The British Museum reading room opened in 1857 and was, until recently, the main reading room of the British Library. Phil Cohen gives a moving and at times very funny account of how his life as a (sometime) shoplifter, Situationist, squatter and sociologist has been deeply entwined with the British Library Reading Room and the surrounding London streets:
Many people have written more vividly than I could about the special aura of the reading room(1). For some it has to do with the sheer pleasure of working in such a beautiful environment under the immense dome, that ‘huge, bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names’ as Virginia Woolf put it, in A Room of One’s Own. Certainly the room’s association with great writers and intellectuals of the past is part of its enduring legacy. For others, working there offered a sense of belonging to a community of scholars, a constant incitement to add one’s own small mite to the sum of human knowledge.
Important though such factors are, the strength of my attachment to the place has more personal and emotional roots. For the BM was part of my childhood landscape and the reading room itself subsequently came to represent a mental breathing space, somewhere where it was possible to recognise who and what is not part of the inferno. Much of my life has been spent in quest of that.
In the account that follows I have not ignored the darker aspects of this journey. But in describing what it was like to grow up in Bloomsbury in the late 1940s and 50s, my experiences of life at school and university, and my subsequent involvement in the ‘alternative society’ of the sixties, I have tried as far as possible to follow Italo Calvino’s advice. This memoir ends where it began, with the British Museum, reflecting on its reading room culture and the changes brought about by the move to St Pancras.
All memoirs are to some extent an exercise in special pleading and this one is no exception. The reader may find the preoccupation with class distinctions and their social geography, somewhat old fashioned. I can only plead that they were important when I was growing up, and I think still are, even if their harder edges have become blurred.
The account of my schooling may strike some as a bad case of biting the hand that feeds. I did, after all, have a very privileged education for which my parents made considerable financial sacrifices. Unfortunately, in the private schools I attended, the pursuit of ‘healthy minds in healthy bodies’ did not engage with the new understandings about children’s emotional and social needs that had emerged from the war, largely influenced by studies into the long term impact of early trauma, separation and loss. As it was, I had a very bumpy ride, which left me with an attitude of extreme ambivalence towards formal education, and indeed, at times, to book culture itself. The importance of the reading room in this context is that it provided a therapeutic environment, in a way that helped me work through some of these issues and negotiate a better modus Vivendi with the Academy.
Finally, some of those involved in the sixties counter-culture may feel that I have tended to treat it as a mere folly of youth: a lot of fun, and some of it very funny, whether intentionally or not, but not to be taken too seriously. Certainly from the standpoint of a more cynical and po-faced political age, much of what we got up to must seem hopelessly idealistic or naive. And perhaps we did have too much optimism of the will, and not enough pessimism of the intellect. We underestimated how easily and quickly some of our ideas would be ‘recuperated’, whether by the so called creative industries or in ‘power to the peepul’ type rhetorics. Nevertheless the style of political engagement we developed, with its emphasis on direct and symbolic action, continues to have contemporary relevance, for example, as a model for the environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. So although I have not discussed the ideas that motivated our various campaigns in any detail – this is not an intellectual biography – I have indicated in the footnotes some of the sources for a deeper and more serious appraisal.
In any case, the portraits I have drawn in the account that follows have been done with a sense of affection and gratitude. I am not claiming them as true likenesses, nor do I intend them to flatter, but I do hope that they will provoke some recognition amongst readers who are my contemporaries and some interest amongst those who are not.
Growing up in Bloomsbury
Where we lived became a bone of contention in my family. Not that the physical facts were in dispute: Endsleigh Court is a large private block of flats in Upper Woburn Place, just across from St Pancras Church, surrounded by hotels catering to passing trade from the three nearby mainline stations: Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross. Despite this, my parents fiercely insisted we lived in Bloomsbury. ‘ Say you come from Bloomsbury, not Euston, if they ask you’, my mother urged when I went off to prep school in Sloane Square.
Even at the age of five or six, a child’s sense of social geography can be highly developed and I quickly picked up that ‘Bloomsbury’ was where people like us lived, whereas the areas around the stations, especially Somers Town, were full of dangerous and disreputable characters and definitely out of bounds. It was also where the children whom I saw playing so animatedly in the council flats at the back of ours, were rumoured to go to school. As a result these places took on a special allure for me. They were where I staged my wildest imaginary adventures. I even concocted a story – what Freud calls a ‘family romance’ – to the effect that the couple who claimed to be my parents had come across me in my pram on Euston station and taken me home with them. Like all foundling phantasies, this gave me scope to invent a more exotic parentage for myself, as well as, in kinder moments, allowing that I might just possibly have been rescued rather than kidnapped.
Perhaps at a deeper, more unconscious level, the story spoke to my sense of abandonment – I had been evacuated as a baby to my grandmother in south Wales to escape the flying bombs and this early separation left its mark. As a myth of origin, it also gave me a way to distance myself from what I came to see as my parent’s social pretentions, if only by apprenticing myself to a form of inverted snobbery that it took me a long time to outgrow. Still, there was a practical problem about telling school friends that I came from Euston: no-one believed me. Euston, in so far as they had ever heard of the place, was a railway station, and no-one lived in railway stations except tramps. And then there was the plain fact that our actual neighbourhood – the area we most frequented as a family – was bounded by Euston Road, Tottenham Court Road, Holborn/ New Oxford Street and Southampton Row. So Bloomsbury was a pretty fair description of where we lived, however diffident I came to feel about using it as my own address.
My father was a keen pedestrian, although he walked too briskly to ever become a genuine flaneur. Even as a young man he used to carry a walking stick, as if setting out on a long hike across difficult country, leaning forward into a wind that was not always there. As soon as I was two and old enough to wear a sailor suit, I was strapped into a special harness with reins, which in those days was used to steer toddlers along and catch them if they stumbled, and off we went like a pony and trap.
Many of our early excursions were to the nearby Bloomsbury squares. Nearest of all was Tavistock square, a rather dreary place for a child with its ‘Keep Off the Grass’ signs but enlivened by the presence of a pavement artist who had set up his pitch just outside the gates. He was a small, bird like man with a pinched, weather beaten face and a small moustache. He wore a grimy old overcoat on even the warmest of days and I noticed his hands were always smudged with charcoal and chalk dust. I envied him his grubbiness– clearly no-one told him off to go and wash his hands or brush his hair! But to my mother’s eye he must have looked the very image of a down and out. She always tried to pull me away whenever I went up close to inspect his work, in case, she explained, I caught fleas. I was fascinated by the vivid, brightly coloured pictures he drew of horses and jockeys, under which he wrote their names and the betting odds for the race in which they were currently featuring. In addition to these tips of the day, he drew cartoons of politicians, often accompanied by obscure illustrated comments on topical events. I used to ask for sixpence to drop in his hat, in the belief that I was saving him from certain starvation. It came as a shock when, many years later, I learnt from the local paper that he had been a very wealthy man, with a house on millionaire’s row in Bishop’s Avenue. Apparently he used to travel to the square in his chauffeur driven Rolls and change into his tramp’s outfit in the back of the car before starting work for the day: as bizarre a version of the rags to riches story as there ever was.
If Tavistock had its human attractions, Gordon Square, on the next block down, was much more fun. You could play on the grass, have a picnic, even sit on a swing! And there might be other children. For although the houses lived in by Keynes and the other’ Bloomsberries’ had been taken over for offices by the University of London, and the whole of the north side of the square, badly bomb damaged, was being demolished to make way for the Institute of Archaeology, there was still a considerable residential presence in and around the neighbourhood. The solicitors, doctors and other professional folk who lived in the vicinity used it as their private garden and in the Summer held parties there. Although we had managed to acquire a set of keys through my father’s contacts, we were never invited to these events, and I do remember thinking that this was rather unfair.
Woburn Square, just over the road, was also private and hardly used, at least I never remember seeing anyone in it. The only feature of interest to me was a bombed out church at one corner, its facade still intact and supported by wooden scaffolding, although the rest of the building had been demolished. It was a great place for a game of hide and seek, but otherwise I wondered what it was still doing there. I had become something of a connoisseur of bomb sites and watched with interest as they started sprouting ‘prefabs’. Why couldn’t they install a couple of these behind the church front and we could give up our flat and go and live in one? From my point of view it was an obvious move. It meant you had your own little house, even a bit of garden, and got to play outdoors with other kids. I was very disappointed when I learnt that the site was still consecrated and used during the Summer months for open air services, commemorating people from the area who had lost their lives during the war.
Once I was seven, and equipped with a tricycle or ‘trike’, Russell Square became my favourite haunt. Here I conducted my own personal Tour de Bloomsbury, pedalling furiously round and round the perimeter path in pursuit of imaginary rivals whom I always somehow managed to catch and pass just before reaching the finishing line to win the coveted yellow jersey, followed by a triumphant ice cream or hot chocolate at the cafe. The square also had a major hidden attraction. I learnt there was a ‘secret’ extension of the Piccadilly Line, running from Russell Square tube station to the British Museum, which had never been brought into use. Or had it? I used to pretend that if I put my ear to the ground while sitting on the grass, I could hear this ‘ghost train’ as it rumbled through the tunnel underneath the Square delivering its cargo of phantom passengers.
The Museum was thus a compelling, if somewhat spectral, presence in my landscape. No turn around the neighbourhood was complete without a visit to see the lions who faithfully guarded its rear entrance in Montagu Place. As a toddler, I remember being lifted onto their backs, and fancying a future as a lion tamer, but then looking up at the fierce expression on their faces I had second thoughts. Perhaps they were only waiting for suitable prey before springing to life? Even as a fully fledged pedestrian, aged six, I used to feel a little thrill of apprehension each time I went past, as if daring them to pounce once my back was turned. Would they be able to devour me before I reached the safety of the Museum entrance hall? Sensibly enough, I decided not to risk it. Clearly the lions’ mission was to protect the Museum from unwelcome visitors and I could not be sure I was not one of them.
In this way I argued myself out of any desire to go inside. In fact we did make one or two family forays into the Museum when I was a bit older but they were not a success. As far as I was concerned most of the exhibits consisted of tiny objects in glass cases with inscriptions I could hardly read, let alone make sense of. I was initially intrigued by all those statues with missing limbs – were they of people who had lost their arms and legs in battle? I was disappointed by my father’s reassurance to the contrary. So if the statues were broken, why didn’t they just mend them ? My main impression was of the ground floor galleries, and then not so much of the things in them but the sheer immensity of the halls themselves, such a contrast to the cramped low ceilinged flat where I spent so much of my time.
I did have one source of inside information about the BM. One of our neighbours in the flats, Mr Skeet, worked in the Department of Ancient Manuscripts. His son, Jonathon, a boy of about my own age, with whom I did not get on particularly well, gave me to understand that as ‘keeper of old papers’ his dad held a position of some power and responsibility. However when I asked what his dad actually did, Jonathon replied that he sat at his desk all day and cleaned stuff up with a small brush before writing out little labels saying what was on them. As my own father spent his time saving people’s lives by taking out their tonsils, I was not unduly impressed.
At around this time I was introduced to the joys of Pollock’s model theatres and entered its ‘penny plain tuppence coloured’ world with zest. As well as staging elaborate productions of Cinderella, Aladdin, Treasure Island, and Babes in the Wood, complete with music, lighting and sound effects, I would select and combine characters and scenery from all these classics as the basis for writing and performing my own plays. The ugly sisters regularly found themselves transported by pirate ship to a desert island in search of buried treasure, only to discover that Cinders and her Prince had got there first, thanks to a flying carpet kindly lent by Aladdin and Co. In search of new material, I used to make frequent expeditions to the Pollock’s shop off Museum Street, and so became familiar with the BM’s immediate hinterland, a fascinating area, then as now, with its inviting alleyways and hidden courtyards.
This in turn brought me to Holborn and the edges of the known world. Here new pleasures and excitements awaited me. For my tenth birthday my parents bought me a model train set made by Basset Lowkes. They had a shop in High Holborn, a Mecca for model enthusiasts, young and old, so this quickly became a site of regular Saturday morning pilgrimage. And then, if there was time, I would make for Gamages.
Gamages was more like an oriental bazaar than a department store. It specialised in what were then called novelties and fancy goods; you could roam around this vast ramshackle emporium and find the most extraordinary things. Plastic flowers that glowed in the dark, coronation potties with a picture of the Queen in full regalia inside the bowl, awaiting your pleasure, and a cake stand on wheels, that played selections from Gilbert and Sullivan when you pushed it along, these were just some of the items I remember. But for children, Gamages meant only one – or rather two – things: Christmas and toys. It had the best grotto in town and the best selection of decorations, party games, indoor fireworks and other festive delights. From my point of view however, the biggest attraction of all was that it sold magic tricks.
I had been given a small conjuring set as a Christmas present and rapidly became immersed in the arts of legerdemain, learning how to turn glasses of milk into wine, make handkerchiefs change colour, wands float in the air and all manner of objects disappear or jump from place to place. I quickly discovered that with a good line in patter and a bit of misdirection you could perform miracles. And also that it was a good way to make friends and influence people. As a form of moral education, conjuring may have rather dubious implications but for someone as shy as I was, the ability to ‘do tricks’ provided a source of social confidence otherwise sorely lacking.
If Bloomsbury was opening up new worlds of interest to me, the Museum itself, with its long forecourt and imposing classical facade, remained remote and forbidding, a place to be circumnavigated but not explored. Yet had I known of the existence of the reading room, I am sure I would have turned it instantly into an enchanted castle and never wanted to leave. The idea that there was a place where all the books in the world worth reading were gathered together and could simply be yours for the asking would have struck me as heaven on earth.
My first reading room
We were in our way quite a bookish family, although my parents had very different tastes in literature, as in politics and much else. My mother came from a family of self employed builders in Bridgend, South Wales, and left school at fifteen before running away to London to become a nurse. A staunch Tory, a Thatcherite even before Mrs Thatcher, her reading consisted solely of popular detective novels or thrillers. She would get through two or three books a week, especially when she was laid up in bed, as she was for long periods, with a bad back. My father, in contrast, was a life long socialist, of pronounced left wing sympathies, and very widely read, especially in Russian literature. He had grown up in the kind of Jewish family which, though poor, placed a high value on learning. He won a scholarship to Glasgow’s top Grammar school and would have preferred to follow an academic career but was advised there was more money in medicine. In his later years he fulfilled his early ambition by becoming a rare book collector, with many fine first editions on his shelves, and took to writing articles on aspects of medical history for learned journals.
The roots of my own bookishness lay in rather different soil. I was a lonely only child – after Jonathon Skeet left, there were no children in the flats to play with and the few friends I made at school lived far away in Pimlico, Chelsea or Knightsbridge. So books and the characters in them had quite early on became my true companions. I found them more entertaining than people; they told you stories, not what to do. The first book that captured my imagination was an illustrated history of flying – my father had served as a doctor in the RAF after the war – and the first aeroplanes, with their improbable looking wings, quickly flew into my dreams, often to crash, leaving me as the sole survivor.
By seven I was ready for ‘real’ i.e. non-picture, books, and spent the next few years devouring adventure stories of every kind. Biggles, winning the war in the air almost single handed, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Eric Linklater’s Pirates of the Deep Green Sea, and Midshipman Hornblower, the swashbuckling hero of C.S.Forester’s nautical yarns, were some of my best friends. I was especially keen on stories about runaways, castaways, stowaways and children who lived on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. If I preferred being shipwrecked with The Swiss Family Robinson rather than Defoe’s original, it was only because they had children; and I delighted in Eve Garnett’s Family from One End Street, because the young Ruggles, all eight of them, seemed to have so much fun together, like the kids in the council flats. I was not much taken with animal stories, such as Dr Doolittle, but made an exception in the case of Wind in the Willows whose social geography was so close to home. I felt instant kinship with Mole and Ratty and the world of riverbank – sparking off a life-long passion for messing around in boats – because I had, after all, a ‘wild wood’ of my own, full of stoats and weasels, just down the road, while my prep school in Sloane Square turned out to be full of Mr Toads.
I read and enjoyed the usual children’s’ classics, but heartily disliked the ‘improving’ books I was occasionally given by my godparents or won as school prizes: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Mrs Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman – an insufferable prig who made his way in the world through ruthless industry – were among my pet hates. My father tended to give me books by authors he had liked when young – Kipling, G.A.Henty and Rider Haggard. I was not so keen on them, not on account of any repudiation about their ‘ perspectives’ but because I lacked a properly imperial imagination. I could no more identify with Henty’s Wulf the Saxon or travel With Clive to India, than I could see myself going off with Allan Quatermain to Africa in search of King Solomon’s Mines.
Instead I supplemented my reading with weekly doses of the Hotspur, a boys own paper that specialised in school stories and detailed extraordinary exploits on the cricket or football field in page after page of the densest print. One serial featured a school that had decamped into a flying boat and went on a world tour, stopping off each week for lessons and adventures in a different place. Now that was the kind of education I could really use!
Most of the books I read came from the Boots library in Southampton Row. This was a subscription library patronised by the genteel middle class who were willing to pay for the privilege of not using the local public library which, of course, was free but suffered from the disadvantage that it was frequented by ‘the lower orders’. Boots books had a peculiar smell to them; it reminded me of the Vick inhaler I had to use whenever I got a snuffy nose. The association may not have been far off the mark because Boots had a policy of disinfecting their books to protect readers from catching germs, as daft a scheme as only a Chemist’s could have dreamt up. But to this budding bookworm the smell was as sweet as the finest Dior perfume, evoking the promise of many happy hours to be spent in the company of fearless heroes as they overcame every danger, achieved their missions and arrived triumphantly back home in time for tea.
At around eleven, inspired by a book of my father’s on The Legacy of Israel, I went through a brief religious phase, when my imagination was captured by some of the more gory bible stories, most of them featuring the suffering, persecution and martyrdom of Jews; sometimes I would turn for light relief to old favourites with happier endings: Noah and the flood, Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, or the Israelites escape from Egypt thanks to the parting of the red sea. After each reading I would reverentially wrap my bible up in a red silk handkerchief and put it under my pillow, so I could feel the holy book there as I went to sleep. But then I would wake up in the middle of the night, usually after a bad dream, and with a sore ear, so I decided to give up this reading habit and slept a whole lot better as a result.
My new bible was the Junior Weekend Book. This was a wonderful compendium of things to do indoors, on a rainy day: brainteasers, conundrums, secret codes, instructions for making a rowing boat, games to play, songs to sing, short stories, and above all poems to read aloud. Up until then poetry had been more associated with pain than pleasure. It meant my father getting me up for school in the morning by flinging open my bedroom curtains and chanting ‘Awake for morning in the bowl of night/has flung a stone that puts the stars to flight’, thus ensuring the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam remained a closed book for nearly forty years until he gave me a wonderful collector’s edition of the poem, illustrated by the work of a contemporary artist.
Poetry also meant memorising ‘The Daffodils’ or ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’ as English homework, in the hope against hope that you would not be called out to recite it in front of the class next day, knowing that the slightest slip would be pounced on. Now, thanks to the Junior Weekend Book, I discovered that poetry did not have to be an ordeal, you could have fun with words, whether it was Edward Lear’s limericks and comic verse, the narrative verve of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or the sinisterly hypnotic rhythms of Poe’s The Raven. Thus inspired I put pen to paper and filled notebook after notebook with juvenile imitations.
The phase did not last long. Tennyson was in the wings, waiting to be translated into the rigid metrics of Greek and Latin verse. As soon as I started doing classics at school ( see sections below) poetry was reduced to an infernal jigsaw, in which, however hard I tried, the pieces just did not seem to want to fit. Every Friday afternoon, for two hours, I had to wrestle with dactyls and spondees – who ganged upon on innocent, unsuspecting words, and bullied them into a strange convoluted order – so they obeyed the rules of scansion.
Fortunately, my first reading room offered plenty of compensatory delights. By my early teens I had moved on to what were officially classified as ‘novels’ at Boots, although they were in fact just slightly more grown up adventure stories: Alexandre Dumas, John Buchan, Jack London, H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, and Conan Doyle were my favourite authors now. One day the complete works of Charles Dickens, bound in blue calf leather, arrived by special delivery, a present from my Aunt Flora in Glasgow. I got it into my head that this was another ‘improving’ gift, and so, after briefly sampling the Pickwick papers and Oliver Twist, left the rest of the set unread. It was not until many years later that I discovered they had belonged to my grandfather and were a family heirloom, but by then I had other reasons for thinking that Dickens was not to my taste.
And then at sixteen I suddenly stopped reading fiction altogether, to concentrate on history, biography and social affairs. I wanted to find out what was going on in the real, and that meant, adult world, understand how it had got that way and what I could do to change it.
Although I never lost these concerns, by seventeen they had shifted focus. I was now deeply into Sartre, Camus and existentialism. I sat with Sartre’s Roquentin on a park bench and felt nauseous as I pondered the meaninglessness of existence. I followed Camus’ alienated anti-heroes in search of gratuitous acts. Not that I understood a lot of the philosophy. I wrestled in vain with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. It was the whole cultural and intellectual milieu of Paris that appealed to me, feeding my long love affair with France and all things French, but now giving it a new and more specific focus. This was fuelled by growing disdain for ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ as exemplified by the public school I attended and had come to hate. Becoming an ‘existentialist’ was thus a perfect medium for expressing adolescent rebellion and angst. This involved sitting in Soho coffee bars, smoking Gauloises, and listening to jazz, while sipping a black espresso and pondering whether the waiter who served it was suffering from ‘bad faith’. Not that I yet did any of these things, I was too scared to visit Soho with its ‘red light’ reputation, but they mapped out a world I wanted to inhabit. Thanks to reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, this world also included poetry, or more precisely the work of Allen Ginsberg and the other ‘beat’ poets gathered around the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco (2). All this was shortly to open the door to a whole new bohemian culture and life style that was just beginning to put down roots in London.
In the meantime, I made do with a version of bohemianism much nearer home, in fact, on my own doorstep, in the shape of the Bloomsbury Group( 3 ). I had noticed the blue memorial plaques as they went up in Gordon Square and elsewhere and became curious to know more. Yet the more I learnt about them the more perplexed I became. They were clearly cultural rebels, yet they were so damn upper class! What cheek to decide, in their early twenties, that they were going to be famous, and establish a ‘memoir club’! My sense of identification with the social underdog, by now highly developed, would not allow me to appreciate how much they risked in challenging the dominant conventions of their day. Moreover it was evident that ‘Bloomsbury’ was not only associated with a glittering group of modernist writers, avant garde artists and intellectuals who chose to live there, but had come to stand for a certain attitude of mind, at once open to foreign influence (good), and quintessentially English (bad).
My research at least forced me to recognise that there was more to Bloomsbury than its squares. The amenities of the neighbourhood now included its myriad bookshops, chief among them, Dillon’s in Malet Street. Living only five minutes away, I became a regular customer as I began to build my own library. Then there were the publishers. Faber and Faber had their offices in a large Georgian house overlooking Russell Square and every time I passed I took to imagining T.S. Eliot up there, working away at his manuscripts, with McGrumble, the office cat, sitting on his lap. Finally there were the great institutions of learning and research. I still did not number the BM amongst them, but thought instead of the Courtauld Institute in Woburn Square; Burroughs Wellcome Medical Foundation, whose clock I could see out of my bedroom window; University College, with its amanuensis, Jeremy Bentham, sitting spookily in a glass cabinet still keeping an eye on things; and Senate House, the University of London’s stunted flagship.
Senate House had fascinated me ever since my father told me it was intended to be London’s first skyscraper, designed to rival the Empire State, but had to be drastically truncated due to the risk of subsidence. As a child, trundling past on my trike, I first tried to imagine what the building might have looked like in its full glory and then made it feature in my own personal disaster movie, as it suddenly collapsed. Now, as an angry young man about town, I forgot my earlier fearful speculations. The building merely irritated me, symbolising the folly of trying to beat the Americans at their own Imperial game. But perhaps, looking back, I would have done better to remember its cautionary tale about what happens when lofty ambitions are not built on solid enough foundations…
My university application form had a section in which you had to write something about yourself and say why you wanted to go to college in Cambridge. The group of us who were trying for a place to read history there were given very precise instructions as to how we were to go about filling it in:
‘Put down your achievements in sport, your involvement in school societies, and any hobbies or interests you can safely talk about in interview. They don’t want to know what you get up to in the back row of the cinema (sniggers) or whether you want to ban the bomb(embarrassed laughter ); all they are concerned about is whether you will make a good member of college, work hard, and go on to make something of yourself in the world’.
It was more than just learning how to write a CV. We were being inducted into a whole way of reading our lives and how they were to unfold: you were meant to make orderly progress up the rungs of a career ladder, undisturbed by any other drive than the ambition to better yourself and the world around you. This Whig interpretation of life history made no allowance for any discontinuities or moments of regression, let alone tensions between the demands of self and society. No space or time here for things that did not happen, or did not work out, for failures or fruitless quests, for illnesses or broken hearts, or forms of leisure and pleasure that did not in some way contribute to personal and professional development.
Although my feet had been planted firmly on the career ladder almost as soon as I could walk, I never really ‘got’ the narrative that went with it. The stories I told myself about the pattern of my life did not fit easily with the authorised version of my development as told by my parents to family and friends. According to their account I was something of a child prodigy, but whenever I tried to act up to that part, I became filled with anxiety and doubts. Learning to read was a case in point.
To general applause, I started ‘reading’ at the age of four. The illusion was made possible because I had learned all my favourite story books by heart from having had them read to me so many times; and, more importantly, because I had also noted the words which served as prompts for the reader to turn the page. So when I got to these points in my recital, I just followed their example. It was, I suppose, quite a feat of memory, but it went unrecognised as such. If it fooled my parents into thinking I could actually read, it was because they were so keenly looking for signs of rapid progress or a precocious gift. For me, though, it was at best a party trick, an elaborate bit of play acting that disguised my lack of real aptitude. Learning to ‘read by heart’, on this model, was not just an act of mimesis, but a form of masquerade.
Matters were complicated by the fact that my mother insisted she could ‘read me like an open book’ – a statement that both alarmed, excited and puzzled me. Did it mean that once you could read, you would also know what was going on in other people’s minds? I decided on an experiment to test her claim. I started to tell her little white lies to see if she could spot them. Since I was normally truthful, she suspected nothing and thus gave me proof positive that literacy had nothing to do with telepathic powers.
A hidden curriculum vitae
The experiment did not discourage me from learning to read; but the whole business served to introduce me to the world of social pretence. I now knew appearances could be deceptive and that things or people might be other than what they claimed to be. By the same token, they might also be different from what they were supposed to be.
This was the starting point for a project that gradually took shape over the next few years: to create an alternative account of my various scholastic and sporting endeavours in counterpoint to the official success story they were meant to tell. For example, if I persisted with geometry – a subject I found worse than difficult – it was only because I told myself that one day it might come in handy when planning my expedition to conquer Everest. And if I turned out to play for a school team, it was just to keep in training for the final ascent. As well as secret ambitions, there were real accomplishments to record on this hidden CV: the special stamps or bus numbers I had collected, then later when I reached puberty the number of hairs sprouting on my face, the first cigarette, the first wet dream, the first real dance…
For many boys this kind of information would be shared, perhaps competitively, with peers, especially where a street or neighbourhood gang provides a home from home, an alternative, more informal, kind of education. But in my case this was not an option. Both physical and social geography were against it. Instead I led a double life. I was a ‘home boy’ who continually dreamt of running away from home, and a studious schoolboy who would probably have become a professional truant, if only I had known of somewhere to go. Fortunately the fact that the private schools I went to were so far away from where I lived, opened up an escape route into a less fractured space.
Many of the happiest hours of my childhood and adolescence were spent on top of a 19 or 73 bus, on the journey between home and school. It was where and when I did a lot of my own reading, until, for several years, the craze for bus spotting temporarily focussed my attention elsewhere. If I wanted a break from my books, I could watch the passing scene, window shopping as the bus crawled along Oxford Street, Knightsbridge or High Street Kensington, or perhaps daydream of a time when I would no longer have to go to school and could happily stowaway on board one of the ships leaving the Port of London, bound for adventure on the high seas.
Yet my travels were not all daydreams. Eaton House, my prep school near Sloane Square, offered a gateway into a new and exotic world, as different from what I knew at home, as was Somers Town, and much more seductive in its appeal. Most of the other children came from the immediate neighbourhood and their parents had one thing in common: they were Very Rich. In my class, young master Derry was going to inherit one half of the Derry and Toms shopping empire. Ronus Junior had similar expectations of the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane. My best friend, Robert McKechnie, confided in me that his dad was a real Sir, unlike our teacher, and ruled Sussex on behalf of the King.
Robert lived in a veritable mansion in Cadogan Place, and an even larger house in the country during the holidays. When I first visited him I was in for a real culture shock. It turned out that the distinguished looking man who opened the door to me was not his dad, the woman he called nanny was not his gran and the bowls of water on the dining table were not meant for drinking out of. Despite this, I quickly felt at home. Perhaps my real parents, the ones who had left me in a fit of absent mindedness on Euston station, were people like this ? Surely I must be destined for better things than my pokey little bedroom in Endsleigh Court? When I grow up, I promised myself, I will live in a house with balconies and balustrades and chandeliers in every room, just like Robert. I little realised under what nightmarish conditions this dream would one day come true.
The experience left me with a question: how did you get rich, if you weren’t already ? Did you have to be clever to ‘get to the top’? Apparently not, since children were supposed to have their parent’s brains, and many of my classmates seemed pretty dim. Still it was worth a try. I found the school work easy, and so was fast tracked, finding myself, at the age of eight, in a class of nine and ten year olds and still coming top. I had fallen into the trap of becoming an official success story and was duly punished by being lavishly rewarded with adult praise whilst being rejected by the older boys whose approval I really sought, but who did not take too kindly to being shown up by this little ‘smart alec’ in their midst.
My parents decided that the environment was not ‘challenging’ enough and I should move on. Robert was being prepared for boarding school, Eton or Winchester, he thought. Fortunately my parents could not afford to send me anywhere quite so exotic. Instead at the age of 10, I won a scholarship as a day boy to Colet Court., whose main claim to fame was that it was the junior school of St Paul’s. To me it meant I had another half hour to myself on the bus to Hammersmith, but to my father it was the fulfilment of a life long ambition. He had wanted to be a classical scholar and so now he sent me to be apprenticed to a public school where the prayers at assembly would be in Latin, where the headmaster was by tradition a classicist and classics were the subject of first choice for anyone regarded as being at all bright (4).
Am I that name?
It was while I was at Colet Court that I got my first taste of what later came to be known as ‘identity politics’. The school was a Christian foundation and restricted the number of non-Christian – and in 1953 that meant Jewish – pupils to 20%. They had their own separate morning assembly and when I first arrived it was simply assumed that, with a name like mine, I would be attending Jewish prayers. It was the first time I realised my name had a special identity tag attached to it, albeit, as it turned out, a highly problematic one.
I had not been brought up Jewish, knew no Hebrew, had never been near a synagogue, or even visited the Jewish Museum just around the corner from where we lived. There were two good reasons for this. My mother regarded herself as a Christian, and spent much of her time doing good works around the neighbourhood, although she never went to church and thought most people who did were hypocrites. And my father was a devout atheist – he had been a barmitzveh boy, but his real allegiance, he told me, was to his Socialist Sunday school; his one concession to his religious background was to take the Jewish Chronicle, which he read each Friday with a sternly disapproving look on his face, presumably on account of its Zionist politics; and then once a year, he would to take us to a Passover meal conducted by a Jewish neighbour in the flats.
So now it had to be explained to me that although I had a ‘Jewish’ name from my father, I was not officially, Jewish, because my ‘religion’ came from my mother’s side. It has always struck me as odd that in such a patriarchal religion, the inheritance should go though the maternal line, but at least it meant that I was free to attend the main school assembly with a clear conscience. Naively I thought that I would simply fit in. It did not occur to me that I might still be regarded as Jewish by my ‘Christian’ friends, while some of the ‘real’ Jewish children would look askance at my ‘passing’ as a goy.
It was not long before my new found identity as a ‘mitschling’ came under attack. One day my father took me aside and told me that an old lady, a grateful ex-patient of his, wanted to leave me a lot of money, on condition that I changed my name to hers. She was childless, had no other heirs and wanted me to perpetuate her family line. No doubt drawing on his own experience of discrimination, he pointed out that, with a name like Cohen, I would never be able to join a golf club and might suffer other difficulties in life. As I had no ambition to become a golfer, this argument did not cut much ice. All the same, if my benefactor’s name had been Biggles or Hornblower, I might just have considered it. But it was Witherspoon. I could imagine what fun the guys at school would have with that! My father suggested a double barrelled compromise, but Witherspoon-Cohen sounded even worse. I remembered the fate of one boy whose mother had divorced and remarried, so that plain Robinson had overnight become Robinson-Green. An announcement to that effect had been made at assembly one morning and he had found himself instantly shunned by all but his closest friends, as if the change of name had branded him with the mark of his family’s ever lasting shame. I did not want the same thing to happen to me and so, more out of fear for the social consequences than any squeamishness about abandoning my residual Jewish identity, I turned the offer down.
That was not to be the end of the story. In what he probably regarded as a clinching argument my father informed me that in any case Cohen was not my real name. It was simply the name his father had adopted when he first came to this country, because its rabbinic associations conferred high status in the Jewish community, and his proper Russian name could not be anglicised.
So I was left with a surname which was not my real one, signifying membership of a community I did not belong to. But this did not make me want to get rid of it. On the contrary it was all grist to the mill of the hidden CV. Cohen was now firmly established as my false ID, a name I traded under for official purposes but that otherwise had little to do with what I was to become. This also gave me licence to spend the next few years wondering what my true patronym might be. I secretly hoped that it was something lyrical, like Pavlova, or Rimsky-Korsakov; or else, taking my cue from the titles in my father’s bookcase, something short and punchy –like Gorky or Schedrin. In either event I could use it as my nom de plume and launch myself on a career as a famous writer. It was a big blow to my literary ambitions, when I learnt the all too plain truth: Kvaktum – a real duck’s arse of a name. No wonder Grandad had changed it!
It was perhaps no coincidence that my father made this disclosure at the moment when, much to my mother’s delight, and his chagrin, I was about to be received into the Church of England. This did not represent any move on my part to reject one side of my cultural heritage in favour of the other. It was entirely a matter of due educational process as far as school was concerned: as soon as you reached the age of fifteen, your name was put down for confirmation classes, unless you attended Jewish prayers or your parents objected. Atheism or agnosticism were not accepted as excuses. When I confided to the school padre that I did not believe in the divinity of Christ or any of the miracles, or the resurrection or the life everlasting, he did not bat an eyelid. Such minor theological quibbles were not going to put a spoke in his evangelical wheel. ‘Don’t worry, Philip’, he said, putting his arm reassuringly round my shoulder,’ we all have these little doubts from time to time, they are sent to test our faith and I am sure, once you are confirmed, you will feel differently.’
When the big day came, about a hundred of us turned up at St Paul’s Cathedral with our parents in tow, to have the Bishop of London conduct the official ‘laying on of hands’. We had been advised to spend our pennies before the ceremony started, but I had forgotten to go, and now, waiting in line for my turn to be welcomed into the communion of Christ, I was in agony. Despite myself, I asked God to make the Bishop hurry up and give me the strength to hold on. Miraculously, my prayers were answered, and I got the holy pat on the head just in time. When I came back, glowing after having relieved my pent up feelings, my mother asked me if I felt different, and I could honestly say that I did.
Reasons (not) to Read Classics: Part One
Colet Court was a public school in miniature, with its ‘monitors’ and ‘houses’, its focus on inculcating team spirit and a sense of fair play through Games; above all, there was the emphasis on classics. From the age of eleven, we learnt to conjugate love in Latin and spell democracy in Greek. Along with the rudiments of the languages, we learnt our implication in their history. As young Britons, we discovered we were named after Brutus, and should be grateful to Caesar’s legions for liberating the country from barbarism by bringing roads, hot baths, decent plumbing and a respect for law. In similar vein, the Athenian agora was presented as the mother of the ‘mother of parliaments’ and the Classical Age, the inspiration for western civilisation as we were coming to know it. As for English, it would hardly exist as a language, if it were not for Latin and Ancient Greek.
In fact we were taught to write a ‘mandarin’ style of English that owed a lot to classical prose. We learnt that there were Two Golden Rules of Essay Writing, one for syntax, and the other for vocabulary. Rule One: Never say ‘I’ when you can say ‘it’. Or to state the rule in its own idiom: avoid using the first personal singular, or prefacing any statement with a self referential clause, because it is either redundant, or reduces what you write, or say, to a mere expression of opinion. Instead use an impersonal construction, preferably governed by an abstract noun, to impart ‘objectivity’ or ‘authority’ to your argument. So, in your essay on the Spanish Armada, you should write ‘It is generally considered that superior efficiency, morale and naval tactics ensured Drake’s success against the Spanish fleet, despite their having more men and guns’. Your composition would get marked down if you wrote ‘I think Drake outsmarted the Spanish admirals, his men were braver and better trained and that is why they won a famous victory’. Rule Two: Words with an obvious Latin or Greek origin scored more highly than their Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Thus ‘weight’ added less weight than ‘gravitas’ to your argument. You did not reach an understanding with someone when you could achieve a ‘consensus’; the ‘pater’ drove an automobile, not a car; and if you were afraid of dogs, you were suffering from a canine phobia (5 ).
As the child of a medical family, I was already familiar with some aspects of this peculiar idiom. Learning the ‘proper’ Latin names for natural functions had been an extension of toilet training. I never went for a piss, had a shit, or did a fart. I passed urine, excreted faeces, or suffered from flatus. This nearly got me into trouble when I had to go into hospital with pneumonia at the age of six. When the nurses asked if I had done ’big jobs’ or ‘Number two’s’, I was entirely mystified and answered no, leading them to the conclusion that I was suffering from a serious internal blockage. Fortunately before I was wheeled into the operating theatre for an emergency investigation, the evidence of my bedpan was consulted, with positive results.
At school, the early grounding in classics had a number of immediate, but often long lasting, effects. Firstly, we became adept at knowing when to switch between different linguistic registers. We reserved ‘mandarin English’ for essay writing, formal occasions and when we had to deal with adult authority. Mandarin was always delivered in our best BBC/ public school accents. Amongst ourselves, we reverted to a much more relaxed vernacular style of speech, full of short and stumpy Anglo-Saxon words, and even the odd flattened vowel. We would often pepper our talk with popular colloquialisms, culled from radio shows, like the Goons. There was a man-ic phase, when everyone called each other ‘man’, a sign that you were ‘with it’, as in ‘Come on, man, let’s do conkers this break, my twelver against your fiver, are you with it?’
It had not escaped our attention that when it came to swear words the devil – or in this case, Anglo-Saxon – had all the best tunes. We searched our Latin and Greek dictionaries in vain for expletives. One of my friends, whose dad was a captain in the navy, could swear in seven languages and we got him to commit his ‘scatological vocabulary’(sic) to paper so we could memorise it. Still there were strict limits. No-one used the f*** word, and public propriety required that boys address each other formally in public by their surnames only, even if, in private, they were close friends on first name terms. If you called someone by their first name in public, it could only mean one thing, and no-one wanted to get a reputation for that.
The stress on Classics meant that we did no science and very little Natural History. We never went on nature walks, or took field trips to the countryside. As a result there was little to compensate for my mother’s abhorrence of all members of the animal kingdom excepting Welsh corgis (because they were Welsh and the Queen kept them) and her nurse’s preference for plastic flowers over real ones ( because they could be disinfected and washed and never died). Not surprisingly, I grew up in almost complete ignorance of the natural world, as impervious to its beauty, as I was alarmed by its casual violence. Indeed the only lesson I can remember to touch on the subject was when the school doctor came in to impart the ‘facts of life’; he showed us lots of pictures of ‘birds and bees’ – or rather gorillas – doing it, and then suddenly turned red in the face, grabbed himself between the legs and started drawing ‘rude’ pictures on the blackboard, at which point we all broke out into hysterical giggles.
Classics also helped turn us into little chauvinists. I still feel ashamed at the way we treated our French teacher, Madame Garnier. She suffered from several severe ‘disabilities’: she was a woman – the only female teacher in the school; she was not English and spoke with a strong French accent; and she was trying to make us learn a language that simply lacked the kudos of Latin or Greek. She did her best to overcome these ‘handicaps ’ by making her lessons as interesting and relevant as possible. She used to bring in copies of Paris Match, the French equivalent of Picture Post, for us to read, so we could get an idea of her national culture and everyday life. But she stood no chance. The class ragged her rotten, mercilessly mimicking her accent and several times reducing her to tears. I took no part in these activities because I liked her and enjoyed her lessons for all the reasons my classmates did not. To my ears, the soft lilt of her voice was the perfect medium for expressing the musicality of French; it was such a welcome relief from the ponderous prosody of Latin, and the nasal whine of Greek as pronounced by our Classics masters, that I felt like hugging her. And so, thanks to a pre-adolescent crush, I became a closet Francophile, trying my hardest at a subject that was never my best.
Finally, Classics gave us ideals of manliness that made it easy to look down on anyone who did not live up to them. If we admired the Greeks, it was becau0se they were good athletes, or in the case of the Romans, brave soldiers, not on account of any cultural accomplishments. So we had a ready- made rationale for pitying, or, worse still, despising and bullying, children who, for whatever reasons, came to be regarded as ‘weeds’ or ‘wimps’. Dacy was one such –he was called ‘windy’ because he had bad asthma, which, of course, used to get worse when he was under stress. Some of the bigger boys would pick on him to deliberately provoke an attack, while the rest of us, too frightened to intervene, watched aghast as he struggled for breath.
Even wearing spectacles was enough to get you singled out as ‘speccy four eyes’ or ‘Mr Goggle Box’; John Lennon had yet to make NHS specs a fashion accessory and Harry Potter was not even a gleam in his author’s eye. So when I got my first pair of glasses I resolutely refused to wear them. No-one was going to call me a wimp! Unfortunately I was so short sighted that even if I sat at the front of the class I could not see the sums on the blackboard. This, of course, meant I had to guess at the questions, and inevitably got most of them down wrong, with the result that although some of my actual calculations might have been correct, the answers I wrote in my book were not. Even when I was eventually prevailed upon to wear the glasses, my maths never fully recovered.
Perhaps it was as well, then, that my talent for mimesis and masquerade found another, more constructive outlet, in the school plays: Rapunzel allowed me to dress up as a girl, the Mad Hatter to be exceedingly eccentric, and Bottom the Weaver to cut a comic caper. And then to cap it all I was asked to do a conjuring spot in a ‘cabaret’ show. The weeks of rehearsals, presided over by the usually genial, occasionally irascible, Mr Berry, the mounting anticipation as the costumes were fitted, and the opening drew near, the last minute panic about forgetting lines and drying up on stage, and then the thrill of the three or four live performances, all added up to the happiest days of my entire school life.
Reasons (not) to read Classics: Part two
At Colet Court my outward conformity so successfully masked inner rebellion that I was eventually made captain of the school. The experience taught me that in practice it was not so easy to reconcile the two positions. The pleasure to be gained from ordering other people about, was more than offset by having to be on your best behaviour all the time. You couldn’t very well inspect other hands before lunch unless your own were scrupulously clean. I decided that perhaps, after all, the game was not worth the candle. Nevertheless when, at fourteen, I exchanged short trousers for ‘long bags’ and moved across the road to the senior school, it was confidently expected by everyone, including myself, that this so far, so good, academic career would continue on its untroubled way. But it did not.
What happened instead is that I hit adolescence, or rather adolescence and horrendous acne hit me. I experienced an acute crisis of confidence and my academic performance suffered accordingly. I plummeted from being always near the top of the class to near the bottom. As one of my ‘friends’ put it with brutal clarity ‘ I thought you were good, Cohen, man, I didn’t realise you were bad’. Moral, academic and social status were inextricably linked in this pupil culture, it was that kind of school.
I was desperate to keep my parents from finding out how badly I was doing and not just because it would mean having to do without the presents they lavished on me when I came top; I was ashamed of ‘letting the side down’ – the worst sin in my father’s book. So I decided to improve on reality and write my own school reports.
Today, using a computer, it would be relatively easy to re-create the report form, type in the desired information and forge a signature, but in those pre-digital days, it was a much more difficult, time consuming business. It meant first of all intercepting the report by getting to the post before my parents had a chance to look at it. Then, armed with an ink eradicator set and some fresh forms filched from the teacher’s desk, I would set to work. If the already written report was not too bad, I left it as it was, and just upped my grades a bit – hoping that the slight bleaching of the paper caused by the liquid eradicator would not be noticed. If the report was a stinker, I would instead compose an alternative version, stressing my strengths whilst still modestly admitting some weaknesses. I got quite adept at copying not just my teachers’ handwriting but their literary styles, the measured ‘Ciceronian’ prose of Dr Cruickshank, contrasting with the more extravagant Hellenic phrasing of Mr Cotter. And so I added forgery, plagiarism and impression management to the portfolio of skills contained in my hidden CV.
The only other good thing about doing so badly at classics was that it introduced me to Foyles. It came about in the following fashion. Homework each night consisted in having to spend several hours preparing a chunk of Latin plus another chunk of Greek, so you could translate them out loud if asked in class next day. We trudged our way through the set texts, noses to the grindstone of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, without any thought or discussion as to what any of this stuff might actually tell us about these ancient societies, let alone the human condition. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Cicero on Duties, the Republic and the nature of the gods, Tacitus’ history of the Roman Empire and Virgil’s Aeniad formed the core of our Latin curriculum. Horace and Catullus were regarded as too difficult, and Ovid with his erotic verse, far too risqué for adolescent boys. For Greek we got more military history (Herodotus and Thucydides ), more political and moral philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and some of the tragedies, all in carefully expurgated editions.
I dreaded being asked to do a passage I had not had time to mug up, or couldn’t figure out; one particularly vindictive teacher used to say ‘I know, let’s ask Cohen next, his mistakes are always so instructive’. One way to guard against such public humiliation was to use a crib. These conveniently sized booklets contained the Latin or Greek text on one side of the page and a more or less literal English translation on the other, and could easily be concealed under the desk or behind a barricade of books. A friend of mine, an old hand at this game, told me about a bookshop where these little aids could be reliably obtained and that was how I discovered Foyles. Each time we started on a new text, I made the trip to their shop in Charing Cross Road. The cribs smelt as dank and musty as the room where they were kept and this smell became forever associated in my mind with the study of what, to me, were all too dead languages, spoken only by doctors, lawyers and priests.
Despite these various subterfuges, it soon became clear to everyone that I did not have the makings of a classical scholar; I scraped passes in Latin and ancient history at A level and flunked Greek, and so, much to my father’s disappointment but my relief, it was decided that I should be transferred elsewhere. But where? I cannot remember being much consulted. I would have preferred to study English, but there was no English department at that time. Modern Languages was out. I was not that good at French and even worse at German. Geography was for dunces and hearties – members of the First XV and Rowing Eight – and Art was for people who could draw. So the only possibility on the humanities side was history and so to the history department and the tutelage of its head, Mr Whitting, I went.
The History man
Whitting – no one called him Mister, and unlike the other masters he never had a nickname - was an exceptional teacher and even more exceptional character. He had little time for the school’s official pieties; he regarded enthusiasm for sport (we did cricket, rugby and rowing but NOT soccer) as misdirected energy; muscular Christianity was the religion of idiots, and the Combined Cadet Force a waste of Monday afternoons. He gathered under his wing many who were regarded as misfits or ‘bolshy’ because they felt the same way. Although he could be gruff at times, he was an essentially kindly man who gave us the confidence to form ourselves into something like a dissident intelligentsia. We shamelessly flouted school regulations by wearing our hair long over our collars, our trouser bottoms either narrower (drainpipes) or wider(flairs) than allowed, and sporting CND badges on our blazer lapels as the ultimate symbol of our defiance. But when a few of us went even further and started to wear donkey jackets, to show our solidarity with the working class, the authorities cracked down, and we were dragooned back into blue gabardine.
If these topical concerns formed the backdrop to our historical studies, the actual syllabus we followed was hardly calculated to encourage us to make connections between past and present. We were given a large dollop of English mediaeval history, followed by a strong dose of Tudors and Stuarts and topped up with European history from Charlemagne to Napoleon. 1789 was the end of history as far as we were concerned. Nevertheless Whitting encouraged us to engage with contemporary historical debates. This was a period in which economic and social history was gaining ground, and a new generation of socialist historians, associated with the journal Past and Present, was making a name for itself. And so we read Marc Bloch and Rodney Hilton on feudalism, Christopher Hill on the English civil war. And from there it was but a step – although for Whitting, a step too far – to Marx and Engels.
In my case this ‘ideological’ turn led me to explore further aspects of my own family history. My paternal grandfather had died before I was old enough to know him, but what little I did manage to glean intrigued me. He had emigrated from Vitebsk in 1900 to escape the pogroms, and also because his radical beliefs had attracted the attention of the Tsarist authorities. A family story has it that he had a picture of Lenin on one side of his bed and anarchist Prince Kropotkin on the other, and never had a bad night’s sleep. He intended to reach America, but like many Jewish immigrants could not afford the full passage to New York and got off at Glasgow instead. There he established himself in the Jewish quarter of the Gorbals, joined the Independent Labour Party and made a living selling blankets door to door to the miners of the Lanarkshire coalfield – although by all accounts he was more interested in selling them one of his socialist pamphlets than in collecting the weekly payments. Inspired by his example, I now began my own exploration of radical political ideas.
We were never quite sure what Whitting’s politics were, but we could not imagine him voting Tory. He was a maverick and no doubt something of a thorn in the flesh of the school authorities, but they had to tolerate him because of his outstanding record of examination success. He regularly sent two third’s of the History ‘eighth’ to Oxbridge, many of them with scholarships. The key to his success lay in the fact that he treated us as if we were already there. He gave lectures, we took notes. We wrote essays which we sometimes read to him in small group supervisions, or one to one tutorials, and we spent lots of time in the well stocked school library reading around the subject. He knew all the senior history tutors at Oxbridge and which colleges would suit particular students best and when the time came, he simply told us where we would be going. And we went.
I was put down for Queen’s College, Cambridge. The senior tutor was a well known economic historian who had written a definitive five volume study of brewing, as a consequence of which, Whitting assured me, he kept his students plentifully supplied with beer donated by grateful breweries. Suitably impressed, I duly sent off the application form.
At this juncture, when I should have been revising for the entrance exam, my school career almost came to a premature and abrupt end. And all because I was going through a movie phase. It happened like this. Since moving to History I had became a regular little culture vulture and my enthusiasm went through each major art form in succession. It started with Theatre. A group of us set up a school club organising cheap outings to see West End plays. We quickly graduated from Terence Rattigan to John Osborne, and the Royal Court: We Waited for Godot, Looked back in Anger, and saw John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave Dance. Then it was the turn of modern art, sparked off by a major Picasso exhibition, I gave myself a rapid self guided tour, starting with the post Impressionists, Cubists, and early Expressionists, before homing in on abstract expressionism and the contemporary New York scene: Arshile Gorki, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock. In the course of my background reading, I came across a reference to William Coldstream and the ‘Euston Road’ school of painting.In principle they sounded just up my street: a group of left wing artists, committed to a home grown version of socialist realism, offering an alternative to the cultural elitism of the Bloomsberries. Now when I was asked where I came from I would have another, better reason for giving my preferred address ! The only problem was that when I actually saw their paintings I did not much like them. All those dismal street scenes, done in muddy greys and brown, were just not my cup of tea at all.
Next it was jazz. I discovered Doug Dobell’s shop in Charing Cross Road, and with typical adolescent hubris decided to start with the most experimental forms. On my first visit I asked for the latest record by Albert Ayler, took it into the listening booth, and put the record on the turn table. A thin screeching noise came out of the speakers– I knew Ayler was meant to be’ free form’ but this was ridiculous! Had the record got scratched? There was a knock and Doug put his head round door. ‘Listen, man’ he said, ‘you’ve got the effing record on the wrong speed, try it on 33, it’ll sound a whole lot more like jazz. Better still, why don’t you begin with something a bit less advanced - like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie’. I did.
And then, last and foremost, there was Cinema. My parents never went to the flicks themselves, though they had taken me to the West End to see the Disney films and with my Aunt Barbara I used go to a newsreel and cartoon cinema at Victoria station on her jaunts up to town. But that was it until Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal came along and created a new genre: the Art House film. This introduced a whole new element of cultural snobbery into this most democratic of art forms. Popular Films were made in Hollywood, shot in technicolour, shown on big wide screens, and watched by people who ate popcorn and talked all the way through. Art House Cinema was in black and white, shown on a small rectangular screen, had subtitles and was watched in reverential silence. Given my avant gardism, the choice was not difficult and so the new art houses – the Everyman in Hampstead, the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street and the Curzon in Mayfair, became my regular haunts. Now at last I had found somewhere I could safely play truant from family outings, and also, on occasion, from school. I watched Truffaut’s Quatre cent Coups, a story about a delinquent boy who steals typewriters, five times; Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds three times and Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Aventura more times than I can remember. Then I went to a BFI Summer school, where I got the potted history of cinema in a fortnight: Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Vigo, The Crown Film Unit, Italian Neo realism and all.
There I met a genial Welshman, Charles Evans, who collected viewings of rare films in much same way that other people collect butterflies or stamps. The course provided an opportunity for us to work in small groups to make a short film and Charles, an experienced amateur film maker, directed ours. I discovered he actually owned a 16mm Bolex movie camera, and was willing to let us borrow both him and it, to shoot a film I wanted to make with a group of fellow budding cineastes from school. Myselves the Grievers, (a quote from a poem by Dylan Thomas) was a short epic of young love and alienation, intended as a homage to Antonioni. Predictably it featured a triangular relationship between two young men and a girl, who in the course of thirty minutes never touched and hardly spoke to one another. As far as I can remember, they spent most of their time wandering disconsolately around the South Bank (long tracking shots), staring moodily at the river while framed aesthetically against the London skyline(cue for slow pans), or standing with their backs against various blank walls (gradual zoom in to close up) while a clarinet played by a passing busker, moaned soulfully in the background…
The film cost quite a lot to make, and so we came up with the bright idea of screening it at the parents open day and asking the audience for donations. I think we collected about £ 100, but the school authorities found out about it and were not best pleased. It was a capital offence in their book and as the director and instigator of the event I was threatened with expulsion. It was only the fact that I was tipped to get a scholarship that saved my skin, although not a particular portion of my anatomy. In revenge I initially decided to refuse to take the exam, but Whitting wisely counselled that this would be cutting off my nose to spite my face, and so I went up to Cambridge, took the exam and was duly awarded a minor scholarship.
It should have been a happy ending and a new beginning. But things did not turn out that way. Cambridge proved to be an anti-climax and not just because the promised beer was not forthcoming from my tutor. In a way Whitting had done his job all too well. When I actually went up there I was disappointed to find that it was just like school. The history students were mostly ex-public school, and we were doing the same old Tudor Revolution in Government. I quickly lost interest and spent little time on my studies. Instead I joined the Heretics Society, co-founded by Bertrand Russell when he was an undergraduate, to explore unorthodox ideas; there was a fascinating programme – I remember a visit from a member of the Flat Earth Society, and a wonderful talk by Colin Ward, the anarchist town planner; and I met lots of very interesting, clever and slightly crazy people. There was a heterodox divinity student who was an expert on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, then just becoming a cult book, he seemed to read and know nothing else; his favourite party trick was to hand you the massive tome, ask you to open it at any page and quote a couple of lines whereupon he would tell you exactly where you were in the story and what happened next. And there was a young mathematician who, inspired by Plotinus and neo-Platonist philosophy, spent most of his time lying in bed eating oranges, while trying to invent a purely logical language in which it was impossible to lie or contradict oneself. Needless to say he frequently did both.
It came as no surprise that I did not do well in the first year exams, and so I decided to switch to read archaeology and anthropology. Perhaps digging deeper into history, and engaging with cultures other than my own would renew my academic enthusiasm? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be a bad move since understanding the principles of carbon dating or modern evolutionary theory unfortunately required knowing some science. As I had never had a single science lesson in my life, I quickly felt quite out of my depth.
Partly in reaction, I spent a lot of time, when I should have been at lectures, watching westerns and film noir in two famous local flea pits, the Rex and the Kinema. During a visit to Paris over the long vacation, I had renewed my passion for Cinema or more precisely, Cahiers du Cinema with its ‘auteur theory’, and penchant for Hollywood movies, especially films by Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann (6). The experience of watching Hawk’s famous western, Red River, in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre - actually he was sitting two rows in front of me – in a sleazy left bank movie theatre, was the turning point. My true vocation, I decided, was to become a film critic, if not a ‘metteur en scene’. So now, seeking some outlet for my frustrated ambitions, I began writing long, lugubrious essays and film reviews for various university journals, full of impressive sounding phrases about the ‘ontology of the mise en scene’, the ‘dialectics of montage’, and the ‘moral significance of tracking shots’. I became secretary of the Cambridge Film Society, inaugurated a documentary film festival, wore blue tinted glasses and dreamt of going to the Polish Film school in Lodz to learn to make movies like Andrej Wajda.
Yet all this only added to my growing disenchantment with Cambridge. To my eyes so much of the scene was still dominated by the public school ethos, its codes of intellectual elitism and social snobbery. Visits from George Steiner who gave a series of lectures on Marx and Freud, and from Michael Young and D.W. Winnicott, who talked about sociology and psychoanalysis respectively, provided tantalising insights into what was missing from the university curriculum at that time. There was also a ‘beat scene’ in Cambridge, centred around poetry, jazz and certain illegal substances then readily available courtesy of the nearby American airbases. The times they were a changing and it was not long before puzzling over the algebraic complexities of African kinship systems or punting down the Cam did not seem to be where it was at.
So one bright early spring morning, instead of taking my ‘arch and anth’ exams, which I would surely have failed miserably, I packed a rucksack and, in pursuit of one of the undeclared ambitions on my hidden CV, ran away to sea. I spent the next three months working as a galley boy on board deep sea trawlers out of Grimsby, fishing off the Iceland coast for cod. The experience did at least cure me of my literary romanticism about seafarers and convinced me that what I was looking for did not involve peeling buckets of spuds on a freezing deck that heaved in time to my stomach, or sleeping in a tiny cabin which stank of cod liver oil and the cook’s unwashed body. I had heard from some of the Cambridge beats about a new ‘scene’ that was opening up in London. It sounded promising and it was there, in the most unlikely of circumstances, that I finally made it to the BM reading room.
Writings on the walls
At the end of May 1965, I came back to London at a moment when what came to be known as the ‘underground’ was beginning to take off. There were three emergent centres of activity at this point: Indica bookshop and gallery run by Miles in Southampton Row was soon to provide an editorial base for International Times, or IT, the first and foremost of the underground papers; Better Books in Charing Cross Road under the auspices of Jeff Nuttall, an art lecturer at nearby St Martin’s College, was pioneering the art of ‘happenings’ in its basement and finally there was the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, run by Jim Haynes, which hosted all manner of counter-cultural events (7).
After an uncomfortable couple of months spent sleeping on friends’ floors, I heard on the grapevine that there were some inexpensive rooms to rent in Old Gloucester Street at the back of Indica bookshop. It turned out there were two somewhat dilapidated late Georgian houses next door to one another, owned by a rather eccentric lady who had been a member of the Bloomsbury set in the 1930’s. She had inherited the properties from a rich uncle and saw it as her mission to provide cheap lodgings for up and coming writers and artists, whom she hoped were going to spearhead the renaissance of Bloomsbury as a centre of the avant garde. I am not sure the ‘underground’ was quite what she had in mind, but she was happy enough to find rooms for myself and two friends on the strength of our purely ‘subcultural’ credentials.
From this base I launched myself somewhat frenetically onto ‘the scene’ and was soon helping out at the Arts Lab and Better Books, as well as writing the odd piece for the early issues of IT. As a result of these activities I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth across Bloomsbury and must have walked past the Museum on an almost daily basis, but still without feeling drawn to get better acquainted. All this was about to change, however.
To at last create a situation…
Under the influence of my best friend at Cambridge, and ever since, Donald Nicholson-Smith, I had become interested in the French Situationists (8). In my case this had as much to do with their life style and forms of political engagement as with their critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ with its heady mix of French surrealism, anarcho-syndicalism and Hegelian Marxism. Here, I felt, were a group of authentic bohemian intellectuals, who scorned the sinecures of Academia, and risked directly putting their revolutionary ideals into practice. This also seemed to involve a lot of sitting around Parisian cafes, drinking large amounts of wine and arguing deep into the night about how best to make the revolution, all of them supremely congenial and necessary activities as far as I was concerned.
Donald was a leading light in a group of English situationists, who, over the next few years translated the French work, produced their own journal and also carried out a number of home grown ‘provocations’. One such action took place one wintry December day and featured a Red Santa, plus assorted comrades and friends, who turned up in a posse at the toy department of Selfridges and proceeded to hand out ‘free gifts’ from the counters to passing children – much to their delight and their parent’s bemusement. The customers probably thought it was some kind of weird promotional stunt until they read our leaflet denouncing Xmas as a ‘capitalist con’ and the store detectives arrived in force to escort Santa off the premises. He did not go quietly and the children watched open mouthed as he was carried, effing and blinding, down the stairs. ‘What are they doing to Santa?’ one little boy asked his mum, clutching the fire engine he had been given. ‘Never you mind, dear’, she replied, hurriedly stuffing the toy into her bag ’he’s probably forgotten to feed the reindeer. Just be thankful for the nice present’. We may not have undermined anybody’s faith in consumer capitalism that day, but we surely did make some kids think twice about Father Christmas.
My contribution to this genre went under the somewhat grandiloquent title of ‘Towards a Preliminary Critique of Bourgeois Sociology ’. Its target was Talcott Parsons, the American sociologist, whose work was the backbone of mainstream sociology at the time, but who was something of a bête noire to the New Left, on the grounds that his functionalist model of social systems was little more than an apologia for the political status quo. My intervention into the debate was not to be a mere theoretical deconstruction of his ideas. Inspired by then current notions of ‘creative vandalism’ and by the work of John Latham ( see below) it was to consist of gluing together Parsons’ books in the LSE library to visibly demonstrate the ‘congealment of praxis’ brought about by his way of thinking, if not his glutinous prose.
A detailed plan of action was prepared with another member of the group. We would install ourselves in the Linguistics annexe of the library, chosen because I knew from experience that few people ever used it; as soon as the library closed we would hide behind one of the bookcases with our aerosol and can of glue until after the cleaners and security staff had done their rounds. Then we would emerge, make our way to the sociology shelves, accomplish our mission and vanish silently into the night….
At first all went well and we managed to conceal ourselves according to plan. But what we had not reckoned on was the fact that my accomplice suffered from colitis, a medical condition which worsens under stress and is only relieved by a rapid visit to the bathroom. After about an hour, he began to complain of his urgent need. There being no facility immediately available we briefly contemplated using a local fire bucket for this function but he could not face the prospect. We had no alternative but to abandon our mission, and beat a hasty retreat via the library fire escape. We ended up in the well of the building and found our way out through the backdoor of Grenada House next door. The caretaker there did not seem at all surprised to see us, perhaps ‘working in the media’ he was used to somewhat eccentric visitors leaving the building late at night. At any rate he showed us to the rest room and then waved us cheerily goodbye as we scurried shamefacedly away from the scene of a crime that never was.
A first foray into the BM
My involvement with the ‘sits’ did not succeed in bringing the edifice of bourgeois sociology tumbling down, but it did served to stimulate my interest in continental philosophy and its impact on the human sciences. The ‘60s was the decade of French structuralism, with the ideas of Levi Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Godelier, and Foucault sweeping across the intellectual landscape (9 ). I was anxious to steep myself in this new body of work and master its special methodology and jargon. I also wanted to make up for having dropped out of Cambridge and continue my studies, without returning to the formal disciplines of Academe. So, following the advice of a friend who assured me it was a cool scene and a good place in which to hang out, I applied to the BM for a reader’s ticket, and much to my surprise and delight, got it.
There was perhaps a certain cachet – or intellectual snobbery - still associated with gaining a readers pass in those days. There was an assumption, at least among some readers, that the reading room was a privilege reserved for use by serious scholars pursuing advanced research, and not for the likes of undergraduates and other such riff raff. Certainly every time I walked past the ‘Readers Only’ sign at the entrance, and saw other visitors being turned away, I have to confess to getting a little buzz out of it. It made me feel for an instant as if I belonged, however vicariously, to a true community of scholars.
This sense of privilege was enhanced on late nights, when the reading room remained open until 9pm, while the rest of the museum was closed. It was then possible to wander through empty, dimly lit, galleries on the ground floor en route to the small basement cafeteria and feel a childish delight in having the place to yourself, as you took your own leisurely private view of the Egyptian statuary or Elgin marbles.
Once I started using the reading room, my sense of Bloomsbury and its geography was transformed. What had been a large hole in the midst of an otherwise vivid urban fabric, now became a central reference point. It also changed the way I moved about the area. The fact that the library, like the museum, had a back and front entrance, meant that you could use it as part of a convenient short cut between Holborn and New Oxford Street in the south and North Bloomsbury – it may not have been what a reader’s pass was meant for, but it came in very handy on a cold and wet wintry day.
I noticed that my fellow readers rarely referred to the reading room as such. They would simply say ‘ See you in the BM next Wednesday’. For them the reading room was the museum. Perhaps that explains why they ignored what was going on in the rest of the building. They rarely took the opportunity to visit any of the exhibitions, let alone the collections. Yet for me this was another of the great attractions. During my lunch break, or if I had got bored with what I was reading or just needed to stretch my legs, I would wander out into one of the galleries and browse around. My favourite was the gallery which showed displays of the Museum’s wonderful collection of drawings and prints. In what other library in the world could you just pop upstairs and find yourself in a roomful of Rembrandts or Durers, enter the dark, misanthropic worlds of Goya or Hogarth, or study modern masterpieces by Picasso, Paul Nash and Henry Moore?
I had become involved in the contemporary art scene through working for a time as an assistant to John Latham. His work was unusual in a number of ways. He had a scientific background and was deeply influenced by ideas from cosmology, cybernetics and a Russian parapsychologist who tried to explain telepathy according to the laws of physics. Out of this came an exotic potpourri of terms that I was not alone in finding difficult to grasp. But however eclectic the sources or obscure the rationale, the focus of John’s aesthetic attack on what he saw as the formulaic aspects of academic learning and book culture was boldly original (10).
John had a thing about books. He thought that as a medium of communication they compressed the multidimensional flux of events into a linear, one dimensional format, removing all contingency. He wanted through his art to restore the element of surprise generated by synchronicity, and for this purpose he used books to create what he called an ‘event structure’. What this meant in practice is that he treated books as raw material much as a sculptor might use marble, stone or wood. He cut them, carved them, singed them, bent them, twisted them and then spray painted them before embedding them into a large canvas. The result should have been ugly but it was not. His book assemblages gave them new plasticity as objects with a life and beauty of their own. They became sinister machines, exotic butterflies, mysterious relics of some lost civilisation….
John had become famous overnight when as a lecturer at St Martin’s College of Art, he gave his students a practical demonstration of his theories. He borrowed a copy of Harold Rosenberg’s ‘Art of the New’ – the modernist art bible at the time - from the college library and dissolved it in a bath of acid before returning its liquid remains in a metal canister labelled with the author, title, and date of publication. The college authorities were not amused. In fact they were outraged and sacked him on the spot. He never again succeeded in obtaining a full time lecturer’s post.
One of my jobs as his assistant was to attend second hand book auctions and buy up job lots that he could use for his work. Another was to help organise ‘happenings’ at which his latest event structure could be enacted. He had taken to building what he called ‘skoob towers’. These were made of books stuck together one on top of the other, supported by an internal armature to form a free standing column which, once erected, was set on fire. Finding public sites for this to happen in was not an easy task. It contravened every known health and safety regulation and just plonking a tower down without permission was asking for trouble. I did somehow succeed in getting agreement for one such event to take place in the forecourt of Senate House off Malet Street – no doubt by dissembling what was to take place. Unfortunately the day we chose was very blustery. The tower was no sooner erected than it promptly blew over and no amount of coaxing would get it to stand up again. And then the authorities, having, as it were, got wind of what was going on, stepped in and threatened to call the fire brigade if we carried on.
An even bigger fiasco attended our efforts at the famous ‘Wholly Community’ Poetryfest in the Albert Hall. (11). John devised an event structure in the form of a silent ballet between himself, dressed as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Jeff Nuttall, appearing as Webster’s Dictionary. Two special ‘suits’ were made, using layers of plaster of Paris into which the books were carefully embedded. Thus equipped each protagonist was to be armed with a pair of garden shears and hack away at the other’s carapace until its occupant was completely ‘unbooked’.
On the night, I was given a large hand bell and instructed to ring it whenever there was a pause in the proceedings to signal John and Jeff to come on stage. Unfortunately there was no such natural intermission. As soon as one poet had finished another would be introduced, immediately jump onto the stage and begin to declaim. It was impossible to ring the bell while someone was reading. Time went by. There was no air conditioning in the hall and the atmosphere on that hot Summer evening was stifling. The suits were very heavy and it was impossible to sit down in them. After about an hour, John began to sway on his feet and complained of feeling dizzy. The St John’s Ambulance men were immediately called and the next thing anybody knew the Encyclopaedia Britannica had collapsed and was being carried ignominiously out of the Hall on a stretcher. I don’t think John ever quite forgave me for not ringing that bell. For my part I was angry that he had not arranged with the organisers to schedule the intervention, until I realised that the element of surprise, so essential for him, would have been lost, as well as doing me out of a role.
For most of this period, I was officially unemployed and living on what, by today’s standards, was a generous state benefit that came with being on the ‘professional and executive’ register. The fact that I was spending my time studying in the BM, or hanging about various underground ‘scenes’ when I should have been scanning the ‘P and E ‘adverts in the Times and Guardian for suitable openings, and writing letters of application, did not seem to unduly bother the authorities. Still I was always short of cash and took to supplementing my income through what I euphemistically referred to as my second hand book business.
At first this started off legitimately enough with selling my own collection of books, but I found this an increasingly painful exercise. So, influenced by the then fashionable underground doctrine that property, especially other people’s, was theft, and that ‘liberating ‘ commodities, and generally ‘ripping off’ capitalist enterprises and ‘straight society’ was not only morally legitimate but a politically subversive act, I took to helping myself to books from Foyles and elsewhere and reselling them. Medical and legal textbooks were best because they were expensive and if in pristine condition, which, of course, mine were, fetched a high resale price.
Wearing ankle length opera capes had become fashionable on the scene at this time, and this garment now provided a perfect cloak for my activities, enabling me to hide several large tomes within its voluminous folds, even though it suffered from the disadvantage that it made it impossible to run. The whole business caused me acute anxiety, if not guilt. After several sleepless nights, and even more bad dreams, I realised that it was a mug’s game and fortunately gave it up before I was caught.
Mentors and Gurus
Meanwhile back in the BM, I was reading avidly but unsystematically, just following hunches to see where they would lead without regard for any outcome. I did discover a mentor of sorts in another reader who shared some of my interests in continental philosophy and linguistics and also my intellectual waywardness and dislike of Academe. He was an émigré from eastern Europe, a lanky man in his late forties, who chain smoked, wore badly fitting clothes, and took little care of his physical appearance or hygiene. Whenever he smiled, a fortunately infrequent event, he displayed the finest set of rotten teeth I had yet come across. He spoke several languages, had a bed sit off the Bayswater Road, and a small private income that enabled him to subsist without working, largely, he confided to me, by living on a diet of spam, baked beans and pineapple fritters. He seemed to have no family and few friends, living only for his work; this centred on a book he was writing which was to be a definitive critical exegesis of the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. He was vituperative in his contempt for the contributions of other scholars working in his field, all of whom he regarded as self serving fools who had become tools of the establishment by taking well paid positions in the university. As an academic drop out myself, I was too identified with his position to detect the professional envy that lay beneath his complaints. I did, though, feel a tad uneasy at the fact that despite his herculean mental labours – he worked all day every day at the BM - he had never published a single essay in any scholarly journal, a veritable Mr Casaubon. Nevertheless he encouraged my early efforts, often suggesting books to read or ways to think about issues that I found helpful.
Much less helpful was my brief involvement with R.D.Laing and the world of anti-psychiatry. I had read his book The Divided Self and recognised many of my own difficulties in the states of ontological insecurity he described. I liked the sound of his ‘existential analysis’, and was convinced by his account of family double bind systems, and the notion that parents might entangle their children in a web of contradictory injunctions, so that however they responded was ‘wrong’(12). This certainly seemed to explain some of what had been going on at home. So now through my girl friend who had known ‘Ronnie’ in Glasgow, and one of the Laing circle, an anthropologist who was studying witchcraft in an outer London suburb, I got myself introduced and taken on as a patient. It was not a wise move.
Laing at this time was well on the way to becoming a leading guru of the alternative society. He had been turned on by the use of LSD and mescalen for therapeutic purposes at the Esalen Institute in San Francisco, and was now eager to experiment in using the drugs with his own patients. I was an obvious guinea pig although my previous experiences with so called mind enhancing drugs – mostly marijuana -had not been great. Getting stoned with members of a witches coven in Potters Bar had been the highlight so far but the experience did not leave me feeling any less ‘up tight’in many more everyday social situations.
So I was apprehensive of taking something even stronger, but did not want to ‘let the side down’, so I agreed to drop acid along with him and a group of his patients and associates, none of whom I knew. Predictably I had a ‘bad trip’, which only made me feel worse. I had been unable to shed my ego and break through to a higher state of consciousness, because I was incurably, neurotically ‘up tight’, not mad enough to be truly sane – a double failure of Laing’s acid test.
144 and all that
Money continued to be a problem and when, after living in Old Gloucester Street for several years, I eventually fell three months behind with the rent, my landlady suggested, rather sorrowfully, that perhaps I should look around for somewhere cheaper to live. It just so happened that the Bell Hotel, next to the Arts Lab and long empty, had just been occupied by a group of artists in need of studio space; they now invited anyone who wanted a free room to come and join them. The beats, hippies and homeless young people who congregated around the West End quickly took up the offer. Unfortunately it was not long before eviction notices were served and the several hundred young residents had to decide whether to disperse back to their individual ‘derries’ or ‘pads’ or stay together. A group of us argued strongly for the latter course and so began the London Street Commune movement. Over the next nine months, under the sign ‘We are the Writing on your Walls’ we squatted a number of large public buildings, two in Covent Garden, and most notoriously, the Queen Mother’s palatial ex- residence at 144 Piccadilly, near Hyde Park. Here, at last, I realised my childhood ambition to live in a stately home, albeit in the company of six hundred or so of Her Majesty’s distinctly disloyal subjects. (13).
The gutter press had a field day, painting lurid pictures of drug and sex orgies, and young people dropping out of school and running away from home in droves to join us. It seemed that decent hard working families throughout the land were cancelling their Summer holidays because they were frightened that roving bands of hippies would squat and trash their houses as soon as their back was turned. One journalist writing in International Times described the squat as the most successful street riot ever in a building. The Guardian called it ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. As the hysteria mounted and my name – or at least my street pseudonym of ‘Dr John’ – featured ever more prominently in the headlines, as Public Enemy No 1, I would take time out to visit the reading room. Its calm, ordered atmosphere provided an instant antidote to the chaos and craziness that surrounded me in the squat. I felt safe here, at a time when I was becoming increasingly frightened by the public uproar that our actions had provoked as well as by the atmosphere of mounting violence that was taking hold both inside and outside the building. This sense of security was reinforced by the fact that the BM was the last place that anyone would come looking for me. Subconsciously I felt I was joining the band of famous revolutionary figures who had found temporary refuge here from the political storms of their time.
It was no coincidence that the books I was reading were all highly theoretical works – Gramsci on culture, Althusser on ideology, Benveniste on language – comprising a universe of lucid discourse as far abstracted from the world I was actually inhabiting as it was possible to get. In this way I used the reading room as a base from which to construct my own little ‘ivory tower’, a magical defence against anxieties that were threatening to overwhelm me as the discrepancy between my public persona and private self intensified. On the more positive side, these works did provide some of the conceptual tools I needed to make sense of what I was living through. As yet these ruminations lacked a concrete focus, but that was soon to change along with my postal address.
After the fall of 144, central London had become a virtual no go area for us and some of the street communards began to look at the East End as a possible venue for further squats. The derelict Dr Barnardo’s Home in Stepney was one site canvassed – but I had had enough. I just wanted somewhere quiet to live and a move from West End to East End appealed for other reasons than force of circumstance. The area had long been a laboratory of working class youth culture and had recently seen the emergence of skinheads gangs, some of whom had turned up outside 144 to hurl insults and bottles at ‘them **** hippies’. Yet, we reasoned, if a student – worker alliance was on the cards – the then current Leftist pipe dream - why couldn’t we get hippies and skinheads to unite and fight their common foes ?
So I started to prospect for a room of my own east of Aldgate, and soon found an old tailor’s workshop in Teesdale Street, off Bethnal Green Road. It was a time of rapid demographic change in the East End, especially in the rag trade. The workshop next door was Bengali run and there was already a small mosque established in the house opposite. There were still remnants of the old Jewish community living in the area and my landlord was one such. Mr Gold lived in Golders Green but owned the local corner shop and was undoubtedly doing me a special favour when he agreed to rent me the space. It was one enormous room at the top of the house, about sixty feet long by twenty wide, with skylights set in a pitched roof. He looked a bit bemused when I told him I was a sculptor and needed it for a studio, but he gave me a rent book all the same.
The place was not, of course, meant for residential use, but Mr Gold seemed less concerned by the fact that I had a bed in the room, and was obviously living there, than that he could see no visible signs of any artistic activity when he came round each week to collect the rent. He would look around the room, scratch his head, sigh and worry aloud about my lack of progress: ‘I don’t like to interfere, Mr Cohen, I know you people aren’t like the rest of us, but for God’s sake what do you do up here all day?’ I explained that I was primarily a conceptual artist, and needed the time and space to think about my next project. In symbolic terms, at least, this was true. When pressed, however, I conceded that the special stone needed for my magnum Opus had to be got from a quarry in Greece and its shipment had been delayed. These excuses only perplexed him the more: ‘ I tell my wife, give the boy a chance, I am sure he will make something wonderful but she say’s why doesn’t he do something else in the meantime ?’. His visits came to be a bit like the famous Till Eulenspiegel story where Till tricks the king into believing that the blank wall before him does indeed show the mural he commissioned by playing on his vanity, except that in my landlord’s case it was not vanity, but a genuine desire to help a struggling young artist, that gave him a stake in my illusory project. In the end I got John Latham to lend me one of his large book ‘assemblages’ and invited Mr Gold round to view it. I thought he would be pleased with this evidence of my industriousness, but he just stared at the ‘sculpture’, shaking his head in disbelief: ‘Such a thing to do with a book! You call this art?’ he asked, more in sadness than anger, as he departed. But at least, after that, he no longer asked how I was getting on with my work…
A few streets away there was a old community settlement known locally as the Paint Factory, run by Hepzibah Menuhin, Yehudi’s sister, which had become a skinhead stronghold. So with a fellow communard, I now made contact to arrange a meet. When we arrived, there was a reception committee of 16 and 17 year old ‘bovver boys’ waiting outside and we were immediately escorted downstairs into the basement gymnasium; here they lined us up as human goalposts, and spent the next twenty minutes bombarding us with footballs, while we did our best to stand our ground and smile. After this introductory ordeal, the meeting got down to business. They fired question after question at us: Why didn’t we work for a living, like everyone else ? Weren’t we just sponging off society? Why did we wear long hair and beards so we looked like tramps? Who would want to live like us, without proper homes and continually being chivvied by the Law. We countered by asking them if they really enjoyed their jobs? Wouldn’t they rather be doing something else? Didn’t they also face problems with the Law? And if they did not live at home with their parents, but had a place of their own, wouldn’t they be having a lot more fun? This last touched a raw nerve. They were clearly a bit envious of what they had read in the papers about all the free sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. We didn’t like to disillusion them, although the fact was that the logistics of feeding so many people in a building with few facilities and maintaining basic hygiene, not to mention dealing with the media, had left us with little time for all that. The meeting ended amicably enough, with both sides agreeing to go their separate ways. We gave them copies of our newspaper ‘ Rubber Duck’ and as a token of their esteem they solemnly presented us with two bars of soap inscribed with our names.
So the ‘youth revolution’ never happened. But that encounter, along with my theoretical work at the BM, did help bring into focus a series of research questions that directed my reading over the next few years. Why did youth cultures emerge and take such contrasting stylistic forms? How did this relate to changes in the social structure of contemporary capitalism, its real and imagined communities of class (14)? Slowly but surely I was inching my way back into an academic career that had been drastically foreclosed when I dropped out of Cambridge. Yet it was to prove a tortuous journey, taking nearly a decade to complete. I44 Piccadilly had a long aftermath.
The Fire Next Time?
The street communards had done with squatting, but now regrouped by setting up an alternative legal advice and welfare agency for homeless young people in the West End, based on principles of self help and mutual aid. Street Aid had its first office in the heart of Soho’s red light district and as soon as we opened our doors for business, we had a visit from two gentlemen wearing camel haired coats and an impressive line in scars. They had heard of our operation and informed us that they would like us to ‘take care of their girls’, if and when they got into trouble with the Law. We tried to explain that this was not our scene, but they made it clear that they would not take no for an answer. Next day two of the ‘girls’ turned up to volunteer their services – albeit strictly in office hours. We felt it prudent to accept their offer, but decided it was even more prudent to seek other premises in a less front line location.
When Street Aid moved to Covent Garden, it quickly changed its character and personnel. It dropped all links with the ‘ dilly scene’ and evolved into a radical youth and community project, offering a range of courses to an assortment of school refuseniks, early leavers and unemployed youth who lived in the local Peabody estates, as their families had done for generations.
We quickly became involved in local community politics. The fruit and vegetable market was about to move out to Nine Elms and there was an ambitious plan to knock the market buildings down and replace them with a large hotel and conference centre whose scale would have entirely destroyed the character of the area. We joined forces with Covent Garden Community Association and a team of radical architects to propose an alternative scheme; this was inspired by Jane Jacob’s theory of neighbourhood renewal and sought to ensure a form of economic regeneration that would support the continuing presence of a large working class community in the city centre. There was a much wider coalition of objection to the plan and when it came to the Public Enquiry, much to everyone’s delight, the plan was scrapped. It was a famous victory against the forces that would soon transform London’s financial quarter into an approximation of down town Manhattan. But if we had succeeded in stopping Big Capital,, we opened the door for a bevy of small developers and entrepreneurs to move in, to kick start what Jacob’s called ‘spontaneous un-slumming’. In effect this was a process of gentrification which turned the now empty warehouses into hives of creative industry, and the area into the major tourist attraction, with its shops, restaurants, cafes and wine bars, that we know today(15).
The staff at Street Aid Mk2 were a liquorish all sorts group of feminists, libertarian socialists, and ‘free spirits’, most of us inspired by the educational ideas of Ivan Illych and Paolo Freire. We wanted to ‘de-school’ society, and develop a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ as part of a wider project of working class and/or women’s liberation (16). As can be imagined, this made for exciting internal debates but not always a smooth running organisation. The hard fact was that we now depended on external grants and hence the approval of funding bodies, none of whom were too enthusiastic about our political ideologies. This inevitably set up a conflict between the fund raisers who wanted to ‘professionalise’ our approach and most of the staff who were suspicious that such a move would entail a dilution of their radical ideas, if not cost them their jobs. In the end the ‘professionals’ declared UDI and set up their own organisation on separate premises nearby, taking all the grants with them. The radical faction, including myself and a close friend, David Robins, were outmanoeuvred, being left in possession of the old offices, but with no money to pay the electricity bill, let alone the staff. And then, mysteriously, one night, there was a fire in our building and we found ourselves without the offices as well.
Again we regrouped, and occupied an empty pub on a large run down council housing estate near Kings Cross. From this new base we hoped to establish the kind of youth and community project we believed in, reaching out to local working class youth with our educational and communitarian ideas. Despite this somewhat vague programme, we succeeded in gaining the support of tenants and local young people for a disco and live music venue, and initially things went well. But there were others on the estate who felt threatened by our presence and who anyway had other plans for the pub. One night there was a mysterious fire in the building and another great emancipatory project went up in flames.
With a track record like this, who would employ us, or even invite us round for supper? A story went about that if you wanted something burnt down and couldn’t afford a professional fire raiser, send for Cohen and Robins – they would soon provoke someone to do it for free. Our friends insisted that we were really just two nice Jewish boys who shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches. We ignored these taunts. For out of these ashes we had managed to raise a Phoenix or two: the Leverhulme Trust gave us a grant to carry out some research into contemporary youth cultures, and Penguin books commissioned a book which would include an account of our adventures in Kings Cross(17)
Had we arrived at the promised land – the revolutionary unity of theory and practice? Or just moved on? It was, after all, 1978, not 1968 and we were both now in our mid thirties. So when, on the strength of these developments, we were approached by Michael Young – a radical educationalist then working with Basil Bernstein – and invited to move to the Sociological Research Unit at the Institute of Education to continue our work, we felt no compunction about taking up the offer. As I moved into my new office overlooking Gordon Square, I felt that one phase of my life, an all too prolonged adolescence, was over, and, paradoxically, as I returned to the scene of my childhood, I was at last ready to grow up and settle my account with Academe.
The Reading Room and other scenes
As my research developed over the next two decades, I used to frequent the reading room at least once and preferably twice a week, especially on late nights. I began to absorb and observe some of its special atmosphere and etiquettes and became fascinated by the games people play in libraries (18).
Reading is not just an individual mental activity, it is a material and social practice, and I soon discovered there were many different ways of doing it. The extrovert reader sprawls books and papers all over the desk, not bothering too much if s/he intrudes on a neighbour’s territory. The more introverted reader builds little barricades, using books or bags to protect their personal reading space from intrusion by any prying gaze. There are the obsessionals who have to lay out their pens, notebooks and other apparatus in a precise order on the desk before they can begin work, and the happy go lucky ones who manage to make do with whatever comes first to hand. Some readers have annoying nervous tics. One BM habitué used to emit a continuous low hum while reading which only stopped when he came to a page with a picture or photograph on it. Another used to mutter furiously under her breath as she turned the pages, no doubt having an argument with the author.
On the whole these little eccentricities were tolerated in the reading room. As in all libraries there was a sheaf of rules and regulations governing the proper conduct of users. But in my experience most of these were negotiated and sustained informally. For example, there were a few ‘Quiet Please’ notices dotted around, but there was an unwritten rule that conversations in the room would be conducted, if not sotto voce, then in a sufficiently restrained register to avoid disturbing other readers. This also applied to where such conversations might take place. The catalogues in the centre of the room or the reference books along its periphery were the preferred spaces where people would meet up for a short chat, well away from the aisles where readers sat working at their desks. The contingent of North American academics who descended on the BM every summer did not seem to much know or care to observe this rule and would often gossip animatedly from seat to seat in the aisles, unless admonished by one of the staff to keep their voices down – an intervention they no doubt, and perhaps rightly, put down to English stuffiness.
No food or drink was, of course, allowed on the premises and this injunction also applied to sweets, especially chewing gum. The authorities were understandably concerned to protect their books against sticky fingers and their carpets from becoming gum trodden wastelands. But as I discovered, it was a difficult rule to observe when you were in the throes of giving up smoking and chewing gum was the only way to survive. I noticed a lot of furtive mastication going on amongst fellow sufferers and we all lived in dread of being found out by a sharp eyed member of staff. I always had a paper tissue kept handy in my pocket in case I had to take emergency action and spit out the offending object under the guise of coughing.
There was no dress code that I could observe. People used to turn up in shorts and T shirts during the height of summer. There was one rather gaunt old man who used to wander round dressed in what looked like a fur trimmed dressing gown but with bare legs and sandals even in the depths of winter. He was rumoured to be the last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group, which was perhaps why he was treated so respectfully by the staff. When not stalking the reference book stacks, he would sit at his place, staring vacantly into space, emitting lengthy sighs as he waited for books that seemingly never came.
Some readers had a favourite seat where they would always try to sit, but when the reading room was busy, during the Summer months, you had to get there early to stand a chance of getting any ‘premium’ seat along one of the aisles. Failing that you might have to put up with much more cramped accommodation at one of the tables between the aisles or even settle for a perch in the Gallery of the North Library. The pressure of overcrowding increased from year to year and was one of the main factors that precipitated the demise of the reading room.
The aisle seats had book stands, blotters, and ample desk space covered in softly padded leather. This made for an ideal pillow if you wanted a snooze, a favourite pastime amongst some of the more elderly, and even not so elderly, readers but not, needless to say, permitted. One of the staff was sometimes deputed to patrol the room on the look out for any reader who was dropping off. The culprit would then be approached and either tactfully brought back to his senses with a quiet remonstrance, or if his head had actually slumped on the desk, woken by being prodded gently on the shoulder with a small stick carried for this purpose.
The North Library was where you went to read journals and scientific books and provided a welcome contrast to the main reading room. Downstairs there were a number of large elegant tables around which six people could sit comfortably, lending an intimate but still spacious feel to the whole place. There was one special table reserved for those reading what was euphemistically called ‘classified material’. The table was situated near the issue desk, no doubt so that the staff could keep an eye on what was going on in case anyone got up to mischief. When I once inadvertently ordered a book that fell into this category, I was so embarrassed at having to sit there that I handed the item in unread and fled the scene.
A special kind of club
There was always more to the reading room than a place where people went to read books. It was never just a means of accessing and retrieving information you could not find elsewhere. It was, as one of its habitués once explained to me, a special kind of club, which anyone could join, provided they were dedicated enough to their task.
I soon discovered that there was an informal hierarchy amongst readers. At one end of the social spectrum were the passing trade, the blow – ins who scarcely counted, except as a source of temporary nuisance. At the other, were the famous names and faces who occasionally graced us with their presence and were treated deferentially by the staff although studiously ignored by the rest of us. Then there were the regulars, who had been working there over many years and used the facilities on a routine basis. These habitués were on familiar nodding terms with the staff who would refer to them by name when talking amongst themselves, as in ‘ John, please put Professor Henry’s books on the reserve shelf till he comes in next Tuesday’. The first time this happened to me, after I had been going in for about two years, I have to admit I felt a little thrill of pride.
Regular readers were accorded little favours which usually involved bending the rules. For example a book might be held in reserve a little longer than officially allowed; If a book you applied for was out to another reader they might be approached and asked if they would not mind loaning it for a day. Occasionally you might be told the reader’s seat number and be invited to approach them directly with your request – a discreet form of social networking that sometimes led to the meeting of kindred spirits.
The BM was a good place to make and meet friends. The reading room was rumoured to serve as an unofficial dating agency for post graduate students, and it may well have been so. There were certainly plenty of opportunities for flirtation, although talk about secret places of assignation – standing by certain catalogues at a certain time of day meaning that you were up for a certain kind of thing – was mere wishful thinking on some people’s part!
The staff, like the readers, came in all shapes and sizes. Some, who had been there the longest, tended to see their job as being mere fetchers and carriers of books. One such, in his 60s, had worked in the Museum since leaving school, graduating from post boy to gallery attendant, and thence to his present position on the reserved books counter. He told me he thought the reading room had gone downhill, he couldn’t wait to retire and spend more time working on his allotment. In the meantime he carried out his duties conscientiously, but in a somewhat forlorn manner, like a faithful old family retainer who remembers better days.
Others, younger, more ambitious and energetic, regarded the job as the first step in a professional career as a librarian; inevitably they usually only lasted a year or two before moving onwards and upwards. Even more fleeting were the post grad students who came in as temporary cover for staff holidays, especially during the Summer months, when extra staff were always required. Finally there was a group who clearly had literary or scholarly ambitions of their own. They chose the job because it could be interesting, provided a congenial social milieu as well as some financial security while they struggled to finish the novel or scholarly treatise that was going to make their name, if not their fortune. They could be found in their spare moments scribbling away in a notebook, or poring over some tome.
I was on quite familiar terms with a number of staff. One, in particular, was about my age and as I discovered when applying for books he had himself taken out, shared similar interests. This formed the basis of an acquaintance that lasted over many years. But even if our relationship went beyond the normal professional civilities, we never became close friends, on first name terms, or met outside the BM. If I ran into him in the cafeteria on one of the late nights, I never knew quite what to say, beyond greeting him with a smile and engaging in some light banter or academic small talk. I did though get a sense from some of the things he said that he was becoming increasingly bitter and frustrated with the job and wanted to move on to something better; although I never presumed to ask him what this was, I did wonder whether it had anything to do with the changing conditions of his work.
From the mid 1980’s onwards, the digital revolution was increasingly making itself felt. The technologies of reading, writing and research were being progressively transformed, and so, inevitably, was library practice. Instead of ‘manuscript’ read ‘hard copy’. It could be argued that, at first, the reading room responded conservatively to these trends, and until the end, the basic method of ordering and delivering books remained the same. But the way readers used the facilities altered. It was the advent of the laptop that made the biggest difference. Previously, of course, you had to take handwritten notes, and if you wanted to do some serious writing, this could only be the roughest of longhand first drafts. Portable typewriters had never been allowed in the main reading rooms, presumably on account of the clatter they made. Also banned were scissors, glue and tippex, those basic tools of our trade in the days when ‘cut and paste’ meant just that. But once you could take your laptop in with you, it was possible to use it not only to take notes, but to directly work on your text, carrying out a whole range of editorial tasks – rewriting, proofing, indexing, collating bibliographies, footnotes – all integrated into the same document.
There were a few luddites, and not all of them from the older ‘pre-digital’ generations. One young man, notable for his ‘pre-raphaelite’ look, and presumably some kind of ‘new romantic’, used an old fashioned fountain pen, and sat there, day after day writing away in the most elegant of copperplate hands. But by the early 1990’s, most readers and staff had come to recognise that the reading room would have to give way to a new purpose built building bringing together all the scattered book collections under one roof, offering more accommodation and fully geared up to the digital age.
Many of the staff were initially unhappy about the move. The site chosen for the new British Library was, in many ways, an unfortunate one, uncomfortably sandwiched as it is between the thundering traffic of Euston Road to its front and the railway lines of Euston and St Pancras on either side, leaving only the unprepossessing housing estates of Somers Town to form its immediate hinterland. For the staff the move meant a whole new set of working arrangements, within a much more technologically driven environment and with much less opportunity to control the pace of the job. The fact that the then director of the BL went on public record as saying that his first duty was to the care of the books, not his staff, did little to improve the situation, and most readers supported the staff when they took industrial action to try to improve their pay and conditions.
Continuities and change
On the final day, when readers and staff met for a farewell drink, the general feeling was that whatever the gains, and there were to be many, of moving to St Pancras, we had lost something irreplaceable – not only the room itself, but the immediate access it offered to the Museum and to Bloomsbury. Yet although a certain amount of home sickness must be allowed for when moving to a new place after so many years, it will not do to compound it with nostalgia.
Norman Foster’s restoration of the Great Court has turned the reading room into the hub of the museum in a new way. It will essentially become a visitor centre housing the Paul Hamlyn Library, with information about the Museum’s history, collections and current exhibitions (19). This new role reflects the way the Museum itself, and its immediate environs have inevitably changed under the impact of mass cultural tourism. Big blockbuster exhibitions keep the BM high up in the visitor destination charts and the revenue from them no doubt helps to subsidise a host of other, smaller projects, even in these hard times.
The area around the Museum has adapted remarkably well to the new conditions. There are one or two tourist souvenir and trinket shops but its ‘Bloomsbury’ character remains. Whether your interest is in rare first editions of famous literary works or traditional Chinese art, old cameras and optical instruments, or the latest graphic novel, collecting puzzles and board games or original cartoons by latter day Hogarths and Rowlandsons, you will find your needs catered for. Despite the onwards march of Waterstones, the area is still full of small bookshops where you can browse the morning away undisturbed by muzak. Gordon Square and Russell Square, looking much the worse for wear in the 1990s, have both received substantial makeovers in the last few years and the sheer concentration of students and academics generated by the University of London ensures that the area will retain its unique social and cultural identity for as long as it is there.
Meanwhile over in St Pancras, the British Library has proved a remarkably comfortable home from home. Despite a forecourt presided over by Edouard Paolozzi’s muscle bound ‘thinker’, and paving stones that turn the area into an ice rink in wet weather, the building itself is an undoubted success. It is full of interesting little nooks and crannies, like the tiny roof garden looking out over North London. Now that the whole process of ordering books has been streamlined, with the capacity to order direct from the online catalogue, and a same day in-house delivery service, there are far fewer frustrations, though also less opportunity to interact with and get to know the staff. As for extra-curricular activities, there are always interesting exhibitions to visit and lectures to attend. The new reading rooms may be more functional than the old, but that does not necessarily mean they are impersonal. The concourse areas are lively thoroughfares and the library still has its characters. Who could miss the vulpine figure of Will Self, sitting in Humanities 2,crouched over his laptop, pounding the keys with machine gun like rapidity and a scowl of concentration on his face, as he composes another diatribe against the follies of the age?
The impact of the Library on its immediate neighbourhood is somewhat contradictory. Its very location, and the proposed building of a new medical research centre in Brill Street nearby, means that, in a sense, the reach of Bloomsbury has already extended into what used to be a no go area. And now that Somers Town has been turned into a movie by Shane Meadows, the whole place has been put on the cultural map. His tough and tender portrayal of the local white working class and immigrant communities might whet the appetite of inveterate urban slummers, yet is unlikely to encourage the professional middle class to actually move in. In any case the potential for gentrification, in residential terms, seems limited; given the sheer density of its social housing, and the absence of old industrial buildings suitable for conversion into luxury apartments, design studios and restaurants, Somers Town is not set to become another Clerkenwell or Hoxton.
Now and then
If I was growing up in Endsleigh Court today, I would probably be just as lonely. The flats are mainly short stay rentals for overseas business visitors, and what little community there was amongst residents has long ceased to exist, although my father still lives there. But I do not think it would feel quite so difficult or so dangerous to imagine what life was like on the other side of Euston Road. Indeed one of my regular expeditions with my father might well take in the British Library, if only for an ice or a cold drink in the Summer, or a hot chocolate in Winter.
It would be an interesting journey, starting from Woburn Walk, immediately opposite our block, which we used to refer to simply as ‘the alleyway’ and use for convenience shopping. Now it is officially classified as a ‘UK visitor attraction’, with its bow fronted shops, built by Thomas Cubitt in the early 19th century, beautifully restored, and housing cafes, bookshops and offices. Here I could still drop into the newsagent and get my copy of the Beano as I used to sixty years ago, even though the Hotspur is no more. Naturally there would be no hurdy gurdy man, with a monkey on a lead capering on top of his piano as he cranked out the old favourites, to entertain and detain us. There would be no visit to Davies the Dairy to buy fresh milk brought up daily by train from their farm in Wales, or ‘fancy biscuits’ in glass topped boxes you could inspect and even sample before you made your choice. Instead we would press on round the back of St Pancras Church, whose caryatids still look as if they are in need of a good wash and brush up, past the old Artists Rifles drill hall, now a modern dance venue, and yet another featureless tourist hotel, to cross over Euston Road and into Chalton Street; here we might briefly visit the street market before cutting through the famous Ossulston estate, built by the LCC in the 1930’s and influenced by the radical modernism of the worker’s housing projects in Red Vienna, to arrive at the British Library.
After our pit stop, and if the weather was fine, we might decide to take the long way home, crossing back over Euston Road, by Unsworth Books, then strolling down Judd Street into Marchmont Street, which still comprises Bloomsbury’s major shopping centre. Here there would be the added attraction of a quick browse through the children’s section of Skoob Books, its name a somewhat back handed compliment to John Latham’s ‘event structure’, but still the best second hand bookshop in town. Thence we would retrace our footsteps through the back streets, via Cartwright Gardens with its crescent of hotels that have largely lost their Welsh names and clientele, though not their early Victorian elegance, and skirt round the side of the British Medical Association HQ, until we at last reached the alleyway and home.
Along the way, what had once upon a time been an area of ‘terror incognita’ would have been effortlessly segued into a classic ‘Bloomsbury’ walk. As for the vexed question of social status and address, thanks largely to Shane Meadows, it would be much less of a problem with my peers. I would be able to say to my prep school chums that I came from just down the road from where they made that film, with the insinuendo: if you don’t show a bit of respect, I’ll tell my mates from Somers Town to come and duff you up.
My family romance would have surely shifted location: I would now have been ‘found’ in the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, no doubt while waiting on platform nine and a half for the Hogwarts Express to take me home to my real parents, Monsieur et Madame Potteur, who lived close by the Eiffel Tower. Back in the real, real world I would still be setting out on foot and bike. Without the attraction of a pavement artist in residence I doubt I would be spending much time in Tavistock Square, even though I would no longer have to keep off the grass. Gordon Square with its flocks of students and Russell Square, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, would still be much more fun. The Tour de Bloomsbury would now feature a special test - to run the gauntlet of the fountains without skidding or getting wet. And, of course, no turn around the neighbourhood would be complete without a visit to those lions in Montagu Place, whose ferocious appetite is rumoured to be undiminished after all these years.
Postscript: back to the future
While I have been writing this memoir, I have been thinking a lot about my grandsons, Ricky and Casey, aged 12 and 10 respectively. Will they be interested in reading this account, when they grow up, and even if they are curious, will they be able to make any sense of it? On first consideration it seems unlikely. The world I have described will seem almost as remote to them as that of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Still, if they take after their father, they may be interested in what was happening before they were around, in particular the music and youth culture of the 1960s and also have an appetite for exploring off the beaten track. It is also sometimes easier for grandchildren to appreciate a grandparent’s world precisely because it is so distant and does not impinge as a model on their actual lives. As for the inevitable obscurity of the references, that need present no difficulties. Who on earth is Edmund Husserl – just Google him and find out!
At the same time, there is evidence that the so called ‘generation gap’ is widening in a way that even the most imaginative use of history or the Internet struggles to bridge. I remember giving a lecture on ‘Images of the Late Victorian City’ to a group of 20 year olds who were doing multimedia studies. Their tutor told me they were very much into the ’urban vibe’, but could benefit from something that set their interests in a somewhat broader context. I prepared an illustrated talk, focussing on the East End of London, where the students lived, with lots of photographs and other visual material from the period. Still it was a proper lecture, developing quite a complex line of argument, and used extensive quotes from novels, newspaper articles and social reports. Ten minutes into the talk, I noticed the class getting restive. An ominous buzz of conversation started at the back and I heard one student say in a loud whisper to his neighbour ‘ What’s the old geezer on about?’ To which his colleague replied ‘Dunno, I think its got summat to do with what the area was like when he was young’. At this point I decided to stop the lecture and ask them if they had any questions, as some of them didn’t seem to be following. One hand immediate shot up. ‘Please sir, we’re not used to this sort of thing. The other teachers all use Powerpoint so we can copy down the main ideas’. There was not much I could say to that! But, as I hoped, my friend at the back of the class rose to the occasion by asking ‘What’s the point of all this stuff about the old days – what’s it got to do with now?’ This provided my cue to make a case for the uses of history in creating a dialogue between the generations. I warned of the dangers of judging the past by the standards and values of the present, and also of thinking that one event simply led to another and could be blamed for it. Yet if the past was a foreign country, I argued, surely we should want to visit it, if only to find out just how differently they did things then.
I am not sure the appeal to history as cultural tourism really convinced them, although they heard out the rest of the lecture in silence. I would hope, naturally, that in the case of my grandsons, the invitation to explore this or any other byway of their family history might not fall on such deaf ears. I know they like a good story – they are both avid Harry Potter fans and have read all the books cover to cover several times over; and they enjoy making mischief. So its possible they would like some of the anecdotes about stuff I got up to. But when I watch them, as they spend hour after hour absorbed in playing computer games, mostly shoot ‘em ups whose plots fit very closely with the popular action- fiction written for teenage boys, I begin to worry what the long term effects might be in making communication across the generational divide even more difficult.
In the adventure stories I grew up with, actions had moral consequences, and you knew what the characters thought and felt about what they did, or was done to them. In most computer games, the player does not need to know – or care – about anything other than the actions that their character, or avatar, performs. There may be a instant calculation of risk, of profit or loss, in flicking a button to take one course of action as against another, but that is all. So while I do not share some academic concerns that computer game culture is necessarily foreshortening attention spans, eventually affecting the quality of narrative memory, and hence life story telling, I do worry that the capacity for empathy – the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes – might suffer, and with it the possibility of young and old finding some common ground of curiosity about each other’s worlds.
Still there are always new bridges to be built, or at least imagined, across the generations. I would like to think that perhaps, one day, when they are grown up, and recalling their own childhood fascination with Hogwarts Academy, Ricky or Casey might be prompted to pick up this little book to find out what life was like for a real public schoolboy nearly a century before. Or chancing upon an old iPod with tracks from their dad’s collection of 1960’s indie bands, they might become curious to know more about the ‘underground scene’ from which they emanated. And then, reading on to the last section, they might decide to take their children on the walk around Bloomsbury I describe. I hope they do, because even if I am not around to hear the tale, I would love someone to know if I was right about Somers Town, or whether it has, after all, become better known for its sushi bars than its street gangs…
1) See Marjorie L Cayhill The British Museum Reading Room (2002), for an exhaustive history. Also the novel by David Lodge ‘ The British Museum is Falling Down’ for a more sardonic appraisal of its role.
2) Existentialism was popularised by Colin Wilson in his book The Outsider, originally published in 1960. Wilson focused on Camus’ vision of the absurdity of human existence, dramatised by the myth of Sisyphus, and Sartre’s concept of ‘bad faith’, as exemplified by the cafe waiter who surrenders his human freedom by allowing his existence to be defined exclusively by the social role he is called upon to perform. The book made a vital link between these ideas and the ‘beat’ philosophy cum life style then being defined in the USA by Norman Mailer is his essay ‘The White Negro’, in the novels of Jack Kerouacs and in the work of the poets grouped around the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco. For an anthology of this work see Anne Charter’s The Portable Beat Reader (2006).
3) For present purposes the most interesting material about the Bloomsbury Group is contained in two memoirs by its members: Quentin Bell Bloomsbury Recalled (1986) and Angela Garnett Deceived by Kindness – a Bloomsbury Childhood (1981).
4) The belief that a classical education not only instilled useful habits of mind but was ‘character forming’ was not unique to St Paul’s. Classics remained at the core of the curriculum in many of the older public schools until the early 1960’s. However the fact that the school’s founder, Dean Colet, was one of the leading classicists of the Renaissance, gave this belief an especially tenacious hold. The subject area could not, however, long survive the abandonment of Latin as a GCE entry qualification for Oxbridge. For an interesting sociological study of the school’s contemporary culture see Shamas Rahman’s Priviledge:the making of an adolescent elite at St Paul’s School (2010).
5) Without us knowing it, these stylistic do’s and don’ts, were initiating us into a certain discourse of power, a language of official pronouncement in which laws, judgements and decisions are made, and many an academic treatise written. It is a form of prose that is used for elaborating and making explicit the processes whereby things happen, but only, usually, by deleting the concrete human agencies that direct or control these states of affairs. So, for example, every time children are made to wash their hands before meals by this or that adult in charge of them, ‘hygienic standards are being maintained as a normative aspect of family and school life’. The trick is to turn actions into objects and verbal processes into abstract nouns, so no-one ever does anything to anybody, stuff just happens. Linguists call this ‘nominalisation’, the term itself being symptomatic of the problem it describes. Once you have internalised these rules, as I did, it is very difficult to change your style, as the reader of this memoir will be able to testify!
6) ‘Auteur theory’ – the notion that the directors creative intentions and their realisation in the syntax of the film were the sole guarantees of its existence as an art form – was developed by the French cineaste, Andre Bazin in his book What is Cinema (1957). Bazin’s work was widely influential in the 1960’s, especially amongst the directors of the so called ‘nouvelle vague’ – Truffaut, Chabrol and Rivette, and also provided the critical rationale for Cahiers du Cinema. Cahiers had its English devotees clustered around the journal Movie.
7) Jeff Nuttall’s own account of the ‘underground’ scene can be found is his book Bomb Culture (1970). See also his Art and the degradation of awareness (1999). An account of the Arts Lab can be found in Jim Haynes Thank you for coming(1984).For an entertaining account of how some of these ideas were absorbed into popular culture see George Melly’s Revolt into Style(1969). Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the meanings of Style (1979) offers a more considered academic appraisal.
8) There is now a vast literature on the Situationist International. Perhaps the best book in English is Vincent Kaufmann’s Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (2001). For an evocation of the Parisian atmosphere that so appealed to me in its earliest manifestation, see Jean-Michel Mension, The Tribe (1998). Michael Lowy’s Morning Star (2009) is an attempt to locate situationism within the history of radical ideas. The most cogent attempt to assess the political legacy of the movement and argue for its continued relevance is to be found in an essay by T.J. Clark and D. Nicholson-Smith (1997) “Why Art Can’t Kill the Situationist International.” October, 79, pp. 15-31.
9) A useful introduction to this chapter in the history of ideas is to be found in Edith Kurzwell The Age of Structuralism (1996).
10) For more information about John Latham’s life and work see John Walker John Latham – the incidental person: his art and life (1994) and David Thorp, Noa Latham and Stephen Foster John Latham: time base and the universe (2006).Also Flat Time House, the John Latham Foundation and archive www.flattimeho.org.uk
11) The event, which took place in June 1965, and is celebrated in Peter Whitehead’s film, is widely credited with having launched the’alternative society’ in Britain. It was intended as an international showcase for beat poetry, lead by a strong British contingent - Mike Horowitz, Peter Brown, Adrian Mitchell, Alex Trocchi and Harry Fainlight, plus the Liverpool poets, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough. But in the event it was the American ‘big daddies’ of the movement, the triumvirate of Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti, who stole the show. For account of the event and the poetry scene during this period see Pete Brown’s White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns (2010).
12) The double bind theory was developed by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1978).
13) My account of the street communes movement can be found in Rethinking the Youth Question: education, labour and cultural studies (1998). Squatting became possible because of a loophole in the law, which made eviction a rather cumbersome procedure. This had already been exploited by groups of family squatters, who, at first, somewhat resented us for diverting public attention from their cause and giving squatting a bad name. In fact our activities rebounded to their advantage, since the media drew a firm line between homeless families, who were now regarded as deserving cases, even by the Tory press, and the street communards, who most definitely were not. The legal loophole was quickly closed, although squatting has remained part of the political repertoire ever since.
14) These ideas first crystallised in a talk I gave to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham in 1974 under the title ‘Subcultural Conflict and Working Class Community’. The talk was reprinted in the centre’s journal and subsequently provided a basis for further work by the centre published as Resistance through Rituals (2006). The original article is reprinted in Rethinking the Youth Question (op Cit)
15) See Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities (2006). In the 1960s and 70s Jacob’s book became gospel for a whole generation of community activists as they sought to mobilise public support for campaigns against major infrastructure developments, office tower blocks, and mega housing projects. The weakness in her approach is that it assumed that lots of small employers could sustain an inner city economy as well as one or two big ones, which held true only where gentrification was the name of the regeneration game. In the case of Covent Garden, once the market went, so did a major source of employment for the local working class community and the introduction of specialised catering and retail trades in no way compensated for this loss of jobs.
16) In the aftermath of May 68, there was a ferment of ideas about how to effect fundamental change in civil society while rejecting any attempt to reform the trade unions, the Labour party or the State for this purpose. This libertarian left developed in two directions; one focused on life style, cultural and identity politics, often around issues of gender and sexuality. The other was pre-occupied with issues of class and with building institutions of direct or participatory democracy in the workplace and community, sometimes drawing on the ideas of the early Guild Socialists and Council Communists. Some groups tried to combine both perspectives, notably socialist feminists. For a political memoir that discusses this intellectual milieu see Lynne Segal’s Making Trouble: life and politics (2007)
17) See Rethinking the Youth Question (op cit) and David Robins and Phil Cohen Knuckle sandwich-Growing up in the working class city (1978)
18) The only detailed study of this topic as far as I know is Jonathon Boyarin’s The Ethnography of Reading (1999).
19) For information about future plans for the reading room contact: email@example.com
This memoir is dedicated to my family and friends. I would especially like to thank my partner, Jean McNeil, for her constant help, advice and encouragement, in this as in many other things; thanks also to Donald Nicholson Smith and Toby Butler for helping to arrange its publication; and to Huw Clayton for undertaking the picture research. The text may be reproduced freely in any form, provided due acknowledgement is given to the author.
Phil Cohen, March 2011