Archive for the ‘Kensington’ Category

Marc Blitzstein, Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1943

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Black American soldier and girlfriend at the Bouillabaisse Club in Old Compton Street, 1943

According to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the cabinet meeting at Great George Street on 13th October 1942 was very disappointing:

Everyone spoke at once while PM read papers. Discussion was on a low level.

In fact the only contribution Churchill made during the whole meeting was to look up, after Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had pointed out that one of his black Colonial Office staff had been excluded from a certain restaurant at the request of white American troops, and say:

That’s all right: if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.

Maybe not Churchill’s finest hour. The cabinet, with or without Churchill fully concentrating, agreed that it was important to respect how the US Army treated its black troops (they were completely segregated) and that it would be less problematic for all-concerned by concluding that:

It was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops.

The war cabinet room at Great George Street. Protected by a five foot layer of solid concrete known as ‘the slab’. Now part of the Churchill War Rooms.

Less than a year later on September 28th 1943 the Daily Express, who had recently been running a pretty strong anti-segregation and anti-colour bar campaign, put on a show at the Royal Albert Hall that was for and on behalf of the visiting ‘coloured American troops’.

At the beginning of the evening and to the sound of rolling drums a single file of two hundred black soldiers from a segregated division of the American Air Forces’ Engineers marched onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of September 28th 1943. The nervous soldiers were joined on stage by Roland Hayes the renowned black lyric-tenor who had travelled to England specifically for the occasion.

Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ were at the prestigious venue for the debut of an orchestral work called ‘Morning Freedom’. The piece of music was described as a ‘tone poem’ set to traditional ‘negro spirituals and songs’ by its composer – the controversial communist and, as far as the mores of the day allowed, the pretty-well openly gay Corporal Marc Blitzstein.

The dapper Roland Hayes performing at the Royal Albert Hall, 28th September 1943

Corporal Marc Blitzstein the gay, communist American composer.

The two-hundred strong ‘negro chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall.

The black serviceman choir was originally put together by Private McDaniel from Kansas City as a quartet to sing spirituals and hymns they would have sung at church back home. Slowly the singing group grew to the two hundred men that made up the chorus Blitzstein used for the Albert Hall concert. Private McDaniel explained to Life magazine about the soldiers’ love of spirituals:

Christianity means a lot to us dark boys. A man that can sing a good spiritual can always find his way into another boy’s heart.

members of the audience at the Albert Hall watching Blitzstein’s Morning Freedom

Roland Hayes, a son of two former slaves, was well known to British audiences of the time , although unlike his contemporary Paul Robeson, almost completely forgotten in Britain now. He had first came to London twenty three years ago. Hayes, born in Georgia, had been finding it next to impossible to find prestigious engagements in his homeland and decided to travel to Britain to further his career.

Incredibly within a year of arriving in London he was asked to give a private performance to George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on St Georges Day 1921. When Hayes arrived at the Palace, it was said that King George told his attendants: “There will be no formalities today. I shall meet Mr. Hayes man to man.” The royal recital immediately gave Hayes international prestige and he toured Britain and Europe to great success.

Roland Hayes painted by Glyn Philpott, 1923

Hugo Weisgall conducting American tenor Roland Hayes and the London Symphony Orchestra

The (Manchester) Guardian wrote of him:

The only really good tenor who has come along lately is the Negro Roland Hayes. His voice is genuine, pure warm and rich, and his artistic instincts are of the finest.

When Hayes visited Berlin in September 1923 he found the appreciation slightly harder to come by. Time magazine that year wrote:

To Germans, black men are “colonials”; they encountered them in the French line during the War; more recently, in the Ruhr. Learning that a member of this unpopular race was to appear publicly in their midst, Berliners were indignant. Protests were made to the American Ambassador against the “impertinence” of permitting a Negro to be heard on the concert stage, against the lèst majesté of offering musically scrupulous Berlin the tunes of the Georgia cotton-pickers.

Not entirely surprisingly, when Hayes appeared on stage, the audience started booing and hissing almost immediately. Hearing the noise the apprehensive singer suddenly decided to change his rehearsed programme and started the evening singing Schubert’s Du Bist Die Ruh. It was a German favourite and the crowd quietened almost immediately but by the end of the song, the audience, throwing their prejudice aside, were on their feet cheering and applauding the black American singer.

Roland Hayes at the Royal Albert Hall, 1943

Exactly twenty years later the British had started to bomb Berlin seemingly on a nightly basis in the hope of breaking the city’s morale. The tide in the war had changed and American soldiers were arriving in Britain in greater and greater numbers, including approximately 130,000 segregated black Americans. In 1943 the entire indigenous black population of Britain was around only a tenth of that number.

I am fully conscious that a difficult social problem might be created if there were a substantial number of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.” Herbert Morrison (the Home Secretary) in a memorandum for the cabinet, 1942.

The arrival of the black American troops caused disquiet in both the US and UK governments ostensibly because of the fear of racial mixing and miscegenation. Sir Percy James Grigg, the Secretary of State for War, advised in a circular that he intended to be sent to all senior officers in the British Army:

It is necessary for British men and women…to take account of the attitude of white American citizens. British soldiers and auxiliaries should try to understand the American attitude to the relationships of white and coloured people and that difficult problems do arise when people of different races live together.

Sir PJ, as he was known, betrayed a rather hideously ignorant and patronising attitude to black Americans in his circular. ‘Mutual esteem’ indeed.

Tom Driberg, then an Independent M.P., asked the Prime Minister in Parliament to “make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country.” Time magazine in the US reported that Driberg’s question ‘peeled the blanket of official silence off a complex and dangerous problem’. The magazine quoted eyewitness stories such as:

A pub keeper, indignant at American whites’ behavior toward Negroes, put up a sign on his bar door:

For the use of the British and of colored Americans only.

Three Negroes on a bus leaped to their feet when a white officer boarded it. Said the girl conductor, tartly:

Sit down. This is my bus and this is England.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought Driberg’s question was unfortunate and

…that without any action on my part the points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.

‘Understood’ and ‘respected’ weren’t probably the first words that came to mind for a lot of people when the US military issued an horrific memorandum of advice, albeit hurriedly withdrawn, for its commanders:

Colored soldiers are akin to well-meaning but irresponsible children. Generally they cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to act on their own initiative except in certain individual cases. The colored individual likes to ‘doll up’, strut, brag and show off. He likes to be distinctive and stand out from the others.

At a cabinet meeting it was agreed that the UK should not object to the Americans segregating their troops, but they must not expect the UK authorities to assist them with this policy. “It should be made clear to the US that there should be no restrictions on the use of canteens, cinemas, pubs and theatres by ‘coloured’ troops”.

Black American GI dancing at the Bouillabaise club in Soho, 1943

“The morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by American coloured troops”. Herbert Morrison, reporting to the cabinet, 1942.

“There are some white women in this country who feel that American coloured troops are particularly attractive and who run after them, that is a difficulty which will not be cured by keeping American coloured troops out of canteens or clubs at all”. Memorandum from Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor, 1942.

“For a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead controversy and ill-feeling, it may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves”. Memorandum from Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal, 1942.

In reality this just wasn’t the case, for instance in 1944 American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was in Britain on a morale boosting tour. He decided to watch a film but when he entered the cinema, he was told by the manager that there was a special section in the cinema which was reserved for black troops. Louis recalled:

Shit! This wasn’t America, this was England. The theatre manager knew who I was and apologized all over the place. Said he had instructions from the Army. So I called my friend Lieutenant General John Lee and told them they had no business messing up another country’s customs with American Jim Crow.

Marc Blitzstein, determined to do his bit in the fight against fascism, joined the US 8th Army Air Force after the USSR entered the war. Stationed in London he was also the music director of the American Broadcasting Station (eventually to become ABC) and continued to compose.

Before the war he had written a musical that had made his name – The Cradle Will Rock. The show was about striking steel-workers and produced by the young Orson Welles (the success of the productions inspired him to start the Mercury Theatre).

Marc Blitzstein with Leonard Bernstein at the piano in 1943

Now Blitzstein was in London he became incensed about the blatant oppression and segregation of the second-class soldiers that made up the so-called ‘colored units’. Black soldiers, whatever their rank, were always seen as subservient to white officers. The segregation of the black soldiers inspired the composer to write Morning Freedom and he dedicated it to their struggle.

The ‘Negro Chorus’ performing ‘Morning Freedom’.

Roland Hayes

At the Royal Albert Hall Morning Freedom was performed for the first time. McDaniel’s chorus was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergeant Hugo Weisgall. The choir with the help of Roland Hayes also sang Blitzstein-arranged spirituals such as Go Down Moses and In the Sweet By and By. They also sang Ballad for Americans a political song made famous by Paul Robeson.

At the end of the concert the audience of over five thousand stood up and ‘enthusiastically acclaimed’ the performance. The Evening Standard wrote:

The most remarkable ceremony I have ever attended in that famous meeting place. The audience was in ecstasy…it was impossible to believe that the chorus had not sung together before in public

The Times was equally as effusive:

without parallel in the long and varied sequence of events that have taken place within its encircling walls.

Marc Blitzstein carried on composing after the war but in terms of commercial and popular success it was Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation and translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that made the greatest impact. Incidentally, due presumably to the lack of threepenny bits in America, Blitzstein had toyed with calling the musical ‘The Two-Bit Opera’ or the ‘Shoestring Opera’.

The production, featuring Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya recreating her original role, albeit this time in English, enjoyed one of the longest runs in New York’s theatre history. By the end of the decade Blitzstein’s version of Mack the Knife became a huge hit for several singers including, of course, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1958, Blitzstein appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he admitted his membership of the Communist Party although he had left in 1949. However he refused to name names or co-operated any further.

In January 1964, holidaying in Martinique, and after a session of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Pretending to initially respond to his sexual advances they eventually robbed him, beat him and stripped him of all his clothes. The injuries didn’t seem serious at first but he died the next day of internal bleeding on January 22nd 1964.

American serviceman were paid up to five times the amount their British equivalent earned.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981. It at last integrated the military and ensured the equality of treatment and opportunity for black soldiers. It also made it illegal in military law to make a racist remark. Unsurprisingly the American army dragged its feet and the proper desegregation of the military was not complete for several years and in fact persisted during the Korean War. The last all-black unit in the US Army wasn’t disbanded until 1954.

American public information film called ‘Know Your Ally – Britain’. Apparently the island is as crowded as a sardine tin.

Nat ‘King’ Cole – In the Sweet By and By

Roland Hayes – Du Bist die Ruh

Paul Robeson – Ballad for Americans

Roland Hayes – He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word


The Royal Albert Hall, Miss World and the Angry Brigade in 1970

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Eric Morley, the creator of Miss World, noting down some important vital statistics.

There were two separate protests at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 November 1970. One of them, the iconic flour-bomb demonstration directed at the Miss World contest by a group of young feminists, has become part of popular social history. The second, a potentially more serious event (something similar would certainly be taken as such today), has almost been completely forgotten.

At around 2.30am, on the morning of the Miss World contest, a group of about four or five young people had gathered around one of the BBC’s outside broadcast lorries that had been parked at the side of the Royal Albert Hall. They slid a home-made bomb under one lorry and ran off quickly down Kensington Gore in the direction of Notting Hill. A small amount of TNT, wrapped in a copy of The Times, exploded a few minutes later waking up residents in a nearby block of flats, one of whom saw the youths running away.

The small explosion was mentioned in the press the following day but it didn’t compare to the huge publicity the women’s liberation demonstration garnered, not least because of the unbelievable popularity of Miss World at the time. The 1970 contest, in the UK alone, had almost 24 million viewers – the highest rated television programme that year.

It was in the middle of the contest when about fifty women and a few men started throwing flour bombs, stink bombs, ink bombs and leaflets at the stage wile yelling “we are liberationists!”, “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry” and “ban this disgraceful cattle market!”. The whole world took notice.

We're Angry, Very Angry

Protestors outside the Royal Albert Hall, 20th November 1970

The protest inside the Albert Hall

"Resignation is only abdication and flight, there is no other way out for women than to work for her liberation."

Bob Hope, who was to crown Miss World and was performing when the protest started, certainly noticed and he quickly tried to flee the stage as the missiles flew by. He was hampered by Julia Morley, the wife of the organiser Eric Morley, who grabbed hold of his ankle in a desperate attempt to stop him leaving. It only took a few minutes for the police to restore order but the women’s movement had in one fell swoop established itself as part of the seventies.

Meanwhile a clearly shocked Hope was persuaded by Morley to get back on stage where, for once, not reading from idiot boards, he said:

These things can’t go on much longer. They’re going to have to get paid off sooner or later. Someone upstairs will see to that. Anybody who wants to interrupt something as beautiful as this must be on some kind of dope.

The Sun, which the day before had stated ‘we’re in for a long, hard winter’ because the ‘lovely Miss World girls have abandoned the mini-skirt for the midi’, rejected the ‘cattle market’ comparisons wittily declaring ‘If you can’t stand the cheesecake, stay out of the market.’ The Daily Mirror, not wishing to be accused of comparing women with cattle, wrote ‘you couldn’t ask for a field of shapelier fillies than those coming under starter’s orders tonight for the grand Miss World stakes.’ The Mail described the demonstrators as ‘Yelling Harpies’ and asked what was ‘degrading about celebrating the beauty of the human body?’

The world’s most famous beauty contest had started just twenty years previously in 1951 when an ex-squadron leader called Phipps was in charge of publicity for the upcoming Festival of Britain. He rang a former RAF friend, who was now running a catering and dancehall company called Mecca, asking for ways to add some “razzamatazz” to the rather sedate festival plans. He was quickly told “My man Morley will come up with something”.

A few days later, over lunch at the Savoy, Eric Morley, who was already responsible for coming up with ‘Come Dancing’ for the BBC in 1949 and went on to popularise Bingo, suggested a ‘Miss World Festival Bikini Girl contest’. It went ahead and become a huge hit – a Swedish woman called Kiki Hakansson won the first prize of £1000.

When Miss Universe was launched in America the following year Morley successfully persuaded Mecca to make Miss World an annual event. The only change being that bikinis were to be banned, a strange decision by Morley, as a year previously he had said “Even a girl with big hips can be made to look good in a bikini.” He was later to describe the kind of girls he was looking for:

Girls between 17 and 25, ideally five foot seven, eight or nine stone, waist 22-24″, hips 35-36″, no more no less, a lovely face, good teeth, plenty of hair, and perfectly shaped legs from front and back – carefully checked for such defects as slightly knocked knees.

The first Miss World at the Empire Rooms on Tottenham Court Road, 1951

Eric Morley helping with a jammed zipper in 1955

Eric Morley checking no contestants had big hips in 1955

Twenty years later in 1970 the Miss World bomb, as far as the perpetrators were concerned, had been a success although it was overshadowed by the feminist ‘cattle market’ protests. However it was just the latest incident in an anti-establishment bombing and shooting campaign in the UK by an as yet-un-named loose group of anarchists. They had been in existence, in one form or another, since 3 March 1968 when two bombs exploded at the Spanish Embassy in Belgrave Square and the American Officers Club in Lancaster Gate. However the bombing campaign reached another level when a bomb that was left outside the house of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Waldron on 30 August 1970. He was sent a letter signed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

The letter sent to the Police Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Waldron

Just ten days later another bomb exploded at the London home of the Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson in Chelsea. Another ‘communique’ was released obviously from the same source as the commissioner’s bomb but this time signed by The Wild Bunch. The young anarchists that were responsible for the bombings were utterly confused with the lack of publicity so far. They assumed, almost certainly correctly, that there was a conspiracy of silence on behalf of the establishment in case urban guerilla activity became fashionable.

On 4 December 1970, just two weeks after the Miss World bomb, a car drove around Belgrave Square and machine-gunned the Spanish Embassy. The young student militants again found there was nothing in the papers after the attack and still suspecting an establishment conspiracy they decided to issue more Communiques to the underground press and for the first time they were signed ‘The Angry Brigade’.

The International Times December 1970, does anyone know what the 'Dramatic Half-Face' graphic means?

The name was thought up after a drunken Christmas party and may have came from the ‘We Are Angry’ placards at the Miss World protest. Although Stuart Christie, an anarchist and connected with The Angry Brigade, later wrote that they had toyed with the name ‘The Red Rankers’ in deference to the speech defect of the former Home Secretary ‘Woy’ Jenkins.

Members of the Angry Brigade 1970

So far the relatively unreported bombing campaign had utterly mystified the police. They were completely confused as to who the perpetrators were but they successfully managed to keep the bombs and the shootings relatively under-reported (the Miss World bomb was an exception). The situation immediately changed when on January 12 1971 a bomb exploded at the home of the Right Honourable Robert Carr, Secretary of State for Employment (and chief advocate of the hated (by many) anti-union Industrial Relations Bill). The Angry Brigade released another of their communiques stamped with the distinctive children’s John Bull printing set, and, with this particular incident too serious to be brushed under the establishment’s carpet, the Angry Brigade suddenly found that they had reached the nation’s consciousness.

The aftermath of the Angry Brigade's bomb that exploded at the home of Employment Minister Robert Carr on 12th January 1971

The Python-esque name chosen by the disparate group of anarchists was grabbed gleefully by the popular press, America had the Weather Men, Italy the Red Brigades, Japan the Red Army Fraction, Germany the Baader-Meinhof gang but in the UK they had the Angry Brigade. The newly monikered urban terrorists managed six more bombs including an explosion on May 1 1971 inside the fashionable swinging London boutique Biba in Kensington Street which the ‘Angries’ saw as exploiting sweatshop labour. They quickly released Communique 8:

`If you’re not busy being born you’re busy buying’.
All the sales girls in the flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940′s. In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards — they’ve nowhere to go — they’re dead.
The future is ours.
Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires?
Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses — called boutiques — IS WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just kick it till it breaks.
Communique 8 The Angry Brigade

Miss Selfridge girls dressed and made up the same and no doubt contemplating that capitalism can only go backwards.

A few months after the Biba bombing the police raided a house at one end of Amhurst Road in Stoke Newington where they found various explosives, ammunition and guns but most damning of all a John Bull printing kit with the words ‘Angry Brigade’ , rather incriminatingly, still set out. The police soon arrested eight supposed members of the Brigade and they quickly became known, rather imaginatively by the press, as the ‘Stoke Newington Eight’.

The Bomb Squad, Commander Robert Huntley, Commander Ernest Bond, Detective Inspector George Mould and Detective Constable Ron Smith

The Angry Brigade’s campaign came to a definite end after the longest criminal trial in English history (it lasted from May 30 to December 6 1972) – they were accused of carrying out 25 attacks on government buildings, embassies, corporations and the homes of Ministers between 1967 and 1971. At the end of the trial a majority verdict of guilty for conspiracy ‘with persons unknown’ meant that four of the defendants, John Barker, Jim Greenfield, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendleson each received prison sentences of ten years despite the jury’s request for clemency. It was difficult for the jury to deliver anything but guilty verdicts after the judge Mr Justice James explained that active participation was irrelevant; mere knowledge, even “by a wink or a nod”, was sufficient proof of guilt. He went on to describe the Angry Brigade politics as ‘a warped understanding of sociology’.

Hilary Creek in 1971

Anna Mendolson

Other defendants, however, were found not guilty including Stuart Christie, who had formerly been imprisoned in Spain for carrying explosives with the intent to assassinate the dictator Franco, and Angela Mason, who went on to become the director of Stonewall and the Government’s Women and Equality Unit and who was awarded an OBE in 1999.

Time Out magazine in 1972. A lot of people were, well angry, after the guilty verdicts at the Angry Brigade trial

All the contestants of the 1970 Miss World pageant

Receiving a $1200 tiara and $6000 in cash for her troubles, it was the 22 year old Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, who eventually became Miss World and the first black winner of the contest in 1970. In fact it another black contestant – Miss Africa South, a Pearl Gladys Jensen – came second.

Miss Africa South isn’t a typo by the way, that year Eric Morley, hoping to placate the growing disquiet about apartheid South Africa, decided he would admit to the contest a black and a white contestant from the country. Jillian Elizabeth Jessup, the white South African, and who was allowed the sash with the real name of her country, came fifth.

Miss Africa South and Miss South Africa 1970

Jennifer Hosten

I was wrong when I said there was two separate protests at the Royal Albert Hall forty years ago. There was also a third, but this time it wasn’t about the exploitation of women but a collective disapproval of the result. After the Miss World contest had come to an end many of the audience gathered outside the Royal Albert Hall to protest and started chanting ‘Swe-den, Swe-den’. The BBC also received numerous protests with accusations that the contest had been rigged.

Four of the judges, it later came to light, had given first place to the Swedish entrant, a twenty year old model called Maj Christel Johansson, although, rather oddly, she came only fourth overall. However Miss Grenada, the eventual victor, only got two first place votes from the judges. Was it more than a coincidence that one of the judges, a Sir Eric Gairy, was the premier of Grenada? Had he influenced the other judges who incidentally included Joan Collins and Glen Campbell?

The judges of Miss World 1970 including Sir Eric Gairy.

I wonder if Maj ever got to meet Agatha Christie? I suspect not.

Miss Sweden, who was the favourite to win before the contest, probably didn’t help her cause when two days earlier she had denounced the Miss World event saying that she would have walked out if she wasn’t under contract to the organisers:

I don’t even want to win. I was warned the contest was like a cattle market and I’m inclined to agree. I feel just like a puppet.

Jennifer Hosten was far better at toeing the Miss World party line:

I do not really know enough about what they were demonstrating against, all I know is that it has been a wonderful experience competing for the Miss World title.

Julia Morley in the early seventies

Four days after the contest, Julia Morley, although insisting that no vote-rigging had occurred, resigned from her post as organising director of Miss World after intense pressure from the British press. Luckily her husband ran the Miss World organisation and, after the fuss had died down, she was reinstated a few days later.

If all this anarchist and feminist politics is a bit much. Here’s Lionel Blair and his dancers opening the Miss World show at the Royal Albert Hall 20th November 1970, without a protest in sight; although almost certainly there should have been.

Finally, in case you want to know, Jennifer Hosten’s vital statistics were 36-24-38, which meant that her hips were two inches larger than Eric Morley’s ideal Miss World shape. He probably wished she was wearing a bikini.

Because they have been largely forgotten this Angry Brigade chronology is absolutely extraordinary.