Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Cross Fire Remembered at the Albany

The Albany was packed last Friday for the Remembering the New Cross Fire 30 Years On event. It was a moving and uplifting night, which began with a short audio-visual presentation on the fire and its aftermath, soundtracked by extracts from Linton Kwesi Johnson's New Craas Massahkah poem:

This was followed by a very evocative film made at the time, Blood Ah Go Run. It started out with the funeral of brother and sister Yvonne and Paul Ruddock, who lived in the house where the fire took place (looked like the service was at St Paul's Deptford). The film then documents the Black People's Day of Action of March 1981, showing the demonstration heading from Fordham Park, past New Cross Gate station, down Queens Road to Peckham, up Walworth Road and on to Blackfriars Bridge via Elephant and Castle, before heading on to Fleet Street and central London (it ended up in Hyde Park).

Next up was a panel discussion facilitated by Kwame Kwei-Armah with three key people involved in the movement that emerged in the aftermath of the fire. Menelik Shabazz made the film Blood Ah Go Run, and was involved in the New Cross Massacre Action Committee as the representative of the Black Liberation Front. He has gone on as a film-maker to make films including Burning an Illusion and The Story of Lovers Rock (not fully released yet, but have seen an early version of it and it's great), and is involved with BFM Media. Shabazz compared the policing of the demonstration to the recent 'kettling' of student protests, recalling that the police stopped the march by Blackfriars Bridge where there was a brief confrontation before the demonstration was able to continue (the film shows people struggling to pull back people from being snatched by the police).

Professor Gus John described his work with the Black Parents Movement in mobilising support for the New Cross Fire demonstration in Manchester and across the north of England. He also recited Martin Carter's poem Death of a Comrade with its closing lines 'Dear Comrade, if it must be, you speak no more with me, nor smile no more with me, then let me take, a patience with a calm, for even now the greener leaf explodes, sun brightens stone, and all the river burns. Now from the mourning vanguard moving on, dear Comrade I salute you and say, Death will not find us thinking that we die'.

Alex Pascal was the presenter of Black Londoners at the time on BBC Radio London, one of the few black voices in the mainstream media. He described how he used the programme as a platform to spread information about the New Cross Fire and to launch an appeal to raise funds for the families of the victims.

Charlie Collins (aka Sir Collins) was in the audience, and was invited to say a few words. His son Steven died in the fire, where he had gone to provide the music. Mr Collins ran the famous Four Aces club in Dalston for many years, where he planted 13 trees in memory of the fire's victims. The club has now been demolished and those trees lost, but to replace them 13 new trees are being planted in the public square next to the new Collins Tower.

After an interval there was some excellent spoken word performance and music. Courttia Newland read his poetic short story Flight of Freedom; Zena Edwards sang a Zulu prayer accompanied by kalimba (thumb piano), making beautiful music that put me in mind of Alice Coltrane. El Crisis performed an amazing piece of songful fastchat rhyme that got me wondering at the power of the unaccompanied human voice to carry melody, meaning and rhythm and hold a crowd transfixed.

The night concluded with two of the legends of Lovers Rock, Carrol Thompson and Janet Kay, performing some of their hits, including the former's I'm So Sorry and the latter's Silly Games. There was something poignant about the crowd singing along nostalgically recalling their youth, which the fire's victims never grew up to look back on. Songs like these would have been the last things those children ever heard.

So congratulations to the organisers, and a reminder too of the importance of the Albany as a crucial hub of Deptford social and cultural life for so many years. Profits from the event will go to the local Irie Dance Company, a youth project based at the Moonshot Club.

The fire remembered on Radio 4

The fire was remembered again on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live where one of the guests was
Wayne Haines, a survivor of the fire. Wayne was DJing at the party and warned people when he saw smoke on the ground floor. But fire spread quickly up the stairs, leaving no means of escape but the upper floor windows. With railings below, jumping out was also very dangerous. Wayne himself tried to climb down a drainpipe but it broke and he fell from the top of the house on to the outside toilet. He was critically injured and spent months in hospital.

Wayne's testimony was a reminder that the New Cross Fire is not just a historical event, but part of the daily experience of those who were there down to the present. As he says:

'I got burnt from my fingertips to the tops of my shoulders. I'm lucky my face came back. I smashed my hip up, I walk with a walking stick every day of my life for the last 30 years. This never goes away, it can't go away, I have to look at myself every day in the mirror... I carry the physical scars... but it's the mental scars that the other people carry that has them in a worse state than me.

There are a lot of people who aren't getting through even now, there are 56 injured from the New X fire that nobody talks about... I have a friend now who 30 years on, who phones me... because the nightmares are back, he can't sleep..

There are 14 children most of them had great glittering careers to look forward too... you've got 56 people walking around and still living in 1981 and here we are in 2011'.

Like many of the families, Wayne no longer believes that the fire was caused by a racist attack or a petrol bomb, but the exact cause of what started the fire in the ground floor living room remains a mystery. But as Gus John remarked at the Albany, the reaction to the New Cross Fire has to be understood in the context of the time - the fire may not have been caused by racism, but there was racism in the response (and lack of response) of the police, press, and government, and who knows whether young people at the party might have ended up being framed for the killings if the investigation hadn't come under such close community scrutiny?

Two more events

A reminder that there's a memorial service at St Andrews Church, Brockley this afternoon at 3 pm with speakers including George Francis, Chair of the New Cross Fire Parents Committee.

Then on Tuesday 18 January a plaque will be unveiled at the scene of the fire, 2pm at 439 New Cross Road, London, SE14.

See also: New Cross Fire - the bleakest moment for an account of what happened

If you like Lovers Rock, check out this great mix by John Eden and Grievous Angel. John was at the Albany on Friday too.


Mark T said...

Over £400 raised for the ACLT on the night, nearly a pound a head!

. said...

Yes Mark I should have mentioned that as well as money being raised for Irie Dance there was a stall and collections for ACLT who do valuable work promoting bone marrow and blood donation - see their website: