‘I went wherever there was fighting’: how Sam the Wheels filmed Brixton ablaze

From the tumult of the uprisings to everyday scenes, Clovis Salmon’s jerky camera captured Black British life. As his work hits the big screen, we meet the 94-year-old known as Sam the Wheels

‘I used to keep my camera like this,” says Clovis Salmon, putting his 1960s wind-up Kodak Brownie inside his jacket so that just the lens is poking out. “Then I don’t need to do nothing. I turn around, the camera turn with me.” He swivels his torso to either side – for a 94-year-old, he is in remarkably good shape. This is how he filmed the Brixton riots in 1981, in the streets right outside the 198 art gallery where we are talking.

Today, the scene on Railton Road is of a gentrifying, multicultural neighbourhood, with coffee shops and delis. But for a few days in April 1981, this was a conflict zone of burning buildings, looting, riot police and angry people. “I saw the Black boys take away the fire engine and drive it up the road,” says Salmon. “I saw the post office burned down, the garage burned down, everything.” Salmon had to keep his camera concealed, he explains, “because if you do like this” – he holds it to his eye – “police would come and take it away, or the boys come and mash it up.”

Salmon was an amateur but he chronicled the riots like a professional reporter. “For three days, I went up and down different places, everywhere I heard that they were fighting, riding my bike. And I always take my camera with me. Anything I saw, I filmed.” It helped that Salmon was a local – and pretty much the only one out and about with a film camera. He came to Brixton from Jamaica in the 1950s and still lives there today. Indeed, he is something of a local legend, known as Sam the Wheels for his bicycle knowhow.

Sam the Wheels … since retiring, Salmon has run a cycle repair business out of his home.
‘Anything I saw, I filmed’ … since retiring, Salmon has run a cycle repair business out of his home. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It wasn’t just the riots. Salmon had been documenting Brixton life for about 20 years prior to that and continued to do so for decades after. He says he has about 50,000ft of film, much of which remains unseen. His list of formats tells its own history: “Standard 8, Super 8, Betamax, VHS, disc – I always make sure I have more than one copy.” As such, Salmon’s recordings represent a unique archive of postwar Black British life from the viewpoint of the community themselves. You could go further and argue they’re actually a form of outsider art.

Salmon’s original motivation to make films was to show his new life in Britain to his family back in Jamaica. He first experimented with audio tape, he says, “but it didn’t work out that well. So I decided to turn to cine film, with no experience, nothing at all.” He bought a camera and a projector and began teaching himself, mostly by trial and error.

His first films were of his local church services and music performances, the all-Black congregation smartly dressed and wearing hats (in later years Salmon was also a Pentecostal minister). As he upgraded his equipment and refined his skills, people began asking him to film birthdays, baptisms, weddings and other occasions. “I was making no money,” he laughs. “Some time I do things for people, they promised to give me money but they never give me. I’ve worked around here for 47 years and didn’t get £200. It’s all out of my pocket.” It wasn’t cheap, either: “Kodak film at that time – four minutes 10 seconds was £5. That was a lot. But there was a shop that used to sell Russian Standard 8 film and it was about 30 shillings [£1.50]. So I’d go down there.”

Salmon also took his camera out into the streets. His footage captures local landmarks such as Brixton Market, and long-gone shops, fashions and vehicles. It records everyday life: children playing on the street, mothers sweeping the pavement outside their homes. He also shot some of the first manifestations of the growing Caribbean community: restaurants, neighbourhood playgrounds and the wholesale “cash and carry” shop.

As his skills developed, he began to edit his footage into short films, adding his own voiceovers, almost assuming the persona of a tour guide. He mixed in footage and sound from other sources, such as the TV news or his gospel records. The effect is often collage-like: admittedly scrappy, but distinctive and strangely captivating. It could sit quite easily alongside the work of avant-garde film-makers of the time, such as Derek Jarman.

“I’m determined to bring him into the film conversation,” says Mark Sealy, director of arts agency Autograph, which focuses on race and cultural identity. “I think he’s very special. He hasn’t done cultural studies or photography degrees. He’s just someone who had a compulsion to load that camera with film.” Sealy is presenting Salmon’s work at the Barbican in London later this month as part of The Decolonising Lens, which showcases diverse perspectives in photography and film. Our understanding of modern Britain, Sealy argues, is incomplete without them. “I’ve often said the story of Black Britain still lies underneath people’s beds. It’s still there to be – I don’t like the word ‘discovered’, but I think it’s still there to be recognised.”

Salmon came to the UK in November 1957, part of the Windrush generation. He still remembers the train journey from Plymouth. “Coming into London we saw lots of houses with chimneys on top and we thought, ‘Boy there’s a lot of work in London. Lot of factories around!’” Houses in Jamaica did not, of course, have chimneys. Sadly, Salmon remembers how unwelcoming Britain was to Caribbean immigrants back then. “My biggest mistake?” he says with a laugh. “I only bought a one-way ticket!” In Jamaica, Salmon ran a successful cycle shop, making £3-400 a week. In the UK he was lucky to be taking home £5. He eventually found work as a cycle mechanic and would excel at building wheels – twice as fast as his white colleagues, which caused some friction.

Salmon is in no doubt why the Brixton riots happened: “The police. They were to blame when they brought in the sus laws.” Then, as now, the “sus” laws, which empowered police to stop and search suspected criminals on the street, were disproportionately applied to people of colour. Compounded by high unemployment and crime rates in the 1970s, they exacerbated deteriorating relations between Black communities and the Metropolitan police.

Salmon recalls driving his car through nearby Clapham and being pulled over by two policemen who refused to believe the vehicle was his. Another time, he was informed that his son had been arrested on suspicion of pickpocketing. The policemen claimed to have caught him in the act, even though his son was at work at the time and had a rock-solid alibi. It was unjust but Salmon didn’t take any further action. “Because if you attacked the police, they would pick on your son. Many Black youths in those days went to prison because they [the police] put things on them, whether or not they were guilty. A lot of parents were afraid to send their children out in the street, even to go to buy something from the shop, because they’d always end up at the station.”

Still filming … Salmon says Brixton is ‘100% better’.
Still filming … Salmon says Brixton is ‘100% better’. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Salmon’s films shot in the immediate aftermath of the riots show a landscape of overturned cars, burned-out buildings still smoking, littered streets full of police, fire services and onlookers. People from the community he interviews on the street are forthright in their opinions: “Jobs, money, National Front, and all the rest, we’d just had enough, so we just explode”; “The Black youth? I think they’re just standing up for themselves”; “They [the police] caused all this.”

Although problems persist, Brixton today is “100% better”, says Salmon. “You can walk freely now. You can see Black boys with white girls, Black girls with white boys, everyone is one now.” Where white Londoners once refused to rent him a room, now his neighbours look out for him.

Since retiring, Salmon has run a cycle repair business out of his home, but he has not completely stopped making films. Sandi Hudson-Francis, who spent two years making a documentary about Salmon called Super Sam, gave him an iPhone that he has been playing around with. Meanwhile, 198 is currently digitising 62 reels of Salmon’s footage for its archives. He is happy to see his work being recognised at last.

“I feel on top of the world now,” he says and there is hopefully more to come. No one quite knows how much more material is squirrelled away inside Salmon’s house, not even him. “Someone asked me the other day: ‘Sam, how did you manage to make so many films?’ I said: ‘Determination.’”


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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