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Tale of a city: Thank you for the music

Dorian Lynskey celebrates the Rough Trade record shop.

A great record shop should feel a little overwhelming. It’s a maze of possibilities that you learn to navigate with the aid of a subtle guiding hand. Rough Trade, which has operated from 130 Talbot Road in Notting Hill since 1983, is almost the Platonic ideal. A space the size of a living room is dense with racks of CDs and vinyl, each one bearing a descriptive label or scrawled recommendation: “On form!” “Don’t hang about!” Between the ranks of new releases and flyers, the walls are plastered with history in the shape of old concert posters and a collage of faded seven-inch single sleeves from the punk era.

Near the counter, there’s a glass frame containing signed photos of celebrated customers. In one of them, the Ramones are standing outside Rough Trade’s old premises at 202 Kensington Park Road. When Geoff Travis, who still runs the Rough Trade record label, opened the doors in 1976 it was a bomb-damaged plot surrounded by sheet metal. The area’s grand houses were mostly abandoned, some of them squats. It was the year the Notting Hill Carnival became a running battle with the police. All Saints Road was known as “the Front Line”, and you ventured there at your peril. “It’s changed a lot,” says the shop’s manager, Nigel House. “Not completely for the better.”

House moved to London from Somerset in 1977, ostensibly to study geography but chiefly to pursue punk rock. “It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I thought London was going to be full of punks. When I went to King’s College, there were two.” He was too late for the Sex Pistols but he saw everyone else: the Clash, the Jam, Joy Division. He became a regular at Rough Trade. The old shop was long and thin with a cubbyhole at one end where you’d lean in to buy your punk and reggae records from Travis. “It was a funny old place,” says House, a cheerful man who looks younger than his 54 years. Chaotic? “Yes, but in a good way.”

House gained a postgraduate degree in landscape architecture, but there was a recession and no jobs, so he started working at the shop. London’s music scene had a streak of danger back then, with punks and skinheads behaving like warring tribes. Rough Trade used to hire a security guard on Saturday afternoons in case of a visit from the notorious Ladbroke Grove skins. House was working as a steward at ULU (University of London students’ union) one night when some of the skins turned up without tickets. He said they couldn’t come in. One of them headbutted the door. He let them in.

By 1982, Rough Trade was the most iconic record shop in London. It was also broke. Outwardly it seemed a roaring success, having expanded into releasing, distributing and exporting records, but the finances were chaotic. In a bad way. When House and two fellow employees, Pete Donne and Judith Crighton, learned that the shop was to close they decided to save it. “No kids, no mortgage. We thought we’d give it a go.” They raised £7,000 to buy the existing stock from Travis, matched the amount with a bank loan and paid themselves what they would have received on the dole. A sign appeared on the door: “Please tell all your friends if you want to see us continue.”

Record industry lore celebrates charismatic motormouths such as Tony Wilson and Alan McGee, but charisma alone doesn’t pay the bills and the business has always depended on calm professionals like House. The shop survived, partly by selling skateboards as well as records. GIs from US army bases were among the customers splashing out on skate gear and the latest shipments of hardcore punk from the US. “It was like a feeding frenzy.” A few years later, the partners opened a second branch in Covent Garden, where they squeezed sweaty gigs into the basement. They still have an archive of DAT recordings, including shows by the Beastie Boys, P J Harvey and the late Jeff Buckley.

Back then, Rough Trade kept a close eye on its competitors. Now, most have gone, shuttered by falling sales and cut-price online retailers. Yet Rough Trade flirted with disaster only once, ten years ago, when a failing Paris branch threatened to bring down the whole business. The shop was days from closure when it found an investor. House laughs nervously as he recalls the eleventh-hour reprieve. In 2007, it replaced its Covent Garden branch with a vast new shop on Brick Lane, where it attracts the students and artists long priced out of Notting Hill. The current regulars at Talbot Road are more likely to work in banking or advertising. The shop across the street is a branch of Jack Wills. The Kensington Park Road site is now a health centre.

Visiting rights

House says you can buy records cheaper online, but you can’t prop up the counter on a Saturday afternoon, talking about music and getting personal recommendations. His aim has always been to run the kind of shop he’d be happy to visit. He disdains the kind of intimidating elitist portrayed by Jack Black in High Fidelity, though he is convinced the character was modelled on a former Rough Trade employee. “It’s a bit like Cheers. People like to come in where they’re known. When you know someone, you can say: ‘You don’t want this record, it’s rubbish.’” Next July he will have worked in the same building for 30 years. Sometimes the passing of time strikes him. Two of his staff members are the daughters of long-time customers. Another veteran regular comes in now with his son and grandson. His own children, he says a little sadly, don’t love music with the same intensity.

Sometimes he gets wistful for punk, as you might if the past were staring down at you from the walls, but then he plays a new record and he gets excited again. “You can’t wallow in nostalgia. I’m always a glass-half-full type of person.”

The neighbourhood and the industry have changed beyond recognition, but House is still here, which surprises him as much as anyone. He didn’t think, back in 1982, that this shop would become his life’s work. “But I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve loved every minute. When it comes down to it, I just love selling stuff.”

Dorian Lynskey is the author of “33 Revolutions Per Minute: a History of Protest Songs” (Faber & Faber, £17.99)

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.