From memory, my first pocket calculator was given to me by Dad around 1977. Like the first mobile phones, it was a clunky bit of hardware. But it seemed magical. Not only could multiplication and division be done rapidly, there was no need for that dog eared log book to calculate cosines or my completely incomprehensible slide rule.
I hated maths. Always preferred arty subjects. But if I had to do maths – which I did to ‘O’ (ordinary) level – then I was going to use my calculator. Or so I thought. Because in the 70s, calculators were viewed as a form of cheating. So in spite of the march of technology, you still had to master the bloody slide rule.
Why? I mean, when I went to the local greengrocers, did the shopkeeper sit there with an abacus to work out my bill? No, there was a till. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why I was denied the opportunity to take my Texas Instruments calculator into the exam room.
Unbelievably, this debate has rumbled on into the 21st century! There are still stringent conditions about the use of calculators in GCSEs with some papers prohibiting their use. Obviously using a calculator in your smartphone is not allowed as somebody might be texting you the exam answers from outside.
All that aside, calculators were so amazing in the late 70s and early 80s, that the German band Kraftwerk even wrote a song composed on them. I saw this gig at the Lyceum in London in 1981.
I was at school with the son of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boss Len Murray and together with a mate of mine, Mark, and some other kids, we all went down to the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978. It now seems like an epoch ago but was an incredibly exciting day.
The extreme-Right National Front had been gaining ground on the streets and in terms of votes in London. Since the mid-70s, the economy had been on a downward slide, the mainstream parties were failing to inspire young people and racism was being fuelled by sections of the media. It was a perfect storm for the neo-Nazis.
Even in my school in the east London suburbs, there were individuals who felt empowered to be openly racist. One pupil, who had been a mate of mine a year or two earlier, joined the British Movement. The target of their hate, where we lived, were Jewish and Asian people.
This documentary from the time gives a real flavour of how a movement arose through the Labour Party, trade unions and pressure groups to push back against the NF and the purveyors of race hate.
Growing up in the 70s meant looking up at the stars and wondering when we’d find alien life. We started the decade with the last few manned flights to the moon by both the United States and the Soviets. Astronauts and cosmonauts competing to plant their flag on its surface.
This generated a deeply nerdy fascination among many kids in the whole subject of space travel. Whether it was buying models of space craft, reading sci-fi comics or watching TV dramas about UFOs and extra-terrestrials – the 70s wanted us to focus on galaxies far, far away.
Teatime viewing after school could have involved The Tomorrow People on ITV – a rather baffling show about young people with special powers in a disused London Underground station solving galactic mysteries. For a while, it featured a character played by the drummer of a real-life pop band called Flintlock.
While over on the BBC, you could fly into outer space with our very own answer to Star Trek – yes, I give you Blake’s 7. At the time, it seemed amazing. On a re-watch, it’s like a group of Shakespearian actors condemned to roam the solar system harrumphing at each other.
There were an astonishing number of outer space related movies from the obvious E.T and Star Wars through to Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, Death Race 2000, Alien, Logan’s Run, The Andromeda Strain and so on… Plus the 70s gave us a heap of conspiracy theories with the movie Capricorn One, for example, illustrating how the moon landings never happened.
Meanwhile, as a kid in the London suburbs, I collected Brooke Bond picture cards of space related stuff and stuck them into the album supplied. Found the album the other day and it’s such a cool, retro piece of 70s kitsch. God I loved that decade!
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 – 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.
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.
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.
If I want to shock the millennials I work with, I tell them of a grim time not so long ago when racism was not only casual but endemic. Worse, it tipped from the mouths of MPs, broadcasters, senior police officers and judges. I find it almost impossible to believe that when I was in my teens, people could utter some of what follows here…
Powell – putting his own views in other people’s mouths
Enoch Powell MP was a posh demagogue much loved by the sort of people who would begin a sentence with “I’m not racialist but…” Powell always put his racist views into other people’s mouths. As if to say – I don’t necessarily believe this myself but I’m honour bound as a representative of my constituents to tell you that…etc.
That allowed him to posture as the unwilling messenger who had to relay to all of us the shocking truth about the perils of immigration. He once claimed that an elderly, frail white woman had “excreta pushed through her letter box”. A woman like her was intended to embody all white people – vulnerable and overwhelmed by the aggressive and sexualised violence of people from the black Commonwealth.
It was all nods and knowing winks from Powell to the racists on the street. That’s not to say that a little old lady didn’t have poo put through her letter box. But it sure as hell happened to a lot more Asian run newsagents at the hands of neo-fascists – a fact that conveniently escaped Powell.
Winston Churchill’s grandson was a prominent MP in the 1970s – same name as his granddad but less illustrious career. In 1976, he made a very Powell-esque speech himself. He imagined his constituents not being able to recognise their own neighbourhoods anymore.
We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”
Churchill, incidentally, once described one of his constituents to the House of Commons as being “as black as your coat, Mister Deputy Speaker”.
Sir Kenneth Newman of the Metropolitan Police had some positives in his career such as backing the formation of Crimestoppers. But he also opined that Jamaicans were incapable of obeying the law: “It’s simply in their make up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority”. Another commentator even said that mugging was a form of self-employment for “West Indians”. Crime reporting in those days was often underpinned by the assumption that black people were more disposed to criminality.
Another knighted copper called Ken was Sir Kenneth Oxford running the force in Merseyside. BBC reporter Martin Young spent some time with the Liverpool police and wrote a report for The Listener magazine. Jaws dropped round Merseyside when he claimed there was a view that “half-castes in Liverpool today” were the “products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8 – the red light district”. Oxford bitterly denied that any senior police officer had said such a thing to the reporter – who in turn stood by his story.
Right-wing ideologues often conflated the perceived threat posed by immigrants – from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean mainly – with the permissive society unleashed by the 1960s. Alfred Sherman was a political guru to Margaret Thatcher and once declared that:
“…the imposition of mass immigration from backward alien cultures is just one symptom of this self-destructive urge reflected in the assault on patriotism, the family – both as a conjugal and economic unit – the Christian religion in public life and schools, traditional morality in matters of sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law – in short, all that is English and wholesome…”
How did black Britons view this kind of thing? In the late 70s and early 80s, change was slowly happening. A new generation born and bred in Britain wasn’t prepared to doff its cap to the former colonial master. And they wanted to succeed in British society.
However, there was still very widespread discrimination in employment and housing. I found a copy of a teen mag called Fab208 – mentioned elsewhere on this blog – where a black single mother was interviewed about what Christmas would be like for her. Mrs Jones, who lived in a dingy flat in Wapping with her kids replied: “I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide.”
There was so little room in the flat that clothes were hung up outside to dry but were then stolen. The family never went on holidays. Her 14 year old daughter Sharon told Fab208: “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”
Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family. “I’m not a sponger. I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.”
Shame Enoch Powell never dropped by to hear her account of life in Britain during the 70s and 80s.
There’s increasing concern about neo-fascist infiltration of school playgrounds today – so it’s worth having a quick glance back to what the situation was like in the late 70s and early 80s when neo-Nazis were very active among school pupils.
Football terraces were recruitment grounds for the extreme right but schools were another arena of activity. In one report, there was a quote from a fascist group:
We welcome young people. We make or break them. Many are coming to us with the rise in unemployment. Skinheads are prime material – raw and aggressive. They need an identity. The whole point of getting children is to indoctrinate them. We are building a Nazi society through the youth of today.
Chilling stuff. The British Movement and National Front were particularly active. I recall one pupil from my school returning from a BM conference (from memory in Brussels in 1980) replete with skinhead cut and a perma-snarl. He walked up to me in the school library and informed me that I was a “pinko…leftie…etc”.
John Tyndall, chairman of the NF in the 70s said that “until children reach an age at which they are able to determine their own values, some sort of values have to be instilled into them”. According to the 1974 NF manifesto, schools were to be segregated on the basis of race and liberal studies – or “academic Marxism” as they called it – would be banned.
The NF campaigned against individual teachers
The NF’s youth wing took over the magazine Bulldog and that became its main recruiting tool in schools. It included a campaign to remove “red teachers” from the classroom.
They sometimes found themselves competing with other far right groups like Viking Youth, led by Paul Jarvis – who was also looking for recruits in the Scout movement! The BM produced a publication called Fact Finder, which included a “Lie Detector”. According to this, the heroes of the Nuremburg Trials were those on trial! Needless to say, holocaust denial featured highly.
Reported incidents in 1980/81 included:
May 1980 – black pupils at a Camden school attacked by skinheads from the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom
October 1980 – BM recruiting at schools in Dartford, Kent
October 1980 – Young National Front campaign against a teacher at a Dover school
February 1981 – Manchester school daubed with swastikas and NF symbols
March 1981 – 33 pupils, mostly Asian, leave a classroom at a Birmingham school before a fire-bomb explosion – racist attack suspected
Publications promoting multiculturalism were lambasted by the fascists – this from the NF magazine Spearhead