In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market.
Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play. So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).
Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton. We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture. While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.
It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment. Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.
As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.
Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place. I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.
So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77? It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:
What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality
If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.
The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. Along with the winning entry which can be read here, the following entry was highly commended by the judges as an imaginative response to the questions posed:
Thank God: Everything is not always as it seems when you are only three. A short story written by M. C. using subjects 4 and 5*
September the 22nd 1959, my third birthday. The day the Spirit of the universe, Divine Power greater than myself, Supreme Being, God made his presents [sic] known in my life.
I had just climbed to the top of a Wicksteed Park slide it was 33 feet high made of steel and iron set in a concrete base. It was in Castlefields Park at the bottom of Brook Street, Wellingborough.
My lovely mother was standing at the bottom, a beautiful 22yr old young woman. I fell from the top landing directly on my head onto the concrete base. My mother was horrified, she thought I was dead!! But I just stood up and shook my head without a tear. So that was my first experience of the power that does not live on this earth stepped in and saved me Thank God!!!
That when Dad came home from work. I remember him saying one of God’s favourites boy!!
I know that I am made in the image of God and God as [sic] manifested many miracles throughout my life, and blessed me with so many gifts. The gift of tongues which I can also translate, the gift of using the blood of Jesus for healing, I can look into the future through meditation allowing me to open my third eye. The holy spirit that is not in the form of man. It’s more of a magical being of the universe. I can call on the holy spirit any time that I want instantly and straight away achieve the spirits peace and happiness in my life. Plus in deep meditation the spirit great powers can transform me to heaven. I have been a few times and believe me it’s not a place on earth. Most of this can be proved, and is written down in the Chronicles of the Kingdom Life Church.
The universe can be measured by holy string. Which comes in three sizes Large Medium and Small. So the exact size of the universe is a large piece of holy string by a small and medium piece!! Not forgetting Heaven is 41.000 miles cubed in one corner of it.
*Question 4: How big is the universe and how is it measured? Question 5: Will humans ever met space aliens?
The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. The winning entry can be read below
There is a near 100% certainty that humans will indeed meet space aliens – and if not within our generation, then most likely within the lives of our children or grandchildren.
However, whilst generations built up on visions of Star Wars and Star Trek might envisage us clasping hands with humanesque visitors from outer space, Babel fish in their ears, the first and perhaps only encounter ever likely to happen is that of a scientist peering at the screen of an electron microscope, to study the truly spectacular and epoch-making vision of an alien self-replicating molecule, or single-celled proto organism, retrieved from a volcanic rent on volcanic vent on Io [moon of Jupiter], Mars or another near neighbour.
The mathematician von Neumann’s concept of the ‘von Neumann probe’, or self-replicating space vehicle capable of travelling interstellar distances, to replicate itself on other planets, from where it would then head off to further star systems, populating the entire Milky Way in less than a million years, does neatly encapsulate the question: If there is intelligent alien life out there, why haven’t we seen it? The only answer to which must be, to the extent it does exist, it must be a long, long way away, in remote galaxies, perhaps too distant to ever be reached by man, as the universe expands more rapidly than we could ever travel.
Initial results from the studies of now thousands of exo-planets have also failed to give chemical indications of oxygen, or other synthesised chemicals likely to indicate life in detectable quantities on our near neighbouring planets.
However, on the smaller scale, if scientists such as Langland are correct in their view that the evolutionary adaptation of self-replicating molecules, leading to early life forms, can be explained by the laws of thermodynamics, prior to any Darwinian pressures on replication, mutation and inheritance traits, life in its most basic forms is likely to be a common phenomenon. Rather than needing a primeval chemical soup struck by lightening to foster the creation of RNA-like molecules, any simple source of energy such as volcanic spark could, over time give rise to simple life forms. Indeed, this is seen here on earth, where a bewildering variety of non-oxygen based simple life forms exist in the plumes of deepwater volcanic rents.
Such life forms may be simple, and their environmental conditions not far extensive enough or long-lived enough for complex life to form, or spread from the immediate vicinity. Even here on earth, life may have existed for two billion years or more before that fateful day when two became one, and complex cellular life came into being.
Sometimes in the near future, life will no doubt be discovered elsewhere than just on earth – with all the implications that will doubtless bring to the monotheistic religions placing God and Man at the centre of creation. But one thing is certain, our first encounter with alien life will be through a microscope, not a spaceship.
Professor Nick Petford is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton.
As we gear up to leave Park Campus for Waterside it is only natural to feel a sense of loss. Park has been a great place to work and play and will hold a special place in many hearts, as summarised nicely by Bethany Davies from the Criminology team in a recent Blog.
When I took up post as VC in September 2010 I inherited a draft master plan for the University Estate. It was clear that the split campus was a concern to the previous management team and that both estates were starting to look tired. There were several options on the table. One was to move Avenue to Park. The other was expansion of Avenue and closer physical integration with Newton. The showcase element was a huge glass dome, bigger than the one at the British Museum, enclosing most of the courtyard space at Avenue under one roof. Both were impractical. Building Avenue on Park would have consumed most of the sports fields and greenery that makes it what it is. And the disruption of turning Park into a building site for 36 months would do little to improve the student or staff experience. But it would have achieved a single university site, unlike the Avenue plan that would have entrenched the status quo (with a big window cleaning bill to boot!). Not long after my arrival, and with a change in the way government wanted to drive the regional growth agenda, the newly established SEMLEP created in Northampton a 16 mile stretch of brownfield land bordering the River Nene as an Enterprise Zone. The rest, as they say, is history.
An enduring aspect of higher educational institutions is change. Depending on timing, from a personal viewpoint it can be a slow, almost glacial process. For others, caught up in periods of rapid transition, as we are now, the hurly burley can feel almost overwhelming. But change is always there. And Northampton is no exception. For those suspicious this is more spin than substance I can recommend The Ever Rolling Stream, a book compiled and printed in 1989 by the 567th Mayor of Northampton, David Walmsley, that charts the history of Higher Education in Northampton. In short, the key events culminating in the present University are:
1260: Ancient University
1867: Mechanics Institute
1932: Northampton Technical College (St George’s Avenue)
1967: University of Leicester University Centre, Northampton
1972: Northampton College of Education (Park Campus)
1975: Nene College of Higher Education
1978: The National Leathersellers Centre
1982: Sunley Management Centre
1989: Release from local authority control
1999: University College Northampton
2005: The University of Northampton
The picture is one of periods of relative stability (including a c. 700 year sabbatical!), punctuated by mergers and consolidation. Our most rapid phase of change took place in the six years between 1972 and 1978 and involved the relocation, merger and subsequent closure of four separate educational establishments that ultimately comprise Park Campus as we know it today. Each of these phases would have been a unique cause of excitement, stress, resignations, hope and probable despair! But together they have two things in common – they happened mostly outside our working experience, and (ancient university excepted), ended in success. In our history of relocations and mergers, the inevitable conversations between doubters and advocates are lost in time, one exception being the amalgamation in 1937 of the School of Art in Abington Street, with the Technical College, which seems particularly vexed. Against this backdrop we see Waterside simply as the next stage in our evolution.
The title for Ever Rolling Stream comes from the hymn ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’. It sums up brilliantly the feeling of loss and the inevitability of change:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Yes, think kindly of Park, and Avenue, mourn even as others will have done over those antecedents that culminated in our present estate. But don’t think you are the first to do so. Who knows, at some time in the future, staff and students not yet born will be contemplating a move from Waterside to a new horizon, as the ever rolling stream rolls on.