Billy Ridgers on the Notting Hill radical newspaper 1972-1974
Ned/Nell Gate – the name is a giveaway. It was based in Notting Hill Gate, with a militant egalitarian stance, a sentimental attachment to the politics of sabotage and a wicked sense of humour. It was December 1972, North Kensington was ‘burning’, we were on the edge of revolution, there was stuff going on everywhere, in the streets, in the schools, outside the council chambers, in front of police stations, in the courts, around the clubs, in the pubs – revolution was just round the corner.
The spectre of a world that could be free’ (Marcuse)
In some senses to call Ned/Nell Gate a community newspaper is not accurate, it was not in the traditional sense, deeply embedded in the community, although some of the activists on the editorial collective were involved in more ‘democratic’ community organisations in the area – squatting, claimants union, housing campaigns etc. The flavour of the newspaper was politically libertarian, i.e.promoting an ideal of freedom where freedom was something that could only be achieved and experienced collectively.
The content of the paper dealt with local community issues but it also had a strong ‘internationalist’ and anti-capitalist flavour and although the imagined audience was local people it was probably, more truthfully, aimed at activists in the area – because North Kensington was flooded with activists of all political hews. And that feeling of being in a political powder keg encouraged the small editorial group that put the paper together to be politically very ambitious.
Politics is what affects our lives, our living conditions, the cost of food, the closing of schools, play space, our wages. Politics is organising to start to control these things ourselves…. (Editorial in issue No.1)
The language of the articles is urgent, contemptuous of authority, distrustful, but with a strong identification with the working people of the area. But most of all the writing in the paper is politically opportunistic. The housing plight of an Irish family is an opportunity to talk about the ‘troubles’ in Ireland and what they meant at a personal level; a spate of evictions from the multi-occupied housing that blighted the area justified a full page spread on rent strikes and on the back page of issue No.1 there is an A3 poster ‘Danger Property Speculators at work’. (Within days, the poster was everywhere.)
OK, so Ned/Nell Gate was one step removed from deep community involvement and depended for its political oxygen on the various organisations that were much more deeply rooted in the community. The real community paper was ‘The People’s News’ produced by the Notting Hill People’s Association, and which was produced by John and Jan O’Malley. They had arrived in North Kensington with the first wave of political activists after the race riots in the mid 60s and stayed to set up an enduring community organisation. People’s News was a flimsy A4 bulletin that came out weekly, or more frequently if necessary and could be gestetnered-off as required. It had links to the Labour Party, mainly the left caucus, and also with the small but active communist party. They really were a thorn in the side of the local Council, but the K&C Tory controlled council had a very effective control strategy – do nothing. This was a visible and highly frustrating strategy. And that was the single reason why there was so much pent up political frustration in North Kensington, and Ned/Nell Gate fed off this frustration
The editorial group
I suppose provoking anger was the editorial strategy and which bought together this highly motivated group of politicos and activists. The core editorial group was made up of eight regulars. Pete was a London graduate who lived in Powis Square, Vicky ran the local Notting Hill Community Press recently renamed Crest Press, Kate was a student and campaigner, Billy was a university graduate doing his PhD on housing in North Kensington and a member of the Counter Information Services (CI) collective, ‘Scalpel’ Stan was a squatter activists and a roadie for local band Hawkwind, Meela was a feminist activist, as was Lynn, and Yvonne was homeless. The paper was produced from December 1972 to May 1974, as a monthly, and there were 12 issues as well as a flow of A3 posters on ‘property speculation’, school strikes, May Day, end of school special etc. Each issue was sold for 3p and distributed by hand. By mid 1973, as many as 2,000 copies were being printed, they were sold in local shops, newsagents and pubs as well as in the streets outside tube stations, in the Portobello Market and at the various events happening in the area.
It was generally well received, and selling it outside the tube stations or in pubs was good fun, with a lot of banter, as it was populist enough to have some local gossip and a small column on the local football team QPR.
Producing a paper like this, in A3 format, would have been out of the question if we had not had access to the facilities at Crest Press. [You can read about that print collective here].
The editorial group met in a basement on the corner of Portobello Road and Cambridge Gardens, but the contact address was Crest Press. There was no shortage of editorial material, each person came with stuff they had encountered that month – any issue or cause would do – an expulsion from school, an eviction, a hospital strike, a police raid. But just as much effort went in to keeping abreast of national and international political events, and the way they impacted on the local community.
As we were all part of a range of political networks, editorial material, photos and cartoons came in from colleagues all over London and all over the country.
As we were all part of a range of political networks, editorial material, photos and cartoons came in from colleagues all over London and all over the country. I worked for Counter Information Services and used to funnel stories on UK multinationals, property developers and UK companies investing in South Africa, whenever there was a local link. This opportunism provided a substantial part of the editorial, but there were always local stories, mainly because there was so much happening in the area.
Despite the crucial role played by Kensington and Chelsea Council in the politics of the area, unlike many of the other organisations in North Kensington, the Council was not the main target of Ned/Nell Gate’s invective. It had a much more broadly anti-capitalist agenda.
When the council was addressed it was in terms of The Mayor Causes a Riot or to cover the Siege of Notting Hill. This was when a dozen or so Tory Councillors and Council Officials attending a local people’s consultation, were locked in the local community hall all night by 60 or so activists, until they agreed to re-house a family that faced eviction that day. Now that was a feeling of power. The family were re-housed but the councillors never set foot in North Kensington again.
So I suppose the editorial group had it relatively easy. It wasn’t initially embedded in the community and it didn’t feel the need to build and involve a loyal constituency. Much more in the style of Iskra (Spark), it saw its role as a catalyst, to take the political struggle to the next level. So maybe, the main target was those who were already politically involved, the political activists, trying to get them to ratchet up their revolutionary credentials, to be less reformist, more angry.
Having said that, if you read through the various issues you do discover a strong desire to make a connexion with women and families in some of the many deprived areas around North Kensington and Shepherds Bush. The best expression of this ‘immersion’ politics was the Red Spot Market, where activists went early to Smithfield market to get meat which was cut and prepared by activists and tenants and sold at cost, at the foot of Trellick Towers and later around the high rise Edward Woods Estate. This community activism expressed a strong identification with the most vulnerable people in the area, families who never in a thousand years would ever come to a political meeting or imagine that a more radical democracy was in any way relevant to them. Personal letters from people in trying to make ends meet start to appear. You could feel the politics changing.
In the editorial of issue No.9, it’s recorded that the collective attended a conference of community newspapers. This coincided with the papers move to new premises in a house on the edge of the Edwards Woods Estate, where suddenly editorial meetings were advertised and thrown open to the public. There were invitations to a social centre, where local issues could be discussed, film shows were organised and people were encouraged to use the press and organise their own actions. And yet the content of the paper continued to be libertarian and anti-capitalist.
And then it was gone.
Politics was getting harder, more frustrating. The exuberance that had propelled Ned/Nell Gate into existence was gone. There was more factionalism, more dynamic but exclusive feminism, less humour. The magic was gone. And so did we.