Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Dancing London (1902): 'riotous hilarity' and 'rhythmic revolution'

'Living London: its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes,' edited by George Robert Sims, is a remarkable attempt to give an overview of London life at the turn of the 20th century (it was first published in 1901). All the volumes can be browsed on, and provide a great resource for historians of this period.

There are a number of chapters dealing with London nightlife. One on 'Midnight London' (in this volume) by Beckles Wilson concludes:

'Such, then, is Midnight London. In all the world's capitals is dissipation found under the name of pleasure; Britain's Metropolis is no exception. The gaudy and glittering throngs swarm over the pavements; and to the midnight sightseer there is a novelty in the spectacle of brilliant toilettes and ravishing complexions now visible at the tables of the brilliantly-lighted salons, which are crowded to the doors by Pleasure's laughing votaries. To such as these mid-day London has no attractions — is dull, tame, stupid. It is not until the mighty electric flare which distinguishes modern London bursts upon the city that they feel, with Edgar Allan Poe, that " the sun mars the ecstasy of the soul "; their pulse beats quicker by gas-light, if they do not hold that "Life is diviner in the dark." London in the twentieth century, however, is never dark, and the interval seems to be growing shorter and shorter  when it is ever quiet'.

The chapter on Dancing London by C. O'Conor Eccles (in this volume) surveys social dancing from
Mayfair Balls to poor children dancing in the streets. There are Highland Gatherings, Irish dances organised by the Gaelic League and a fancy dress ball at the German Gymnasium in Pancras Road. Here's a few extracts:

'When gaslights twinkle like stars, and  arc lamps shine out like moons, Dancing London bestirs itself. Dancing London!  What a vision the words call up of life, of movement, of riotous hilarity. Dancing London, of course, is young; is largely, though not exclusively, female; and is of all classes, from the fashionable debutante revolving to the strains of the Blue Hungarian Band to the coster girl footing it merrily on the pavement to the mechanical beat of a piano-organ. Men in general share in the amusement with less enthusiasm — under protest, as it were, and as a concession to the wishes of their womenkind — though amongst them devotees of the dance are to be found...

Dancing, as already indicated, is by no means confined to one class, or any degree of wealth. Indeed, it is generally found that the less this enjoyment costs the more heart-whole and satisfying it is. Quite as much pleasure can be purchased by a modest expenditure as by the most extravagant outlay. If we desire to see dancing less hampered by financial considerations than that hitherto noted, let us take a bird's eye view of Holborn Town Hall any evening, during the winter months, when the popular Cinderella dances are in progress. Despite a good floor and good music the price of admission is low. The entertainment of the season is the fancy dress ball, to which men are expected to come in cycling, boating, or other costume associated with some athletic sport, while the girls wear any pretty, light dresses at their disposal. Conventional evening garb alone is conspicuous by its absence...

English girls are exceedingly fond of dancing as a recreation. If anyone doubts it, let him visit the girls' clubs in Stepney, or Hoxton, or the Mile End Road. After a long day's labour in a mineral water factory (whose employees are sometimes distinguishable by their bound-up hands, or faces scarred by bursting bottles), in a match factory, a jam factory, or a tailor's shop, they will start to their feet at the first sound of the piano, and circle with an activity fairly surprising. They dance with each other, and seem to desire no other partners. Typical East-Enders are these lasses, with a shock of dark hair combed forward and forming an arch from ear to ear. Their dresses are bright blue or purple for choice, but often the original colour is only to be guessed at... 

...there  are penny dances in rooms at the back of public-houses, where the coster and his "pals" male and female disport themselves. There are also dances " free, gratis, and for nothing," when weather permits, in any asphalted side street with a convenient public-house at the corner where refreshment may be obtained in the pauses. The girls are the first to start. Their "young men" lounge around and guffaw until they are pulled or pushed into the circle and compelled to take their share, which they do after a fashion more uncouth than the girls, some of whom waltz admirably. A Bank Holiday on Hampstead Heath affords, too, an excellent view of this side of Dancing London. Here many such groups may be seen, groups beguiled from the fascinations of "kiss in the ring" by the superior charms of rhythmic revolution. And thus goes it through all classes, from lords and ladies to costers and their "donahs".'

Sunday, June 10, 2018

London 1968 at Tate Britain

There's an interesting free display at Tate Britain gallery of material from radical movements and associated artists from London in 1968. It includes film and press cuttings from the Hornsey art school and London School of Economics occupations and a selection of posters produced by the Poster Workshop in Camden.

King Mob 'General Ludd' poster printed at Poster Workshop

Posters from the London School of Economics occupation printed at Poster Workshop -
'we are all foreign scum' - this was a response to a 1968 speech in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Tom Iremonger who declared that 'The British people are fed up with being trampled underfoot by foreign scum' (the context was the supposed involvement of 'foreign' 'agitators' in anti-Vietnam war protests)
Also included are some materials from English situationist influenced group King Mob which were very critical of the mainstream student left. 

London 1968 is on until 31 October 1968 

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Reclaim the Streets Brixton Party, June 1998

Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the Reclaim the Streets event on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the main road without the permission of the police, Council or anybody else.

Reclaim the Streets brought together the politics of the road protest movement with the sounds and energy of the free party scene to stage a series of  spectacular actions from the mid-1990s onwards, basically involving a crowd of people turning up, blocking the road and occupying it for a party. It started out in May 1995 with a party in Camden High Street and another north London party in  Islington's Upper Street in July 1995 (I remember dancing to a sound system mounted in an armoured car there, which I think belonged to Jimmy Cauty of KLF). The idea soon spread around the country and indeed internationally.

In one of the biggest actions, 6,000 people took over part of the M41 Motorway in West London in July 1996 with sofas and sound systems, and this was followed by a party in Trafalgar Square in April 1997. By this time the focus of RTS had widened out from roads to posing bigger questions about the use of social space and linking up with other movements - the Trafalgar Square action came at the end of a march with sacked Liverpool dockers.

The challenge for 1998 was how to keep one step ahead of the police now that the basic tactic was well known. There was also some dissatisfaction amongst RTS activists about simply continuing with parties that erupted suddenly but disappeared just as quickly leaving little behind except memories and a sense of the possibility of a different way of life.

The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned. Whether the parties succeeded in linking with that elusive notion of 'local communities' is debateable, but they did involve a broader strata of local activists with knowledge of their patch and connections to the kind of resources needed to make the parties happen.

The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now North Lambeth Housing Office, 91 Kennington Lane SE11 -pictured above). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was supposed to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about all the details becoming widely known.

'calling all Systems; pedestrians, cyclists, Road Ravers and road ragers, workers and shirkers, dreamers and schemeers, unhappy shoppers, happy shoplifters, kids, crusties, punks and prophets, the young at heart. Let's take back our streets'

The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.

This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manoeuvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed past the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.

'Roadblock- street party brings Brixton to a standstill' (South London Press report, June 2018)

As we had our small children with us, we ducked into a Brixton market cafe for a bit figuring that if there was going to be trouble it would be in this period of getting set up. There was no trouble though, and we now know that the police must have known all along that the party was due to take place in Brixton, as one of the key organisers was an undercover cop, Jim Sutton (real name Jim Boyling). In fact he had been part of the group which had selected the location. I remember he asked if I could drive one of the vehicles for the fake collision - I guess you could call that potential entrapment though I declined as my priority on the day was to keep my kids safe.

Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds.

dancing on a Brixton bus stop
People danced to a sound system set up in a van at the junction of Acre Lane. Down by the tube station there were two more sound systems, one playing ragga and the other, a cycle-powered effort, spluttering out techno. A live music PA was set up in the road outside Morley’s store. Over the next few hours it featured an all-women punk covers band (a highlight for me was ‘Teenage Kicks’), Steve Prole, Headjam, Painful and various others. On the other side of the road there was a big acoustic jam, with drums etc. There was lots of random activity, including juggling and people playing chess on the road.

A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. As Past Tense recalls, police officer Jim Sutton/Boyling had pulled the trolley of sandbags to the party from where they had been stored earlier in the week in a local squat. My partner was working as a childminder at the time, so she pulled together lots of arts and crafts materials from the South London Children's Scrap Scheme, a recycling project based in Consort Road SE15 (it closed down later that year, after which it was squatted as the Spike). We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats, and some gold fabric which was used for costumes. We hung up children's art work from washing line strung between lamp posts. There was a paddling pool,  and children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles - I remember seeing Jerry Dammers (ex-The Specials) round there.

We gave out free Portuguese pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common also gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party). More free food was distributed by Food Not Bombs. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road, after an earlier meet up at Euston Station.

The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.

The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only five arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…

'Techno blips and booming bass rocked the van carrying the system while people danced all over the area. Before long a veggie burger stall had been set up opposite a banner proclaiming the South London Clitoral Liberation Front. Traffic lights that had temporarily lost their purpose soon became pretty useful as party podiums, one of which became the throne for a naked reveller wearing only a pair of red pants on his head' (report in DJ magazine, June 21 1998)


RTS Press release:

'Two streets in London were reclaimed for parties and the people shortly before two o'clock today. By mid-afternoon the crowd near Seven Sisters station had grown to over 5000 people and a similar number partied in Brixton. The parties finished at about 9pm. At the time of writing (10:30 pm) about 300 people remained outside Brixton Town Hall, listening to two groups of drummers in the almost-Mediterranean promenade atmosphere of a warm summer evening. Police continued to appear relaxed, and this time avoided the mistake of sealing off people's exit routes.

In North London, someone set fire to two old cars after the end of the party. RTS would point out that these were our cars, obtained to block the road, and that some of the most "aggressive" acts of which we are aware during the day were the enthusiastic reduction of these same cars to scrap, by a group of five- and six-year-olds.

As the smell of exhaust returned to the streets of Brixton, a participant commented "The whole of Brixton has been here with a real sense of community." Let this be a premonition of a time when the present conditions of our lives will be no more than a memory'.

RTS South London Street Party stickers
Leaflets produced for distribution in the Brixton party - I had a hand in writing and designing both of these, which were printed at the 121 Centre in Railton Road SE24. One leaflet focused on the impact of traffic on children:

'Reclaim the streets for children

The streets used to be a place where children could run around, play and hang out with their friends. Today children are taught that the streets are dangerous and that they should keep off them. More and more children are being brought up like battery chickens - living most of their lives indoors, except when they are being driven around in their parent's car between home, school, the supermarket and short bursts of supervised play.

The biggest problem is that the streets are dominated by cars. In the UK, the number of vehicles on the road has increased from 8 million in 1960 to 24 million and rising today. When a fast moving lump of metal hits a child's body there's no contest. In the last 20 years, 200,000 children have been killed or seriously injured by cars, two-thirds of them while walking or cycling. Instead of removing this danger from our children, we remove our children from the danger - by keeping them at home.

Cars are choking children

South London suffers the worst pollution in the UK, and it is having a major impact on children's health. Vehicle pollutants like nitrogen dioxide can trigger asthma attacks and other breathing problems, while others can cause cancer and heart problems. Noise-related stress builds up for the thousands of children living next to busy roads. Driving children everywhere is no protection - pollution levels are often higher inside cars, and of course there is still the risk of a crash.

Faced with this dictatorship of the car, it is not surprising that parents and carers want to keep their children at home. This in turn can create other problems with children's physical, social and emotional development. Many children get less exercise than they need, because they rarely walk or cycle very far. They are also denied the chance to learn to do things for themselves by mixing with other children without being constantly watched over by adults.

Curfews for children

As the streets empty of children, and increasingly of adults too, they become seen as an alien and threatening place. Fears of crime and of strangers become exaggerated out of all proportion. Where children do continue to hang out on the streets they are portrayed as a problem. In some places, police have already enforced curfews for children, giving them the power to drive kids off the streets even if they aren't doing anything illegal. New Labour's Crime and Disorder Bill will extend this power to police across the country.

Reclaim the streets

If we want to break this cycle we've got to start reclaiming the streets. Reclaim the Streets parties are about taking a piece of car-infested tarmac and turning it into a free space where we can dance, play and for once live and breathe easily. They show what life could be like if people had control over our streets and over our lives. Come along to the South London party on June 6th 1998 - bring your kids, your friends, your friends' kids... There will be a children's play space as well as sound systems and live music'.

The second piece of RTS South London 'agitprop' was a folded A4 sheet called 'South London Stress South London Street Party Special'. It included a list of contacts of  an eclectic mix of groups active locally including the Crystal Palace Ecovillage (a protest camp against plans to build in Crystal Palace park), Critical Mass and South London Anti Fascist Action.  The front page text read:

'Reclaim the Streets

Today Reclaim the Streets are planning to turn part of South London into a free festival zone for the day. Most non-residential streets in South London are dominated by bumper to bumper traffic with nothing much to do except shop. RTS parties are about creating our own space where we can dance, play, eat and drink - all without any money changing hands.

Space and time in South London

So much South London space is covered in tarmac, covered in cars. It’s no surprise that we suffer from the worst pollution in the UK. The building of new roads has slowed down, with the plan to destroy Oxleas Wood in south-east London abandoned because of the threat of mass resistance. Now is the time to start taking back some of the space already lost to roads.

But roads aren’t the only problem. Green space is also being enclosed to build supermarkets or, like at Crystal Place, corporate leisure centres. Meanwhile urban space is increasingly controlled, with our every move watched by CCTV cameras.

Out time too is being taken away from us more and more, as people are made to work longer hours and the unemployed are forced to take low paid jobs by New Labour’s New Deal.

Reclaim the World

A party in the road is not going to change all this on its own, but it does give us a glimpse of a different way of life. By linking up with other communities of resistance across the world we can begin to reclaim more of our space and time from a system that sucks life out of human beings and the planet for the financial benefit of a tiny minority.

Since the first RTS party in Camden in 1995 the idea has spread throughout the country and internationally. A few weeks ago (May 19th) simultaneous street parties were held across the world. In Birmingham where world leaders met up for the G8 summit, 10,000 people took over the city centre for an RTS party and protest. Roads were blocked everywhere from Toronto (Canada) to Tel Aviv (Israel), Stockholm (Sweden) to Sydney (Australia). Our time is now'.

The leaflet also included a South London radical history map, with episodes featured included the 1897 protests against the enclosure of One Tree Hill, anti-fascist protests in Bermondsey (1937), Lewisham (1977), Wellling (1993), the Peasants Revolt and the death in 1896 of Bridget Driscoll at Crystal Palace - believed to be the first pedestrian in the world to be killed by a car.

Benefit gig

The week before the party there was an RTS benefit gig at the 121 Centre with Headjam, Headache and Painful.

At the time I was part of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts and at the gig I set up my interactive space music experiment 'Sonic Soup' described below. At the street party I also put up a cardboard rocket labelled 'reclaim space':

'Reclaim the Streets, Reclaim the Stars

Autonomous Astronauts were strongly represented at the South London Reclaim the Streets party on June 6th. Following simultaneous staged car crashes at both ends of Brixton high street hundreds of people poured into the road for a day long free party with sound systems, a sand pit and much more. Disconaut AAA attached a rocket to a lamp post bearing the slogans "Reclaim Space" and "we don't need cars 'cos we've learnt to fly', the latter a line from Stevie Wonder's space utopian song 'Saturn'. One person was arrested for breathing fire too close to the police lines, illustrating the problems autonomous astronauts may face handling rocket fuels in public.

The week before the street party there was a benefit gig for it at the 121 Centre in Brixton at which Disconaut AAA set up 'Sonic Soup'. This involves a Wasp analog synth and a fostex 4-track, with each of the four tracks including a haphazardly assembled sequence of beats, loops and mutated samples from diverse sources. The 4 tracks were assembled independently so that any juxtaposition of sounds from two or more tracks is more or less accidental. The aim of Sonci Soup is to explore some of the range of possibilities offered by music in space, randomly combining sound sources from different parts of the universe, slowed down, speeded up and twisted around by variable gravity fields. In anticipation of the free collective practice made possible in autonomous communities in space, passing voyagers are encouraged to push buttons and turn switches to help mix the ingredients in the soup.

On this occasion the crowd at this mainly punk gig were mostly reluctant to join in, even when the equipment was put on the floor in the middle of them (this contrasted with the more open-minded revellers at the "I didn't do nuthin" party in the same venue last year). Nevertheless some of the less technophobic did step boldly forward, and there were the usual interesting sound clashes. These included Judy Garland singing "Fly me to the moon" over an Alex Empire backing track, a Todd Terry remix of a Yuri Gagarin speech (fading into Hawkwind chanting "space is deep it is so endless") and William Burroughs talking about "future travellers who are ready to leave the whole human context behind" over Deadly Buddha vs Sun Ra "Strange Celestial Road".

Parts of Sonic Soup were also used recently in a AAA radio programme put together by Inner City AAA on London Musicians' Collective temporary radio station' (from Everybody is a Star! no. 3, Summer 1998, newsletter of Disconaut AAA).

See also:

Past Tense post - as well as an earlier version of my text above, this includes more reflections on the role of Jim Sutton

Brixton Buzz post - lots more photos, including this one of the sandpit:

Reclaim the Streets original report from 1998

More memories and photos at Urban75

[post published on 20th anniversary of the party]