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Counter Culture Portobello
Psychogeographical History
by Tom Vague.

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‘The kids live in the streets – I mean they have charge of them, you have to ask permission to get along them even in a car – the teenage lot are mostly of the Ted variety.’ Colin MacInnes introduces Notting Hill, as ‘Little Napoli’, the pop dystopia of ‘the Absolute Beginner’, our tour guide on the ‘scenic railway ride’ through the 1958 white riot. As Britain emerged from post-war austerity, working class youths found themselves with money and time on their hands, no longer categorised as older children or young adults but as a new economic class: the teenager. The first British manifestation of the teenager, the Teddy boy, evolved from the black spiv as a mutant hybrid of upper class Edwardian and Wild West styles. This consisted of a quiff and greased back DA (duck’s arse) hairstyle, drape coat, bootlace tie, drainpipe trousers, and brothel-creeper or winkle-picker shoes. Having originated in Elephant & Castle, the Teds first hit the headlines in the mid 50s when Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock Around the Clock’ caused a rock’n’roll moral panic. As they progressed from slashing cinema seats to harassing West Indian immigrants, the Ted look caught on in Notting Hill, particularly on Southam Street in Kensal while Notting Dale was rocking anyway. Regardless of pop trends, the old slum area around Latimer Road station was in a permanent riot-waiting-to-happen state.

In answer to the question, ‘if you’re so cute, kiddo, why do you live in such an area?’, ‘the Absolute Beginner’, first teenager, explained that firstly it was cheap, ‘but the real reason, as I expect you’ll have already guessed, is that, however horrible the area is, you’re free there!… And what is more, once the local bandits see you’re making out, can earn your living and so forth, they don’t swing it on you in the slightest you’re a teenage creation… If you go in anywhere, they take it for granted that you know the scene. If you don’t, it’s true they throw you out in pieces...’ The advent of the teenager coincided, not very happily, with the arrival of the first major wave of West Indian immigrants. In ‘Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain’ Mike Phillips portrays the hustlers or rude boys (West Indian spivs) as the Wild West 11 frontiersmen, while the Teds and fascists ironically assumed the native Red Indian role: ‘For some the Grove was a testing ground in which they lived wild and free, uninhibited by laws and respectability… It was only in Notting Hill that there was a public life. Clubs, restaurants, cafes, music, street corner talk. This was the work of the immigrants, many of them bad boys who set out to make Notting Hill a playground where bad boys could have fun.'

On the foundation of the existing redlight district, such frontier legends as ‘Two-gun Cassidy’ and ‘Weatherman’ established the black underworld, dressed in Zoot suits and broad-brimmed hats. The early 50s black experience in Notting Hill, Soho and the east end is chronicled in the rest of the Colin MacInnes trilogy, ‘City of Spades’ and ‘Mr Love and Justice’, and first hand in Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’. Michael de Freitas, the most notorious hustler to emerge from the 50s Notting Hill scene, developed the street style through the 60s, from ‘black Rachman’ ghetto superstar into Black Power X-cess. The scene originally revolved around Totobag’s Café, just off Portobello at 9 Blenheim Crescent; now a market store that looks like it’s preserved in its 50s state as a memorial to the Absolute Beginners. Also known – not always metaphorically – as ‘The Fortress’, the cafe acted as a proto-community centre/information bureau for newcomers, gambling den/dominos venue to such sound-system pioneers as Baron Baker, Count Suckle, Duke Vin and King Dick, slumming attraction to bohemian girls like Sarah Churchill (Winston’s favourite actress daughter) and cool hangout of white hipsters like Georgie Fame and Colin MacInnes.

As black people gradually established a presence in Notting Hill pubs; like the Colville (known affectionately as ‘The Pisshouse’, now the Ground/First Floor bar/restaurant) and the Apollo on All Saints Road (now studios); with most local hostelries unwelcoming (to anyone, regardless of race, who wasn’t local), the hustlers developed their own scene. In an attempt to recreate back-a-yard sound-system culture in an indoor London setting, this consisted of various types of clubs; ‘after-hours’ or ‘afters’ drinking clubs, basement/cellar-clubs or clip-joints – for daytime gambling, rent-parties – where resources were pooled to pay off landlords or buy houses, and the most famous, ‘blues’ – dances, clubs or parties – named not after blues music but in honour of the Blaupunkt (‘Blue Point’ or ‘Blue Spot’) radio-gramophone; the prototype sound-system. Blues dance music went from jazz, calypso and Jamaican rhythm’n’blues, through ska and rocksteady to 70s dub reggae.

Like Irish shebeens (as West Indian clubs were also known), and the original (and most violent) mushroom clubs of the indigenous English, blues could crop up anywhere but tended to be in the Rachman areas around Powis Square and St Stephen’s Gardens. The story of the blues began in the basement of Fullerton the tailor’s on Talbot Road, where Duke Vin was the selector, then Bajy opened a café and cellar club next door. (Fullerton’s went on to be Coin’s café, and now Raoul’s restaurant, while Bajy’s became the Globe, Roy Stewart’s celebrated bar/restaurant). Around the corner, on Powis Square, Michael de Freitas’s basement Rachman flat boasted a residency by the jazz pianist Wilfred Woodley. Colville Terrace had Sheriff’s club/gym and the Barbadians’ club, the exclusive Montparnasse was further along Talbot Road. On Westbourne Park Road there was the Number 51 gambling club, Larry Ford’s club Fiesta One on the corner of Ledbury Road, and the Calypso club near St Stephen’s Gardens. Thus defining the original, more Westbourne than Ladbroke, West Indian Grove.

The soundtrack of 1958 was ‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry, ‘Breathless’ by Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Summertime Blues’ by Eddie Cochran, ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly, ‘Rebel Rouser’ by Duane Eddy, and ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray. The Absolute Beginner first hears news of race rioting in Nottingham (the week before Notting Hill kicked off) as he’s leaving a ‘Maria Bethlehem’ (Ella Fitzgerald) concert. On a multicultural jazz high, he dismisses it with cosmopolitan disdain, ‘but what could you expect in a provincial dump out there among the sticks.’ The first teenager’s friends include ‘Mr Cool’, a black jazz trumpet player, the gay ‘Fabulous Hoplite’, the lesbian madame ‘Big Jill’, and rival trad and mod jazz enthusiasts who join forces against the Teds and fascists. Yet, as the black and white ‘young and restless were creating a new world of cool music, coffee bars and freer love’ in Soho, over in White City the London version was beginning. In the first incident a gang of youths drove around Shepherd’s Bush and Notting Hill attacking any black people they came across. After that racial tension increased, unchecked by the authorities, and encouraged by the fascists. A week later the suspected house of a West Indian pimp on Bard Road and a blues party on Blechynden Street were attacked by a local mob, setting off the late August riot weekend.

‘Jungle West 11’, the pulp fact book by Majbritt Morrison, features the attack on the Blechynden Street blues (in W10) that started the riot weekend. The same incident, recalled by King Dick in 'Windrush', consisted of Count Suckle playing the calypso record ‘Oriental Ball’, mixed with the bee swarm sound of the Latimer Road mob approaching, shouts of “Keep Britain White!”, breaking glass and police sirens. On this occasion police escorted the West Indian partygoers out of the Dale, to another club east along Lancaster Road. However, this gave the mob the impression that they could ‘ethnically cleanse’ the area. The first Notting Hill Carnival, in the ‘riotous revelry: reckless indulgence in something eg. bloodshed’ definition, largely consisted of the Latimer Road mob drunkenly milling about under the railway arches. The Kensington News reported locals in the pubs of Notting Dale singing ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, punctuated by ‘vicious anti-negro slogans’. While the moment in pop history was summed up by Colin MacInnes, another Colin – Eales, the News reporter – is cited in 'Windrush' for capturing ‘the precise flavour of street corner agitation, incredible rumour, sexual hysteria, random violence and holiday anarchy.’

‘Sapphire’, Basil Dearden’s 1959 follow up to ‘The Blue Lamp’, examines racial prejudice during the course of an investigation into the murder of a light-skinned West Indian girl. The black suspect, ‘Johnny Fiddle’, escapes the law from the ‘Tulips Club’ in Shepherd’s Bush, where everyone’s called Johnny something, only to run into Notting Dale. There he’s beaten up by Teds under the Latimer Road arches, and saved by a grocer woman locking him in her shop until police arrive; re-enacting a real riot incident also incorporated into ‘Absolute Beginners’. In the end ‘Johnny Rotten’ turns out to be the mad racist sister of the victim (Sapphire)’s white boyfriend.

On Day 3 of the riots, Monday September 1, once sufficiently encouraged by the fascists, the mob rampaged across Ladbroke Grove to besiege Rachman’s black ghetto. By then traditionally rival gangs from Shepherd’s Bush, Hammersmith and Paddington were there amongst the spectators. But it was at this point that the riot dynamic, between the older generation and the Teds, came apart. At first, the former were said to give tacit approval of the latter’s behaviour, but the arrival of outsider hooligans and tourists caused some locals to have regrets and even empathise with local blacks. One told the Kensington News: “In too many cases innocent blacks are getting beaten when it’s the rotten ones that’s still running about.” Michael de Freitas recalled actively taking part in the riot; freeing arrested hustlers from a Black Maria and petrol-bombing a white drinking club; but, rather than the police or locals, he blamed ‘the irresponsible journalism which exaggerated a few isolated incidents into large scale racial disturbances.’

In the ‘Absolute Beginners’ film footnote to the book, Gary Beadle (as ‘Johnny Wonder’) portrays Michael – on his way to becoming Michael X – as he organised the black resistance at the Calypso Club on Westbourne Park Road. This involved turning Totobag’s into a real fortress, from which white rioters were repelled with Molotov cocktails. The 1958 battle of Blenheim Crescent was re-enacted by Julien Temple in 1985, dramatised as MacInnes intended it to be, as a ‘West Side Story’-style dance sequence – Jet/Capulet hustlers v Shark/Montagu fascists – on a set at Shepperton Studios, combining the Blenheim Crescent and Bramley Road riot zones. As Temple told the NME in the 80s: “I don’t think they’d let you stage a race riot that easily in Notting Hill these days, and the place itself has all been painted in pretty electric blues or apricot and pink, whereas in the 50s it was all crumbling and blackened slums.” Totobag’s has in recent years been overshadowed by its Hollywood W11 neighbour, the Travel Bookshop at 13/15 Blenheim Crescent, also recreated – at 142 Portobello Road – in the 1998 ‘Notting Hill’ film.

The Daily Mail duly came up with a cartoon of Teds trampling on a British flag, and the government announced short-sharp-shock measures to ‘de-Teddify the Teddy boys’. Of the 100 men arrested over the riot weekend (including Michael, for obstruction) 75% were white, and 60% under 20; and some were of the Ted variety. However, as Edward Pilkington puts it in ‘Beyond the Mother Country: West Indians and the Notting Hill White Riots’, ‘it is not at all clear that the rioters were exclusively, or even primarily, Teddy boys.’ In all first hand accounts the Teds were encouraged by the fascists to fit themselves up, as empire throwback scapegoats, and take the blame on behalf of the older locals and the authorities. Locals quoted by Pilkington, and elsewhere, play down their importance: “A couple of them were what you might call Teddy boys, but the others, they were hard-working lads… The Teddy boys jumped on the bandwagon… It was the older generation who started it.” By 1958 Teddy boy had become the generic term for juvenile delinquent, and was applied to all teenage hooligans regardless of fashion. They’ve since been, if not vindicated, put into perspective as merely the hoody equivalent hooligans of the day. In ‘Absolute Beginners’ ‘Ed the Ted’ is mostly just gormless, as definitively portrayed by Tenpole Tudor in the film.

George Melly defined the Teds’ revolt into style as an economic development from the spivs: ‘They were not criminal in the old sense. They were not out for gain. On the whole, though, they were profoundly anti-social: the dark van of pop culture, dedicated to the giggle and kicks.’ Julien Temple, promoting his ‘Teenage’ project in the NME in 1985, went further, eulogising the Teds as “like something out of the Wild West, they were villains, but really they were epic in that context… They were an epic breed, Byronic in their scope, most of all they frightened the establishment. They were much bigger and more dissenting than rock’n’roll. They are a part of the despair of Britain after the hopes of the end of the war.”

Encouraged by the riots, and the Teds’ support, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley made his last comeback attempt, standing as the Union Movement candidate for North Kensington in the 1959 election. In Trevor Grundy’s ‘Memoir of A Fascist Childhood’ hundreds of Teds followed the Leader to his street meetings. Mosley’s sons Alex and Max (the future Formula 1 motor racing leader) canvassed among them, posing for the Daily Mirror as actual upper-class Teds. As the Mosley Youth leader, Grundy fought a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the Teds, with Elvis. ‘The Wizard’ pimp/fascist character, representing ‘the dark side of the teenage dream’ in ‘Absolute Beginners’, was based on youths who told the press: “So a darkie gets chivved, why all the fuss?… Come back tomorrow night, mister, for the next instalment.” Whereas the first and worst local graffiti, ‘Keep Britain White’; initialised as ‘KBW’, and accompanied by Mosley's flash and circle symbol; was by fascist youths like Grundy and Max Mosley, not local Teds. ‘It Happened Here’, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s occupied London documentary-style film, contains a scene where Nazi officers are attacked by local resistance fighters, in the beergarden of the Prince of Wales, on Pottery Lane. When, in reality, at the time of filming in the late 50s and early 60s neo-nazis were getting the pints in for the locals.

Summing up the times, ‘the first teenager’ concluded: ‘What an age it is I’ve grown up in, with everything possible to mankind at last, and every horror too, you could imagine! And what a time it’s been in England, what a period of fun and hope and foolishness and sad stupidity!’ Colin MacInnes predicted that the riots would mark the end of Britain’s claim to moral leadership of the world, as ‘Absolute Beginners’ began British pop world domination. Richard Wollheim, in his ‘Babylon, Babylone’ review of the pop style bible, described it as the blueprint for the future teen age, and the first mods as the new dandy aristocracy. For the mod cover photograph of the first edition, MacInnes called Roger Mayne, the somewhat older, real local photographer hero. Mayne returned to Southam Street in Kensal, where a West Indian had been stabbed to death during ‘the ugly election’, and Mosley subsequently held a meeting. Rather than start another riot, the killing of Kelso Cochrane turned the tide against the fascist leader, and caused the evaporation of his local support. At least when posing on the Mayne Road, Teds and hustlers seem to have co-existed amicably enough.

‘Absolute Beginners’ stars Patsy Kensit as the Juliet beat girl ‘Crepe Suzette’, Ray Davies (of the Kinks) and Mandy Rice-Davies (of the Profumo affair) as the parents of the Absolute Beginner (‘Colin’ in the film), played by Eddie O’Connell. Sade appears as Billie Holiday (rather than Ella Fitzgerald), Steven Berkoff as Mosley, Sandie Shaw as ‘Baby Boom’s mum’, Alan Freeman and Lionel Blair, basically as themselves, ditto Bowie as the ad executive. Tim Roth was in the running for the lead role while Keith Richards was to play a ‘music hall cheeky chappie’, and Richard Branson dressed as a Ted at the premiere. The soundtrack features Gil Evans, Laurel Aitken’s ‘Landlords and Tenants’, Tenpole Tudor’s ‘Ted Ain’t Dead’, Clive Langer’s ‘Napoli’, Jerry Dammers’ ‘Riot City’, Bowie’s title track and Smiley Culture’s electro-‘Absolute Beginners’ mix of the ’58 Miles Davis hit, ‘So What’.

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