Aged fourteen, I went on the huge Anti-Nazi carnival in east London in 1978. I got split up from my mates and ended up on my own – bit of a daunting experience. Got out at Embankment tube and watched loads of punks vaulting over the barriers while I politely inserted by ticket stub – as you did in those pre-Oyster days.
Then walked up towards Trafalgar Square glancing nervously at the big police vans nearby. I’d never seen anything like this and they were clearly looking for some aggro. The noise in the square was something else. A band was playing and the cheering was deafening.
At some point, we began the very long march to Victoria park in Mile End. I mean seriously, could you get people to go that far these days? Recall passing under the railway bridge near St Paul’s that was taken down in the 80s and then arriving at the park to hear more bands on a big stage including….The Clash!
But a small confession to make. I just don’t remember The Clash on stage at all. What my memories feature are X Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band. But….here’s The Clash and for some reason, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 got up on stage with them.
Even in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story. Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.
National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti. And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.
In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 40.
Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.
Londoners of a certain age remember the two massive Anti Nazi League carnivals in 1978 with glowing nostalgia. But Manchester was in on the act too. Let’s not forget that. Here was the Mancunian ANL carnival with acts like Steel Pulse, the Buzzcocks and China Street.
I loved Steel Pulse’s Jah Pickney with that song’s delightful lyrics about hunting the National Front. Check it out on YouTube. Buzzcocks – we all know them! But I’d quite forgotten China Street, a favourite of John Peel and on the EMI label for a while.
The march was sponsored by the north west region TUC. The trade unions were very much a backbone of the whole anti-racist push against the National Front at that time.
At the same time that the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were organising monster carnivals against the extreme right wing National Front in 1978, a group called School Kids Against the Nazis (SKAN) emerged. Leaflets were distributed in our school and I still have this copy.
The message was that if the NF ever got into power then a lot of our favourite pop stars would be deported for being black, Asian or having one or both parents from outside the UK. It was a simple theme but resonated at the time. I don’t recall SKAN ever being anywhere near as popular as the ANL or RAR – even with us as young teens.