The Clash at the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978


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.

The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978 – a story of racism in Tower Hamlets 40 years ago


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.

 

Does a 1970s NF manifesto show how far right we’ve moved today?


National Front leafletDigging up this National Front filth from my archives, I was struck how far to the right the mainstream political parties have moved these days.

There was the NF calling on Britain to leave the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and we’ve now gone the whole  hog and voted for Brexit.

On immigration – the main parties haven’t advocated repatriation but the assumption that immigration is a ‘bad thing’ has become the conventional wisdom.

Back in the 70s, the NF wasn’t shy about talk of “sending THEM back” – even if the people they were referring to were second even third generation black and Asian Britons. Today, UKIP has called for the children of immigrants to be classed as migrants and all parties have promised to ‘get tough’ on immigration and remove benefits.

The NF made great headway spreading lies about immigrants grabbing social housing – yet that assumption goes unchallenged today by many mainstream politicians. Ditto the health service being overrun by so-called “health tourists”.

And we’ve had British jobs for British workers rhetoric from politicians on the left that would have been screamed down as utterly racist 30 years back.

What’s your view?

 

When Shoreditch was fascist territory


National Front leafletEven 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.

 

The police with dustbin lids and traffic cones versus rioters


In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s. The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. Looking back now – with our police having access to very sophisticated protection – it does look rather incongruous.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that prepared the ground for a police force with more riot equipment.

Battle of Lewisham

The National Front in Bradford in the 70s


In the 1970s, the National Front saw Bradford as a fertile recruiting ground. The far right thought it could benefit from the misery caused by industrial decline coupled with the influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth. There was a plethora of racist and fascist organisations that sprang up around this time including the Bradford based ‘British Campaign to Stop Immigration’.

NF activity culminated in a huge stand off between their supporters and anti-fascists in 1976 dubbed the ‘Battle of Bradford’. This may have been the party’s high water mark in the city.

The NF speaker was their leader John Tyndall – an acid-faced fuhrer who is mercifully no longer with us but was a household name in the late 1970s alongside his tubby fellow leader Martin Webster.

How grim was Britain in 1979? A view from the late boxer Errol Christie


Very grim according to veteran 1980s boxer Errol Christie. I filmed Errol in the boxing ring at Gymbox in Holborn talking about his memories of racism, street violence and fascist thuggery. Below is the great man’s perspective on 1979.

Sadly, Errol died of lung cancer in 2017 having never smoked in his life. But he always complained to me of having to box as a youth in smoke filled halls and driving around in a van where everybody was puffing away. He was only three weeks younger than me and it’s a terrible loss to all his friends and his family.