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.

 

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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.

Those CND demos in the early 80s


IMG_6241The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.

Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.

The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.

 

London reacts to Maggie in 1979


London and the south east had a swing to the Tories in 1979 that was 50% higher than the rest of the country. The GLC was already in Tory hands under the leadership of Horace Cutler. He was looking forward to a close working relationship with Thatcher around issues that would eventually move in his direction: the development of Canary Wharf, sale of council houses, the Jubilee line and a third airport. Cutler also thought his party would support an Olympics bid for 1988.

The GLC had traditionally been heavily involved in the provision of social housing but Cutler handed over stock to local boroughs and pushed for council house sales ahead of Thatcher coming to power and in the teeth of opposition from Labour, the left and housing groups.

Cutler believed London had given the Tories a huge endorsement and looked forward to a “happy time”. Unfortunately for him, Londoners turned on Cutler’s Conservatives in 1981 after two years of recession and the GLC ended up with Labour in control and Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone was able to link up with other Labour held metropolitan authorities like Merseyside and South Yorkshire. These sprawling urban councils had swung to Labour in 1979, defying the Thatcherite wave. The prime minister got her revenge in 1986 when she abolished all these authorities including the GLC.

Here is a punk rant against Cutler’s GLC from The Members

 

 

The campaign to save the GLC


GLC
Campaigning to save the GLC

The whole saga around the Greater London Council in the early 80s doesn’t exactly cover Margaret Thatcher in glory. It’s arguably the worst example of her political centralising tendencies.

In 1977, the GLC had switched from Labour to Conservative control – under the flamboyant Sir Horace Cutler. Under him, many of the ideas that would become national Conservative policy after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election were tried out – in particular, the sale of council houses. Cutler also transformed Covent Garden from a fruit and veg market to a chic shopping experience that incidentally banned shops selling denim!

By 1981, Londoners were ready to bring Labour back and the party won under Andrew McIntosh. In a very daring and controversial move, Ken Livingstone representing the left of the London Labour Party then deposed McIntosh and was installed as the new leader of the GLC. This began several years of Livingstone taunting Thatcher over the rising level of unemployment and a very strident defence of minority rights. There was also a campaign around keeping London Underground fares down.

Thatcher detested the GLC and in 1986, she abolished it along with six other metropolitan county councils – Merseyside council for example. Even by the standards of the time, this was a shockingly partisan move – an attack on authorities that were all Labour controlled. Needless to say the official excuse was that bureaucracy was being trimmed. But I don’t think anybody bought that line.

Ken Livingstone and detention camps for political dissenters


Back in 1983, Thatcher went to the country for a fresh electoral mandate after a rocky first term as prime-minister. From 1979 to 1981, unemployment had skyrocketed and large parts of the manufacturing sector had collapsed. The summer of ’81 saw riots and interest rates were fearsomely high. But electoral salvation came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands giving Thatcher a huge boost in the polls.

So what was going to happen if the Tories got back in? The leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few weeks before the general election and he believed political activists could be rounded up and detained. This was by no means an isolated opinion. Many on the left took the view that democracy was being eroded, power was being centralised, the unions emasculated, local councils abolished and the police and courts being used in a more politically explicit manner.

Ken said he thought camps could be established to hold anti-government activists. The memory of internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s ‘Troubles’ and use of jury free Diplock courts undoubtedly contributed to this fear among many socialists. There had also been the threat of tougher anti-crime measures after the 1981 riots, which Ken references in the article. However, Thatcher was not about to establish a fascist dictatorship.

Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken Livingstone interviewed
Ken Livingstone interviewed

Fine dining in the BT Tower


The BT Tower near Goodge Street in London has to be one of the most neglected and overlooked monuments in the city – an unloved relic of the 1960s. And yet I think it’s fantastic. Really iconic, bold and in your face. It was built at a time of huge forward looking confidence – how that would all change in the 1970s!

Originally called the Post Office Tower, it had a restaurant at the top – and I’ve recently found an advert for it in an old bookshop in Portugal, of all places. This is from about 1970 – because in 1971, the IRA put a bomb in the restaurant and the public was no longer able to go up there. And it’s been closed pretty much ever since.

A friend has been to the old restaurant for a private function and they can still make the top of the building rotate. Back in the 60s, you dined while watched London revolve below. The machinery is now a bit cranky and he said the whole floor shook as it got going – but why on earth don’t they re-open this again?

I know this falls outside the time limit of this blog but I do break the rules for a picture as good as this.