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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.


Blogger dee_seejay said...

Really enjoyed reading this - inspired to buy the book....second hand; should be arriving any day. Thanks :D

11:09 am  

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