London 1979: Winter of Discontent, Isle of Dogs, Iggy Pop
and Anarchy in the UK
Continued from last months Substack: How to Hitch-Hike South using Visualisation
I do not hitch back home, I have enough of my 50 pounds left to take a bus from Sevilla to London Victoria Coach Station. This is luxury. The only thing is I have no idea where I will go. But I have three days to think about it all …
Winter. London 1979.
Back in London, I find a home with Carmel (R.I.P), on the Isle of Dogs, in London’s east end. The docks will soon fall into decline and die by the 1980s due to the dockers’ strikes which backfire under the new Conservative government.
The sign as you enter the Island has a pertinent twang to it:
Welcome to the Isle of Dogs
It is not the place it will become in the millennium, a gentrified business area where properties in Canary Wharf average half a million pounds. No, in the entrance to the Winter of Discontent, it is grim, and even some cabbies refuse to come across the bridge and onto the island at night.
But we love it.
We live in the borough of Tower Hamlets, it is poor, very, very poor, and as no one has any money, we all get on very well.
Downstairs from our high rise on Westferry Road, which stinks of piss in the lifts and where the light never works is a chippie - Chip Shop, which sometimes sells fish, but mainly it is chips and saveloys and pickled onions. A Chinese takeaway is further along, and a corner shop run by a grumpy family. Carmel tells me they are grumpy because they have been trying to sell up for months and no one wants to buy it. I feel less cross with them, and make sure I try and buy at least one thing a week.
There is one bus to get off the island,
which never seems to come, so we walk to Limehouse, which became the first London Chinatown between the 1880s and the 1960s. Of that time (I shall write later about this in another Substack) all that remains are some street names: Ming Street, Pekin Street, and Canton Street. I particularly like Limehouse, there are stately Victorian plane trees which adorn St.Anne’s church, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1712. A lovely place to wait for the number 15 double-decker which chugs into Charing Cross passing through the history of London from Watney Market, Tower of London, St. Paul’s, Fetter, then Chancery Lane.
It is on Limehouse Causeway, not far from St. Anne’s, the mythically talented Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American actress, famous for Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich, danced in the film: Limehouse Blues.
Here she is, kept in time with her Mary Jane shoes, then all the fashion.
Our place, the Island, is rough and wild, and we, the youth, like tumbleweed, uprooted, only follow the music.
It is called The Winter of Discontent, but we don’t seem to find it hard, for the Isle of Dogs is always messy with the smells of the port, and brine and seashells lost. The widespread strikes do not effect us; we are used to dustbins overflowing, and buses never coming. The backdrop in London is gritty-grim, but, there is still plenty to do, as we are young.
…Continuing its constant campaign throughout the winter criticising the strikers through the medium of the "breakdown of public convenience", the pictures of the piled rubbish presented itself as yet another front on which to attack the workers….Author: Sam Lowry - 2007
For cinephiles, the documentary, The Filth and the Fury, based on the life and short times of The Sex Pistols, (the entire film is here) by Julian Temple, shows so well the strife and backdrop to this entire era. Well worth the watch.
As we move into February 1979,
our Iranian friends who live one floor below us watch as their country begins to unfold, from the ground up. Revolution. We sit with them drinking saffron tea as they play their favourite singer Googoosh over and over. We know things will happen, will not last, will be over, as this is life, the pages turn, history is made.
We climb over debris, picket lines and rubbish which has not been collected for weeks. We use bin liners to decorate our bodies, nothing underneath, and we sail into central London, then north to Camden and onto the Music Machine, as Margaret Thatcher tears power away from the Labour Government, winning the UK on 4 May 1979.
We join demonstrations,
and adore Ken Livingstone’s speeches, the East End’s hero, called Red Ken, who goes on to become the Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), a staunch opponent of Thatcher’s government. Rock against Racism is happening; thousands of us together against the tide of migrant hate,
we do things,
music makes us make things happen
yes, the music calls us…
we live for the music,
will always live for the music.
It calls to us …
So into this new scene of 1979,
Isle of Dogs, once home to Henry VIII’s hunting hounds, so history suggests, and Iggy Pop will be coming soon for his next round of gigs.
Anarchy in the UK, the Sex Pistols song, which came out in 1976, foreshadowing what was going to come is the anchor to it all, however, it is The Clash’s London Calling which becomes the anthem of our year.
London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don't look to us
Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
Except for the ring of the truncheon thing …
US bands come over, often backing or heading the UK bands. There is a real merging of energy. Patti Smith, Suicide, Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Willy DeVille (Mink Deville).
Iggy begins his 49-gig New Values tour
I have to be there, go there.
I will, is my mantra!
I begin to visualise, just like Sami told me to do when hitching the perfect ride down south, and ask my father, a journalist, to see if his colleague, James Johnson can get me on a photo shoot when Iggy is in town.
The answer is NO.
Don’t give up and find a way to follow the tour. Best way, find an ally. I know the bouncers, the hipsters, the ticket sellers, touts and dodgers, but no one ever gives anything really, and in this instance, you should not take cos then you owe. Not when it comes to gigs. Be free, don’t owe anything to anyone!
My ally needs to be an outsider.
is a friendly chap who sells T-shirts on the tour. I spend the afternoon helping him and then beg to grab a free ride to Lancaster, half way up England. I give him Rob’s number (the only one of us who has the luxury of a fixed phone.)
I don’t know how it happens, but it does. I get a call from him the day before my birthday, the 27th April. “OK kid! My mate’s let me down. Mornington Crescent, 10 tomorrow. We have to be in Lancaster at 2pm.”
A small bag packed, running like the wind, young, wild and a pocket full of dreams. Does anything else really matter?
I am on the Iggy Tour.
Rob and Carmel have to hold me down, my excitement is electric. I mean, WHAT!!!! I am uncontrollable as I Rob rushes me through London to Mornington Crescent.
This photo is taken by Rob from that moment leaving the Isle of Dogs.
I help Ron with 10 shows,
It feels petty now, looking back, for as I write Libya is drowning, Ukraine is holding on, Morocco is buried by an earthquake, and Marina, a new friend I met on a train, lives in a migrant hotel for the past 13 months, where the windows don't open, with her son, Amir, waiting for Home Office to grant her the right to stay. She is from Chechnya.
But, at 18 I do not know that all of this is to come.
Lancaster University - first gig. I am too excited and sit for the sound check with half the university in tow. It is brilliant. Iggy plays for an hour, then goes off to sleep. I am far too shy to go up to him. Scott Thurston, the super talented musician who played with The Stooges, Tom Petty, The Motels, The Cult, and Melissa Lou Etheridge among others, chats with me, he is soft-spoken and gives me good pieces of advice as I gush over my birthday, my luck, the squats, the Island, and ask if Iggy really grew up in a van park in Anne Arbour and is called Jimmy Jewel Osterburg.
“Just be a cool kid. Be cool.”
So this is how I live my happy days on tour. Trying to be cool.
Iggy hangs out, often before and after gigs,
but life on the road is hard work. I do not see wild parties, or the legendary mess that Iggy has made of his old-name. Or endless groupies, and the dodgy ones. I see two men, Janus - like - one off-stage, who is introverted, eye-glass wearing, and curious about everything English, who sits cross-legged on the side of the stage; then the on-stage persona, who reeves up thousand-fold, in the wings, as the forever overture steps in tango with the stage-smoke.
Roadies, sound checks, repetitions, lots of water drunk, some beer, sometimes whiskey, laughter, and the hot gossip that Bowie might show up. I am the youngest there, and keep to myself, and wait for the right time.
Ron and I start early, counting shirts, bagging them up, sorting out posters, and getting boxes ready for the following shows. Shows which are spectacular when you see one, then two, then three, and back-to back; they become more magnetic.
My favourite gig EVER is Redcar, at the Coatham Bowl. Redcar on the edge of England, touching Scotland. Any Iggy fan will remember this for a life time. Don’t you? Redcar means, in old English, “place by the red marsh”. Red for passion, for energy, anger, flow …
The Bowl was finally demolished in 2014, yet is THE place for concerts we are told as we drive up in Ron’s van.
In 1979 it appears empty in the April grey air, one day after my birthday. However a strange and dreamlike energy comes from the Tees River and the North Sea. When a river and a sea meet there is turbulence, unrest, chaos and often beauty as the salt licks the fresh water. A precursor to the night to come?
We set up our stand as the band do a sound check.
Groups of teenagers hang around, no-one stops them coming in. I love this too, nothing is that important, the ultra-ego on stage, the rage-filled gestures tone down to this regular guy and his band in some regular town in the UK, on a regular Sunday afternoon in the north of England.
Redcar Northerners are different from Southern London youth. Ever heard of Northern Soul? Well, here I am in the middle of it! Where dance is life, and life is dance. Northern Soul is mix between break-dancing and wild fox-trotting. Even before Iggy comes on they are jump-jacking everywhere, super fast on their happy feet. .
There is a real South-North divide. Remember I am here during the deep political upheaval where Northerners support Labour, and Southerners, another race really, are majority Conservative. Redcar is also industrial and the centre of iron and steel production since 1850. Communist slogans are stencilled into a wall near the Bowl.
I feel unity as the youth pour in for the night. It is electric. We sell more here than anywhere else.
And it is here a teenager with quadriplegia is propped up onto the stage where she balances her body against the stage wall. The entire gig centres around her. Iggy sings for her. The band plays for her. It is powerful and surreal and ethereal, her body rocking non-stop for nearly two hours. Her image, his image, entwined in the heat and frenzy and night sweat, make visual magic. (I have tried in vain to find a photo, of course, we did not have cameras then - but…if anyone chances to know… please send it my way.)
Redcar, I shall never come back,
there is no reason, for
I want this memory, Iggy and the Girl,
engraved to my soul.
The gigs are wonderful, I am tireless, feels like this can go on forever, the bad food, stale coffee, chipping for change, sleeping in my sleeping bag, sometimes in the back of Ron’s van, then sliding down to London again, where finally, Nonchi patience works.
I get to spend some time with Mr. Pop. One night he grabs me by the hand and we walk out to Soho Square. We sit on a bench, hidden by night shadows smoking cigarettes while he asks about the squats, life in the UK, youth and …
Iggy Pop asking me about about Henry VIII. I am SO glad we studied the Tudors in the short time I attended school. It makes me feel clever and grand. Then we don’t talk anymore, really, just watch night time passing.
It is short-lived. 3 days. Magical. Then Mitzie comes back, the one I call his China Girl. Actually China Girl was written for Kuelan Nguyen, who was Jacques Higelin’s, woman, (the French actor/singer). She ran off with Iggy for a while, but, I always equate the song to Mitzie who wears Mary Quant lipstick - an off violet shimmer, (the flavour of the time), with her famous long black boots on her fabulous long, long legs. Was she also the girl of Sweet Sixteen?
After London, the tour goes to Europe. I met up again in Catalonia. I know that Ron is being kind to me, his mate is back, he does not need my help anymore. It is time to move on.
At the Pavelló del Joventut de Badalona - Barcelona, Iggy’s girlfriend also arrives, Esther Friedman, a photographer, as tiny as Iggy, serious, elfin and aloof. Mitzie tells me it will all change. It does. Love comes by.
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I do not like the Barcelona gig, addicts shooting up during the concert, needles on the floor afterwards. Picking our way through the debris of unkindness. The huge hall is void of feeling, too large for comfort, too small for significance. Empty of soul.
I do not want to go any further. I have lived my moments of joy. I tell Ron I will make my own, slow-way home. I know too, I shall never see him again. He has been wonderful to me. He made my dream come true.
I also never want to see Iggy again. He says three words to me. “Take care kid.” Then he is gone, to the night, to the future.
I take my bags and walk with Mitzie, back-stage, along the narrow back-stage corridor and out to the Barcelona suburbs. My last memory is her slim silhouette, like a shadow puppet, watching me walk with my swag. She holds me for a moment. Then drops her arms quickly as if this affection is too much. She thinks I am too naive, but, I know she likes me.
I will never see Mitzie again, either. Mitzie will die around 1985 of an overdose. I find out when I am back in London and bump into some of the old Music Machine gang.
She still hovers over me in a haunting sort of way. She was intense and mean and part of that moment. I know nothing more about her, only she is a Libra, lives in North London, Tufnell Park, she is Malay -Chinese - English, Malay from her mums side, and glides, not walks, as if on air.
Life unfolds, like an accordion, across time, I continue to travel relentlessly, and still refuse to see Iggy on tour until 2023 when my daughter buys me a secret ticket for Crystal Palace. London.
I accept. The same old feeling creeps in as the stage descends to night, smoke awakes the senses, and that forever intro drives us mad …
… It is perfect, and as Iggy begins to sing my favourite song, The Endless Sea, I realise, for the first time since I said goodbye, and walked from Mitzie, I want to dig out all my tickets, my back-stage passes, that Ivan, my brother has so well kept for me, and bring out glorious memories, and go back to
once upon a time…
I was 17 and living in Marseille, France, working as an au pair, and each month I had enough money to buy Rock & Folk, France’s equivalent of our Melody Maker or Rolling Stone. This was when I fell in love. We all have our musical heroes and Iggy Pop became mine.
I am very thankful to you for reading my work, as this supports me, motivates me, to carry on. Thank you so much.
So, enjoy your weeks ahead with the tumbling moon, moon harvest, in this edgy and curious time that we are living in.
Newcastle, The Chinese Film Archives, activists, Tao Gu, filmmaker, his documentary, Taming the Horse and Maria my new friend who lives in a migrant hotel, and how, by advocating for people we might just help their cause