Saturday, October 30, 2021

Rosaleen Norton: Dance of Life

Getting in the Halloween zone, I watched 'The Witch of Kings Cross' (2020)- a fascinating documentary about New Zealand born artist and occultist Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979) who scandalised Australia in the 1950s. Her erotic/esoteric paintings led to prosecution and the destruction of some of her work, and newspapers published sensationalist accounts of her supposed involvement in 'black magic and sex orgies'.

I'm always amazed by figures like this who bravely lived a 'counter-cultural' life decades before there was such thing as mass counter culture. Pursuing a life of queer sex, magic and drugs in the face of overwhelming repressive conformity was dangerous - no wonder they felt they needed to invoke the powers of gods like Pan against the world that confronted them.  This was an age in which social ruin awaited 'deviants', as for instance the composer and conductor  of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Eugène Goossens (1893-1962) found when his bisexual relationship with Norton and the poet Gavin Greenlees was exposed.  50 years later, hundreds of thousands of people were parading every year down the same streets in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras- but maybe in their own ways it was people like Norton's circle who helped open a space for this.

'Individuation' by Rosaleen Norton

 'In the spiral horns of the Ram,

In the deep ascent of midnight,

In the dance of atoms weaving the planes of matter is Life.

Life spins on the dream of a planet,

Life leaps in the lithe precision of the cat,

Life flames in the thousandth Name,

Life laughs in the thing that is ‘I’.

I live in the green blood of the forest,

I live in the white fire of Powers,

I live in the scarlet blossom of Magic,

I live'

(Dance of Life by Roslaeen Norton)

In this case the accused was asked why 'despite police warnings she was still consorting with homosexuals'. She was said to have been to a Black Mass conducted by Rosaleen Norton, and to have explained to court that 'although she had some other clothes she preferred to wear black - "the sign of the witch cult"'. She was sent to jail for 2 months for vagrancy  with 'recommended psychiatric treatment'' (full article here)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Refugees are Welcome - rally in London

A good turn out in London's Parliament Square last week (Wednesday  20th October 2021) for the Refugees Welcome rally organised by Solidarity with Refugees and others. The event highlighted opposition to the Government's anti-Refugee 'Nationality and Borders Bill' making its way through Parliament.

As highlighted by Refugee Action: 'Under the bill, only refugees arriving through extraordinarily restricted “official” routes, such as refugee resettlement, will be allowed to claim protection. All others will be deemed “inadmissible” to claim asylum and the Government will seek to deport them. If they cannot be deported, they may be allowed to claim asylum in the UK but if they receive refugee status as a result they will not be given the right to settle. Instead, they will be regularly reassessed for removal, with limited rights to family reunion and benefits'.

'"nikt nie jest nielegalny" ('No one is illegal' in Polish)

'POMOC - Polish Migrants Organise for Change'/'Solidarity knows no borders'

One clause in the anti-refugee bill seems designed to give immunity to Border Force staff who could potentially cause harm or even death in their actions, such as when 'pushing back' migrants in refugees in the Channel. Schedule 4A, part A1, paragraph J1 of the bill states:  “A relevant officer is not liable in any criminal or civil proceedings for anything done in the purported performance of functions under this part of this schedule if the court is satisfied that (a) the act was done in good faith, and (b) there were reasonable grounds for doing it.”

'Afghans beyond borders'

'Social workers without borders'

Appeals to human rights and compassion cut very little ice with the Government and its supporters, paradoxically neither do economic arguments about migration and labour shortages seem to matter to the party of business. This is a theatre of cruelty in which being seen to be harsh to migrants (as well as other folk devils such as travellers and climate protestors) is deliberately performed as a means of solidifying its reactionary political base. The continuing arrival of migrants via the Channel has shown that the Brexit fantasy of cutting off island Britain from the world and returning to some imagined 1950s theme park cannot be realised - the anti-refugee bill is an expression of this rage against reality. 

Little Amal in London

There have been other positive gatherings in the last week to welcome 'Little Amal', the puppet of a young refugee that has made its way across Europe from the Turkey/Syria border.  I went down to Deptford last Friday (22/10/21) where thousands of people, including lots of excited school kids, crowded the streets for Amal's arrival in London (see report at Transpontine).

As described by the projects Artistic Director, Amir Nizar Zuabi: “It is because the attention of the world is elsewhere right now that it is more important than ever to reignite the conversation about the refugee crisis and to change the narrative around it. Yes, refugees need food and blankets, but they also need dignity and a voice. The purpose of The Walk is to highlight the potential of the refugee, not just their dire circumstances. Little Amal is 3.5 metres tall because we want the world to grow big enough to greet her. We want her to inspire us to think big and to act bigger.”

There was a festival atmosphere in Deptford High Street. Music included the South London Samba Band and 'We do Good Disco''s Campomatic giant washing machine - yes, there was dancing to Dead or Alive (by coincidence on the day before the 5th anniversary of the death of the late lamented Pete Burns).

'Disco against fascism' badge from wedogooddisco

'Migration is not a crime' says Paddington
- bag from Migration Museum stall in Deptford

Monday, October 25, 2021

Anti-fascism 1962 - the real battles of Ridley Road and Trafalgar Square

The BBC series 'Ridley Road' (2021) is a fictional drama which draws on real historical events - the activities of Colin Jordan's neo-nazi National Socialist Movement in Britain in the early 1960s, and the efforts of its opponents, especially Jewish ones, to stop it through intelligence gathering, demonstrations and ultimately physical force. The series adapts Jo Bloom's novel of the same name and its main story line of a Jewish infiltrator going to the extent of sleeping with Jordan may be a fictional device. But it needs to be restated that much of the action in the series is based on actual events - especially as some including a Daily Telegraph columnist have complained that it is BBC propaganda that overstates the threat of the far right in order to whitewash left-wing anti-semitism. The latter certainly exists in some quarters but to deny the menace of organised far right anti-semitism seems perverse - we are talking about people who actually burnt down synagogues.  

Here's some contemporary documentation of episodes featured in 'Ridley Road'

Colin Jordan and George Rockwell

Colin Jordan founded the National Socialist Movement in 1962 having split from the far right British National Party because they weren't explicitly Nazi enough for him. He was a leading figure in the international neo-nazi movement and in 1962 hosted a visit by the leader of the American Nazi Party, George Rockwell. The latter was deported from the country in the aftermath of a far right camp in the Cotswolds.

The camp in Guiting Wood 'was stormed by 100 Cotswold villagers'. A swastika flag 'was hauled down after its centre had been blown out by a 12-bore shotgun, and as the villagers wrecked the camp the party followers fled' ('Fuhrer hunt hots up as Nazis routed', Aberdeen Evening Express, 8 August 1962). The Daily Mirror termed this 'The Battle of Dead and Bury Hollow' after the part of the wood where the fighting took place ('Village Army Routs Nazi Camp', Daily Mirror, 8 August 1962).

Daily Mirror, 8 August 1962

(it seems the Cotswolds anti-fascist mobilisation was started from by a party from The Farmers Arms, Guiting Power, Gloucestershire, including its landlord Walter Morley. The pub is still there today if you want to raise a glass to them!)

Rockwell boasted shortly afterwards that he and Jordan 'had made certain arrangements which will "shock the world within six months''' (Belfast Telegraph, 10 August 1962). It was during his 1962 visits that Jordan and Rockwell established the World Union of National Socialists.

Jordan was married to Françoise Dior

Françoise Dior was the niece of French fashion designer Christian Dior, though as an international nazi activist she was denounced by her family - Christian's sister Catherine (Françoise's aunt) had been sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp for her activities in the French resistance. Dior and Jordan are believed to have met in 1962 and married the following year in Coventry, to anti-fascist protests:

'British National Socialist movement leader Colin Jordan and his French bride Françoise Dior were bombarded with eggs, stink bombs and pieces of turf by part of an angry crowd of about 500 after their marriage at Coventry registry office today. Jordan (40) and his 31 year old bride – she is a niece of the late fashion designer Christian Dior – greeted the crowd with Nazi salutes after the 15 minute ceremony. They were met by a chorus of boo and jeers, and the crowd surged forward in the attempt to break through the police cordon' (Belfast Telegraph, 5 October 1963).

Dior was an enthusiast for Synagogue burning, and was involved in an arson plot by NSM members to put this into action. She was jailed in 1967 in relation to arson and attempted arson attacks against 10 synagogues in the London area in 1965, having told  police that she 'would like to make an Act of Parliament to burn down all synagogues by law'. Among the buildings targeted was the Brondesbury Synagogue, extensively damaged in March 1965 and the Herbert Samuel Hall Synagogue in Notting Hill in June of that year (Belfast Telegraph, 7 September 1967). 

Trafalgar Square

London's Trafalgar Square was a flashpoint in 1962, with two major confrontations in July of that year. Jordan's NSM held a 'Free Britain from Jewish Control' rally there on 1 July. There was mass opposition: 'speakers were almost drowned by jeers from the 2,000 strong crowd' which 'charged hurling eggs, fruit, tin cans and coins'. The NSM's truck was stormed and its banner 'broken and burned'. 21 people were arrested' ('Battle of Trafalgar Square: Fury at Fascist Meeting', Daily Mirror, 2 July 1962).

A few weeks later on 22 July  1962 another far right organisation, Oswald Mosley's Union Movement, tried to hold a meeting in Trafalgar Square with similar results: 'Stones and tomatoes were thrown, placards and flags torn down and police cordons made helpless by a crowd of 7,000'. There were 55 arrests ('Mosley Meeting Wrecked, Birmingham Daily Post, 23 July 1962).

Illustrated London News, 28 July 1962 (check out cool shoes of anti-fascist throwing a stick, cuban heels a year before The Beatles first LP!)

Ridley Road 

Ridley Road, Dalston was a key battleground between fascists and their opponents in 1962, just as it had been in the 1930s and 1940s as an area with a well established Jewish community. Just a week after being driven out of Trafalgar Square,  the Union Movement attempted to meet there but were opposed by a large crowd:

'Sir Oswald Mosley was hurled to the ground and then punched and kicked in London's East End last night. The 65-year-old leader of the Union Movement was jumped upon as he arrived for a meeting at Ridley Road, Dalston - scene of many clashes with Blackshirts in the 1930s. The rally last night turned into a three-minute-fiasco - that was the time Mosley was allowed to speak before police were forced to stop his meeting because of rioting. And after the meeting police arrested 48 people including Mosley's ginger-haired son, Max. For an hour before Mosley arrived, the police had struggled to control the 1500 strong crowd of jeering, shouting East Enders... Chants of 'Down with Mosley' and 'Sieg Heil' drowned his words. Rotten fruit, stones and coins were hurled at the grey-suited Union Movement leader' ('Mosley beaten up again, Daily Mirror, 1 August 1962).

('The magic words "Mosley Speaks" will spark a riot anywhere... in this stronghold of anti-fascism their appearance was a guarantee of  trouble... they cried 'Down with Mosley and down he went'  - Pathe newsreel of Mosley in Manchester then in Ridley Road in July1962 - still below shows anti-fascists being held back by police in Ridley Road)

With plans for further fascist meetings on 2 September, the Home Secretary banned all demonstrations in the area -  affecting planned events from the British National Party and the anti-fascist Yellow Star Movement, though static meetings were not covered by the ban. Following the announcement there was an explosion outside a synagogue in Stoke Newington described by Rev. Sargent of the Yellow Star Movement as 'fascist activity' (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 1 Sept 1962). Sargent was the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Dalston and one of the founders of the anti-fascist group who held a position of non-violent opposition to the far right - disagreement with this position led some to form the 62 Group, a militant Jewish organisation set up in August 1962 and who were the main inspiration for the Ridley Road drama. They were to play a major role in fighting the far right for the rest of the decade.

On 2 September the Yellow Star Movement occupied Ridley Road to prevent the BNP holding a meeting. The BNP had gathered nearby in Balls Pond Road where 'they were attacked by several hundred men' - probably one of the first actions involving the new 62 Group. 

Birmingham Daily Post, 3 Sept 1962

On the same day, Mosley's Union Movement was forced to abandon a meeting in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, after two minutes. A crowd of 3000 broke through police lines and Mosley faced 'Boos,  blows, eggs and stink bombs'. There were 40 arrests (Birmingham Daily Post, 3 September 1962).

There were further clashes on 16 September, when Hackney Young Socialists occupied the space in Ridley Road where Mosley's supporters were planning to rally.  As fascists 'marched into the Young Socialists rally... Fighting broke out immediately. It spread through the crowd in Ridley market and spilled out into Stoke Newington High Street' (The Newsletter - Socialist Labour League, 22 Sept.1962)

Colin Jordan was jailed for 9 months in 1962 having established 'Spearhead' as a paramilitary force linked to the NSM. The latter was relaunched as the British Movement in 1968. In the same year he was 'beaten up in a well-planned attack by a group of men in Birmingham... Jordan was in Waterloo Street in the city centre with four other men handing out leaflets for a meeting when about 30 men came running round the corner and set upon them' (Aberdeen Evening Express, 11 September 1968).  

Jordan remained an active neo-nazi until his death in 2009. While some of his erstwhile collaborators attempted to tone down their public rhetoric and present themselves as simple British patriots, Jordan never disguised his Hitler worship and virulent anti-semitism. 

The events of 1962 sparked not only militant anti-fascism but a wider call for legislation against incitement to racial hatred. More than 100,000 people signed a Yellow Star petition calling for this, and 'Three hundred teenagers from Jewish and non-Jewish youth clubs in the Hackney area' marched from Ridley Road to Downing Street in support of this.

Association of Jewish Refugees Information, November 1962

See also: 

Radical History of Hackney for more on this and the 62 Group

A history of the 62 Group from Searchlight, 2002

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dance Can't Nice - exploring black music spaces at the Horniman Museum

In '696 - Dance Can't Nice' at South London's Horniman Museum,  the artist Naeem Dxvis explores London's Black music spaces with an installation recreating four kinds of spaces - a church, a 1970s front room, a barber's shop and a late 1990s teenage bedroom.

The focus on more private/domestic spaces is in itself a reflection that Black musics and Black people have often been excuded from public music venues and clubs, down to the Metropolitan Police's Form 696 which discouraged grime nights.

'Bedroom - A place that encapsulates the bedroom DJ culture that birthed grime, garage and drum n bass... it has served as a recording studio, a rehearsal and conference room, as radio station and sometimes even the club. Bedrooms like this are also spaces for young people who don't have safe space to perform or showcase their work'

'Church: The original Black music space that has birthed countless Black British musicians and genres. The church has housed music that creates connected communities'

'I want to evoke a sense of nostalgia and create value for the forgotten. I want to honour our spaces... Each space replicates the imagined and lived utopias of club culture as sanctuary and the everyday domestic and social spaces that infuse the foundation of Black British music' (Naeem Dxvis)

The title of the exhibition comes from a line in General Levy's Incredible ('Dance cyan nice unless we name pon de bill').


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sophie Richmond on the politics of punk (1977)

So many words have been spilt about first wave UK punk and politics over the last 45 years, but one of the most lucid contemporary assessments came from within The Sex Pistols camp. Sophie Richmond worked for Malcolm McLaren's Glitterbest management company. Amidst all the chaos somebody had to make sure the bills got paid (or not), but she did a lot more than  admin. She was part of a collective effort around the band, also including her then partner Jamie Reid who designed the Pistols' art work. 

It's quite remarkable that in the midst of all this she should take time to consider the political significance of it all for an obscure libertarian communist magazine, Social Revolution (no.7, 1977) . The group behind it had been formed in 1975 and was soon to merge with the longer established Solidarity group. Political threads from this current led back to a shared heritage with the Situationists in the group Socialisme ou Barbarisme - the Situationists being an influence on McLaren and Read among others. Plainly Richmond, then 25 years old, had her own political perspectives that predated punk and the Pistols.

Her conclusion from the heart of the storm is succinct and accurate - music on its own can't change the world, romantic myths of heroic outsiders are a dead end and punk was inevitably on the road to being assimilated. And yet it was expressing something real, addressing how many young people felt, and opening a door of possibility where interesting things might happen before the door slammed shut once again. 

Extracts from article:

'Labels are inescapable and punk isn’t such a bad label really. Something for kids to identify with that sounds a bit vicious and tough, definitely anti the shit/ideology they try to shove down your throat at school.

Punk says “I’m a lazy sod“ and “I wanna be me“. It’s the latest in the glorious line of teenage rebels… From James Dean and Marlon Brando in the postwar American movies through the Teds, the mods, the ever present greasers, the skinheads and now the punks. Someone’s going to ask me why I left out the hippies. Can’t you feel the difference? (the hippies and alternative culture is what I grew up with so my view is jaundiced anyway, but it seems as though it was all very middle-class; it gave us the alternative society; it gave us peasant clothing and beads; but I don’t think it really gave us a lot of help in solving, or even helping us think about the problems of living in and changing a distinctly urban and industrialised country.

Anyway. Punk is teenage rebellion again. So the question to ask isn’t so much “How much potential for social change is there in punk rock?” as “how much potential for change is there in the teenage rebellion syndrome?” So we look back. No, nothing really changed much did it? The rebels have died (James Dean, Gene Vincent) have got assimilated, became successful (Rolling Stones) and have nothing to left to say to their still alienated audience. There are two things here – 

1. the expression of frustration, alienation and pissed offness felt by kids growing up in USA and UK who found the future is even more unattractive than their present. 

2. The eventual failure of those who voiced those feelings to escape assimilation and equally, the failure of the kids who dug it to escape their fate.

The lesson, I suppose, is that culture can only take you so far. Be you ever so pissed off and alienated, if all you do is sit down with your stereo and play "My Generation" a million times, you’re not going to get very far. The value of the Stones, Who, Vincent, Sex Pistols is it they can create a climate, put ideas into people's heads, at their best give off enough energy and enthusiasm to make people feel like they’re doing more than buying the next super duper album.

Because ultimately it’s up to the audience to decide if they’ll buy the action as well. And it’s up to the activists and militants to use the energy, the honesty, to grasp it and take things further and say look, we can do this, it’s not just fantasy.  Because attitudes don’t threaten, not in the cradle of free speech and liberalism. Attitudes are easily defused, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t revolution.

But there’s a point in time, before the media has jumped on your backs and exposed every hypocrisy and contradiction, before it’s become clear that you’re just another rock band, easily bought off by money and fame, when attitudes are potentially threatening to the system. And these kids and bands certainly aren’t upholding it. The Sex Pistols want  anarchy (their meaning clear enough in the song “I wanna be anarchy… I wanna be an anarchist, get pissed, destroy");  The Clash want a riot of their own in the song “White Riot" written in envy and admiration after the Notting Hill riots last summer. The Buzzcocks from Manchester sing about boredom and alienation (can’t stop using that word)… 

“I’ve been waiting in the supermarket, standing in with the beans (ketchup),  I’ve been waiting at the post office for silly pictures of the Queen (stick up), now I am waiting for you to get yourself good and ready (make up),  I’ve been standing in the standing room and I’ve been waiting in the waiting room, no one told me about the living room gonna forget what I came for here real soon" [Buzzcocks, Time's Up]

Great. At least it’s a bit real again. I’m sick of silly love songs which don’t have any meaning when you know, however passionately you’re in love, that your chances of getting a place you can call your own or a job with enough money to support your kids aren’t too hot.

But in some ways the punk bands are carrying on establishment myths of antiheroes, losers, dead enders. Romantic but slush. To be avoided. Liberal containment myths. But there’s a few encouraging things… The sudden emergence of a dozen or more young bands in the steps of the Pistols, not too hot musically or politically but at least a nice reaction against the progressive rock of the last 10 years, so overloaded with technology that it can’t go on the road with less than 40 articulated lorries and a cast of one million technicians. I like the whole do it yourself philosophy which shows in the clothes as well as the music [...]

Bands like the Sex Pistols… The punk bands in this country… Talk a little about reality, however little gets said before it’s all neatly tied up and put in little packages by the record companies, before the dying dinosaur of the music biz jumps in in search of a fast buck, before the posers start cashing in on the image (I see them on the horizon). That’s their value'.

Sophie Richmond's diaries of her time with the Pistols are quoted from extensively in Fred and Judy Vermorel's book 'Sex Pistols: the inside story' (1978).