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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism