Sunday, September 26, 2021

War Inna Babylon at ICA

'War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights'  at London's Institute for Contemporary Arts (7 July – 26 September 2021) is an exhibition curated by community organisation Tottenham Rights, together with independent curators Kamara Scott and Rianna Jade Parker. They say:

'Ten years on from the UK-wide riots sparked by the police killing of Mark Duggan, this exhibition shines a light on the vast range of collective actions, resistance and grassroots activism undertaken by Black communities across the U.K in response to over seven decades of societal and institutional racism. 

Using the ‘symbolic location’ of Tottenham, a neighbourhood that has received much attention in recent years due to its history of racial conflicts and heavy-handed policing; this exhibition combines archival material, documentary photography, film and state-of-the art 3D technology to ‘act as a window to the past and as a mirror for our present-day social climate’.  War Inna Babylon will chronicle the impact of various forms of state violence and institutional racism targeted at Britain’s Black communities since the mass arrival-upon-invitation of West Indian migrants in the late 1940'.

The exhibition is strikingly displayed in a way which does justice to its somber subject matter, including al list of deaths at the hands of the police and Forensic Architecture's detailed investigation of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 

"Frontlines, as they are affectionately known by locals, were the only tangible public spaces where Black people felt relatively safe enough to convene, especially as they were ostracised from mainstream venues. As so, the police would invade these locations... 'Symbolic locations' were determined by PC Kenneth Newman, Commissioner of Police for the London Metropolitan force from 1982 to 1987. In various speeches and articles he would offer: Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, Railton Road in Brixton and All Saints Road in Notting Hill as prime examples of 'no go' areas...

[In the aftermath of the 1980s riots] "...Oliver Letwin - then an adviser to Margaret Thatcher - advised her not to believe that the uprisings stemmed from systematic inequalities. Letwin blamed unrest on 'bad moral attitudes' and dismissed suggestions to fund communities, claiming that Black business owners would set up a 'disco and drug trade'. The police sought on occasions to restore  - 'take back' - these neighbourhoods. And so, community-led Frontlines where Black people were able to practice a level of autonomy were subjected to intense surveillance and military-style operations, quickly becoming sites of resistance"

Archive material in the exhibition: 1981 leaflets from the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the Brixton Defence Campaign.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Lunch magazine- London gay disco 1972

Lunch magazine ran from 1971 to 1973, starting out as a newsletter put out by Campaign for Homosexual Equality members in London and expanding to become a well designed 'magazine for the new homosexual man and woman' reflecting the range of gay activist opinion at that time. As part of its great LGBTQ+ Archives, Bishopsgate Institute has scanned the entire print run and made it available online

It's a fascinating read, with news, debates and interviews (including David Hockney, Holly Woodlawn and George Melly)

Lunch, June 1973 - cover star Holly from Warhol's factory
('Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.. Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.')

I had a quick trawl through to look at what it tells us about nightlife in a transitional period when publicly advertised gay discos were taking place but the commercial gay club scene had not yet really taken off. Fulham Town Hall in west London was a venue for disco nights and balls organised by CHE and the Gay Liberation Front and where, as reported in Lunch, people were sometimes subject to violent attacks

'Grand Masked Ball' - CHE event at Fulham Town Hall (Lunch, December 1971)

'Full Moon Disco' in aid of Campaign for Homosexual Equality at Fulham Town Hall
(Lunch, April 1972)

GLF Notting Hill Group night at Fulham Town Hall wtih 'Disco-Lights-Freak Outs'
(Lunch, July 1972)

Violent mobs of hooligans are terrorising the "gay" people of West London. Members of the Gay Liberation Front claim they are being subjected to brutal, callous attacks by roving gangs of thugs every time the hold a dance at Fulham Old Town Hall' (West London Observer report, reproduced in Lunch, September 1972)

An account from June 1972 describes direct action against discrimination in a Notting Hill pub (wonder which one?): ''Not so long ago in Notting Hill Gate, GLF were being charged 20p per pint of beer, as against 14p for heterosexuals. We eventually staged a sit-in at the pub concerned, the police were called and said they could not eject us for wearing our badges. The landlord had to ask us all to leave one by one (300 of us) which, when we refused, the police carried us all out quite peacefully, accompanied by the strains of 'All things bright and beautiful' being sung by our brothers and sisters already removed, sitting outside the pub. Next week we were charged 14p per pint and allowed to come and go as we pleased, badges or not'.

'A Fancy Dress Rave... Drag or Casual' at Porchester Hall (Lunch, December 1972)

'Mike Winter, the non-stop disco-king of the East End, tells us there's another scene going now. It's at the Kings Arms - 213 Bishopsgate.... Meanwhile the already established disco at the Father Redcap, Camberwell Green recurs every Thursday and Sunday' (Lunch, March 1972)

David Hockney interview from Lunch, September 1972 'he looks like a wise blond owl' - Hockney mentions going to a couple of Gay Liberation Front meetings but finding them a bit boring.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Barcelona in Soho: a 1940s Surrealist hangout

17 Beak Street in Soho is at the time of writing a branch of the Flat Iron steak restaurant chain. But for at least 40 years it was home to the Barcelona Restaurant, at one time the social HQ of British surrealist artists.

In 1938 it was reported that the Barcelona was one of only five Spanish restaurants in London. At this time the Spanish Civil War was still raging, with supporters of Franco's fascists meeting for a sherry party at Martinez in Swallow Street. The unnamed manager of the Barcelona struck a melancholy tone stating that 'There is nothing to celebrate' as the war entered its third year.

(Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 18 July 1938)

The manager was Joaquim Carbonell (1895-1950), recalled by George Melly (see below) as a Spanish Republican sympathiser. 

1939 England and Wales Register for 17 Beak Street.

It was here that the Belgian surrealist artist Édouard Mesens summoned British surrealist sympathisers in the early days of the Second World War intending to mould them into a coherent  grouping dedicated to 'proletarian revolution' and exclusively surrealist artistic practice. Remy records that 'On Thursday 11 April 1940, E.L.T. Mesens called a meeting at the Barcelona restaurant in Soho's Beak Street of all surrealists living in London' with those attending including John Buckland-Wright, Herbert Read.. Roland Penrose, Humphrey Jennings, J.B. Brunius, Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar, Edith Rimmington, S.W. Hayter, A.C. Sewter, Reuben Mednikoff , Grace Pailthorpe, John Banting, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Charles Howard. Not all of these continued to participate in the London Surrealist group but a number of them took part in the group's exhibition in June of that year at the Zwemmer gallery (26 Litchfield Street) alongside guest artists including Lee Miller and Paul Nash (Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain, 1999)

Regular meetings continued in the upstairs dining room of the restaurant, where in addition to the  Surrealist core others would pop by: 'Dylan Thomas and Lucien Freud occasionally put in an appearance' (Levy).  The young George Melly, soon to be a key figure in the British jazz scene, joined the group around this time, with painter Conroy Maddox recalling later: 'When George Melly was on leave from the navy he would join us too. Invariably he would get terribly drunk and would start to recite his poems. One poem finished with 'it's raining knives and forks' and George would enact this line by throwing the restaurant cutlery over himself. We were then thrown out' (quoted in  Sivlano Levy, The Scandalous Eye: The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox, 2003). Incidentally, in a memoir published later - 'Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of E.L.T. Mesens' - Melly mentions that he was in a sexual relationship with Mesens and his wife Sybil at this time.

Gatherings continued at the Barcelona throughout the war and for a while afterward. In December 1946  Mesens organised an exhibition there, though by this time the main meeting place for the surrealist group seems to have shifted to the Three Horseshoes pub on Tottenham Court Road.

There's a remarkable 1978 BBC documentary on surrealism, made to coincide with that year's 'Dada and Surrealism Reviewed' exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. In 'The Journey', George Melly revisits some of the London surrealist haunts of the 1940s including the Barcelona which was then still open. In the upstairs room he brings back together some of the luminaries of British surrealism including Penrose, Maddox and Agar.  

Surrealists reunited in the Barcelona, 1978 including Melly at the top of table and Eileen Agar front left.

The Barcelona Restuarant was undoubtedly significant but Melly was to suggest that 'The non-existence of cafes' was one of the reasons for the relative failure of British surrealism  - exemplified for Melly by Penrose and Read accepting Knighthoods. In a 1987 article 'British Surrealism' published in The Raven: Anarchist Quarterly Melly argued  'This may seem frivolous, but it is not. Pubs are hopeless settings for the exchange of ideas; restaurants too formal. The British Surrealists tried both and found them wanting. The cafe was surrealism’s natural theatre'.

'A meeting of the Surrealist Group with dinner to follow will be held at the Barcelona Restaurant, Beak Street, W1 on Tuesday May 10th at 6:30 pm' - 1940 postcard from Roland Penrose to Jacques Brunius (French surrealist, then living in London).

Barcelona Spanish Restaurant 1968

Barcelona Restaurant 1978