Recently, I was sitting in some welcome sunshine and I suddenly found myself becoming quite misty-eyed with memories from a few years back. Memories that have undoubtedly grown sweeter and perhaps more selective with time, but no less valid for that. Memories of hope, optimism, possibility, excitement and freedom.
For a bit of context, let’s go back in time with the help of some cheeky re-enacters:
The impact of rave culture is easy to underestimate nowadays. Not only did it introduce a generation to the concept of making their own entertainment, free of the tedious commercialism of the high street, it also went a huge way to ending widespread football hooliganism as folks realised the pointlessness of fighting someone you’ve been grinning at and hugging all night. But it was precisely the “off the grid” nature of raving that saw it rapidly demonised by the powers-that-be. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people weren’t spending all their hard-earned in pubs and clubs. The brewery barons foresaw disaster and leant on their chums in the police and government to do something about it. The authorities were also spooked by the unity and disdain for authority they saw in the scene. How do you police a bunch of people who, when told to disperse their convoy of cars, spontaneously all throw their keys into the hedge?
Well the reponse of John Major’s chaotic government was the ludicrous Criminal Justice Act, a blanket anti-gathering lump of legislation which even, laughably, sought to define rave music as consisting of a continuous emission of repetitive beats. Obviously, when they’d dried their eyes and picked themselves up off the floor, all decent people let out a resounding raspberry and partied on regardless. But there were other stirrings in the sub-cultural hinterlands. Traveller culture was becoming more widespread than at any time since the 60s as the pop charts got overrun with fiddles and mandolins. Environmental activism was increasingly hitting the headlines in the face of rampant Tory road-building. And it was this last element that led to something truly special. Through a combination of circumstances, and from very small beginnings, Reclaim The Streets was born. This Channel 4 documentary tells the story pretty well (and has been uploaded to YouTube complete with charming period VHS glitches):
A fuller version of the source material is available here:
Despite its anti-road, pro-street origins, it soon became clear that there was more to RTS. It was a defiant kick back against the Criminal Justice Act, it was a means of engaging people in political thinking, it was a demo tactic, it was a celebration of chaos-laced fun over dull conformity. Because RTS actions relied on strength in numbers, everybody who took part was a crucial contributor. Although there was clearly some kind of forward planning being done, most events involved a thrilling spontaneity. A classic example of this was at the early action in Angel when, with the planned soundsystem not turning up, this phat puppy emerged from a side road to provide the tunes:
Not too shabby eh? And proof of how well it can work when someone thinks, “I’ve got some skill, or some equipment, that would be useful; I’ll go along and see if I can help out.” Of course if you don’t happen to be The KLF, you might not have something quite as big and noisy but no matter. The most important ingredient was simply people and the positive attitude they came with. My memories of RTS parties, and the reason I got a lump in my throat thinking back to them, are of incredible friendliness and welcome. There was a real sense that these were the good guys; you could see in people’s faces that they got it. Of course the business of occupying a road and turning it back into a street both demands and creates trust and cooperation. Everyone had to be prepared to move when the group moved and not worry overly about themselves. We all had to subscribe to the view that standing about meekly on the pavement or on some “approved route” is never likely to achieve much, or be any fun. (Are you listening Stop The War 2003?) The thrill of transgressing accepted norms not only bound us more closely together, it provoked us to look beyond the everyday. When you’ve reversed the usual order of things on a stretch of road it becomes easier to imagine a different world. The imagination can take flight and the spirit gets a chance to soar. It may only be temporary, but it’s great.
You can’t have a party without music and you can’t have a street party without people being in the street, so if you’ve been inspired and are planning a bit of a do, you’ll probably find this handy:
And this last tune is just a gift to you for reading this far: