Bethany Holmes (@bethjholmes) dissects Emma Warren’s new book about Total Refreshment Centre, the venue which helped sparked London’s jazz revival and caught the spirit of the time. [Main image: Alessandro Ruggieri]
In her powerful book, Emma Warren charts the 100-year history of a north east London factory: from its colonial roots in Britain’s burgeoning sugar trade, to the Mellow Mix reggae club that it housed in the ‘90s, to the community of the late 2010s that ran Total Refreshment Centre, a music venue, studio and rehearsal space. TRC also helped cultivate London’s jazz revival, including artists and groups such as Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd and Ezra Collective.
Using an upfront and ardent tone, Warren vividly brings to life the deep research she has undertaken, while the music pulsates throughout the book’s pages. Make Some Space is, ultimately, a manifesto; asserting the importance of having spaces to gather and these spaces’ role in generating culture and creativity. Warren, and the ‘interludes’ punctuating the book (quotes from figures who have intimate connections with the space, such as Joe Armon-Jones, Shabaka Hutchings and Sheila Maurice-Grey), offer a window into how TRC was more than just a venue. It was a ‘way of being’ that nurtured social exchange and fluidity, providing a place for young musicians to come together and experiment. This, in turn, generated further experimentation – confirming culture as something that develops organically, as well as music being a ‘process’, not a ‘product’.
Warren argues that spaces like TRC – and, as a consequence, experiences of genuine collectivity, joy and experimentation – are under threat. This is not mere hypothesising: London lost a staggering 35% of its vital grassroots music venues from 2007-15. To investigate the reasons behind this decline and protect spaces, the Mayor of London set up the Music Venues Taskforce and a Night Csar role. In the follow up report of November 2016, the number of grassroots music venues was shown to be stable, for the first time in 10 years. However, an April 2017 report revealed 94 of these spaces were under threat of closure, due to increased business rates. A further 18 were expected to experience financial hardship, and an additional 23 were at risk of opting for more-established artists, who could generate higher sales. In order to cover the high costs of running a venue, it seems there is little choice but to favour profit, at the expense of younger, emerging musicians.
This problem is not just confined to London. In 2017, the UK’s first live music census found a third of Britain’s small venues are fighting for survival. This is due to an assortment of factors: excessive business rates, noise restrictions (which can cause confrontations with local authorities), and complicated licensing laws. However, private property developments are also key – something that the Taskforce needs to do more to address. Venues are subject to intense conflicts over urban space. The threat of closure to make way for redevelopment, or the impact of nearby developments’ rising property prices and rents, are constant threats.
TRC represents this wider phenomenon – how neoliberal urbanisation, due to its privileging of the individual and profit, impacts on the communal, joyful experience of listening and dancing to music. Attempts at reducing this are not new: Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1993 – Part V of which covered music ‘predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ – in an attempt to curb outdoor raves. Dancing together in these spaces, something Warren describes as a ‘human need’, can therefore be a radical act that goes against this climate. Perhaps this is why the reflections of the collective joy that punctuate the book are one of its most moving and thought provoking aspects.
Both Warren and the voices within her book do not shy away from TRC’s imperfections – one of those quoted describes it as ‘separate’ from the local Turkish community, and another refers to those involved as predominantly ‘middle class’. Indirectly, this raises questions over these spaces’ roles in gentrification; if an area becomes associated with creativity, developers are more likely to flock towards it. Spaces are also at risk of legitimising shared precarity. It’s also important to note that DIY spaces may be at risk of legitimising shared precarity – a lack of regulation could lead to potentially unsafe conditions.
Despite its shortcomings, TRC did offer a starting point in imagining an alternative to the securitised and commoditised nightlife that London currently offers – and a ‘way that people can find and make space in a city where the opportunities to do so have diminished’. That’s not to say that there aren’t other venues in London that are pushing against consensus and sanitisation: Fold, in Canning Town, opened in July 2018; it has a 24-hour license and strives to be a place where the pressures of city living can be left behind. Meanwhile, The Cause, in Tottenham, uses income from its bar to support mental health charities. Pubs like The Windmill in Brixton are nurturing a DIY South London music scene, and TRC ‘spin off’ Church of Sound offers homemade food (and a refreshing lack of bouncers) in the unlikely setting of a Clapton church.
Part of the joy of living in a city lies its multiplicity. In today’s political and economic context, people are ‘being isolated, divided, made weak’, in the words of one of the book’s figures. Urban space needs to be re-evaluated and reconstructed so that it supports this variety. In doing so, spaces to gather, and the creative communities dwelling within them, must be nurtured and protected. Behind this must be a commitment to democracy, inclusivity and a rejection of commercialisation and gentrification. Make Some Space is a whirlwind that confronts its readers with this ideal, and as such is a gift in its acuity.