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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Goodbye to London radical art and politics in the 70s

Tolmers Square, St Pancras Christopher Hall 1954

Goodbye  to London  Radical Art and Politics in the 70s, edited by Astrid Proll, 2011

Click. The sound of the last piece of a jigsaw slotting into place.

It was in the back of Martin’s second hand bookshop on King Street, amongst precarious piles of books always threatening to collapse in a textual avalanche. The title caught my eye first. ‘The Eclipse of a Great Power- Modern Britain 1870-1975’ but it was the cover which made me buy it. It showed a sleepy street scene, sunlight and shadow on a row of Georgian terraced houses. It was a painting by Christopher Hall of Tolmers Square, St Pancras, 1954.  It reminded me of a photograph I had taken 30 years ago of a similar street scene on an early summer morning, walking through Hackney down to Brick Lane market.

I bought the book for £2 and then it lay unread for a couple of years.  A couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading it. The title sums up the contents, but it does refute the right-wing myth that Britain was rescued from economic and social collapse by Margaret Thatcher… the decline of  ‘great’  Britain had been going on for 100 years before the 1970s. But then I knew that already.

The painting on the cover still intrigued me. I wondered what Tolmers Square looked like today. A few minutes search revealed its later history as the location of a struggle against demolition in the seventies and as home to a community of squatters - documented in ‘Goodbye to London’, with several photographs of Tolmers Square in the seventies. So I got the book.

‘Goodbye to London’ is based on an exhibition of photographs of  radical London  in the seventies. The exhibition was held in Germany and arranged/organised by Astrid Proll who lived in London 1974-1978 before being extradited back to Germany in 1979. [Astrid was a one time member of the German Red Army Faction. She lived on Brougham Road in Hackney and inspired Nik Turner‘s Inner City Unit single ‘Solitary Astrid’] It is arranged into sections based on the photographs, with an introduction by Astrid. The sections are on pre-punk London by Jon Savage, the Tolmers Square squatters, gay liberation in Brixton/ south London, the  1976/7 Grunwick strike and political art in Hackney.

Now comes the tricky bit. This is a very important book- but why is so important? The key lies in Astrid’s  introduction. [Pages 8-11, from which the following quotes have been taken.]

Before fleeing to London [in 1974], I was not particularly interested in the English  left; now I experienced their  solidarity. The great majority of comrades were far more pragmatic  than the leftists in germany. They did not lose themselves in theories; they wanted  to put concrete projects into action. German idealism and the German predilection for ideologies was not for them…
   The rebellion against the Vietnam War and against capitalism was not as strong or as militant in London as it has been in Paris or West Berlin.; the sixties in London were ‘swinging’, they were first and foremost pop, not politics. However, the alternative subculture in seventies London exceeded, in size and diversity, what had emerged in other Western cities. Women’s and gay rights groups, food -coops, the Poster Collective, All London Squatters, film collectives, underground magazines.
   In the collective memory, the counterculture of the seventies has taken a backseat between the revolt of 1968 and the appearance of Punk in 1976; unjustly, in my view , since the counterculture of the seventies was decisive in the liberalization of British society. The counter culture had a strong appeal for a long time for society at large…
    Solidarity was the precept of the counterculture. The squats were the material basis and precondition for the emergence  of political activism, art and alternative life. These houses, removed from the circulation of capitalist valorization [valorize- to give value to], were open spaces  for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints.

What follows from these quotations? Firstly, that  the UK/London counterculture of the seventies was dynamic and active in its own right rather than being a fading remnant of  the sixties counterculture. As well as the  themes  covered in the book, the seventies saw the beginnings of Green activism and politics plus the free-festivals/ new travellers movement. There were also several attempts to set up workers co-operatives, part of the struggle for worker control of industry. [See ‘Workers Control and the Politics  of Factory Occupation: Britain, 1970s’ by Alan Tuckman in Ours to Master and to Own Workers Control from the Commune to the Present, Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini editors , Chicago 2011]

The sheer size and diversity of the seventies UK counterculture (including 30 000 squatters in London)  has made it difficult to grasp its importance. So studies like George McKay’s ‘ Senseless Acts of Beauty’, ‘Albion Dreaming’ by Andy Roberts, ‘New Age Travellers’ by Kevin Hetherington and even Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’ focus on those  parts/ aspects of the counterculture which fit their particular narratives. These narratives make up pieces of the jigsaw to which this book, via Astrid’s outsider perspective, adds the vital missing sections.

Secondly, as Friedrich Engels pointed out in a  review of Thomas Carlyle’s ’Past and Present’ in 1843
Carlyle’s  ‘Tory romanticism’ and nostalgia for the feudal past gave him a clear if fearful insight into the revolutionary potential of the English (British and Irish) working classes. Likewise Georg Lukacs suggested that the conservatism of Scottish Tory Walter Scott sensitised Scott to the revolutionary changes brought about by the French Revolution which the emergent bourgeoisie  failed to comprehend. [in The Historical Novel, 1938] . The rightward political and economic shift which the election of Margaret Thatcher heralded drew heavily on a still current belief that the decline of  Britain as a great power had been brought about by trades unions and the permissive society during the seventies. The left’s instinctive response has been to deny this belief.

But what if the latter-day Tories, like Thomas Carlyle and Walter Scott before them, had understood the implications of the countercultural revolution  more clearly than those directly involved? The sixties counterculture had involved a small, hip, elite. The seventies counterculture was in comparison a sprawling shambolic mass of activists and fellow travellers, all busily hacking away at the oppressive structures of mainstream society. Some were politically engaged in workplace struggles, others were fighting for equal rights for their particular ‘minority’ group. Some were tripping on acid, others were busy building windmills on organic farms.

What the participants experienced as limited and particular struggles, the conservative right saw as a revolutionary conspiracy which threatened to transform Britain into an alien country. What they feared was not what the counterculture was, but what it might become. The consequence was a bitter struggle which was fought out through the eighties and into the nineties. The right’s ultimate victory occurred in 1997, when Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ gained control by promising not to deviate from the Conservative‘s economic policies. The futility of this strategy was demonstrated in 2008 when the whole neo-liberal house of cards came tumbling down in a global economic crisis which has created a second great Depression.

Now that, to misquote David Bowie ‘Thatcher’s on sale again’, the absence of a counterculture has created  void at the centre of political discourse. In London itself, the ‘open spaces  for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints’ [100 000 empty properties in 1975] described by Astrid no longer exist. With no physical room for experimentation, the ability to imagine alternatives to a new age of enforced austerity is constrained.

Meanwhile, obscured by the Olympic spectacle, this summer’s melting of the Arctic sea ice looks set to create a new record, exceeding predictions made by climate change scientists. This is not good news. The  current crisis of capitalism may be bringing misery to millions, but climate change will bring starvation to billions. It will be the heat death of industrial/ technological civilisation.

It is strange. At this point I feel I should be working up a head of steam to express my anger at the suppression of the counterculture by the forces of reaction and/or at the failure of the counterculture to effectively resist its destruction. In his section of ‘Goodbye to London’, Jon Savage found a quote from Nick Wates 1976 book ‘The Struggle for Tolmers Square’.

One middle aged couple  completely renovated  another Georgian house, thought previously to be beyond repair. In one room the built a workshop which any local resident was free to use, and in another room they built  a grain-store and ran a whole-food shop selling muesli, nut butter, honey, grains and dried fruit. In the basement they started  a bakery which produced  thirty loaves of bread every day made with hand ground wholemeal flour, as well as small pies and cakes. They also constructed a storeroom for plaster, cement, sand, recycled timber  nails and other building materials for use on repairing the houses.
The whole enterprise was non-profit-making and everyone was encouraged  to be involved  so as to break down alienation between consumers and producers; almost a return to a rural peasant economy, where craftsmanship and barter replace mechanisation and money. Squatting was the only way  that enough space could  be obtained to experiment with alterative lifestyles. [page 24/5]

Another future was possible.  If it had been actualised, would our present be so utterly bleak? No, it would not. But rather  than replace  anger with despair / acceptance, to conclude I will dig deep into the memory vaults and dust down this quotation.

We are not afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth . There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie may blast and burn its own world before it finally leaves the stage of history.  We who ploughed the fields and built the cities can build again, only better next time. We carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute…Buenaventura Durruti (Spanish anarchist 1896- 1936)

PS got distracted and forgot to say that from the book it is pretty clear (at least to me) that punk was a natural progression on from London’s  radical seventies counterculture, developing/emerging as an internal critique of its success/failure. Punk kicked the seventies counterculture forward into the eighties and beyond. There was no Year Zero.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Latest from the Galloway Picts project

Roman samian fragment not African red slipware as first thought.

Galloway Picts project update 6 August 2012 , posted by Ronan Toolis.

Just received Ewan Campbell’s assessment of pottery, crucible and mould fragments from our excavation of Trusty’s Hill. Two sherds of pottery were recovered in all. Both were imported to Britain. One of the pot sherds was first thought to be African Red Slip Ware when it was found on the dig, but it is in fact a rim of a Roman samian vessel of Gaulish manufacture and dated to the late 1st or 2nd second century AD. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the occupation of the site dates to this time as the samian pot sherd has been rubbed down on one edge, a common practice on native sites, and sometimes associated with metalworking often at periods later than the Roman period, which is interesting. The other pot sherd is the rim of a small E ware jar, imported from western France in the late 6th or 7th centuries AD, and used to import luxuries such as spices, exotic foods and dyestuffs. The E ware has sooting deposits surviving under the rim on the exterior which we are going to try and sample for radiocarbon dating (of the vessel independently of the context). Sixth/seventh century dates have been obtained from similar deposits on the E ware from Loch Glashan Crannog in Argyll and are the only direct dates from this type of pottery. E ware is associated with high status, often royal, sites in Atlantic Britain such as Dunadd, Dumbarton Rock and Whithorn. As Ewan notes, coastal fortified sites such as Trusty’s Hill often acted as importation centres for E ware and other luxury goods, which were then distributed to client sites in the region.

There was also a variety of evidence for fine metalworking recovered during the excavation, including crucibles, heating trays, a mould, furnace lining, and a possible crucible stand. In addition there is evidence of iron working in the form of hearth bottoms. The crucibles show a wide range of sizes, but all appear to be of unlidded types similar to those from the Mote of Mark. One has thick red enamel deposits which may have resulted from glass melting, though could be from copper. Other deposits may indicate silver working. All these need XRF analysis to determine the metals being processed. The presence of gold and silver in metalworking is characteristic of royal sites in the Atlantic West. This material needs further analysis as it is key to understanding the status of the site, and the activities of the inhabitants. Two of the mould fragments seem to be from radiating groups of pins similar to those from Mote of Mark, Dunadd and the Brough of Birsay. The range of evidence from only a few small excavation areas suggests to Ewan that this is an important metalworking site with access to significant resources and craftworkers.

Ewan also looked at the copper alloy and iron roundel with a central setting and concentric decoration with possible interlace on the outer border. It has some similarities to material being produced at the Mote of Mark under Anglo-Saxon influence. The iron socketed tool we found is a slotted and pointed object characteristic of early medieval sites and probably associated with leather working. The spindle whorl is made of quartzite and a glass bead recovered during the post-excavation wet sieving and sorting of soil samples may be Iron Age as post-Roman opaque yellow beads are more globular.

So it seems, upon this initial assessment of finds, that we have good evidence for 6th or 7th century AD occupation but perhaps some evidence of earlier Iron Age occupation. However, the radiocarbon dates we hope to get later this summer from charcoal recovered from the various archaeological contexts (layers) of the site, will hopefully enable us to better understand the date of the contexts for all of these artefacts. We might then know if some of the earlier artefacts were brought to site (as heirlooms for instance) rather than deriving from Iron Age occupation of the site itself. The story of Trusty’s Hill just gets more interesting as we go on.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Iron Age roundhouse near Castle Douglas

 This 30 metre diameter crop mark on Meiklewood Hill (1 mile from Castle Douglas, above Kelton Mains farm) is probably an Iron Age roundhouse. The site will be investigated between 9 and 13 October 2012 via Discovering Dumfries and Galloway's Past 

The next stage planned is to dig the site. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The heat death of civilization

The first civilizations began emerging about 10 000 years ago and were based on the cultivation of staple crops- rice, maize, barley and wheat. These could be stored to provide a buffer against bad harvests. The crop stores allowed a degree of population stability. The origins of writing can be linked (eg in Sumeria/ Iraq) to the need to keep records of the crops stored. The ability to accumulate stores of surplus  food therefore encouraged the storage and accumulation of surplus knowledge.Surplus knowledge is knowledge in addition to that required for basic survival.  Surplus knowledge is continually being created, but until the invention of writing it could not be conserved.

The above graph starts in 1750, at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This revolution marked a change as significant as the farming revolution which gave rise to the first civilizations. By harnessing the energy stored in coal then oil, industrial civilization was freed from the constraints (limits to growth) which had held back all previous civilizations. Was the industrial revolution a scientific/ enlightenment revolution? No. Capital and empire rather than science and enlightenment were the key drivers of the industrial revolution.  

...and? What is the position  I am arguing towards? Something along the lines that one impact of climate change will be the loss of the knowledge embedded in science which would allow future generations to understand why they are living in the ruins of a civilization. That in a survival situation, abstractions become irrelevant. Climate change will lead to an increase in extreme weather events. This will make farming much harder. As a consequence there will be no surplus food and so no surplus knowledge. No future civilization will emerge from the ashes of our aspirations.