Manchester, myth and music

Hey, that guest blog from Simon Bestwick was fun… I’d like to thank him for stopping by. I’d also recommend guest-blogging to those who might feel the urge to hold forth every so often but don’t want to make a commitment to a regular blog just yet. I started off that way with a guest slot at TTA Press, all about Machen, Misogyny and Madwomen in Attics.

Which brings me to my current post, which also as a lot of ‘M’s in it. As mentioned, I went up to Ladyfest Manchester in November and did a reading as part of the launch for the Rebel Dykes film trailer. This included a fragment of a novel that revisited the South London Women’s Hospital and a bit from my recent blog post on Rebel Dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space. The room was packed – the event had the atmosphere of a gig rather than a literary soiree… People even spontaneously sang out to the “Dykes of Brixton”. I was thrilled by the enthusiastic response by younger women, and also aware of how much I stand to learn from them in turn during this process.

So finally, here is the trailer we launched that night…

After the presentation, I got a drink and eventually turned my attention to the musical talent on the main stage. This started a train of thought about music and urban myth. Recently I saw a BBC documentary about indie music, Music for MisfitsSome of it I enjoyed, but I will also agree with Emma Jackson on the programme’s ‘restrospective sexism’ and how it ignored the sizeable input of women musicians. Where were PJ Harvey, the Voodoo Queens, Echobelly, and so many women who made some noise in the 1990s?

I always find it startling to watch historical documentaries about a period that I lived through, a time that had been a ‘now’ for me. While it could be seen as a part of growing older, I imagine this is also what is meant by the ‘making history‘. Myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I writer I often deal with myths and draw inspiration from them.

But I’m wary when mythologising has the effect of flattening a lived experience and robbing it of ambiguity and nuance, or hiding major parts of that experience from view. A mythologised experience often stands outside the stream of time, as if the branches that extend into the present have been lopped off. It’s like a bug preserved in amber. In the case of the Rebel Dykes project, this is exactly what the film-makers are striving to avoid.

Meanwhile, musical retrospectives can be very seductive. You hear a lot of favourite old tunes,  they provoke a glow of nostalgia. But they often leave me unsatisfied, as if a big chunk of the story is missing. Friends I spoke with at the Ladyfest weekend observed that the Manchester segment of Music for Misfits and similar documentaries give the impression no real music has been made in the city since the days of the Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But the music I enjoyed showed that was far from the truth. One of the bands, Factory Acts, also makes an explicit connection to their city’s musical heritage while striking out in its own unique direction. “Factory Acts are a Salford based dark electro, alt-dance duo. We exist at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, sometimes dreaming, always dancing.” I’ll say that I love a band where the bass plays lead…

And let’s have some rock ‘n roll theremin playing! You’ll see some theremin action at this performance from the Pussy Riot Revolution Festival in 2013.

Another brilliant band was ILL, which happens to include Rebel Dykes co-director, Harri Shanahan. ILL plays queercore riot grrrl style, spikey and discordant and wonderful. If I may indulge in some old fogeyness, I’d also say they’re rather like a 21st-century Delta Five. You can check out their Housewives Trilogy EP and listen to their signature song below.

And here’s a live performance, also from 2013’s Pussy Riot Revolution Festival.

I only caught a bit of the Galivantes after our presentation. But I liked what I heard and would like to see them again.

The night finished in storming style with hip-hop band Ajah UK – here are a couple of videos from them – a live performance of “Money Ain’t Your Friend” and a performance of “Don’t Step on My Shoe”.

During the event, further news about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris was just filtering through. Because I was at a gig myself, I felt especially emotional hearing about the attacks at the Bataclan. Many of us were also concerned about how the horror of these attacks will be compounded with racism and attacks on civil liberties, as well as military action by governments that will result in many more deaths.

It seemed very important to keep making music wherever we are and to oppose suppression wherever it descends. Though much has happened, been written about and analysed since mid-November, as an immediate reaction this comment by a French woman living in the UK still nails it: “My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy…”

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Rebel dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space

Feminaxe

“Before there were queer activists, before there were Riot Grrls, there were the Rebel Dykes of London. They were young, they were feminists, they were anarchists, they were punks. They lived together in squats and at Peace Camps. They went to political demos every Saturday, they set up squatted creches and bookshops, feminist newspapers and magazines. They had bands like Poison Girls, Mouth Almighty, The Darlings and Well Oiled Sisters… This documentary film is being made because the history of the London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s is in danger of being forgotten. Rebel dykes created their own world, made their own rules, and refused to be ignored. So we can’t let history tidy them away.”

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On 14 November Ladyfest Manchester will feature meetings, workshops and music AND the launch of the trailer for an exciting new documentary about those hell-raising 1980s Rebel Dykes of London. Unfortunately the day-long Ladyfest event is already sold out, but if you’re already going you might be interested in our presentation at 6.30pm.

Producer Siobhan Fahey will do a presentation with music, images and oral history. I’ll be reading from a story or two about my rebel dyke days, along with fellow writer Maj Ikle. Music on stage includes Lesley Woods (former Au Pairs singer and guitarist) and the film’s co-director Harri Shanahan will be playing with her band ILL. For the full line-up see the Ladyfest Manchester website or click on the schedule on the right.

For those who are interested but haven’t got a ticket to Ladyfest, Siobhan will do a similar presentation in London on 5 December at the Speak Up! Speak Out! queer history conference.

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Ye olde Amstrad

If the queer riot graphic at the top seems familiar to a few of you, I included it in my 2013 post, One Funeral and a Playlist. It’s based on the front page of a ‘zine called Feminaxe, the result of a hectic all-night lay-out session in 1987. We needed to get it to the printer so we’d have the paper for a Clause 28 march in Manchester. We did most of the typesetting on an Amstrad but these were the days before full-on computer design. Quark was only a creamy cheese our homesick German friends talked about, not the ubiquitous graphics application later replaced by InDesign. So lay-out involved cutting stuff up, laboriously scratching at those incendiary headlines in Letraset, spray-mounting and moving pieces of paper about, having a laugh but also getting grumpy with lack of sleep. And despite our greatest efforts, sticky bits of paper would inevitably be left stuck to the floor.

Those Clash-inspired lyrics with a queer twist came from a song by the Sluts From Outer Space, inspired by a fight with the cops on Downing Street during a Clause 28 march in 1987. Afterwards a few of us ended up revising “White Riot” as we made our way home. Another rewrite we perpetrated was “The Dykes of Brixton”: “You can nick us you can evict us but you have to answer to oh oh the Dykes of Brixton”. Well, I really did love the Clash, and still do.

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Three out of seven or eight Sluts. Briefly we were called Rebel Sleaze but that name never stuck

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At Gay Pride 1988 in Jubilee Gardens

Beyond the parodies, our own songs included the (anti)bicentennial in Australia, more stuff about Clause 28, Restart interviews (forerunner to the benefit sanctions regime). And sex of course, with our finale number “Wild, Hot and Wet”.

Our biggest gig took place at East London Polytechnic in Stratford, where we supported punky-reggae band Culture Shock As I watched them, I was very impressed that the bass player played with three fingers. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that I played bass?

I recently saw that Culture Shock has been gigging again. Not so for the Sluts, I’m afraid. We split sometime in 1989 due to the proverbial personal and musical differences, or perhaps it was because some of us moved out of London. Whatever… We did have a brief reunion for a couple of numbers at a 1990 gig by Latin/Spanish band Los Lasses, which involved our drummer Jill.

There are no YouTube videos of the Sluts, and our recordings are just on cassette – I have one from a very chaotic rehearsal. It is currently being digitised but I expect to shudder when I hear it again! But I do have a photo of us performing in front of the wonderful banner we used for marches and gigs.

Unfortunately, the banner no longer exists. It was cut in half when someone at the squat where Feminaxe had an ‘office’ (an empty housing benefit office next to what is now the Hootenanny pub) used it for a curtain when she ran a rave. If I recall (and I could be wrong so many years after) it was a paid event. I regarded this as our own countercultural version of the backlash and creeping conservatism of the 1990s – OK now to use communal space in squats to make money, was it? So we had our disagreements; it wasn’t all sisterhood and sweetness. But maybe we’re getting out of the time period covered in the film…

Now, a word about my writing. Though I was reading a lot of speculative fiction, most of my own work at the time was non-fiction, polemic and straight-up realism. But in retrospect, I believe that the name of our band hinted at the more fantastical turn that my writing would take in the future…

History is not just about the past…

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Recently I marked the 30th anniversary of the eviction of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation with five or so friends.

From July 1984 to March 1985 hundreds of women occupied a hospital near Clapham Common to oppose the closure of the only hospital where women can be treated by women. This started with a staff ‘work-in’ that kept the hospital running. However, as doctors and staff accepted positions elsewhere the action turned into a community occupation. We kept up a 24-hour picket and turned the hospital into a campaign and community centre. We invited other groups to use the space, and held activities like jumble sales, tea dances, picnics and public meetings. A radical nurses’ group and an Asian women’s health group also met there. We linked up with other occupations and Women Against Pit Closures, hosting women from mining communities when they came to London to campaign or take part in demonstrations. Women from Greenham also joined us.

And then the date this occupation came to an end 30 years ago snuck up on me. Was it really that long ago? I still remember the intense weeks that preceded the eviction – the noise of hammers as barricades went up, sleepless nights and speeches from the balcony, the songs, the relationships that started and ended.

However, the eviction of the occupation also marked the beginning of other initiatives as women regrouped across South London and carried on other struggles. Our get-together has reminded me again why anniversaries like this are important, and why it is so pleasurable to reaffirm ties of common purpose and comradeship over the years. I previously wrote about the occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland, and this entry also stressed that history is not only about the past.

11080973_1026554550705237_2999057420019525871_nWe met on Sunday 29 March, though the actual eviction date was 27 March. The weather wasn’t up to much and storms were predicted. This might have put many people off, but we still had a good afternoon in each other’s company as we checked out the changes. The old hospital building is now the site of a Tesco and a block of flats – social or private, I’m not sure. The Tesco superstore now encompasses the former outpatients and what might have been Cowdray ward. Most sadly, the nurses’ home and the garden where we had picnics has been replaced by the Tesco’s carpark. The former Preston House –along with the 4th floor ward AKA ‘Cloud Nine’, it was associated with the more cosmic girls  – had been torn down and the main building extended in its place.

We took a walk to Cavendish Road cop shop, where we debated the chronology of eviction day. There was some confusion over the sequence of events but it went like this: first they got us down from the roof (I remember sitting on top of the cover of the hatch while the cops were pounding at it and pushing it up). They nabbed two women, shoved the rest of us about and eventually let us go. Then there was further pushing and shoving and the proverbial ‘scuffles’ during an attempt to de-arrest our two friends.

EvictionAfter they were carted away we went to Kennington Police station where the two women were being held (In fact, I don’t remember going there, but I’d written an account that mentions that, so it must be true). Then we went to picket the police press conference at the Cavendish Road station. We intended to go to the ‘Burger Bar’ for a long-delayed breakfast, and as you can guess this Burger Bar no longer exists. But we first thought we’d have a look at the hospital… before we knew it, the cops were nicking someone for allegedly spitting on the ground near them. There was another extended ‘scuffle’, joined by a bunch of local schoolgirls, and six women were arrested. Happy days!

We’ve all been affected by gentrification, yet I was still surprised at the state of the Windmill pub. At least half of it’s been 10708500_10153332996572228_7840531236355312206_oturned into a hotel so it was pretty crowded and choco-bloc with the plummy and yummy. It’s hard to believe I had a birthday drink here in 2001, when it was a sprawling place that sold decent real ale along with admittedly vile microwaved food. While I don’t miss the microwaved food, I do miss the space and relative friendliness of the old Windmill. Claiming a table for our crew was like mounting a new occupation in itself. Eventually, we more or less squatted a table in the grand tradition of the SLHW occupation.

Even though this was reunion, we talked a lot about what we are doing now. Current issues in the NHS and fighting cuts was a major concern, since a few of us still work in that area. I’ve concluded that holding events like this are much more than an exercise in nostalgia. “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past…” as George Orwell put it. Documenting our history and keeping it alive has implications for the future, and how we try to live in the present.

And speaking of the past.. I was last in this area around 2005 and enjoyed a cheap and tasty South Indian meal on Balham Hill, where there were several places to choose from. But these eateries are no longer with us, replaced by Costa, M&S and other chains. So when we left the WIndmill we found a Turkish/Mediterranean place near Clapham Common tube, where we enjoyed a leisurely dinner and a good gossip.

When I got home I found that a few new members had joined our the South London Women’s Hospital occupation Facebook group, including a young woman who was born in the occupied hospital in 1984. It’s been great catching up with people, previously lost to the pre-internet past. People are welcome to join this group here. Maybe you’ve taken part in the occupation, visited once or twice – or maybe you weren’t even around at the time but would have liked to be. Perhaps you have a general interest in direct action, anti-austerity struggles, the state of the NHS and women’s health. This group is for you!

We’d particularly welcome more photos. There were loads of women were taking photos at the time. At one point when we started to barricade, we got stopped for a while by a videomaker and a photographer while they documented the hospital in its pre-barricaded state. But with this taking place in pre-internet and pre-Facebook days we’ve all lost touch, and perhaps this group can change that.

occupational-hazards-225x300For further reading on the SLHW occupation and hospital occupations in general, I’d recommend Occupational Hazards, a dossier compiled by those fine folks at Past Tense Publications. It includes a spiel by me, for starters!

You can also find some great photos online here by Sarah Booker, which include Greenham, Women Against Pit Closures, Clause 28 demos, various defence campaigns – and the South London Women’s Hospital occupation.