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…

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Squat City Rocks

squat-city-rocksThis post is about music, squatting and reclaiming our city. It’s partly been inspired by Richard Dudanski’s book Squat City Rocks: Proto-punk and Beyond, which I read just before Christmas. Dudanksi was drummer for the 101ers, an energetic rockabilly-flavoured band based in the squats of 1970s West London. They are most known as a precursor to the Clash, with Joe Strummer (aka Woody Mellor) at the helm.

I have a lot of rock n roll biographies on my list of want-to-reads: Richard Hell, Jah Wobble, a guy from the Pogues… So far I’ve read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes. Music Music Music. Boys Boys Boys. I came across Dundanski’s book by accident, and it’s a happy one.

As expected, Squat City Rocks visits some of the places and people in Viv Albertine’s book. Drummer Dundanski could’ve been in the Clash, but he hated manager Bernie Rhodes so much he decided to carry on without Joe and work on his own musical projects. He went on to play with Public Image, Basement 5, the Raincoats and other bands. This book, however, focuses most on the 101ers, the West London squatting scene of the late 70s and his sometimes strained but enduring friendship with Joe Strummer.

This book is apparently self-published, based on Richard’s blog. I’m glad it’s seen the light of day. Dudanski does not write with the poetry of Patti Smith or the spikiness and bite of Viv Albertine, but he writes from the heart and evokes a time and place very well. Squat City Rocks was pleasure to read, further enhanced by Esperanza Romero’s illustrations.

The 101ers were before my time, but when I first came to London I met friends who had gone to their gigs often. Some preferred them to the Clash. I wouldn’t agree with that myself, but no doubt we wouldn’t have the Clash without the 101ers.

My thougclashchelseaflierhts returned to this book several times over the holiday period, when a squat on Charing Cross Road was set up to feed the homeless – and it was promptly evicted. Much of the creative activity Dudanski describes had its basis in squatting – people could live cheaply and communally in big old houses, they were able to make space for studios and rehearsals and gigs. He doesn’t glamourise life in these communities; there’s no shying away from showing violence from police and unsympathetic neighbours, as well as tensions within households. He pulls no punches about the hard work it often takes to turn a derelict property into a home.

But squatting housed many homeless people, resulted in creative movements and projects, and changed lives and neighbourhoods for the better. The squats around Elgin Avenue have now become permanent social housing due to the campaigns of Walterton and Elgin Community Homes. Many more examples like this can be found in the exhibition Made Possible by Squatting.

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I lived next door at 15 James St

Squatting in residential properties has already been outlawed. Tory and Labour politicians such as Chuka Umunna and Lib Peck have urged the same for commercial properties. Let’s fight this tooth and nail!

Meanwhile, I watched the 75-minute documentary on the Clash’s New Year’s Day gig in 1977, which was shown on the BBC4. A rich portrayal of London in the 1970s, this programme was about much more than a gig and a band. It showed a London where large sections were semi-derelict and battles raged between communities and speculators over what would happen to them. I was particularly fascinated with its depiction of Covent Garden, the site of the Roxy club where the Clash and other early punk bands played.

When the Covent Garden fruit and veg market shut down 1973, the area became a wasteland full of empty buildings and gaping holes where buildings had been torn down. It was the first significant area faced with the kind of gentrification we know and fight today. After the departure of the market, the GLC adopted a masterplan that would have turned the whole area into a series of indoor malls and covered walkways and drive out the current residents, including people who had worked at the market and in the theatres. The website Covent Garden Memories tells more about this; you can also watch The Battle for Covent Garden.

I lived in this area myself when I first came to London, joining a large squat that took up the corner of James St and Long Acre, just across from the tube station. I remember the hoardings around empty lots, full of flyposting for punk gigs. Later some of these places were turned into community gardens. I attended a festival there one summer. A Woman’s Place, one of London’s first feminist bookshops and social centres, was also based in a squat in Earlham St.

Covent Garden Community Association photo

Other central London squats of the time included Trentishoe Mansions on Cambridge Circus and Huntley Street in Bloomsbury. There were also squats in Scala Street (home of the original Scala Cinema) and Burton Street (home of the Pogues).

This post was originally meant to end around 1977. However, delay plus recent events have caused it to grow ever longer. So let’s leap forward to 31 January 2015 when I took part in the March for Homes. Issues around the ownership of cities, social cleansing and the need to take over and transform space return with a vengeance.

It was a miserable mucky day and I was tempted to turn around and go home as the South London feeder march assembled. But I’m glad I stuck around – there was a good energetic turn-out despite the rain and cold and the occasional cutting piece of sleet. As we marched from the Elephant to the Greater London Authority headquarters at Tower Bridge, we passed through torn-up streets and dangling cranes and all the debris of a city ripped up and tranforming into an alien place meant only for the rich. We also passed through a diverse collection of council estates – red-brick, high-rises, maisonettes, you name it – where fellow tenants came out to cheer us on.

cropped-aylesbury2Once the South London and North London marches joined forces at Tower Bridge the crowed swelled to at least 5000. Not bad for a cold and rainy Saturday, for a march taking on the unglamorous but vital issue of affordable housing. My friend Andrea Gibbons has a great selection of photos here.

Once we reached City Hall me and my friend fled the rain by way of Borough Market where we enjoyed a few very tasty samples. Unknown to myself at the time, a bunch of squatters returned to the Elephant and took over flats at Aylesbury Estate. The occupiers write on their website, Fight for the Aylesbury:

“Since the “March for Homes” demo on 31st January, we have re-opened and occupied a part of the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, South London. We are tenants, squatters, and other people who care about how our city is being grabbed by the rich, by developers and corrupt politicians, socially cleansed and sold off for profit… We are here to fight for our city. We are here to liberate this space and bring it back to life. Come and join us.”

There is a community assembly every day at 6.30pm, where “all neighbours and friendly visitors are warmly invited”. This takes place at 105 Chartridge, Westmoreland Road, SE17. You can find a map here.

So maybe I’ll see some of you over there!