Recalling the reaction to the New Cross Fire, which killed several black teenagers 40 years ago, Clayton Goodwin wonders if all the good work done on community relations since is in danger of unravelling due to the hardline stance taken by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.
Gerry Francis was very excited about the evening. Just 17 years old, he had been asked to be a DJ at a birthday party. Gerry kissed his mother, Tina (Velvetina), and his father, George, good-bye – telling them: “I’ll see you in the morning.” That was the last his parents saw of him.
The day was Saturday 18 January 1981 and the party was at 439 New Cross Road, where the districts of New Cross and Deptford overlap in south-east London.
Some 50 guests were present when fire broke out a few hours later: not all of them survived the blaze. The 13 young Black people who died then included 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock, one of the two teenagers celebrating their birthday, and her brother Paul. (A fourteenth guest died two years later, falling from a block of flats, after being unable to come to terms with the loss of so many of his friends.)
The next morning the phone rang in the house of the Francis family. The caller said that there had been a fire at the party and … “Gerry did not make it.” George recalled: “My wife started screaming. He was the baby of the family. I will always remember him as I saw him on the night of the party. I was told not to go and identify the body, and I’m glad that I did not.”
For me, this story is personal. We knew the Francis household well as near-neighbours for several years. There are pictures of Gerry as a child in our family photograph-album. George took the official pictures of our wedding, and on some occasions when a regular press-photographer wasn’t available to back up my written reports he came along with his camera to deputise.
The local community was stunned by the tragedy. A wave of sympathy engulfed the country … but not quite everybody was so moved. There was no message of condolence from either Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher or the Queen – the government or the palace – as there had been for a similar disaster in Ireland.
The police appeared to be either not interested or unnecessarily inept in their approach to human relations. Rumours started to grow, and in the light of police comments and the nonchalant official response, controversy flourished. Black people became convinced that the disaster had been caused by malicious racist arson. Grief turned to grievance.
Today it is accepted generally that the fire was caused more by accident than incident. George Francis, subsequently chairman of the New Cross Fire Parents’ Committee, said: “Our view is it wasn’t a racist attack and whatever happened, happened on the inside. We just hope to have a definitive answer as I want justice for these children who died on this fateful night so I can put these memories to rest.”
Local social cohesion and confidence had undeniably deteriorated to such an extent that a considerable majority of the population were inevitably ready to believe the worst.
The borough of Lewisham, in which the tragedy occurred, and the whole of south-east London generally, was in a state of high community tension arising from the attacks, threats and downright nastiness of the racist National Front. This mob movement had experienced a wave of popular support in recent local government elections and in the public political debate.
Soon another inferno – an uprising of protest from the Black community – spread throughout the inner-city areas from Brixton to Liverpool and into the attention of the media.
Long pathway of intolerance
The New Cross Fire is seen today as being one brick in the pathway of intolerance stretching from the Notting Hill riots (1958), the Smethwick parliamentary election (1964), Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech (1968), down to the Broadwater Farm riot (1985), the murder of Stephen Lawrence (1993), to … this recurring nightmare has never really ended.
The situation in New Cross/Deptford has changed considerably today and it has changed for the better. The anniversaries of the fire are marked now by services of commemoration, the names of the victims are honoured in memorials, and the police are open in their sympathy. Better must come … and it has. For several years attitudes in this country overall have been seen to improve. Things may not have been perfect, but compared to the decades past there was genuine cause for optimism that the serpent of intolerance in matters of race, religion, and gender had been laid to rest.
Yet as William Shakespeare observed through the character of Macbeth: “We have scotch’d the snake, not killed it. She’ll close and be herself…”, and the snake, having recovered from its wounds, will once again pose a danger with its poisonous fangs.
Indeed, the solidarity has been too fragile to prevent the propagation of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Then Brexit happened, opening anew, and with added venom, the festering pores of fracture, as well as the so-called “Windrush Scandal” and the seemingly off-hand response to the victims of the Grenfell Tower conflagration. Many people are more anxious about the future now than at any time hitherto. They feel that they are no longer welcome – or, maybe, never have been – in the country which they regard with justification as being their own.
Others reason that, however serious things are today, the situation cannot be as bad as it was at the time of the National Front menace and the New Cross Fire tragedy.
Return of the abominable ghosts?
Hold on a minute, though …Only a few weeks ago a National Front election poster from 1970 came into my hands. Under the slogan of “Put Britons First” it cited their policies as being to “Stop immigration, Reject the (European) Common Market, Restore capital punishment, Make Britain great again, Scrap overseas aid, Rebuild our armed forces”.
All these aims – with the exception of that relating to capital punishment – are in line with those taken up by the current Conservative government led by Boris Johnson.
As for that exception, even allowing her more recent denial, Priti Patel, who as Home Secretary would have responsibility for its implementation, can be seen on a video-clip calling for the “reintroduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent” in her appearance on television’s Question Time in 2011. The tune of the National Front, itself, may have been stifled but its rough melody lingers on.
Those prominent Africans who come forward as apologists for this administration – of which there are an increasing number – cannot be unaware of the implications of history. Nobody can be truly blind to what the demonising of immigrants (“the hostile environment”), or of religious and racial minorities, and setting society against itself, really entails.
It has become a time when as another Johnson – the scholarly Dr Samuel Johnson – said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemöller’s words on the Nazi takeover of his country, Germany: “First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew; Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim; Then they came for the East European immigrants, and I did not speak out, because I was not an East European; Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
This country is a very long way from there – yet, but it is also a distance away from being the country of harmony, justice and compassion that we know it could and should be.
In fact, we are again back at the place we were 40 years ago where personal tragedy can become a national disaster.