Rebel Music: Memories of St. Patrick’s Day in London, 1986


A vintage postcard image for St. Patrick's Day.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

31 years ago, I made a discovery that had some serious resonance for me — the existence of St. Patrick’s Day. It was March 17, 1986. I’d moved into a flat in London three months earlier, in December 1985, opposite the George Canning pub, where I had ventured on my first night, meeting up with squatters, from the roads behind the junction of Tulse Hill and Brixton Water Lane, who soon became my friends.

After three years in Oxford, I wanted as big a change as possible — somewhere in the real world, as far removed as possible from Oxford’s dreaming spires and the endless reminders (to someone from a northern, working class, Methodist background) that it was basically a finishing school for the public schoolboys who would soon go on to run everything.

Seduced by my love for roots reggae music and the Clash, I decided there was no better place than Brixton to sign on and to learn to play the guitar and write songs, inspired by two of my other musical heroes, Bob Dylan and, recently discovered, Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, whose rattling bender of an album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, had recently been released.

See below for ‘The Old Main Drag’, off ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, an unparalleled portrait of drink, drugs and dissolution in central London:

In Brixton in 1986, there was certainly, it seemed to me, no reason to go looking for a job. This period of British history was, after all, the equivalent of a country being burned to the ground, as Margaret Thatcher — the hated, detested Margaret Thatcher — fresh from her victories destroying the miners, and trashing the new age travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield, had basically set fire to the whole country (apart from the traditional pockets of impervious wealth, obviously, and those she empowered through her wholesale privatisations), burning Britain’s manufacturing base, burning the traditional job market, and burning any of the working class who wouldn’t buy into her vision of a self-centred, free market future. In retaliation, the only flames of response came with the riots of 1981, which hit Brixton hard, and again, to a lesser degree, in September 1985, just before I moved there (I was later given a fridge that, I was told, had been “liberated” during the 1985 unrest).

And so, holed up in Brixton, on the dole with a cheap acoustic guitar, fuelled by the demon drink and roll-ups, I taught myself a raft of basic chords, listened to my heroes and began writing songs, and on St. Patrick’s Day 1986 I walked all the way to the other end of Tulse Hill, where the post office was that would cash my giro — which, If I recall correctly, was just over £50 to live on for two weeks.

As I came out of the post office, I heard the most astonishing racket coming from the Tulse Hill Tavern, the pub across the road, which was unusual, as, back in 1986, pubs still closed for three or four hours in the afternoon. On close inspection, I found the pub absolutely rammed with high-spirited drunks, celebrating, it transpired, St. Patrick’s Day, and as the Guinness flowed, and the sounds of the Chieftains and the Pogues and countless other Irish musicians filled the pub’s smoky interior, blasting out from a jukebox, I felt at home and liberated.

Back then, because of The Troubles, the Irish were regarded as the Muslims are today — as outsiders, potential terrorists out to destroy Queen and Country. It was less than a year and a half since the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference, on October 12, 1984, which was intended to kill Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet, and while some British people understood the long history of British oppression in Ireland, the more recent torture tactics, and the hunger strikes that, in some cases, had led to deaths — of Bobby Sands, for example, who died in May 1981 — the official British narrative was still that the British were “good” and the Irish “bad.“

To me, however, the Irish were not a threat. The threat, instead, came from Margaret Thatcher and her Tories, selling off the family jewels (the industries nationalised in the preceding years), selling off council housing, destroying Britain’s manufacturing base in what was — correctly — perceived as a war on the unions, opportunistically going to war in the Falklands (in 1982), defending South Africa’s apartheid regime, allowing Ronald Reagan to set up a cruise missile base at Greenham Common, using the police as a paramilitary force against the miners in 1984, and against the travellers, festival goers, anarchists and green activists who were evicted at the peace camp they had established at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the proposed site of a second cruise missile base), and were then violently decommissioned when they attempted to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, an extraordinary alternative to Thatcher’s Britain that attracted tens of thousands of young people every June to the fields opposite Stonehenge.

Thatcher, of course, also liberalised the financial markets, six months after my St. Patrick’s Day awakening, with repercussions that led to an ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor that continues to grow, and that also fed eventually into the financial crash of 2008, the trigger for a malevolent austerity programme that continues to cast the darkest of shadows over modern life, in turn feeding into Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and the misplaced (and cynically encouraged) scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims for the ills of neo-liberalism that Margaret Thatcher did so much to introduce.

Back in 1986, in my Britain, in my Brixton, the Irish rebel music and the wild spirit of that St. Patrick’s Day in 1986 joined all the other signifiers of dissent in SW2 and SW9 — the rebel music of the Rastafarians, the misfits and outsiders from all over the country, including the large numbers of gay men and lesbians who had fled small town homophobia, and the drifters from mainland Europe, especially Italy and the Basque Country, who also congregated in the pubs and squats of Brixton.

I hope you enjoyed these brief memories of life under the occupation, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the template for all that is dull, divided and rotten today, and a time when strenuous efforts were made to destroy the spirit of assertive, unquenchable dissent that, today, is hunted almost to extinction. I haven’t had a drink for eight years and eight months, but I’ll join you in a virtual toast today: Sláinte!

And as a farewell, for now, here’s ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ by The Pogues. This is one of The Pogues’ songs that I sometimes play, and I’d love to record a version of me singing it, but no one’s around right now to make a video. I also sometimes play Eric Bogle’s classic anti-war song, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, which The Pogues brought to a whole new audience, and I also sometimes play, with my band, The Four Fathers, ‘Dirty Old Town’ (a cover of Ewan MacColl’s song about Salford, my birthplace, that was popularised by The Pogues), the wonderful ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’, from ‘If I Should Fall from Grace with God’, 1987’s follow-up to ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, and, from that same album, when I can find a female vocalist to sing it with, the equally wonderful ‘Fairytale of New York’, the greatest Christmas song of all. For Four Fathers’ songs specific to this period of my life, check out Rebel Soldier and City of Dreams, and for Four Fathers’ songs railing against Thatcher and her legacy, check out Tory Bullshit Blues (2016 mix) and Fighting Injustice (2016 mix).

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    My latest article, for St. Patrick’s Day, is a bit of a diversion from my usual work, a work of reminiscence and autobiography in which I recall first discovering St. Patrick’s Day in south London in 1986, at the Tulse Hill Tavern, where a full-on party was in full swing, and I was clutching my giro money, just collected from the post office across the road. I recall life at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policies, my love for the Pogues, and my efforts to learn the guitar and write songs, having moved to Brixton just three months before. As I describe life at the time, “strenuous efforts were made” by Thatcher and the Tories “to destroy the spirit of assertive, unquenchable dissent that, today, is hunted almost to extinction.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I hope to write some more reflective pieces in the months to come, partly to try to establish some sort of marker against what I perceive to be a rising tide of mortality, and partly as I continue to try to understand the sweeping societal changes of the last 20 years.
    Before that, I get it. Thatcher laid waste to whole communities, and certainly is responsible for some of the hopelessness still felt in this places 30 years later, but she was unable to exterminate the “spirit of assertive, unquenchable dissent” I talk about, which almost brought her government down over the Poll Tax.
    Under John Major the unrest continued, with widespread dissent and a lame economy, but then came Blair and the successful revival of Thatcher’s short-lived late 80s triumph of greed.
    Since then, we’ve had an economy based on housing greed, in which almost everything is commodified, and, as I see it, proper threatening dissent has been “hunted almost to extinction.”
    Yes, we’re clever, with more “stuff” than ever before, and everything is done so well and everything is so sleek and well-designed, but it all seems rather hollow, rather soulless.
    And, of course, others are paying for it – those excluded within the UK, consigned to a poverty that is largely well-hidden (although the numbers of the visible homeless are rising), the exploited workers abroad who make all our computers and phones and clothes, and the refugees we don’t want to deal with, so much so that wanting to disregard their plight led partly to the success of Brexit, which also took aim at all foreigners living here, at the EU, at the notion of anything other than an isolated island, inward-looking and obsessed with a golden age in the not too distant part, but, crucially, one that never, ever existed at all.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I adore your personal tales, I wish you would write them more often.
    Amazing how much the world changes, how quickly, how connected — seemingly unconnected things are.
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Andy 🙂

    Eight years and eight months! Wow. Bravo! What a great accomplishment.

    ‘The Pogues – Love You Till The End’

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tashi. I’m going to be writing more. I need to know what to think, as I get older, about what the things I experienced and valued mean, if they now have no value to society. So much of the culture I grew up in – and the counter-culture, which is something that has always interested me greatly, and which I’ll definitely be writing more about – seems to have been swept away, unless it is absorbed into the huge nostalgia industry, which sanctifies parts of the past, and, of course, predictably, makes a ton of money out of it, and officially sanctions its cultural significance.
    Last year’s really rather sickening ’40 years of punk’ events were a good example, but the suffocating tendrils of the nostalgia industry are everywhere, simultaneously ossifying the past and strangling the present.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Yes, I get you. Which is a reason writing like yours is so valuable because it offers experience and insight. Not like the flat poster on the wall which can never tell us what was felt, how it looked, how it smelled, how it tasted, what impact it had and so on. And I like how you connect your experiences to the politics of the time too. Politics are a reflection of the human spirit. I know we sometimes like to separate politics from reality — but I see them as inextricably linked.
    Plus, you’ve led an interesting life. I’d like to know more about what brought you to socialism (communism?) and also about your spiritual aspects as well.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    As you know, Tashi, I find it very hard to remove a political angle from my experiences, and I like your comment, “Politics are a reflection of the human spirit.”
    Hopefully, I’ll manage to find some time to address your other questions – about socialism and spirituality – in future articles. They’re both very significant to me.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Happy Daze, Andy. Helped a wee bit with your fundraiser but it had to be in dollars.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I think daze is probably rather accurate, Ann 😉 Thanks so much for the donation. I hope the currency thing isn’t too annoying. I wish PayPal had a number of currency options, but I suppose they’re getting a bigger cut this way!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    My fundraiser, btw, is here, if anyone want to help:
    Most of the work I do – including this – is only possible with your support. Like anything I write? Send me $15/£10. It all helps!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Yes Amazon makes it easy but not Paypal it seems.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    So this is a bit tangential, but I have to say that I try to avoid Amazon when I can, Ann. I couldn’t get over reports about how badly they treat their workers:
    What are we to do though? I also don’t shop at Tesco or Asda (Walmart), and I try not to do too much corporate shopping full-stop, but I feel like I’m constantly about to be overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the demand that we spend and consume, spend and consume, spend and consume. Fortunately, the daily cycling (still without a phone, so still off-grid) tends to keep me close to sane – or perhaps “just about able to contain my despair” might be a more accurate description, but I often feel like a stranger in a world I used to know, and especially, of course, since the EU referendum.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m also remembering that I played ‘Dirty Old Town’ at the King William IV, an Irish pub on Brixton Hill, on St. Patrick’s Day in – I think – 1987. In the 90s it was a formative venue in the early days of Basement Jaxx, but sadly it was converted into a Tesco’s in 2013:,_Brixton

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Wracking my brains for further memories, I saw the Pogues live on a few occasions, one of which was, I think, at Brixton Academy on St. Patrick’s Day 1989. I think Shane was so paralytically drunk that it didn’t seem possible that he could continue much longer. And sure enough, by 1991 he had been sacked, replaced, for a brief and extraordinary time, by Joe Strummer of the Clash. The Brixton Academy gig with Joe was on December 11, 1991, apparently, and I still recall how exciting it was to hear the Pogues play songs by the Clash with Joe singing.
    Such is the nerd world of the internet that a Pogues’ gig list is here, and also a set list from that Pogues/Strummer gig:

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to those of you liking and sharing this. It really means a lot to me that my memories aren’t just disappearing into the ether.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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