The 1970s – growing up in black and white

I got a great book for Christmas. It’s called “Goodbye to London”, subtitled “Radical Art and Politics in the 1970s”. Kudos to Andrew for a) knowing I’d like it and b) knowing it existed, but then again, he does work at Amazon. It features Jon Savage, Peter Kennard (I had a much prized boxed collection of his political postcards many years ago, photo-montages about the arms race, Blair Peach, animal experiments, the miners, etc) and Derek Jarman, and the foreword is by Astrid Proll.

WHen I was growing up in the 1970s, women such as Astrid Proll, Leila Khaled, and the Price sisters were all over the media. Women who were all involved in terrorist activity. In the case of Astrid Proll and Leila Khaled there were iconic photos of them that were instantly recognisable. (Is iconic the right word when you’re talking about terrorists? Is that picture of Myra Hindley from the time of her arrest iconic? Or does the word imply a degree of admiration?) The fact was, Astrid Proll and Leila Khaled garnered more media attention than their comrades in the Baader-Meinhof gang and the PLO because of those photos, not just because they were attractive but because they were doe-eyed and, unlike Hindley, didn’t look capable of brutal acts. For a ten year old, twelve year old, which I was at the time, there was a certain fascination. I’ve since read the book, “Shoot the Women First”, which is case studies of a number of female terrorists. It’s a bit tabloidy, but worth a read.

In the foreword to this book, Astrid Proll argues that the counter-culture of the 1970s was in fact far more important than that of the much-feted 1960s. She talks about getting to know the English Left when she fled to London in 1974, to avoid arrest in Germany for her activities as a “violent anarchist” in the Baader Meinhof gang. She says that in England the Left was far more pragmatic than the leftists in Germany: “They did not lose themselves in theories; they wanted to out concrete projects into action. Germany idealism and the Germany predilection for ideologies was alien to them.” She does however then talk about meeting a theorist from the radical group Big Flame (not the band, they came later!) who wanted hoped that revolutionary ideas would take root amongst workers in the British car industry. She says that “In contrast to German workers, integrated and saturated by the West German economic miracle, British workers had a class consciousness that impressed me.” she also talks about the growth of the women’s movement, gay rights, the Asian female immigrants on the Grunwick picket line, and about the importance of squatting: “the squats were the material basis and precondition for the emergence of political activism, art and alternative life”.

In the chapter by Jon Savage there’s a character called Woody Mellor, whose band was named the 101-ers after the house number of the squat in Walterton Road where he lived. He of course went on to become Joe Strummer. The squatters were advised on legal matters by Piers Corbyn, now better known as brother of Jeremy and a somewhat eccentric weatherman.(As in forecaster, not the Weathermen…) The chapter by Savage does a brilliant job in meshing together the different strands of counterculture, politics, industrial unrest and the rise of the punk scene and Rock Agajnst Racism.

One of the interesting points he makes about squatting is that “The economic crisis meant that public slum-clearance schemes and private-property development were stalled, with the consequence that there were an estimated hundred thousand houses lying empty in the capital. In the earlier sixties, many squatters had been down-and-outs, desperate for shelter, who would tear the fabric of the building apart. The new breed was much younger, much more ideologically driven. Practicality – having somewhere to live near the centre of London – went hand in hand with idealism: preserving worthwhile buildings, and attempting a different way of life.” He then goes on to say “There were whole areas of inner London lying behind corrugated iron” and refers to places such as Tolmers Square, near Euston Station, which had deliberately been left to run down by property speculators (presumably so that they could eventually overturn their listed status and demolish them?)

Savage notes that London is now a very different place. That the areas squatted have now in many cases been replaced by new social housing, and London “now feels very crowded”. He says there is one huge difference between London now and in the 1970s: “the inner city was once full of blank spaces and empty places and – as in New York, Berlin and other major Western cities – they have all but disappeared. It as in these interzones that an alternative society once flourished and developed, and a prolonged economic boom has now resulted in their eradication.”

I mention this at some length because of course the current Government is seeking to criminalise squatting. Others say that the current civil laws are perfectly adequate to deal with it. I don’t know if the squatters of today bear much resemblance to the movement of the 1970s. I know there are similar motivations at work, but the dynamic seems very different. But I’m perhaps too far removed from it to judge.

I always think of the 1970s in black and white, except for punk – punk was dayglo and tartan and stripey mohair and then Joy Division came along and it went black and white again. Nearly all the photos in the book are too. It’s a notable omission really – there’s been endless analysis of the ‘baby boomers’ and the sixties generation, and Thatcher’s children, but there’s not been much attention given to the generation that grew up in these grim, grey times. Quite a few of us are in Parliament now, although it’s those who came along a few years later, riding the wave of new romanticism and the eighties consumer boom that are running the country.

The book, by the way, is linked to the Goodbye to Britain exhibition which was on in Berlin. There’s a chapter on gay liberation, another on radical art (particularly photography and photo-montages – what’s today’s equivalent, the photoshopped crowd-sourced stuff that we saw with My David Cameron and other web-based satire? Is that today’s political art?) Well worth digging out a copy.

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