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Free Party Chronicles: CJ Stone's columns for Mixmag 1996-1998
I was in the pub Sunday evening. A couple of my friends run a chill-out session down there, playing a few choice American house tunes, chucking back a few cold lagers, a bit of a chat, a bit of a dance: generally gentling down the ravaged psyche after the delirium and mayhem of the weekend.
Someone I hardly knew came up to me. "I know what you're up to, " he said belligerently: "it's all bullshit. Politics and dancing don't mix."
Well he's the son of an ex Labour councillor, which kind of explains his bitterness. He's probably been subjected to years of abuse at the hands of political bores: years of leaflets and canvass returns and those infinitely dreary debates on the Gothic intricacies of political in-fighting. You can't help sympathising with the man.
But it set me thinking. Do politics and dancing mix? Well no: obviously not. Try leaning over to your loved one on the dance floor and whispering sweetly: "excuse me, but do you happen to think that the balance of payments represents a true measure of wealth creation, huh?" I'm not all that sure that it would work as a chat-up line. And we all know the classical Anarchist slogan: "Whichever party you vote for, the government always gets in." I don't blame anyone for considering the whole sorry business a Class A con from beginning to end.
But you can't deny that politics affects you. The cursory refusal to grant a license to the Tribal Gathering event recently shows that - whether politics and dancing mix or not - politics can have an influence on your leisure time and therefore on your dancing: in this case it can stop you enjoying your leisure time altogether. So its not so much a question of whether politics and dancing mix, as of how far the political establishment will go in order to have a say in the ordinary choices you make in your daily life. Political forces can cut across the dance floor, can muscle in on your personal space as it were, in such a way that in the end you have no choice but to address them.
New Home Office guidelines recommend a variety of measures that will certainly affect the way you dance in future. The guidelines set out to "encourage local authorities to exercise their licensing responsibilities in such a way as to safeguard the health and safety of young people at clubs and dance events, and to reduce the supply of drugs." Measures include the availability of drinking water, the provision of rest facilities, the monitoring of temperature and air quality. So far, so sensible. But it goes on to state that "the government is opposed to information or facilities which suggest that drug-misuse is tolerated or which understate the legal or health risks." In other words, there will be no leaflets on harm reduction, no advise available, and - certainly! - no drug testing facilities, such as those available on the continent, to make sure that the drug you've bought is what it says it is. So next time you find yourself with a massive dose of toxic MDA in your system, instead of the gentle promise of MDMA: remember, it's government guidelines which have determined this.
Other recommendations in the circular are as follows:
1) "... the organisation of legal dance events be encouraged by local authorities exercising maximum discretion in the granting of licenses and by involving responsible organisers in the process." In other words, it will be the same bunch of slick club owners - fellow Freemasons all - who get the right to organise club events, as they have always done. Maximise profit, minimise enjoyment. And - most of all - keep the free party-organisers - the enthusiastic amateurs who really love the music and who know how to throw a good party - out of the picture for good.
2) "... liaise with the police to consider what steps might be taken to assist with surveillance. This might include video surveillance equipment to monitor activity." By "activity" they mean what you and I get up to in the course of our ordinary lives. In other words: "Big Brother is watching you!"
3) Safety measures will include "... preventing access to potentially dangerous dance sites (such as on top of speakers or on balconies)." There'll be a few poseurs and happy show-offs upset by that one. Personally I think that if anyone wants to get up in front of a few hundred tuned-in revellers just to show us how well they dance, then they deserve to break a leg or two. It's a free choice, mate.
And 4) "... at all night events, long events and during hot weather ensure that there are several adequate breaks with no music..."
Are they serious? Is this what we can expect in the future: ten minute breaks in the music so that we can all re-orientate ourselves? Imagine the mayhem. I can imagine riots breaking out all over the place if they take that one to its logical conclusion. I can just see all the lights going on, and the management breaking up the huddles on the dance floor. "OK, everybody: time for your breathing exercises! Deep breaths. In - Out - In - Out. Now we want you to all lie down on the floor and relax. That's it. Feel your body floating... You are feeling calm and relaxed, all the muscles in your body are relaxing. Relax, relax. Let your mind drift with the silence...etc. etc..." Ten minutes of enforced silence at the government's behest. Whatever next?
No: politics and dancing don't mix. But there are times when you have to take time out to reflect, or you may wake up one day to find that there's no music left to dance to, and that dancing has suddenly become a crime. You have been warned!
Brighton Direct Action Conference
I was in Brighton for the “Direct Action” conference. It was being organised By Justice? who I’ve written about before. I never quite know how to say the name. That obviously critical question mark leaves you in some doubt whether to say it as a question, with a rising tone at the end.
Justice? are the organisation - or loose collective of individuals, rather - who write the wonderful SchNEWS free sheet every week. If you want to know where the party is, where the protest is, where the demonstration or the action is, then get SchNEWS. All of this and the “crap arrest of the week”. It’s a joy to read, full of news, information, unexpected details, reports on various kinds of fun-and-games and a wry, intelligent humour. You won’t find a better read in any shop.
The conference was organised exactly like a free party. The venue was not announced until the day, and there was a number to ring for the directions. So at - what? - seven thirty in the morning, there I was at a Motorway service station just off the M23, trying to take note of the complex instructions being passed on to me by an impersonal answering machine. About the most I managed to keep track on is that I had to find my way to St. Peter’s Church. Where’s St. Peter’s Church, for Christ’s sake. How was I to find my way there?
In the end it was easy. St. Peter’s Church is huge, and right on the main drag. I parked up and asked directions from the first person I met. He had nose rings and dreadlocks and a dog on a string and he told me he was the one who had cracked the squat.
“So you’re a member of Justice?” I asked.
“No. I just like cracking squats.”
The conference was taking place in a huge 14 storey office block. It was as near derelict as you can get. Only two of the floors were in the slightest bit habitable. It was also very, very cold: like the cold-store in a butcher’s shop, or like a dank cave deep underground. But the organisers had done their best. They’d swept it clean and draped banners everywhere. And there were two mobile cafes serving vegetarian food, tea and coffee and - later in the afternoon - mulled cider. I was envious of the people serving the food. Theirs was the warmest place in the building. I kept waiting in the queue for more mulled cider, not so much for the taste - though it was delicious - more to stand near the Calor Gas burners.
This was not the first choice of venues. A few days earlier they’d tried to squat the Old Court House in Brighton. This would have been a symbolic setting for the conference. Two years earlier Justice? had squatted the building in protest at the Criminal Justice Bill, fixed the roof, the plumbing, the electrics, the toilets and had occupied it for a total of 51 days before finally being evicted. So now they’re back in, exhilarated at their achievement. The exhilaration doesn’t last. By 8.30 the following morning the police are ready to move in; this despite the huge Section 6 banner draped from the building claiming squatter’s rights. Fifteen Police with dogs and a battering ram, smashing their way in. There’s a certain irony about this. The Police want to arrest people for allegedly committing Criminal Damage, and here they are with a battering ram. A solicitor is telling one of the occupiers on the mobile that the police can’t evict, they need a court order. “But they are evicting us now!” she yells down the phone.
Three people manage to scramble onto the window ledges, remaining perched there for a total of seven hours in the freezing cold, until the rest of the crew can cause as much fuss as possible. By the afternoon there’s a crowd of people, a band playing, a mobile café, TV cameras and reporters, a solicitor and the local Green party councillor Pete West, telling the press: “It’s a pity police don’t take as much action when there’s a burglary."
There’s some wonderful footage from the local TV news. The solicitor is trying to talk to the police officers, who are stuck behind the security bars on the building. They are stoney-faced and obviously uncomfortable. The fact is, they’ve broken the Law. Later, Colin - one of the Justice? activists - is talking to one of the policemen. “Do you know the difference between a Democracy and a Police State?” he says: “In a Democracy the police uphold the Law. In a Police State, they are the Law. Are you proud of what you have done? What are you going to tell your kids when you get home tonight?”
Well, that was three days ago. It was seven o’clock on the day of the conference before another venue was found, this huge, crumbling, dangerous, dank, freezing office block. But we were doing our best. There were opening speeches from activists around the country, and then a discussion. Someone said, “we have to de-people-ize the debate.” What? I think he meant that we should not attack personalities, that the Capitalist System is a structure which uses people not the other way round. Other’s countered this argument, quoting from Bertholt Brecht: “Injustice is not an abstract principle: it has a name, and an address.” The argument went on and on.
After the opening speeches we all went off into little rooms for the workshops. These covered such issues as green parenting, squatting, media studies, self-defence, genetics, prisoner support and the increasing powers of the police. I went to the one about squatting: which was a practical kind of a workshop, given that we were squatting on the cold floor most of the time. I think the self-defence workshop would have been warmer, involving at least a degree of bodily movement. Later I was standing in the café queue once more, when I overheard a couple talking. “I was going to do genetics,” one of them was saying, “but it was too cold. I opted for green parenting instead.”
After a while the police arrived. They were blocking the entrance to the building with a meat wagon. Various people went to talk to them, and in the end there was a stand-off. The police were more concerned that there shouldn’t be a party in the evening: which nobody wanted anyway, this being an entirely unsuitable building. Later in the afternoon some of the activists and some of the police were playing football in the yard. The score was one-all. One to the police for stopping the Courthouse squat: one to Justice? for getting the conference off the ground despite that.
I guessed that there were around four to five hundred people at the conference, from all over the country. By the evening there were candles lit all over the building, and everyone was gathered in one room for the closing speeches. The huddle of bodies made it warmer, and the twinkle of the flickering candle light temporarily transformed the ugly sixties office block into a fairy-tale castle. Hard-headed political activists in a fairy-tale castle: whatever next?
The Alleycat Bookshop, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
I was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the invitation of the Alleycat bookshop. Alleycat is a radical and co-operative bookshop carrying Anarchist, Socialist, Green, Lesbian and Gay, and Vegetarian literature, amongst other subjects. They also carry my book, which is none of these things. I was met from the train by Jon. I wasn't sure how I would recognise him. In the end it was easy: leather jacket, German Paratroop boots, dyed blonde hair and earrings. He took me to the bookshop, where I was introduced to other co-op members, and then back to his place to eat.
I had a good feeling about Newcastle immediately. It seems spacious somehow: leisurely. The streets are very wide and the buildings very large. It felt fresh. You could smell the breezes brushing in off the estuary, sweeping away all of that stale city air.
At the bus stop Jon said, "I should show you the Cathedral." I looked up and he was indicating the arc of the football stadium looming over the city like a theological argument. And if this is the Cathedral, then Alan Shearer is the Pope.
At home Jon cooked Dhal and Basmati rice with stir fried vegetables. He told me he was a vegan.
"A vegan who wears a leather jacket and leather boots," I observed.
"Everyone says that," he said. "Shall I tell you the story of the jacket? I bought it when I was 16 and had a Mo-ped. My Mom said, 'you're not riding a dangerous motorcycle without protective clothing.' Later I gave the jacket away, but the bloke I gave it to gave it back to me as a Christmas present one year. So it was second hand when I bought it, and I've owned it twice. I'm not exactly contributing to the live-meat trade am I?"
That still didn't explain the boots though. His whole house was filled with boots, mainly Doc Martin's and Paratroop boots: painted orange, stuck on walls, acting as book-ends and flowerpots, or maybe just simply lying around. I said, "there's a lot of boots about."
"You don't want to throw them away when you've been wearing them so long," he explained. Which makes him a boot as well as a leather fetishist. What sort of a dangerous character had I fallen in with? That whole vegan story was a sham, a cover up for all his strange, leather-boot inspired, perverted activities. Clearly I was going to have to keep my shoes on all weekend. Luckily I was wearing sandals.
In the evening we walked to the pub, passed dreaming fields of cows, to meet some of the other co-op members. It seemed strange to be in a city and to be walking passed fields. Jon said, "the fields belong to the Freemen of Newcastle. They have the right to graze their cattle in them."
We met Joe at the Tap and Spile, who told me that he'd had his arm broken at some demonstration by a deranged copper, and had got £15,000 compensation for it. "Where's it all gone?" I asked. "I drank it, it was the best six months I ever had." After that Tanya came in. Jon had mentioned Tanya several times. He said that she and her partner had just had a new baby. "Harry's away with the baby for the weekend," he told me. I naturally thought that Harry was a bloke, only it soon became clear that he wasn't. Harry was the child's Mother, and Harry and Tanya were bringing her up as a couple. I took to Tanya immediately. Her eyes were sparkling as she talked with relish about the baby. She called it a miracle.
Afterwards we walked through the Bigg Market, where the young Geordies hang out on a Friday night. I kept mishearing it as 'the Meat Market'. Jon said, "I like that. That's exactly what it is." It's a place where the mating customs of the locals can be observed. The women wear the shortest skirts, the lowest necklines, and the highest stilettos. The men wear tee-shirts with a packet of fags rolled into the sleeve. They wear this even through the blistering Geordie winter, when the winds scythe in off the North Sea like shards of ice. Chat up lines include such renowned classics as: "Get 'em off," "Show us yer tits," and "I could give you one." The men clutch bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, the women drink alcoholic lemonade, and they shout to each other across the street. Everyone is huge. The bouncers are like men-mountains with bow-ties. You have to walk with your eyes firmly wedded to the pavement for fear of causing an incident. I loved it. I want to do an Anthropological field-study there one day.
Tanya decided to take me to Viva, a night club on Riverside. She introduced me to the promoter, Geoff. "He can get you a mention in Mixmag," she said.
"I'm not interested," he told us. "But I'll let you in because I like Tanya. Who else do you write for?"
"The Big Issue," I told him.
"Ah right! I was homeless for about two years. Homeless, and now I'm an Underground promoter. So there you go."
Joe blagged twenty quid and bought us all a drink. He got me a Newquay Brown, so that I could have the full Newcastle experience. Everyone was dancing, as you'd expect, and the atmosphere was friendly. It was the first time I'd felt entirely safe all evening. There was one short, muscly bloke, with a neck like a side of beef, chugging round like a train. He was weaving in and out of the crowd pumping his arms like pistons, sweating profusely, with his eyes at half-mast, E-d off his brain. He was the sort of bloke that, had you met him in the Meat Market, you would have had to have looked away. As it was, he was in his own little world, blissfully deranged.
There was one very interesting innovation in the club. The chill-out room was down a long corridor behind the decks. It was an alcohol-free zone. A bouncer stood there looking after your drinks for you. Consequently the chill-out room had a wholly different atmosphere than the rest of the club. All the E-heads could sit in there and feel relaxed. I know how annoying drunks can be. This seemed like the perfect compromise.
I can't describe the music to you. I'm hopeless at those intricate definitions clubbers use. I can't tell my trip-hop from my arse-hole. So I asked Jon. "What sort of music is this?"
"I dunno," he said. "When I got in I thought, 'now that's the music I want to hear.' Sometimes I go to clubs and they describe themselves as trance-techno or deep house or whatever, and I think, 'that sounds interesting.' Only when I get there it isn't interesting at all. But tonight it is: it's exactly the music I want to hear."
So maybe we should have another definition of music to match all those other terms. Not so much trance or garage or underground house as, "yes, that's the music I want to hear..."
The Bigg Market, Newcastle
- CJ Stone's columns for Mixmag Magazine 1996-1998
I was in London for the Irvine Welsh gig at the Blue Note Club in Islington. I was the warm-up act. It's a new concept: literary readings at clubs
- Three Mixmag Stories Featuring Steve Andrews, the Bard of Ely
I wrote for Mixmag, a dance magazine, between 1996 and 1998, on the back of my book about rave culture, Fierce Dancing. These three stories feature my good friend Steve Andrews, the Bard of Ely. Enjoy
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