I was on a lunchtime walk from work with colleagues recently and among them was Jamaican-born Rastafarian, David Archibald. David’s knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean history of three Katesgrove buildings had us all enthralled. He gave us some real insight into the cultural and socio-political side of life growing up in Reading in the 70s and 80s. With vivid joy, he talked of the great times he had at the Apollo Youth Club, the Caribbean Club and the Central Club; David explained most of his life at the time revolved around social gatherings with music at the heart of everything.
David and I met a couple of times to chat and capture some of his memories and knowledge. This is what he said to me.
Chain Street was the original location of the Central Club, but it was a youth club then, and Apollo used to organise a dance there once a month. When the Apollo first started in Mount Pleasant in 1972 it was mainly educational and it helped newcomers like me (I came to England in 67). There were classes to help youngsters with reading and writing and other life skills; the money was raised mostly through dances. They sent young people on trips and holidays and there were many sports teams run out of the Apollo; we had very good football and cricket teams at a time when West Indies dominated world cricket for thirty years. We were really good at karate – eight years in a row regional karate champions and two years runner up nationally. At the same time we were all being brought together by the music of Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, who was international. Marley once said that “when the music hits you, you can feel no pain”.
Twenty of us from Reading went to the World Youth conference in North Korea in ’89 and we played our reggae music and the North Koreans loved it. They had never heard it before and understood it right away.
I went to the Alfred Sutton School and have always lived in the Junction area. I have been growing my locks since I left school in ’76. I platted my hair for 3 weeks, then I unwound them, washed them and platted them up again. I repeated the process then let my hair grow naturally.
The door was always locked when I came back late at night! My dad told me to either cut my hair or leave home and I chose to leave; sometimes you have to follow your heart. To some of the older generation Rastafarianism was taboo. For instance Black Heartman, a great album by Bunny Wailer, was misunderstood and thought to be a bad influence on society, along with its encouragement of our way of life. But after a while the reputation and understanding of Rastafarianism improved due to the great reggae music of the time being more universally heard and my parents and society as a whole started to accept me for what I am, and judge me less.
The Jamaican patois is slightly different from the Rastafarian patois and the locks are just part of the identity but Rastafarianism was in the heart; you didn’t have to have the lion’s mane of Judah. We all had Rastafarian names based on the month you were born and the twelve tribes of Israel. Sometimes you have people who take up religion as a fashion and they don’t really believe in it. It can be positive to be copied if the message seeps through. We did smoke pure weed at the time, and never hashish liked the students and others did, but it wasn’t compulsory – some felt it got you closer to Jah and gave a positive vibration.
Good food was very important to our community and I still have the Jamaican fish and curried mutton for lunch at Perry’s every day. It’s used by all sorts of folk now and gets good food reviews. The Caribbean yams, bananas, plantains, rice and peas with calves or goats foot curry, mannish water (goat soup) rice and peas, salt fish cooked from scratch and lovely hot jerk chicken. My posse used to go all the way to Birmingham to visit relatives and eat fried fish. We didn’t eat much fast food at all then. I think the diet was better for us and kept us fitter than most – Usain Bolt says he is so fast because of Jamaican food.
After the Apollo we would often go to the Caribbean Club (now After Dark club). I didn’t drink much then, but there was a choice of Cockspurs, Mountgay and Jamaican overproof white rum plus Red Stripe, Dragon Stout and Guinness available until the early hours. Some of the older guys drank in there, slamming down those dominoes every night, and there was occasionally a bit of generation-gap-type conflict and anyone found smoking used to get slung out. It was always a stepping stone to the main event at the Central Club sometimes we arrived as late as 2am. Treats was a Club in Kings Road on a Thursday night and it was all night! It was also a really good reggae venue.
The Central Club was on old police garage before becoming the Central Youth Provision. It was usually open all night – there were bar billiards, pin ball and pool. Some nights the club was half black and white and even the punks used to like some of the sound systems nights, especially Jah Shaka sound. Some stayed over into Sunday morning from Saturday night who used to fall asleep, and a rolled up bit of newspaper used to be lit and put in their mouths as a joke. People took turns to put on a night and they set up the bar and cooked the curry and rice so the food and the dance would go together. Blues parties after the Central event used to start at about 5am anywhere round Reading but there were often several going on at the same time, making one hard to choose. Sometimes we would go and see friends working at the bakery on St. Johns Road in the early hours and they would give us some lovely fresh bread.
I used to go up to London and spend £100 a month at Dub Vendor in Ladbroke Grove and Greensleeve record shop in Shepherds Bush. The sound systems meant everything to us and were treated with due respect. The speakers, the amplifiers the whole thing was a serious business, you warmed up last plastic (7″ inch record) before going over to dub play and b side. Me and my friends had the junction sound system; we were called Sir Massai downbeat and Sir Marcus, my nickname is Jah Berris. We took a coach to Leeds via Brixton once just to hear Jah Shaka – we were shattered when we got there as it took six hours; it was before all the motorways. We played a session with Falcon Sound in Luton once and there was a bit of rivalry with their sound systems with them playing back the same dub we had created and it nearly got a bit nasty but ended peacefully. There was mainly good competition though, with music as the centre of everything in our world – our pleasure, leisure, education and consciousness.
You impressed a woman back then with some fine dancing and some sweet lyrics. A lot of women were fascinated by my dreadlocks. The fashions changed over the years; we used to wear hi-waisters, platform shoes and big flares, Charlie Chaplin slim-cut pants similar to drain pipes, Cecil Gee’s jumpers and Bally shoes. I still wear a handkerchief hanging from the back pocket like we all did then and there is a way of tilting your hat – no true Jamaican wears his hat straight.
There was a film called Rockers which was really influential in the late ’70s and beyond and it gave us all certain swagger and stance. The soundtrack, style and attitude of the film, which was the story of Jamaica musicians getting even with the gangsters who ran the music business, had such an impact on us all. It was the Robin Hood story of the talented poor against the rich and influential; showing our creativity was being stifled, and how power and big money was working against us. Several big reggae stars are in the film, including Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Dillinger and Jacob Miller. It was originally intended to be a documentary but turned into a full-length feature showing our culture. Clothes became less distinctive later as they moved into leisure and sports clothing. Some nicknames were influences from America, especially cowboys, and people from films along with some from sports, mainly boxing and cricket.
Dancing and music changed with Dennis Brown, Marley and other old guys passing away, and new stuff like dance hall made the music a bit slack without so much of a positive message. Through music we can be educated. I don’t go out so much lately because I don’t like the music and don’t find so much enjoyment in it. I did go to Notting Hill Carnival but that hasn’t been so social over the past few years.
Apollo later created the Walter Rodney Housing Association and hostel working with homeless young people who had been kicked out by their parents. We worked on getting these youngsters self-sufficient before finding them long term accommodation. This was the origin of Biko, Mandela and Morris Court in Orts Road. We went to Slough and looked at a housing thing there as a model and came back with the ideas to do the same in Reading. We were the first organisation in the country to produce our own black history calendar and that ran from ’84 to ’92.
The council were going to knock down the Apollo building and build a new one but then were prevented from this by the building being listed. Then the plan changed and, in combination with the Mary Seacole Nursery, Apollo After School Club and the Phab Project (hence MAPP), a brand new building was planned with a floor for each organisation. Unfortunately the council used a contractor that went bust during the project and we ended up with a lot of problems with the building, including leaks from the flat roof, and along with some cheap furnishings and poor finishing, it hasn’t been ideal. The planned three floors never materialised for one reason or another. The Apollo was seen as a black political and social institution and was enormously influential and mainly pro-Labour politically. Thankfully, the election-time bloodshed in Jamaica never migrated to England, although this has improved a lot over the years.
Afro-Caribbean life in Reading has changed a lot but something happened the other week which showed we still have a strong bond. We came together in the march to save the mural and the Central Club; sometimes it may seem we are a bit more spread out but we still come together. The mural was controversial at first, but over the years all sorts of people have grown to love it. There is a lot of pride in that mural and I am in the picture myself.
The struggle to retain the Central will continue. It’s a fundamental necessity for my community and all of the people of Reading that our history is preserved and the future generations can enjoy this facility too.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.