South London Memories: Documenting a culture of colour

When Blue Mink sang about a Melting Pot in 1969, they might have been writing about Brixton, writes Phil Dudek and Toby Porter.

The area has been home to a rainbow of cultures for decades – but it has also been a struggle for many.

The Coldharbour Project used a virtual reality film to tell the story of Brixton’s Coldharbour ward, allowing viewers to explore the rich and sometimes troubled history of the area.

The film was created with the help of the local community and features stories from individuals who have helped to shape the area and its culture.

Those featured include Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx, musician Ricky Ranking, record store owner George Lightfoot of Nasty Rockers, former Lambeth council leader Linda Bellos and poet Michael Groce, as well as shopkeepers and their customers.

Filming the dominoes club. Picture: Kimi Gill Photography

Film, photography, archive materials and artifacts are on show as part of the multi-dimensional exhibit.

Author, Alex Wheatle said: “It was incredible watching just a few untold stories that make up the history and fabric of Brixton and I am honoured to be part of it.

“I really hope this documentary inspires others to record their own experiences. What it has taught me is that all of our personal narratives are important and as valid as anyone else’s.”

The project provided a series of free workshops in research, storytelling, recording oral histories and exhibition curation, placing members of the community at the heart of the process.

There is hope that those involved will use the training to undertake similar projects in the future.

Community production team member Michelle Scarlett said: “[The process is] an amazing opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and creatively work on a project together that benefits the community as a whole.”

The project was produced by the Independent Film Trust and Booted & Rooted with support from the National Lottery and the University of the Arts London.

The film is a highly charged, funny and touching portrait of the people who grew up in the area in the 1980s and 1990s – and who still make a living exploring the stories on its streets.

Coldharbour 360 being watched with 3D goggles at Brixton Library

Lorna Gayle, reminiscing on the film, said: “You see Nasty Rockers’ sound – you see what Ricky’s doing now with the music, see what I’m doing with the acting and the music, man’s touring around the world.

It starts from Nasty Rockers, you know. Those were the days when we could go, listen to a record, and say, okay, well we can chat on this tonight. We’d write lyrics for tunes that had just come from Jamaica.”

Mr Buxton said: “I remember the guy we used to get the soundsystem from. We just had a big stack of speakers, no lights, one strobe, and it was brilliant and we’d play all night there.

“I was trying to do what I thought was a New York house party. It was like soul and jazz dance, and hip- hop, RnB, and the other room was for me.

“I was trying to do underground house, Detroit techno and Chicago house, and gospel Latin, all these things fused in.

That was 1994, and the first one was at Taco Joes and Basement Jaxx didn’t really exist then and I thought that was a good name for the party.”

Mr Wheatle added: “When I came to Brixton as a young teenager, I was totally attracted to the sound systems, especially to the DJs of the day. Because they would be like the journalists of the time.

“You’d hear about what occurrences happened in Cowley Estate or Myatts Fields. And I really looked up to them. People like Ricky Rankin, Tippa Irie, Champion, Shabba Youth, Pappa Levi, Asher Senator.

A visitor scans an oral history card to listen to stories explaining the images exhibited

“They were incredible wordsmiths. And they used to work very quickly too – write a lyric on a Friday and then perform it on a Saturday evening. Now I could never do that. You know, I tried to imitate them in my own clumsy way, but for me lyrics would take me a much longer way to complete them.

“At times it would take me up to a month. It give me some kind of freedom to think, what I have to go through everyday, my weekly struggles was valid and was worthy.

“Especially when I would see heros like Lynton Kwesi Johnson tour round the world and he’ll perform tracks like Sonny’s Lettah, and that stuck with me.

“You know, I could be Sonny. So that give me a freedom that allowed me to be confident about writing about my own experiences and the friends that I knew and their stories too.”

Clifton Oddman, of the Brixton Immortals Dominoes Club said: “The club is one of the very few places you can go and encounter what Brixton used to be. We play as a team.

“A lot of these players have been there since they came to this country. And so, whenever they come from the Caribbean they might be told they can go to the Brixton Dominoes and they will make sure they look after you. And so, it becomes like a family environment, and we have that sense of belonging.”

Market trader Denise Costello said: “This stall’s been here over 100 years, with my grandad and my dad. My dad used to sell the yams and everything.

The community production team checks the 360˚ footage filmed at the Sports and Social Club on Coldharbour Lane

“My grandad originally used to fly pitch behind the old bingo hall before they had licenses for the market.

My grandad, passed it to my dad and he passed it to me. But I was a bit young at the time if I’m honest so I let me Aunty take the reigns until I was old enough to take it back again.

“For a lot of the customers, they don’t have any people to talk to so that’s a big part of their day is coming out, coming to the stalls and talking to us.”

Britain’s first black council leader Linda Bellos said: “I was born in 1950 and I know that when I was born, there were 30,000 black people in the United Kingdom. Not many.

“There were no homes. You couldn’t rent a place because it would say, no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, and I saw it.

“So what people used to do was work together to put money into one house, lots of people – these were friends, people from the same parish, whatever.

“They worked together, and get the deposit and buy the house and once somebody got a house, it would move on to another person so that people began to buy homes.

“They had to. There was no council property available.

Lambeth council had a policy, this was up until the 1960s, that you had to have lived in the borough for 10 years before you could even get on the waiting list.

So there was a huge amount of structural discrimination. It wasn’t just Lambeth that did it, it was in the country as a whole.

“We need to record what has happened – how it is we got to be here and so I remind people, we didn’t come here for the weather.”

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