Part 3 – Handsworth Songs

Handsworth Songs (1986), is a vital representation of much that Les Misérables avoids. Produced by Black Audio Film Collective, and directed by John Akomfrah, the documentary montage was commissioned by Channel 4 for the series “Britain: The Lie of the Land”. The film unpicks the violence that took place during the late summer and autumn of 1985 by refusing to obey narrative expectations of a single story.[i]

(Currently this points to a recording of the film)

Handsworth Songs is a radical recovery of complex political and social events through which protests took place in the autumn of 1985: it presents images and sound worlds from that autumn in Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham, intercut with archive footage of earlier protests, photographs and newspaper clippings.

The documentary makes both vision and voices cyclic, images and phrases reoccur as viewers are constantly prevented from assuming a simple narrative through line. This multiplicity of voice is echoed throughout all aspects of the film; its title confirms the film’s explicit concern with a multitude of stories (songs as opposed to a singular song). We hear many songs and sounds merged into one another: Lord Kitchener’s Calypso song of London, the repeated versions of Jerusalem which reoccurs throughout the film from dub to church choir, steel pan drums to brass band; synthesised calypso, discordant sounds reminiscent of alarm sounds, and factory noises play alongside Bhangra rhythms, ship horns, labour union songs, ship bells, folk songs and church music.

Ann Ogidi notes that Handsworth Songs uses its montage style as ‘a deliberate response to the fractured narrative of the riots’[ii]; here we are confronted with no straightforward story. But this sound world echoes what Olly Wilson has defined as a musicological concept of the ‘heterogeneous sound ideal’ tendency in Black music, where ‘a kaleidoscopic range of dramatically contrasting qualities of sound (timbre) is sought after […] The desirable musical sound texture is one that contains a combination of diverse timbres.’[iii] The film uses a heterogeneous ‘narrative’ structure to present a resistant reading as restating the complexity of events which mainstream (white) media wished to present as homogenous, as a single story of dangerous and so-called bad people.

In one harrowing sequence of the film, a short section of what appears to be an historical newsreel we are shown a clip of archive footage with ‘Jerusalem’ playing in the background:

Life in the Midlands earth was bleak enough: it rained dirt in those days, it often still does. Nowadays the areas around the tracks are derelict epitaphs to the industrial revolution. In small streets like this one, the industrial working class existed. The street was the centre of social loyalty […] But today the insular guts of the street communities are rotting away. Slum clearances upset the generations and to add to the feeling of insecurity, there has arrived an army of total strangers: immigrants.[iv]

Newsreel played within Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs

The footage cuts to an infamous Thatcher interview, during which she is positioned on an armchair in a quasi-domestic setting). She presents a “nice”, “domestic” version of an explicitly racist them-and-us rhetoric. The news interview, given in 1978, before she won the General Election, explained what she felt was the need for tighter immigration controls, sympathising with voters, who, she said: ‘are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’.[v]

In contrast to this ‘different culture’, whiteness is positioned as the world of Thatcher’s father, the good shopkeeper, a world in which people have an austere sense of personal responsibility and an aversion to government support.

Embed from Getty Images

From 1983 onwards, Thatcher publically embraced the idea of ‘Victorian values’, and clarified how her ideology fit with what she saw as a fundamentally good thing: ‘[Compassion] depends upon how you’re prepared to conduct your own life.’[vi] Raphael Samuel argues that Thatcher herself used this rhetoric to offer ‘the national epic, the romance of trade, conjuring up an age of primitive virtue where nothing was easy and everything had to be earned’.[vii] Thatcher utilises quasi-sermon-style Christian idioms to validate the ‘rightness’ (read righteousness) of the drastic social reform she promised in order to bring back this lost golden age:

The admonition: love they neighbour as thyself, and do as you would be done by, expresses this. You will note that it does not denigrate self, or elevate love of others above it. On the contrary, it sees concern for self and responsibility for self as something to be expected, and asks only that this be extended to others. This embodies the great truth that self-regard is the root of regard for one’s fellows.[viii]

Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher’s singular interpretation of the ‘Great Commandment’ was guided by her commitment to the ideas of right-wing economist Keith Joseph, and his argument that ‘“poverty is not unfreedom” as agency and liberty were categorically distinct.’[ix] Within such a moral structure the rioters had only themselves and their ‘wickedness’, to blame: work a little harder, be a little more entrepreneurial, and you too could run a greengrocers or be prime minister with no need to riot on the streets.

In the next part of this series, we will think more about how Handsworth Songs resists this narrative, and turns the tables on prevailing ideologies of the time.


[i] This calls to mind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning of the danger of the single story, see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, Ted Talk, TED, 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en, accessed 16 May 2019 .

[ii] Ann Ogidi, “BFI Screenonline: Handsworth Songs (1986),” BFI Screen Online, 2014, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/441093/index.html, accessed 16 January 2019.

[iii] Olly Wilson, “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American Music,” in Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’ & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture, ed. Gena Caponi-Tabery (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 157–71, at 160.

[iv] John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, Documentary, 1986, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0251113/.

[v] Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview for Granada World in Action (“rather swamped”) | Margaret Thatcher Foundation, January 27, 1978, Margaretthatcher.org, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103485, accessed 14 March 2018.

[vi] Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (“Victorian Values”) | Margaret Thatcher Foundation, interview by Brian Walden, Television, January 16, 1983, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105087, accessed 15 March 2018.

[vii] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory / Unravelling Britain. Vol. 2, (London: Verso, 1999), 332.

[viii] Margaret Thatcher, “Speech to Greater London Young Conservatives (Iain Macleod Memorial Lecture – ‘Dimensions of Conservatism’),” Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 1977, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103411, accessed 14 February 2018.

[ix] Kevin Hickson, “Conservatism and the Poor: Conservative Party Attitudes to Poverty and Inequality since the 1970s.” British Politics 4.3 (2009): 341–62, at 346.

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