London, 1958: the “Forgotten” Race Riot
Betcha never heard of the Notting Hill race riot of August, 1958. I just learned about it from our NetFlix movie last night, Absolute Beginners. It’s a very surreal portrait of London’s burgeoning rock scene in the late 1950s. The movie was filmed in 1986. The cast included David Bowie, Sade and Ray Davies. Gil Evans composed the soundtrack.
I thought Absolute Beginners would be just a fun fluffy piece about London in the late ‘50s. And that’s how it started out. But little by little, it shifted from London hipsters imitating American rock and roll, to the underlying current of racial hatred. By the end of the movie, it was pretty much just one beatdown and rock-throwing and torching frenzy after another.
After the movie I Googled it, and sure enough, the movie was referring to the Notting Hill race riots of 1958.
The racial instigators were always dressed immaculately in three-piece suits while they went around throwing rocks through windows, setting fires and stomping any lone black person they could find.
I knew vaguely about the Mods and Rockers from mid 1960s England — the two teenage subcultures who were always fighting each other. The Mods, like the racists several years earlier, were also wearing three-piece suits while they brawled in the streets. (They were brought to life in Brighton Rock — our NetFlix movie from a few weeks ago about mid ‘60s England.)
I don’t think Absolute Beginners used the term “Teddy Boys,” but that’s what the rightwing Nazi-wannabes were called. They dressed like dandies from the Edwardian period, and somebody coined their name by shortening “Edwardian” to “Teddy.”
At the end of World War II, Caribbean migrants started pouring into London, and this begat the Teddy Boys and other zoot-suited racists who wanted to “Keep Britain White.”
Funny how you think you’re just gonna watch an hour and a half of mind candy, and you end up learning something.