier life.
“When I grew up there was no Irish, no blacks, no dogs,” he said, looking forlornly towards the table. “It was a nation of ignorance, not a nation of racism.” A salient point, considering the abuse he suffered whilst in prison for one of his two sentences – both of which he feels were a “stitch up”, and he feels strongly that he was the victim of a witch hunt to try and kick out hooliganism by making him a scapegoat. I understand his stance completely, for too long violence in football was covered up, excuses polluted the air as the crowds thinned to an alarming rate, and it began to look like the beautiful game as we know it was becoming a poisoned chalice, doomed to fail. Then came Heysal, an incident which Cass feels was the turning point of eliminating hooliganism from the majority of English football. In spite of this, he warned that “it might be gone in England, but in Eastern Europe violence in football he still rife.” Proof that the problem of violence still lingers.
Cass’s problems escalated into something more serious than scuffles in the stands. When working as a doorman in dark, dreary, dour Deptford, Cass was shot three times in the chest. He describes it as the “ultimate violence”, and his bravery in reliving the story is testament to his strength as a man. He describes in terrifying depth and detail how he was shot “three times in the chest, and I couldn’t even see it coming.” Like a gory horror film, he continued his tale, telling me how “the bullets slammed through me as I moved forwards not believing what was happening.” 50 Cent and gangster rappers might idly boast about being number one with nine bullets, but there is nothing glamorous or cool about staring at the steely eyes of a man who is literally telling you what happened the moment his life almost ebbed away from him, on a grimy pavement in South East London.
Redemption occurred after leaving prison for the second time. His second sentence had turned his life around somewhat, he had discovered books, cherishing to his heart the book ‘A Stone For Danny Fisher’ by Danny Robbins which he says was the catalyst for his own writing, and that our interview was the first time he had said which book first inspired him. “It was the only time I felt free” he told me a fellow prisoner had said to him when talking about books, and the escape in which they gave him to save him from the grind of being locked up 23 hours a day.
Life seems to be good for Cass now. A classic tale of the working class kid coming good, he is now a respected author, most notably of his autobiography, the gripping and sensational “Cass” and is also a book publisher who enjoys films like ‘Heat’, and the original ‘Gone in 60 Seconds, which he told me “they only show in prisons because they don’t want the public to be corrupted, whereas the prisoners already are!”. He is open minded about culture, listening to me bleat on about Spotify when he bemoaned that he “needed someone to download him music.” This was a nice change from the serious side of Cass, it was nice to see him joking and laughing with me. “I don’t laugh often”, he said, “I’m a serious man”. With the life he has led he can be whatever he wants to be. And I’m not just saying that because I’m afraid he might beat me up.