Introduction to Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys …and Other Seasons…
There is an uncanny visual parallel between Mad Martin's apocalyptic vision (top) and (bottom) this eerie photo of Moss Side burning. Martin's biblical romantic cataclysms once touched off, melodramatic, self-destructive presentiments amongst the Victorian bourgeoisie but his pictures were still given pride of place amid the bric-a-brac. Also many of Martin's images were taken from foundry explosions and pit disasters in which workers lost their lives. Just so long as the workers didn't revolt such disasters were comforts to the bourgeoisie providing a measure of their strength. None of today's rulers will look at Moss Side without shuddering because it represents as plain as day, the beginning of their end.
My mother groaned! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud: Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
(From reflections of a Moss Side rioter, circa 1981)
The rest of the world has long recognised the UK (except N. Ireland) as one of the most liberal countries in the world. This by now reflex view has been slow to die the death.
In spite of the Parliamentary ambivalence intrinsic to declaring several 'States of Emergency' and shortish periods of national government restricted to wartime and the '30s economic depression, the Mother of Parliaments has adequately served the interests of the ruling class. Since Cromwell's Protectorate following the civil war of 1640-5, it has never resorted to outright dictatorship.
Many illusions have been spawned about Britain's liberal tradition by people who should have known better. The general drift of their pronouncements if not remembered word for word have been passed on from one generation to another inhibiting the emergence of a revolutionary critique.
Marx and Engels (particularly the latter who had many illusions about German Social Democracy also) went so far as to speculate on the possibilities of legislating social revolution into existence in Britain. In a speech given in Amsterdam in 1872 Marx said, 'There are certain countries such as the United States and England in which the workers may hope to secure their ends by peaceful means.' This misjudgement much influenced by English liberalism has persisted through to the present day. It is the backbone of left parliamentarism and ginger groups from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Trotskyists, the revamped ultra-Stalinists of the New Communist Party through to the various still overwhelmingly Parliament orientated single issue campaigns (e.g. ecology and the increasing professionalism of the women's movement).
But going back to the origins of that other strand of the labour movement eschewing Parliament and politics in general, we find Bakunin's inappropriate judgements on Britain exaggerated the opposite extreme. In Statism and Anarchism Bakunin said 'In England the social revolution is much nearer than is generally thought and nowhere will it assume such a terrible character because in no other country will it meet such desperate and well organized resistance.' Marx is naively pragmatic, Bakunin apocalyptic magnifying out of all proportion the determination of the ruling class to resist at any cost, libertarian revolution. Both are completely wide of the mark - a sure indication of the difficulties encountered in getting to grips with this deeply perplexing society. Analysis tends to get bogged down in a sort of metaphorical swampland and the blood of insurgents dead begins after a while to look like ketchup as the quagmire begins to suck in the partisan. Or maybe you take a leap expecting to clear the swamp to land on 'the other shore'. But meanwhile the bank has vanished into thin air like Carroll's Cheshire Cat and you go down, down, down. It is a land of undertones, riddles, top secrets and endless mazes attracting unsuspecting travellers off the known routes.
Approaching the end of the 20th century, to EEC bureaucrats sitting in Brussels, the UK is the 'sick man of Europe'. The symptoms that go to make up the 'English disease' are many, including a seismic strike record. Unlike the modern technocratic character of French capitalism, Britain's fixed capital is antiquated. Rapid de-industrialization and the acres of reclaimed land on which only a few years previously stood mighty industrial structures appears to painlessly blend with a still powerful feudal heritage sold the world over to attract tourists. This medieval tableau appears to stand cheek by schizoid jowl alongside some of the most advanced projections capital is capable of (fashion, pop music, joke packed ads, a sales oriented exploration of the human psyche indebted to the artistic avant garde of the '20s and '30s and surpassing by far the psycho analytical obviousness of the Hidden Persuaders.)
Britain is a paradoxically closed yet 'open' society ruled over by a patrician but condescendingly populist elite possessing the most remarkable cunning and duplicity well versed in a token recuperation of everything from below that raises its head in protest. Yet at the same time it unfailingly manages to treat those below as another species being. On almost everyside there is also an almost totalitarian repressiveness in daily life at odds with the trajectory of modern capitalism and deriving ultimately from the native strength of the puritan tradition. In 'The Twilight of the Idols' Nietzche said 'In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one's position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic'.
It was a fighting observation only marred by Nietzche's failure to explain why. Much of the historical strength of moral fanaticism in Britain derives almost totally from the need to keep the working class pressed down. Particularly in the first half of the 19th century British capitalism possessed in religious garb a remarkably effective array of penitential ordeals, abject deliverances, a horrifically mutilated sexual imagery, ministering to the whole person but designed to assure labour discipline and the very profane ends of increased profitability.
These religious practices have disappeared but the immense Jekyll and Hyde psychic damage they inflicted still lingers on, it tends to generate a sort of unhealthy euphoria springing from being tied down. In fact there was just enough strength left in the beast its hour come round well over a century and a half ago reared on hard work and thrift, despising leisure seekers and idlers to ensure Maggie Thatcher a near landslide victory.
At the opposite extreme there is a boll weevil refusal of work which Thatcherism has only patchily checked. But longer holidays, 'sickness' benefits, absenteesim on the firms time must venture more than comfy arm chairs and let the good times roll right on through the capitalist leisure principle. For example the long Xmas break extending into the New Year and still unique to Britain is experienced by many people as a grindingly empty endurance leisure-test.
Leisure in Britain is still organized far more than it need be - even in terms of capitalist alienation - around the maintenance of work discipline. As a moral philosophy monetarism is the heir to a long line of secular disapprovals of enjoyment forced to intermittently hibernate throughout the long boom of the '50s and '60s and early '70s. Naturally the workers were not cut out of the shopping spree. That made no economic sense whatsoever. But in revenge they were treated like spoilt wayward kids liable, given half the chance, to put coal in the baths of their new dolls houses. Though the economy held the keys to the toy cupboard, patrician forbearance (e.g. Macmillan) was there to regulate the playroom terrain of consumption in broadly the same manner as workers could not be left alone to get on with a job at work. (Skilled British émigré workers particularly in Holland are genuinely taken aback at the comparative absence of surveillance at work and the adult availability of credit facilities: in contrast British management is hamstrung by attitudes more appropriate to the early stages of capitalism). With the result leisure in Britain has a crazed edge and every second is flogged to death as if it were the last. Contrary to myth Britain is a very violent society.
Other than as a means of reviving energies expended at work, leisure has no place in Britain. Latin societies only just manage to maintain a whiff of the good life but wine, good food, relaxed eating and drinking, leisurely raps have long been a mark of class distinction in the UK. This would be severely utilitarian regulation of social life weighs particularly heavily on the unemployed who are forced in over, press ganged so often into an a-sexual cell like existence alienated almost beyond alienation. They are left dangling in a void often without a modicum of social contact. Their isolation is frequently aggravated by a collapsing family structure excelled only in the States.
Yet over the last decade the UK has lived through profound social turmoil. Mingled with the seemingly never ending hopelessness of drugs, drugs, drugs, drink, drink, drink, the place is alive with an unfocussed rebellion.
There is a path that leads out of this wasteland and during the summer of '81 the unemployed started to travel its length unaided. The totality of desperation and misery produced its opposite - The nights were young and tho' the pubs had called time the firewater was freely circulating.
In the space of 10 days in early July '81. England was transformed. It will never be the same again. Every major city and town was rocked with youth riots. Bored youngsters ranging from 8 to 80 excitedly got ready for an evenings burnin' and lootin'. Even Army recruits on leave joined in. If the grandkid did the hell raising, grandma helped out with the free shopping. In Manchester an 8 year old was arrested for setting fire to a bike shop and in Bristol a paraplegic pensioner was wheeled obligingly into a supermarket so he could get in on the lootin' too.
Beginning in London, the riots spread north to Liverpool, followed by other big northern and midland cities. Up to now people have been kept in the dark about their actual extent. It was said over and over again that sensational media coverage fanned the riots (the so-called copy cat effect). By the end of riot week holidays it was clear; the media were underplaying what was going down in the towns and cities. Clearly things were getting out of hand and Chief cop Oxford had just said few people realized how close the police had been to losing the battle of Liverpool. Scotland and Wales though less affected were more or less totally blanked by the media. Trouble there would have done for that sociological nonsense which claims all the trouble was caused by black 'unadapted' youth. Apparently there was more to Saturday night aggro in Glasgow than the usual trouble at closing times and Paisley Anarchists got closed down by the police.
Throughout the glorious week, the police received the hammering of their lives. Several police stations came under seige in Bristol, Southall. Birmingham (Handsworth) Manchester (-in Moss Side where youths set fire to 12 vehicles in the police yard), Sheffield (an unmanned station attacked by skinheads) and in Derby where a police traffic office was set on fire. The four corners of England if not yet the whole of the UK were exposed to a force 10 gale of youthful class fury. There will be set backs but in the long run the infectious momentum will hopefully prove unstoppable and roll on through other sectors of alienated society.
What had once been a solitary half mad '60s vision now grown old with time, of volcanic eruptions affecting vast masses of people in every nook and cranny and backyard appeared about to come true. Across an incredulous media was flashed the news that sleepy towns - the scented rose gardens of England's dreaming - had suddenly been hit by brief, furious riots: towns like Cirencester, Market Harborough, Dunstable, the fossilizing well spa resort of Knaresboro' and ultra posh Southport where the northern bourgeoisie elect to die on their fat retirement pensions. Old oaken shades and mossy lanes with evocative olde worlde names had lost their immunity from potentially revolutionary turmoil. What happened in the rural Cremlington on the Bumps' was also reflected in Halifax, a quintessential 19th century northern industrial town preserved almost intact. In this living museum of industrial archeology, silent mills and smokeless chimneys, sand blasted to look a bit like Canterbury, petrol bombs were also to snake through the cleaned up air. Preservation orders may now be organically assimilating the first shocks of industrialization to the more archaic past but the heirs of Robin Hood and his merry men women and children were making doubly sure no such preservation order would be slapped on them. The New Towns descendents of the countrified socialist garden cities, which Lenin loved so much and copied in mother Russia, laid out and policed like old colonial citadels got their dues. Letchworth where Lenin lived for a short while didn't get torched but nearby Harlow did.
The eyes of the world were fixed on the UK and its peoples were for a brief moment to become the latest in the line of oppressed nationals beside those of the Chileans and the Irish. Placard waving demonstrators in Canada supported the heroic struggle of the British People against the fascist Thatcher tyranny!! Applied to Britain this inflated populist rhetoric, which lefties find so irresistable, was inconceivable a mere 8 years ago. Even an Iranian Ayotollah in Qom accustomed to foaming with anti-imperialist rhetoric prayed to Allah for the black (but not the white) rioters.
PLAY SCHOOL FREEDOM FIGHTERS GO RADICAL WINDOW SHOPPING
It was kids amazingly who were responsible for most of the heavy shit going down. Teeny boppers dragged weeny boppers along in their wake. Or vice versa - no one was quite sure. It was that sort of anybody's guess time. Although the rioting was commonly said to be the effect of mass unemployment, top authorities refused to acknowledge unemployment as a cause of the rioting because of the large number of children involved. The authorities were right on the level of facts but the kids intuitively knew far deeper than any big shot, there was No Future for them in the old world of work. Whitelaw said 'Many of the hooligans were aged between 10 and 11 even less so there can be no question of unemployment being the cause'. Children in particular played a prominent part in the battle of Liverpool 8. Out of 67 arrested during rioting on Park Road, 21 were juveniles aged between 8 and 16. The Tones tried to blame the troubles on lax parents and the break-up of the family. Relations within the family are loosening but a growing distance between parents and kids even in tight knit working class families didn't stop parents from being right behind their kids.
…Waiting for night to fall. What was going to happen next? A kid breaking free from school in the late afternoon, shouting loudly to others - was that a signal for a riot to begin? Who could tell? Adults thought so but then they weren't really in the know. 'Hey son, where's it going to be tonight?' 'Kilburn', came back the answer. And five hours later the police got ready for the battle of Kilburn which never came. ... a few broken windows, a clothes rack nicked out of a store but Sinn Fein still blinkedly sold their wares in the pubs.
Galvanized awake many older people particularly in the northern towns joined with gusto in the rioting. If caught they could expect no mercy from the courts and several received stiff prison sentences. But it was on a more general day to day basis the effects of the rioting, causing people to sit bolt upright and take notice, were the most apparent.
During past proletarian upheavals, the 3 day week, the Winter of Discontent etc, the lives of people not directly involved had been sufficiently disrupted for them to start asking why. Now people were hit in the gut with a sledgehammer blow. Suddenly there was an endless amount to talk about. The baffling uniqueness of the events for a time all but stamped out prejudiced superficial reactions. The battle on the streets opened up closed, frivolous, trendy, desperate minds everywhere. Before peoples eyes a new level of reality was being unforgettably exposed and a dream of distant Utopias became by fits and starts a real possibility.
In pubs there was only one topic of conversation. Trivia: tennis at Wimbledon, the Test match, the coming Royal Wedding were barely mentioned as talk came to center on the streets. Did anyone really want to watch escapist films, the lies and half truths of TV documentaries or listen to music. Rank was going to close 13 cinemas in London because of falling profits. So fucking what!
Eyes and ears were glued to the news media. However the predictably slanted version of events did not signify control over peoples mind. The salient facts were all that counted and reading between the lines must have become habitual. At any rate inspite of the press, TV and radio coverage there was remarkably little animosity, at least in the big cities shown towards the rioters - excepting the police that is. Bewilderment maybe amongst sections of the working class and lower middle class but no thought of ever coming down hard on the rioters crossed their minds. In fact many an onlooker was inspired by their example as buried hopes and expectations were raised. Violence in the streets externalized the violence raging within as the phoney class peace announced by Thatcher came to a dramatic and unanticipated end.
'WE SHALL OVERCOME' - Maggie Thatcher on the friday night of riot week hols.
Black youth were the main protagonists but only in the sense that they opened up the gap through which Asians, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Turks, Greeks, Cypriots, Eskimos - if these categorizations still have any meaning - and others, followed. So sing out if you're glad to be an albino! Truly it meant that the UK was in the throes of becoming one of the first unfolding multi-racial, pre-revolutionary societies. The rioting as press and politicians alike had to frankly admit (Enoch Powell excepted in a BBC radio program on July 7th '81) was not racial in character. (Here too we exclude fascists like Charles Parker of the 'New National Front' who said, 'the riots are just a rehearsal for full scale war') But elsewhere in the world accuracy was lacking. A journalist from Corriere Delia Sera, probably hooked on some anti-imperialist ideology of racist Brits, lyingly reported there was fighting between black and white youth in Liverpool.
And initially some of the German press (e.g. Frankfurter Allegemeine) reported the riots as racial in character too. They quickly changed their tune in the next few days. The American press taking their cue from The New York Times which made the mistake of describing the first night of the Brixton riots in April '81 as racial (again quickly changing its tune the following day), now at least plumped for a semblance of accuracy. Emphasizing class as the prime factor, they rightly noted London had seen nothing like this since the days of the Gordon Riots in 1780 (The International Herald Tribune). Though 400 insurgents were shot by the army in the streets of London in 1780, taking the UK as a whole, it's a fair bet the riots were the most extensive if not the most intensive ever since the Civil War. And Ned and Lady Ludd were weeping with joy in an anonymous grave on some wild Yorkshire moor at the splendid audacity of their successors.