From Out On The Floor ‘zine, 1985
from Guilty of What ‘zine, 1982.
Annie was part of the bands that focused around scruffy anarchos Crass. She performed using backing tapes, spoken word and was pretty unique. She often annoyed the soap-dodging punks by being different, which is no bad thing. She later went on to record and tour with On U-Sound.
On Saturday 17th January 1981, a 16th birthday party was held at 439 New Cross Road for Yvonne Ruddock. Early the next morning, the 18th, a fire broke out and 13 young black people, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed. Yvonne Ruddock was among the dead. One survivor killed himself a couple of years later, so the death toll is often given as 14. Many people believed that that the fire was a racist attack and the police initially suggested that it may have been caused by a firebomb, they later rejected this theory, claiming that the fire had been started following an argument in the party. Racists sent abusive letters to victim’s families and the police investigation was haphazard.
There had been several racist arson attacks in the area. In November 1977 a newspaper reported that a National Front meeting had included talk of burning down the Moonshot, a New Cross youth club popular with young black people. On December 18th, it was gutted in a firebomb attack and had to be rebuilt. The Albany in Deptford was a centre of local anti-racist activity, including ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs, a three day ‘All Together Now’ festival, a benefit to scrap the suss laws and a successful anti racist show called ‘Restless natives’. On the 14th July 1978 the Albany (then at 47 Creek Road) was gutted by fire.
The next day a note was pushed through the door of the building saying ‘GOT YOU’. The rebuilt Albany is now home to poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. Throughout the 1970s there had a significant far right presence in south East London. In 1976, the National Front and the National Party achieved a combined vote of 44.5% in a Deptford council by-election. And on 13 August 1977, a National Front March to Lewisham started in New Cross, in Achilles Street by Fordham Park. The clashes between the NF, anti-fascists and the police on that day became known as the Battle of Lewisham. It wasn’t just the possible racist attack that inflamed anger. While local community activists like Sybil Phoenix rallied round to support those affected, there was little or no official support, not even the usual messages of condolence from the Queen or the prime minister.
The police interrogated party goers as if they were criminals rather than victims, and the press reporting was largely unsympathetic. As Linton Kwesi Johnson recalled ‘a lot of people were angry… not just about what happened, but about the way the whole business was handled by the police and the way it was reported in the press and the media’.
On the Sunday following the fire a mass meeting was held at The Moonshot Club, attended by over 1000 people. From that meeting there was a demonstration to the scene of the fire, which blocked New Cross Road for several hours. A New Cross Massacre Action Committee was established and organised weekly mass meetings in New Cross. It also called the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981. On a wet working day, at least 15,000 (some say 20,000) marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park to Hyde Park with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover-Up’, ‘Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come’ – the largest single political mobilization of black people ever seen in the UK. LKJ was a steward on the march, and remembers that ‘all along the march we kept on picking up more people… school children were climbing over fences to come and join the demonstration in Peckham’. Other walked out of their workplaces to join in. Although the march was mainly peaceful, The Sun reported it with the headline: ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’, with other press reports featuring headlines like ‘Black Day at Blackfriars’ and ‘When the Black Tide Met the Thin Blue Line’.
Paul Gilroy, who took part, relates that ‘we were deeply disappointed that the justice in our claim and the tragedy itself was still considered to be secondary to the sensation’. Thirty years on the families of those who died still had no answers. A second inquest in 2004 recorded an open verdict, and nobody has ever been charged. Many now query the racist attack hypothesis, but the sense of injustice remains. Playwright Rex Obano, said: “To me, the New Cross fire, the fact that no one in authority seemed to care, forced the black community to unify, to find its voice in a way it hadn’t before. This politicised people from all over the country. They marched in protest: thousands of people on a workday. I was 13 at the time and I always thought the older generation was comparatively passive. New Cross shows it wasn’t like that at all. They dealt with so much. There had been other uprisings. But this was a line in the sand.” It is no coincidence that in the month following the New Cross Fire demonstration, Brixton erupted in the first of what was to be a long hot summer of riots in cities across the country.
Whilst I was far from New Cross, I was a teenager. I was the same age of many of the dead and going to reggae dances and parties most weekends. The anger and sense of injustice was felt by black people across Britain and by many people of all backgrounds across the city. Since then we’ve seen the government, media and police indifference and fabrication in the likes of Hillsborough. I well remember the sense of injustice but also that people came together in the face of it. There were a number of songs and poems about the incident. Ben Zephaniah’s and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poems can be heard below.
There’s also a record from longstanding record producer Sir Collins who lost a son in the tragedy.
I first took to performing poetry in my late teens, back in the mid-80s. Washing powder adverts, benefit cuts, men-only stands at cricket grounds – all these and more got the poetic treatment from The Big J.
Like several fellow ranters, I simultaneously knocked together a fanzine with the help of some mates. ‘Blaze’ combined left-wing activist politics, chasing our favourite acts around reviewing their gigs and asking them trite questions, and laudable but forlorn attempts to make Peterborough sound interesting.
The fanzine lasted five issues (one of each saved for posterity in a suitcase under my bed) and the ranting poetry a few years longer. Ranting poetry was a great movement to be part of. It made it OK to just get up and vent your spleen, to be funny and fierce at the same time, to attack injustice and voice solidarity with those resisting it. And you got to go to loads of excellent gigs, meet inspiring people and make a few lifelong friends. I’d namecheck them, but they are pretty much all namechecked elsewhere on this blog already. Thank you to all of you.
I guess that for me, the content trumped the form. Having something to say, and saying it, was more crucial than the exact medium in which you said it. So as I got more directly involved in political activism, the poetry fell off the agenda. I was still ranting, but in speeches not poems, through megaphones as often as microphones, at conferences and pickets rather than at gigs.
By the end of the 1980s, I had stopped doing poetry. I honestly don’t remember making a decision to do so, but a great friend of mine recalls me saying that I didn’t think people would take my political views seriously while I got on stage and did silly poems. That is probably a sad reflection on either me or the political left, or both – and possibly on the difficulties that political women face in being taken seriously.
Last year, after a brief respite from rhyming of a mere quarter-century, and partly inspired by this blog, I started the poetry again. I reformed, but remain a revolutionary.
I hadn’t been in suspended animation in the interim. I’d managed to move to several cities more interesting than Peterborough; get two degrees and three kids; get elected to the national executives of two unions (NUS and RMT); be an active Marxist and Workers’ Liberty member; have two political books published; find out I’m autistic; and lose my right eye to a stray firework. And some other stuff too.
I’ve returned into a rather different performance poetry scene. First time round, there were drab poetry readings in libraries and there were ranters on stage in pubs and at gigs, and never would the twain meet (or so we thought). Now there is a vibrant ‘spoken word’ circuit. Rap and hip-hop have obviously had a positive impact on it. And it includes performers of all ages, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, disabled and not – without having to put a sign up boasting about how diverse it is. With all due respect to my fellow 1980s ranters, that just wasn’t true then, was it?
This time round, I have taken the trouble to learn what iambic pentameter is (quite a revelation at the age of 47) and to try out sonnets and villanelles alongside the more gut-level, spleen-venting rants. Oh yes, they are still very much there. Why? Because the injustices we rant against are still there. Alongside poetry nights, I’m turning in performances for political causes including socialist feminism, fighting cuts, and freeing jailed Iranian trade unionists. Thankfully, so are the struggles we rant in support of.
My first book of poetry will be out soon. It’s provisionally titled Mostly Hating Tories – which is what I have been doing all my life.
A town often derided by Johnnie Cooper Clarke, and also the home of the delightful Felix Henson. Here’s a 1980 documentary looking at a punk music collective and also features the local ‘zines. Great to see The Notsensibles in there too, as well as Chimp Eats Banana (pre-Chumbawamba) members in attendance. The band onstage is the Stuffed Badgers.
Attila is hard at work on his autobiography. We’ve had a couple of early chapters here on the blog.
It’s good to see him still gigging. Last night, 10.01.15, he gigged in support of jailed trade unionists in Iran. Also on the bill were Janine Booth (The Big J) and Tim Wells (Teething Wells). Both Janine and I were gigging as ranters in the 80s.
Chip Grim veteran of many a political ‘action’ also belted some poems out. It wasn’t just the seasoned veterans, young poets Michelle Madsen and Emily Harrison also read.
Attila’s t-shirt bore the Adrian Mitchell quote: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’. It’s good to see that younger poets are keeping poetry relevant and in the pubs and on the streets. Also worth noting the quote is from a poet.