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Transcript: In conversation with Linton Kwesi Johnson


Paul Gilroy: Hello, I'm Paul Gilroy, Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at University College London. I'm joined today by Linton Kwesi Johnson, poet and activist; somebody whose voice has been absolutely fundamental to presenting and to interpreting the consciousness of Black people in this country for many, many decades now. In the vernacular philosophical language of the 20th century Black freedom movement, to which Linton’s work as a poet has made such notable contribution. The idea of truth gets linked to the pursuit of right and rights. The pairing that results has often been associated with loud and unruly demands for justice. It’s a mix that has endured far beyond the historical circumstances from which it emerged. Those demands for truth, right and justice reverberate very loudly in the context of the year we’ve just lived through - the Covid pandemic and the forms of inequality and conflict that it has revealed to us all with great clarity. It's also the case that those demands for truth, right and justice were very evident in the events that we are commemorating - 40 years since the Black People’s Day of Action march.
 
Linton was a participant in the community’s organized responses to the horrible loss of young people's lives in the New Cross Road fire. My own relationship with his poetry began with the publication of his second volume of poems, Dread Beat An' Blood, in the mid-'70s. There we can find a Fanonian, revolutionary politics, distinguished by its determination to take the question of 'culture' seriously, very much audible there, an insurgent spirit that was also connected into a mode of modernist expression - Dubwise expression. Of course, Linton was influenced by the militant voices of the US Black Arts movement, but he seemed in places to be signifying on the work of some of the most revered of modernist poets. His work has always been equally appreciative of the demotic poetry of the reggae toasters and the lyrical heights of records half-heard through the fog of intoxication in a blues dance. It was tuned in to the political and historical commentary on Britain, via the wordplay of the Jamaican sufferer DJs: I-Roy, Big Youth, and so on. So, long before the musical components of Linton’s performances were formalised through his collaborations with the Dennis Bovell, there was an implicit music here. And what Linton named 'bass culture', characterised by a playful mix of menace and comedy, was giving way to the extreme seriousness of what we can only call a dub aesthetic. The result of his innovations was absolutely faithful to the lived experience of young Black people during that time of ferment and conflict, especially with the police. And of course, that early work, Dread Beat An' Blood, includes a poem livicated to the memory of David Oluwale - a man killed by the only British Police officers who have ever been brought to book for such cruelty. Oluwale’s is a name like those of Aseta Sims, Blair Peach, Mark Duggan and many, many others, that should be as famous and as celebrated in this country as those of George Floyd and the other African Americans who have met similar fates. Linton, welcome, thank you so much for being able to offer us this time today.

The context for our conversation today is really the need to remember and to reflect upon events of 1981 which, as you’ve said very clearly in the past, is a historic watershed period for the political development and political culture of Black life in this country; so I want to just start with that really. I think for a lot of people who may be listening to this, they won’t know the history that we know, that we share, and I think, obviously, Steve McQueen’s intervention around the Small Axe has given some elements of that history to people, which were surprising to them. But now ten years after Mangrove, we have 1981, we have the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the unprecedented demonstration of March 2nd 1981, which was the first domino in a whole sequence of things that happened that year. Can you set the scene for that demonstration and just talk about the period that was leading up to it?
 
Linton Kwesi Johnson: 1981, that was a period of Thatcherite rule and serious class warfare going on in this country because under the Thatcher regime, the programme was to claw back the gains that the working class had made in the post-World War II settlement and to free up capital, or free up capitalism, and to shrink the welfare state. It was a period of high unemployment, a period of social unrest and, within the Black communities, the protracted war that had begun in the '60s between the police and the Black youth was being waged. It was also a period of increased activity on the far right, the National Front and these organisations. It was a period of intensified racist and fascist attacks and murders, terrorists attacks carried out against Black people, Asian people, and it was also a time when there was a campaign against Caribbean culture in terms of the blues dance and the sound-systems. There was a Member of Parliament called Jill Knight, from Birmingham, who was campaigning against these so-called West Indian parties and had been whipping up people into a frenzy of condemnation. So that was the backdrop of the New Cross fire, which happened on the night of the 17th and the morning of the 18th of January of that year.
 
Paul: So that process of criminalisation really that you’ve also not just talked about but in a way I think we could say your poetry chronicles elements of that process of criminalisation in the decade running up to 1981, that process of criminalisation is really focused around cultural events, around clubs, around parties, around the places where people gather together to joyfully celebrate and affirm the cultural things that they share, the musical things they share, and that all of that activity is being actively and heavily criminalised by the police, by the criminal justice system, during that time, during that long ten year period running up to 1981. And that’s something which was really going on in London but also outside London too. I was living in Birmingham at that time and Jill Knight wasn’t my MP, Roy Hattersley was my MP - I don’t really know what to say about that but anyway - I have experience of living in Roy Hattersley’s constituency. And I remember Jill Knight’s attempt to make a kind of moral panic around the kind of noisy, criminal, dirty congregations of Caribbean people and their allies and friends and supporters. In a way, it’s a little bit like the things that were represented around the Mangrove Club in Steve McQueen’s presentation of it. But my memory and my historical research, if I can call it that, would say that that was going on everywhere. There were elements of that process that were widely distributed and people were very, very- well, I won’t say frightened because they were also emboldened, but that pressure was something that was very familiar during that time.
 
Linton: Frightened wouldn’t have been the right word because by then the so-called second generation of Black youth had begun to emerge, and they were the rebel generation; John La Rose calls our parent’s generation, the heroic generation, as opposed to the Windrush- which really doesn’t mean much. The heroic generation, those who had come here, the pioneers who laid down the solid foundation and began to build autonomous institutions. Well, by rebel generation, I mean the generation of youth who were not prepared to be as reticent about the racism that we were experiencing, and were not prepared to be as passive; in a nutshell, were not prepared to put up with what our parents reluctantly put up with, tolerated. So, the youth were very much in focus. Of course, we had our rude boys, our lumpenproletariat, with high chronic unemployment amongst Black youth that was inevitable, but of course the police used that as an excuse to terrorise Black youth in general.
 
Paul: It’s interesting to me, looking back on some of your earlier poetry, particularly Five Nights of Bleeding, which I always feel is a poem that's had several lives really, if I may say. I was inside The Rainbow on March the 3rd 1973, when James Brown was in. So, I remember coming out and seeing the broken glass on the pavement and seeing the blood on the pavement. So, I do understand what that pressure added up to day-by-day; I think that it’s really important to convey that. What I love about that poem, and the poems of that period that you wrote, Linton, is there's a very strong, I guess would call it – or I thought it was – a very sort of Fanonian feeling about the violence of the young people in defence of their communities.
 
Linton: You’re absolutely right because I didn’t go to write these poems thinking, I’m going to put Fanon’s ideas into poetry, or whatever, when I was writing these poems; but, at the time, Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was one of the books we had studied in the Blank Panther movement, of which I was a member. I was struck by the things he had to say about violence. So, when I wrote poems like Dread Beat An’ Blood, Five Nights of Bleeding, Time Come, those poems, at the back of my mind somewhere in my subconscious, was Fanon’s idea about internalisation, canalisation and catharsis. These ideas found their way into those poems somehow- I don’t know how, but they managed to find their way into those poems. I mean, back in those days we had gangs; in Brixton we had the Rebels, we had the Untouchables, we had the Raiders Posse, and different gangs from different areas there would often be internecine warfare going on between them and within them. It was almost like a dialectic going on. There was this Black against Black violence amongst some of the youth, and police and state violence against us, and we resisting that violence. These are the different dimensions I wanted to explore in those early poems.
 
Paul: And you say very clearly, fratricidal violence, that sense of visiting your violence on those who are nearest to you, those who are dearest to you, those who are closest to you, that that’s the first phase and that at some point, that you can see or hear approaching, that violence will be turned in a different direction, and that’s the energy of Fanon’s political vision, I think.
 
Linton: Absolutely and that was what I was trying to communicate in Time Come.
 
Paul: Well, of course, there’s a lot to be said about what you've dubbed the ‘bass culture' and about the culture of those young people at that time. The culture of sound. I mean, I remember when you were on Desert Island Discs some years ago, you said you wanted to take a bass guitar with you, and I was thinking about that.
 
Linton: Yeah, I want to be a bass player.
 
Paul: Well, I’m sure Dennis Bovell will be able to steer you in the right direction.
 
Linton: Oh, no, he’s not telling me anything.
 
Paul: But I’m wondering what it is about bass, about the sound of the bass, and the power of the bass when it hits the body.
 
Linton: I don’t know but as a youth, going to all these blues dances and reggae sessions at my local youth club, I found the bass very attractive and there was something very essential about the baselines. For me, I think the bass in reggae music is what distinguishes it from other pop forms and I began to think about it and trying to conceptualise it in a way. I was a youngster then, and a sociology undergraduate, so I really didn’t know anything. But I was trying to think of it in terms of representing, or capturing, or encapsulating, the very pulse, the very energy, the tensions of urban society in Jamaica, and that the bassline would be expressing all those things. And that you could hear violence in some basslines when there were conflicts going on in Jamaica, rival political party warfare and all that sort of thing, and you could hear changes in the bassline as the society itself was changing. For example, in the early years of independence, you listen to ska and the bassline is very bouncy and happy, and then later on, in some of The Skatalites’ tunes, you hear a kind of a dreadness coming into the basslines, and this became an aspect of reggae. You listen to tunes like None Shall Escape the Judgement by Johnny Clarke and you can hear that. That was a time of states of emergency in Jamaica and the bass, the tension in the bass reflected that. Bass culture kind of represented the rootedness of reggae music in the actual lives, everyday lives, and the culture of the people, and the struggles that were being waged in society.
 
Paul: Do you think that you began to hear that quality in the music that was being made in this country, in the music that was coming out of the rebel generation here? When did you begin to be aware of similar qualities in the sound of that music locally produced?
 
Linton: There wasn’t too much of that in the music here really. One might have heard a bit of it in Matumbi, Dennis Bovell’s old band, or a bit of it in Steel Pulse, and maybe Misty in Roots. But what took hold in this country was lovers rock, which was romantic reggae, love songs, basically romance; music really made to appeal to the girls in the blues dances, because lots of times you would go to these parties and dances and that, and it would be just a load of guys standing in the corner, rocking or whatever, and we wanted girls. So, Dennis Bovell and John Kpiaye - a name that is often forgotten in the story about lovers rock. John Kpiaye, together with Dennis Bovell, kind of pioneered the form, working for Dennis Harris over in Lewisham, and producing music for his Lovers Rock label, which featured a lot of female artists. And because the music of that time was sort of romantically orientated, people would see it as being inferior, Black British reggae sound as being inferior to the hardcore stuff that was coming out of Jamaica that reflected what was happening there.
 
Paul: I’m really pleased you mentioned the name of John Kpiaye because one of my favourite records, which I have to say I’ve been playing it a lot this week, is his original production for Ijahman Levi’s Jah Heavy Load, which to me is a sublime work of art actually from 1976, that comes straight out of that studio and that sound. I don’t know the story of that record but it’s extraordinary and much better than the Jamaican version that came out three or four years later, when Chris Blackwell was guiding Ijahman’s career closer to the mainstream; so I’m glad you mentioned him.
 
Well, let’s start to talk a little bit about the march, the Black People’s Day of Action march of March 2nd 1981. We want to remember that process and I thought we could just begin by you talking a little bit about the work that John La Rose and other people did to build up that event, and to draw together a kind of network - an unprecedent national network of activists, and supporters, and angry people - to draw attention to the horrible wrong which had been done, first in the murderous fire and second time, by the indifference, the antipathy of the police, the authorities, the Government and so on. You were obviously involved in the Massacre Action Committee, so talk a little bit about that and then let’s talk about the day itself.
 
Linton: When the fire happened in January 1981, by then we had a long tradition of Black activism and going back to the days of Black Power. The Black Power era really was a broad church, if you like, because there were Black nationalists, there Black separatists, there were Maoists, there Marxist-Leninists, and maybe a few liberal voices amongst those as well. By 1981 we had established a tradition of organising and mobilising in our struggles for racial equality and social justice. So, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, the main players really consisted of veterans like John La Rose, the founder of New Beacon Books and one of the founders of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, which came later; and an old activist who was persona non grata in his own country in the colonial days, with an enormous amount of experience. A clear thinker and a very good organiser. He had people like Eric and Jessica Huntley, who were also involved in the anti-colonial movement in their native Guyana. And those people had formed an organisation called the Black Parents Movement to deal with issues around education and the criminalisation of Black youth by the police. And then there was the Race Today Collective that published a journal Race Today, under the leadership of Darcus Howe, who was an old Black Panther himself. The Race Today Collective included people like Leila Hassan, who had been involved in the Black Unity and Freedom Party; Jean Ambrose also from the Black Unity and Freedom Party; myself - so I was involved in the Black Panthers as well as the Black Parents Movement. And there was a youth section of the Black Parents Movement called the Black Youth Movement, and we also worked with a group of activists from the north of England who at first were the Bradford Black Collective and later morphed into the Northern Black Collective. So those three organisations formed the core of the organising committee of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. We weren’t the only ones involved in mobilising for the Black People’s Day of Action. All kinds of people were involved in that, from various organisations, including the Black Liberation Front and all kinds of organisations from Birmingham. I remember Billy Brown, who was my martial arts instructor and Black Panther, and people like that. So, there was a group of experienced activists who got together and decided that we were going to call a public meeting and see where we go from there. Those meetings were called People’s Assemblies by John La Rose and happened at the Moonshot Youth Club over in Lewisham. And out of those meetings, maybe three or four meetings, came the idea for a day of action. I may be wrong about this but if my memory serves me well, I think the idea came from the floor rather than from the platform, and I think it might have been a man called Lloyd Moody, who was a shop steward in the Transport & General Workers Union. Anyway, the leadership adopted that idea and we went for that idea, a day of action that would shut down parts of London and that would march through the City of London - Fleet Street in particular, because of the racist response of the gutter press to that tragedy. So, when the New Cross Massacre Action Committee came into being, one of the first things they did was to advise the parents to form their own parents group, which would be completely independent of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee; whatever we were doing was something different from their own campaign for justice for their families, but we were working on their behalf. But it was important that it was seen that they had their own independent group. The second thing we did, which was crucial, was to establish a fact-finding committee where the people on that committee took statements from all the people who were involved, the people who were at the scene of the fire and so on, and eyewitness accounts from people who saw a possible assailant running from the building and the car that that person was driving and so on. We did that because within 48 hours, without having carried out any forensic investigation, the police ruled completely out-of-hand the possibility that it could have been a racist arson attack, even though it was they themselves who, when they arrived on the scene, told Mrs Ruddock - Yvonne Ruddock’s mother, the girl whose party it was - that it was an arson attack. They ruled it out completely without having carried out any forensic investigation and, miraculously, the incendiary device, that was found near the window of the house, was never presented as evidence at the inquest. But, that’s another matter.
 
Paul: How important was it that it was a working day that was chosen for the march?
 
Linton: Crucial. It was absolutely crucial. The working day was chosen because it would have the maximum impact and it would make people take note that Black people in England were not prepared to be murdered by fascists and just sit back and do nothing about it.
 
Paul: What do you remember about the day itself, apart from the rain setting off?
 
Linton: Yes, it was a soggy affair. What I remember about the day was that we started off with quite modest numbers when the march left that park up in New Cross there- I forget the name of the park.
 
Paul: Fordham Park.
 
Linton: That’s right. Maybe a few thousand people, and the numbers just kept on building and building and growing and growing and growing. So, by the time we got to Hyde Park, maybe 20,000 people. I saw schoolchildren jumping over the fences- by the time we got to Peckham, schoolchildren were jumping over the fences at their schools to join the march. My job on the march was I was one of the stewards, and my job was to try and keep the lumpen elements under control. Can you imagine that, Paul? Me trying to keep those guys? But, in general, the marchers were very well-behaved. I think maybe one jewellery shop was robbed...
 
Paul: Later on in that day, yeah.
 
Linton: In Camberwell or somewhere but, in general, they were very well-behaved. Another thing is that when we got to Blackfriars Bridge, the police tried to turn us back. And it was those lumpen elements, the rude boys, who led the surge so that the march could continue.
 
Paul: I remember that moment, actually. I remember that moment and feeling unsure what was going to happen, and I always applaud the tactical acumen of the organisers who set off a little bit early so that the forces on the other side were not perhaps as organised or prepared as they might have been if that extra time had been used. And I certainly agree with you that there was an incredible discipline amongst the marchers. I can remember coming to Camberwell Green, or somewhere like that, and some of the younger people wanting to go off to get refreshments from the shops and a steward standing in front of the supermarket saying, “No, not on this day!”
 
Linton: You must remember at the head of the march was a man of great dignity, who commanded a lot of respect - John La Rose, who was the Chairman of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. And he was accompanied at his side by Bishop Wood, the first Black Anglican priest in this country, I think he was Bishop of Croydon. They set the standard, basically.
 
Paul: Well, of course, on the other side of Blackfriars is Fleet Street.
 
Linton: Right.
 
Paul: And that for me, when I think of the day, was the most extraordinary moment for me, to be in a kind of direct confrontation with the people who’ve systematically misrepresented you, acted against your interest - callously, violently - and to have them leaning out of the windows shouting abuse at you.
 
Linton: Shouting racist abuse. Shouting racist abuse. But we deliberately chose to march that way to make a point, to let them know how we felt about the kind of racist drivel that they wrote in their papers. Even on the ground, I remember - I can’t remember who it was - but some white person was mouthing off some racist remarks and a group of guys were going to kick his head in and then another group intervened and saved his skin. So, there was restraint, even though we were provoked. The other thing I remembered about that march is that John La Rose handed in a letter to Number 10 Downing Street - I can’t remember if one was handed in to Scotland Yard as well, but certainly 10 Downing Street - laying out what our demands were. Because of course you remember that, at the time, there was complete and utter indifference on the part of the state about what had happened. We must remember, Paul, that back in 1981 Black people were still marginalised, we were still on the periphery of British society. So, it was as though it wasn’t something that was the concern of mainstream society- 'who are these people who had some fire at some party, it didn’t concern us', sort of thing.
 
Paul: Yeah. That’s absolutely right and I think that’s probably hard for people now to imagine that situation. What do you think is the most important thing to convey to a younger generation of listeners, people who are coming to this history fresh? What’s the most important lesson for you that came out of it that they need to think about in the context of our present circumstances? Because, in a way, forms of inequality, forms of violence, are so swirling around us in the context of the pandemic in a different form, and I’m just wondering if there is any way in which the history speaks to our present circumstances that you might identify.
 
Linton: I think what young people can learn from the Black People’s Day of Action was that Black people have the capacity to organise and to mobilise in defence of our own human rights and in the struggle for racial equality and social justice; because that march was unprecedented. It was the most spectacular display of Black political power up until that time. And those youngsters now involved in the Black Lives Matter movement must understand that they belong to a tradition, that things didn’t start with them, that they’re part of a new generation who have become suddenly awoken, become conscious of the need for them to continue with the struggle. But one of the lessons that we can learn from what happened in 1981 is that we cannot afford to be complacent about racism and fascism in this country. We have to be alert and vigilant because those elements are still very much a part of British society and a part of British culture. We must also be aware that, for the last 30 years or more, there has been a resurgence of fascism throughout Europe, and that fascism has gained ground within the mainstream of European politics; and we have to keep that constantly at the front of our minds.
 
Paul: Well, thank you, Linton. I think that’s a really good place to end actually. Is there anything else you feel that you would like to say before we close?
 
Linton: Just to say that for the last 30 or more years I’ve been talking about 1981. There were three things that happened that year - it was the New Cross Massacre, the fire in January; the Black People’s Day of Action on 2nd March; and, in April, the great insurrection- the Brixton uprisings, Manchester, Birmingham- the uprisings throughout urban England, 1981. It made the British State, the British authorities sit up and take note of the fact that we had power. We had power and we could mobilise that power. The other thing I would like to say was that I think it was obscene the way the inquest into the fire, the first inquest which was held in May, was called with such indecent haste. It was obscene that evidence that could have resulted in a completely different verdict was repressed. Some years later, Dr Davies, who presided over the inquest, talked about, 'oh, they wanted to blame it on a white man', and words to that effect, or that 'we just had a riot, we didn’t want another riot', which makes one wonder if the cover up was based on genuine fears of racial conflagration if there had been a verdict of unlawful killing.
 
Paul: The inquests raise lots and lots of issues, don’t they? I remember marching around outside one of them. I remember also, I think I’m right in saying, that the police arranged for it to be transcribed covertly and didn’t tell anybody - the first inquest - that the transcriptions were being made. I’m sure that there are lots of questions of skulduggery and dubious practice associated with the ways that the open verdict was arrived at, and I’m hoping that at some point in the future, the historians will want to return to these questions, because there are some very important issues about what counts as justice in this country that need to be relooked at.
 
Linton: And just one more thing I remember, Paul, is that another disgraceful act was the collusion between Scotland Yard’s press office and the press in putting out lies and disinformation about the cause of the fire, and the lies that they put out on the eve of the Black People’s Day of Action, saying they were about to charge somebody for the fire, to undermine the march - which it didn’t work. And the wide cross-section of young people involved in that march, the huge input from sound-systems because all the major sound-systems were there on that march and had helped to mobilise for that march. The importance of youth culture, popular youth culture in our politics, that’s an important thing too.
 
Paul: Absolutely. There’s quite a body of music that was recorded in tribute to the dead and people remember Johnny Osbourne, obviously, and the records that Sir Collins made, but there's Black Stones, there is a number of other…
 
Linton: Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul, she did a song, which was produced by John Kpiaye and Dennis Bovell; and I think Aswad did something.
 
Paul: Aswad did the Johnny Osbourne one, yeah, Thirteen Dead, that was released by them.
 
Linton: And I did one.
 
Paul: And you did one, just a minor thing... We bring all that together, the history comes alive in another way. So, thank you, Linton. Thank you for remembering with me and thank you for guiding the historical sensibilities of a rising generation by giving them that detail and that testimony, which is so crucial for the choices and decisions and strategies they will devise in the future.
 
Linton: Thank you, Paul. Thanks a lot.


Find out more about the Black People’s Day of Action

View photographs from the Black People's Day of Action, 2nd March 1981