Comparisons: From Mass
Observation to King Mob.
The changing face of revolutionary
elites from the 1930s to
the late 1960s and ever after.
(Personal reflections and memories on John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrison, Bill &
Nick Brandt, Don Smith, Barbara Roberts, Chris Grey,Chris Caudwell, Dave Robins, Dick
Pountain, Clare Wise and others)
The King Mob elite for a brief moment from 1967-69 did break with the tradition of social reformers and commentators which for so long had tended to be the near unique possession of this particular class fraction. And they were unquestionably superior to anything that had come before and was a sign of the transcendence of this powerful and ever-resurgent class fraction in motion. But flash, bang, wallop and it was gone and forty years later the reasons for this has to be a contender for the most searching question that can be asked of recent times and why these individuals numbering four or five at most were incapable of living up to their promise. Over night they fell silent having betrayed everything they once stood for until now these former lilies really do smell far worse than weeds.
We can see anticipations in the first half of the 20th century in the likes of John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, George Orwell and Tom Harrison the latter three having attended prep schools and then private schools and in Orwell's and Harrison's case the crime of private schools, Eton and Harrow. And all in their own ways were innovators, some related to the Mass Observation movement of the 1930s and people to be still reckoned with and yet never the revolutionaries the King Mob elite purported to be and for a few brief years unquestionably were.
So it is necessary we take a step back into the past and say a few more words on some of the people mentioned above, a need made doubly pressing on account of the fact our niece Clare Wise is curator to a heritage that crystallised into the British Film Institute and whose history she is almost completely ignorant of, having just to say heard of a couple of names but unable to furnish any further details not even biographical ones. When she brushed us to one side like frail midges she had no idea whatsoever who she was dealing with and that our critiques left the academic grey beards of the BFI standing who in turn looked on Clare as the devil-in-prada because of her slavish adherence to everlastingly fashionable neoliberal values and mind numbing philistinism though an expert in knowing how to gush, curtsey and scrape before her political masters and mistresses.
A person like John Grierson, the documentary film maker in the 1930s-40s, can be compared with Labour party PM Gordon Brown in respect of social provenance, his father being a headmaster whose forebears were lighthouse keepers and his mother the daughter of a shoemaker. At school he steeped himself in the romantic writers and poets like Ruskin, Coleridge and Byron rather like we did. The difference being we had it rammed down our throats by an Eng Lit pedagogue and correct English snob who described our language as 'that of bus conductors not that of Milton and Shakespeare'! Only later did we find there was a revolutionary edge to the latter two that can still cut deep and that goes straight from the transcendence of written poetry to the creation of determinate situations, which in Hegel's view was the bedrock which led directly to the postscript of art. Never the historic act itself it was, when all was said and done, merely an afterthought and symptomatic of the failure of mankind to achieve fulfilment. Grierson had no familiarity with these ideas and that they drew on, and were, a continuation of earth-shattering aspects of romanticism that were now so deeply buried disinterring them was well nigh impossible, they went so much against the grain. Dying in 1972 Grierson was still less aware these revolutionary ideas had by then peeked and have been in dire reflux ever since that to even to hint of such a heresy today is to invite a storm of abuse that is jovian in its ferocity.
Grierson had served as a telegrapher in the First World War, a formative experience that showed it was possible to transmit messages other than with a pen. The path to poetry and the trade of writer now blocked by modern machinery and war, this encounter with industry was crucial to his later development and the passage from tapping out Morse to looking at life through a camera lens considerably shortened. On being demobbed he had attended Glasgow University at the very moment of the workers' uprising that became known as Red Clydeside. He showed little sympathy, or appreciation of, the really revolutionary currents embedded in Red Clyde neither that of 'Marxism' or 'revolutionary syndicalism' with its pronounced anarchist inflection, opting instead to loosely align himself with the Independent Labour party, still however the best of all the social democratic labour parties.
After a stint in America and gaining his spurs as a film critic for a Chicago newspaper he was sufficiently well known on returning to England in 1927 to be employed as an assistant film officer for the Empire Marketing Board. Arguing for a new type of documentary film, 'epic cinema' as he called it, he was dead set against fiction films that were beginning to dominate the filmic medium And yet his angle was hardly revolutionary, arguing for a film that would represent the relationship between the citizen and the state, an approach that would not have won him many friends amongst the red Clydesiders, especially the anarcho-syndicalists who would have squirmed at the idea. When the Empire Marketing Board closed down in 1932, he set up the GPO (General Post Office) film unit producing the films, apart from Drifters (1929), he is now famous for: Industrial Britain (1933) Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). Frustrated by the mounting constraints within the GPO he left encouraging others to do the same and instead to set up independent documentary film making units. This would mean raising money on the open market and going cap in hand to companies or the state in a world in which state capitalism was on the increase and therefore fundamentally different from public private financiers of the Film Council and their unquestioning submission to market principles.
We would have liked to have discussed some of the essential questions raised above with our niece but at every turn we would have encountered a blanket ignorance which would have rendered enlightened debate futile. And that would have the further consequence of destroying at the outset any hope of situating our revolt in a historical context which would have given it yet further edge and a contemporary relevance.
Take Tom Harrison another notable figure and founder of the Mass Observation movement. If Clare has heard of him it will only be the name that comes up on her internal hard drive that passes for mind amongst today's free marketeers. The son of an (engineering) Brigadier General he was sent to Winchester prep school and thence to Harrow and finally to Pembroke College, Cambridge from where he dropped out. Though I am surmising I suspect he did so under pressure from the workers' movement and the great catastrophe of the 1930s depression. Anyhow his father never forgave him and he was disinherited and which can only have done him a power of good. Would that more of this economic chastisement had been the lot of the King Mob elite, for this bread and butter matter could have made all the difference to us and to them and to a developing critique of the totality.
Harrison was also a consummate ornithologist, living with cannibals in the New Hebrides, then still a English colony, before moving to Bolton, Lancashire to get closer to our home grown savages, the industrial working class, turning his bird watching, cannibal watching, techniques on the working poor of northern England. And though he took work as a lorry driver, ice cream vendor and shop assistant discreetly taking notes as he went about his duties he did so with the eye of the stranger, his retina essentially detached from the lives of ordinary working people. He was an observer not an active participant and his subjects, sociological objects. He did not 'condemn' himself to their reality - which was the only true path to genuine emancipation and fulfilment - merely chameleon like appearing to merge with it.
And so the Mass Observation movement was born, no detail of working class life deemed too insignificant to record, though never once knowing in the gut the pathos that lay behind trade ads appearing in shop windows that read 'no job too small'. Volunteers were recruited, the techniques of Mass Observation anticipating that of post war market research whose detached viewpoint was no different to that of Mass Observation. However the legacy could have been even more dubious and had there been a Bolshevik counter-revolution in this country, the techniques of Mass Observation could have provided all the evidence needed for a Mass Repression of the working class, in particular of those autonomous elements groping toward a rejection of political parties, trade unions and the vast apparatus of apparatchiks that would eventually come to form a 'new class'. Even many decades later the self-same reflexes are still palpably there though whether it has a hope-in-hell of getting anywhere is quite another matter. For one thing I have noticed this Cheka-in-waiting must constantly monitor in one form or another, mentally noting every detail, which is then logged and filed and, given half a chance, used against the lower orders when required. And if, in the interim, you want to enrage the beast then there is no better strategy than cutting it off from its food source and refusing to supply it with any more 'mass' information of your whereabouts, what you are doing and thinking. Hostile observers in the final analysis of the unpalatable realities of 'working class' lives, above all of their 'moral' lapses, crudities, language, jokes and evasiveness, they are also constantly on guard against themselves, rarely permitting themselves the luxury of a spontaneous outburst of feeling. Is it any wonder that this super-repression has, in no small measure, engendered the art/therapeutic society that has grown in proportion to the translocation of the industrial working class abroad class and which also, especially when in open revolt, had a palliative effect tending to cure them of themselves.
One of the people whose name is indelibly linked to Mass Observation is the photographer Bill Brandt. Now Bill Brandt was the brother of Rolf Brandt, the illustrator, who had a son called Nick whom you will all have heard of and the most consequential upper middle class influenced situationist in Britain. I have at the outset to say I like some of Bill Brandt's photos and those taken by Mass Observation, even though it is permitted to see in it an arty foreshadowing of CCTV which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, will be deployed against the 'mass' come the moment of legitimate revolt and that will be also directed against the hold the free market has on sections of street youth gone despairingly and uselessly fuckhead. However the eyes of these photographers had become machine eyes that recorded rather than participated. And so they remained, having somewhere in the background a smart abode they could always run back to and from where the would obsessively put the days events under a microscope to locate the weakness they were hell bent on finding and which would provide them with a spurious conviction of their own superiority. However to call them spectators is not entirely accurate. They were voyeurs getting off on what they observed, though never able to completely neither take part in nor experience to the full what they were a witness to but whose attractions they nonetheless felt strongly tempted by.
Nick Brandt was never able to escape from this dilemma. At the same time it has to be said he is very talented individual and I can only regret he was unable to resolve his contradictions and that there aren't more people of the same calibre around. Though pitched at a far higher level, Nick, just like his uncle Bill, never lived what he was describing or analysing. Always residing a safe distance from it, this distance ultimately vitiated what he had to say and, let's admit it, harmed him, turning him into a something of a solipsist of an evening. But he lapped up news of struggle, worrying the details endlessly and then, on spotting a mistake, pouncing ferociously. He simply could not grasp, other than in the abstract, that in the heat of the moment one is prone to making mistakes, even serious mistakes. But to him these mistakes were intolerable, flattering himself that had he been there he would never have made them. The trouble was he was nearly always elsewhere. Moreover his rush to pass judgement, constant admonishments and finger wagging, a common enough condition in people who have removed themselves from the actual day to day struggles of ordinary people, made it impossible to be with him for any length of time without feeling the urge to plant one on him. What ultimately ensnared him was his background and family inheritance and it is doubtful he will ever now be released from its grip. And if he were to lose everything he would change, not within three months or even three weeks, but within three hours. Really it is all just too sad for words and critique could be in a much better shape than it is and collaboration still possible had Nick been able to put his past behind him instead of allowing it catch up with him and eventually take him over. For over the past 35 years he was the only member of the upper middle class elite it has proven possible to collaborate with and who still had a cutting edge critique of art, absolutely essential to an understanding of modern times.
Forty year on I would never have thought it possible in this the direst situation ever faced by mankind, for there to be so little relevant thinking around and for there to be such a reversion to worn out ideas on such a gargantuan scale. I ask myself time and again however did this conservatism get under way in the first place and why do I feel so estranged from former comrades in arms. We simply now don't have anything in common and the mere thought of meeting up with them once more enough to send a bolt of apprehension through me. Despite the limitations of men like Grierson, Jennings and Harrison , whose lives and opinions I have endeavoured to briefly sketched in, I would not feel anything like the foreboding at meeting them, assuming they were still alive of course. When all is said and done there is a greater consistency, honesty and commitment to their lives. However much we may bemoan their illusions and lack of revolutionary clarity, at least they did not betray their ideals when the first chill wind blew. Nor can we say they were made of sterner stuff because that would be to reduce the problem to a matter of strength of character, though it has to be said they put themselves about more than their contemporary backsliders and which was bound to toughen them and expand their horizons.
No, something has changed over the last forty years that has nourished this catastrophic state of affairs and I personally believe it has everything to do with the creeping collapse of class struggle and in particular the near elimination of industrial class struggle, which, when it did explode, had a percussive effect throughout society, causing conflict to rip far and wide. As the wave of de-industrialization advanced so the UK turned into a financial casino of speculation becoming the racketeering capital of the world and, what is worse, more of a corporate success story than anything that had hitherto gone before. As social peace broke out all avenues of escape became progressively blocked, labour laws tweaked on 13 separate occasions until at long last the judiciary had in its legal arsenal the means of throwing the book at wildcat strikers. A pall of compliance and orthodoxy settled over everything, brains turned to mush, houses at the very least trebled in price and the arty delusion of piddling 'creative industries' as the saviour of a de-industrialized capitalism swept the country.
The individuals I mentioned previously felt compelled in one form or another to engage with industry and the industrial working class. This smoking chimney of unknowing had left a question mark in the dark clouds that hung over their entire lives. They felt profoundly threatened by what those clouds were hiding from view and which they knew in their bones they had to eventually confront, even at the risk of losing their identity and being overwhelmed by anonymity. This was their personal and social trauma, the rite of passage that no matter how painful had to be gone through. It was also a trajectory the ruling class feared like when colonials 'went native' but which bit by bit the Victorian imperialists learned how to use, the better to increase their surveillance and control. Kipling's police officer who regularly blacked up to merge with Calcutta's locals can, on one level, be seen as an anticipation of the ambiguous aims that lay behind Mass Observation, which were neither entirely a matter of social control but still less about a genuinely revolutionary liberation of the industrial natives.
There are any number of examples detailing that encounter with northern natives and their southern counterparts, particularly in London's east end, and perhaps one day they should all be collected together because they could set off our own times and be a pointer to what's missing. I need only mention Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris and of course The Road to Wigan Pier. These were also documentaries but ones that used a traditional medium. Mass Observation and the documentary filmmakers wanted to make use of the new media, television being the baneful outcome of that trajectory, Grierson ending up as a producer for Scottish TV. Whether working in old or new media what was common to both was the impact the north, its industries and working people had upon the documentarists. When Jennings went north for the first time in 1939, having up to then tossed off around the Cambridge art scene, he described it as the most important turning point of his life. Later in 1943 when making a film in Wales he wrote: 'I feel we have got close to the men ' not just as individuals - but also as a class - with an understanding between them; so they don't feel we are just photographing them as curios or wild animals'..... Living in Bolton in 1936 Tom Harrison claimed he could, without disguising his accent, blend in with his cotton mill co workers! These are just two, though very revealing examples, of what I mean.
Now fast-forward to 1968 and its immediate aftermath. What I have been describing has never been a problem, with the notable exception of Nick Brandt, with our elite, the question having shifted to focus on youth subcultures, only hippie being sufficiently class neutral to engage with. However there was a gathering storm of revolt on the traditional working class front our elite was never able to identify with, a fact that ultimately reduced them to a silence that would last a lifetime. For a time we thought Don Smith might be capable of making a contribution to the understanding of what was unfolding. But though a northerner having been largely brought up in Southport even he was traumatised by this eruption and escaped to America because he really did have some idea about the strength of class feeling that existed in this country. And though he visited striking miners in West Virginia in the 1970s (though revealingly in the company of a French person) and astonished at how closely the mining hollows of West Virginia resembled those of South Wales and Yorkshire he could not, come the 1980s, have visited the striking miners of this country with anything like the same ease. Nor would he have been accepted with the same ease either, suspicion attending his every move, a suspicion honed by a century of struggle and handed down from one generation to another. Only Nick Brandt was able to see the miners' strike through, though eventually turning against the defeated miners for having let him down (a familiar disposition in our elite in general) and failing to rescue him from the contradictions of his living situation which he found so unbearable. However he was never once seriously tempted to help matters by relinquishing the keys to the Brandt family trust fund and the lumber room chock a block with inflating assets - i.e. artefacts left by his father and uncle.
In France or Italy in the late 1960s to be opposed to work and to demand its abolition did not mean being opposed to the working class. In fact a similar anti work impulse was increasingly manifesting itself at the sharp end of production, particularly assembly line production. But here in the UK such impulses tended to do so becoming in no time at all an undiluted class prejudice that dared not speak its name remaining so often in the cloistered world of an on the lam elite, itself eschewing the popular touch. Looking back it is clear King Mob, though at the time unbeknown to itself, (and how could it have known?) was at the forefront of this development, though by 1971 it had become a disparate loose grouping riven with internal class antagonism between the haves and have-nots. However not one of us remotely suspected how complete this victory would be, whereby an abstract rejection of work per se could also be deployed turning in a vengeful attack upon an insurgent industrial working class, so relentless and unforgiving that nothing less than its virtual elimination would assuage the beast. And still it brays for yet more blood.
The result thus far down the line has been the creation of a parasitic, financial services, consuming economy where leisure and work ' no longer really perceived as opposites - have intermingled to an almost unimaginable degree. And yet there is no sign that the end of a world of exploitation is in sight. In fact it's quite the opposite. If anything the emphasis on leisure; of a capitalised realisation of 'never work' is bringing about a work regime - disguised as 'presenteeism' the likes of which we've hardly known historically - where again, the mass of the population, now unbearably isolated and fragmented, in dismembered untogetherness, are worked to death in meaningless, useless occupations and without the 'solidarity' that was so visible in the days of a massified, industrial working class in these islands. Ironically, this ruse of the history of production has brought back the original message of King Mob into a clearer, subversive focus, ready, yet again, to be applied.
However on the cusp of the 1970s how could we have had such insight? Instead we were increasingly all at sea. A little detail from this period, made more pertinent because of what has happened afterwards, may help illuminate matters. In the company of Liverpool Barbara whose dad was a municipal gardener in Sefton Park I had chanced on Chris Grey one day. I happened to mention an occupation of Lancaster University asking him if he knew anything about it. Not much, he had replied, except it had been called in support of some 'Mrs Mops' who were on strike. Barbara Roberts froze, for this was like a red rag to a bull, her initial, scarcely concealed hostility doubling in a second, an hostility Chris Grey had instantly felt. He later remarked that he found Barbara very uptight which caused me to bristle up because once out of ear shot she had let her anger rip at his remark. But that was Barbara always po-faced in 'radical' company not saying anything but noting everything, a disregarded wallflower who observed the Angry Brigade and their hangers on, out of the corner of her eyes whilst they looked completely through her. However this no-person went on to produce one of the finest critiques of Bolshevik democratic centralism I have ever read, and which would have gone completely over the heads of rather fine committed women like Hilary Anne Creek and Anna Mendelsohn, not to mention journalist/professsorial cop-outs such as Hilary Wainwright or Sheila Rowbotham whom it would have been even more wasted upon. Emphasising the Bolsheviks bourgeois presuppositions regarding the freedom to take time off work, it was quite the equal of Alexandra Kollontai or Sylvia Pankhurst and unusual on account of the, to my knowledge, previously overlooked angle. However this pedestrian perspective was instantly leavened by an infectious delight in anonymous, irreverent acts of resistance that also made a knowing point, and altogether a typically Liverpudlian trait - like when she told me of a bust of Lenin that was on display in the foyer of Islington Town Hall, the words 'lotta bottle' having been pentilled across his bald pate. This was in the days of the unspeakable Margaret Hodge and her krew (which included a couple of labour councillors, Tessa Jowell and her future husband David Mills from the adjacent Camden Council) before they too became arriviste privateers like their counterparts in the Soviet nomenclature.
This lengthy aside has been necessary in order to show the limitations of the King Mob elite (and others) in not appreciating how brim full of humour the working class is in this country, always ready to take the piss and which is more a sign of their independence (hence a prelude to emancipation) than submission, their instant humour on this latter reckoning being an expression of a constitutional inability to take anything seriously, even their own slavery. Finally the extent of naked class prejudice cannot be stressed too much and that the most advanced revolutionary theory of all time - at least in this country - contained perhaps within it the seeds of an unthinkable counter-revolution that the country is only just beginning to wake up to. What is now a growing reality can be detected in the storm of reproach and accusations of betrayal that blew King Mob apart: The classless corporatism of a level playing field on which to play situationist influenced games had gone forever, the have-nots awaking brutally to the fact they'd been had. Had we ears to hear our uneducated mums and dads could have told us well beforehand we would be.
In newspaper article after article there is a dawning realization of not only the extent of the neoliberal counterrevolution but of its atavistic nature and that far from leading to a classless, globalised capitalism has 'reverted to type' with the top public schools increasingly coming to dominate political and social life once more. The most striking so far is the Guardian's headline of 20th Oct 2007: 'Riven by class and no social mobility ' Britain in 2007'. That same week the newspaper (17/10/07) had also carried an article by that reasonably intelligent operator of a journalist John Harris which provided valuable details - e.g. had Chris Huhne secured the Lib Dem nomination for party leader a year ago it would have meant the leadership of all three parties were respectively occupied by alumni of Fettes, Eton and Westminster . He concluded that 'for all talk of globalisation and belated arrival of a classless society, something about the modern world seems to be returning us to the ossified class system of yesteryear - sans deference perhaps but there all the same'.
However we would argue that the deference is still there and that class attitudes have survived economic change. As the Guardian puts it: 'That suggests people are still judged by where they come from rather than how much they earn'.
My brother David sometime in 1968 had come across a remark of the leveller John Lilburn from Sunderland who during the civil war of the 1640s claimed 'all trouble in England comes from north of The Wash'. David had made play with the slogan, brandishing it humorously like a badge. However it did carry a grain of truth which though it very definitely did not apply to the most revolutionary moments of the English civil war, has over time become truer. The stark fact is King Mob could not have taken the inter-classist, toxic rather than intoxicating, social mix it did take, and one skewed toward an upper middle class public school elite in any city other than London in the UK though theoretically all the elements were in place in Newcastle by the spring of 1967, a city that latitude wise is just south of the Scottish border. And it was northerners who were the first to come to their senses knowing that if only for the sake of their mental health and survival prospects it was henceforth necessary to keep clear of this class fraction, otherwise one risked being split in two. In fact the writ of the public school elite extends no further than a few miles north of Northampton, stops in Dorset and does not even gain a toehold in Wales and Scotland . But it can wreck terrible damage on the proletariat of the Home Counties, particularly those who had been dislocated by higher education, some becoming; one is tempted to say, 'ragged trousered philanthropists with degrees'. I could cite a number of instances of this destructive vassalage that carelessly threw self-interest, particularly economic self-interest, to the winds, never giving it a moment's thought and all coming from the south east. There are pockets of deference in the north, the most notorious being the Nottinghamshire miners most of whom scabbed during the 1984-85 miners' strike. Here the mechanism is essentially different, the Notts miners coming under the influence of the much older, unreconstructed subservience characteristic of the Dukeries though in ways often notoriously difficult to specify but which the Yorkshire miners were convinced was still making its effect felt. One must not, in this context, overlook that the personification of sexual liberation as conceived by the son of a Nottinghamshire miner during the inter war years, was a gamekeeper on a landed aristocrat's estate, gamekeepers being a figure of loathing to hunting, foraging miners throughout the country.
Though looking back it is now very clear that it was money, assets and property that destroyed radical theory in this country, at the commencement of this counter-revolution the possession of money for a while ranked second to the signifiers of class distinction particularly that of a public school education. Despite living in a one bedroom flat and not having much money, Chris Grey was nevertheless able to go out with women we described as 'on the lam' from their upper middle class roots. But as far as David, I and others like us, we were non-human excrescences that were hurtful to the eye, Lautreamont-like biological mishaps that slithered around leaving a trail of disgusting slime everywhere. This was rejection, and we knew it, and for the sake of our own humanity and self-worth we were left with no other choice than find our own way ad extempore out of the morass. And to this today this knee jerk of a judgement we rapidly became the butt of, is the one that stands. Simply a matter of having a chip on our shoulders - or so we've been accused of having - it robs our revolt of all logic and meaning. To say, in a headmasterly fashion, this is simply not good enough is to underestimate the powerful forces then only just coming into play and that marked the end of the post war social democratic consensus. And though this was ultimately true of America and all other European countries, here it took on an idiosyncratic class bias that is almost unfathomable to outsiders, though not to second and third generation immigrants.
England has especially prided itself on its liberal traditions and that nowhere on earth was the bourgeoisie more entrenched than here, leading Engels's to describe England as 'this most bourgeois of all nations' possessing both a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat at the opposite pole. Though throughout the 19th and early 20th century there were siren voices warning this was not quite the case, it took until the post war years for exhaustive studies like 'Power In Britain' to show that the country was in the grip of an old boys network whose vice like grip had to be broken if Britain was to reforge itself anew ' or rather refashion itself anew because art in one form or another would eventually give the impression of rising triumphant over the wreckage of Sheffield's Bessemer converters. However we knew from our own elder brothers how essentially deferential this new meritocracy was, our eldest brother in his final post as professor of architecture in Newcastle University happy as a pig in shit when out hobnobbing with his lordship of a vice chancellor and only griping about unearned privilege when safely out of earshot. However it has to be said in his favour that he did turn down invitations to attend the queen's garden parties when Sean Connery did not, though equally he held fast to the ridiculous view that the monarchy was a bulwark against tyranny. And he would have looked askance at the subject of the next couple of paragraphs, Dave Robins, regarding him as a dangerous, situationist inspired, rebel though in truth he would turn into an even more active monarchist than our elder brother. And there hangs a tale-----------.
Some weeks ago a member of our building gang received an urgent phone call to say that Dave Robins had only days to live and could we re-plaster a ceiling that had fallen in? It would have been like walking into the lion's den and so we nimbly handed the job on to someone else. Imagine what a painful experience that would have been with us up ladders covered in muck while a retinue of the great and good passed under them to pay their last respects to Robins, sneering at us behind our backs as 'sixties casualties'. And it would have been thought bad form if we asked for payment, despite the fact Robins lived in a house easily worth a million. Either way we were on a hiding to nothing and so why not confirm their worst suspicions that we are 'callous in the extreme' and be hung for a sheep as a lamb?
Dave Robins's obituary in the Guardian (12/8/07) is sub-headed '1960s underground journalist, sociologist and charity worker'. Written by Ian Buruma; a media-hogging litterateur if ever there was one, we learn Robins took part in the 1968 student rebellion (in fact the biggest general strike in French history though this is not mentioned) 'returning to London full of enthusiasm for the situationists, whose ideas about transforming life through spectacle and art appealed to him'. It is difficult to imagine a brief summing up that is more completely wide of the mark and so fundamentally wrong on all counts. (In fact Robins in 1967 had helped prepare for publication an edited version of Ten Days that Shook the University that had appeared in Circuit, a 'radical arts' magazine. Sending a copy to Don Smith he had been stung by Don's acerbic reply, sadly now lost, denouncing his superficial, radical arts, interpretation of situationist theory. Unfortunately the well deserved savaging was not enough though Robins did blanche at the mere mention of Don's name for several year afterwards). Buruma also lays stress on the fact that Robins came from a working class background in Willesden sometimes playing this up 'to his advantage' though neglecting to say this is the classic ploy of an opportunist and kowtowing to power always lead to betrayal.
Several of us were working on a boat in Chelsea harbour the day Robins' obituary appeared. It just so happened that Stevalapivala, one of the guys we worked with, had lived with Robins for two years and also 'a nice Jewish boy' from north London . This was on a Friday and for the whole of that day and the rest of the weekend Stevalapivala worried the matter, not letting it drop for a one moment. His unofficial obituary soared with inspired brilliance, each sally more incisive than the last, and I only wish I'd had a voice recorder at hand. We suggested he write his own appraisal of Robins in Wikipedia but unfortunately there is little chance of that. It is not so much that Stevalapivala is afraid to commit himself and speak his mind in public; rather that he eschews the merest hint of becoming a name, opting to shoot from the hip anonymously, though with deadly accuracy. Accustomed to acting on the spur of the moment, his reverence for maximum spontaneity means the loss of anything more durable and which, if written down or recorded in some way, could reach out to a far wider public and be a source of inspiration. Who would ever know that he deliberately spilt a cup of coffee over Sir Norman Foster, told Sir Richard Branson to fuck off (rather than calling the police, Branson offered him a free ticket to a concert) and called Martin Amis a cunt when he chanced on him in a street in Notting Hill. Great stuff.
Proposing to call the day 'Dave Robins Day' we also recollected reading an article in The Economist sometime in the late 1980s in which Robins, pretending to knowledge of building he did not have, quoted an enormously inflated weekend rate for young building workers employed on Canary Wharf 'with their trainers and tranees' which left us gasping and salivating at the mouth. We were at that time working for Dave Beida, the guy who was to contact us to ask if we would repair the damaged ceiling. Mentioning that he would be seeing Robins shortly, Stevalapivala had quickly chipped in 'oh and ask him where these jobs can be had as we'd like some of it'. We knew all to well that building workers were never paid anything like the sums Robins imagined they were, our 'working class hero' merely pandering to bourgeois prejudices as he almost always has done. The last time Stevalapivala had seen Robins was in Swiss Cottage. We were loading up a skip when we noticed Robins coming down the road. He proffered his outstretched hand to Stevalapivala who, instead of shaking it, filled it with pieces of broken plasterboard.
The obituary does say Robins became a director of grants at the John Lyons Charity, dispensing money from Harrow School to youth organisations in London. The public school settlements were a major part of the Victorian charity scene. In terms of salving the conscience of the rich there was nothing more prestigious or 'county'. Nor must we overlook that Cluttons, the ultra posh estate agent, is the property arm of Harrow public school. There never was a time when Robins would have despised such jobs, a bejewelled job description like the above always causing him to go weak at the knees. Notorious Stevalapivala put me right about that. Back in 1972 he had accompanied Robins to the 'left wing' watering hole The Gay Hussar, just for a laugh and to take the piss out of the clientele. He was not to be disappointed for Lord Rothschild and Lord Goodman were there, who, on seeing Robins, greeted him with a very effusive 'Heeeeello David'. Robins spent the rest of the evening apologising for his insolent friend who eventually was thrown out.
My memories of Robins is of a person who saw hierarchies, not authentic people, in front of him so is it any wonder that he should now prostrate himself before a quintessential pillar of the establishment, of Olde Englande. He certainly was not interested in either David or me because we could not advance his career and therefore were not worth knowing: things were by now that crude. How different his attitude toward us was from that of Fred Vermorel and Malcolm McClaren who, a mere four years earlier in the late sixties, paid the closest attention to what we had to say. It gives one an idea of the speed of the counter-revolution. For a brief period Robins had shared a flat with Chris Grey already by then turning to the east and the Rajneesh cult. There is no way a 'working class boy' from north London, especially not an educated one, could have related to that d'classe upper middle class milieu and he would have instantly seen that, despite appearances to the contrary, money, above all inherited wealth was the ruling deity and the outward show of being above capitalism and the labour market, phoney to the very core. All Robins stood to inherit was a pile of unpaid bills and like many another educated 'working class' lad and lass very quickly realised the only way these people were ever going to respect you was by getting on in the world and climbing the social ladder via a different route. Either that or savage them unremittingly from the sidelines. This was the only real way forward and Robins was never prepared to play the long game for it meant going down over. Never a very inviting prospect it has its compensations, not least because of the enormous territory it opens up which 'they' can only judge (mainly rebuke) from the outside lacking all day to day intimacy with it, and hence all feeling, and finally, understanding of it.
There is much more that could be said of the life and times of Dave Robins, of his friendship for instance with Dick Pountain (another situationist influenced person and rather more central to King Mob than Robins), the two of them collaborating on a crap book called Cool Britannia (2000) and who had the cheek to call himself a computer journalist in an supplementary obituary. I don't know any other computer journalist who has a 'cool' '50/'100 million in the bank. Besides that for decades he had nothing good to say about the late sixties becoming an apologist for Stalin in the seventies before finally turning up the free market message full blast as the money rolled in. I found Pountain's temporary infatuation with Stalin perplexing for the cult of Stalin in Britain was never as widespread here as it was in France and Italy. A gal from Liverpool , Freddie Cook, helped me out with this puzzle. The industrial districts of Derbyshire (Pountain came from Chesterfield) she claimed had an unusually pronounced Stalinist legacy differing markedly, say, from that of the northeast: for instance in Co Durham we only ever knew one Stalinist and that was the signalman who lived next door and though the ambience was one hundred percent Labour party the adults we tended to seek out as children, it has become clear in retrospect, belonged to the ILP and had Trotskyist and anarchist leanings. Freddie's remark is illuminating because it shows a novel familiarity with the difference between regions and sensitivity to the distinctive characters of northern cities. This was notably lacking in Orwell, Harrison, Jennings etc who, in the thirties, made the trek north (and Wales or London's east end but mainly the north) to confront their 'appointment with the future' in the shape of the industrial working class rather than a genuinely autonomous revolution made by them, Orwell excepted if his unforgettable account of the workers take over of Barcelona in Homage to Catalonia is anything to go by. Now these men would have been interested in these nuances if told about them: the King Mob elite, once past their unbeatable best, not at all, 'never work' ' as previously pointed out - rapidly and very unfortunately turning into a put down, in particular, of the industrial working class and a byword for the restoration of traditional privileges, though this time the task of 'coupon clipping' would take place in a cloud of cannabis smoke. The same cannot be said of Nick Brandt however who would avidly soak up such information and which is all to his credit. On the eve of the 1984/85 miners strike I well remember him asking about Barnsley, what did it look like etc, every minor detail relating to this town of absorbing interest to Nick and which, situated at the centre of Britain's largest coalfield, was also the headquarters of the NUM. A far away look crept into his eyes as though we were describing a fabled city at the end of the rainbow. We are not sneering at his response, simply regretting the loss of these glazed awed expressions that stole over a person at the mere mention of a town or region. Happening in tandem with the disappearance of insurrectionary hopes, the world is a much, much poorer place in their absence.
Highlighting Cool Rules jointly authored by Robins and Pountain, the obituaries in the Independent and the Guardian are nearly as much about Pountain as they are Robins. It was the summaries of the book we obsessed over the most as we felt they most summed up the contradictions, even bare faced hypocrisy, of the authors, both of them to us shining examples of the 'highly competitive and celebrity obsessed culture' they were condemning. Setting off a train of recollections in all of us I recalled the last time I had seen Robins and Pountain together it was Pountain chasing Robins, the latter the infinitely more pushy of the two, though both were avid for success. This was sometime in the early to mid seventies and I was in the company of Madeleine Neenan formerly the most active woman member of King Mob and she had at once remarked on their 'success ethic'. By now the finer gradations of hierarchies were really clambering into the saddle (though they still had a long way to go to before reaching today's insufferable Louis Quatorze type pettiness and order of rank) with neither of us able to play the game, though Madeleine tried and failed hopelessly, going mad in the process.
I was also led to reflect how little things had changed and how like a typical northern industrialist Pountain was, issuing disclaimers of his personal wealth and pretending to his former friends to be down to his last twenty pence when he was rolling in money. Meanwhile his boss Felix Dennis, a former editor of the underground newspaper Oz and now overlord of a vast, multi-billion dollar publishing empire spanning Maxim to Computer Buyer (Pountain's particular line of expertise), never passes up an opportunity, Mockney barrow-boy style, of proclaiming himself the 65th richest man in the UK, Pountain would never do this not because he finds it vulgar, as would former alumni of top public schools, but because of his background that puts a premium on mastery of industrial processes, the shop floor never leaving the millionaire, the millionaire never leaving the shop floor. This was once a key feature of British industry, the tendency toward a corporatism of skill implicit to it, a factor in preventing industrial unrest. Dennis, back in the seventies, was totally reliant on Pountain's technical grasp of the printing business, Pountain putting the magazines to bed and supervising each stage of the printing process and becoming very appreciative of the skills of printing workers, chatting to them for hours about technical matters which he found calmed him. Sickened by what he mistakenly considered to be the petite bourgeois nature of The Angry Brigade (a superficial comment culled from an increasingly Leninist perspective), the therapeutic nihilism of industrial technique temporarily relieved him of the anguish caused in part by the unwanted attention of the Special Branch. The latter interviewed him on two occasions on account of his links with members of The Angry Brigade and their numerous hangers on, the whole caboodle, surprising though this may now sound, having become a more or less fashionable thing to be a part of and like a new 'in crowd'.
Before dropping out Pountain had been a physics student at Imperial College and very quickly saw the potential in personal computers persuading Felix Dennis to produce Britain's first computer magazine which would make his fortune ' and point Dennis in the right direction who would eventually amass a treasure trove superior to that of Mick Jagger and the equal of Paul McCartney's. The tables had been turned and it was now Flash Robins chasing the outwardly Spartan Pountain who, affecting a certain down at the heels drabness, doesn't like it to be known he takes his holidays on Mustique, Dennis, who owns an island in the Caribbean, innocently revealing in his autobiography that he does. Such holiday venues are solely for the mega-rich who look down on mere millionaires as a sort of underclass.
When he was a student at Imperial College during the sixties Pountain rather than walk down King's Road, then the apotheosis of 'swinging' London would, en route to college, go out of his way to avoid it, he hated it so much. Finding the general ambience of phoney liberation completely depressing he once took to his pit of a bed for two weeks with only a large jar of pickled onions for food. Perhaps it was his visceral rejection of consumerism as epitomised by the fashion industry that drew him to situationist theory, immediately taking to it like a number of other science students did, before rejecting it in favour of an updated Stalinism (as mediated through Althusser) to be ditched in turn for the free market. From this superior vantage point he then proceeded to settle accounts with his past authoritarian errors. Scourging himself with capitalism he ascended ever higher into the heavens in perfect step with the mounting millions.
Pountain's supplementary obituary marks 'a return of the repressed' just as it denies it, wanting to believe the vogue word 'cool' means much the same as it did in the sixties. We never liked the term then and even less now (and, what's more, neither did Pountain) for there is more shit to get hot under the collar about today than ever. 'Cool' today is code for an expanding universe of buying and selling, a fact that Pountain and Robins readily acknowledge though not the closing off of revolutionary hopes the term now implies, for that dashed hope was now meaningless to them when they wrote Cool Rules in the final two years of the 20th century. In the fifties and sixties the word was sufficiently fluid to also vaguely signify opposition to work, exploitation, the stealing of time and so forth.
For a scientist and for a time Pountain in company with other revolutionary scientists showed a quick grasp of the revolution of modern art which can only have come through King Mob and the situationists. One has to go back to Chris Cauldwell in the late twenties early thirties to find a comparable synthesis, Cauldwell writing a book on art, Illusion and Reality and on science, The Crisis in Science the latter a remarkably prescient attempt to come to terms with quantum theory, Cauldwell declaring the wave and a particle duality (and a boon, incidentally, to the 'naturalizes' of dialectical materialism)was destined to poke a hole in the ordered, commonsensical world of the bourgeoisie that could not be patched up. (Living when he did Cauldwell could not have foreseen that quantum technology would 'change the world' in order that everything would remain the same and that the parallel universes announced by quantum theory would find a simulated realization in the 24/7 game playing avatars of cyberspace, the managed inner universes increasingly of use in the maintenance of social order.)
Illusion and Reality however is a pitiful eulogy of soviet style social realism and therefore totally counter to the subversive intent of The Crisis in Science. Now there can be no doubt that in the late sixties the synthesis these youthful revolutionary scientists around King Mob were striving for and who had rejected the role of scientist, not one of them able to take up the kind of jobs they had been trained for, was on a much higher level than that of Cauldwell. What's more they were all completely opposed to the usurpation of popular power implicit to Lenin's notion of the need for a vanguard party and therefore way beyond Cauldwell's idolization of Lenin. Phil Meyler - one of the scientists in crises - had written an MA thesis on Cauldwell whilst laudably copping a state student grant to avoid work, but which he has described as rubbish, although that is very unlikely. No one ever did get to read it and though possibly drawn to Cauldwell on account of his connection with Ireland there must have been other factors in play, like Cauldwell's botched earlier attempt to unify art and science. Transcending his background in science, Phil did go on to make very important contributions, perhaps most notably on the Portuguese uprising in the mid 1970s but there are others. But he was the only one and looking back it is the unproductive waste of talent and insight that is most distressing and it is now almost too late in the day to make good the absence by having it come from the horse's mouth. Besides the inclination is just no longer there. As with King Mob and the surrounding ambience what is most striking is the sorry fact so much was promised and so little delivered. And when it did deliver it was in the opposite perspective, coming gift-wrapped in zillions of pounds. In terms of a rags to riches story that contains a longish chapter describing an encounter with the most revolutionary theory the world was capable of at that time (call it what you will if in need of a name), there is nothing on the continent, or in America, to remotely compare with a figure like Dick Pountain, who flailing around sleeplessly on his diamond encrusted bedstead, still cannot lay the ghost of that radical past, try as he might.
I well remember the conversations about art I had with Dick Pountain sometime around the mid seventies when he was just beginning to slip into the Althusserian groove. But even so there was a finality about his views on art particularly music and the pop music scene which went way beyond anything proffered by his Sorbonne mentor. He was disappointed to find out that a blank album cover by a guitarist, whose name escapes me though it may well have been J J Cale, was a production slip-up. Dick (for then he was still Dick) had mistakenly thought it was a deep comment on the blankness of music with the refusal to perform and suicide the next step down the line. He had also been struck, as I had been, by a teen pop idol's comments (David Cassidy to be precise) on the reflex, automata-like behaviour of pop audiences who pissed themselves, screamed and fainted because they were now merely playing out a role, performing to themselves and to others and never at any stage wholly caught up in what they were doing. I recall him also scoffing at some reproduction of paintings by monkeys that an animal behaviourist claimed showed signs of an aesthetic sense. To Dick aesthetics could not be reduced to mere pretty patterns and to use the term whilst a watertight scientific theory of the aesthetic was lacking, was a meaningless endeavour.
This was where we parted company because Kant had tried to do precisely that, though Dick would have instantly bridled at the mere suggestion Kant was scientific, though actually he was the equal in terms of pure science of any scientist then working. (I had just nicked Kant's Critique of Judgement from the Oxford University bookshop in Charing Cross Rd). At any rate like a scientific judgement Kant's theory was meant to be applicable to all time and places and like a scientific judgement though not independent of history was not identical with it either, the philosophy of history in Kant something of an afterthought and of considerable less importance in his overall system than aesthetics. Hegel had marked a considerable advance on this hypostatisation; historicising everything he got his hands on, arguing that 'laws of art' are much more variable than scientific laws and that they are the more immediate products of an unfolding human praxis, or consciousness, which is much the same thing in Hegel's system. Such a conception also differentiates the 'aesthetic' sense of animals from that of humans because it implies a constant discarding and renewal of meaning in accord with humanity's unfolding aspirations which does not happen, and cannot happen, in the animal world to anything like the same extent as in the human. Monkey or elephant paintings say more about us than they do monkeys or elephants.
I also remember that I had recently nicked all four volumes of Hegel's Philosophy of the Fine Arts and I been literally bowled over by his declaration that the arts were dying. As I recall the supercession of painting would be replaced either by technical illustration or, temporarily, by the fog of mysticism before the final triumph of the philosophical life, the only true life according to Hegel. To me lounging in a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove between spells out plastering and getting covered in shit, it summed up perfectly what was happening to Chris Grey and, rather than going back into art, went some way to explaining his flirtation with the abysmal Rajneesh cult. Though I never discussed it with Dick who was now becoming increasingly hostile to the Hegelian legacy in Marx, treating it as a symptom of scientific immaturity, Hegel's views on art had come as a stunning revelation to me. I have been wrestling with them ever since trying to give them a contemporary glow, adding bits on here and there as the disintegration of artistic form becomes increasingly mainstream but its revolutionary consequences ever more remote. Dick had wanted to set light to the Hegelian legacy (especially singling out George Lukacs) emblazing the pyre with the words: 'Hegel is dead, killed by Nietzsche', a sentiment which also stemmed from Althusser, reflecting the latter day Stalinoid rehabilitation of Freud and his precursors. For a while Dick had pinned up a photo of Nietzsche that horrified a couple of visitors mistakenly taking it to be that of Stalin for there was a passing resemblance, both sporting moustaches!
Dick was also at this time beginning to radically overhaul what Marx actually said expelling not only all mention of dialectics in favour of pure science but rejecting slogans like 'abolition of the wages system', (which Marx had proposed at the time of the First International), declaring money could never be abolished. And the most that could be achieved in this direction----were (would you credit it!) credit cards that were then coming on stream but nothing like as ubiquitous as they are now. This 'credit card communism' relieving people of the burden of carrying money, guilt at the possession of it and licensing a freedom to purchase recklessly, because of the mistaken notion it gave rise to that it was the plastic and not the consumer that was paying, must be accredited with helping bring down the Soviet Union. Certainly an organisation Pountain was affiliated with, 'The British and Irish Communist Organisation', thought that the Tory Chancellor Lawson's 1987 budget was very influential in undermining the Soviet Union. Britain then possessed large state controlled industries and though most of them would be shortly privatised was much closer in every respect to Russia than America. The same organisation had only a few years' earlier published transcripts of the Moscow Trials of the early 1930s that 'proved' the culpability of 'capitalist roaders' like Nickolai Bukharin and which Pountain had appeared to unhesitatingly agree with. Then living in a two bed roomed flat with a child, he had dreamed of unleashing the 'red terror' and giving firing squads the order to shoot. But by this time it would have been the actual revolution that was first in the firing line, as always is the case whenever a 'red terror' (i.e. ultimately pro-capitalist terror) has been unleashed. Is it to be wondered the guy had to flagellate himself with the free market that, to most others, is turning out to be the worst scourge ever and that will achieve the ultimate purification of the human race by liquidating it.
I do wonder if there were not figures comparable to Dick Pountain in the former Soviet Union around that time. Inevitably they would have belonged to the nomenclature, apparatchiks who would shortly profit from the biggest state sell-offs in history, some becoming billionaires many times over like Yukos magnate, Khordovsky and Chelsea FC's Abramovich. Could they be heard advancing similar arguments in the eighties to Dick, bending Marx to prove their point in a country that had made a habit of bending Marx to justify every shift in policy? Perhaps one day more light will be shed on this particular period in history and who knows what juicy surprises will be in store for us?
By the late 1970s, very early 80s at most, the breach was almost complete and we no longer sought out each other's company. We met up the last time in a basement flat Pountain had just recently purchased close to the Notting Hill tube. He was becoming property conscious and though I did not quite like to admit it, I thought he was more bothered we did not drop ash on his antique sideboard than by anything we had to say. Less than a decade earlier he and Phil Meyler (who was present at the last meeting), rebelling against Christmas had shot up a Xmas tree with an air gun, smashing every bauble on it, before driving some 400 miles across America in total silence finally stopping and alighting on what they took to be grass. Finding it was astro-turf Dick had broken the silence to ask, 'Is this the future?' Money and property make a person conservative practically overnight but even I was shocked to hear that in the 1990s he had objected to someone turning up dressed improperly in everyday clothes at the funeral of a Bunch Books comic illustrator, one of Felix Dennis's earlier publishing ventures.
Nasty Tales had been one of the comic books and which are now collectors' items. Significantly it was never able to change into anything like Puzz, an Italian comic of the mid to late 1970s that did begin to more memorably represent the alienations of modern capitalism, for a brief period, in a popular format, 'Nasty Tales' never getting, manga style, beyond the merely pathological. And had they done so they would never have sold and Felix Dennis was only ever into publishing to make a profit. I remember one strip that dealt with the relationship between a husband and wife and the seriously nasty effect a growth the size of a pumpkin on the wife's face had on those around. Turning out to be a brain tumour, the comic strip ended with her husband saying 'Kill the Whore of Rome' and an acquaintance replying 'Kill Everyone'. Dick thought such nasty tales a sign that pathology, normally the province of the right, had shifted leftwards and that the right would never again be able to use 'evil' as potently as it had once done. All the right could come up with was the prissy morality of the Festival of Light spearheaded by Mary Whitehouse and that was a real wet blanket. But that was then and the dual heritage of political correctness, a bastard child of free market sensitivities and 'left,' political liberalism, still barely heard of. However in the minds of most people it is firmly identified with the latter and to speak out in utter disregard of an internal censor (and a project dear to surrealism once the stage of poetic archaism the surrealists tended to favour, despite themselves, had been left behind) is to risk being thought, if not a potential fascist, certainly a very brutal, degraded person in sore need of reconstruction and therapy. It all adds up to the fact that the uninhibited, authentic voice of the proletariat has never been so monitored, suppressed, fettered, gagged, manacled and feared, (because the conditions are ripe for it to catch on), as now.
I do recall the last time we saw Dick there was either a very early desktop computer or word processor on the table, which Phil almost immediately began to practise on. He later commented that he could tell Dick's articles in commuter magazines had been written on a word processor because of the default mode of writing, every unnecessary word having been stripped out. I cannot recall if we discussed computer art on this occasion but we certainly had on some other, Dick believing the computer held the key to the solution of the antimony between art and science. Though this was well before the creation of Photoshop even then it was apparent that what Dick now meant by art was a whole load of tricksy paintshop effects delivering old master patinas and smudgy impressionist prints for the masses, to layering and avant-garde collages for the more daring and all just one big load of predictable crap none of which was worth a second glance. The programs are sold under the command to 'get creative', and though promised, creativity is the last thing they deliver and more disheartened than ever I was distressed by the ease at which Dick had been taken in by this ultra conservative nonsense and the descent into the most banal conformity it seemed to signify. This was not what was meant by the realisation of art and I felt Dick had been much closer to it earlier on in the seventies when desperately twanging away on his guitar using a test tube as a slide, he seemed to be testing the limits of what a guitar was capable of. Wanting a new life and depressed at the hopelessness of ever producing a new sound he, like Hendrix, whose psychedelic guitar noises were just then being issued and broadcast to an uncomprehending public, sensed that beyond lay a whole territory of new activity outside the scope of 'music' ' the collapse of referentials meant there was much italicising to do - but which was somehow still related to it.
Though the above reflections may seem to have gone off at several tangents, they give an idea of how wide ranging, and challenging, discussions then were and how narrowed down to nothingness they have since become. And so back to the obituaries which prompted the detours------.
Robins at best was only ever marginally aware of the critique of art (he married an art historian) and was working on a grandiose synoptic novel, portentously entitled The Great Willesden Novel, when he died. A sample of his jottings was reproduced in his obituary: 'the libertarian loony left scene of the early seventies was very strong on rogering and leg-over. It was a leg-over based scene. The centrality of leg-over'. The libertine behaviour that Robins describes, and participated in to the full, had by the early seventies become corroded with money and power and essentially available only to those on the make, women as well as men.The occasional egalitarianism that had characterised sex in the sixties vanished almost overnight and it would have been altogether more accurate if Robins had written that by the early seventies the age of fucking and uncomplicated hedonism was rapidly coming to an end, to be replaced by an unnavigable ersatz of sex. Increased commodification stripped sex bare of Eros and henceforth the hideous, chaste union of the two ravening sharks in Maldoror would have been a closer approximation to the truth of relationships generally.
Inevitably, though there are major differences, a person like Robins reminds me of my elder brothers. However they were never as influential as Robins: though my elder brothers were on their knees, they were just too square, too fifties, for them to carry that much weight. When my second eldest brother died there was to be no obituary to him: the guy was just too much of a fuddy-duddy for that. Though very conservative at least you knew what you were dealing with. However it is a vastly different matter with people like Robins as a reborn establishment needs such figures that once upon a time had dabbled with radical theory to provide it with a renewed legitimacy.
Incomplete: Stuart Wise September to November 2007
Following footnote by DW:
On Ripon Grammar School - which we attended for two nightmarish years after four years in a secondary modern school followed by a year in a technical school.
After the 11+ exam there were only two choices if you weren't in the fee paying category and that was either the secondary modern or the grammar school. The former was training for manual work whilst the latter was for professional work. The technical schools were for the 15+ basically the 'brighter' secondary modern pupils encouraging a technical education up to basic GSE level (General Certificate of Education). During the 1970s after the egalitarian explosion of the late 1960s ' though the explosion was ten times more than that ' a system of 'comprehensive schools' came into existence which combined secondary modern and grammar school. Generally they were Labour party inspired set against the perceived inequities of the 11+ era and crude class divisions. By the end of the 1970s, Thatcherism opposed all of this and though not going back to anything like the old system desired a populist elitism based more on money than traditional class differences in the UK. The public schools were (and are) the back bone of the real Anglo-Scottish aristocracy and, more essentially, the upper middle class. Thatcher disliked these schools as they stood and wanted to democratise them by way of a Thatcherite inspired nouveau riche that had bought their municipal rented home, becoming self-employed in the process - heading towards rich businessman/woman status - and intelligently working the stock market. As for the grammar schools Thatcher wanted them to fight back against lowest common denominator Labour party inspired orientation and retain their traditional aura though becoming less snobbish in the process and where crude business practise wasn't a dirty word. In the late 1950s, Ripon Grammar school was even then a relic of a bygone age (a relic so familiar to Olde Englande) and a former cathedral school harking way back before the Lutheran inspired Reformation of King Henry the Eighth's reign. It was brutal in its respect for traditional hierarchies'. And yet not quite so as our Eng Lit obsessed headmaster was also a fervent Labour party supporter and thus set against the rampant traditional Toryism of this part of North Yorkshire (we were bussed in daily!) who'd also come from relatively low down the social scale ' probably lower middle class - and through dint of hard work had acquired a scholarship to go to Oxford University. He was just as equally obsessed with Spain in 1936 though filtered through the eyes of the contemporary Oxford poets (Spender and Auden in particular though I guess he felt nothing for a CP oriented Marxist writer like Chris Caudwell who was also part of the Oxbridge setup). And when this guy, our headmaster, mentioned George Orwell it was the Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm and not the superb Homage to Catalonia which he probably instinctively knew to keep away from. He saw in Stuart and I persons somewhat like himself and therefore pathologically hated us, though this was perhaps expressive of his own self-hatred. Interestingly during the late 1960s this headmaster was to say at a school speech day - and noteworthy because it was reported in the press - that "revolution was something that completely took possession of you and which you were powerless to resist" and he meant by revolution the activities of the Angry Brigade. A really schizoid guy. Little did he know we wanted to go with The Angry Brigade to blow Ripon Grammar School sky high!!
For further recent commentary related to the above read the following in the "Wreckage & bric-a-brac" series: