By the Waters of Babylon
When the variety profession was at its height theatrical lodgings in Brixton, roomy houses that had become rooming houses, handily close to the West End and the exit roads from London, had taken over from its middle-class Victorian heritage. Most theatre artists made their permanent address in one or other of the myriad bedsitter flats that abounded amongst the ‘pro’s digs’. It was a desirable neighbourhood when World War Two started, though with a Bohemian undercurrent provided by the variety artists. Abe Ball, who briefly tried working the boards as “Major the trapeze artist”, set up as a garden gnome manufacturer and failed. He moved to Coldharbour Lane, in Brixton, in the early Forties, which was a comedown for an entrepreneur. Not so dramatic as it sounded to a later generation when his son John Major sought to capitalise on it as the “Brixton boy who made Prime Minister”.
It became a slum only with the aftermath of the war. In the streets where the Fred Karno troupes had set out in their own buses with the leading comedians of the day and the world famous stars of the future, the glory had faded and it was drearily ordinary. It wouldn’t have become a slum, but its neglect after the bombing coincided with the decline of the music hall profession. The first wave of immigration from Jamaica and the Caribbean Islands went there because of its cheapness and the fact that Black faces were already familiar. Relatively cheap bedsitters and vacant rooms in crumbling houses were available before the crazy price market caught up with the times. Unlike North Kensington, the only other part of London where similar conditions prevailed, the element of Rachmanism was less active.
Suddenly in the fifties Brixton changed. When the Government started advertising in the Caribbean for transport and health workers, at wages unheard of there, everybody with aspirations began calculating that if (what was considered there) an unskilled job could earn that much in London, what could they, with their qualifications earn. It seemed the golden road now the USA was closing its doors to the Caribbeans. Nobody realised, so I was told, that those were all the jobs available at those salaries, nor that the wages were hardly fabulous on prevailing English standards, nor that housing was scarce and expensive, and they never even reckoned on the greater need for domestic electricity and of transport to work. They also expected a warm welcome as they were going to what had been held out to them for years as “the motherland”, and they were in for a rude shock. Others can tell the story better than I.
Many friends of mine in the older Black community in Brixton moved out when the newcomers came rather than be caught in the traumas created. Their main complaint was the oppressive presence of a churchgoing community which they thought they had sloughed off forever. I did not see it could be all that bad but I remember being assured. “Bethels and brothels go together.” It turned out to be the spiritual opium of older people and the material opium of the younger but otherwise it was a replay of Victorian England.
Within a few years there was a clear rift between sections of the older members of the new immigrant Black community and sections of the younger British born generation. When I was living in Finsbury Park one of the tenants in the house literally threw his daughters out, down the front steps with their clothes and a suitcase tumbling after them, one girl after the other in the space of a few months, purely on the grounds that the eldest didn’t go to church and the younger wasn’t a Christian because she was seen entering a dance hall. Fifteen years old, she came to us for weeks, hiding from her father upstairs, just to eat. She never said where she lived and we finally lost touch with her. I often thought of that poor girl when hearing the complaints of churchgoers about their children becoming “alienated from the community”. It will take a generation or two yet before these sects go the way of their English counterparts. Meanwhile they flourish as they do in the USA and with the same effect upon their children.
The Battle of Railton Road
The police were baffled as to whom to blame when deprived young Blacks suddenly exploded against harassment. It is normal practice in such circumstances for them to blame “outsiders” to show it was in no way the fault of the authorities. They blamed Blacks from Finsbury Park for bussing in to cause the Brixton riots, which they seemed to suggest the peace-loving local Blacks opposed; and, when riots spread to Finsbury Park, they blamed Blacks from Brixton for bussing in there.
When the Brixton riots began in 1981, the police did their best to blame anarchists, who had just squatted an empty shop at No. 121 Railton Road, and might otherwise have been the perfect patsy. It was rather difficult as the rioters were Black youths pushed by harassment, and few of them at that time knew what anarchism was about, certainly theoretically. The riots started in Railton Road, and 121 was left untouched when the pub that had operated a racist policy opposite was burned down, but it was the police who unwisely started a battle there, driving the battling youths out of Railton Road on to the main Brixton shopping centre. There they engaged in looting the shops, whereupon people of all races and ages enthusiastically joined in. Even one old lady on a Zimmer frame asked for something to be brought from a window, which an agile youth courteously handed her.
With one young Rastafarian I had previously spoken about what anarchism was, and he was not unsympathetic, though into nationalism, and was enthusiastic about the Angry Brigade in the Sixties. As distinct from most Railton Road Rastas, hostile to 121 Bookshop because of its stand against religion and its identification with feminism, though tolerant to its stand against “Babylon”, he was very much opposed to some other Rasta elements who wanted to make a violent attack upon the shop. The local Rastas at that time hated the idea of Blacks coming under any other influence than theirs. My friend was derided by them as “Jim the Anarchist” by which name he was known to many.
It is relevant to say he was of medium height, very broadly built and deeply black, more African than Afro-Caribbean. There was an ultra-pacifist Jim Huggon who spoke in Hyde Park, associated with Freedom and Peace News, who was not much of an anarchist, very pacifist, very tall and thin, and extremely white, not even the usual pink, except politically. Two more physically contrasted characters one could not meet.
“Jim the Anarchist” was fingered by a nameless informer as being one of those who triggered the riots. The police immediately arrested White Jim, perhaps on notes from Hyde Park police on “Jim the Anarchist”. Huggon had a cast-iron alibi in that at the time he was alleged to have incited the riots, thrown petrol bombs and led an attack on the local police station, he was some twenty miles away playing the violin professionally in a church concert and could not possibly have dashed off in an interval to take part in these more wholesome activities. His witnesses would have been the vicar, band, choir and entire congregation, who would have stood out in marked contrast to the drug-dealer grass the police may have had available, and the case was dropped. The days were gone when a jury would convict in the teeth of that evidence, however severe a lecture they might receive from the judge afterwards.
Jean Weir, who had long been a spirited activist in Britain, France and Italy, was only a trifle less fortunate. She was living in the same Coldharbour Lane where John Major ex-Ball once lived. and Patricia Gambi, an Italian friend, was staying with her. They were arrested as Jean, a real live anarchist, was seen walking her dog when riots were going on nearby. It was a gift to the press as “The Italian Connection” when the magistrates sentenced Patricia to twenty-eight days for “threatening behaviour”. Originally, when the case came before the magistrates the police helpfully produced dozens of photographs. The magistrate looked through them carefully and asked where Miss Weir and her friend were. “Oh, they’re not in the photographs, these are just to give an idea of the background,” explained the police witness. The magistrate threw the photos down angrily and asked them not to waste his time. Ultimately, however, it did Miss Gambi no good not to have been photographed.
Black Jim moved away from Brixton, guessing it would not have been difficult for the police to bring before a court the same witness they were prepared to bring in the case of White Jim. After he went the Rastas who were hostile to 121 tried to move in and take it over by force, some moving in with knives and threatening the people in charge of the bookshop. It was a difficult position as a clash would certainly have been called “inter-racial” which it certainly would not have been. None of the Rastas thought the anarchos were in any way racist. On the first occasion a group was frightened off by someone saying he would “if need be bring all the guns at the disposal of the anarchist movement, place them in the hands of Black Anarchists and wipe out the Rastas” if they hi-jacked the squatted premises. It may have been fanciful but it worked. Only a few Rastas still tried to intimidate, and were confronted by Margaret Creaghe, in the bookshop on her own. She easily out-talked them, and so great was their shame at being browbeaten by a woman, they turned tail and cleared off. Thereafter relations were peaceful.
Indeed on one occasion some German anarchos wandered by mistake into a Rasta smoking den and were surrounded by a hostile group first thinking them police, and then even more hostile when they thought because of their nationality they must be Nazis. The air cleared as someone said, “Oh, they want the anarchist bookshop”, and led them to the right address, not without offering to sell some weed supposed to be “grass”, which was the local livelihood, but without any further threats.
It was a year or two after we lost the old Centre in Haverstock Hill that it occurred to two separate groups, both around Black Flag in our short-lived rotating editorship period, that a new centre of action was needed if we were to maintain the momentum of the movement which depended on its social contacts for both industrial and international action. We lost the old Centre through the carelessness of John Olday. He returned to Germany from Australia, where he promoted gay cabaret of the German Twenties type, and found to his surprise that in his twenty years absence from the anarchist scene the Springer Press had made him famous. The opening of the German police files from Bismarck to Hitler, had encouraged academics to write about the German movement they had previously ignored. Olday was cast as the link between the old and the new on the basis of being the only German they knew, by reason of his copious if little known writing, who would fill the gap between the anti-Nazi resistance and the renaissance after the war.
He accordingly found entertainment work in Germany, even on the nonconformistic gay scene, utterly impossible and came to England. He had a small amount of cash which soon ran out (for some reason he could or would not take the pension or social security to which he had to be entitled) and contacted me to see if I could help. I put him up in a room of the Haverstock Hill club, explaining it was officially uninhabitable because of the rats in the cellar. When the landlord found out he was living there, because of his complaints to him about the rats, we all got evicted. The landlord was outraged to find we had been running a club, because of the profits he realised he was missing, and once we were out applied for a licence ostensibly in the name of what he thought was an “already running Spanish club”. As it was at the height of the “Persons Unknown” case it got raided a few weeks later by police looking for arms, surprised to find cigar-smoking punters playing baccarat instead.
Soon afterwards the premises at 121 had been set up, replacing the Centre, with the disadvantage of sharing with disparate groupings but with the advantage that no rent had to be found. It had previously been squatted by various organisations, Trotskyist and Black nationalist, before they got funded by the local council. The new “121 Group” comprised the newly formed Brixton branch of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, one of the rotating groups of Black Flag, and various anarchist, punk and squatting groups, all on an equal footing. They had been in possession only a few weeks when the riots broke out, and a great many buildings in the area were burned or looted, but they had won the recognition of the local community as to which side they were on.
Almost simultaneously the other rotating group had decided, with other groupings, to set up a new Centre in East London. I had not myself been involved in the building of either Centre, being immersed in the new wave of industrial activity, in Black Flag, the Anarchist Black Cross and the changes in Spain following the death of Franco. But they affected me considerably, and by the time 121 was being squatted I had committed myself both to it and to an entirely different venture, the Autonomy Club in Wapping. It was Ronan Bennett’s brainchild. Ever the optimist, I hoped it would take off, against reasonable expectations and my own expressed judgment.
Iris Mills and Ronan put a tremendous amount of work into funding, finding and then building and decorating the place. Ronan, possibly misled by the backing the Persons Unknown had received, which numerically might have been about the same as that of the Republican Clubs of Belfast, not unreasonably thought at least one club on those lines could be established. In some capital cities on the Continent there are up to a dozen anarchist clubs or centres.
But the amount of committed support was limited. Ronan decided to appeal for support from the punk anarchists, then a new phenomenon, saying the punks would pass anyway and would be useful for the time it was around. The punk support, especially from followers of Crass and Poison Girls, was substantial. Punk has lasted a couple of decades, long outlasting the proposed club. With the punks’ money came the punks, and in the first week they had ripped up every single piece of furniture carefully bought, planned and fitted, down to the lavatory fittings that had been installed by Ronan from scratch, and defaced our own and everyone else’s wall for blocks around. In the excitement of the first gigs where they could do as they liked, they did as they liked and wrecked the place. Loss of club, loss of money, loss of effort. End of story. Ronan was not unnaturally disheartened and returned to even more chaotic Northern Irish politics.
He couldn’t get employment as the job centre explained that with his notorious record — being fully acquitted twice — he would never get a job in the public sector and there were no jobs in the private sector, where he would probably be blacklisted anyway. In the old days they would have suggested going to sea or Australia, but in these days you can’t do either with a criminal record or even some types of non-record so they proposed that he got a grant and went to university, where he gained a doctorate and then became a successful novelist, one field where a colourful CV is no handicap.