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Riot City Blues

Violent London author Clive Bloom interviewed by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: I’d like to begin by asking why the timeframe of your latest book, Violent London, is set at 2000 years? Was this dictated by the recent Millennium ‘craze’?

CB: Absolutely not, no, I’m glad you’ve asked me that so I can set that one straight! No, the book is concerned with political grievances as London’s history is one of political grievances and I felt this was a very much neglected aspect of London’s history. The 2000 years bit comes in as it takes in Bodicea, or ‘Boudicca’ as she’s now known. The Bodicea story is of major interest to me, it’s the ultimate post-colonial story, yet we’re brought up to believe it’s a simple revenge tale. There’s a statue of her outside Parliament, ‘defending’ the place, yet there she was trying to destroy it in reality! Ironic really.

3:AM: Do you see her as part of London’s history and myth-making or that of England? Personally, I’ve always wondered how Scotland can have William Wallace and France can have Joan of Arc, yet we have no one for Hollywood to appropriate for an epic…

CB: Both. But there will be a film about her soon, apparently. Her story, although it’s from back whenever, fits around modern preconceptions of politics. It’s a post-colonial tale of the oppressed rising up against the administrative government of an imperial country. But in the main I’m into marginal cultures and that story is very much in that vein.

3:AM: What about Guy Fawkes? Though he doesn’t really fit into the ‘marginal cultures’ scheme of things as he just wanted to replace a Protestant absolutist monarchy with a Catholic absolutist monarchy…

CB: Guy Fawkes has his place in history, but yes, you’re quite right, it’s not in any depiction of marginal cultures.

3:AM: I once heard some anarchists debating whether or not Guy Fawkes was a true anarchist! On one side you had the 1977 Johnny Rotten/Malcolm McLaren punk variant of anarchism arguing he was and then you had the more considered, intellectual syndicalist theoreticians arguing he wasn’t! It was terrible.

CB: Who won?

3:AM: I’m not sure, but the theoreticians definitely had a better grasp of history and political context!

CB: There you have it, self-taught history is often the worst kind. I once attended an anarchist meeting where the whole room was confused as to which Francis Bacon was which! But the whole Catholic thing extends from the time of Guy Fawkes through to the present day, with the IRA bombings. People fail to appreciate the extent to which Catholics have played a part in political violence in this country and the extent to which the state has always vilified and persecuted them. But as we’ve seen, ideas drive history.

3:AM: I guess then, I should ask, why London?

CB: London has always been seen by the rest of the country as, basically, a ‘bolshy’ city. This extends right through the period of the book. Even institutions like the London County Council in the late 19th century were immediately dismissed by central government as a hotbed of radicalism. That’s always been the fear of central government, that if you give Londoners power they’ll abuse it.

3:AM: To what extent do you think taverns and pubs have played a part in this ‘Bolshyness’, as that’s something you allude to in the book.

CB: I think it can be summarised in “Booze, tobacco and newsprint” — the three vital components in fermenting radical politics during the seventeenth century. I would love to have been a fly-on-the-wall in the one of the radical London taverns during that era. Taverns catered for the growth of radical politics throughout London because they allowed people to meet in secret and obviously from that you got plots and conspiracies of those with a grievance. This era also saw an expansion in the number of political clubs in London, so even the illiterate to could go along and be read to. London may have been a major metropolis by those standards but in physical terms, as we would recognise them today, London was actually quite small. So people knew each other and would recognise each other in the street — these days there’s a distance between political figures and the people but back then you didn’t have that.

The absence of this familiarity today means that protest is tame in comparison. In February you had two million people on the streets of London, yet the bulk of them were polite middle England types. Two million people and nothing happened — no one took any notice of what they had to say because they didn’t represent a threat, it was a lame protest compared to some that have gone on in the capital over the years. Unless you wreak havoc then no one’s going to listen to what you have to say.

3:AM: Like in the Poll Tax riots?

CB: Yes. In fact, you can dismiss the significance of the February 15 march altogether, no one took any notice, Tony Blair still had his war despite Worcester Woman taking to the streets to make her polite protest. What was more significant were the disturbances at New Cross outside Millwall FC in 2001 — a lot of people were involved and got hurt there, a lot of police were injured in what was a mobilisation of non-political aggression. But because it’s football violence its significance is felt to be lower.

But back to your question, you have to remember that London is one sixth of our total population so it’s not surprising that radical elements come to the fore. What surprised me when I was researching the book was the historical acrimony between the City of London and the Crown.

3:AM: That whole thing about the Queen needing to ask permission to enter the city boundaries?

CB: Yeah, now there’s some marginal culture for you!

3:AM: How much of the book was based on oral history?

CB: As it goes, not that much. The trouble with oral history is that the people you rely on to provide it are, well, unreliable. Quite often, a little bit of cross-referencing reveals that people’s accounts are inconsistent or, on some occasions, outright lies. People try to put their gloss on events to make their contribution more important than it actually was. Either that or some people are just no help whatsoever, purely relying on speculation and conjecture. The worst one I had was one woman whose story changed throughout the interview and everything she said she ended it with a question like “Or was it Sid? No, perhaps it was Jim, he lives round the corner, or does he? I think he moved…” That kind of thing. That’s no use to anyone really. I got round it by the use of footnotes. This enabled me to present straight fact in the text itself and then supplementary information went at the bottom of the page to provide context.

3:AM: Speaking of context, how does Violent London fit in with your other work?

CB: Well I actually came into political study through the study of culture, which is where I began really. In the 1980s I was the ‘academic adviser’ to the Modern Review. Or at least I was until I fell out with them, which wasn’t a hard thing to do given who was involved. Julie Burchill was alright but Toby Young and Peter York, Jesus, what a pair of pretentious arseholes! They didn’t like me of course but you have to ask what on earth it is that Peter York does?

3:AM: He’s one of these self-styled ‘cultural pundits’, isn’t he? He seems to be doing well out of the nostalgia industry right now as he’s never off those ‘I Love 1980 whatever’ programmes.

CB: I’d argue that in the 1990s we thought we were reliving the 1960s.

3:AM: Which is what George Walden argues in The New Elites. Go on…

CB: You only had to look at ‘Cool Britannia’ to see that. But that in itself was a London phenomenon, and an East End one at that.

3:AM: I must admit that as someone who spent their time between London and the North at that time, I didn’t perceive it to have any reach beyond the M25. There was certainly a backlash against it in Scotland. It was good to see stuff like Rebel Inc. in Scotland come out around that time as well.

CB: The way in which New Labour and Tony Blair sought to use Cool Britannia basically says more about Blair’s age than anything else. He’s 50 and so am I, almost. It’s like our generation is saying ‘Now we’re in charge’ and I think you can peg any individual culturally to what was going on when they were 15. So you have this Prime Minister who fondly remembers when he was in a rock band and who tries to be ‘down’ with the kids. When people are 15 they don’t really have the ability to ‘buy in’ to what’s going on, unless they’re wealthy, so like Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. And that’s the stage we’ve just witnessed.

3:AM: I’m not sure you can say that of Gordon Brown, who apparently has no interests outside of politics.

CB: He doesn’t give the appearance of being a party animal, yes.

3:AM: Or the wrong kind of party animal anyhow…

CB: But Blair and Brown, like myself, belong to that generation who became tax-paying adults under Thatcher. Some of the Thatcherite excess may have been ghastly but Blair and those like him in the professional classes did very well under Thatcher and I think that’s where he’s coming from. In fact, we know that’s where he’s coming from. There’s not much between Blair and Thatcher in terms of their authoritarian stance on civil liberties for instance. When I was a kid, you could cross Park Lane, there was nothing to stop you. But now they have these ‘v’-shaped barriers that prevent groups of people crossing the road together. In fact, for all his left-wing rhetoric, I think Ken Livingstone has an authoritarian streak to him. A friend of mine who attended the May Day march recently summed it up best, he said: “We’re not a protest movement anymore, we’re just another tourist attraction.”

3:AM: Well it’s that whole thing about the commodification of dissent. Identify a movement, tag a label to it and off you go. Look at No Logo.

CB: That was what was so uncompromising in the past — republicans acknowledged that to achieve change, people like the Royal Family had to die. These days, we get all nervous about such notions — look at the ‘new terrorists’ who burn the Stars and Stripes. The Stars and Stripes used to be an emblem of liberty, the flag of revolution, a radical symbol held up by anarchists!

3:AM: Back to your point about Park Lane, which of course is the approach road to Hyde Park — what role did public parks play in London’s protest movements of the past?

CB: Parks in London are part of the folklore of the left, the geography of London dictates that marches need to progress along narrow streets into large open spaces. It’s how protest is conducted in London really. Trafalgar Square of course has played a major role in that folklore. The authorities have long appreciated the role of parks in radical politics and some of the flashpoints of the past have since been built over, especially in those areas where gentrification has taken place.

3:AM: Other than flashpoints like Peterloo in 1819, historically why hasn’t London’s radicalism spread into the provinces?

CB: It has in parts, but only in places like Bristol in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Red Clyde in Glasgow and Liverpool after World War One. But that is its full extent, as you acknowledge. Violent London is a London book, so my scope was directed there obviously. But there is, to my knowledge, no academic political history of radical politics in the provinces. The problems is that so much history tends to be written by political parties — take the experience of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, the book on that is written by Militant itself, so there’s hardly any scope for objectivity there!

3:AM: Even then, a lot of political history is written by academics who double up as party ideologues, like Ben Pimlott for instance, who’s big in the Fabian Society.

CB: Histories like that tend to be administrative and rather polite. There is a book like Violent London waiting to be written in a British context.

3:AM: Are you sceptical about the mythology and folklore of the left?

CB: Absolutely. Look at Cable Street. It’s held up as a decisive victory over fascism, but the fascists in the East End didn’t go away, they just metamorphosised into new organisations. It’s all about angles though. As I said, oral history is often unreliable and you have may have a hunch that leads to a new theory on an event or set of events but without hard evidence it’s meaningless. I’ve heard from dozens of people that the National Front exacerbated the Brixton riots by incorporating themselves into the police lines and lashing out at the local black population. But you try finding that in print. Violent London is an attempt to capture the history and literature that’s left out of other books, like I say, marginal culture. There is a lot of misrepresentation that goes on, the suffragettes being a good example. Modern history portrays their role as significant but ultimately a bunch of eccentric women who got a bit carried away. These women were those same Edwardian ladies who were brought up to walk with their knees together and lie back and think of England in bed. They weren’t a rabble-rousing bunch of anarchists. Yet here they were throwing cobbles at police lines and going on hunger-strikes. This was unheard of! If that’s not remarkable I don’t know what is. I mean until I did the research, I had no idea the hunger-strikers were force-fed on the orders of the Liberal government.

3:AM: That was one of the more surprising parts of the book — I mean the Liberals always portrayed themselves as the humane, tolerant and, well, liberal party in British politics.

CB: The whole thing exposed the underside of Liberal England that we just never got to hear about. These were extraordinary stories which needed to be told. This was my grandparents’ generation and they were bloody brave people — I can’t imagine anyone today going that far.

3:AM: I also read in there that the Labour Party were pretty unsympathetic to the suffragettes’ concerns, which is certainly not the way they their paint history these days. Again, it goes back to a built-up self perception as the party of tolerance, human rights and democracy.

CB: I think the Labour Party has always been beset by an element of parochialism and narrow self interest, whether that be sexism or racism. I was not surprised to uncover that during the course of my research.

3:AM: You’ve written a lot about London’s past, as the author of Violent London how do you see London’s political future, particularly in the context of the Livingstone mayoralty?

CB: Top down, authoritarian — those are the words that spring to my mind. In particular, I can foresee the further erosion of civil liberties, that seems to be the direction we’re heading in. There are some new constituencies emerging, such as the Countryside Alliance. The terrorist threat is certainly being overplayed — the barricades round Parliament are completely ludicrous, it’s just an extension of the gates on Downing Street that were erected in the 1980s. It merely serves to widen the gulf between the people and the government. The nature of protest is changing as well, the recent May Day demonstration saw a far higher ratio of police to demonstrators than usual and I think that’s a message to some extent. The next big demo will be interesting to see how the authorities play that. Post 9/11, the debate is around public order and threat of terrorism in the capital and we’ve seen tanks stationed at Heathrow airport just for the hell of it. Tanks would be no defence against some lone extremist hidden away with a rocket-launcher and the last time we saw tanks at Heathrow it was perceived as a dry run for a military coup. Back then, it was the whole ‘who’s in charge’ response to industrial militancy and now we’re seeing a re-run of that, with the terrorist ‘threat’ used as the excuse.

There have been revolts recently, but they’ve been revolts of the Right — petrol protests, speed camera vandalism, the Countryside Alliance. The ‘old-fashioned’ Left in this country are finished and have been for years. With the managerial style of politics, there is no conflictual arena anymore. So what we’re seeing is politics by any other means — calls for a referendum on the EU, newspapers like the Daily Mail holding their own referendums in WH Smiths. The referendum is usually used in authoritarian countries to enforce legitimacy and I think there’s a lesson there for us…

Clive Bloom is Professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University, London. He lives and works in East London and is the author and editor of many works on popular culture, political history and literary criticism. His most recent books include Violent London, Cult Fiction and Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 7th, 2003.