Ever find yourself rolling your eyes when you hear that phrase ‘back in the day’? As often as not uttered by some grisled cynic bemoaning the loss of an older world and its deep treasures. Analogue by instinct, the lament typically covers those tangible gifts of vinyl, gatefold sleeves, hard copy and some even tougher attitudes. But it stretches to style too. Harringtons, Crombies, cuff links and bespoke tailoring. Brutus and Ben Sherman, sta prest and suedehead crops. Wingtips, royals, Blakey’s clicking on the underside of loafers, and the spectre of Lee Marvin striding purposefully away from the Summer of Love and from all things Bay Area in the spare 1967 arthouse classic, ‘Point Blank’. The cynic will have you know that everything was better ‘back then’, which turns out to be an indeterminate era spanning lifestyle, memory and well-honed narcissism. But he (it’s nearly always a he) won’t be so forthcoming when questioned about the more unsavoury aspects of this earlier zeitgeist. Mention any of the following – Blair Peach, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, ‘Southall ‘79’ or ‘The Battle of Lewisham’, or even earlier than that the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, or the murder of Kelso Cochrane – and more than likely you’ll draw a blank. But look carefully and simmering under the poker face you’ll spot a primal scream disguised as a rebel yell. Teddy Boys going on ‘nigger hunts’, skinheads seeing ‘Paki bashing’ as recreation. A small island mentality but complicated by the shadows of Empire, War, and by the most remarkable thing of all. Envy.
The cut of their cloth, their jib, too sharp by far for the locals.
Teds feeling the sartorial insult, their ersatz Americana/Edwardiana no match for the styles, the sounds, the sexual allure of the Windrush incomers. South Asians meanwhile derided but also envied for their clannishness, their cuisine, and a refusal to be cowed by municipal racism. The Indian Workers Association, here before Windrush, and every bit as resolute.
But look, the wider point concerns tribalism, identity politics, call it what you will. It’s nothing new, especially in the engine room of old Empire, London. Except that finally, in the post-war years, from the ruins of the Blitz, this city faced a long overdue reckoning with both its past and its present.
‘We’re here because you were there’ was an unwelcome reminder for many locals of London’s imperial history.
Tribes, styles, attitudes, all colliding in a mongrel, mixed up, murky tongue. A scene of Conradian ‘horror’ for gimlet eyed nationalists. A site of renewal, possibility, and even transcendence for those with bigger hearts. And rather wonderfully, that sometimes included novelists too. This new/old city forming on the picaresque pages of Sam Selvon, Colin MacInnes, Hanif Kureishi, Andrea Levy.
The mongrel tongue resurfaces in the stylistic imprimatur of Mod, Skinhead, Soulboy, Suedehead, Rudeboy, and beyond. It twangs its braces to the moonstomping sounds of Symarip on the football terraces, or the tannoys burp out Soul, Reggae, Funk in repurposed Recreation Centres, and at lively house parties. Meanwhile, in the city’s occluded commercial aspect, the decline of manufacturing industry, and the emptying of the desolate, hulking warehouses in which some of that work used to happen, was having another unanticipated consequence. Warehouse parties, with their freestyle entrepreneurialism, were turning into urban enterprise zones par excellence. Probably not what Margaret Thatcher had in mind, but intriguing both for their social makeup – London’s many tribes congregating (largely peacefully) by night – and for the scene shift they signalled as to what terms like ‘culture’ or ‘progress’ even meant any more. The accent shifting away from the more collective impulses of sound systems and towards the fateful individualism of ‘lifestyle’. Spaces shorn of collective bargaining and filled instead with the cultural artefacts of late capital. Sounds and styles for sure, but the deeper imprint, the one which lasted long after the ‘scene’ itself had moved on, was a harder tone of profit, venture capital, and of winners and losers. A blagger’s charter, an illicit nighttime economy. Hobbesian predators skirting the edges much as skinheads had once breached the perimeter consciousness of hippies during The Stones free Hyde Park gig back in 1969.
Of course, the cynic won’t tell you any of this, still nursing some ancient grievance about turf and belonging. So that’s where this story comes in, an unreliable witness to history, to speculation, to The Specials even. It is offered up as a panacea to the ills of that pincer movement bedevilling the present from both Right and Left, which would decry and deny our right to what the philosopher, Fred Moten, might describe as an ‘undercommons’. The great, roiling city of the Blitz, of collapsing Empire, of commerce. A picaresque unravelling and a phantom history. Its heart belongs to the Modernists, the Soul Stylists, the mischief makers and the mongrel, forgotten masses.
This story is a love letter then, a tone poem, and yes, at times a lament too. But proposed with a sharper stitch and the sprightliest of sounds.
From the rise of Blondie to the fall of Lehman Brothers.
Post punk, postindustrial, postcode savvy.
It’s a London thing.