Thursday, April 04, 2024

Shocking Pink and other feminist zines: an interview with Katy Watson

The 'Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990' exhibition at Tate Britain (2024) included a great collection of zines and printed ephemera from the feminist movements of that period. Included in one of the display cases were issues of Shocking Pink magazine alongside punk/post-punk records from bands including X-Ray Spex, Au Pairs and Mo-dettes. Sadly my friend Katy Watson, who was involved in Shocking Pink, is not here to see this but as a sometime queercore/punk DJ she would no doubt have been delighted to be in such company. Shortly before she died in 2008 I interviewed Katy about her life, including in this section about her memories being involved in Shocking Pink and other zines including Outwrite and Bad Attitude, all in the context of living in Brixton in late 1980s and 1990s. Katy first moved to London in 1988 after finishing University, her first home being a rented room in a house in Kennington next door to future Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw! Soon, as she recalls, she was getting involved in feminist publishing...


'The best thing about this time was that I used to work as a volunteer on this newspaper called Outwrite, a feminist paper which I really admired. It was very lesbian and I was thinking about my sexuality at that point. It was really big on international news, they had a very international collective from all over the globe. I thought it was wonderful, but unfortunately it closed down during that year.

After a year or so I ended up living in Brixton. That was the place for me. For the first time I felt ‘I am at home here’. I really liked it, there was a big alternative profile, a big anarchist scene, a big squatting scene, a big lesbian scene, and suddenly not having a job became a very good thing. I was signing on and realized I had plenty of time to hang out with my friends, drinking tea, yakking on and watching daytime TV but also to do political stuff which I got more into at that time.

Troops Out

I was involved in the Troops Out Movement quite early on when I lived in London. I worked on their magazine, Troops Out. I was also part of organizing an Irish arts exhibition and film festival. The art exhibition we tried to put on through Southwark Council initially and that lovely publication the South London Press ran a front page news splash saying council funds IRA film show and the Council very bravely shut the thing down. We managed to transfer over to Lambeth and had the exhibition in the basement of the recreation centre, not the most accessible high profile place, but we put it on and it did have some really good art work in it. We had a weekend film festival at the Ritzy cinema with various political Irish films, some really good stuff. Some of it was not very subtle but some was much more exploratory – I wouldn’t call it straightforward Irish republicanism but something in that area.

I went on the Troops Out delegation to Belfast and stayed with a family, it was shocking and frightening to find yourself walking past soldiers with their guns. It did feel pretty besieged.

Shocking Pink

I started working on this magazine called Shocking Pink, which at that point had an exhausted collective who really wanted to palm it off on someone else. Me and my friend Vanida took it on to quite a large degree. It was based in squats, and was a young women’s magazine. It was supposed to be an alternative  to magazines that were around at the time like Jackie and My Guy which were all about boyfriends and getting your make up right,  whereas this was feminist and had a good lesbian profile as well, which definitely was a big pull for our readership. We used to get lots of letters from isolated lesbians from all round the country. They found it a real lifeline when they felt isolated at school and stuff like that. 

I really liked that magazine. I liked the way it worked. We had a kind of no-editing policy - if we wanted to put something in we just put it in wholesale. We didn’t put everything in, we were selective about what we put it in, but very open. It meant that we put in heaps of stuff which individuals on the collective might never have agreed with and thought was rubbish, it made it very varied and quite strong for that. It made the collective meetings and collective process of putting it together quite light and quite fun because we weren’t sitting round saying ‘what news issues do we need to cover‘. We were just saying ‘OK what articles have we got typed up on the computer, what cartoons have we got, is this enough to fill a magazine yet?’, and then when it seemed like it had  built up quite a lot we’d shove it all together and have these big press weekends. First of all it had to be typeset, which we did late at night in this friendly typesetters’ office. I first started learning typesetting which led ultimately to the layout and subbing work I did later on. I really took to it, I really liked the whole world of newspapers and magazines.

I learnt how to use the typesetting machine, it was a beautiful old machine, very difficult to use and user-unfriendly compared to the DTP that was going to come in a couple of years later but the results were really beautiful. We’d come up with lovely long columns of beautiful quality typeset articles - galleys - ready to stick down in our mad collagey style that we had at Shocking Pink. Then we’d all spend a whole weekend spending 16 hours a day sticking it all together, doing lots of art work round the articles. 

It was loads of fun as a collective experience,  there were lots of volunteers who’d all come out of the woodwork at that point and join in. Just generally around Shocking Pink it made it into a little gang. There was another woman called Louise who I guess was the third main person in the collective apart from me and Vanida, a lovely person who used to do our music reviews - a good little punk. It was just fun being in a gang. After a new issue came out we’d go round selling it, even selling outside Brixton tube station just like the SWP would with their paper, or else we’d go the easy route and go to lesbian pubs and sell it there because it was easy-peasy selling it as a dyke thing, We’d go on demos with it and flog it. It was such a sort of positive publication it was very easy to promote it, you didn’t feel like you were forcing anything difficult or worthy on people that they are less keen on sometimes.

Shocking Pink’s office shifted from a couple of squats, and we managed to get ourselves a huge big room at the top of 121. We had to fight with one of my flat mates, Alex, who wanted it for Class War but we managed to just swing it by claiming that we should have more women in the building!

The poll tax riot

We went on that really huge anti-poll tax demo [31st March 1990] - it was absolutely vast with about half a million people on it or something like that , the one that turned  into a riot in Trafalgar Square. There were lots of little poll tax riots going on all over the country at that point, quite a busy political time with quite an anti-Thatcher focus. We went on that big demo with our stacks of Shocking Pinks, selling it, and it was a mad demo. It had all the lefties and anarchists and all the trot groups but also Tories in big flowery hats, it was a sunny day, it was like people were out for a big picnic partly as well. 

And then in Trafalgar Square it just turned into a riot with police horses and people chucking loads of stuff. I’d met up with my poor sister who absolutely hates that sort of thing. Of course I was totally thrilled that there was a riot. We were sitting by some landmark and I would say ‘I’ll see you in ten minutes’ and I’d go and try to riot and chuck things into the crowd. I was a really awful rioter because I couldn’t throw very well so I ended up throwing things on the heads of the people in front of me which was not a lot of help to anybody. I’d do that for a bit and then I’d go back and check on my sister who was completely stressed out about the whole thing, and then I’d go  and try and riot very ineffectively a bit more. It was an exciting time when you just felt that a lot was happening and I do personally credit that particular riot with bringing down Thatcher- there’d been lots of riots, but that one was big, there were huge buildings in Trafalgar Square set on fire and it went on well into the night. That was a very good time.

Squatting in Brixton

I moved around loads when I was living in Brixton. Some of the time I was living with these friends right in the middle of Brixton in Rushcroft Road, which felt like quite a crazy place. I lived in this very nice co-op for a while, but everyone was always arguing. Then I moved into a squat for a year and a half - I had the world’s easiest squatting experience, we had electricity and I wasn’t there at the point when they actually opened it up and did all the hard work, I just moved in and said ‘Oh will this be my bedroom then?’, and painted it nice colours!  It was quite together it wasn’t one of those disaster squats full of hopeless types, it was quite organized and sensible, it was very sociable and very pleasant.

I really enjoyed squatting, it was very much part of the Brixton anarchist scene, very connected with the 121 bookshop.  I lived in a squat in Saltoun Road, then later lived in flat back in Rushcroft Road with Rosanne and Atalanta and about ten pets - cats and dogs. 

After a bit I decided that since Shocking Pink was a young women’s magazine I was maybe getting  a bit old for it, it was supposed to be for teenagers and I was beyond that so  I left.

I was working part time, I’d done a course in typesetting and DTP and started working on TV Quick. I was doing lots of writing, working on my first novel, unpublished to this day!

The Wild Women’s Weekend

I went to the Wild Women’s Weekend [in May 1990], it was in a squatted former council housing benefit office in Brixton,  next to the George Canning pub [later Hobgoblin and now Hootenanny] and also unfortunately next to Brixton’s rather anonymous Tory headquarters. It doesn’t have the name on it - they wouldn’t dare, just a bit of blue paint. I think it was them who were instrumental in eventually getting the place shut down. It was this lesbian squat for quite a while, well not exclusively lesbian but quite lesbian.

All that dyke scene in Brixton did dissolve fairly quickly in the 1990s because the squatting laws got harsher, and all the gentrification started and  Brixton just became too hard and too expensive to live in, but at the time that squat was a fantastic achievement. The Wild Women’s Weekend was absolutely amazing, women coming from all round the country and probably abroad as well. There were loads of workshops, sort of practical workshops like bike maintenance, lots of discussion groups, and obviously good parties in the evening. That was a very fine achievement.

Bad Attitude

A couple of years on I got Bad Attitude together, it was really me that motivated it because I was still sort of hankering after the days of Outwrite because I so admired their international news perspective, and I thought ‘we need that”. We went through  quite an arduous process of fundraising for it, galvanizing a collective, sending out loads of letters appealing for people to take out advance subscriptions and we managed to buy ourselves this tiny apple mac to lay it out on. Shocking Pink had folded by that point, and Bad Attitude took on the office and took on some other people involved. We had Vanida, and Sam my old flat mate, Rosanne and lots of other people who came and went'.

(The loose transcript above doesn't completely follow the audio interview here as it was edited from a number of different taped conversations).

See also:

Friday, March 08, 2024

Institute of Goa 1995 (plus Trends/Trenz in Stoke Newington)

A couple of flyers for London parties I believe I went to in 1995 (sometimes it's a bit hazy) . The first one I think a free party somewhere on 8 April 1995,  'The Cave Club' summer party featuring Institute of Goa and Chiba sound system. Not sure where  in 'central London' this was.

The second one is an Institute of Goa Halloween Party, I think in October 1995, at 240 Amhurst Road.  I can make out some DJ/performer names there - Liberator DJs, Aztek (ex-Spiral Tribe), Brides Make Acid...

Although the name might suggest a pyschedelic/goa trance vibe, something that was emerging as a distinct sub genre at this time with clubs like Return to the Source, I think that 'Institute of Goa' was more on the harder edged London free party techno/hard trance tip. I beleive it was run by a guy called Chico who also DJ'd as Whirling Dervish. I'm pretty sure I also went to a night they put at Labyrinth (ex Four Aces) in Dalston Lane, or maybe that was something else. They also seemed to have taken part in the Deptford Urban Free Festival which I went to in 1995, on the Innervisions sound system. 

Deptford Urban Free Festival 1995, held in Fordham Park SE14
('Anti CJA=Freedom')
Amhurst  Road: Trends/Trenz nightclub [post update 10/3/2024]

Thanks to Blackmass Plastics for recalling that the venue at 240 Amhurst Road was a club called Trends at this time. Events there included in October 1994 an 'All Hail Discordia' all-nighter put on by Sublminal Revolutions (which I believe was run by Lisa Lovebucket and Lovely Jon), during the Anarchy in the UK Festival in London

Later the spelling changed to Trenz, as mentioned for instance in this listing for Undergrowth there from Muzik magazine, April 1999:

Must admit I've got a bit confused about identifying this location. 240 Amhurst Road E8 was the address of the longstanding pub The Amhurst Arms. It has had various incarnations this century including De Bysto, Oro and most recently The Hand of Glory.

But down the road in a separate building 240a Amhurst Road N16 was a hall that was the headquarters of the Hackney Spiritualist Church in the 1900s and then the Hackney Jewish Lads Brigade. In the 1960s it became the Regency Club, notoriously associated with the Kray Twins, then later became Willows, an African Caribbean Club. So I assume it was this building, rather than the Amhurst Arms, that became Trends/Trenz. Apparently it's now been converted to flats. This was presumably also the location in 1970s of Phebes 'Reggae, soul and funky club' famous for its Jah Shaka sessions as well as its own Phebes Hi-Fi (thanks to John Eden for info about this) - but again there's some confusion as address is given as 240 not 240a, though elsewhere I have seen Phebes address given as 240a! 

Flyer archive Phat Media has one for a 1993 event there which names the venue as The Jungle Club, so maybe it was know as that for a while too.

The club was the scene of a fatal shooting in 1997, as reported in Birmingham Mail:

See also:

Some Brixton Nights 1994/95 (Club 414, Fridge etc)

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Melancholic Troglodytes on Star Trek, Dune, Capitalism and War

A couple of sci-fi infused critiques of capitalism and war from Melancholic Troglodytes from the early 21st century.

'Neither Species 8472 nor the Borg: No war but the class war' (2001) uses Star Trek as a framework to understand the impending conflict between the US (the Borg) and the Taleban (Species 8472):

'The Borg's diplomatic panache  seems to have been pirated by the US Bourgeoisie. American military radio broadcasts to the Taleban carry an ominous message of doom and assimilation: “You will be attacked by land, sea and air...Resistance is futile”! The Taleban (species 8472), for their part, are quite oblivious to the tractor beams and photonic charges of their nemesis. Their mastery of fluidic space has conditioned them to thinking of themselves as pure, superior and invincible. Even as the bombs rain down on them, the Taleban insist on viewing the Borg as decrepit and decadent, hence their battle cry: “The weak will perish”!'

Full text at Internet Archive

No blood for spice melange

'God Emperors of Dune' (2003) switches to the Duniverse in the lead up to the Iraq War, with the war for oil now being fought over 'Spice melange: The second most precious commodity in the known universe (after labour power)'...  'Paul recounted the efforts of House Atreides to counteract the falling tendency of the rate of profit. His father the Duke had increased the mass of surplus value by raising the intensity and duration of the working day and at the same time decreased the mass of variable capital by depressing wages and expanding foreign trade. Paul would continue this good work by decreasing the mass of constant capital through raising the productivity of labour in the capital goods industry (Caffentzis, op cit.) and by launching the holy Zensunni Jihad. The Jihad, in particular, would catalyse innovation in technology and open up new areas for profitable capital investment.'

Will the proletarian Freman upset the schemes of the rival houses? 'There was only one force they had not reckoned with and that was the mysterious Fremen. Intelligence could not predict their behaviour, although recent reports of Fremen children chanting, ‘No war but the class war’ were ominous. They seemed impervious to both Imperial Conditioning and the Great Voice. How do you control slaves that you rely on for profit? For as the orientalist Nietzsche once said: ‘There is nothing more terrible than a class of  barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations'

Full text at Internet Archive

See also from Melancholic Troglodytes: Star Trek: Towards a Historical Materialist Critique

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Cavern Club 1963 : an 'alternative to this world'?

Interesting article from Peace News, 20 December 1963 in which Richard Mabey writes of his visit to the Cavern Club in Liverpool and reflects on its then newly famous sons, The Beatles. Mabey of course is now well-known as a writer on nature. You can read the full article here.

Twist and Shout

'[...] In the Cavern Club, the heart of the Liverpool beat music scene, the first and inescapable impression is that the whole thing is fun. The groups, some of whom play themselves out in this stifling tunnel-like cellar for expenses only, really enjoy it. Most of the numbers they play are requests from the girls in the audience, an audience they dance amongst during the intervals, and which loves their noise, horseplay and histrionic Northern humour. There’s none of the phoniness and self-pity that used to characterise so much pop music, when hip-wiggling, lamé jackets and the lonely boy in the lonely spotlight were the things that used to fetch in the screams.

The audience in the Cavern seems to be almost completely classless, not only in social terms, but also in terms of the trends and sects which the teenagers set up themselves. Mods (those who assiduously follow the very latest crazes in fashion and jargon) and rockers (who normally stick to leather jacket and jean gear) mix with an ease that would start a certain riot in almost any dance hall south of Luton. The only types missing are the more vicious yobs that usually turn up at Saturday night dances with the sole intention of starting a fight, and the floppy-sweatered traditional jazz addicts. Most are dressed in the smartly eccentric mixture of Italian and beatnik styles that has become the uniform of beat music followers; denim shirts with very high or button-down collars, knitted ties, collarless jackets, tight trousers that run dead straight from hip to ankle (sometimes flaring at the bottom), and of course those great fluffy piles of brushed-forward hair. The girls conform less to their pattern, which, when it appears, is long skirts that reach to below the knee, short-sleeved jumpers, fiat heeled shoes, and sometimes French jockey caps.

The Cavern can cram about 700 of these devotees into a space not much bigger than a couple of nissen huts, and consequently ordinary movement is a real accomplishment. Which probably accounts for the new dance - in different towns I've heard it called the Shake, the Blues, the Noddy and the Twitch - that has come in with this music. In it the kids stand quite still on the floor, but shake every other part of their bodies bodies like manic clockwork toys. Dour commentators from the Guardian and New Statesman have just shaken their heads, and have read into the expressionless faces of the dancers signs of incipient Fascism and  'wilfully created vacuity'. Perhaps if they tried it themselves they would find that it is as all popular dance should be, totally physically involving, making facial expression superfluous.

[...]The Beatles are avowedly non-political. But their music, and the craze that they have started, is blatantly subversive. On the surface it is brash, and by our conventional standards, uncivilised. But it revels in gaiety and abandon. If the Beatle people have rejected the drab world of adult responsibility and obscure political squabblings, it is because they have formed for themselves - in the dance halls, at parties and even just singing in the streets - a revolutionary alternative to this world. If they can find laughter and enthusiasm on their own, even for just one evening a week, then the efforts of the politicians become irrelevant.

Pop music stands or falls by the degree to which it is wild, loud and exciting. Critics who are obsessed with banality, materialism and selfishness in the words of the songs, have completely misunderstood the level at which  young people accept them. With what seems to be irrefutable logic, teenagers will argue that if you want sophisticated orchestration or serious words, go listen to classical or folk music. Leave pop to its proper province, the stomach'. 

Mabey's reference to the dour commentators of the New Statesman was a response to 'Scouse: The brutal reality of Liverpool in the early 1960s' by John Morgan, published in New Statesman on 1 July 1963. Morgan also visited the Cavern but was horrified by what he saw:

'The violence lies in the stunning volume of sound, in the incoherence of the dance, and in the wilfully created vacuity of facial and verbal expression. The darkness is almost total. A faint red light plays over the heads of dancers at one end of the smoky, airless room, but three arches further along it dissipates. So tightly are the boys and girls packed together, 750 of them at 4s. 6d. a ticket, that there is no room to dance anything but the Cavern Shake. Ideally, to judge from the techniques of those girls in leather gear – the height of fab – the neck is held rigid while the head moves quickly and tensely from side to side. The arms jerk, puppet-like. The zombie effect, the acute nervous condition, is enhanced by the look on the face. This is not ecstatic, but empty. Vacuity is more than make-up or a mannerism – it is a philosophy. Sweat pours from walls and faces. To force your way from one end of the narrow cellar to the other, pummelled by elbows, breasts and twitching knees, is one of the more nightmarish of current experiences. I suppose I’ve been going to jazz clubs for 15 years and I’ve seen nothing which compares for noise, discomfort or hysteria. On stage all the while, the young men (I never saw the Mersey Birds) play their electronic machines and shout like mad, some for little money, some for none, praying that they can follow the other Mersey groups, like the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, into the fortune of the charts'.

(interesting this condescending meme of 'vacuity' in sub cultural writing, to be defiantly thrown back by the self defined pretty vacant punks of the next generation) 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Coventry Working Men's Club 'Colour Bar' (1971)

An everyday tale of 1970s racism in England involving the Barras Heath Working Men's Club in Coventry and its efforts to keep out black people. The Race Relations Act 1965 may have banned discrimination in public places but there was an ambiguity about the status of members clubs - were they private spaces and therefore not subject to this law, or in providing for the public were they prohibited from discrimination? This played out in a number of court cases and local disputes in the 1960s and 70s. In the Coventry case, the local Community Relations Officer made a complaint about the club in 1970 after it advertised that a dance would be subject to 'house rules' that were understood to include 'a clause forbidding citizens entry on grounds of colour'.

In the following year a group of young people from the local Methodist Central Hall discotheque club picketed the club after one of their members - 'A 20 year old Indian youth' - was refused a drink in the working men's club. According to their leaflet, 'The club uses coloured men to help build its extension yet it will not allow them inside when the job is done. An Indian member of our group worked at the club as an electrician but when he came back in the evening he was refused a drink'.  

A few weeks later it was reported that 'Members of a Coventry church discotheque club are taking their campaign against racial discrimination to the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling'. They argued that the existing law 'left a loophole for clubs such as these to continue to discriminate on racial grounds' and that 'it should be against the law of this country for any club of whatever sort to so discriminate' (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 18 August 1971).

Five years later though the club was still 'notorious for its racialism' according to a report in Workers Action, refusing to 'book any black artists' or allow 'membership or entrance to blacks'. Seemingly they must have slipped up in their bookings 'and one night a black member of Equity turned up at the Barras Heath - and was turned away'. Equity, the actors' union, then called for its members to boycott the club and for a picket involving '100 local trade unionists' which performers refused to cross.


This case was by no means unique. As Camilla Schofield has described 'While the working men’s club now looks like a vestigial social institution of by-gone days, it was at its high-water mark in the 1970s with over 3.5 million members of the CIU [Club and Institute Union, the umbrella body for working men's clubs]: CIU numbers were never as high before nor since. In some towns and cities, particularly in the industrial north, working men's clubs were regarded as the centre of social life, the beating heart of labourism. In County Durham, ‘To exclude coloured people would be to institute apartheid’, wrote a club member in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. Yet in some towns and cities, even in highly diverse areas, clubs held long-standing explicit or unwritten whites-only policies—or ‘some form of colour bar’'. Schofield suggests that 'white solidarity and exclusion' in such clubs was a factor in the construction of an image of the working class as white, male and industrial - an image bought into this day by parts of the left as well as the right. Easy to romanticise  this past, but large parts of the working class, including women and black people, were never invited to the party. See 'In Defence of White Freedom: Working Men’s Clubs and the Politics of Sociability in Late Industrial England',  Twentieth Century British History, Volume 34, Issue 3, September 2023.

Friday, February 09, 2024

1995 London Clubs

From the 'Capital Guide: London for Londoners' (Boxtree publications, 1995), published in association with the London Transport Museum, Elaine Gallagher writes a guide to London clubs. Quite a few of those mentioned sometime haunts of mine at one time or other.

Flipside at Iceni in White Horse Street W1 was very much on an acid jazz tip when I went there in 1993, with Young Disciples DJs.  Were there 'board games and a chill out area complete with tarot reader'? Well yes I recorded in my diary that there was Risk and Buckeroo, but missed the tarot.

I loved the Leisure Lounge in Holborn, promoted by Sean McClusky, 'a converted former snooker hall, now boasting 2 dance floors' and according to this 'offers raucous punk, funk,  and hip hop for fashion victims with lots of fun fur and blue hair'.  Second half of sentence vaguely correct, though more fashion slayers than victims. But the music when I went was always house, house and a bit more house.

McClusky also promoted Club UK (which I've written about before) and fellow South London club Minstry of Sound inevitably gets a mention. Turnmills in Farringdon obviously a legendary 90s venue, mainly went to Gallery on Fridays, also Eurobeat 2000 but famous for gay nights FF and Trade.

Mambo Inn at Loughborough Hotel in Brixton  - 'world music with a little lambada and merengue thrown in', not to mention African sounds - was a big night for me a few years before.

Subterania, under the Westway in Ladbroke Grove. Never went clubbing there as such, but did see Lush and The Chills (from New Zealand) at an indie gig which google shows me was on October 11 1989. Once went to the Tearooms des Artistes in Wandsworth, ambient vibes.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Jeremy: a London gay magazine features skinheads (1970)

The fantastic Bishopsgate Institute LGBTQ+ archive has digitised issues of Jeremy, a London-based gay lifestyle magazine from the late 1960s and early 1970s.  A 1970 issue includes 'A lingering look at skinheads' (vol.1, number 8).

'The 'in' music is Reggae and Blue Beat - energetic and uniform, almost monotonous - and the dance steps are simple and regular. The complications of progressive pop and all the with-itness of that world "pisses them off" and can lead to aggro. Big dance halls, like Mecca and Top Rank, are skinhead palaces'

Jeremy included a 'Gay Guide' to London clubs in a period when gay clubs had to be discrete and generally members only.  This issue from 1970 mentions The Toucan in Gerrard Street and The Masquerade and The Boltons in Earls Court the latter's regulars 'a pretty mixed bunch, some stunning, some just stunningly weird, some in semi-drag, some just a drag, but all full of shrill bounce and life'.

Intriguingly The Union Tavern is Camberwell New Road is also mentioned with drag nights three times a week plus 'Reggae (skinhead night)' on Tuesday. Doubt if this was a specifically gay skinhead night, but there was obviously a crossover with the gay scene. The skinhead article describes skins' enthusiasms as 'football, clothes, girls (not always) and music'

The skinhead photoshoot includes one shot taken outside the Union Tavern and the Jeremy Gala at Kensington Town Hall in September 1970 included a discotheque with the DJ  Mickey 'The skinhead from last month's Jeremy'. So can only assume as well Mickey was also DJ at the Union Tavern  skinhead night.

(outside the Union Tavern - I used to drink there and recognise its distinctive frontage)

[When I was at school the term  'Jeremy' was used as a homophobic slur - 'a bit of a Jeremy' etc - which I assumed was related to the Jeremy Thorpe scandal in the 1970s (Liberal MP accused of plotting to have an ex-lover killed). But was the term in circulation before that, associated with the magazine?]

The Union Tavern is now the Golden Goose theatre. The Union Place Resource Centre - a radical community printshop - was a couple of doors down, and I drank in the Tavern after popping down there sometimes. I remember one night meeting veteran council communist Joe Thomas in there, as he died in 1990 I think this must have been in 1988/9.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Luton punk squat party 1985: 'Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed'

In November 1985 there was a squat gig in Luton with local punk bands. Unusually for that time some people actually took photos of it which have popped up on facebook and other places over the years (including I think the old  UK Decay website). So we have a lovely snapshot of the some of the beautiful people of my home town and I still have the flyer, which promised a lot:

'On Saturday 16th November an attempt will be made to put on a squat gig in Luton featuring local bands Karma Sutra, Penumbra Sigh and Party Girls. The reasons for doing a squat gig are many and varied. The bureaucratic organisations of the political elite do nothing but spout dead dogma and empty rhetoric about the young and what they think we need. All these schemes do nothing except reinforce our feelings of powerlessness. This attempt to reclaim disused property and put it to constructive use is an attempt to put into practice our own feelings of power and humanity and to do things for ourselves when all around us we are offered nothing except misery and destruction. Here is a constructive attempt to create something of real importance in an atmosphere of love and cooperation as an alternative to what we see around us... we cannot do it alone but we can do it together, come along and participate'

The venue was the TUC Centre for the Unemployed, or rather the building that they had been using at 17 Dunstable Road, Luton, but which they had recently moved out of. Most of the Luton punks were on the dole at the time and many of us had been helped out with our claims and housing issues by the advice workers there - though earlier in the year we had fallen out with the Centre's management when our rowdy protests became too much for them (see previous post on Dole Days in Luton). I think the perception was that the centre was being closed down to punish our ingratitude but actually it reopened later in a different location.

It was a great gig/party, the place decorated with banners, loads of people turning up and three fine bands. Luton's two main anarcho-punk bands from the time, Karma Sutra and Penumbra Sigh (the latter sadly never recorded), plus Party Girls who I guess were a bit more what was becoming known as goth.

Karma Sutra - Graeme, Dave and Neil in shot

Penumbra Sigh - the late Karen Tharsby, Steve, Pete and Mark

Party Girls Dan and Pete

All the bands played in front of a banner declaring 'Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed'. Looking through photos I can also see 'Alternative Luton', 'Revolution is Every Day Life' and 'Where does the enemy hide?'. The latter question comes from London situationist punk funk band Slave Dance, whose song of that name features the answer '...if not in our everyday lives?'. Yes we'd all been digesting the Situationists, mostly via Spectacular Times booklets. I can also spot a couple of Karma Sutra banners: 'Here lies the world destroyed by greed, profit and envy' and a chained up figure inside a globe cage, plus a red and black flag.

I can also see a poster declaring 'Wickham 19 are innocent'. The gig was actually a benefit for this defendants campaign supporting those arrested in a series of South East Animal Liberation League raids on vivisection related companies in Hampshire. One of our Luton crew was among those arrested, hence the graffiti saying 'hello the Wickham One!'

I don't remember all the names of the people below, but not going to name the ones I do remember (you can out yourselves in the comments if you want). Hope nobody minds though being included in the photo gallery I think it's very evocative of a time and place that seems both recent and a million years ago. Obviously if anybody does object to use of pictures let me know and I will edit accordingly,

I was recently in touch with Dave G. who helped put on the party who has kindly contributed his recollections:

'It took place a very short time after the building was emptied. A group of us went down there one evening (in the dark) to gain access. We knew that breaking and entering would be a criminal offence but entering through a window without causing any damage was “merely” trespass and a civil matter. That said, we also knew that the police usually made mincemeat of these distinctions. I think we knew the building and how to get in via a dodgy window then open the doors from inside. 

I remember being very surprised and impressed that someone – I think from Karma – knew about electricity and fuse boxes. I seem to recall that fuses were missing or something had been done to remove power but that this had easily been rectified.

We worked out that entrance to the gig should be via the back of the building to avoid attracting attention with the front available as a fire exit.  You’d pass through a kitchen where food had been made and upstairs there were two rooms – one where all the instruments of the bands were kept and another where people could sit and chat.

I remember bits of the evening itself and that at a certain point the police tried to get in but were blocked.  They claimed it was about health and safety then said, “don’t blame us if you all burn to death” and disappeared.  

I think the event was considered a “success” and there were initial plans to do more.  For example, the big old Co-op building opposite St George’s Square had been empty for years and some of us went in via the back one Sunday afternoon and talked about repeating it there – perhaps on Carnival Day - but it never happened. I think one reason is that the momentum of doing something like the squat gig the first time had now gone. I definitely wanted it to happen at the Co-op and went back a couple of times alone to check things out but it was probably just as well it didn’t happen because the Co-op would have been too high profile to pull off successfully without more people involved and better organisation. I also think that the first squat gig popularity was because the centre had done so much to help people in practical terms and that closing it down was regarded as a spiteful injustice. The people who organised the gig and others who turned up – so many of them had received support and the closure felt more personal and something to be challenged - the gig seemed like “having a go back”. Perhaps, having done it once, people didn’t think it had been worth all the effort.  Certainly, if you are involved in something and it comes off, there’s a degree of wanting to repeat and scale up the same experience, whereas if you weren’t central to it, you are less invested. I don’t know…

To me, the idea of squat gigs/events felt like we were “reclaiming” space, highlighting the waste of resources during a housing crisis and creating our own cultural spaces as an alternative to “confected entertainment” but there were many weaknesses with those theories… [soon] there were other things to be getting on with like Anti-Apartheid, Section 28, the Alton Bill, pickets at Wapping, local strike action at Vauxhall…'

If you have any memories, photos, flyers related to this or similar nights get in touch


Friday, January 12, 2024

Dole Days in Luton: unemployed protests 1985

In the turbulent mid-1980s - 1984 to 1986 to be precise - I was unemployed like most of my punky friends in Luton. My 1985 diary has the same entry on almost every Thursday – ‘Sign on, Switch’. The weekly ‘Giro Thursday’ routine consisted on signing on at the dole office, cashing in our ‘Personal Issue’ cheque at the post office, buying in our vegan supplies for the week, and 'then going home to crimp our hair before heading to the pub and then The Switch Club, the town’s only regular alternative night. There to drink and dance to songs like Spear of Destiny’s Liberator, Baby Turns Blue by the Virgin Prunes, the Sisters of Mercy’s Alice, Dark Entries by Bauhaus and The Cult’s Spiritwalker. In a departure from the general gothdom the last record was usually 'Tequila' by The Champs' (see more here on Luton nightlife at this time).

Many of us were living in bedsits in the town’s London Road area owned by the late Gerry Cremin, a generally amiable Irish landlord who nevertheless thought it necessary to collect the rent accompanied by an Alsatian, a baseball bat and his burly sons (my dad had coached some of them at St Joseph's football club). The deal was that in return for providing a nominal breakfast which hardly anyone got out of bed for, the landlord was able to charge the Government's Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) a higher rent, and the tenants got a little bit more on their dole – so we took home a massive £39 a week. It wasn’t exactly paradise, but it was too good to last.

‘In Luton hundreds of unemployed people under the age of 26 are being made homeless by new government rules on Bed and Breakfast accommodation. The government and their friends in the media claim that these new regulations are to stop people taking free holidays at the taxpayers’ expense. The reality is that most people live in B&B because they have nowhere else to go. Who’d take a holiday in Luton?’ (Luton Bed and Breakfast Claimants Action Group leaflet, June 1985)

In 1985, the Government decided to change the rules so that young people under 26 could only stay in board and lodging for four weeks before their rent and benefits were cut – for those of us living in the Costa del Cremin this threatened homelessness. Actually it was no joke – the Luton News reported that Michael Ball, a 24 year old from Marsh Farm, hanged himself when he was forced to move by the new regulations.

In June 1985, a Bed and Breakfast Claimants Action Group was set up at a meeting at the TUC Centre for the Unemployed (17 Dunstable Road, Luton). This was a trade union sponsored centre which offered benefits and other advice, and for which Luton bands including Karma Sutra, Click Click and Party Girls had played a benefit at the local college (now University of Bedfordshire). I wish I still had my ticket for that, as they were hand printed by Elizabeth Price who went on to be in indie pop band Tallulah Gosh and then to win the 2012 Turner Prize for her video art. 

The Centre was one of around 200 similar projects around the country in this period set up with the support of the Trades Union Congress and local unions. An oral history of this movement has recently (2023) been written by Paul Griffin (Unemployed Workers Centres: politicising unemployment through trade unions and communities). There was a political tension in these centres - were they top down, even paternalistic, welfare service for the unemployed, or were they centres for agitation and organising by the unemployed? That tension certainly played out in Luton, as we shall see.

Flyer for the first meeting on 10 June 1985

A campaign of action followed on quickly from that first meeting. Over the next few weeks, we occupied Luton DHSS and the Anglia TV office in the town, and disrupted council meetings (Luton had a Conservative Council at the time). Between 20 and 50 people took part, mostly drawn from our punk circles but not just the usual anarcho activists. When Prince Charles visited the town's Youth House we occupied the Radio Bedfordshire office in Chapel Street, while Karen Tharsby (singer with Luton punk band Penumbra Sigh, who sadly died in 2013) was arrested for sticking her fingers up at the heir to the throne. The clip below includes short Radio Beds reports of one of the town hall protests and an interview with Pete K. about the Prince Charles visit.


Transcript of BBC Radio Bedfordshire clip: 'There was a demonstration outside Youth House where Prince Charles was on a tour. The demonstration was by young unemployed people from Luton protesting about the government's new board and lodging rules which they claim have made them homeless. One person was arrested. One of the protesters explained why they  tried to disrupt the Royal day: 'to show we're angry about people being thrown out of their homes, made homeless while people like Prince Charles can visit Luton and like £50,000 be spent out on someone like him to visit Luton. People like myself, people in bed and breakfast accommodation all over Luton are being made homeless. I don't see how can they can justify spending all this money on him'. [and how would you prefer the money be spent?] Well for a start I think it should be spent giving people houses, renovating houses, Council houses whatever… hospitals, kidney machines, things like that things that, things that are worthwhile'

 Plans were also laid for squatting – a list of empty properties was put together at the Centre for the Unemployed and circulated in the name of ‘Luton Squatters Advisory Service’ (‘Jobless Encouraged to become Squatters’, Luton News, 27 June 1985). 

Things came to a head in July 1985 when during a protest at another council meeting in the Town Hall there was a scuffle with councillors. Gerard Benton – an advice worker at the Centre for the Unemployed  - was arrested and later jailed for six months for ‘actual body harm’. Gerry was definitely innocent of the charge of hitting a councillor, he had just stayed around after others had left and been the one there to be picked up. After he was convicted, some of Gerry’s friends repaid the councilor who they believed had given deliberately misleading evidence against him with a number of pranks, including placing an advert in a local paper offering prison uniforms for sale, with their phone number. On his release, Gerry continued in advice work until his untimely death in 2005 at the age of 47.

It was all too much for the respectable Labour Party types who ran the Centre for the Unemployed. We were banned from meeting there anymore, and even before Gerry was jailed he was told by the management not to associate with us. One of the contradictions of the unemployed centre movement was that staff were often paid with funding from the Manpower Services Commission - a kind of Government job creation scheme - so there was always a limit to how far they could go in opposing the state. Not long afterwards the Centre moved buildings - leaving the original one to be squatted for one night for a  great Luton punk gig (see post here). 

‘Jobless Protestors Occupy DHSS Office - A demonstration at Luton’s DHSS office against new Government rules for the unemployed ended when police were called in to break it up. Around 40 unemployed people occupied the Guildford Street office on Thursday… They occupied the offices for two hours and hung up banners in windows until police were called by the manager’ (Luton News, 20 June 1985)

‘furious councilors and demonstrators jostled and argued when a protest got out of hand during a committee meeting at Luton Town Hall last week. Around 30 punk-style protestors objecting to the new bed and breakfast laws were ejected by police. One arrest was made after coffee cups were broken during the row’ (Herald, 11 July 1985)

 I believe that the Centre for the Unemployed continued elsewhere in Luton until 1999, and then changed its name to  Rights - this advice service  is still going 40 years later. Looking back I can see that we were sometimes quite obnoxious to  some of the no doubt well meaning people running the Centre for the Unemployed, but equally we felt justified in our anger at their failure to support actual unemployed young people fighting back against cuts to our benefits.

Another leaflet advertising the first meeting on 10th June 1985:

Report on the campaign from Black Flag magazine:

'Youth Dole Sit-in Demo' - Luton and Dunstable Chronicle & Echo, 14 June 1985

A bit more here about Gerard Benton.  A definite Luton character,  I first met him when I was at school and had joined the Labour Party Young Socialists for a while. Gerry arranged a coach trip to the Welsh seaside resort of Llandudno for the LPYS conference, with us all being put up in a hotel. A lot of people came along for the ride, some of whom never even stepped foot inside the conference, with no questions asked about ability to pay. We got to see Steel Pulse too. It was only when we got back that we found out that Gerard had simply arranged for the hotel bill to be sent to Luton Labour Party, who weren't very happy but paid up anyway.

Footnote: a Tory landlord and an imaginary strike in Luton

Another Luton landlord at the time was Mr Mason, a Tory councillor with shabby accommodation in Stockwood Crescent and elsewhere. Some of his tenants took to painting graffiti or otherwise vandalising his office on the way back from the pub and a group of them got arrested in the process. A couple of them were members of the Socialist Workers Party and one of their leading members locally, Ged Peck, was believed to have reported them to the SWP's control commission (their internal disciplinary body). Those involved were furious at what they saw at this lack of support and the response was to submit a fake strike report that was unwittingly printed in Socialist Worker in July 1984. The bad employer was a fictional Pecks Publishing in Luton - named for Ged Peck (who incidentally had played guitar at the Isle of Wight Festival). Gerard Benton was named as the shop steward at  this imaginary firm and the person named as the author of the piece had nothing to do with it. Just goes to show you can't believe everything you read in the archive - let future historians note there was no such strike in Luton! I believe those held responsible for this fake news were suspended from the party.

[This is an edited extract, with some additional material, from my article - Neil Transpontine, Hyper-active as the day is long: anarcho-punk activism in an English town, 1984-86 in 'And all around was darkness' edited by Gregory Bull and Mike Dines, Itchy Monkey Press, 2017.  The full article goes on to look at more Luton activism covering animal rights, anti-apartheid, the peace movement, Stop the City, the miners strike and more. The book is an excellent collection of participant accounts of the scene including The Mob, Crass, Flowers in the Dustbin, anarcho-feminism and Greenham Common etc. You can buy copies of it here and recommend you do if you are at all interested in this kind of stuff.

One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at the anarcho-punk scene of that time is that its politics were a kind of militant liberalism in which activists always seemed to be seeking to act on behalf of others – whether animals or people in far off places – rather than confronting their own position as young, mostly working class people in a capitalist society. There is some merit in this, though a counter argument could of course be made that they refused to be confined to their narrow sectional interest and instead tried to embrace a more global critique of oppression and exploitation. But I guess in the above episode at least we were directly self-organising around our own needs in the context of unemployed benefit cuts.