Reggae revisited

A tribute to the forgotten venues that helped shape black British culture.

Reggae Britannia, BBC Four's latest archive-heavy trawl through music history is notable for the absence of concrete setting. There are ironic settings: Tony Blackburn -- not a DJ known to covet dubplates -- strutting outside Broadcasting House in period attire and the leafy suburb of John Hassel (whose Hassel Recordings pressed much independent British reggae vinyl), complemented by Good Life-type footage of neurotic neighbours mowing their lawns. Then there are the gritty urban settings: the Coventry estates, around which the Specials started their ska revival, and to the west of them the perma-grey Birmingham streets where UB40 seem to have been filmed standing around smoking, studiously affecting the pose "Unemployed of Thatchers Britain™" for much of the early 1980s.

But what of the places in which British reggae musicians met, danced, smoked and drank in? The many makeshift venues, such as the shells of houses in Notting Hill where blues parties were held, and the licensed reggae clubs run by Caribbean émigrés and pioneering white promoters, dotted around the UK: Count Suckle Cue Club in 1960s Paddington, for example; or the Bouncing Ball in Peckham, run by Admiral Ken in the 1970s?

In many ways, Reggae Britannia's companion piece is Legacy in the Dust, the 2008 documentary that follows the same chronological arc (beginning with the release of Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" in the 1960s) and shares many of the same talking heads, such as Dennis Bovell, Bunny Lee and Don Letts. The key difference is, while Reggae Britannia looks at history from a mannered distance, Legacy... tells it better by zooming in on one venue in particular, the Four Aces on Dalston Lane in Hackney.

This multistoreyed, multi-roomed, Victorian-built hulk was labyrinthine -- a reggae centre as if concocted in the mind of Jorge Luis Borges -- and at different times had been home to myriad clubs, such as the Rambling Rose, Cubies, 007 and the Hideaway; as well as, in one large abandoned auditorium for a period of time, a car showroom. The bricolage of imagery, stock footage mixed with images that the film-maker Winstan Whitter recorded in the later years of acid house and jungle raves at the appropriately titled Labyrinth, reflects the venues three-and-a-half decades. Whitter, whose father was a barman and chef at the venue, highlights its role in the evolution of reggae into dance music, from ska, to rocksteady, to dub, to lovers, to dancehall and the evolution of jungle.

Legacy... may never be on general release due to copyright issues (there is the odd screening), but it nails the vital autonomous role that cultural spaces such as these played, necessarily out of sight and underground for a demographic under the cosh. Kingston-born Newton Dunbar, Four Aces' proprietor for over 33 years, today tells of National Front threats outside his door and being constantly "fitted up" by the police -- he was taken to court over 14 times but never convicted of anything.

Four Aces was just one venue that contributed greatly to the evolution of reggae music in Britain. The Bamboo Club, which was run by Tony Bullimore, later a round-the-world yachtsman, in Bristol; the Venn St Social Club in Huddersfield that welcomed Gregory Isaacs and John Holt; they have pretty much all disappeared, succumbing to the genre's inevitable slide out of fashion. But many were forcibly closed down. When the Four Aces closed it was in the sights of Hackney Council for years. Dunbar was handed a compulsory purchase order in 1998, to make way for a cinema that never came. After the theatre was demolished in 2007, Dalston Square, four Barratt Homes tower blocks were erected on the site next to the new Dalston Junction station. Provocatively and without consent, one was named Dunbar Tower.

"Until black people in England can achieve representative influence in national institutions, and a fair amount of control over their own cultural institutions -- especially the reggae industry -- they will remain isolated in sub-standard worlds," reflected the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr in 1976 in his essay "Black London", based on a London visit while black-run clubs were common in comparison to today, when Form 696, introduced by the Met a few years ago, has made it difficult for grime and R'n'B acts even to perform or DJ at venues without intrusive checks being made. He was pessimistic about reggae's potential for black British youth even at its height. "Reggae is the channel for urging forth an inevitable and drastic social change," he wrote, before adding a proviso: "...soon."

Reggae Britannia is on BBC Four from Friday 11 February.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism