BM Blob on the culture and counter-culture of Notting Hill, including King Mob.
Over the past few decades, Notting Hill has been looked upon as something of an unusual area both in London and the rest of the UK. It had (and to some degree still has) a libertarian ambience though the word is not used as it might be used to describe say the past, and maybe even the present of the Spanish workers' movement. It could be described as a kind of tolerance of freewheeling attitudes, behaviour and dress. Flourishing and revolving around the formerly large private rented sector of bed-sits (and later squats in private and state sector) the 9 to 5 grind got the thumbs down every time. It was a place of refuge; a place to escape away from the insufferable constraints of the family background, away from entrenched working class prejudices or career mindedness and a too straight laced world altogether. Single parent mothers (before it became commonplace) could exist without too much fear of persecution and criticism from neighbours. Social Security snoopers from the DHSS tried to make up for this absence though. Easy too for Lesbians and Gays when these words were still whispered elsewhere. But above all, Notting Hill breathed an anti-work atmosphere and nobody came on too heavy for just dossing about with no aim in life, even in the long-gone days of full employment.
Closely related to this anti-work ambience, indeed possibly encouraging it was a certain bohemianism linked to art. In this respect, Notting Hill was an offshoot of Chelsea Arts. Though lacking in money, prestige and tradition, it was a place where these poor cousins, unable to make it in the bogus Chelsea pantheon of art could reside. It was from cheap lodgings off the Portobello Rd in the early 1930s, that a shabby genteel George Orwell sallied forth to experience being Down and Out in London. Though Orwell wincingly and somewhat pompously proclaimed himself as a 'writer' nonetheless throughout his books there is a constant undercurrent disparaging art that is quite obviously related to the fact that he was always short of cash. It seemed however that the more one climbed the moneyed Hill proper the less art became something to be questioned (and this was as true of Orwell as anyone else). The Sitwell's would look with disdain from their Holland Park mansion down Ladbroke Grove, which partially because of very basic economic insecurity, had more than a whiff of arts transcendence to it.
It was sometimes more than a whiff but only just. Max Ernst stayed for a short while in the late 1930s and Kurt Schwitters, the German Dadaist in exile from Nazism, before moving to the Lake District lived in Notting Hill (from his bed-sit he perhaps began to satirize English obsessions with tea drinking, the weather, etc. "When I am writing about the weather I know what I am writing about.") In the 1930s, the widow of that not quite revolutionary theorist of culture, Walter Benjamin, also resided in the area. More generally it became a place for people with a measure of artistic pretension, unable finally to believe whole-heartedly in art and lacking therefore the push to make it. It would stop short at the abandoned painting and a few scribbled pages of a novel never quite up to grasping the connection between half-hearted artistic fumbling and a critique of capitalism. Any mention of historical antecedents which were critical of art, would be met with a vague acknowledgement but not much more.
This is a common enough occurrence in highly developed countries because authority has consciously set about fostering amnesia when it comes to an appraisal of radical tendencies surpassing art, in the revolution of modern art1
Until Punk, which marked the on-set of modernist recuperation in the UK, English conservatism could effectively be relied on to do the job, stifling outbreaks at source. As regards the national cultural scene no re-write of the facts ever proved necessary. Indeed most of the avant garde when fleeing fascism found the United States more congenial. Schwitters it must be remembered also had been criticized by fellow German Dadaists for his petit bourgeois behaviour (e.g. evicting an upstairs tenant who just happened to be in the way of one of his expanding Merzbau' s). The point is plain enough; a relevant critique of modem art was simply lacking in the UK and there was nothing in the country's post First World War history (unlike in France for example) that could have been used as a springboard. In places like Notting Hill especially in its 'counter culture' period this absence was sorely missed. You might as well have talked to a brick wall as attempt to explain the death of art to this rapidly decomposing La Boheme. Talk of changing life produced a ready response all right. The only trouble was that art was looked on as changing life and not a manifestation on the most basic level of an aspect of the same deadly survival sickness, where the distraction of interesting products (and increasingly today interesting but essentially role-bound behaviour), mediates and substitutes for lifeless, uncreative reality.
It was however a La Boheme with a common touch overlapping continually with local people who weren't made to feel unwanted as had happened recently with the yuppie colonization. Besides, their economic circumstances were often not all that different doing similar jobs in Lyons corner houses and the like and always behind with the rent. The more avant garde cultural careerists found it profitable to market people's fascination with this marginal life-style which has always seemed so different. Notting Hill is the background example, to the 1950s film, The L-Shaped Room in which a pregnant French girl running from her parents moves into a crummy bed-sit. In the sub-divided house there is a black trumpeter, an ever-aspiring novelist, a dragon of a landlady, a prostitute, an understanding dyke who liked to dress up in military uniform and her cat. This was also the setting for the novels of Colin McInnes who despite all his liberal and cultural garbage did emphasize the historically unprecedented post war working class affluence and innovative sub-cultures partly associated with it - Jazz, Teds, blacks and smoking dope. (Why else call one of his efforts Absolute Beginners?) Developments from these initial sub-cultural experiments were of course, to become in later years an explosive ingredient in riots2 .
Notting Hill's bohemian heyday was in the 1950s. A decade later, the area became the focus of the alternative, underground, hippy, dropout syndrome. Despite its palpable bullshit it did push a few things to the fore. Inevitably the contradictions implied in practising art became more finely stretched the more obvious its banal, unalterable role became in ratifying the status quo. A clearer headed attack on art and one inseparable from a total revolutionary critique came into f ocus.
The first pro-situationist group to appear in the UK in the late 1960s, King Mob was based in Notting Hill. The delphic slogans which they spray canned on the walls of the area pre-dated those in Paris1968 (also continuing after that) but rarely were as acute and definitely not as consequential. In fact the all-too-obvious flirtation with literature in these slogans was only too appealing to the local counter-cultural poets who just loved them. Their merit lay in remaining anonymous. No one was quite sure who wrote what, nor was it done with an eye to promoting the group (unlike the anarcho-politicos of today, who sign their graffiti, no matter how bad!) In fact graffiti as promo was taken up several years later by groups like the Rolling Stones and others*(3) while the honourable tradition of anonymity was continued in slogans like "Joyless work causes cancer", "We teach all hearts to break" on a school etc. But their revolutionary core poetised though it often was generally remained a dead letter in the area despite the fact that the anonymity and increased incidence of graffiti suggested otherwise. Blake's "The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom" was changed to "Willesden" (a nearby area) -a fitting and knowing response to the pretence of having sprayed it up in the first place.
But what was to follow was even direr as Heathcote Williams, the alternative playwright, took up the spray can. The earlier graffiti at least was striking and gave one food for thought even in its un-amended version. But whatever the ubiquitous "Remember the Truth Dentist" slogan meant, Mr Williams alone knows. True it was an ad for one of his rubbishy plays but it had all the hallmarks of that deliberate and elitist obscurantism which passes itself off as profundity. Or for that matter was his word play on Max Bygraves, Sing alonga Max ("Wankalonga Max") really worthy of practically an entire gable-end wall?3 Revolt was turning into that "crab like movement sideways" (Tom Nairn) as subversion was replaced with a more compatible and time-honoured eccentricity, which teased rather than indicted. In the process, Eng Lit rather than society, became ripe for renewal as Heathcote Williams sought to update old acting traditions (e.g. in Derek Jarman's outré film of Shakespeare's, The Tempest which was also featured in The Sunday Times colour supp.) Or, giving a new lease of credibility for example to a stodgy rep theatre in Harrogate with his own play, Hancock's Last Half Hour. Indeed "Hancock Lives" was one of his few Notting Hill graffiti that reminded people that here was a comic who despite performing on stage and in front of TV and film cameras could still just about say something. But sadly being trapped in the vicious circle of success and failure in society's terms, which in many ways he was so able to parody, was undoubtedly the most important reason for him making sure he had nothing further to say. And for certain Hancock was not contrasting the untutored comic in everyday situations (who really does have an effect) with the comic entertainer who performs to rote.4
King Mob didn't really attempt to come to grips with the brute realities outside the door. Its self- questioning, pitifully small, remained a jumble of good insight and utter incoherence. Within two years it was riven to shreds by lack of clarity, the onset of economic crises and by the class archaisms of the UK that almost effortlessly, it seemed to reproduce. Its leaders (and like those of so many groups today, despite protestations to the contrary), quite quickly fucked off for the bright lights and back to the boorjuice from whence they came.
As for many of the rest, the way up not down proved too alluring once their youthful hi-jinks were played out; the way up becoming part of the post 1968 new middle classes. Some (e.g. McLaren,) achieved national renown, their 'misspent youth' contributed to giving them an easy advantage over their staider rivals. It's depressing because they were so promising and if they'd stuck with their original insights/life -and necessarily deepened them - they would have helped lighten the increasing gloom instead of adding to it. Individuals can and do have an effect even though one must be wary of exaggerating that effect. A scant few, cut to the quick, by this shabby behaviour, especially when it involved former close friends, never copped out. In the long night of reaction that is still with us booze, manic-depression and a beckoning madness were their constant companions even though they comprehended that their reactions were reflex responses to the raving needs of a commodity economy gone mad anyway. In a sense they were among the first to ever burst into that silent sea, forced to play many a fine trick on madness - a madness that has plagued the downturn of every major revolt since.
However to return to the early 1970s. One of the initial reactions, apart from cynicism, to the shabby quick compromises of the King Mob milieu was terrorism -which appeared in the form of The Angry Brigade. Fleet footing in and out of "the Gate", the almost ontological warrior strength they projected made others feel inadequate and contemptible - on purpose one suspected. However, to be generous, although in no way justifying their spectacularised substitionism (which, of course denied being substitutionist) one is obliged to recognise The Angry Brigade as the most avant garde terrorist group in Western Europe and one that fortunately wasn't used by the state like the Red Brigades in Italy or Action Directe in France. The potential as in all terrorist groups was there but their early capture prevented this. Also a certain disdain for a too rigid hierarchy and order taking may have made the task of state infiltration more difficult. However one has to be careful in making suppositions like this. Suffice to say that their manifestoes still have a ring of modernity to them despite much of their wooden, tub-thumping tone. They are refreshingly unlike the quasi-Stalinist/unadulterated blood curdling leftisms of Action Directe or Red Brigades communiques. Perhaps this is the reason why their manifestoes are still reprinted and The Angry Brigade is still held in a certain esteem threatening a second coming like the heirs of the Resistance in Italy or France.
Left to ponder on who were the losers in the long run - us or them - the scale of the co-optation was such that the term" revolutionary" became a prime casualty. It's possible to assign different periods to this response beginning with an early 1970s derisive rejection of militancy. A cartoon at the time showed a typical Notting Hill street scene. Someone has stopped underneath a budding tree. "Hark" he says, "The call of the first militant of spring." By the 1980s a person's worth was valued for how they lived their life and not for the quality of the revolutionary phrase mongering. So many revolutionaries without a revolution when one wanted a revolution without revolutionaries. Later in the 1970s this garbled revolutionism was to be squeezed back into the recuperative rebel music of punk, which got at least some of its edge from the Notting Hill experience over the years. The Clash formerly the 101ers of 101, Walterton Rd - an off-shoot of the Elgin Avenue squat – and spawned in the spit and sawdust, Irish-dominated Chippenham pub, were named after the 1976 Carnival clash with the cops. Minder, the TV serial of cockney low life in the late '70's/early 1980s and which began to popularise more than ever cockney rhyming slang and accent throughout the UK (e.g. Bradford Asians occasionally slipping in a cockney phrase and accent etc.) was often shot on location in Notting Hill and its environs. The Mangrove restaurant appeared in one episode with a local, instantly recognisable giant of a Rasta playing a heavy bit part. Possibly even the fragmentary but ever present anti-art rhetoric, rubbed-off on one episode where a rich, eccentric DJ, shouted, "Death to Music". It's also interesting to note that some of the actors who first found their feet in the Merseyside soap for interlectshooals Brookside can be seen quite regularly on the streets of Notting Hill. Brookside was a media fall-out of Liverpool insurgency, particularly Toxteth in 1981. But the name itself goes back to the Shrewsbury trial arising out of the national building workers' strike of' 72 When, Ricky Tomlinson, a Liverpool building worker, (later to become the Brookside actor) was sent to jail, with two others, accused of really cutting-up untidy on a scab building site. The name of the site? Brookside!
The Clash's first album cover montaged the 1976 Notting Hill riot on the sleeve cover. Music of course -along with the rest of the areas cultural-junk pretensions has been high profile and the list of pop musicians resident or passing-through is endless: Van Morrison. The Pogues. Hank Wangford. Motorhead. Peter Kossoff. Amazulu, George Melly, Kilroy Washington, etc, etc. Though some of this can be diverted within another context (e.g. Motorhead painted into New York style, naive but often funny, anarcho pro-situ murals in Catalunya in the Spanish spring of 1987) there's another point worth making. One would have thought the often rich low-life atmosphere of inner-city Notting Hill would have stimulated some original edgy blues. Instead that incisive expression of black experiences funnelled through the UK's originally white social apartheid -at the moment of rock's brief late summer -came from some dull and uninspiring few acres in London' s Surrey suburbia, which spawned Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and Eric Clapton. At their best they weren't so short of Hendrix's guitar licks ...It goes without saying that these are comments about a recent past and of no relevance to the present situation when music has nothing to say except turn the lights off and "go to sleep."
Liverpool is the most artistically conscious of northern cities. Going back to the 1920s and 1930s its main bent was literary, then literary/musical in the 1950s and1960s. Since the First World War, the art that has stamped the city has always been 'committed' ears pinned back to catch the sharp turns of phrase Liverpool is noted for. It has at frequent intervals obliquely raised the question of 'art and revolution' but has persistently shunned radical critiques. It is an observation as true of John Lennon as it is of Jamie Reid, the pro-situ recuperator and thief of other people's leaflets and stickers who is now a friend of Mersey actors. The fact that Brookside actors are turning up in "The Gate" merely serves to underscore the similarity in outlook and ambience between the artistic scene in "The Gate" and the one in Liverpool - except of course "the Gate" is incomparably wealthier and closer to the real centers of power and influence in TV/film and theatre.5
That's Notting Hill in a nutshell: real issues and real conflict instantly spectacularized for media consumption. With regard to recuperation a point must be made about Notting Hill. Here recuperation is instant, clever and quite out of synch with a more laggardly, even archaic means elsewhere in the UK.
A Half Way Libertarianism.
However given the areas general libertarian ambience, finding toes to tread on wasn't difficult. Try and be more rigourous and concrete and you were really courting ostracism. Its phoney classlessness was not really to be questioned. The issue of class was always fudged, ignored and a muddle-headed liberal individualism could so quickly turn into a disregard for basic human needs and a helping hand which more solidly working class neighbourhoods give priority too - though less and less so in London. Moreover there was a tendency to disregard those subtle changes of attitude amongst workers. Passing almost unnoticed it meant that a lot of the old prejudices (get a good job, get married, honour the nuclear family, racism etc) were being thrown off. Partly this was happening in response to the high degree of visibility this somewhat elitist libertarian scene gave to scanning such prejudices.
Escaping the constraints of an overbearing family was fine but then to have no back up whatsoever was also often a recipe for mental breakdown and suicide, which happened only too often. The only other alternative at hand were hard drugs, especially heroin, which in Notting Hill was initially spectacularized as romantic, daring and free and the ultimate 'junk' commodity - at once spoof and liberation -surpassing the philistine need to acquire a car, nice carpets and go on a package holiday. Not being able to take our desires for reality heroin ran a close second. But this was well before its extension into working class communities became commonplace and where its destructive, pacifying, function was only too obvious. Indeed, King Mob, constructed a float for the 1969 Notting Hill Carnival on which a girl "Miss Notting Hill 1969" sat with a jumbo sized jacking iron sticking out of her arm from which ketchup was pouring. Sure it was meant to be a tasteless, disenchanted comment but one that refused to sit in judgement. It was a comment on the fact there was junk and junk, the hard stuff or the heroin of mindless routine and consumption. To condemn one without condemning the other, was simply pissing in the wind and when some thirteen years later, smack was more explicitly condemned (because now it was a mass problem), some of the slogans which appeared had, all the abstract poetic dash one had come to associate with the district: "The junkies you've created are committing slow-motion suicide." Others however, were less so: "cheap heroin - the cure for unemployment."
Inevitably, the libertarian element in Notting Hill was expressed in sexual encounters of all kinds. Not only did whites and blacks meet here but gays, lesbians and others in a unique blend. Marriage and the closed family unit was and still is sneered at. But neither was it entirely liberating. In fact, liberation was the exception not the rule.
Though talk of class was frowned on, there was (and is) a lot of rough trade - that typical sexual expression of class. Bohemian middle class meets the working class freak. Given the class-obsessed nature of the UK it's an explosive mix. Both attractive and ruinous as each try to point-score and get their own back on each other. For the patrician bohemian, a means of consciousness-raising and turn on by a wild animal. For the freak, a sexually demagogic dictatorship of the proletariat, even if rarely expressed with this degree of clarity. Inevitably these relationships would break up in bitter mutual recrimination, as libertarianism shaded into decomposition. A former actress of the Maria Aitken rather than the Julie Walters School, her affectations and composure becoming frayed through too many gins, would go on the game looking for some ready dosh. When it comes to naming a shop and independent record label (and which was to become one of the UK's most successful recording labels) Rough Trade was just right for the area.
Plus Multi-Ethnicity and Work.
Alongside the areas attraction to an art/anti-art bohemia, (which in the last analysis ended up in the art game) Notting Hill has acted as a magnet for immigrant peoples. In fact that was to be the areas special stamp: bohemianism and multi-ethnicity. The Caribbean peoples' who started to arrive in large numbers in the 1950s are obviously the most well known. There were also the Spanish and Portuguese escaping unemployment and fascism in the Iberian Peninsula. After the Portuguese coup of April 25th 1974 many local and legless Portuguese celebrated the event in what seemed every pub in the area. The Spanish took their turn eighteen months later on hearing of Franco's death. It goes without saying the Irish are everywhere in Notting Hill because Inner London in total is very much an Irish city - if not the biggest in all but name. Bit by bit there were all the other nationalities to be found in Notting Hill probably numbering around 30.
They were always, always escaping something. Sad, ever so sad looking Hungarians unable to forget 1956 in Budapest. Poles excited about the Polish August of 1980. Ukrainians reminiscing about Kiev but so pleased to have landed safely in the UK's social security system, never to do a stroke of work again. Downing pints of lager in pubs opposite the Brunel Estate (council housing estate) they were coming round to thinking the British state every bit as bad, if not worse than the Russian! And then there are the stateless Czechs hiding from 'their' Embassy a mile away. All of them a bag of nerves, they would crack black jokes about their predicament. Three Czechs together and one must be a spy! One reputed spy ran a cake stall, for a short while on Portobello Rd. Pullover on back to front he seemed to be perpetually drunk. The word got round that he had a flat in the centre of Prague .His cover was blown and Czech home cooking disappeared from Portobello Road. As his former friends said, anybody who can get a flat in the centre of Prague was for certain a spy. Of all the East Europeans in the area though, the Czechs were (perhaps are?) the most aware. They want some autonomous councilist system disliking the Western lefties too. Hating state bureaucracy so much one preferred to remain stateless. On the night the LP of the Czech pop group, Plastic People was released, several of them went wild, insisting the English police were liberal and you could kick them up the arse before they would do anything. It never got as far as this. Throwing gallon jars onto a main road from top story windows was sufficient to get them nicked. Taken to Notting Hill cop shop one of them when asked if he'd ever been arrested before replied: "hundreds of times -by the Russians"!
Many of the immigrants weren't of course, so inspiring or nice – either being deeply conservative and sometimes even worse. In The Earl Percy pub one evening, a former - or so he said- Latvian SS guard drunkenly lamented that he hadn't killed enough Jews! His eyes bloodshot through drink and maybe lack of sleep, he took a perverse pleasure in being offensive. Maybe he was bullshitting; maybe he was acting out a tasteless piece of street theatre for an audience and therefore more fool enough than elsewhere to fall for 'living theatre'.
But as a rule the libertarian feel of the area undoubtedly spread its glow over all ethnic groupings and cramping traditions quickly broke up. A Filipina gal would shack-up with a Ukranian. A Moroccan youth would leave the prayer mat for the ganja, while his Dad started to carry on with the Irish barmaid, who was having a few hot flushes about not going to Mass. Not forgetting the first Asian supermarket on the corner of Westbourne Park Road and All Saints Road, staffed by drunken Pakistanis (how did they square this with Islam?) who let shoplifters do as they pleased because they were having secret tipples all day from the shelves. A few months later they were all to get the sack from Mr Big in charge of the growing chain of supermarkets. Even the media-stereotyped heavies and hards in Notting Hill had a libertarian disposition. Local skinheads objected to being called racist in the pages of the New Musical Express. Bombhead, one of their leaders, in fact usually got VI P treatment when he hit black All Saints Road on a Friday evening to collect his weekend grass. The same goes for the West London Hell's Angels who bevied in the local Colville and Bevington Arms. In fact one of their members, Mikkelson - and typical of a Notting Hill connected Hell's Angel chapter - a black guy was killed by cops in the south west of London in 1985. For ages the press kept quiet about Mikkelson being black, probably because the last thing they wanted to see was open fraternization everywhere between somewhat racist Hells Angels chapters and rebellious blacks. That particular divide and rule had to be kept intact at any cost.
When the first large scale riot broke out in Notting Hill in 1976 the whites who joined in the fray, apart from the drop-outs, were mainly indigenous working class, particularly those who slung bricks at the cops from the modern ten-storey, council-owned Lowerwood Court, a block of flats at the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road. Portuguese and Spanish youth etc did not join in. Maybe they had been told by their parents to keep well clear. Only later in 1982/'83 did this begin to change, high lighted by a noticeable incident elsewhere in North London. A mixed gang of Portuguese and black youths went on the rampage trashing cars in a large parking space.
Many of these ethnic groups - all more or less working class - in stark, often schizoid contrast with the anti-work undertow of the area, found low-paid employment in the Health Service, local authorities, service industries, hotels, stores, catering and cleaning. A lot of the women worked of course as poorly paid clerical staff in state depts, head offices of corporations and banks etc. The close proximity of the nearby Park Royal Trading Estate meant factory work was also available to some degree. One Spanish anarchist in his early 50' s employed in a Walls sausage factory, once mentioned how he had forlornly looked at the millionth sausage passing by on the assembly line hoping for the day the factory would close forever. Later it did. How does he feel to be too old ever to work again? From forced work to forced redundancy - what a choice!
One gets the impression that while one part of night owl Notting Hill was getting ready for bed, the other half was getting ready for work. It wasn't simply just a deviant middle class/working class split (though that came into it) because the night birds included a lot of blacks and cockney whites. The latter were often from pretty tough families who to reduce the ruinous evils of casualism had in the past, learnt how to exploit the plethora of charities which had sprung up in London in the latter half of the 19th century, later to become institutionalized into the welfare state. To their name they had a long and honourable tradition of "never work" before the couplet had come to signify, post 1968, a more conscious refusal to sell one's labour power, so another could profit from it.
In common with most other inner city areas, Notting Hill has its share of petty thieves, but few make a proper living out of it. Unlike the East End, it's not an area noted for heavy villainy. Even so if you wanted to make a quick visit to the casualty ward, or even worse end up in Kensal Green cemetery you only had to chat up a villains broad in The Pig and Whistle pub next to Latimer Road station. Ironically in Notting Hill valorising/promotion of the image of villainy came from an unexpected quarter: that of a decomposed revolutionary scene around the former Angry Brigade, gone money-mad.6 The job of subverting capitalist society got mixed up with a fetishization of crime and the proceeds arising from crime , which can be very considerable.
Romantically and mistakenly, crime, Big Crime, tended to be regarded as a left-handed form of human endeavour rather than the foundation of many of the world's business empires. Rubbing shoulders with villains on the Costa Del Crime because the contemporary, moneyed version, of the 19th century adulation of brigandage which, however, did have links with protest movements. When De Sade's, "Crime is the Highest Form of Sensuality" was sprayed up on Portobello Road, it didn't mean three cheers for Ronnie Knight or the Kray Twins.
The splendid French tradition of great criminals, stretching from Lacenaire to Mesrine and its fictionalised representation in Pepe Le Moko or, Touchez pas au Grisbi couldn't be arbitrarily transplanted to the generally vicious and visionless exploits of the typical London villain. In saying this, one must also make a clear distinction between villainy and the gangs of London Jack-the-Lads often with a magnanimous and chivalrous disposition who hold up banks, building societies etc with guns which often aren't loaded. These lads often despise muggings and any form of cheap assault, but want the readies for a wild time.
Then of course there are the buildings - always the buildings - as a steady source of North Kensington employment. Full time, casual or scrounge. Blacks/Irish/Sikhs and Cockneys, in the pub, downing ten pints, moaning about bad paying sub-contractors, hating architects. They chat about how they would draw the line at being recruited to build a cop shop or law court. They are all staggered by the rise in property prices; well aware they could never afford to live in what they are building and sighing about what's to be done. London one big building site and the poor decanted. But alongside them and in sometimes greater numbers, there is always to be found the dumb fuck building worker; the ever potential scab who voted Tory because a stock exchange boom meant work, work and more work and to hell with everything else. It was a joy seeing such narrow self-interest crumble in the face of the stock exchange crash, as subbies raced to finish jobs all over London, knowing that at the top end of the market, every delay meant more knocked off the selling price. Quite suddenly the options market in property was over and London began to breathe a little once more.
October 4th 1972: Building workers throwing out Notting Hill squatters (including Maoist situ, Bruce Birchall)
- 1This mustn't be too over-emphasized however, because more generally, inculcating a collective amnesia has become one of the prime strategies of the state. In other matters, the UK state has been singularly unsuccessful in accomplishing this. Big events (e.g. the miners' victory in 1972 at Saltley Depot) are quickly and vividly recalled by many at the sharp end of exploitation.
- 2This bohemian, artistic ambience was very different from a neighbouring area like Kilburn with more than a dash of lyrical-talking Irish and a popular respect for the Irish poet. There work was looked on as a central, inescapable necessity; the curse of Adam, which even rivers of Guinness after work, could never cleanse the memory of. (c/f that anti-building company song of the Building Trade ,"McAlpine's Fusiliers", written in a bed-sit down Lymington Rd in the adjacent West Hampstead area) .And where laid-back, loafing, Notting Hill, trying to do as little as possible, was simply a stop on the number 31 and 28 bus routes where engaging weirdos hung out.
- 3With punk and after graffiti became an acceptable free method for bands to advertise themselves or their records, doing it themselves or getting their fans to do it seemed like progress (self-advertising) from the crudely capitalist way "It's only Rock 'n' Roll" forced itself on the walls of London. Now, with books and books on graffiti - raking in a packet for their authors - graffiti has also become a devalued form of communication.
- 4The subversive joker is the opposite of those comedians of daily life whose only purpose is arbitrary provocation, who provide the inspiration for many professional humourists. We are talking about the winder-uppers who delight in making anybody feel small so as to inflate themselves. Their put-downs never wish to subvert a person's petrifactions, change a situation, but merely act as a cynical way of displaying their aggressivity, of dressing themselves up in the seductive image of someone prepared to challenge anything, including peoples' genuine integrity, to confront everything, including the truth. The witty insult, devoid of direction, is particularly prevalent in London now, as more and more people try to make up for their increasingly desperate uncreative impotence and isolation with an assertive image of creative potency, a form of art more subtle and immediate than art obviously dominated by economic criteria but hardly less demoralizing.
- 5Compare for instance the lives of Jack Common and George Garret, one from Tyneside the other from Liverpool. Garrett, a docker, sailor, tugboat man and beachcomber went to New York where he became a Wobbly before deported back to Liverpool. Increasingly attracted by theatre and literature he took to writing short stories and plays about Liverpool in the 1930s. He died a tugboat man and not an artist. Due to structural changes in capital since – which needs art for its own reproductive ends - a Garrett today would necessarily have to cease being a worker and join the well rewarded, professional world of finks like Willy Russell and Bleasdale. Even in Garrett's day however Common - unemployed for much of the 1920s before moving south - developed the outlines of a strikingly original ~ radical critique of art. It was only after World War Two and the dashing of his revolutionary hopes that he took to writing factual accounts which had the appearance - but note only appearance - of novels.
- 6 Getting hold of a lot of dosh can be very useful at times and no one's making any silly critique of bank robbery here. The trouble comes in spending it. So often those 'subversives' - none too clear theoretically - use it as a short-circuit access, grabbing all the glitz capital has to offer. Or else, deposit it on useless leftist propaganda projects (e.g. funding the now defunct News On Sunday) when dosh for autonomous projects is a crying necessity. Even printing a good leaflet, which attempts to make some practical suggestion, costs a lot.