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

Saturday, July 06, 2019

'Brutal police attack on disco women' - London Lesbian Conference Social 1981

'Brutal police attack on disco women'

by Michael Mason (Gay News [London], April 16-29, 1981)

'Lesbians attending the main social event of the second National Lesbian Conference in London on April 4 were shattered by scenes of violence unprecedented in the history of the recent British gay movement – even if not in the history of the women’s movement.

Eye witnesses told of “brutality I simply could not believe", of women thrown to the pavements and beaten, of others holding back fearfully, yet desperate to help their sisters.

The shocking events of that night began when a man and a woman started arguing across the square from the lesbian disco at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill. The man chased the woman, threatening her with attack. Outside the Tabernacle she held a broken bottle in front of her to fend him off. At this moment a police constable arrived on the scene – and made a grab for the woman while the man stood by grinning.

Two lesbians went to the women’s aid and almost simultaneously police reinforcements – summoned when and by whom remains a mystery – rounded the corner in a van. There was utter confusion as the police milled around women leaving the disco, and accounts from people in different parts of the crowd tell no clear story. But within moments the violence had begun.

One woman was held spread-eagled at waist height. Her T-shirt was rolled up her body to bare her torso and she was repeatedly struck in the stomach with a truncheon, report eyewitnesses. Other women were thrown to the pavement. Still others were slapped and punched. There were serious injuries inflicted, and at least one woman had to be taken straight to hospital by ambulance.

But the trouble did not in there. Some 20 women were arrested for obstruction and assault and taken to a Notting Hill police station. In cells, in charge rooms and in the public areas of the station there was even further abuse – both verbal and physical. One woman called forward to have her details taken was slapped in the face and pushed back into the wall behind her. Another, in great distress at the scenes, was taken to the cells where three officers are said to have attacked her. Police women offered as much violence as police men, said those who were released from the station at 4 am the following morning.

Only a partial list of injury was given to the conference the next day. One woman had a cracked spine, another a cracked rib. Cuts and extravagant bruising were commonplace.

Lawyers attending conference gathered statements from eyewitnesses in preparation for the prosecution to be brought and for official complaints which are to be laid against the police involved.

Women who travelled to London for the conference and must now stay for the court hearings badly need financial support for their unexpected delay. Conference launched the Lesbian Social Defence Fund and contributions are urgently needed. They should be sent to the fund c/o A Woman’s Place, 48 William IV Street, London WC2'.

Another account:

There's a brief account of this incident in this interview with Trisha McCabe at Gay Birmingham remembered:

'The first national lesbian conference was in London, in 1981 and I don't recall there being a second one. The women I went with were a real cross over between the revolutionary feminist group and the Women and Manual Trades group, some weren't part of our group but hung out with us because they were plumbers or carpenters and there was a link.

I can't remember anything about the conference itself, what it was for, the content, or what came out of it, but I do remember the excitement and the postcard which I thought was very cool. It had a black background with three lesbian symbols against a flash of fire. I sent one to my mother, her response was 'What will the postman think?', and my father was going 'I don't think you should worry about the postman'. I do remember there was a lot of aggro around it and the reaction of the police. For some reason the police were out a lot and a lot of different women got arrested and there was a real carry on. We must have been having some sort of protest, I remember running round on the streets, piling in when a copper tried to get someone out of the crowd, and making sure they didn't. One woman was put in a police car, and these other women went round and opened the other door and she just got out again, but ended up being arrested again and up in court the following morning, so we did a lot of hanging around in the police station. Another friend had this huge argument with the policeman and I dragged her off and nearly suffocated her, just holding her so she couldn't fight and get arrested. A couple of friends of mine got convictions, but I can't remember what they were doing'.

The photo below, which features in Anita Corbin's Visible Girls project, was taken in the Tabernacle, Notting Hill Gate, 1981 on the night of the National Lesbian Conference social:


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Summer Solstice 1999: Autonomous Astronauts on Parliament Hill

 June 1999 was arguably the high point of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts in its UK zone of operations. It was then that the AAA organised 'Space 1999: ten days that shook the Universe - a festival of independent and community-based space exploration', held in London from June 18 to June 27 of that year.

Space 1999 Programme: Front
(the programme was designed by AAA Glasgow Cabal/Datamedia Design)

The festival featured an ambitious range of events including among other things a conference, games of three sided football, an Extraterrestrial Cinema night, a 'military out of space' protest as part of the Reclaim the Streets J18 Carnival against Capital, and gigs including one with Nocturnal Emissions and a space pop night at famous LGBTQ+ venue the Vauxhall Tavern. This diversity reflected the exotic cocktail of ingredients informing the AAA project, including radical art/anti-art, left communism/situationists, post Temple ov Psychick Youth occulture, techno, science fiction and of course a desire to get into space.

Space 1999 Programme

The ten days also included the summer solstice for that year on June 21st, providing an opportunity for an AAA training event. The programme promised 'Solstice outdoor training for autonomous astronauts, featuring star navigation, low level gravity practice, dreamtime workshop and astral projection exercise'.  I wrote the following report of it in my guise as Neil Disconaut in the festival's daily newsletter:

'20+ intrepid travelers gathered at Hampstead Heath station for a magickal mystery tour that was to take them to Parliament Hill, outer space and back within three hours. The solstice training event, facilitated by Neil and Juleigh Disconaut, kicked off with some theoretical orientation using nursery rhymes to demonstrate that most of us have been in training to be astronauts since we floated semi-weightless in the womb. The full meaning of lines like “I saw an old woman flying high in a basket, 17 times as high as the moon"will only become apparent when we go into space.

Next stop was the children’s playground, locked for the night but swiftly reclaimed by the innovative use of  dustbins to scale the fence. Exercises included gravity awareness on the swings and disorientation on the roundabouts. The possible use of the seesaw to catapult people into space was also explored.

Imagination training was carried out under an Oak tree on the hill, dressed with candles, stars and other decorations. Nobody volunteered to climb to the top to see if this was actually the World Tree with its roots in the underworld and its branches touching the sky. A discussion of reclaiming our sense of our relationship to the stars, and of the significance of the solstice, was interrupted by some kids asking us for drugs. Asked for their suggestions of how to get into space, one of them came up with the idea of a tunnel leading from Earth to the moon.

Dreaming is the cheapest and easiest way to fly, and there was discussion of various techniques for inducing dreams about space, such as sigilization. Neil described his dream experiments from which he concluded that in our dreams as in the rest of our lives the social gravity of capitalism inhibits the flight of the imagination. While he had succeeded in having some dreams of flying, this had had to struggle against numerous dreams featuring work, school, the police and other horrors.

After some astral body aerobic exercises contributed by Phil [Hine], John Eden facilitated an astral projection exercise inviting people to float above the heath and out to the stars. There were some interesting experiences with one person reporting that the space she had visited was quite noisy with lots of birds sounds.

The night wound up with some eating and drinking and with people from the band “They came from the stars” playing on toy musical instruments'.


our outline notes for the event


The post festival report, which reprinted the above article and states 'a CIP catalogue record of this book is available on Hampstead Heath'.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ghost Town racism and resistance - The Specials play Coventry 1981

The Specials classic 'Ghost Town' single was released in June 1981. In the same month the band played an anti-racist gig in their home city of Coventry in a period of murderous racist attacks by far right-affiliated skinheads.


This report is from 'The Leveller' magazine, 26 June 1981, written by Chris Schüller with accompanying photos by Alastair Indge:

'The Precinct is a large modern shopping centre in the middle of Coventry, a warren of split level consumerism, fountains, pubs, car parks and lightbites. Last Saturday morning it was business as usual, thousands of shoppers, bored kids milling around, a number of skinheads. The only unusual things about it were the number of police on patrol in pairs and stationed in vans near every main entrance. And the fact that, for a city with an Asian population of 22,000, there are remarkably few to be seen.

Two months ago, Satnam Singh Gill, a student at Henley College, was beaten, kicked and stabbed to death by a group of skinheads in broad daylight within 50 yards of the Precinct. It wasn’t the first racist attack to take place in Coventry. Just two weeks earlier, 17 year old Susan Cheema was minding her father;s grocery shop when she was attacked about the face, arms and hands with a scythe, losing one of her fingers. But it was the worst so far, focusing attention on the growing racial violence in the city, and prompting local Asian groups to organise anti racist campaigns and set up self defence groups [...]

The day after Satnam Singh Gill died, a meeting was called by Asian and West Indian community leaders. Attended by over 400 people, it’s set up the Coventry Committee against Racism, a broad based organisation to which 37 community associations, temples and political groups are associated. They range from the Supreme Council of Sikhs through to the Communist Party to the Anglo-Asian Conservative Association. On May 23, they held a march to the city centre to protest at the death of Satnam Singh Gill. As the 10,000 strong procession reached Broadgate, a large group of ‘seig heiling’ skinheads began to hurl missiles and abuse from behind the police lines. As the young Asian marchers attempted to retaliate, some of them shouting, 'Brixton! Brixton!', 74 arrests were made. Many felt that the arrests were made far from impartially, and that the police had acted in defence of the right-wingers [...]

May 23 also provided the first concrete evidence that racist activity in Coventry was being coordinated by fascist organisations. Rumours had circulated before that the British Movement had moved some members into Coventry in January, that on May 9, four or five members of the BM and New National Front were seen in the city centre, but on May 23, hundreds of unorganised skinheads who had gathered to abuse and attack the marchers were met by Robert Relf and Leicester BM organiser Ray Hill [...]

Despairing of fair treatment and protection from the police, many members of the Asian community are organising their own defence. Harjinder Sehmi told me that his temple are providing judo and karate classes. 'We’re not out to revenge anything' he says, 'just out to defend ourselves'. Some of the more militant groups and individuals in the Coventry Committee against Racism have formed the Committee for Anti-racist Defence Squads under the umbrella of the larger organisation.


Meanwhile the attacks have intensified. On May 17, arson attempts took place at the Krishna temple and the Indian and Commonwealth Club. A woman of 50 was stabbed by skinheads while out shopping; a bus driver was attacked with a broken bottle, and another, who attempted to defend himself again skinheads was charged with actual bodily harm and with carrying an offensive weapon [...]  At the Coventry Carnival on May 13, the carnival queen, a West Indian, had to ride in a closed car because of stoning threats, and when a group of West Indian youths intervened to help an Asian boy who was being roughed up by skinheads, the police chased them off […]

Then on June 7, Dr Amal Dharry was stabbed in the heart by a 17-year-old skinhead as he left the chip shop in Earlsdon. He staggered to his car, where he locked himself in before collapsing. He died in hospital after 10 days on a life support machine. His attacker gave him self up immediately. He’d done it for a £15 bet that you wouldn’t “get a p*ki that night”.

It was against this background of racist violence that the Coventry-based two tone group The Specials decided to hold a festival for racial harmony in the Butts Stadium last Saturday. They asked other popular Coventry bands to perform for free – and put up the £13,000 it cost to put on the festival. The profits were to go to local anti racist groups [...]

On the day, barely 1000 people turned up. Perhaps they were scared away by rumours of trouble, perhaps they found the £3.50 entrance fee too expensive [...] Things livened up when The Specials came on. They seemed to turn the tension and frustration and disappointment into musical energy, and the small passive crowd suddenly became a big, excited one, and the songs never sounded so urgent, so relevant. But perhaps the high point of the whole set was a guest appearance by Rhoda Dakar who used to be with the Bodysnatchers. 'This is a song about another kind of violence, sexual violence'. It was called The Boiler and was about rape'.

[Hazel O'Connor also played at the festival. A few weeks later riots swept the country - see previous posts on the 1981 Summer Uprisings]





Saturday, February 16, 2019

Youth Strike 4 Climate in London

I jogged along to cheer on the Youth Strike 4 Climate in  central London yesterday. Great to see thousands of school students seemingly wandering in groups all round the area holding up the traffic on Westminster Bridge, Whitehall etc. There was a tangible wave of noise and energy sweeping across the area. It felt like one of those once in a generation moments when people come out on the streets and experience for the first time the sweet taste of collective agency and possibility... that feeling can have life changing effects for many years to come.


In the UK  mass protests on a school day are rare and generally signal a historical moment, like the anti-war school strikes of 2003 and the student/anti-austerity protests of 2010.  The fact that this Friday's school strike in 60 UK towns and cities is part of an international movement makes it all the more significant in this period of resurgent nationalism.  None of the big issues facing us can be solved in one country, even by left wing national governments, so globalisation from below is the only way to go.  















Tuesday, January 22, 2019

New Wave Rave 1977

As documented here before, the words ‘rave’ and ‘ravers’ seem to date back to the post-WW2 UK jazz scene and were widely used through to the late 1960s underground before seemingly largely falling out of use until the acid house era. But here’s a rare example from the punk period- an advert for a 1977 series of gigs in the West Country by Chelsea and The Cortinas (both on Step Forward records) with the strapline ‘New Wave Rave’. A ‘New Wave Disco’ is also promised.




In recent years the name ‘New Wave Rave’ has been used for various punk/indie club nights (a quick search throws up nights in Sydney and Berlin, among others). But I’m not aware of other examples of the use of the word ‘rave’ in the high punk period (1976-78). 

The poster features in the excellent ‘Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80’ book by Toby Mott and Rick Poynor. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How it all began (for me): a School Kid against the Nazis in Luton 1979/80


Going on a recent march against the far right in central London got me thinking about my earliest forays into anti-fascism when I was at school...

In 1979 I was 16, in my last year at school in Luton and getting into radical politics off the back of a couple of years listening to punk. I was voraciously reading anything relevant I could get my hands on from local libraries and bookshops, which included that year Martin Walker's The National Front (dedicated to 'anti-fascists everywhere'), George Woodcock's The Anarchist Reader anthology and Gordon Carr's The Angry Brigade. The latter introduced me to the Situationists and I tried unsuccessfully to get Luton Central Library to find a copy of The Society of the Spectacle. The actual radicals on the ground in Luton were a bit more mundane than my fantasy 1968 utopians, basically the Communist Party, the Labour Party Young Socialists (including 'Militant') and the Socialist Workers Party selling papers in the town centre next to Don Miller's bakers.  

The Clash were my favourite band, and I'd read all about the great Rock Against Racism carnivals of 1977/78 (in fact I wrote off to Rock Against Racism to enquire about getting involved). In the lead up to the  May 1979 General election, conflict between the far right National Front and its opponents increased in intensity. There were riotous clashes in Leicester and on the 23rd April 1979 socialist teacher Blair Peach was killed by the police in Southall while taking part in protests against an NF meeting in that predominately Asian area of West London.

The election, infamously won by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives, nudged me towards participating in politics rather than just reading about it. I went to see Tony Benn speak in Luton town centre (29/4/1979), but I still hadn't been on an actual protest. All that changed in June 1979.

Luton Anti Nazi League leaflet, June 1979 - 'your Council allows the Nazi and Racist organization the National Front to use your library. We, the people of Luton, have joined together to oppose this... support racial harmony, oppose fascism'


 Someone I bought a paper off must have told me that the National Front were holding regular meetings at Luton Library with Anti-Nazi League pickets opposing them on the second Friday of every month. The NF had had a presence in the town for some time. In February 1977, NF Chairman John Tyndall was greeted with eggs and chants of  'nazi scum' when he arrived to speak at a meeting in Luton Town Hall (Luton News 10.2.77). The NF stood candidates in both Luton constituencies in the 1979 general election, with Donald How securing 701 votes in Luton West and MG Kerry 461 votes in Luton East.

I approached my first protest on Friday 6th June 1979 nervously and excitedly expecting some kind of Leicester/Southall confrontation, if on a smaller scale. In the event it was all rather tame. There were about twenty of us picketing and a handful of suspected NFers sneaking in and out under the eye of a small number of police, a pattern that was repeated on subsequent similar protests over the summer. 

The very next day though a group of us from Luton travelled up to Bedford town where a group of racist skinheads had been making a nuisance of themselves. As we gave out our leaflets in the name of 'People of Bedfordshire Against Racism' there was a a brief stand off with far right skins and anti-fascists squaring up to each other before the former moved off. Afterwards we went for a drink at a local gay pub, another first for me.

'People of Bedfordshire Against Racism - Day of Action, Sat 7th June... your support in the fight agaisn racism is needed'
(reverse of Luton Anti Nazi League leaflet reproduced above)

I heard a first account of the Southall events soon after, when I went to a Luton Anti Nazi League meeting with Balwinder Singh from Southall ANL. There were also speakers from Luton Trades Council (Jim Thakoordin) and the Pakistani Workers Association, and a collection for the Southall Defence Fund.


Leaflet for Luton Anti Nazi League meeting, 14 July 1979 'Learn the lessons of Southall'
I went to this meeting with a friend, David Heffer. Sadly he was killed in 1992 in an IRA bomb at the Sussex pub in London's Covent Garden.
 On my last day at school at the start of that summer I wrote in my diary 'bought a School Kids Against the Nazis badge, filled in a form to join the Labour Party Young Socialists, left school' (OK last day in school was a bit late to buy a school kids badge, but I did go on to Sixth Form College!).


'SKAN' - School Kids Against the Nazis

It was another year before I went on my first major anti-fascist demo. In November 1980, the neo-nazi British Movement marched from London's Hyde Park to Edgware Road chanting 'We are the Whites' and 'Death to the Reds'. According to this report in The Leveller magazine, there were around 600 BM 'opposed by between 4 and 5,000 anti-fascists' who marched from Portobello Road in Notting Hill. 2,500 police were also mobilised and my main memory is of endless rumours about the whereabouts of the British Movement and never actually seeing any fascists, though the Leveller reports that there were 73 arrests and some scuffles. Afterwards a Luton comrade, who was Jewish, took me to a Jewish Socialist Group meeting at a flat in north London.

So no great heroics, no Cable street or Lewisham-style battles... but maybe that was a good lesson. If you're in it for the long haul, you sure need to learn patience and low key local organising. On the counter-demo to the Tommy Robinson/UKIP 'Brexit Betrayal' march (December 2018). I actually saw somebody else who was there on that first protest of mine in 1979. Of course it's more than annoying that the leading figure on the contemporary British far right also comes from Luton. But hey, Tommy Robinson doesn't represent us (as recently pointed out by Ash Sarkar he doesn't even represent 52% of mortgage fraudsters). We have Nadiya Hussain, Stacey Dooley and the mighty Luton Town FC, we certainly don't need him.


[I didn't stay in the Labour Party Young Socialists for much longer - that's another story - but nearly 40 years later I've been on quite a few more demos! The following year  (1981) things hotted up further in Luton with the formation of an anti-racist Luton Youth Movement and a riot sparked by the presence of nazi skinheads in the town centre. I will come back to that another time].
from 'The Leveller' no. 45, November 28 1980.







Thursday, November 22, 2018

Walking in the swarm of stars

I've long been interested in dreams and visions of flight and space, something I experimented with a bit during the fantastic voyage of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts.

‘Nan Domi’, Mimerose P. Beaubrun’s deeply personal account of her ‘inititiate’s journey into Haitian Vodou’, is much concerned with  visions, dreams and the means  for moving between visible and invisible worlds. The title itself refers to what the author describes as ‘the  second level of attention... a state that permits one to see abstract things unknown until then. A lucid dream state’.


Her mentor teaches her that she has three bodies- the physical body (kadav ko) supplemented by a ‘double’, the nannan - ‘our mystery side... that is conscious of the two states- the state of being awake, and the dreaming state’ - which ‘in Nan Domi... is enveloped in light and becomes light-  the nannan-rev’. Her ‘Aunt’leads her on a visionary journey into space, ‘walking in the swarm of stars’.

Opening with the words ‘Ann ay monte Anwo. N apray palmannaze nan Lapousiye’ (‘Lets ascend towards ecstasy. We are going to walk in the Milky Way’), her singing and the sound of the tchatcha rattle help Mimerose to ‘drift into somnolence’and then become ‘conscious of walking in a place where everything was coloured mauve... At intervals, an abyss opened and then fell away. A prolonged movement like the swell of big waves broke into foam the colour of yellow saffron. The scenes before me came and went, fast and fascinating. I plunged into them as one plunges into the sea. The waves rocked me, and suddenly I saw myself as a baby. I watched my own birth’.

The author is lead singer and founding member of the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyan.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

'Sound of police truncheon against body': David Peace's miners strike soundscape

I've written here before about music and the 1984/85 miners strike, including putting together a mix which you can find on mixcloud. But the day to day soundscape of the strike, and particulalry its picket line battles, was less about the bands playing benefit gigs  than the sounds of crowds (including some songs and chants) and sounds of the police with their vehicles, horses and riot shields.


One of the things I like about 'GB84', David Peace's fictionalised ‘occult history’ of the strike, is his description of this. He writes of  'The noise of the battle... The shouts. The sirens' and of the 'Noise of it all. Boots and Stones. Flesh and bones... They beat them shields like they beat us... I heard them again - Them hooves, them boots'.


In his visceral, multi-sensory account the author invites the reader to recall or imagine the  'sound of body against Perspex shield', 'sound of rock hitting Perspex shield' and 'sound of police truncheon against body'.


These sounds are integral to the emotional landscape of the strike which Peace also conveys very well - anger, jubilation, pain, hope, powerlessness, despair, pride...


Peace himself grew up in Ossett in what was then the West Yorkshire coalfied, and as a 17 year old at the time of the strike played miners benefits gigs with his band.





Thursday, November 08, 2018

Haircut Sir? - Flat Top Days in Brixton

Sad to hear recently of the death of  barber Andy Haralambous (1/06/1944 - 09/10/2018). For ten years from the late 1980s, Andy cut my hair regularly at his barber's shop at the bottom of Tulse Hill, Haircut Sir? In fact he cut my hair very regularly, as it was short and in need of constant attention. Andy was famous for his flat top haircuts at a time when this was the coolest hair style in town.




I'd had my first a few years earlier at Cyril's in Canterbury, where I was a student. That first time, around my 20th birthday, I didn't even know what it was called, I had to point at some passing rockabilly rebel and say 'like that'!  Not long after I started going to regular Thursday night sessions put on by Whitstable rockabilly band The Keytones at The Tankertons Arms there (this would have been 1983/84). I gravitated towards punkier hair styles for a while, including a short lived mohican, but within a few years I felt the call of the full flat top again.

In the 1980s, the flat top and variations of it were not confined to 1950s revivalists. There was the whole psychobilly scene wtih gothish elements and various post-punk short back and side merchants from Kirk Brandon to Morrissey. There was a black hip hop version, and let's not forget Grace Jones. In the pre-rave warehouse party/rare groove scene, there were flat tops aplenty and it was the haircut du jour of young gay London (including many lesbians as well as gay men).

When I moved to Tulse Hill Estate in Brixton in early 1987, I needed to keep my flat top sharp to go with my black Levi 501s and DMs for nights out at The Fridge and elsewhere. Andy was the local barber. But he was well known beyond the local area for his flat top skills - I remember him being mentioned in either Time Out or The Face, or possibly both, as doing one of the best flat tops in London.  People came from far and wide. Like many London barbers, Andy was from Cyprus, like most barbers from wherever he enjoyed regaling his captive seated audience with his views on the state of the world!

Some Haircut Sir handiwork


In the ecstasy fuelled 1990s long hair made a come back, but there was no going back for me. There might have been some colouring added at times, but it's short back and sides for life (well for as long as I have hair) even if I now have a not-so stark number 3 at the sides. I moved to New Cross in '96 and my regular trips to Andy's faded out. Nowadays I head to KRS Barber Station in Brockley where the clippers are wielded by barbers from the Turkish side of Cyprus. But Haircut Sir? is still going strong in SW2, where Andy passed on the business to his children.

So long Andy and thanks for the haircuts.

update: thanks to Andrew Brooks on Twitter for reminding me of Andy's standard introduction when somebody entered the shop - 'Cup of tea? Kettle’s there. Help yourself'. Of course if you did make one the etiquette was to offer one to Andy and anybody else queuing.

Andy in action (photo from Haircut Sir? facebook page)




Friday, August 31, 2018

July Days in London: Trump as Tyrant Monster and our opposition

I've been thinking again about the Trump phenomenon. As many have pointed out, plenty of other US  Presidents have presided over racist penal systems, nationalist sabre rattling and domination by corporations. Why is Trump any worse? Well partly because he represents an attempt to turn the clock back on some of the limited social progress that has been made in the past 50 years, in the process unleashing overt racism and legitimising the extreme right at home and abroad. But he also prompts  fear because of his very unpredictability  - he is not simply a smooth front man for capitalist business as usual, but someone who creates an impression that his personal power comes before everything, and that therefore nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. There is something almost archetypal here - he is like the 'tyrant monster' described by Joseph Campbell in 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' (1949):

'The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares, of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of "my and mine." The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain... The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world—no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world's messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then- more miserably—within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land'.

Yes I know that Campbell's work is problematic in many ways, but there's something to think about in this descrition of a type even if we have to be our own collective redeeming hero rather than waiting for a knight in shining armour to save us... And on the subject of our collective potential, here some pictures from last month's protests in London.
Donald Trump's visit saw one of the largest week day demonstrations in living memory on Friday 13th July 2018. In fact there were two major demos over the course of the day, the second and largest featuring as many as 250,000 people marching to Trafalgar Square.

The statue of liberty in Trafalgar Square:



Women dressed as characters from the Handmaid’s Tale with a sign declaring ‘Gilead steals our babies too’ alluding to the caging of children of migrants caught crossing the Mexican border:


Sound systems:







'we are all migrants'




'Latin American Migrants United Against Trump'



'Latin X Bloc - anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, feminist'



Frida Kahlo says 'Trump, get your nasty little hands off my people'



one of many marching bands






'Trumpets against Trump'









Harry Potter bloc? - Trump as dementor with the words ‘Expecto Patronum’ – the magic charm used by Potter against the dark forces of Voldemort (note Dumledore quote on placard too)
The next day a far right 'welcome Trump to London' march from the US Embassy attracted an embarrassing turn out of less than 200. But it was followed by a Free Tommy Robinson demo in central London that included activists from the UK Independence Party, PEGIDA (Germany), Breitbart, Generation Identity, the Swedish Democrats (SD) and France’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National), among many others. Figures associated with Trump such as his former strategist Steve Bannon have supported Robinson (former leader of the English Defence League), indicating a dangerous convergence between elements close to the White House and the previously marginal global far right.

The master race drinking at The Lord Moon of the Mall (Wetherspoons pub) on Whitehalll
In size, this was a smaller protest than the Free Tommy demo in London a month before which ended in clashes with police (maybe 5000 compared with 15,000). The counter demo was also more effective, including an Anti Fascist Network mobilisation (perhaps 3000 anti-fascists out on the day after the 250,000 anti-Trump protest - compared with a few hundred the month before). Still nothing to be complacent about, even if the immediate UK far right grievance has now been resolved with Robinson being released from prison. Globally the far right have been emboldened by Trump's success and believe that history is swinging their way. Last time some of their Tyrant Monsters achieved power it did not end well.




'We are all anti-fascist' - at Jubilee Gardens on South Bank from where marchers moved to Whitehall.




'Defend London: defeat the fascist creep'



'Blake Bloc - Opposition is true friendship' - great William Blake inspired banner on anti-fascist demo