Reading Room Only

Panorama of the British Museum Reading Room (photo: Diliff)

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.

Somers Town (area to the North of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross Stations) Photo: Huw Clayton

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.

photo: Huw Clayton
One of the Lions outside the British Museum     (photo: Huw Clayton)

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.

Cultural Diversions

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.

Cambridge  days

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.

(picture: Huw Edwards)
Georgian houses, Old Gloucester St (photo: Huw Clayton)

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?

Un/bookish pursuits

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).

Click on this image to see a 1969 Pathe newsreel report on the Piccadilly Squatters (the clip features the author, ‘Dr John’, being evicted) and here to find a short documentary on the issue, again featuring the author

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.

Moving East

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.

British Museum Great Court – the reading room and the new roof (Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 26 November 2005)

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.

The British Library, St Pancras (photo: Huw Clayton)

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.

Woburn Walk (Photo: Huw Clayton)

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.

St Pancras Church – the caryatids (Photo: Huw Clayton)

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

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:

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.

Update: Phil Cohen has published his reflections on writing this memoir in an article in History Workshop Journal (issue 74) and now has a website and blog at


  1. Les lumieres: still shining bright and clear.

  2. Thanks Phil – this is absolutely wonderful – Gaud bless ya!

  3. So you were Dr John, Phil. Had no idea, even though I ventured some of the same places in the mid-sixties. But I was a young mother, married; met Jim Haynes at the Arts Lab raising funds to launch Clive Goodwin’s Black Dwarf – 1966 or 7. And so on…Sally Alexander

  4. Great stuff! Where can we get hard copy and is there more to come? I hope so. Patrick Ainley

  5. Hi Phil I remember you well from the Arts Lab days, Bell hotel etc.I particularly remember how helpful you were to my friend Paul, an American who was planted with contraband by the police in the raid on the Bell hotel. So this is just a wave from an old familiar….Best thoughts Allen

  6. Dear Philip, Can we meet up about a show/exhibition I am doing on the Better Books, Flat Time House gallery and ZKM Karlsruhe. You wrote some happenings to be staged in the basement there. Glad I have ‘sort of’ found you. Please connect. Rozemin Keshvani

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