“Opinions differ about Britain’s racial problems. But the mentality which tries to solve them with coshes and broken railings has no place in the British way of life. This violence is evil, and the Law and public opinion must stamp it out.”
Can you imagine these words being used on Sky News to describe the 41% soar in hate crimes after the Brexit referendum? No, neither can I.
But these were the words of a British Pathé newsreel in September 1958 to describe Notting Hill’s week of riots. Pathé was a newsreel which was rated by the Board of British Film Censors, which played in cinemas the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, film theatres which were licensed and approved by local and parish councils. Along with the BBC, these were the words of authority in Britain of 1958. This wasn’t dark muttering by Members of the Westminster and European Parliaments about “uprisings” if the voice of a mythic, forgotten white working class wasn’t heeded.
It was a firm denunciation of aggressive intolerance, in impeccably enunciated English, and a Labour MP hadn’t even been shot and murdered in cold blood by a white supremacist wingnut.
Recently, I’ve been looking at documents and film archive material from around the time of the 1958 Notting Hill riots. I’m working on a book based on the Scala map of London ‘underground’ films, which I came up with over the last few years in collaboration with my radio partner and friend Roz Kaveney. The 1958 riots in West London had huge impacts on protest, pop music, community self-help, and the subcultures of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Looking at these materials from the Fifties in depth has left me a little stunned.
They were produced in the decade after the 1948 sailing of the MV Empire Windrush, which brought 493 people from Jamaica to Britain – meaning subsequent new Britons from the Caribbean were often called the “Windrush” generation – before racial equality legislation, and the internal cultural rebuilding that has gone on in London since the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot and the 1981 Brixton riot.
So I expected to find attitudes to immigration around 1958 on the part of establishment media – newsreels, tabloid newspapers – which would be uncomfortable to watch from the high moral ground of 2017.
Even in Brexit Britain, surely our attitudes must be more enlightened than those of our parents and grandparents generations, raised on Enid Blyton books?
(Enid Blyton said of her ’The Three Golliwogs’ series;
“Golliwogs are lovable black toys, not Negroes. Teddy bears are also toys, but if there happens to be a naughty one in my books for younger children, this does not mean I hate bears”
a fine example of the twee and barely elided racism which persisted in England in the Fifties. The Empire and Britain’s Greatness were fast-fading dreams of places that never existed, which the ruling English elite never much cared for or understood besides a passing, parochial curiosity).Instead, it’s moderately shocking to discover that the ‘official’ news media loyal to the Queen and Commonwealth in 1958 and 1959 took a far harder line on racial violence than it does today.
Not only were there no Poundland Lord Haw-Haws on hand in the Fifties when people became too politically correct, no Piers Morgan or Iain Dale to whip ‘em in to shape. No sweaty-palmed quiz show hosts to yell and scream at celebrities and the general public when they started on fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his Union Movement or other far-right groups such as the White Defence League, as the likes of Morgan do for Trump, Farage or UKIP today. (That wouldn’t get started till 1974…)
Though it may be through a filter of brusque propriety which seems quaint to us now, there is often a direct confrontation with thuggery – an overt disapproval of, and distaste for racist attitudes – in this “loyal” or officially-sanctioned news material from the Fifties which puts the whole of Britain’s present political leadership and news media – especially the BBC – to shame. (A recent exchange with an esteemed, current BBC journalist took a mordant turn when Marine Le Pen’s appearance on ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ came up: “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with my life…” he told me.) Given that much of London was still bomb-strewn ruins in 1958 thanks to fascism, you can understand why usually politically detached Establishment types would feel empowered to take a strong line on it happening here.
The events of late August and September 1958 in West London were of enormous importance to the many different manifestations of radical politics and counter culture in the decades that followed.
The Teddy Boys emerged as the first youth subculture in Britain. Often apprentice black marketeers to older ‘spivs’, the Teds were the most visible of the white youths to invade the majority-West Indian Bramley Road area on the evening of 29th August 1958. An assault on Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, by her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison led to a mob of white guys – mostly Teds – laying into both of them, throwing milk bottles and hitting Majbritt in the back with an iron bar. (She defended her husband, with whom she’d just been rowing and who’d assaulted her, against the thugs who’d rushed to “defend” Majbritt).
Soon after, 300 to 400 young white men ran amok. They attacked West Indians in the street, fire-bombing black-owned shops and businesses. Stirred up by fascist groups, a week of nightly disturbances followed, which led to the Afro-Caribbean community calling in auxiliaries from South London.
(Including to the famous stockade at the “Fortress”, Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent; still standing with its familiar exterior, yellow doors that were once green, 2 minutes’ walk away from the equally famous blue door of Hugh Grant’s ‘Travel Bookshop’ at 280 Westbourne Park Road, up Portobello Road.
On the night of 2nd September an estimated 300 men barricaded themselves in ‘The Fortress’, lights out and curtain’s drawn, waiting for a signal from women from the community who were also barricaded in at No 6, across the road. At 10pm, a white mob appeared, yelling “let’s burn the niggers out!” The windows opened, Molotov cocktails descended, the white yobs ran for cover. One activist, Baron Baker, is said to have shouted after them “get back to where you come from!”, as the improvised Afro-Caribbean self-defence battalion charged out of Totobag’s waving meat cleavers).
Photographs of Teds roaming around Notting Hill that late Summer resemble the post-Apocalyptic wastelands in the lyrics of David Bowie’s (much later) ‘Diamond Dogs’ album, Alex’s Droogs in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the Mods and Rockers rucks on Brighton and Margate seafronts of the following decade.
The youth subcultures which followed – Beatniks, Ladbroke Grove hippies, Portobello Road Market Punks like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones from The Clash, techno dreads like Jones’ partner in Big Audio Dynamite, the film-maker and dj Don Letts, Nineties’ roads protesting ravers – all tend to be associated in the popular imagination with equalitarian, Left wing or broadly-speaking progressive politics. It’s worth remembering that the starting point for British youth subcultures was a movement of “dapper” thugs in Edwardian drape coats, often in the employ of older petty criminals who modeled themselves after George Raft in American gangster films (middle aged versions of Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s 1938 novel ‘Brighton Rock’).
Colin McInnes (who lived around Notting Dale in 1958, and used the riots as a basis for his book ‘Absolute Beginners’) wrote of Teddy Boys in 1961:
‘in their teenage neutralism and indifference to politics, and self-sufficiency, and instinct for enjoyment – in short, in their kind of happy mindlessness – the raw material for crypto-fascisms of the worst kind’
This will ring true to anyone who spent time round the ‘Anonymous’ tents at Occupy protests of 2012. The inexorable drift to the political right of hackers and anarchists in ‘V’ masks, the inchoate following of Julian Assange – with an indifference to traditional politics and an instinct for lulz – bears comparison with Teddy Boys’ “neutralism” in the Fifties in this regard. As does the troubling, nihilist source material, Alan Moore’s comic ‘V for Vendetta’, and the Wachowskis’ film of it (which is, if anything, bleaker still).
Not all subcultures that have started in London and gone on to influence the world are counter cultural. Rather than wanting to upturn traditions, some want to reinforce them. For what we could call, for the sake of argument, ‘conservative’ anarchists and agitators (conservative with a small ’c’), revolution is about subverting a status quo which they see as having deviated from a ‘natural’ order of things.
For Teds, Mosely and his – mostly white working class – followers, Notting Hill was an uprising that was meant to return the area to an imagined Edwardian England without incomers from the colonies being on an equal footing to native labourers; an England of gentleman’s tailors, blood sacrifice for King and Country on Flanders fields, with a little something extra kept back under the counter for those who serve. (‘And is there honey still for tea?’)
For the fedora bros and (very rare) female equivalents on a Million Mask March from 2012, an infotopian Ragnarok approaches where nation states and their apparatuses of mass-surveillance will fall aside. There will be no secrets or boundaries of knowledge, only a primordial Nietzschean will to power, to hack the ‘verse, Nineties-style! (The Science Fiction author William Gibson, who popularised the term ‘Verse’ in his Neuromancer novels, has said “The verse itself suggests, to me, atemporality and postgeographicality of the digital.” The aim of cryptonomic-fascisms of the Twenty First Century is to strip reality of its complexity, to purify and anneal it, to create a logically perfect world in which there’s a Wikipedia link for everything. To reduce the Universe to the simple moral mechanics of a 1993-era, Ascii-based Multi User Dungeon because privacy is bad).
The 1958 riots produced two other by-products which have had positive legacies: the Carnival, and (oddly enough) the Westway fly-over. The first Carnival was organised on 30th January 1959 in St Pancras Town Hall by exiled African American communist and civil rights organiser, Claudia Jones, in direct response to the riots and the need to counter a perception that the Afro-Caribbean community, in fighting back, had now become “trouble”. Jones brought her know-how from the Left and the struggle for African American liberation. She created in Notting Hill a blueprint for future activism and cooperation between the West Indian and other communities.
By the time the London authorities came to “clean up” the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Dale area – by demolishing much of the cheap housing to make way for the ‘Westway’, a quicker overhead motorway route from West London to the West End – the immigrants who, in the Fifties and Sixties, had been able to afford to band together and get a mortgage on the houses that the council was knocking down from 1964 onward, were prepped to form alliances with the Beatniks and hippie radicals who were renting rooms off them. Even in a heavily gentrified Twenty First Century Notting Hill, this low-key – but very effective – habit of social solidarity keeps the area’s unique spirit of self-reliance alive. This includes in some of the imaginative uses of “slack space” in the shadow of the Westway itself.
There’s a wealth of film archive material from this period which deserves re-examination in response to the Brexit referendum, and the slide of many of the countries which won World War Two to authoritarianism and extremism. The work of the Crown Film Unit is one example that springs to mind. Two years ago, the Mr Cholmondeley-Warner tone of a film like 1950’s ‘Journey by London Bus’ was risible. Now, a film where two African students marvel at the beauty of the English countryside (no hay wanes in Ghana, you see…) and the civility of Londoners, seems like it’s being broadcast from a parallel universe. [There’s a transcript of the 8 minute film here].
The first thing that strikes you is that two smartly-dressed overseas students can be the subject of an official film, without the announcer immediately questioning whether they have any right to be in Britain in the first place.
The message of the Crown Film Unit’s output after the War was that the Mother country was going to help the new nations of the world pull themselves up by the bootstraps (in return for a continuing flow of their raw products). As coercive and patrician as this attitude now seems, it’s also an improvement on a casual acceptance today of the idea that these young men might drown in their passage to the UK, but what can you do? The Commonwealth may have been a ruse to continue the Empire in all but name, but the civil servants, the products of public schools and Oxbridge making Britain’s film propaganda in the Fifties treated citizens of the Commonwealth with a degree of deference and respect which seems beyond the powers of any British political party or mainstream broadcaster today.
If you watch this short film all the way through, it’s bound to make you smile a bit, but also cringe. It also makes me feel ashamed.
Even clinging onto an Empire that was never ours, we were more humane than we are now.