BM Blob on work, community politics, squatting, adventure playgrounds, etc in Notting Hill in West London.
Community Politics: The Still Living Dead
There was one other important employer in Notting Hill; one which had and has an importance, cachet, kudos - call it what you will - out of all proportion to its size: community politics. Since the 1958 race riot (the subject of Absolute Beginners) when black Americans GI's stationed in England showed their Caribbean brothers how to make molotovs, Notting Hill became a trend setting area for a whole assortment of inner-city initiatives which like all reforms, had to be paid for a thousand times over in that fundamental oppressive currency – social control. Over the years these initiatives have coalesced into what is commonly known as community politics, depressingly familiar all over the UK. The Notting Hill Social Council funded by well-heeled organizations and charities, was set up in November 1960 and it became a forum for all those who had begun to work in the voluntary social agencies in the area after the 1958 riots. Quite quickly the Social Council began to change and expand acquiring a new image, notably through the impact of a 'new' left coming into the area, after the traumas of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in ' 56. In fact there was little that was 'new' in it, though it took years for that to become apparent. It had merely been forced to ditch Stalinism - that's all.
These new groupings developed outside the Labour party. In particular the local Labour party in the 1950s had been overtly racist, calling for an end to immigration. There was a whiff of Puritanism, a fear of miscegenation added to this anti-black stance borrowed from Oswald Moseley's English Fascists who were active in the area at the time prior to being driven off the streets by the blacks and the nascent Trotskyist WRP around Gerry Healey in 1958. The local Labour party in response to shame and outside pressure from those who had outflanked it gradually changed. It took them more than twenty years to recover the ground they had lost. They could only do that by becoming vastly more receptive to the moods of the time.
This face-lift was in retrospect to add up to something far more than a local event. Wedgewood-Benn was to use this local, shell-shocked, rapidly modernizing North Kensington Labour party as a springboard of the parliamentary 'New Left'. In the process what might now be termed a new rainbow alliance was added to familiar Labour left concerns. It was to shine in the skies of Notting Hill well in advance of anywhere else. Only the bucket of gold at the end of this rainbow was not an autonomy of many different hues but a parliamentary seat. 'Extra parliamentary' activity, which Notting Hill played such a key role in pioneering, was usually guided by Parliamentarians and was conceived eventually as an adjunct to Parliament. If you like it was phraselogical parliamentary concession to "direct action."
As most of these initiatives ostensibly outside Labour party control were funded by state or charity organizations they were vulnerable to Labour party manipulation in any case. For quite a time, they were able to keep it at arms length. Behind the libertarian veneer peculiar to the area and which altered the character of local initiatives to some degree, there was hostility to entrenched political structure. As a result the real intentions behind these initiatives, which were never more than capital permitted, became veiled and many a local person hoped to make good their loss with the help of these initiatives. Indeed the Carnival was originally a multi-ethnic invention of a white social worker.1
It has its funny side too. One labour party councillor became a councillor so that he did not have to work - or so it is laughingly maintained in the area. He thus has a legitimate defense all the way from Unemployment Review Officers to Restart. The allowances he claims for attending meetings is his moonlighting dosh which others had to illegally scrounge for.
After a certain period of time had lapsed, the Labour party was able to spring its trap, relatively unimpeded on groupings as disparate as the local toy Bolshevikhs like the Italian group, Lotta Continua as well as various single issue bodies like the battered Women's Refuge Centre etc.2
The often crushing psychologising and bossiness increased the more links with the local Labour party who helped run the centre in an unofficial capacity, were forged. This development caused some local women to criticize the centre on the grounds of common sense. For example, they objected to the case-con psychologizing of refugees, when what they needed most was simply enough space to be left alone, without hassle, until they felt able to pull their shattered lives together. But behind all this was another very real factor. Anti-squatting laws enacted by the 1974-79 Labour government ensured that many squats which Women's Aid had readily snapped up, were closed down. It was at this moment that a cunning Labour racketeering and infiltration could then cheekily shift the blame somewhat on the women victims – mediated of course, through women members of the party. As always psychology became the means of abstracting from concrete social relations.
Throughout Notting Hill the more these para-state initiatives – slowly but then more obviously - began to move within the orbit of the Labour party, the more they started interestingly enough, to be criticized from below. It was a purely spontaneous response however and nothing like a coherent critique of Labourism appeared. Initially though these projects were welcomed and people held their fire as concerns and issues formulating around particular pressure groups began to mushroom all over Notting Hill from 1960 onwards. To give a detailed, historical account of each of these essentially para-state bodies is too boring and rather irrelevant. But to get some idea of how thick on the ground they were, consider the following list:
The Police Group, The North Ken Playspace Group, The Neighbourhood Service, Notting Hill Community Workshop, The May Day Manifesto Group (sociologically-updated nationalisers under workers' control) Colville Gardens Action Committee, The St. Stephens Group, The Housing Group, Powis Playgroup, the Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre, The Mothers Traffic Group, The Group Group etc.
The number and variety does sound limitless and for those too young to remember, it can indeed sound impressive. Living as they do in a period in which civil society is being intensely pulverized, they cannot know what it was like to have lived under an apparently endless proliferation of these bodies amounting sadly to nothing of historic, world-shaking importance. Indeed, although most people living in Notting Hill would vaguely register the fact that these outfits existed, basically 90% of the population took no interest in them. In fact these outfits as they got progressively weaker, related to no one but themselves and in that sense became more remote than trade union hierarchies who are forced, in their topsy-turvy way, to acknowledge to some degree the realities of a workaday world inhabited by alive and kicking people (and not just) the bureaucratically minded and converted.
At one point in the early 1970s, it was even suggested that some of these para-state initiatives, by then emanating from a Peoples Centre, were parallel with the worker/student Action Committees in France in May '68. Whatever the unevenness and inadequacies of the French Committees they were genuine responses to a genuine situation of intense class conflict. Even if they did not issue organically from the Workers' Occupation movement, nevertheless they remained throughout the French general strike part of the real base of contestation. They were not formed or funded by this official body, or that charity, with all the invisible strings attached. In contrast the para-state committees in Notting Hill were down on any effective direct action or violence signalling out in particular, the activities of an unholy alliance between anarcho pro-situ's and Maoists. However confused and un-worked out these activities as a whole were, they were ever ready to take on the cops and go in for commando-style operations, (e.g. when successfully tearing down fences surrounding private gardens so they could be used for children's play space). Of course some, if not all of these pressure groups arose out of real needs (e.g. children being killed by cars, appalling housing etc) but they all looked forward to the creation of a liberal benign state, ever ready to resource, fund and satisfy an infinity of needs. Inevitably for sincere and naive individuals, who wanted action against the state now, it would bring confusion and even crippling demoralisation. For others more shrewd and cynical, it was the first rung of the ladder to a career in local and central government agencies.
At certain moments, these bodies couldn't help but reflect profounder currents in the air - which is not to say they deepened these currents – merely that they had no resistance to them. For example the 1966 London Free School, set up in Notting Hill, brought together disparate tendencies - most notably - a kind of seemingly disengaging educational, social work and, a seemingly disengaging cultural drift away from institutional frameworks.
The dreadfully naive, non-violent and wimpish, hippy alternative, International Times got some charge here and Peter Jenner, later of Pink Floyd, who was also there, no doubt found some inspiration in this Free School for, Just Another Brick in the Wall - with lines like –"Teacher leave those kids alone" - etc. By the time the LP was produced ten years later, a hip north London headmistress had given permission to use her pupils for the back-up chorus! Some Free School! But then a Free School, like a Free State was always a nonsensical, unrealizable object.3
Then there was the Notting Hill People's Association, an umbrella body that appeared in the late 1960s, which claimed to draw all separate threads together and give them a focus. In spite of its 'oppositional' stance the capitalist division of labour went largely unchallenged. They just did not feel in the gut the unbearable parcelization capitalism was thrusting on humanity. It was folly to even raise it with them. Culture? Nothing wrong with culture except there's not enough of it and it goes to the wrong people! (As if culture wasn't intrinsically one of the hierarchical methods of judging 'wrong' people from 'right-on' people.) However in what participants fondly imagined were grass roots organizations there was some unease about the use of professionals, whether they were 'socialist' lawyers, social workers etc. To these potentially damaging perceptions of roles, quick correctives were suggested to confuse the issue and render the personnel staffing the para-state more impervious to criticism. There were proposals for "partisan community workers and. full time socialist engineers" or "anti-capitalist dambusters" (an appeal for ghostbusters would have been as sensible). What these riddles mean are best left to the imagination of the addled cadres who pretend to believe that all work is the same. But one thing is for sure depending on the local Mr or Ms Fix It, it meant a job, easy money and status. At no point did this bureaucratically latitudinarian passion for organization ever became autonomous. Same of the more gullible participants who read 'quality' newspapers thought it did. Just what is one to make of sophisms like "semi-autonomous"? One community organiser even called for "Anti-Community Disorganization"! Within the orbit of the state it may have represented the ultimate in self-criticism: in relation to sound, practical questions it was gobbledy-gook.
Possessing a half-baked critique of institutions meant these initiatives were vulnerable and easily absorbed by the very institutions they had feebly criticised in the first instance. Since they occupied the same platform as managers of discontent, the bigger, older established institution was more likely to swallow the smaller (e.g. The Housing Action Centre, in no time, moved in with the Council's Information and Aid Centre, when flashy modern premises were built in 1974). But all of it had the look of newly tilled ground, which indeed it was in terms of the recuperation of real needs.
Another first was The Summer Project of Community Action in 1967 where students sporting the first mass-produced 'community action' badges, paid to come and work in the area. What mugs! It was in Notting Hill that the first Law Centre opened in 1970 and from which point was to emanate all the bullshit about radical lawyers being able to defend the proletariat against the ravages of the law. In fact most people who've had any dealings with them are left with a sour taste in their mouths. They've felt they've been given a stern lesson in law. Not only as an objective fact - that is to be expected - but also secretly in the opinion of the 'radical' solicitor. "Whose side are they on" is a complaint often muttered? To practise at the bar a solicitor cannot have a criminal record. Should they be convicted of a criminal offence they are instantly de-frocked by the Law Society, which looks after their interests, (very well). It also polices them. Of course solicitors generally are in private practise a bunch of swindlers but their fiddling goes largely undetected. Radical lawyers disapproving of the stereotyped solicitor (at least to begin with!) frequently come across as insufferably self righteous individuals who will defend a shoplifter for example, but are never able to empathize with them. Tending to substitute a political hierarchy for the more frequently encountered lawyers fascination with criminal hierarchies, they look down on shoplifting and the like as something 'sub-political' and squalid in comparison with terrorist idiocy for example. (Though without apparent contradiction, but reflecting the change from public to private practise, they will follow the former terrorist into big-time racketeering). Nor can radical lawyers encourage people to break the law (e.g. squat, occupy factories or offices etc) though privately they might concede it is right to do so. Radical lawyers can never be the subject of a genuine revolution and are only able to conceive of change within a judicial, statist framework. Perhaps that is why Shakespeare in Henry V111 has Dick the Butcher, one of Jack Cade's Kentish Rebels say, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
ELGIN AVENUE SQUAT: The best struggle by far in the ear1y 1970s occurred on the boundary of Notting Hill and Maida Vale. This was the massive squat housing around 1,000 squatters in Elgin Avenue by the GLC. It was to last several years until all the squatters were rehoused in other GLC properties and the Victorian houses demolished, making way for a modern council estate redevelopment which was later privatized. It was an exhilarating squat involving fights with the cops, disruptions of official meetings and the occupation of the LEB showrooms in Notting Hill in January 1974. By the time Elgin Ave ended (it was a 'victory' of sorts) most of the squatters were, in one way or another, exclusively working class (e.g. street cred hippies).
Throughout its existence, there were regular "street unity meetings" and a committee answerable to these meetings was elected. Though it was an example of direct democracy, skilled manipulators were able to soft-soap these street assemblies. One spokesperson that became well known was Piers Corbyn. He was a Trotskyist apparatchik belonging to the International Marxist Group (before the IMG dissolved itself into the Labour party). His influence was immense as regards general Elgin Ave policy and the line taken by the squatters newspaper (EASY-Elgin Avenue Squatters? Yes! ) This newspaper emphasized getting support from this or that institution (e.g. Young Liberals or, Paddington's then Labour MP) and rubbished the libertarian current which called for "Free Housing for all" instead of the usual "nationalize the land" nonsense. The former demand was put forward by The Diggers who had a few years earlier been based elsewhere in Notting Hill. Later they were to become the backbone of the Rainbow Tribe Tepee people (c/f above photo) and The Peace Convoy. Despite all the mystifications and contradictions surrounding an alternative lifestyle, they nonetheless in Elgin Ave and elsewhere called for a radical approach to housing. Although Corbyn was an adept entryist and able, at times, to push para-state bodies like Student Community Housing (SCH) and the obsessively legalistic, Family Squatting Advisory Service (FSHS) he also kept getting way-laid by the libertarian atmosphere of Notting Hill. He once noted for instance how a guy known as "Shaky Dave" found in building street barricades, more therapeutic help than anything social workers, asylums or drug dependence had to offer. Later - befitting the trajectory of the IMG - Corbyn became a Labour party councillor in Southwark (Elgin Ave was rehoused in Camberwell) where from his bureaucratic perch, he defended the Pullens Estate and other Southwark squatters against the more Militant controlled Southwark Council who were evicting them. Many a Southwark squatter has mouthed-off about Corbyn, often saying how his presence spreads the illusion that something can be done by reforming the Council, thus pacifying the necessary direct action. One anarchist even punched him in the face.
Alternative Social Agencies.
One of the first community printing presses came into existence at about the same time as the Law Centre. We must not forget the innovative alternative social agencies, like BIT information centre catering for the drifters and dropouts which the area attracted in large numbers. In some ways these alternative agencies were less bureaucratic, more responsive to real needs, less at the beck and call of more straight-laced set-ups. Nevertheless, Release (for drugs) based in Notting Dale, to some extent sheltered behind the opportunistic shield provided by the academics of The Sociology of Deviancy whose research into drug taking were in vogue at the time. In their salad days they scoured the area looking for titbits to advance their careers, bringing street cred into the remote world of academia. They were not explaining drug taking, as theirs was a plea to authority to be more sensitive and understanding. In this sense, their later more overt concern with police policy and behaviour in their capacity as shadow advisors to a Kinnockite Labour Party, is of a piece with their earlier work whatever reservations they may now have about "deviancy" (c/f Laurie Taylor on the 1981 riots).
These outfits dealing with a more marginalized drifting population (subscribing now to a hippy ideology, then to punk etc) had charity status like the more orthodox charity-sponsored community work schemes. However their more relaxed atmosphere gave the impression they were more gatecrashed by their freak clientele, than they really were. COPE, the alternative psychiatric set up was 'taken over' by a bunch of libertarian crazies, (grown up kids really) who then spent a lot of their time on their knees waiting for the likes of the traditionally philanthropic Rowntree's etc, to put money in their collecting tins.
The escape clause offered by having charity status also applied to the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatter estate agency (the only 'estate agency' for squatters). Despite its ameliorative social function (Harrow Road police station would occasionally send homeless people there), it did nonetheless initiate some audacious squats. Among them, houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family, Mick Jagger's unused country home and the Cambodian Embassy in Notting Hill Gate, which was squatted for several years after being abandoned when Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. Not too mention the brilliant cracking of the huge Palm Court Hotel near Richmond Bridge on the Thames. Ruff Tuffs 'property magazine' containing witty descriptions of potential squats is still a delight to read (e.g. "36, St. Lukes Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.") Yet many people entering this squatting agency felt immediately ill at ease, overcome by feelings they were unable to put a name to. Was it because it was run by renegade aristos' with hippy names like Mad Dog and Fluke? Was it Heathcote Williams old Etonian manner of barking rather than speaking? Or similarly his references to endless esoteric, occult mysteries which made you feel like a fool for not having a clue as to what he was talking about. The cat's name was "Windsor" and that didn't help either. In occupying Crown Property were they perhaps settling scores with their parents? They were friendly enough all right; never too stuck-up to say hello when they met you in the street. Yet deep down one felt set apart which palaeontologists of the English class system will instantly recognise.
Out of the Ruff Tuff came the mass squats in run down Council property in Freston Road, Notting Dale. But being North Kensington, a mass squat without frills was inconceivable. It was also an act of poetic license, an illusory declaration of UDI. This 'statelet' whose founding father appeared to be no less than William Blake was proclaimed simultaneously as Frestonia (the Marx Bros,"Freedonia"?) and the Albion Free State. Maybe it was tongue in cheek, but such romantic nationalism should have perished as soon as Blake's "Jerusalem" became compulsory singing in English public schools. To accept such notions as a 'Free State' (a contradiction in terms) without quibble is standard Labour party fodder. The term Albion Free State wasn't contested by the squatters but others winced at it.
At about the same time another urban experiment with charity status got under way in Notting Hill. This was Meanwhile Gardens fashioned out of derelict land between the council properties of Golborne Rd and the Grand Union Canal. Intended as a 'visionary' reply to the usual dreary municipal park, its eclectic borrowings from Japanese landscaping to Celtic Barrows are today yet another mausoleum to institutionalized 'freedom'. Apart from the occasional free, small scale, pop concert or the community bonfire on the 5th of November it is deserted. Shunned by local residents (but not their dogs) who regard it as something of a dump and eyesore, the park has few visitors today. Brooding over this avant-garde cock-up is the concrete and glass monstrosity or Trellick Tower designed by Mars group architect, Erno Goldfinger. Looking at this monument to the failure of the International Style from his "very desirable" residence in Hampstead, Erno Goldfinger fondly thought of it as a veritable modern castle. But to the poor immigrant families who were put there (different floors were given to different races) it was scarcely better than a dungeon suspended in mid-air. On the approaches to Meanwhile Gardens some were to end it once and for all, taking that great leap into space. Though the alternative landscape architects of Meanwhile Gardens detested Trellick Tower, it is fitting that both these avant-garde projects belonging to different eras have been given the bird by the 'philistine' locals.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all this urban experiment is to be found in the Adventure Playground built in 1960 in response to the 1958 race riots. Another Notting Hill 'first' it was initially aimed at pacifying riotous impulses among kids. Way ahead of its time and twenty years before hydra-headed riot was to appear everywhere in the UK, it was the invention, interestingly enough of Lady Allen of Hurlwood together with local residents whom she'd got interested in her pet project. The spirit of courtly, patrician liberalism and noblesse oblige was changing its face changing into the Duchess of the Inner-Cities syndrome.
Adventure Playgrounds were an obviously easy answer to the problems thrown up by an increasingly dehumanised urban environment. The fact too the streets were unsafe for kids to play in and unpromising in terms of the 'imaginative' potential of timber walk-ways and ropes to swing on, merely disguised the fact that every inch of space had its potentially rising price. Though on the economic fact sheet kids were simply a nuisance, lip service had to be paid to Notting Hill's pretence at knowing how to bring up children better. Today it is one of the greatest paradoxes in London (and not just London) as a whole that the more childhood and adolescence is recognised, the greater is the curtailment of kids capacity for expression and play.
It is perhaps the main reason why in London, innocent larking about tends to rapidly drift into explosive confrontation. Fifteen school kids on a bus and everyone expects trouble. As older Londoners will tell you it used to be very different. Post war childhoods were played out on bombsites where property values and rights of ownership were temporarily waived. Only when all this started to go did this idea of an Indian Reservation of play arise. Go north for example and one immediately notices a more relaxed attitude to kids. Industrial dereliction means that in the big cities there are lots of sites to play on. In this respect not much has changed from thirty years ago. It used to be the canals or railways because most of the mills and factories were functioning. Even so, one must be careful of making too much out of the difference. In the North play also develops into confrontation far more than was the case with a post war childhood.4
Ever since the area began to take on a radical hue, the abandoned Tabernacle on Talbot Road seemed to beckon as the perfect centre, big enough to house all the separate strands of community politics. A place where radical Muslim groups (on a communist prayer mat!) to the local branch of the Spanish Communist party's trade union organization the CC.OO, could feel free (?) to say what they had to say - which was usually sweet FA - or worse. Ironically just as community politics began to fade from the scene, the opening up and use of the Tabernacle had become a reality. Indeed the pot-pourri Tabernacle was the venue in the late 1970s for one of the first foreign conferences of the Anarcho-Syndicalist union, the CNT. However truth to tell it was scarcely more interesting than the usual run-of-the-community-mill meetings, held there. Old films on the Spanish Civil war like the corny "Furia sobre Espana", which casts Durruti as the heroic, benign, great liberator - in presentation at least similar to Chinese films adulating Mao - were shown. It testified to the fact that the revived CNT, sunk in a glorious past, could never break through into a real analysis of modern alienation.
However, there was something refreshing about the first Irish Ceiledh held in the Tabernacle. Even the gabardine mac. brigade felt at liberty to dance with the young gals. It was a fine illustration of the splendid sociability of the Irish. (As a former Dublin based friend said; "there's a lot of sociability in Ireland, but no socialism"). In later years the Ceiledh sociability was pushed aside as the community organizers emphasized all the showy tartanry - the costumes, the kilts, the pipes and all the wearisome stifling tradition. The Tabernacle Ceilidh began to go down like a lead balloon especially among the Guinness drinking Irish pub crowd. If something of greater interest happened (like a radical printer getting planted with forged bank note plates) then more general meetings would take place, though not necessarily in the Tabernacle. At these meetings, accusatory terms like racism or sexism would be thrown around like confetti. It was a hilarious show for those at the back who just went along for the fun and games. It would take too long here to go into all the very many amusing off-the-wall incidents breaking through this elaborate web of fake community involvement, which continually kept running up against the reality of an absent community.
However, one or two incidents were too good to miss. Like the shabby genteel baby sitter, on call from the alternative Co-op/Agency "We People" who, on going to do an evening baby-sitting stint, found a big black guy in diapers and frilly bra waiting on the doorstep to be put to bed with a titty bottle. ...Or the posh woman going bananas in Holland Park on finding her cleaners asleep, fully dressed and snoring in her four poster bed after having drunk all of her liquor cabinet. Scrawled across the wall of the squat above the agency desktop were the words: "I'm sick and tired of waking up feeling tired and sick". Unfortunately it was this sidesplitting oddness of an area like Notting Hill that the left with an obligatory alternative and libertarian image, reserved their most severe frown for. To them it was simply not funny. On hearing about such things barely a trace of a smile would flicker across their faces. Rather it reflected the depth to which humanity had sunk under capitalism. For the socialist priests of authentic communication, salvation was to be found by confessing their sexism or racism or whatever and following their pure example in every walk of life.
The House That Jack 'n' Jill Built
"Don't Trust the Trust"
(1970s wall slogan)
One of the biggest concerns of the recuperative social agencies in North Kensington was housing. Notting Hill in the late 1950s/early 60s became the main focus of the campaign against Rachmanite slum landlordism. Rents were often extortionate, repairs non-existent and there were cases of families being thrown out to make way for gambling shebeens and organized prostitution. The trouble was condemnation of often appalling housing conditions stopped well short of a thorough going critique of the forced and false scarcity of housing. Outspoken, rebellious tenants courageously fighting these often murderous landlords were, more often than not, vulnerable to manipulation by bodies dedicated to housing reform particularly the Housing Association movements with their links with one of the biggest landowners in the UK, the Church of England. Some were to get jobs in these bodies believing they were furthering 'socialism' whereas they were just another brand of landlordism. Eventually their genuine fury would become bitter and twisted the more they were squeezed by their petty authority position. As a whole however, tenants struggle was channelled towards the elimination at the ruthless private rented sector in favour of Council Housing and particularly Housing Trusts.
In fact the Housing Trust movement goes back to the late 19th century when Octavia Hill started managing property in North Kensington for private landlords. Its illustrious drawing room beginning altered over the years, receiving money from the Housing Corporation and latterly the Council but its patrician style basically remained. Thus tenants were to have no statutory rights and expected to go cap in hand subdued for evermore, by their gracious protectors. Rebellious tenants in run down housing owned by ruthless landlords were flattered by this gracious helping hand, mediated through faithful Trust workers. The fire burning under a tenants' revolt quickly got dampened down by demands for cheap, 'fair' rents administered by them. If not that, they then might suggest approaching the Council for a CPO (Compulsory Purchase Order).
But such was the anger over housing needs, spilling over into a more general anger, that Tory councillors were taken prisoner one night in 1973 and held under lock and key for the duration, to face the anger of the residents. The struggle in Notting Hill was focussed on the elimination of racketeering private landlordism and its substitution by some form of state housing, characteristic of an interventionist capitalist state.
Obviously, because of the degree of controls existing in this sector which favour tenants far more than the private sector, (including Housing Co-op's or Associations), it is hardly surprising that people in housing need are instantly going to call for more cheap, secure, rented Council accommodation. The chorus of approval with few dissenting voices backing their demands was unusual. Even for the post war 'welfare' consensus which then held sway it was simplistic anti-Toryism. Very few had any idea of just how dire the housing built by local Labour authorities could be. Because for some time the North Kensington Labour party had not had its hands on power, it was able to maintain its pristine image more easily. One typical community politico visiting the North East, appalled by the vast housing estates of Felling, Jarrow and Gateshead, thought it would be a good idea to bring the North Kensington Labour party to take a look for themselves at the reality of decades-long Labour party control of local authority. The fact that public housing was much more available in London and the rest of the UK tended to retard in Notting Hill an all round critique of housing. By the time Kensington and Chelsea Council had built a sizable housing portfolio in North Kensington, the rent strikes, in response to Heath's Tory government, Housing Finance Act of the early 197Os were almost over. The area was not to see the binges made possible by council tenants spending their rent money on booze - and having the courage to do so - because solidarity was so high. This infectious merry-making aspect of the rent strikes of the early 70s has never been given the importance it deserves.5
Council housing on a mass level in the UK only really took off as a response by the state (Liberal governed at the time, then followed by the Tories) to the very threatening mass rent strike in Glasgow during the First World War. This mass rent strike was the beginning of revolution in housing. Council housing was the institutionalisation of this tremendous struggle an, basically, an extension of Joseph Chamberlain' s municipal liberalism first practised in Birmingham a few years previously. The large-scale extension of council housing was first propagandised through Parliament by an erstwhile member of the revolutionary Clyde Workers' Committee who subsequently joined the Labour party. Hardly surprising too, that council housing in the UK became one of the shibboleths of the Labour party to be furiously defended against all comers, not just Tory Estate Agents, but rent strikers and squatters as well.
- 1Wedgewood Benn lives in nearby Holland Park. At the time a lot of these initiatives were in their infancy, Ben - possibly unaware of them - was the highly placed, Minister for Technology, in Harold Wilson's 1964/'70 Labour government. It was only later and out of such high office that Benn began to take an interest - obviously hoping to use them for a comparable high position at a future date.
- 2Lotta Continua, through the CAC had an influence on Carnival policy. What the initials CAC stand for doesn't matter. The drift, for some at the time, was that CAC meant cacky (i.e. shite). In Notting Hill, Lotta Continua's group was called "Fight On". But it would have been better described as, "the show must go on". Endless meetings were held, and on demos red flags would be shoved into peoples' hands to 'politicize' them. In 1974, they attempted to stage a glossy evening of militant entertainment. A chic photographer in bright red costume (what else?) recorded the historic occasion on film. A dreadful film they'd produced on N. Ireland was screened. The sending of troops to Ulster was put down to "the deepening contradictions between labour and capital". If it only had been that simple! The only amusing sideshow to this happening of world revolution was the bizarre buffet of free cornflakes and milk. The Lotta Continua elect were the only ones to partake as if needing to guide the people even on this score. Towards the mid 70s, "Fight On" was to be seen hanging around with Labour party types more frequently. It was not apparent at the time that their more explicit Parliamentarism here reflected what was happening in Italy. At the Rimini conference in 1976, Lotta Continua, agreed to dissolve itself as a vanguard organization, not because the strains of autonomy were ripping it to shreds (a view widely held at the time) but because the electoral gains of the Italian Communist party (the moment of the "historic compromise") rendered the need for their separate party, superfluous. It showed yet again, how in advanced countries, Bolshevism always falls back into Parliamentarism.
- 3Equally contradictory, the words from the song, "We Don't Want No Education" were spray-painted on a polystyrene wall as backing for a display of shop window models advertising school uniforms in Top Shop at Brent Cross Shopping Mall in the early 1980s.
- 4In the North there is a recognisable continuity between now and a post war experience. Then, fire raising was restricted to that familiar Yorkshire game of setting railway bank sides alight and the occasional platelayers hut, (how those tarry sleepers burnt). But it didn't occur to anyone to torch a mill, even though they were regularly broken into and bales of mungo and shoddy used for the sheer fun of building a fortress, then taking it by storm. Though frequently chased by adults in authority positions, no one really thought they were lawbreakers. Despite the fact that nowadays, play in "the North" has got much more vandalistic, (e.g. mills are burnt down) even a post war response would now end up as youth custody cases. There is in operation today over West Yorkshire, a camouflaged hooligan special train, full of cops to catch and stamp out for good, all that old familiar railway trackside vandalism. In 1987 they spent a long time patrolling the Fitzwilliam/South Kirkby/Frickley mining areas in particular.
- 5If in the face of the growing housing crisis, we get channelled into a defence of council housing we are merely being manipulated by a facet of State Capitalism. Engel's good pamphlet, The Housing Question that has been regarded for many a decade as a leftist scripture, surprisingly does not call for land nationalization or council housing. This is ironical, coming from a generally banal prophet of "the Workers State". On the contrary, the text has at least something of the aura of a squatter' manual, calling for immediate expropriation of "a part of the luxury dwellings belonging to the propertied class and by compulsory quartering in the remaining part". Its central thesis remains the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, itself inseparable from the supercession of the antithesis between town and country. Despite the pedestrian nature of some of the pamphlet (e.g. paying rent after the revolution) and some wrong facts vis-à-vis recent history, it's still a very necessary text to read for anybody wishing to update the critique of unitary urbanism.