Remembering a tragedy: culture inspired by the New Cross fire

Kadish Morris
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Poetry

Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)

Jay Bernard’s powerful and award-winning 2019 poetry collection, Surge, grapples with the loss of black life. The collection starts by looking over historical scars – “remember we were brought here from the clear waters of our dreams, that we might be named, numbered and forgotten” – but soon the pages are charred and bloody with the presence of new death. The horrors of the night where “flames dem ah fly” are imagined with both tenderness and frankness. These poems often speak in the voice of the New Cross party attendees. Its strong sense of place, its patois, its demand for justice, its curiosity (“Will anybody speak of this?”) are reminders that four decades on, the tragedy remains an open wound.

Watch Jay Bernard read from Surge here

Music

New Cross Fire Page One by Sir Collins

This little-known but significant album was produced and compiled by Sir Collins, who died in 2018, as a tribute to his son, Steve, who, aged 17, lost his life in the fire. Side A features the youthful vocals of his son who sings, chants and toasts on roots and reggae instrumentals recorded as a child and teenager. Steve’s innocent recital of the alphabet is both sweet and sombre on Teach the World ABC while in United We Stand, Sir Collins calls out the names of the New Cross fire victims. Side B covers Bob Marley’s iconic Exodus, a song about freedom, while Peace and Love 1 is a buoyant calypso track that celebrates life with the joyous sound of steel pans.

Poem

New Craas Massahkah by Linton Kwesi Johnson

Celebrated poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem is somewhat of a sibling to his Five Nights of Bleeding, in which he recounts the Brixton riots that occurred in the spring of the same year. Steve McQueen movingly featured the poem in Alex Wheatle in his Small Axe series. The poem illuminates the frustrations felt by black Britain that wanted answers. Beyond its lyrical imagery of melancholy blues and fiery reds, it tells of what followed that fateful night, as Johnson remembers how the event was handled officially. “Plenty papers print pure lie,” he laments, “and the police dem plot and scheme.” In his celebrated dub style, he paints a picture of resistance that sought to remedy the structural biases that exposed the black community to injury and harm.

Art

THIRTEEN DEAD 1981 by Keith Piper

British artist Keith Piper’s mixed-media artwork features pictures of victims on postcards, each placed on brown and charred patterned wallpaper and skirting board. Hand written in capital letters, next to each image is the nameand the age at which “Babylon snuffed [them] out” and the repeated phrase: “Send this one back to the people and let the people demand an answer.” The artwork was recently exhibited at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, together with seminal works from the BLK Art Group, which was founded in 1979 in Wolverhampton to combat racial prejudice in the art world.

Fiction

East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle (2001)

Alex Wheatle photographed for the Observer last year
Writer Alex Wheatle, photographed for the Observer last year. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

As historian and writer Paul Gilroy writes in the introduction to Wheatle’s book: “This novel’s historical and geographical setting should be carefully specified. It can be defined by the immediate aftermath of the New Cross Massacre.” The thriller, which culminates in the Brixton riots, begins on 27 January 1981 and follows the life of Biscuit and his sticky relationship to the streets and crime. Wheatle explores the realities of what it meant to be young, poor and black in the 80s, subjected to bad housing, high unemployment and police cruelty.

Photography

Vron Ware: The Black People’s Day of Action 02.03.1981

Vron Ware captured scenes from the Black People’s Day of Action that followed the fire, when 20,000 people, including Darcus Howe, Alex Pascal and Sybil Phoenix, took to Deptford’s streets, and made their way to Blackfriars Bridge and Fleet Street in order to protest at the failure of the Metropolitan police to properly investigate the tragedy. Captured in vivid detail, Ware’s photographs show the mood of protesters and their powerful signs. The photographs are now part of Autograph ABP’s permanent digital and print archive.

Film

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Steve McQueen’s award-winning film series, Small Axe, is a brilliant depiction of London’s West Indian community between 1969 and 1982. It delves deep into their battles with police, judicial and education systems and also, their moments of euphoria. Alex Wheatle, about the life of the author of East of Acre Lane, follows his journey up to imprisonment for his involvement in the 1981 Brixton riots. The film remembers the New Cross fire with a gripping four-minute montage, featuring Johnson’s New Craas Massahkah and photographs of the aftermath of the fire, the funerals of victims and the Black People’s Day of Action. It’s an unforgettable scene that somehow commands both silence and applause.