Friday, June 28, 2024

Vietnam Solidarity in Blackheath 1966

An interesting item from a July 1966 edition of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign bulletin, published to mark its founding conference that year. It includes an announcement that 'the South East London Centre for Socialist Education is organising a summer fair to buy arms for the National Liberation Army of Vietnam', an event to include an art exhibition, poetry reading, live jazz and Indian classical sitar. The venue address was 7 The Glebe, Blackheath, London SE3. 

Another local detail - the National Council of the VSC included Ted Knight, attending the conference as representative of Lewisham Trades Council and later Leader of Lambeth Council.

The Centre for Socialist Education was a national initiative associated with The Week newsletter, an attempt to develop a non-sectarian independent socialist project to the left of the Labour Party. Its founders included Ralph Miliband, Marxist academic and father of later Labour leading lights Ed and David.  There were various other local branches including in Croydon, the SE London Group  being set up at a meeting at same Blackheath address in January 1966.

The Week, 27 January 1966

The Week, 17 February 1966

Those named as involved included Inge Westergaard (secretary of the group), John Westergaard (sociologist and later co author of the classic 'Class in a Capitalist Society'), Tony Stone and Malcolm Caldwell (chair). The latter was a prominent figure on the left who was for a while chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the 1970s he stood for Labour in Bexley Council elections but came to a tragic end as a result of his support for the brutal Cambodian regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Caldwell, like Noam Chomsky at the time, refused to believe reports coming out of Cambodia of atrocities and he went to visit in 1978. Shortly after a meeting with Pol Pot he was murdered by his henchmen, though the exact circumstances are unclear. A few days after his death Pol Pot was deposed by invading Vietnamese forces - successor to the very national liberation army of Vietnam fundraised for in Blackheath 12 years earlier.

(Not sure if 7 The Glebe in Blackheath was a private residence at the time or some kind of public venue, but wonder if it was where Caldwell lived as it is given as  his contact address here)

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Pizzeria Castello and other Elephant Spectres

'Poor Fiery Blocks: four bent perspectives of the Elephant and Castle' is the latest pamphlet in Christopher Jones's remarkable ongoing explorations of the area that he has been conducting/living for more than 30 years. One day somebody needs to publish his various related writings in a big book.

'Poor Fiery Blocks' is an attempt to come to terms with the 'new Elephant' and the psychic dislocation of being in a place which is geographically in the same spot but which bears no relation, socially or physically, to what was there before. There are older people who have experienced two cycles of this here, with the old tenement blocks and terraced housing demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Heygate Estate and shopping centre, now in turn knocked down. We experience the loss of physical landmarks on which to hang our memories, leaving behind our 'melancholic reverie for a dead past that we cannot mourn and let go of even if it appears as a phantasy of longing and a somewhat presence real enough to taste'. Yet somehow the ghosts linger: 'A Spectre is haunting the Elephant and Castle - the Spectre of deep rumination and desire of what still remains in plain view. The Spectre that goes backwards in time and destroys the present'.

For instance the Strata tower at the top of the Walworth Road replaced the demolished Castle House of which Chris writes: 'Part and parcel of the late mid-60's GLC built Draper Estate, Castle House, all offices above, below though the famous Pizzeria Castello. Never forgotten all the good nights out there. We would look for the puffed up black sacks on a Sunday morning in Castello's dumpsters at Eagle Yard full of unused pizza dough and make good good bread from it. There was also Uptown Bar for a bit there in the shop units at Castle House and funny fish in Fin King Aquatics we'd go and see. Then up the other end from pizza and fishes it larged itself Latino with The Ministry of Salsa club that was a part of Los Arrieros restaurant that had taken over the old Riley's Snooker Club in the mid-90s. Here we have heard it said that by 2005 Reggaeton was first aired and popularised in London here as a these Puerto Rican bangers were gaining favour over Salsa. Again history is wild and others claim 'La Bomba' at Ministry of Sound from 2005 as London's first Reggaeton night'.

Castle House - Pizzeria Castello at left and Ministry of Salsa at right

Ah yes the famous Pizzeria Castello at 20 Walworth Road, the Pullens anarchists, students and other locals rubbing shoulders with all sorts...  Down the Walworth Road  at number 144 was the headquarters of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1997. Later Labour MP Tom Watson started working there in 1984 as a teenage library assistant and recalled that his colleagues  'regularly took me to the legendary Pizzeria Castello restaurant, which at the time, made the best pizzas in London. They also introduced me to Frascati wine, which was supposed to be sophisticated in those days. It’s gone now, but the Pizzeria Castello rivalled the Gay Hussar for political intrigue. I would often see John Prescott and other politicians caucusing in there' (30 years ago today I started working for the Labour Party, Labour List, 2014).

Conservative prime minister John Major also ate there sometimes, though seemingly not a fan: 'In 1992 Major was heard saying that the pizzas available at the Pizzeria Castello in Elephant and Castle, run by Antonio Proietti, were 'the worst in the western world'. Evidently the changing tastes of a smarter set had passed him by. 'Proietti's restaurant has served the best pizzas in London since the early 1980s,' wrote the restaurant critic Jonathan Meades, in a state of shocked disbelief. 'They are far more Italian than the mass-produced English imitations. Perhaps this was lost on Mr Major, with his love of Little Chefs and Happy Eaters.' (Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, 2013). I assume he spent time in the area when he was a minister, the Department of Health had several buildings nearby.

I went there a few times, also remember going into Riley's Snooker and American Pool Club at no.4. Back in the 1990s I was friends with a guy in Belfast (Turf Lodge) who had been an Irish Republican prisoner. His sister worked at Riley's and I went to her wedding party, a big Irish/Sierra Leonean booze up in tenants hall on Old Kent Road. Funnily enough around the same time I once 
saw Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble at a bus stop nearby. I mention this only as an example of the infinite subterranean connections linking this area to so many parts of the world. Truly all roads lead to the Elephant and its story isn't finished yet...

Anyway I found Castello's takeaway menu at flickr. It finally closed in 2006, though I think La Luna further down the Walworth Road  and still going was originally an offshoot from it.

At one time (and certainly in the early 1970s) Castle House was the headquarters of Southwark Council Social Services. By the 1990s it was part of London South Bank University, as Brixton Hatter remembers on twitter :

You can buy 'Poor Fiery Blocks' and lots of other great stuff from the Past Tense shop on Etsy, as well as at the 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street SE17 3AE

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Southwark prisons history walk, June 2024

Coming up on Sunday 9th June 2024, Radical History Faction present a walk through the prisons and sanctuaries of old Southwark 

FREE. Meet 2pm: Tabard Street, outside St George the Martyr Church.
Nearest tube: Borough.

For more on the history of London's 'outlaw' zones in Southwark and elsewhere see John Levin's excellent Alsatia site


Monday, June 03, 2024

Skinheads at the Savoy Rooms in Catford

The original skinheads in Britain were quite distinct from the neo-nazi affiliated boneheads that became dominant in the 1980s. The style emerged as a shorter haired and tougher looking development from the mod scene, and was characterised by a love of reggae and soul. It would be oversimplifying things to pretend that there was no racism in this scene, but there were black as well as white skins.

One of the early skinheads was Paul Thompson who for a while in 1969-70 helped put together a regular skinhead column for the underground paper The International Times, more usually associated with those of a long hair persuasion.  Paul was attending Goldsmtihs College at the time, and one of his haunts was The Savoy Rooms in Catford, as he discussed in a fascinating interview ' Swimming in the right pond' with Maciej Zurowski in the Weekly Worker back in  2016. Here's a couple of extracts:

'Music and clothes were the two most important things to me. I was over the moon when I found a West Indian record shop in Deptford 10 minutes walk from my college. The reggae vinyl they had on sale had literally come off the boat that afternoon. When I came to London, rocksteady was still going, but shortly after, reggae arrived - that’s what I was mainly picking up at the record store in Deptford. Otherwise, it depended on the DJs. At the Savoy Rooms, they played the latest Tamla Motown singles, but they also kept playing older crowd-pleasers. ‘Same old song’ by the Four Tops was a favourite, as was ‘The clapping song’ by Shirley Ellis, to which we would chant our own rude lyrics.

My most important gig was Desmond Dekker live at the Daylight Inn in Petts Wood on the day that ‘Israelites’ got to number one in the charts. But generally, skinhead culture was more record-oriented. Sometimes, they had live bands playing at the Savoy Rooms, but people quickly got bored watching them. We found it much more fun to have DJs, who could change the music and respond to our moods.

... At the height of the skinhead time, there was always a bunch of West Indian lads at the Savoy Rooms in Catford, which for us was the south-east London place to go....  In terms of fashion, the West Indian skinheads largely imitated the British skinhead style, not the other way round. The other West Indian guys who hung out at the Savoy Rooms - the so-called rudeboys - had their own fashions, which were somewhat different to ours'.

For the International Times column, Paul recalled, 'We also got Steve Maxted involved, who, although not a skin himself, was the skins’ favourite DJ in south London and reviewed the latest reggae vinyl for us'

Maxted was resident DJ at the Savoy Rooms at this time, a larger than life character, who entertained with acrobatics and stunts. He also DJ'd for a while on SE London pirate Radio Sheila. The Savoy Rooms at 75 Rushey Green, SE6 had also been known as The Witchdoctor. The excellent Garage Hangover site has put together a list of bands who played there including in 1969 The Pyramids who under the name Symarip put out the classic Skinhead Moonstomp single that year

Steve Maxted in action - photo by Jozef Maxted from SMART

Pyramids at Savoy Rooms, 1969 (from Garage Hangover)

One of Steve Maxted's reggae review columns from International Times, no, 69, 5 December 1969

See also: