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.

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Left at the Pier Festival, Brighton 1994

A feature of the 1980s and 1990s in England was officially sponsored free music festivals, usually one day affairs supported by local councils or other organisations such as trade unions.  One such event was the Left at the Pier Festival held on the seafront at Brighton as a 'festival to celebrate public services' and sponsored by Southern and Eastern Regions of the Trades Union Congress and the Workers Beer Company.

The bands playing at this festival would have been familiar at many summer festivals in this period, including Dreadzone, Tribal Drift, Bhundu Boys, the Oyster Band,  Co-Creators and Transglobal Underground. I remember seeing the latter two on a hot afternoon, with a big screen showing action from the World Cup then taking place in the USA. I was staying in Brighton at the time taking part in an international  conference (AIDS Impact: Biopsychosocial aspects of HIV Infection).