Brixton: 121 Centre
121: A BRIEF PERSONAL TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE.
By Paul Petard Autumn 2000
121 Railton Road: South London's world famous radical squatted house/anarchist bookshop/autonomous social centre/free community space survived for a record breaking 18 years before being evicted.
Some people claim the place was haunted, by the ghost of euro punk perhaps.
121 was certainly haunted by Jack Frost as you nearly always felt cold inside the building (even when it was warm outside!).
The number of meetings and events there one sat through with shivering limbs and chattering teeth, we all deserve medals just for passing the test of physical endurance involved in going to the place.
It is the comradeship and community, the social movement and historic struggles that the place was connected to that actually matter. On the long run the building itself was always expendable. And let's face it folks the building itself was a bit knackered from day one.
Maybe, if they could have got away with it, it would have been better had the people who first squatted it demolished it there and then and started building some folk art Watts towers or Gaudi cathedral like fantasy house to live in.
So many hours of maintenance work and decorating on the building and its famous anarcho squat centre toilet from hell but to little avail.
It felt only slightly more cosy in the early years when the ground floor dividing wall was still up and the bookshop was in the front with the latest "Black Flag" and "Crowbar" hot off the presses wafting printing ink thinners out the door.
But maybe it only felt that way because we were younger then. There would be real agitated ANARCHIST meetings in the back room with young punks, ageing Spanish veterans, anarcho-nerd bookworms, romantic insurrectionaries, hardcore squatters, urban saboteurs... (today's "anarchist" meetings just don't have that same authentic feel).
It was the last days of the cold war, Thatcher was in power, there was open mass unemployment, there were inner city riots, big industrial battles like the miners and the printworkers yet to be fought.
Life was so much politically simpler in those days, the revolutionary vision appeared much clearer, insurrection seemed just round the corner. In those days you could get easy student grants and loaf around for several years, you could sign on for years with a minimum of hassle, the giros felt bigger and silkier. The queues in the dole office were more chatty and friendly.
Tell that to the young whippersnappers in R.T.S. today and they won't believe you.
I remember my first conversation in the bookshop when I first visited 121 in 1981; I sat down with a cup of tea and chatted about summer riots, squatting, secret police and whether the room was stuffed with bugging devices or not.
This was still in the days when the arguments between Black Flag and Freedom actually mattered to anyone so it was fun to pop into Angel Alley, Whitechapel, and then travel down to Brixton to catch up on the latest exchange of the political raspberry blowing. Not satisfied with smalltown anarchism in the early eighties I used to catch the train up to London at weekends in search of the hardstuff.
A typical friday routine for me circa early eighties: Travel to Brixton, meal at 121 in the cafe upstairs, then downstairs for an anarcho meeting, wander off for a little "direct action" or flyposting, crash at somebody's squat, then saturday morning maybe a paper sale and meeting in a pub in Ladbroke Grove (Class War had just started coming out as a paper) or a demo in central London.
The quality of 121 cafe food was not universally awful but it often got pretty close. Yellow broccoli in squat food is a political issue. I miraculously escaped food poisoning in all 18 years eating there although I believe several victims are still convalescing in a London infirmary to this day. Was the good meal in '92 or '93 ? I can't remember.
The 121 toilet: The architects and designers model of the ultimate in grungy, dingy and dire squat toilets. There is a full size mock up of it in police training college.
And what of more recent years; the nineties for instance? I didn't get there quite so much. The postmodernists tried to redesign the place into the "121 Centre" but it just wasn't going to happen without a cappuccino machine.
There were several changeovers in personnel in the collective, sometimes it looked like it was dying, but then it would come back to life a bit for a few months as a bit of new enthusiasm was put into the place. And then video and discussion evenings and anarcho theme cafes, the sex cafe, dead by dawn raves, exhibitions, music events in the opened up basement....
I popped down to some of these events and even, shock horror, enjoyed myself once in a while. But still the temperature, the building, the toilet!!! Otherwise I would only be down there for the occasional London ABC (prisoner support) meeting in one of the upstairs rooms, so cold the biro would freeze up.
And all those bundles of unsold undistributable, unsellable copies of every anarcho paper and leaflet piled up in a strategic reserve/political text mountain. In politico speak piles of unwanted tatty old newspaper are referred to as an "archive".
The old logbooks/daybooks from 121 make a good read, I believe they were rescued with other stuff before the eviction and still exist. During the Brixton riot in '81, while pitched battles were going on in the street outside, book sales listed for that saturday included "Towards a Citizens Militia" by Cienfuegos press and "Mutual Aid" by Kropotkin, this is true!).
As for since the eviction and the future? Well let's be honest; half the comrades today are earning so much money in white collar professional jobs they're almost rich enough to buy the place if they wanted.
By Paul Petard Autumn 2000
« back to features homepage next »