Notebook: 30 April, 2018 | BRANDING | PHOTOGRAPHY
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism rally and concert in Trafalgar Square and Victoria Park. I was one of the thousands who gathered in the square on that day in 1978 and marched to the park. Here’s my recollections of the period and of that remarkable day from 40 years ago.
Sometime in late 1977 I was drinking in a pub in Coventry with fellow art students. I had one of the distinctive Anti-Nazi League badges pinned to my hairy blue mohair jumper. I was suddenly approached by a burly pub regular who tore the badge from my jumper and tossed it to the floor. We were clearly not welcome in that pub and we swiftly drank our pints and left…
The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) had been founded in 1977 in opposition to far right racist and fascist organisations such as the National Front (NF) which were gaining in popularity especially amongst younger people. The ANL and its sister organisation, Rock against Racism (RAR), had a distinctive visual identity which had been created by David King, the ex-Sunday Times Magazine art editor (1965-1975) and his bold black, red and yellow designs for pin badges, advertisements, posters, placards and banners became a familiar motif to the ANL campaign.
Above: The distinctive ANL and RAR badges designed by David King.
Below: One of King’s bold posters. The ANL branding used the font Franklin Gothic Bold.
In February 1978, the Young National Front held a meeting at Digbeth Town Hall in Birmingham and the ANL organised a counter demonstration in protest. The student’s union at the polytechnic in Coventry put on a bus to take students from Cov’ to Brum, and myself and a couple of friends joined the ride and marched from New Street Station to Digbeth. As we waited for the demo to assemble outside the town hall I remember seeing two young police officers, not much older than ourselves, swigging from a small bottle of whisky – presumably to give themselves some Dutch courage in the face of the gathering protesters. As I recall, the demo ended peacefully, but the atmosphere had been tense and unnerving for all sides, with mounted police cantering along the street.
In March ’78, the ANL’s eye-catching fly-posters, announcing the London march and concert, appeared around the polytechnic campus and in adverts in the music press. There would be a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Victoria Park with a concert that would feature Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse, the Tom Robinson Band and others. Late additions to the line-up included punk bands The Clash and X-Ray Spex.
On the day, the student’s union organised free transport from Coventry and our coach joined hoards of others from across the UK which descended upon London. Trafalgar Square was jam-packed and buzzing with 50,000 people and I remember standing on the steps of St-Martin-In-the Field soaking up the joyous, carnival atmosphere and enjoying the spring sunshine that had replaced the rain earlier in the day.
A steady stream of protestors exited the square along The Strand and started to make their way towards Victoria Park for the concert. We imagined that the park was near Victoria station just a mile down the road but we quickly discovered that it was a seven mile walk away in the East End! The marchers were all in good spirits and we made our way down past St Paul’s Cathedral, through the City and out through Spitalfields along Bethnal Green Road. The only tense moment was as we passed a pub in Bethnal Green with Union Jacks draped from the windows and with a handful of snarling NF supporters standing outside.
We arrived at Victoria Park. There was a stage at the west end of the park and the bands had already started playing. The crowd quickly swelled to 80,000 people and it was impossible to get close to the stage – many people had climbed the trees and were perched in the branches to get a better view. The sound system wasn’t great and we didn’t get to see much of The Clash or the other bands, but we weren’t too bothered – we were weary from the march and so we crashed out on the park grass with cans of beer and enjoyed the atmosphere.
RAR photographer Syd Shelton’s famous picture of The Clash’s Paul Simonon on stage at Victoria Park. See links below.
Alongside the northern perimeter of the park there was a huge line of coaches parked up and ready to take carnival goers back to the provinces. We tracked down our bus and eventually arrived back in Coventry late in the evening, tired but happy that we’d helped in a very small way in the fight against the scourge of racism.
Take a look (16.24 mins in) at some excellent recollections of the day from musicians Billy Bragg and Polystyrene, carnival organisers Red Saunders, Syd Shelton and Roger Huddle, and film director Gurinder Chadha, plus lots of footage of the march, background info on RAR, The Clash thumping out White Riot and the fantastic Polystyrene performing Oh Bondage, Up Yours!.
It’s one of three very good YouTube videos by Alan Miles charting the history of RAR.
Short clip of The Clash on stage at Victoria Park performing London’s Burning.
This is good: RAR photographer Syd Shelton talks about his work, and here is The Guardian’s profile of Shelton, Rock Against Racism: the Syd Shelton images that define an era.
Daniel Rachel’s book Walls Come Tumbling Down is a good account of the music and politics of RAR, 2 Tone and Red Wedge.
Yesterday (Sunday 29 April 2018) I celebrated the event of 40 years ago by re-walking the route with my wife Helen. As we made our way along Bethnal Green Road we remembered the story that Helen’s mum had told of how, in 1940 as a young girl, she had marched with many other children and their suitcases along Bethnal Green Road in the opposite direction, to catch trains from Liverpool St Station as evacuees from the Blitz and the Nazi bombs.