Tour de Force: Brixton

“I owe my love of London to its buses,” says Angela Morgan. “Growing up in small-town, suburban Surrey, I would go on teenage adventures, jumping on whichever bus had an exciting sounding destination – the number 9 to Kensington, the 73 to Holloway, the 2 to Baker Street, the 1 to Surrey Quays.

“One day I journeyed east to Bromley-by-Bow. The bus trip connected me with my family history. My mother’s first job in London was at the area’s St Andrew’s Hospital – she was a student nurse who came from Jamaica to work there in the 1950s. A short time later she met my father.

“Daddy was also from Jamaica. In 1944, he enlisted in the RAF without telling his parents. Aged 18 he walked down the hill of his father’s remote farm – no-one knew where he had gone.

“Britain was looking to the Empire to support the war effort, and my father joined a group of Caribbean servicemen billeted in freezing metal sheds in the Lincolnshire countryside.

“My parents passed their love of British culture on to me. This interest inspired me to qualify as a Blue Badge Guide. But as well as guiding all the traditional tours, I want to show people London’s Afro-Caribbean legacy, part of my history.

“It’s easy to imagine that black history in Britain started with the Windrush – the boat that arrived in 1948 carrying the first large group West Indian immigrants. But there is another, almost secret story of black Londoners that goes back hundreds of years. Some of it we walk past every day without noticing.

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“George Ryan is not a familiar name, but he is commemorated in Trafalgar Square. One of the four reliefs on Nelson’s column depicts the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson lies mortally wounded, to his left is Ryan holding his musket and trying to pick out the French sniper who shot his admiral.

“Ryan was press-ganged in Deptford in 1803. He is one of a number of black men who fought at Trafalgar. Many had nowhere to go once they were discharged, and they ended up in the rookery slums near Tottenham Court Road. Billy Waters was one of them; an American who swapped slavery for the British navy. He fell on hard times in London; with only one leg he would busk with his fiddle outside the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand. Waters was known as the King of the Beggars – his popularity led to him appearing on stage and featuring in paintings and porcelain figures.

“Ira Aldridge also acted on the London stage. An American who came to London in the early 19th century to escape prejudice against African-Americans. He progressed  from humble dresser to notable Shakespearean performer. Aldridge was the first black man to play Othello – starring in that play at the theatre now known as the Old Vic.

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“Black people were involved in the struggle for 19th century political reform. William Davidson was an illegitimate mixed-race lawyer, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica aged 14. He was part of the Cato Street Conspiracy – a plan to murder the prime minister and his cabinet. The plotters were discovered, and on May 1, 1820 Davidson – along with four fellow conspirators – were publicly hanged then decapitated outside Newgate Prison.

“This group – as well as many unknown black men and women – paved the way for the ‘Windrush Generation’ – large numbers who came to live and work in London in the 1950s. Many Jamaicans were temporarily housed in a deep-level air raid shelter in Clapham, before eventually settling in nearby Brixton.

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“Brixton’s reputation as a troubled area goes back over three decades. In 1981 things came to a head when the police were confronted by disenchanted local youths. The authorities used the 1824 Vagrancy Act to stop and search people they thought were suspicious – nearly always young black males. Using old legislation to deal with modern problems led to riots, property being destroyed and injuries to police and civilians.

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“But trouble had been brewing for some time. Paul Simonon, the guitarist and vocalist with The Clash, was brought up in Brixton. He documented the tensions in his 1979 song The Guns of Brixton. After the riots Eddy Grant had a big hit with Electric Avenue. The lyrics were a response to what happened, but it also spoke of a way forward: ‘Now in the street, there is violence, and lots of work to be done’.

“Work has been done to try to improve the area and turn it into a positive symbol for black culture. When American actor Will Smith visited he dubbed Brixton London’s Harlem. In 1996 Nelson Mandela made his first visit to London following his release. The South African leader made a point of coming to Brixton, and thousands of locals turned out to greet him.

“Brixton is where I introduce people to Anglo-Caribbean culture, music and food. Nothing symbolises this more than the Ital. This small shop makes a big noise. Emblazoned with the Jamaican national colours, it announces itself with loud reggae music. The owner, who I call the Ital Man, is a Rastafarian, and all the food he sells follow that belief. It is very much a vegan diet, so no salt, no meat.

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One of the specialities is Irish Moss, a sea plant which is supposed to help men with their fertility. “No tour of Brixton is complete without a visit to its markets. They are the home of West Indian food; from breadfruit, plantain, pigs’ feet and tails, flying fish, giant African snails, to traditional Jamaican specialities, such as super-salty jerk chicken, curried mutton and goat, rice and peas and fried dumplings.

“The cool place to visit is Brixton Village. It is home to a mix of African and Caribbean stalls, crafts, restaurants and coffee shops. And then there are the hair shops with their extraordinary displays of weaves, extensions, braids and multi-coloured wigs. I finish our visit here with an invigorating drink of ginger-powered sorrell at Etta’s Seafood Kitchen.

“Last stop on my tour is at ‘Brixton Speaks’, an artwork created by the writer Will Self. It illustrates the speech of Brixtonians, the text melding the sounds of south London Cockney and Jamaican patois to create an installation that lights up the end of Electric Avenue. It’s a favourite of mine as it is a celebration of the vibrancy and diversity of a Brixton that is now on the tourist map.”

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