Sunday, January 26, 2020

Disco isn’t dead. It has gone to war (Tony Cokes)

If UR Reading This It’s 2 Late: Vol 1 at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art was the first UK solo exhibition of US-based artist Tony Cokes, who explores the politics of music through text based video pieces. 

Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) (2009-11) is based on ‘a text by Moustafa Bayoumi titled ‘Disco Inferno’ which appeared in The Nation (26 December 2005). The text discusses the use of music blasted at high volume as a method of torturing detainees in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Tracks by Britney Spears, David Gray’s ‘Babylon’, and Metallica were used in rooms referred to as ’The Disco’, weaponizing popular music to traumatise’ (GCCA).

The title of new work ‘The Morrissey Problem’ is self explanatory:

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: a political year on the London streets

On this last day of the decade I am not going to attempt any kind of political balance sheet. Yes it's been a fairly depressing time in the UK, with the re-election of a right wing Conservative goverment and impending Brexit. But I've lived under similar governments for most of my life, people have got on with it, organised and actually brought about social change.

There were some encouraging signs in 2019, most spectacularly the growth of the climate change movement. Thousands of school students and others joined the Global Climate Strikes and there  were the two major Extinction Rebellion actions in April and October. I loved running through traffic free streets between the five main occupied sites in April and on the musical front it was great to see  Orbital playing a full set in Trafalgar Square in October (I also went to an XR event in Berkeley Square in April, themed around nightingales and convened by folk singer Sam Lee and the Nest Collective).

It felt like the beginning of a real shift from an activist scene to a social movement, signalled by the fact that so many people I knew from different walks of life including friends, relatives and semi-retired former militants seemed to be getting involved in various ways. Of course there are contradications and challenges ahead, not least how to sustain momentum, but the debates are happening and the movement is already broader and more diverse than the proclamations of any one organisation or figurehead would suggest. 

On the anti-Brexit front, the national demonstrations were huge but the more interesting moments came during the mobilisations after Boris Johnson first became Prime Minister in August with the threat of a parliamentary 'coup' to force through Brexit. Freedom of movement/migrant solidarity blocs staged spontaneous marches round the West End and led the blocking of streets and bridges. Brexit now looks inevitable but the need for an ongoing movement in support of migrants and against racism and fascism will be greater than ever. 

Anyway here's a gallery of images from some of these moments on London streets in 2019

Extinction Rebellion - April 2019

Occupied Waterloo Bridge

Skateboard on Waterloo Bridge
Extinciton Rebellion boat blocking Oxford Circus

Sound system at Piccadilly Circus

Sound system in Parliament Square

'Rebel for Life' - Waterloo Bridge
Stop the Coup, August 2019

'Stop Building Borders - Defend Free Movement'

'Empower the future'

Waterloo Bridge blocked during 'Stop the Coup' demo, August 2019.

Extinction Rebellion - local march from Greenwich to Blackheath, August 2019

'Towards the Common'

Global Climate Strike, 20 September 2019

'Fuck the Government and Fuck Boris' - Stormzy quoted by Parliament

'School strike sound system'

Blocking Whiteall
 Extinction Rebellion, October 2019

tents occupy the roads around Traflagar Square

'No music on a dead planet' - Orbital play in Traflagar Square

Monday, December 30, 2019

Synth Jam with Wasp

I haven't done a lot of music making in 2019, but I did enjoy taking part in a Synth Jam earlier in the year as part of the Telegraph Hill Festival. The event at the Hill Station Cafe SE14 in April featured about 10 people with assorted bits of electronic kit playing around.

I took along my battered old wasp synth. It's just about still going but various knobs no longer work properly. It's had a bit of a battered life including being left on the floor in a 1990s squat basement in Brixton for people to play with during a Reclaim the Streets benefit (there's a report of this event at the end of this post). It can still make some great sounds, but I can no longer always control when they start and end!

Naturally a synth jam does encourage a certain level of synth geekiness, but I was surprized that the aspect of my Wasp that generated the most excitement was that I still have the original box!  Indeed, it has the serial number (003736) and date of purchase (25/6/81) hand written on it, and the iconic label (Wasp, Made in Oxford, England).

The Wasp was manufactured by Electronic Dream Plant from 1978 and was a an early attempt at developing an affordable synth, with a touch-sensitive keyboard but two mighty oscillators. I got mine second hand from a school friend in the early '80s. 

Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey etc) has written about the Wasp - he notes that gigging 'is probably the one thing they were never really built for and has got to be one of the quickest way of trashing one. Most clubs have very high humidity and this plays havoc with the keyboard sensitivity. The first signs of trouble are that no matter how much you adjust the keyboard sensitivity and no matter how much you keep fiddling with the controls the thing just keeps droning on and on'. Yup!

You can listen to the Synth Jam tracks on soundcloud:

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Crass, Poison Girls, UK Decay in Luton, 1979

As I post this it is forty years ago this very night that anarcho-punk pioneers Crass and Poison Girls played in Luton, along with home town punks UK Decay on 14th December 1979. A friend who was there (I wasn't) posted the flyer on facebook. I remember the venue well enough, an old hanger next to Marsh House community centre where I went to summer playschemes as a kid. Apparently there was no power in the building so they ran an extension cable from Marsh House next door - the whole gig from one power point with the inevitable power cut at one point.

The UK Decay website has a picture of the band playing there that night, in front of Crass and Poison Girls banners.

The gig was a benefit for Stevenage-based fanzine Cobalt Hate. The issue the gig funded can be seen here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

1937: Police raid Harworth Striking Miners' Dance

In 1936/37 there was a long and bitter miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire centred on Harworth colliery, sparked by the refusal of mine owners to recognise the miners’ trade union of choice. The incident described here took place at a dance the night after a conflict between strikers on the one hand and police and strike breakers on the other. 36 people were arrested over the week, with 12 people eventually jailed for up to two years for ‘riotous assembly’ (these charges related to the picket line clashes rather than the dance hall incident).

‘The audience at the Harworth cinema was locked in last night prior to a police raid on the miners’ dance in the Market Hall a few doors away. Police went to the dance hall, arrested a number of men and then ordered the MC to get on with the dance.

Reinforcements of police then entered the small Town Hall, women dancers were separated from their partners, and what amounted to a pitched battle took place, the police freely using their batons. Men and women fought their way out into the narrow road way where the struggle continued for over 20 minutes.

Eye-witnesses report that injured men were lying all over the place. Women were crying, the whole village was in an uproar and the audience unable to leave the cinema. A call was sent out for Doctors to come to the village and attend to the scores of injured men. A number had to be taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital in Doncaster, nearly 10 miles away.

The five men arrested at the dance were charged at midnight last night before a special sitting of the Worksop (Notts) magistrates. They were Michael Kane, President of the Harworth branch of the Notts Miners Association, James Mould, Cornelius Fergusson, Frank Jobson and Samuel McCoombe and all were remanded in custody until Monday...

It is understood that warrants have been issued for the arrest of a number of other men, who are stated to be moving freely around the village but no attempt has yet been made to take any of them. Saturday night’s incident is the culmination to a very tense situation in Harworth during the past few days.

Following the national miners ballot declaration in support of the Harworth miners who have been out on strike 24 weeks in defence of the right to join the Notts Miners Association, the men remaining at work have adopted a very provocative attitude. Strikers pickets have been very small in number and members of the “chain gang” being escorted to the pit by the police have stepped out of the ranks and challenged individual members of the picket to a stand-up fight.

On Friday night a busload of scabs from Dinnington, Yorkshire were very provocative at the pit gates. Stone-throwing took place and every window in the bus was smashed. The police endeavoured to disperse the picket calling blacklegs who were off duty from the colliery company welfare club to their assistance.

The blacklegs brought with them billiard cues with which they struck at the strikers. A pitched battle ensued and the police and black legs retreated.

No arrests were made. On Saturday morning strong reinforcements of police were brought into Harworth by bus and cars... Everything was quiet during the day and the arrest of men at the dance, after they have been walking openly about the village all day long is regarded as particularly provocative. It will be recalled that the Council of civil liberties has already issued a report strongly critical of the police methods employed in this dispute, a state of terror having reigned in the village for nearly 24 weeks.

Women have been forbidden to go to the shops to make purchases, strikers attacked by scabs in their own gardens and young strikers waylaid and beaten up by gangs on the way home from neighbouring towns at the weekends’ [source: Daily Worker, 26 April 1937]

Mick Kane, arrested in the dance hall raid, was released from prison in August 1938 - marked by a demonstration in Sheffield (source: Daily Worker, 3 September 1938)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Butterfly Dream

(Bristol Temple Meads Station, October 2019)
'Long ago, a certain Zhuang Zi dreamed he was a butterfly – a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Zhuang Zi. Then all of a sudden he woke up to find that he was, beyond all doubt Zhuang Zi. Who knows if it was Zhuang Zi dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Zhuang Zi? Zhuang Zi and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things” Zhuang Zi,The Inner Chapters [Zhuang Zi/Chuang-tzu is said to have lived from 369 BCE to 286 BCE]

'To dream of a butterfly is to imagine a life of flying, freedom, and blissful ignorance of all human sorrows. Zhuang Zi’s evocation of such a happy dream feeling drew out of his intuitive recognition of the experiential power of people’s actual dreams of flying. To this widely experienced and deeply felt dream theme Zhuang Zi added the specific figure of the butterfly, a creature whose life-cycle involves a radical transformation of physical structure, from larva to chrysalis to butterfly. Dreaming of this particular creature not only means the power to fly; it also means the experience of transformation itself, life moving effortlessly from one mode of been to another, the Dao made manifest’ (Kelly Bulkeley, Dreaming in the World's Religions – a Comparative History, New York University Press 2008)

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Blinded by the Light - memories of 1980s Luton racism and job cuts

I enjoyed 'Blinded by The Light', Gurinder Chadha's movie based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s ‘Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion, Rock'n'Roll’ - his book about growing up in a British Pakistani family in Luton in the 1980s and finding solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen. In some ways it’s a feel good jukebox movie with characters bursting into song or reciting Springsteen lyrics at any moment- well if the ABBA oeuvre can be transplanted from Sweden to a Greek Island (Mama Mia) why not Springsteen in Luton? Indeed a key point of the film is that Springsteen’s apparent Americana deals with universal themes and that in Luton like New Jersey people are struggling to find the promised land amidst closing factories, despair and dreams deferred.

Personally it’s impossible to be objective as I too grew up in Luton in this period, albeit a few years older, and when you ‘come from cities you never see on the screen’ (or large industrial towns in this case) there is some excitement at just being represented. So of course I spotted local scenes like George Street (the high street) and the Arndale Centre, including the upstairs cafe where IIRC now-Bristol Labour MP Kerry McCarthy once worked a Saturday job. And I bemoaned the scenes filmed elsewhere: Luton Sixth Form College, which I also attended, is a key location but a school in London was used to stand in for it here- maybe because the actual Sixth Form has been rebuilt since the 80s.

But the film is not just some niche 1980s nostalgia trip - there is darkness on the edge, and indeed in the centre of this town like many others. The personal story of teenage romance, family conflict and fandom is played out against a background of the social tensions of the time - in particular unemployment and racism. In case anyone thinks this is exaggerated, here's some of my own memories and some documentation.

Job cuts at Vauxhall

Luton was synonymous with General Motors at this time, as home to factories making Vauxhall cars and Bedford vans. It wasn't just the major employer, but a big part of community life with its sports grounds and social activities. I remember as a kid going on Vauxhall trips to the pantomime, and learning judo for a while in the sports centre. But this was beginning to change in the 1980s as thousands of workers - like the father in the film - were laid off.  

1981 started with the announcement of mass job losses and short time working at Vauxhall Motors, and a further 2000 redundancies came in July 1981 (Luton News, 16/7/81) followed by 200 more in the engineering department later in the year. The latter prompting a walk out and 1000-strong demonstration to present the managing director with a coffin marked ‘RIP Vauxhall design’ (‘Vauxhall job cuts spark mass demo’, Luton News, 12/11/81).

Jobs continued to go throughout the decade. In a few months in 1986, GM cut more than 4,000 jobs at its plants in Luton, Dunstable and Ellesmere Port in Liverpool, leading to Manzoor's dad being made redundant after working for the firm for 15 years.

'Body Blow to Bedford: shock as GM job toll hits 4150 since June', TASS (union) News and Journal, October 1986 
My dad worked for Vauxhall in Luton too, as a draughtsman in the design and engineering AJ Block. In 1988 GM sold off this part of the company to another firm- David J B Brown. I remember my dad being involved in organising demonstrations like those pictured below against the threat of losing their Vauxhall pensions and other changes to their working conditions.

Demonstration at Vauxhall in Luton against sell off of design and engineering, 1988

Racism in Luton

In his book Manzoor describes the casual racism of some teachers and pupils at his Luton school (Lea Manor) and having to change his route to avoid skinheads hanging out in the subway on Marsh Farm estate. He also refers to the opening of the first purpose built Mosque in Luton, which was marred by racists placing a pig's head on the minaret during the first week (this occurred in 1982).  As a young white man I obviously had a very different experience of racism but I was certainly aware of it and involved in local anti-racist politics. I've written here previously about taking part in anti-National Front protests in Luton in 1970/80, but the heaviest year was 1981. 

Then and now, the area of Luton with the highest concentration of South Asian people was Bury Park, an area of terraced housing clustered around Dunstable Road about half a mile from the town centre.  The area is also home to Luton Town Football Club's Kenilworth Road ground, and on Boxing Day in December 1980 the mighty Hatters beat  Chelsea 2-0. The latter's supporters included a vocal far right element and at 1.30 pm, after the match had finished, 150 - 200 Chelsea fans gathered outside the nearby Mosque in Westbourne Road, where women were praying. The Chelsea fans began kicking at the door, and when Muslim men came outside they were met with a hail of bricks. Four people were injured and £2000 of damage caused to the Mosque. 

The police not only failed to prevent the attack, but went on to downplay its obviously racist nature. Mr Akbar Khan of the Pakistani Welfare Association told the Luton News (31/12/1980): 'The police say they cannot do anything because this was just football hooliganism. But it was nothing to do with football, it was purely a racist attack'. 

On Saturday 3rd January 1981, I took part in a small Anti-Nazi League march to the Mosque where we joined with local Muslims to guard it against any further attack (Luton were again playing at home). The following day 500 people attended a community meeting at Beech Hill School, attended by the Pakistani Ambassador, local councillors and Ivor Clemitson, former Luton Labour MP and chair of the Community Relations Council. The meeting demanded a public enquiry into police conduct on the day of the attack on the mosque.

Over the next few months, racist attacks continued in the town. For instance on 9 April 1981 racist graffiti was painted on Asian shops and property in Leagrave Road and Marsh Road, Luton. Slogans included 'W*gs', 'P*kis go Home' and National Front symbols (Luton News, 3.9.1981)

The Luton Youth Movement

In the spring of 1981 a new organisation was set up by young people to combat racism in the town - the Luton Youth Movement. Partly this arose out of a sense of frustration with the seemingly endless intrigues within the local Labour Party, Community Relations Council and traditional community groups, none of which had proved capable of organising effective action against racist attacks

The inspiration was clearly the militant Asian youth movements that had developed elsewhere in the country from 1976 onwards, notably in Southall and Bradford, to defend communities from attack. Asian young people were a key driving force in setting up Luton Youth Movement, but from the start it also had African Caribbean and white members. I'm not not sure that this was making a particular political point about the politics of black autonomy so much as reflecting the fact that it initially grew out of a mixed friendship group in a small town where allies were thin on the ground. The LYM aims included 'To protect our communities from racial attacks (including police harassment)' and 'To fight immigration controls and racist laws'. The latter point was important as during 1981 a new Nationality Act was going through Parliament imposing further restrictions on immigration. Its effects were seen later when, in January 1983, Luton Pakistan and Kashmir Welfare Society complained that Scotland Yard and local police had raided 60 houses in Luton, with 200 people being questioned at Luton police station in an alleged search for forged passports.

Self defence

The Luton Youth Movement saw organising community self-defence against racist attacks as a key task. A sympathetic article in the local Evening Post at the beginning of July 1981 reported:  'People who live in fear of racial attacks are being successfully protected by a group of young people in Luton'. Mohammed Ikram, 19, the chair of LYM was interviewed and gave a picture of its activities: "It's going very well. We move in with victims to make sure the attackers do not try again. The police have not proved efficient enough. We are prepared to meet force with force if necessary'. The defence work was said to involve young people aged 14 to 24 working three hour shifts, with a team of six people inside the house being protected and six more outside ('Protected by Youngsters', Evening Post, 3.7.81).

In July, the LYM announced plans to set up an emergency telephone system to help people under threat of racist attack. The idea was to mobilise people at short notice to respond to calls to a publicised telephone number. The Luton News reported that 'They decided to set up the defence network after hearing that an Asian family fled from their Luton council house after having excreta and a threatening letter pushed through their letter box' (Luton News, 16.7.81).

My LYM membership card

The Luton Youth Movement March

"In Luton last Boxing Day [December 1980] the Mosque in Westbourne Road was attacked by a group of around 200 racists. Recently, car loads of young racist thugs have been intimidating school students at many of the local schools, there have been numerous other attacks in this area. People can no longer live their lives without the fear of racist abuse and intimidation" (Luton Youth Movement leaflet, May 1981)

On Saturday 16th May 1981 the Luton Youth Movement 'march against racist attacks' took place. About 50 people set off from Kingsway Park in Dunstable Road shortly after noon behind banners saying 'Luton Youth Movement' and 'Black and White Unite and Fight'. Other banners included Luton Socialist Workers Party and Anti-Nazi League.

More joined along the way, including when the march stopped at the Mosque. By the time the march finished with a rally by the Town Hall around  'numbers had swollen to 200, mostly Asian people’ (Herald) to hear speakers from Brixton and Southall as well as local people such as Akbar Khan from the Pakistani Welfare Association.

As the meeting was coming to an end it was charged by about 30 racist skinheads giving Nazi salutes and shouting Sieg Heil. The marchers counter charged and fist fights broke out before the police escorted the racists away. One LYM supporter was quoted in the Luton News as saying: "The word went round that the fascists were out. Other young people surged from the Arndale Centre to help us. There were a few moments when I thought it was going to explode like Brixton. If the police had drawn their truncheons I think it would have done".

"Fascist skinheads brought violence to Luton on Saturday when they attacked a multi-racial meeting outside the Town Hall". There is a very blurry image of me in that top photo! (Luton News 22 May 1981)

Less than an hour later, the same group were involved in a racist attack less than a mile away. An Asian woman and two children in Pomfret Avenue were 'surrounded by about 30 skinheads chanting racist and Nazi slogans' (Luton News). 

That evening there was further trouble at a punk gig at the Bunyan Centre in Bedford. Skinheads stormed the stage while Luton punk band UK Decay were playing. Lead singer Abbo later recalled:  'We'd only played a couple of songs and I remember being pushed off the stage by a bonehead after I said some anti racist comment in reply to their seig heiling/racism chants, and within a minute it seemed the venue was empty aside from the band , crew and heeps of skinheads , the fights seemed to go on forever until the police arrived , and then they got a hiding from the skinheads'. Seven skinheads were later jailed for this. Although Bedford is some miles from Luton, there were strong cross-county connections within different musical and political sub-cultures. It seems very likely that at least some of those involved in attacking the LYM rally were also present at the UK Decay gig. 

The following day a man received facial injuries when he was attacked by three men near Luton Town Football ground after he went to the aid of an Asian youth being beaten up, and there were further racist attacks in the following weeks. On June 13 a group of youths ran on to a cricket pitch and abused and attacked Pakistani players at the Blue Circle Cement Sports Ground, Houghton.  They shouted racist insults and made threats, mentioning the National Front (Luton News/Dunstable Gazette, 10.12.1981). A week later the Carnival Queen at the Marsh Farm Festival had a police guard after threatening racist telephone calls to organisers. Bijal Ruparelia, 16, of Indian-Kenyan descent, had to ride in a closed car rather than the usual open-top vehicle in the carnival procession because of threats that she would be stoned. The Carnival passed off without incident (Luton News, 25.6.1981).

All of this was leading up to the full scale riot that occurred in the town in July 1981 as part of the wave of urban uprisings that swept across the country, a riot that in Luton was sparked by the presence of racist skinheads once again in the town centre. That's a story I will return to in another post. 

Other Luton writings:

'Skinheads making Nazi salutes threatened anti-racist marchers' (Herald, 21 May 1981)

"Teenagers fight racism" (Evening Post, 18 May 1981)

Luton Leader, May 1981

Luton SWP leaflet from the demo. I was a member around this time, the local branch was youthful and combative and were always on the frontline whatever criticisms I was to have of their politics as I ran away with the anarchists later on! The leaflet refers to meetings at the International Centre in Old Bedford Road, a venue for a number of radical meetings in this period including the Luton Youth Movement and Irish solidarity events (the Irish Hunger strike was underway at this time, with Bobby Sands and Raymond McCreesh dying in the two weeks before the LYM march). The leaflet mentions an unemployed march due to come through Luton on 25th May 1981 - this was the People's March for Jobs which features briefly in the opening credits to 'Blinded by the Light'.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

'Seaside: Photographed' at Turner Contemporary in Margate

'Seaside: Photographed' at Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate is a fine exhibition that seeks to 'examine the relationship between photographers, photography and the British seaside from the 1850s to the present'.

One of the aspects I appreciated was the sense of continuity alongside change over time in popular coastal locations. Bill Brandt's 1935  'Brighton Belle  (I'm no angel)' - actually his Danish sister in law Esther Brandt- could just have easily walked out of the one of the 1990s Brighton raves featured elsewhere in the exhibition. Meanwhile Lee Miller photographs surrealist artist Eileen Agar at Brighton Pavilion and on the pier in the 1940s.

The photographs of English holiday camps, including Butlins, are very evocative though as a sometime holiday camper I  felt ambivalent about their display - was the artist/photographer engaged in celebration or condescension of working class life? 

My favourite section, entitled Undercurrents, explored the subcultural use of the seaside. The caption observes;  'The seaside offers romance and longing and the excitement of being part of a crowd. From the Mods of the 1960s gathering on the beaches of the south coast, to the young alternative travellers of the 1990s, time at the seaside was time out of the normal. The seaside is alive with sounds and visions, parades and costumes – nothing is quite as it seems. For many young people the beach and its environs is one of the few free spaces in a country where communal outdoor space is either disappearing or is rigidly monitored, and much of the rural landscape is privately owned. The use of out of season hotels and holiday camps by promoters of music, dance and fetish weekenders, provides large communal meeting places for those whose interests exists outside of the mainstream. Decayed resorts are seen as marginalised and tolerant, a little out of the real world'.

Featured work includes Vinca Petersen's image of a free party at Dungeness in 1993:

Enzo Ragazzini's documentation of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival:

... and Stuart Griffiths' pictures of  'illegal raves at Black Rock and Ovendean' near Brighton in 1994. Griffiths, then a young ex-paratrooper fresh from tours of Northern Ireland, 'became unofficial photographer for the Church of SubGenius' some of whose associates were involved in putting on the parties - you can see some 'Bob' posters on the wall: 

There was plenty more seaside life to be photographed in Margate at the weekend (3/4 August 2019), with music all over town for the town's carnival and the Margate Soul Festival and with the streets full of soul boys and girls of a certain vintage. At the Lighthouse Bar on the Harbour people were chilling in the afternoon sunshine to 'The Creator has a Masterplan' (Souljazz Orchestra version).  My photograph below not included in exhibition!

Exhibition closes 8 September 2019