Caught by the River

Make Some Space

8th June 2019

Jamie Collinson reviews Emma Warren’s Make Some Space – a document of ad hoc London music venue Total Refreshment Centre.

A whirlwind of memories was whipped up on reading Emma Warren’s book about Hackney’s Total Refreshment Centre – and I never actually went there. TRC (a description is tricky: a space for DIY musical performances & recordings, a locus for the New London Jazz scene) opened after I left London for Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Make Some Space effortlessly conjures the place, and the others that inspired it. The legendary, lamented Plastic People, for example – oft referred to in the book – along with its much loved, pioneering dubstep night FWD>>. That event’s defining spirit of passionate heads gathering to dance to forward-thinking music was apparently a driving force behind TRC, too. That’s something I remember about London, and miss dearly.

Emma Warren is one of the UK’s best music writers, and in Make Some Space, she has more than met her stated aim of documenting TRC – the venue aspect of which sadly closed in 2018 (though the TRC studios remain open). Her book brings the place to life in all its perfectly imperfect glory. There are brief, illuminating interviews with London music legends such as Four Tet and Gilles Peterson, and the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who did much to help make TRC the birthplace of London’s jazz renaissance. There are memories of blocked drains, dust, last night’s bottles and cans, broken walls and the exhausted handful of people who took care of all of them, and kept the place going. The spirit of Alexis ‘Lex’ Blondel, the enigmatic French enthusiast who founded TRC, hovers over the book.

As indeed does the building that housed it. Originally an Edwardian chocolate factory in Dalston, it was the building’s time as the home of Mellow Mix, a ground-breaking venue for Caribbean music, that paved the way for TRC in later years. Long after Mellow Mix had gone, Lex discovered the empty, run down warehouse, named it after the slogan on an ancient Polo Mint vending machine, and set up, with varying degrees of success, a venue for live music and DJs, recording studios, a café, a bar, and even a shopfront. For six short, sweet years, TRC hosted some of London’s best musicians, performers and audiences; nights such as the politicized poetry event Peach, producers like sometime Wiley collaborator Scratcha DVA, the one off, world-class jazz event CHICAGOxLONDON, and beloved club nights such as Touching Bass.

But Make Some Spaceisn’t simply a fittingly DIY document of the place that inspired its writing – it’s also a paean to big city musical undergrounds everywhere, and a polemic in the face of their being forced out of existence. If you live in a city, you’ll know that same sense of loss. The gradually encroaching re-development; the identikit, flimsy-looking flats and corporate coffee-shops; the wealthy latecomers – attracted by the buzz – who buy the flats and then complain about the noise; the closing down of the wild, free, singular spaces you moved to the city to find in the first place. 

What’s certainly true is that the Total Refreshment Centre lives on in Emma Warren’s brilliant book.‘Explain what it was really like,’ she says at its close – a call to arms for further DIY documenting. In Make Some Space, she’s provided a glittering example.

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Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre is out now and available here, priced £12.00.

Emma will be discussing the book on our stage at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, as well as acting as interviewer on our Good Life Experience stage and MC and DJ at our upcoming Hebden Bridge events.

You can follow Jamie Collinson on Twitter here.