Thursday, 12 January 2017

Book Review: All My Yesterdays

Image result for walls come tumbling down

Walls Come Tumbling Down:
The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge

Daniel Rachel
Picador, 2016
ISBN 978-1447272687

John Harris in the Guardian has written a decent review of Daniel Rachel’s book, which is a sort of cultural history of the left from the mid-1970s to the 1990s – see

I want to make a few history-related points on the book here. I was indeed there. I was at the battles of Wood Green and Lewisham, at the Carnivals and on the streets. I still have a pair of steel toe capped Doc Martens and they weren’t (mostly) used for industrial purposes. They were, and the book captures this well, different times.

Image result for northern carnival rock against racism

In the late 1970s I did not walk down any street without scrutinising those also walking to see if they might be fascists who were about to attack me. I don’t do that now because the current strength of organised fascism is low. Indeed I moved to my current  address in central Tottenham precisely because it is so difficult to find. Not that difficult though because the front window still has a bullet hole in it, which I’ve left as a memoir of different times. I wasn’t in when the bullet was fired, but the windows are double glazed as a precaution anyway. The times are not so different though. Racism still needs to be fought, big time in the age of Farage and Trump. Whether music will be as central remains to be seen perhaps.

Anyway, the book is essentially an oral history covering Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, Two Tone and Red Wedge. The author has assembled quotes from a extensive range of people under subject headings in more or less chronological order.

I’d confess as a professional historian to not being that enthusiastic about oral history because memory is unreliable and quite difficult to check. I wouldn’t bet on every last statement in the book being accurate but that isn’t really the point. Instead it gives a real flavour of how culture, music and the left came together to fight fascism, racism and the right and some idea both of the breadth of the support needed to do this and the importance of having some coherent political organisation at its core, whether this was the SWP or the Labour Party or both.

Of course Red Wedge was not Rock Against Racism and the distinct parts of the book perhaps don’t have such an automatic follow on. Nor is there an attempt, understandably it being an oral history, to grapple with what precise longer term impact something like RAR had.

Since I was there and know a lot of the people interviewed well the book does read to me like all my yesterdays. But allowing old socialists to recall the past is hopefully not what it is meant to be about. It should be read by those who were NOT there both to get some sense of how movements were built and what is possible, and hopefully to inspire activity and organisation now.

You can always criticise and hopefully there is a positive purpose to that but beyond that this is a book you should read whether you were there and particularly if you were not.

Keith Flett

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 60 (Spring 2017) 

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