Friday, December 04, 2020

Everybody is a Star! - Disconaut Association of Autonomous Astronauts (numbers one and two)

Once upon a time I was Neil Disconaut, with my partner Juleigh Disconaut we constituted the Disconaut node of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (1995-2000). The premise of the AAA was a global network committed to the state and corporate monopoly of space through the development of community-based space exploration programmes. Activities included music (raves in space), three sided football, talks, writing, protests and some actual engagement with space researchers. There were groups in England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Holland, Austria, Canada, USA, New Zealand among other places, each with their own particular interests. Within this network, Disconaut AAA focused on dance music as a vehicle for space exploration. 

Everybody is a Star! was the newsletter of Disconaut AAA, of which four photocopied issues were produced between 1996 and 1999. Here's issues One and Two.

Everybody is a Star! Number One, Winter 1996/97

Disconauts are go! 

Forget Apollo, NASA and the Space Shuttle... the most exciting explorations of space in the last 30 years have been carried out through music.

Emerging on the radical fringes of jazz in the 1950s, Sun Ra (1914-1993) and his Intergalactic Research Arkestra  (as his band was later known) set the space vibe in motion with interstellar explorations like “Space Jazz Reverie”, “Love in Outer Space”,  “Disco 3000" and the film “Space is the place” .

Described by one critic as a “comic strip version of Sun Ra”, George Clinton developed his own funky cosmic Afronaut mythology in the 1970s through his work with Funkadelic and Parliament. For instance the album “Mothership Connection” (1975) is based around the concept of aliens visiting earth to take the funk back to their own planet.

Sun Ra and Clinton’s work can be read as a sort of sci-fi take on Marcus Garvey. While Garvey dreamt of Black Star Liners shipping black people from slavery across the ocean to an African utopia, they leave the planet behind altogether.

Space continued to be a preoccupation during the 1970s disco boom. Derided by rock critics for its lack of serious content, disco had a distinct utopian element. In disco, the intensity of pleasure on the dancefloor was reimagined as an ideal for living rather than just a Saturday night release.  The implicit fantasy was of a “Boogie Wonderland” where music, dancing and sex were organising principles, rather than work and the economy. “Lost in music, feel so alive, I quit my nine to five” as Sister Sledge put it.

In the unpromising social climate of the 1970s, this wonderland was sometimes projected into space. Earth, Wind and Fire (who recorded Boogie Wonderland) combined elements of Egyptology and sci-fi with albums like “Head for the Sky” (1973) and All n All (1977) with its cover pic of a rocket taking off from a pyramid. In the late 1970s there was a rash of space themed disco hits like  Sheila B. Devotion’s “Spacer” and Slick’s “(Everybody goes to the) Space base” (1979), the latter imagining the space base as disco and social centre rather than military-industrial installation.

Some of these space records can be viewed as simple cash-ins on the popularity of Star Wars and similar films of this period, but was there something deeper going on? While the sale of disco records reaped big profits for the record companies, the logic of the dancefloor was potentially at odds with the society of domination. On the floor, pleasure was elevated above the puritan work ethic and hierarchies of class, race, gender and sexuality were (sometimes) dissolved.

Discos (like today’s dance spaces) could have been the launchpad for explorations of different worlds on earth and beyond, powered by the Dance Disco Heat energy generated on the floor.  In this light the disco icon par excellence, the glittering mirror ball, has to be re-evaluated. Detailed archaeological investigations of the alignment of these spheres of light suspended high above the dancefloor will doubtless reveal that they were installed to equip dancers with a rudimentary astronomical knowledge to help them find their way around the universe.


They never reached the moon!

The Apollo ‘moon landings’ between 1969 and 1972 are presented by NASA as the highest point of the space programme, and as a model for all future adventures. In reality nothing better demonstrates why it is unfit to explore anything more exciting than the inside of the Science Museum.

A favourite question for conspiracy theorists worldwide is whether the moon landings actually happened or whether the whole thing was faked in a TV studio like in the film Capricorn One. If we give NASA the benefit of the doubt and allow that it may have sent a rocket somewhere it is clear that they never reached the moon, or at least not the moon as it has been known through the ages.

This was not the moon of heretics, pagans, lovers or night-time revellers. The moon of tides, madness, goddesses, rituals of drink, drugs and dancing. Neil Armstrong and his mates did not have the imagination for the kind of space travel needed to reach this moon. All they were able to reach was a lump of rock somewhere - possibly in orbit, possibly in New Mexico somewhere.

How did they mark the momentous occasion of the first landing on July 21 1969? The first thing they did was plant an American flag like it was just another piece of imperial real estate. By 1969 there were very few places left in the world where it was safe to do so. Losing the war in Vietnam and with flags burning everywhere else, perhaps the whole space programme was an attempt to find a place where the Stars and Stripes could fly unmolested.

The Apollo 14 ‘moonlanding’ in 1971 witnessed another amazing leap of fantasy and imagination when Alan Shepard became the world’s first lunar golfer. Billions of pounds and years of effort culminated in the staging of the first lunar open. All over the world, people are being uprooted and ecosystems bulldozed to build golf courses, sanitised homogenous outdoor playgrounds for the rich. Judging by the Apollo programme a similar fate awaits the whole universe if NASA have their way.

The Apollo programme shows that no matter how many miles NASAnauts may travel they will never get anywhere because in their heads they will still be in the suburbs of white middle class america, travelling across the universe opening golf courses and fly-through Macdonalds.


My day in Space

“I wanted to dance as I had never yet danced: I wanted to dance beyond all heavens” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra)

In the summer of 1995 I had the pleasure of spending a day in Space. Thousands of people from all over the world have journeyed to Space in recent years. This legendary dance club in Ibiza provides an excellent illustration of the possibilities and limitations of dance cultures as a means of leaving this world behind.

Clubs in Britain tend to be confined indoors at night. Space turns this on its head, opening in the day and with an outside dancefloor. We turned up at about 11 am after a very pleasant breakfast of coffee, croissants and speed. Some people had come straight from a hard night’s dancing elsewhere, many of them crashed out on cushions in the corner or on wicker chairs on the outside terrace. Much of Ibiza is Brit-dominated, but here there was a better mix of nationalities and sexualities than on the Starship Enterprise.

The ceiling inside the dark interior of the club is decorated with stars - a map of our destination? Further evidence of the club’s potential is found on the edge of the outside dancefloor, where there are several giant propellers. People danced in front of them to keep cool, but there is little doubt that as well functioning as air conditioning fans these machines could be used as starting motors to help propel Space into space.

The music was wall to wall anthems, like Todd Terry’s Weekend and, the Hardfloor remix of Mory Kante’s Yeke Yeke. The atmosphere never reached fever pitch, but there was an intimation of that feeling - the disordering of the senses, waves of noise and light flowing over and through the body... That feeling in the centre of the floor, where the outside world has already been left behind and it is easy to believe that the whole place could take off and never come back.

In view of this potential it is not surprizing that the state takes various measures to contain dancing and prevent us reaching the stars.

In many countries only approved businessmen get permission to run clubs. The high prices they charge - some clubs in Ibiza charge £30 a ticket, with small bottles of water costing £3 a bottle in Space - effectively rations dancing, limiting the amount of time people spend dancing, and the amount of people dancing at any one time. The hours people can dance are confined, by rules which state that clubs have to shut at particular times. Within the clubs enemy agents patrol to sabotage preparations for flight - in Space the security wore police style uniforms and patrolled with truncheons.

Above all great efforts have been expended to prevent people dancing under the stars themselves, the ideal conditions for spaceflight. In the UK It is virtually impossible to get official permission to dance outside at night, and non-commercial parties have been targeted by legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act.

Ibiza is different to Britain in that people can and do dance all day and all night (if they can afford it) , and the normal relations of night, day, work and play are suspended. But this is confined as a temporary holiday experience, which most people only experience for a week or two.

All this prevents the energy generated on the dancefloor from reaching the critical mass necessary for space flight, as well as preventing a terminal drain of the energy needed to sustain the global system of profit, production and domination.

It was for this reason that on this occasion Space failed to take off and on leaving the club we found ourselves wandering down a beautiful beach in the sun rather than walking on the moon. Still it definitely beat the Holloway Road at 4 am...

Disconaut AAA

AAA was launched in April 1995 as a non-hierarchical network of local, community-based space exploration programmes. Here Comes Everybody!, the first annual report of the AAA, details some of the activities of the many AAA groups worldwide (available for £2.50 from Inner City AAA, BM Jed, London WC1N 3XX).

Disconaut AAA (c/o Practical History, 121 Railton Road, London SE24) will be focusing on developing the potential of dance cultures for the exploration of space.  Everybody is a star! is named after a 1979 track by Sylvester (1946-1988), also responsible for such otherworld explorations as "Dance Disco Heat", "Do you wanna funk" and "You make me feel mighty real".

[original printed on white paper, 4 pages A5. Just to be clear, we never subscribed to the conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked - the article 'They never reached the moon' was a play on Leonard Cohen's 'they'll never ever reach the moon, At least not the one that we're after'. The physical moon was reached but not the one of imagination]

Everybody is a Star! Number Two, Summer 1997

Take a dancing flight

Exactly 30 years after NASA launched the Apollo space programme, Disconaut AAA  has unveiled its own Dionysus Programme.

When Apollo One caught fire on the launch pad in 1967 it marked the start of  the US government's biggest ever space effort. But why Apollo? If pagan deities was the name of the game there were plenty of others to choose from. To answer this we have to turn to Fred Nietzsche, 19th century German philosopher and dance enthusiast.

In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche identified two antagonistic cultural tendencies with the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo was associated with restraint, control, order and rationality. The rituals of Dionysus on the other hand involved music, passion, wine, intoxication, and the dissolving of boundaries.

As part of the military industrial complex, seeking to extend the control of the imperial order through the conquest of space, NASA’s programme could only be the Apollonian. The Dionysus Programme has been launched in direct opposition to Apollo and its successors, to put into practice Disconaut AAA's mission to explore the potential of dance cultures for the exploration of space.

The starting point for the Dionysus Programme is Nietzsche’s description of “the glowing life of the Dionysian revellers”: "In song and in dance man [sic] expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak; he is about to take a dancing flight into the air... He feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy... He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art". Phew, all this without MDMA.

Disconaut AAA are attempting to apply this insight into the links between dance, ecstasy and flight as we leave the twentieth century. For some years experiments have been carried out in a global network of underground laboratories of pleasure. We can now report some of our preliminary findings:

The Dionysus Programme has accumulated extensive evidence of near-flight experiences on the dancefloor. Participants typically report sensations of 'rushing', of accelerating velocity, of the body tracing a line of flight and of leaving behind 'the real world' and establishing a direct connection with the wider universe. There are clear parallels here with the effects on the body and the euphoric feelings of escaping gravity associated with 'lift off' by more traditional means.

In the Dionysus Programme we have tried to break the tyranny of liquid-fuel rocket propulsion and to identify alternative fuel sources and means of transport. In the process we have experimented with a range of easily ingested chemicals, some of them derived from plants, others artificially manufactured. These substances have contributed some invaluable insights and certainly have a role, particularly in maintaining the stamina needed for long flights.  However we have to report that several of our experimental human probes which were successfully blasted beyond the atmosphere with chemical propulsion quickly crashed down to earth and vanished without trace, while others are now drifting aimlessly in space circumscribing ever decreasing circles around their own navels.

The Dionysus Programme has conducted a whole range of tests with extremely high tempo electronic sounds. Our hypothesis was that a continual acceleration in beats per minute would enable us to reach earth's escape velocity and take off. Unfortunately after prolonged uninterrupted exposure to these tests the ship began to break up and several participants showed signs of exhaustion and in some cases nausea.  Future experiments will attempt to reduce the risk of side effects by introducing greater variety and rhythmic complexity.

Ill-fitting space suits have been an ongoing problem in the Dionysus Programme. A major difficulty has been the rigid masculine character armour which even some potential astronauts seem unable to discard. Dance cultures provide a space where it is possible to escape the confines of a fixed identity and explore a range of subjectivities and possibilities. Sadly a lot of men in particular seem afraid to appear as anything other than cool, serious and controlled. Clearly this is incompatible with the flexibility required in space. Disconaut AAA are developing fun fur and sequin space suits to help overcome this.

The present efforts of the Dionysus Programme are geared towards the Dreamtime project, through which AAA groups around the world are imagining what life will be like in autonomous communities in space. Dance settings provide a unique opportunity for collective dreaming, not the passive dreams of sleep but the visions of the lived body in perfect motion.

Here we are not only able to think about life in space, but to feel what it will be like to live in an autonomous community. Nietzsche described this sensation: “Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man [and woman]  reaffirmed, but Nature which has become estranged, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her prodigal son, man.... Now the slave is free; now all the stubborn, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice or ‘shameless fashion’ have erected between man and man, are broken down… Each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, blended with his neighbour, but all as one with him".

By creating autonomous zones in our own parties on earth we can create conditions that prefigure autonomous communities in space. To do this we have to neutralize the negative effects of various black holes which suck energy out of dance cultures, such as commercial promoters and the police. This will be the focus of the next stage of the Dionysus Programme.

Spice in space

“When you go and see a careers officer,” ponders Mel C, “and you sit down and say, “I want to be a spaceman”, instead of responding ‘Go study astrophysics’, they go. ‘Yeah, but what do you really want to do?’ That is so wrong” (Spice Girls, Guardian, May 1997)

Stay up forever

In 'Voyage to the Moon' (1649), Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac described an attempt to reach the Moon by tying bottles of dew to the body. The idea was that when the Sun came out, the dew would rise, taking the body with it. On the face of it, this looks unlikely but the nocturnal nature of the Dionysus Programme should make it comparatively easy to test. We will need:

- a large green open space for dew maximisation;

- proximity to a site of astro-magical significance at a summer solstice (when the sun's energy is at its height);

- several thousand people prepared to stay up all night and still have the energy to fly at dawn;

- at least one sound system.

 After a night of dancing, participants will roll in the long grass, covering their bodies in a fine suit of dew. They will then join hands and dance in a circle as the sun rises, waiting to take off.

Stonehenge on June 21st has been chosen as the ideal location. Unfortunately there are indications that the state will attempt to sabotage the Dionysus Programme by seeking to prevent this experiment, so all potential astronauts are warned to be ready to defend themselves.

Disconaut AAA

The Association of Autonomous Astronauts is a non-hierarchical network of local, community-based space exploration programmes. Dreamtime is upon us, the second annual report of the AAA is available for £3.00 from Inner City AAA, BM Jed, London WC1N 3XX.

Everybody is a star! is the newsletter of Disconaut AAA (c/o Practical History, 121 Railton Rd, London SE24). Issue one is still available with articles on Disco, Ibiza and the Moon. If you want a copy send an SAE. 

In issue No.1 we outlined the links between dance music, radical utopianism and space exploration. We have since become aware of other publications interested in these connections.

· Ego magazine (80a St Augustines Road, London NW1 9RP) includes an article Space is the Place which considers funky futurism in the work of Herbie Hancock, Juan Atkins, the Jedi Knights and many others.

· Rickey Vincent’s excellent history Funk: the music, the people and the rhythm of the one (New York, 1996) devotes a whole section to George Clinton and “The metaphysics of P: the Mothership Connection”

[original printed on green paper, 4 pages A5]

'Disconauts are go!' was later reprinted in 'Dreamtime is Upon Us! The Second Annual Report of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts' (1997).

Previous AAA posts:

Mission accomplished but the beat goes on: the Fantastic Voyage of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts

Summer Solstice 1999: AAA on Parliament Hill

Military out of space - AAA at J18 Carnival Against Capital 1999

AAA at Brixton Reclaim the Streets 1998

Skinheads as Independent Travellers in Space

We were brought up on the space race, now they expect us to clean toilets

Other AAA archive material:

AAA Archive (ex-Parasol AAA)

Uncarved AAA archive 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Reclaim the Streets: Bristol and Oxford 1997

A couple of reports from Mixmag magazine of Reclaim the Streets parties  in 1997-

'Police Seize Desert Storm Truck After Reclaim the Streets Party' (Mixmag. August 1997)

'A truck and equipment belonging to the Desert Storm sound system was seized and two of its occupants charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance after a Reclaim the Streets party in Bristol on June 21st. An exuberant-yet-peaceful march from Castle Park was followed by a four hour rave on a major dual carriageway with two sound system playing techno and jungle to between 400 (police estimate) and 1500 (RTS estimate) people... 

...trouble flared when mounted officers and dog handlers dispersed the remaining crowd. In the ensuing scuffles, 22 people were arrested for public order offences, criminal damage and assault... The Desert Storm truck was seized the following day, and the sound system is currently planning a series of benefit parties to replace its loss'.

'Reclaim the Streets party strikes in Oxford' (Mixmag, January 1998)

'Police have failed to stop an Oxford Reclaim the Streets party despite ugly clashes... protestors outflanked police and occupied the busy Cowley Road area on November 1st [1997]. A series of clashes arose as police attempted to seize a van containing the KSN sound system, but eventually police had to admit defeat and let the party continue. A five mile exclusion zone had been declared under 1994's Criminal Justice Act. Inspector David Whittaker said that his original intention had been to "prevent an obstruction of the road" but they had "obviously failed". According to RTS estimates, more than 1,000 people danced at the peak of the party. Three men were arrested for possession of cannabis... In Sydney, Australia, police adopted a more laidback approach as Enmore Road was blocked - and between 2,000 and 3,000 enjoyed a trouble-free day' 

See also:

Brixton Reclaim the Streets, June 1998

J18 Carnival Against Capital, Reclaim the Streets 1999


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Ultimate Leisure Workers Club

The Ultimate Leisure Workers Club is an interesting project based in Vilnius in Lithuania focused around the radical politics of clubs and parties:

'Insurgent workers’ minds and bodies turned u on dance-floors long ago, anticipating their liberation from the factory's mechanistic discipline. Clubs were sites that integrated political education and entertainment; social recovery and antagonistic social articulation. Then arrived the weekend, ripe with evening temptations, as both a working class victory and a bargain with capital for an ever more dutiful submission to the pains of the working week. Whether mere toxic retreats into a world of purchased pleasures serviced by instrumentalized hospitality workers; or as maddening aspirations toward collective self-abolition in the crushing beat of capitalist ruins, spaces of nightly leisure are energized by a social desire for what Kristin Ross calls communal luxury: a communistic drive for collective prosperity that capitalism recuperates and exploits.

The Ultimate Leisure Workers' Club hopes to draw from these political potentials, linking up with groups and individuals involved in the struggle to open new terrains for social liberation and communal joy in the night and beyond'.

They are holding an online assembly next week, and as part of it me and Christoph will be giving a talk:

The Club is the Centre of the Invention of New Needs: Dead by Dawn, 30 Nov 2020, 19h (UTC+2)

'Neil Transpontine and Christoph Fringeli will discuss the seminal Dead by Dawn parties held between (1994-1996) at the squatted 121 Centre at Railton Road Brixton. Crossing self-publishing, visual and sonic experimentation, exploratory theory, social spaces, new communications technologies and the emergence of ludic and networked politics, the Dead by Dawn parties were a catalyst for exploring a leisure time clawed back from the social compulsion to labour.

Christoph is the founder of Praxis Records and the editor of Datacide magazine for noise and politics. He was part of the collective responsible for Dead by Dawn. Neil Transpontine attended Dead by Dawn and has written about it for his blog History is Made at Night. He is a regular contributor to Datacide magazine'

Other speakers include Annie Goh, Kristin Ross, Agne Bagdzunaite, Mattin, Noah Bremer, Arnoldas Stramskas and Valda Stepanovaite. Full details here

For previous posts about Dead by Dawn see:

Dead by Dawn, Brixton 1994-6

More Dead by Dawn

Monday, October 26, 2020

Protest and Survive- CND reborn, October 1980

The massive October 1980 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament 'Protest and Survive' demonstration in London represented the rebirth of the 'Ban the Bomb' movement that had been largely dormant since its previous high point in the 1960s. The reason for this revival was that nuclear war was once again seeming a real possibility as the Cold War began to hot up. 

In 1979 Russian forces had entered Afghanistan in support of the beleaguered  pro-soviet government. The ascendancy of the new right to power in Britain and the USA saw a cranking up of anti-Russian rhetoric from Thatcher and Reagan, soon to be followed up with the deployment of a new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe.

The British Government's publication of its 'Protect and Survive' booklet in May 1980 only made the nuclear nightmare more tangible, with its absurd advice for turning your home into a fall out shelter amidst nuclear war. This was parodied by EP Thompson in his 'Protest and Survive' pamphlet published by CND shortly afterwards.

'We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defence. We must generate an alternative logic, an opposition at every level of society. This opposition must be international and it must win the support of multitudes' (E.P. Thompson, Protest and Survive, 1980)

Photomontage artist Peter Kennard produced a memorable image of a skeleton reading the Government publication as well as designing the leaflet/poster for the demonstration set for 26th October 1980.

I was at sixth form and with a group of friends that year had set up Luton Peace Campaign (soon to be Luton Nuclear Disarmament Campaign) which quickly grew to having over 100 members. Similar groups were springing up all over the country. We organised a couple of coach loads to go to London for the march and were amazed at the turn out, variously estimated as between 50,000 (the police) and 100,000 (Socialist Organiser). For the first time I had a real sense of how the efforts of small groups of people meeting in pubs and kitchens could coalesce into a mass social movement.

As reported in the Daily Mirror (27 October 2020):

'Britain’s ban the bomb movement was reborn yesterday with a massive show of strength. More than 60,000 demonstrators jammed London streets for the biggest nuclear disarmament rally in 17 years. The day started with a huge inflatable mushroom ‘cloud’ being floated above Hyde Park as the demonstrators gathered under a sea of banners. The protesters then brought traffic to a standstill as they marched to Trafalgar Square…

There were hippies, punk rockers, skinheads and supporters of all ages. A girl on rollerskates joined the protest. So did a band of Buddhist monks. 12 people were arrested and charged with minor offences such as threatening behaviour and obstruction. Scuffles broke out as one group tried to march down Whitehall towards Downing Street and Parliament. But a line of policeman headed them off and the rest of the demonstration was peaceful'. 

The NME (1 November 1980) gave the demo a full page report which likewise highlighted the diversity of the crowd:

'There were punks and 'Schoolkids against the Bomb' and nuns and MPs and messages of support from intellectuals in the USA. There were youthful banners bearing slogans like “Grow up or Blow up“ and “Don’t Cruise to Oblivion”... Peggy Seeger sang. The Pop group and Killing Joke played... E.P. Thompson was the smash hit, though, earning a huge ovation with his characteristically stirring words: “I wasn’t sure about this six months ago” he said. “But we can win. I want you to sense and feel your strength".  An NME photo showed 'Buddhist monks from Milton Keynes'  perambulating 'pacifist veterans including Philip Noel Baker and first CND secretary Peggy Duff' in their wheelchairs.

The mushroom cloud inflatable in Hyde Park
(from 'Socialist Organiser', 8 Nov. 1980)
Luton Nuclear Disarmament Campaign banner on demo

'Heavy armour, little brain - died out' - dinosaur on demo

The speakers included MPs Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock, actor Susannah York, EP Thompson and Bruce Kent of CND. I was excited that The Pop Group and Killing Joke were playing in Trafalgar Square at the end of the rally, though it was one of those occasions when the crowd was so big (and the PA so small) that you had to be up front to really experience the music - and I wasn't.  Luckily I got to see The Pop Group at their peak earlier that year at the Beat the Blues Festival at Alexandra Palace.

The Pop Group on stage in Trafalgar Square

Apparently The Specials had also been due to play but this didn't happen due to Department of Environment restrictions about the extent and volume of the music. As the Government department responsible for Trafalgar Square the DoE  'ruled that the event is a rally and not a concert, and therefore the PA must not exceed 2.5 kilowatts' (NME, 25 October 1980).  A poster also mentions Peggy Seeger and Mikey Dread as being on the bill.

A poster from Liverpool advertising the demo

Killing Joke played five tracks including Wardance and Requiem.  The Pop Group set was their last live performance (at least until they reformed in 2010) and included an early version  of 'Jerusalem', a dub retake on Blake's poem which vocalist Mark Stewart would later record.  The  early prototype version played in Trafalgar Square can be heard on 'The Lost Tapes', included as part of the Mute reissue of Stewart's 'Learning To Cope With Cowardice'.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Café Del Mar Memories - RIP José Padilla

The summer of 1995, off to Ibiza. We bought the cassette of Café Del Mar Volumen Dos and cracked it open at the airport to get in the mood, listening on one headphone each on a walkman. A balearic selection of mellow, down tempo tunes from José Padilla, long time resident DJ at said Café.

In Ibiza like everybody else we headed to 'the Caf' for a drink. The sun went down, but behind a cloud, so no glorious San Antonio sunset.  And they were just playing the Café Del Mar CD on rotation!  The Cafe experience was now pre-packaged and for sale and no doubt everybody was saying you should have been there the year before or the year before that.... Well  anyway by that point the tunes were well and truly lodged in our brains, and have never left. That particular night we moved along the sea front to Cafe Mambo which was much more lively, including Jeremy Healy walking around in a short gold skirt.

Fast forward a year and our daughter is born in a birthing pool in the front room, that same Café Del Mar cassette playing during labour. In fact at the moment of birth the compilation has reached 'Easter Song' by A Man Called Adam, a suitably uplifting spiritual moment with its repeated 'you're bringing me back to life' refrain. A few years down the line we see A Man Called Adam playing at an outdoor gig on the South Bank, we chat to singer Sally Rogers and she dedicates their Easter Song encore to our daughter who nevertheless declines invitation to join them on stage.

So farewell José Padilla, who died this week, thanks for helping to soundtrack these and so many other people's memories.

(all images from 1995 cassette artwork)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Poll Tax Archive (7): Brixton Prison demo, October 1990

Seven months after the huge London anti-poll tax demonstration/riot of March 31st 1990, another demo was planned in the capital on 20th October 1990. While not on the same scale, it did end in clashes with police in Brixton and 120 arrests.

The organisation of the October demo was a fractious affair. The national leadership of the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation was firmly in the hands of 'Militant' (today known as the Socialist Party) and they were distrusted by many in the movement for their denouncing of rioters after March 31st.  They were not keen at all to organise another national demo in 1990, and instead half heartedly agreed for a London mobilisation ending with a rally to greet a contingent of 75 poll tax protestors who had walked to London from Glasgow, Liverpool and South Wales as part of the 'People's March Against the Poll Tax'. 

Meanwhile the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, set up to support those arrested in relation to March 31st, wanted to put the plight of poll tax prisoners and defendants at the forefront of the October demonstration - something which they felt was being neglected by the London demo organisers as well as the national federation. So, as advertised on the TSDC leaflet below, there were several interlinked events on the day. A TSDC picket of Horseferry Road magistrates court (scene of many poll tax trials) was followed by a march of around 1500 people  to Kennington Park, the assembly point for the London Federation demonstration. The March 31st demo had also assembled in Kennington, but headed from there into Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. On October 20th the march avoided central London entirely and instead headed further out to Brockwell Park in Brixton. 

'Stop the Trafalgar Square Show Trials'

TSDC Leaflet for October 20th 1990 demo (front and rear - original A5)

The crowd on the combined march to Brockwell Park and the rally there was variously estimated at between 10 and 25,000. After speeches by Tony Benn and others, a few thousand people assembled to march the short distance to Brixton Prison, where several poll tax prisoners were being held. This was not a spontaneous splinter march, but had been planned from the start - and the police were ready.

For me personally it was a strange time. I lived on Tulse Hill Estate, located between Brockwell Park and Brixton Prison, so this was all happening in my local area. I went along to the Park and joined the demonstration as it made it's way up Brixton Hill towards the prison. Its route was blocked by a line of police close to the jail, and at this point I headed off. My grandmother had just died and I was travelling that night to the Hebrides for the funeral.  As I made my way back to the Estate I saw that the side streets including Endymion Road were full of police vans whose occupants were getting out and putting on their riot gear. I picked up my suit for the funeral and headed down to Brixton to get the train only to find the station closed and the streets blocked by police vans and crowds. By this point the police outnumbered the protestors.

What had happened in the interim was that the police had baton charged the crowd by the prison and driven people back down the hill into central Brixton. In the clashes a police bike was set on fire and some market stalls on Electric Avenue had been turned over as barricades. A few petrol bombs were also thrown, something very unusual on political demonstrations in England (though sometimes seen in full on inner city uprisings) and possibly not unrelated to the presence of some experienced radical street fighters from France, Italy and elsewhere.

The 120 arrests meant plenty more work for the TSDC, and quite a few people were injured by police seemingly out for revenge for what had happened back in March.

'Poll tax mob bomb police', Sunday Mirror, 21 October 1990

The following short account comes from the November 1990 newsletter of the Brixton based Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, which I was involved with for a while alongside several other poll tax groups at work and in my area.

'At 3.30 in the afternoon a group of over 3,000 people marched to Brixton prison where 4 prisoners are still held from the 31st of March. As before it was well organised and stewarded by the TSDC. The march arrived at the prison only to find that the police wanted to hem everyone in behind crowd barriers. As the march stopped on Brixton Hill the crowd became very compacted behind the barriers. TSDC organisers asked the police to allow the march round the back of the prison, the officer in charge of the police seemed to make sure he was not around at this point. The police were asked to move the barriers further up the road so the crowd could move up and ease congestion, this was also refused. The police took the megaphone from the TSDC organisers who were very visible in their bright pink bibs. They did not, as they claim, give out megaphones - this is yet another POLICE LIE. 

The angry and frustrated crowd threw one or two beer cans but the police needed no excuse to charge into the crowd. Those who didn't move fast enough were truncheoned and arrested. A young mother asked a police woman to take her children over the crowd barrier to safety, the caring pig refused. The crowd was pushed down Brixton Hill and scores of riot police, who had been waiting down side streets preparing to take revenge for March 31 came out and further charged the crowd. Individuals trying to leave the crowd and avoid trouble were pushed back in. The crowd was driven back into Brixton to the dismay of those trying to do a peaceful day's shopping. Buses were stopped, the tube station was closed, so those wishing to leave were unable to. Groups were pushed into the market, the High Road and Coldharbour Lane. Market skips and a police motorbike were set on fire. 

People were pushed down to Camberwell and up towards Oval, many brutal arrests were made (about 120 in all), demonstrators continued to fight back against the police till about 7 p.m. The TSDC provided excellent legal back up. Solicitors were provided for all those arrested and witness statements made. The initial police charges were filmed by video camera, the TSDC are in a position to show how the police provoked the trouble and may well prosecute them. A picket was held at Southwark police station to support those arrested. On Sunday Oct 31st the TSDC held a press conference to let the media know the truth. On Monday pickets were held at courts and courts are still being picketed for those still held in custody. Bail conditions have been very strict e.g. wanting a £1,000 surety for someone charged with threatening behaviour' (Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, November 1990)

The TSDC produced their own detailed account of the events based on legal observers on the day. This was published as 'Premilinary report on the policing of the anti-poll tax demonstration of October 20th'. 

The following extracts cover the flashpoint outside the prison on Brixton Hill (PSU=Police Support Unit, i.e. the riot squad).

'16.40: These officers cordon off Elm Park at junction with Brixton Hill, dividing off protestors on Elm Park from main body of demonstration. Police line continues to form up cordon along east side of Brixton Hill in direction of Endymion Road along fixed railings (point B). (VT2 2.40) 16.42: The PSUs deployed in front of the churchyard push forward into the crowd, attacking demonstrators with violent and indiscriminate use of batons. There is much shouting and confusion, and a total of four cans are thrown at the surging police. After 20-30 seconds, the police resume their positions in front of the churchyard, and the crowd becomes calm again. (VT1 23.40) At the same time, 20-30 officers enter the churchyard, clearing demonstrators and making one arrest for apparently no reason (HCDA). 
16.44: The officer in charge of the PSUs deployed at point B signals repeatedly to police on the other side of the picket, and CI Joy runs South to the end of Jebb Avenue along the clear lane of Brixton Hill. (VT1 25.13) 

16.45: At front of demonstration, Superintendent Giblin from Stoke Newington (name given to LLV HP) leans over the barrier and grabs a smallish man, aged about 40 and wearing a cap, and violently pushes him into the crowd. (HCDA) Megaphone taken from organiser SW, who was using it to explain the situation to crowd and get them to join in good-natured chanting. No warning given. Crowd respond angrily. One or two placard sticks thrown in high arc. (AS) 16.46: Chief Superintendent talking to two vanloads of police who then head towards George W pub. (AC) Police begin to pull demonstrators off railings outside George IV pub forecourt. No prior warnings given. Inspector then ordered everyone off George IV forecourt, not allowing them to finish their drinks or to ask why they had to move. Police then spend next few minutes picking up glasses and smashing them on the floor. (HCDA, witness RP) Unidentified police officer overheard saying "This is it." (ES) 

16.47: A police snatch squad enters the crowd opposite Jebb Avenue. 2 or 3 people arrested and pulled violently over barrier. (WL) Police lined up against churchyard railings push forwards across Brixton Hill Road to join police cordon in the middle, separating head of demonstration from main body. After initial pushing and the throwing of two empty cans and a placard stick, crowd becomes calm again. (VT1 28.20) Police in PSU carriers on Endymion Road are seen to have put on riot gear. (HCDA) 16.50: LLV asked MM 38 where people expected to go. Reply: "Until we contain this, no-one's going anywhere." LLV asked "Contain what?" No reply. (PF) Riot police emerge from vans in Endymion Road (VT2 20.51). 

'Police blame anarchists for turning poll tax protest into a riot'
(South London Press)

'it started peacefully enough with a carnival protest through the streets of South London' - some classic early 1990s demo dance moves in BBC news report 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

No dancing - the 1918/19 influenza epidemic

The flu epidemic of 1918-19 killed millions of people around the world, including over 200,000 in the UK. As with the Covid-19 pandemic there were social distancing measures, though these seem to have mostly been implemented at a local level. These examples of dances being cancelled on health grounds come from Ashbourne in Derbyshire and Falkirk in Scotland.

A letter from Newcastle in November 1918 argues that 'It is inconceivable that when people are dying right and left of this dangerous disease that these village dances, generally given in small rooms, should be allowed'

Derbyshire Advertiser, 28 February 1919

Falkirk Herald, 2 November  1918

Newcastle Journal, 25 November 1918

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Poll Tax Archive (6): Barnet and Edgware Hospital Workers against the Poll Tax

Here is an example of some workplace organising against the poll tax in the NHS.

'Edgware Nurses Against Poll Tax' - I believe this was taken at a picket of Willesden Magistrates Court, November 1990

At this time I was working in the AIDS Education Unit of Barnet Health Authority. We provided HIV testing, counselling, health promotion and advice from our base at Colindale Hospital. This included providing training to staff across the health authority including the two main general hospitals run by it at the time – Barnet General Hospital and Edgware General Hospital.

Most of us working in the Unit had some history of activism and our roaming roles  meant that we were in touch with lots of different groups of health workers across the area. So it was natural that in 1990 some of us would try and pull together a health workers anti-poll tax group which we called Barnet Hospital Workers Against the Poll Tax (as we were covering all the hospitals in the Barnet Health Authority group). The following year we also established  a hospital workers against the Gulf war group but that’s another story.

Student nurses were particularly aggrieved about the poll tax. Like other low paid  NHS workers  the tax was going to hit them hard in their pockets but unlike other students they were not eligible for any kind of rebate (most students only had to pay 20% of the poll tax).

Many of the students lived together in hospital accommodation. After talking to a few student nurses we arranged to hold a meeting at the Edgware Hospital nurses home- in the communal TV room. We just put up a poster and put the word around. There was a great response at the meeting with more than 30 signing up there and then up to oppose the poll tax. I still have the signing in sheet for that meeting, interesting looking down it now- a high proportion of Irish people, the majority women and, in terms of union membership, almost all members of the Royal College of Nursing with a handful of COHSE members and one NUPE member. 

We followed this up with other meetings offering advice- I think we also did one at Thames House, the nurses home at Barnet Hospital. Further on down the line some  of the student nurses were taken to court by Barnet Council for non-payment of the poll tax. We organised pickets of the magistrates courts at Barnet and Willesden with transport to get there.

It was a relatively modest effort, but ultimately the poll tax was finished off not just by one big demo/riot but also by lots of smallish local groups organising and sharing information that gave confidence to millions that they could get away with not paying the poll tax.

'Unfair poll tax for student nurses' - picket of Barnet magistrates, December 1990

Nurses were in court in Barnet at same time as Labour MP Mildred Gordon who was also being chased by Barnet Council for non-payment (Edgware Times, 20 December 1990)

Willesden Magistrates Court, November 1990

I am going to be giving a talk on the 'Poll Tax Rebellion - 30 years on' as part of the Datacide #18 magazine launch event on Friday 21 February 2020 at Ridley Road Social Club, 89 Ridley Road. London E8 2NH (with followed by music courtesy of  Praxis and Hekate - details here)