Before “The Death of Stalin” – there was “Red Monarch”, made in the 80s


The movie The Death of Stalin satirises Stalinism in the wake of the death of the Soviet leader in 1953. Back in 1983, there was a similar attempt to poke fun at that era but based during the lead up to Stalin’s death, not the aftermath – called Red Monarch.

It’s good to see the return of political comedy – one of the few good things that can be said about the times we live in now. Here is a trailer for Red Monarch.

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Boys from the Blackstuff – 80s drama about the dole


At the time, this drama series from the BBC caused a major stir revealing the bleak horror of life on the dole for the long-term unemployed of Liverpool. Yozzer Hughes was the character who stood out as a man driven mad by his inability to find a job. Here’s a trailer from the Beeb at the time.

Salman Rushdie and cream cakes


In 1980, a TV advertising campaign was run to make sure British people didn’t fall out of love with cream cakes – as if! The slogan was: “Naughty – but nice!” What many people may not know was that the ad executive who came up with this catchy line was none other than embattled and exiled author Salman Rushdie!

Years before coming under a fatwa from Iran for his book The Satanic Verses, Rushdie worked in the advertising industry coining several other corny jingles you might be familiar with. How about “that’ll do nicely” for American Express or “irresistibubble” for Aero chocolate.

The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978


In 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park.  The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.

Altab Ali Met Police AppealBut who exactly was Altab Ali?

Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall.  They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.

However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community.  Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.

If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End.  Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.

This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen.  To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.

It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which.  The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.

On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers.  What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans.  For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.

The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane.  Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance.  None came.  Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.

The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.

On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks.  Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries.  Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.

September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects.  The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.

In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers.  For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.

 

The death of Blair Peach and the Southall riot


In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:

The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps.  The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.

The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”.  Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.

Blair_Peach
Blair Peach – died in the 1979 Southall riot

As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.

The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury.  There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.

Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am.  After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened.  His full report was only made public three decades later.

A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution.  However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.

On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched.   In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.

There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.

But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit.  He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.

The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s.  The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth.  In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.

The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation.  But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.

Why did Labour do better in 2017 than in 1983?


labourmanifesto1983When Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour Party manifesto for the 2017 general election, some Labour MPs, journalists and pundits made an immediate comparison with the ill-fated 1983 general election campaign.

In that year, Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher had gone to the polls slightly earlier than she had to and hammered the Labour Party, then led by Michael Foot. Labour’s left-wing manifesto was described by one right of centre Labour MP as being “the longest suicide note in history”.

Having canvassed for Labour in 1983, I can see both differences and similarities that might explain why we ended up with a better performance this year than three decades ago. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Labour had split in the run up to the 1983 election: A group of MPs formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in reaction to the growing power of the Left under Tony Benn. This caused turmoil in many constituencies and the media piled in on the SDP’s side against a more left-wing Labour Party. In 2017, in spite of simmering discontent within the parliamentary Labour Party, disgruntled MPs did not peel away this time.
  2. Michael Foot was not an insurgent: Michael Foot, Labour leader in 1983, was a very different proposition to Jeremy Corbyn. Yes he had started on the left of the party but had moderated after holding ministerial office in Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan led Labour governments. Foot wasn’t elected to lead the Left to power in the Labour Party. He was elected with right wing support to stop Tony Benn and the Left taking power. Corbyn, on the other hand, has led a grassroots insurgency against the parliamentary party.
  3. Foot did not appeal to young people: Michael Foot was very much a product of the Left from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was an intellectual, a journalist, a great writer and orator. Foot grew up with Aneuran Bevan and could  have been best mates with George Orwell. But by the 1980s, he seemed to have climbed out of a time machine from another era. Although he was the same age as Corbyn, Foot just couldn’t connect with young people.
  4. Brexit was not the Falklands: Theresa May might have hoped that Brexit would be her Falklands. In 1982, Thatcher sent UK armed forces to repel an Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, a colonial dependency in the south Atlantic. There was a massive wave of patriotism that knocked Labour over. Foot had always supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and the Tories crucified him.  The same trick did not work with Corbyn. Unfortunately for May, Brexit just isn’t the Falklands War – no matter how bitter the discussion gets with Brussels.
  5. Neo-liberalism was in the ascendant: From 1979, neo-liberal politics and economics became the new norm. Post-war state capitalism, the mixed economy, Keynesian policies and strong trade unions all went out the window. This was to be the era of privatisation, flexible labour markets, rolling back of the state and the same of council homes. That experiment foundered with the 2008 recession. It’s now getting easier for the Left to argue again for state ownership and intervention after a thirty year gap.
  6. Digital: It’s an obvious thing to point out but we lived in a pre-digital age in 1983. There was no social media and no websites – and no mobile phones. Thatcher had the overwhelming support of the non-digital newspapers, particularly the tabloids. It was almost impossible to cut across the rubbish asserted by The Sun in those days. And the front page of that newspaper really could make or break a party in an election campaign.
  7. Theresa May is not Margaret Thatcher: How we hated Thatcher back in those days. But one thing that can’t be denied is that she was a figure of global standing, with a clearly defined ideology and a ruthless team around her. Like Blair, she knew how to punch above Britain’s true weight and assert the country’s position on the world stage. Theresa May, in sad contrast, looks like she should have been left to run Essex county council and not an entire country.
  8. The 1983 manifesto: Corbyn in 2017 inspired many with his persona, style of leadership and attractive giveaways on tuition fees and child allowances. The 1983 manifesto was left-wing but lacking in what might be termed connecting narratives to the voters. It included abolition of the House of Lords, nationalising the banks, leaving Europe and unilaterally disarming. The leader who had to argue all of this, Michael Foot, was an appalling TV performer surrounded by MPs who clearly didn’t believe a word of the manifesto.
  9. Worst slogan ever: Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Positive. Yes – that really was the slogan in 1983. What did it even mean? I was at a rally when Dennis Skinner mocked it saying “that’ll really get them flooding out of the council estates to vote”. It was third rate ad agency tripe.
  10. The South:  What really struck me in this 2017 election was the performance of Labour in the south of England with a crushing dominance in London and towns like Canterbury falling to Labour. In 1983, it was a different world. Scotland, the north and the Midlands with their industrial heritages and labour movement traditions were solidly Labour. The south and the shires were Thatcher country. London swung between the two parties. Theresa May has made inroads in Scotland and north of Watford Gap but Corbyn has made astonishing advances in the south east.

Notting Hill carnival ends in riots


In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse. 

In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters.  Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.

“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife.  She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”

Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative.  The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.

But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn.  The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.

Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing.  What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.

The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets.  Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.

One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.

“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”

The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody.  But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run.  All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.

Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up.  Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’.  And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”

As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence.  There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields.  Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.

But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused.  They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.

The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.

“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers.  Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles.  But suddenly things changed dramatically.

‘Get them!’

The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions.  The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.

Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.

“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”

Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone.  After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.

Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles.  Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.

The media would not be disappointed.  All hell duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road.  The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.

Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well.  Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.

The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts.  Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.

Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.

The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.

“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”

The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.

“War Cry!  The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”

On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs.  This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.