Category Archives: Crime

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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Opium pipes in London

brochure; pamphlet - Opium Smoking Parlour

In 1899, Earl’s Court offered interested Londoners the chance to pay 6d to see a Hong Kong ‘opium smoking parlour’, filled with ‘living Chinaman’ and ‘true to every detail’. This reflected an ongoing fascination for the Chinese habit of smoking opium – a habit that had been partly encouraged by the British East India Company and then condemned by British missionaries – and merrily ignored the fact the British themselves had been consuming opium for decades.

The Chinese tradition of smoking looked and felt very different though, and that’s partly because it was so deeply ingrained into society, a ritual to be enjoyed alongside tea and nicotine with a rich material culture, lavish paraphernalia and its own customs, traditions and symbolic meaning. This is explored in an extraordinary exhibition of Chinese opium pipes at Maggs Bros bookshop in Berkeley Square, which I have written about for the Independent on Sunday.

It features a unique collection of 19th-century Chinese pipes and related material that demonstrate the full complexity of the Chinese relationship with opium, as can be seen in some of the following images – and these barely scratch the surface of the incredible collection that can be seen at Berkeley Square from June 5 to the end of July.

Field of opium poppies

Field of opium poppies

Jar for storing opium

Jar for storing opium

Chinese opium smoker

Chinese opium smoker

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Postcard of opium smoker from Vietnam

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Smoker with pipe and tools Smoker with pipe and tools

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

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Pipes being burnt by anti-opium reformers

Bowl for opium pipe

Bowl for opium pipe

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Lamp used for preparing and smoking opium

Tray for carrying opium tools

Tray for carrying opium tools

Pink pills for pale people - opium cure

Pink pills for pale people – opium cure

Box for storing opium with erotic carving - opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Box for storing opium with erotic carving – opium was seen as an aphrodisiac and was originally smoked in brothels

Bowl for smoking opium

Bowl for smoking opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

Preparing a pipe

Preparing a pipe

Tools for preparing opium

Tools for preparing opium

Opium pipe

Opium pipe

 

Opium smoker with cat - pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Opium smoker with cat – pets often became addicted to the opium fumes

Selling ‘psychedelic marmite’ in Ladbroke Grove with the rock ‘n’ roll doctor

 

Before he met Gram Parsons and became country and western singer Hank Wangford, Sam Hutt was an avowed member of the sixties counterculture as well as a qualified doctor. Like many on the scene, he managed to combine his two lives for a brief period when he and two other doctors ran a practice prescribing marijuana to junkies. Hutt, incidentally, was one of the signatories of Steve Abrams pro-pot advert in The Times.  I spoke to him recently, and he explained how it all came about:

‘I qualified as a doctor and didn’t know what the fuck to do. I didn’t like doctors, I didn’t like medical students, I didn’t like working in hospitals and I didn’t want to do general practice. Then I heard this guy, Ian Dunbar, had a place in Ladbroke Grove. I found this out from Bernie Greenwood, who was the only doctor I really liked and was also a musician, playing saxophone and keyboards.

 

So we both joined in. Ian had this practice on the crest of the hill in Ladbroke Grove. There’s a church and right opposite is the church building and we had the top floor. Ian’s big thing was to help people who were on heroin. He’d discovered that doctors could still prescribe cannabis, ironically in tincture form, which means in alcoholic solution. Ian prescribed it to people who were coming off smack, not because it replaces the heroin – it doesn’t – but as a way of getting high. That’s counter to the usual treatment of heroin, which is to use methadone. The rationalisation for methadone, which can kill you if you overdose on it, is that you don’t get high. It doesn’t make you feel good, whereas heroin makes you feel good.

It seemed to me this was a Presbyterian attitude – if you like something, it must be bad for you. So they switch you on to something you don’t like. Ian went counter to that, offering them something that let them get out of it, just in a different way to heroin. People often switch between heroin and alcohol as alcohol is much closer to heroin than cannabis is. Cannabis doesn’t achieve wipe out, it doesn’t achieve oblivion, which both heroin and alcohol do.

So me, Ian and Bernie set up this hippie practice and as a political act, we prescribed cannabis. In the 60s, smoking a joint was a political act, it was you saying you were a freak, a part of an alternative society, not a straight. And you didn’t touch alcohol because it would kill you. Our ethos was that we wouldn’t prescribe speed: uppers or downers. If that’s what you wanted you had to go to the straight doctors in pin-stripe suits in Harley Street. They’ll give you bucketloads. So I’m not a grocer, but I will prescribe you cannabis. They closed that law down in 1973. We were seeing all sorts of people but when we got our first cheque from the National Health it was for £11. That’s for three doctors after six months work. Even then, £11 wasn’t much. So we had to support ourselves by making it a private prescription charging a couple of quid a time.

We got the cannabis from William Ransom & Son. They were the company in Hertfordshire that had a government license to extract cannabis from the plant. They made it into this sticky thick stuff, like a psychedelic marmite. That would then be dissolved in alcohol to make a tincture. The extract was much stronger than the tincture, you could get very, very stoned.

That practice was eventually closed by the police, because they didn’t like junkies being treated like you and me, they wanted to lock them up. I continued being a rock and roll doctor. I went on tour with Family and I shared a house with Jenny Fabian and Roger Chapman before, through Keith Richards, I met Gram Parsons and discovered country music.’

 

Peter Hitchens on drugs and the moral, opium-eating, Victorians

Peter Hitchens is a very clever man. I’m sure he’s also sincere – I can’t believe British newspapers would employ somebody to say stupid and provocative things just to get attention, after all – but judging by the interviews he’s conducted for his new book about drugs, The War We Never Fought, he’s a little bit daft.

Hitchens theory is that there has never been a war on drugs. ‘Drug-taking was, in effect, decriminalised by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,’ is how Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases. Instead, he harks back to the golden age of the Victorians, when there was ‘increasing self-imposed moral conduct’ (Hitchens’ words.)

Where to begin with this nonsense? Well, let’s just stick to the last bit, those morally virtuous Victorians. In a sense, he’s right: the Victorians didn’t take illegal drugs. That’s because they were too busy snaffling down the legal ones – things like opium, cocaine and cannabis – which were available to just about anybody who needed them until 1868, and then over the counter from chemists until 1926. This was the golden age of drug-taking in Britain, with opium being consumed on a scale we could scarcely now believe.

Victorian London was awash with opium, not in semi-mythologised Chinese opium-smoking dens in Limehouse (of which there were very few), but in pubs, chemists, general stores and markets, where it was sold in bottles, powders, pills, lozenges, on plasters, in sweets and much else besides. The centre of trade was in Mincing Lane, London, where 90 per cent of transactions occurred. It was most commonly taken as laudanum, a tincture of opium and red wine, with saffron and cinnamon.

This was not thrill seeking. In the days before aspirin, opium was one of the few reliable painkillers available to Victorians, especially especially fever and diarrhoea, but also malaria, smallpox, syphilis and TB. And it was effective as well. As anybody who has taken codeine or morphine will confirm, opiates have a tendency to block you right up – something that was particularly helpful when the next cholera or dysentery epidemic was just around the corner.

However, opium was also used on children, particularly when teething, in specially formulated sweet concoctions like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and thus surely led to the deaths of many by overdose. It also, believes the drug’s historian Martin Booth in Opium: A History, ‘provided an escape from the misery and vicissitudes of working-class life.’ This was especially the case in the Fens, where ‘many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it.’

Because of these two factors, opium was belatedly seen as a physical and spiritual danger, and Victorian abstinence advocates put it right up there with alcohol and tobacco as serious threats to British life. What’s interesting, though, is the way – anecdotally at least – users were able to effectively and relatively painlessly self-medicate, living normal decent lives despite their addiction, without resorting to crime. This is true for the working classes, it’s true of the famous opium-eating writers like Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, Collins and De Quincey, and it’s also true of the many great statesmen – the sort of people who shaped the British Empire so beloved by Peter Hitchens – who took the drug. You see, because opium was the only halfway reliable painkiller around, everybody took it – including people like William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, and William Gladstone, who popped some in his coffee before speaking in Parliament to improve his rhetorical powers – even if not all of them became addicted.

In later years, opium – and especially its stronger derivatives morphine and heroin – began to be used by those simply seeking a pathway to an altered consciousness, a shortcut perhaps to the sort of transcendent mystical experience some people get from religion. In doing so, they were merely following pattern taken by mankind in all civilisations since the dawn of time, however much Hitchens may wish that weren’t the case.

As restrictions were introduced – for opium, not alcohol and tobacco – drug-use declined massively and by 1960 there were less than 100 registered heroin addicts in the UK. They received their drugs from doctors, cheap and undiluted, and were largely able to enjoy a normal existence (at least in comparison with their criminalised counterparts in America). However, as drug use increased in the 1960s, restrictions were imposed, culminating with Hitchens hated Misuse of Drugs Acts in 1971, after which drug supply passed almost completely into the hands of the criminal and use immediately rocketed. A far cry indeed from those morally virtuous days of the 1850s, when Britain’s great and good could simply pick up a bottle of premium laudanum from their nearest general store and retreat into blissful opium dreams.

Brixton riots in SE24: then and now

Chaucer Road, SE24 after the 1981 Brixton riots

Chaucer Road, SE24 in 2012

The top picture is taken from Taschen’s superb new book of London photographs, London: Portrait of a City.

London’s football gangs: 1972

 I’ve mentioned Chris Lightbown’s article on London football gangs a couple of times before, but the piece itself hasn’t been available since it was first published in Time Out in 1972. The section on West Ham was reprinted in the excellent 2008 anthology London Calling, but the full article has been confined to libraries and private collections. Until now.

It is a fascinating read. This is the first time football fan culture had ever been seriously discussed by the press, and it offers a remarkable view of life on the terraces from the terraces, free of any moralism or finger-wagging. It is a thorough and very funny piece of writing, and is probably the first time terrace legends such as Mick Greenaway and Johnny Hoy (although he is called ‘High’ here) ever saw their names in print. It’s analysis of where the different clubs draw on their support is particularly great. 

The writing is very much of its time and place – complete with mention of ‘heads’ and ‘coons’ – and also paints the picture of a time when London terrace culture was very different: the Shed was as loud as the Kop, Arsenal had the most aggressive fans in London and Spurs were just a joke, on and off the pitch. Only West Ham’s identity appears to have remained more or less the same, although older Hammers would doubtless question that.

It is a cracking piece of work. Enjoy.

Harry Redknapp lends a hand

Possibly the only interesting sentence that has ever been written about Harry Redknapp appeared 40 years ago, when Redknapp was playing West Ham. It goes:

‘It is said that when West Ham were fighting Coventry at Coventry station last year, Billy Bonds and the inevitable Harry Redknapp came along to lend a hand.’

This appears almost as an aside in Chris Lightbown’s seminal article Football Gangs in Time Out in April 1972, which looked at the mobs that followed the four big London clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.

Did Redknapp really join in a ruck in 1971? This should surely be the first question put to him if he ends up getting the England job.

Inside the Bank of Ideas

Last week, I paid a visit to the Bank of Ideas, the squat/community centre that has been set up inside an empty office building near Liverpool Street.

I didn’t know quite what to find inside, and while I expected a friendly welcome I was surprised by the  depth of organisation that has gone into the enterprise, owing as much to the methods of middle management as it does the spirit of the co-operative. This is organised occupation on an impressive scale. There were flowcharts, spreadsheets and white boards full of information and advice on every surface, with people running round spreading messages and sharing news. I’ve worked in dozens of newspaper offices where communication was worse than this. It’s energetic, unifying and genuinely impressive on every level.

All members of the media are asked to visit a room next to the entrance hall to sign in and get tapped up for donations (the Bank is run a voluntary basis, with donations and skill-sharing). It was here I spoke to one of the ‘caretakers’, Bryn Phillips, an earnest youngish man in music PR who informed me that they had decided to squat the building when they ‘discovered it was owned by UBS. After researching UBS they seemed the perfect target for a Situationist critique of the finance industry’. As a fan of Situationist critiques, I thoroughly approved.

The Bank, of course, taps into a long tradition of London communes and squats that seek to serve a greater purpose than merely place a roof over peoples heads – the best example is the squatting of Centre Point in the 1970s to raise awareness of homelessness – while its educational aspects, the Free University and regular workshops, recall the London Anti-University and Notting Hill’s London Free School of the 1960s, though I’d hazard a guess that neither was as carefully organised as this.

How long the Bank of Ideas will be allowed to remain open remains to be seen, but it should be around in the early part of next week at least. If so, I recommend you pay a visit quickly, before the dead hand of corporatism crushes another lowly outlet of fun and dissent.

Secret London: LSD experiments at the World Psychedelic Centre

Michael Hollingshead has been described as ‘an English trickster and con man of the first order’ by one commentator, but he described himself as ‘The Man Who Turned on The World‘.

Hollingshead was the British man who introduced LSD to Tim Leary in December 1961 on the recommendation of Aldous Huxley. Hollingshead was working in New York when he came upon a quantity of LSD. Huxley suggested he send it to Leary, who was already experimenting with administering psilocybin to patients during his psychological research at Harvard. Leary loved it. The LSD revolution began.

After working in America with Leary – he even lived in his house – Hollingshead was sent to London in September 1965 with enough Czechoslovakian lysergic acid to produce 5,000 trips, thirteen boxes of psychedelic literature – The Psychedelic Experience, The Psychedelic Review and The Psychedelic Reader – and plans for ‘a psychedelic jamboree’ at the Royal Albert Hall featuring the Stones, the Beatles and Leary himself. Although this is sometimes presented as Hollingshead playing the role of John The Baptist to Leary’s Psychedelic Christ, Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ suggests that Leary was just trying to get rid of the increasingly drug-addled Hollingshead and is said to have remarked upon his departure, ‘Well, that writes off the psychedelic revolution in England for at least ten years.’

Hollingshead promptly set up his base at his flat in Belgravia’s Pont Street, which he renamed the World Psychedelic Centre, and redecorated with the key elements needed for a good trip: bowls of fruit, handwoven cloth, open fire,  bread, cheese, wine, candles, incense and goldfish. A chill out space, basically.

This was one of only two reliable sources for LSD in London at the time, so visitors were plentiful and Hollingshead began welcoming key figures from the scene – including Roman Polanski, Alex Trocchi, William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Donovan and the Rolling Stones.

Guests were invited to take part in LSD sessions designed to make the most of the experience, with ‘lots of cushions, some excellent tapes and hi-fi equipment, a slide projector, and several chillums’. The LSD was dispensed after midnight inside grapes impregnated with 300 micrograms of the drug. The atmosphere was key. Hollingshead writes:

Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music. We also looked at slides projected on to the ceiling Tantric yantras, Vedic Gods, the Buddha, Tibetan mandalas.

There were also regular readings from Leary’s work

While Hollingshead dispensed LSD to his visitors in these carefully controlled conditions, he was soon self-medicating with cannabis, speed and heroin to control the fierce highs he experienced from taking strong doses of acid at least three times a week. The tabloids soon got wind of these experiments with the ‘killer drug’  and after hosting a party of 80 hippies at which two undercover police officers were dosed with acid after sampling the spiked punch, Hollingshead was busted. Naturally, he attended his trial while tripping and was sentenced to 21 months at Wormwood Scrubs. There he met spy George Blake, who promptly took a trip on some of the acid Hollingshead smuggled in to the prison, before escaping and going into exile in the Soviet Union.

Hollingshead didn’t make it quite that far himself, ending up in Cumbrae, a Scottish island, where he settled with a group of believers who treated LSD as a holy sacrament in quasi-religious services. He then went on his world travels.

Hollingshead was undoubtedly a key player in the scene. However, it’s notable that when a copy of his book, The MAn Who Turned on the World was sent to Timothy Leary in prison in the 1970s, Leary underlined only a single sentence – ‘…my taking of methedrine…’ Leary’s acquaintances believe that not everything Hollingshead said about his role in the psychedelic revolution could be trusted because of his addiction to opiates.

Hippy-dilly: squatting and the London Street Commune at 144 Piccadilly

Tonight, Radio 4 will broadcast a show on squatting, called ‘From Frestonia To Belgravia‘.

Squatting as a 20th-century phenomena originated in the wake of the acute housing shortage after the Second World War. Homeless families began to occupy empty mansion blocks and hotels, including Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington.

Squatters move into Duchess of Bedford House

Some of the squatters of the 1960s took this as their inspiration. Among the most political were the London Street Commune, a group of self-declared space cadets from the streets who were turned into a minor political weapon by a Spart called Phil Cohen, aka Dr John, who had previously been involved with the British Situationist International group, King Mob. The LSC became loosely involved in the counterculture scene and even at one point managed to occupy the offices of the underground newspaper, International Times, believing it was ‘bourgeois’ and needed to be ‘liberated’. They gave up after a few days when they realised they didn’t really understand how to put a newspaper together.

The London Street Commune’s most conspicuous act came when they squatted a vast Park Lane mansion, 144 Piccadilly, at Hyde Park Corner in September 1969. This gained them massive media attention, and the building quickly came to be dubbed ‘Hippy-Dilly’ and attracted vast crowds of largely hostile onlookers. The LSC responded by barricading the front door and creating a ‘drawbridge’ out of wood from one of the ground-floor windows, and asking the Hell’s Angels to protect them.

Around 100 people were said to be living in the building, among them the odd journalist who infiltrated the squat so they could produce salacious copy about the drug-taking ne’er-do-wells. After surviving an attempt by skinheads to ‘take’ the mansion – the LSC threw carpet bowls and balloons filled with ink at the approaching skins – the police decided to take action.

The police moved in on September 21, leading to in the words of the Daily Mirror, ‘The Fall of the Hippy Castle‘. This took place the day after a free festival at Hyde Park, which many of the LSC had attended. The squat was now filled with numerous disparate groups, including Hell’s Angels and French veterans of May 1968, alongside the original Dilly drop-outs, but they were quickly moved out by police, who arrested around 70 of the squatters.

While John Lennon went on TV to offer the displaced squatters a home in the shape of an island off Scotland, the high-profile eviction was greeted with delight by the media. The Times demanded the squatting be made illegal and that hippies be arrested under the vagrancy act. This remarkable Pathe newsreel – with talk of ‘scroungers and drop-outs… snubbing the conventions of decent society… doing the real homeless a disservice’ – demonstrates the prevailing attitude. It is difficult to conceive of broadcast media speaking in such terms today.

In 1972, American film director Sam Fuller wrote a pulp novel about 144 Piccadilly, but the building itself was not to last much longer. It was knocked down in the 1970s and replaced by the ghastly Intercontinental Hotel.