The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town
With a possible new educational project to be announced in the new year, I am reposting some articles on ‘alternative’ education that make for good reading. This is a piece published by Neil Cooper in Line Magazine earlier this year.
Saturday, 30 July 2011 Agitate! Educate! Organise! – The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town
When a seventy year old Hamish Henderson sang Freedom Come All Ye at the end of an event billed as something called Self-Determination and Power that took place at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990, it was the ultimate folk-song cabaret. Here, after all, was the man whose co-founding of the School of Scottish Studies in 1951 had kick-started the Scottish folk revival, and here he was singing the song he’d penned that many believe to be Scotland’s real national anthem (with a small n, for Henderson was nothing if not internationalist in outlook). Henderson sang it in his own slightly cracked tones not as part of some officially sanctioned flagship event for Glasgow’s status as European City of Culture that year, but for a low-level grassroots initiative that brought together art and activism in an event that would prove to be of huge trickle-down significance.
The Self-Determination and Power event was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne. Also involved were Variant, then a glossy magazine containing provocations from Stewart Home, Pete Horobin’s Dundee-based Data Attic and others; West Coast literary magazine, Here and Now magazine, the radical-based Clydeside Press, and the Scotia bar, then a hub for free-thinking dissent down by the river just across from the Gorbals.
Self-Determination and Power had been set up in part as a reaction to Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, which was seen by many as a cynical attempt to put gloss on what already existed. All the parties behind the Govan event were key players in radical thought who had little truck with political parties and who had more of a grounding in the spirit of punk and hippy inspired grassroots DIY culture. Edinburgh Review had become a major platform for this, as, to a lesser extent, had Scottish Child. The crossovers with the Free University, however, were crucial.
In the days before the internet, such networks required a lot of envelope-licking and paper folding. Leaf through one of Free University Glasgow’s pages of contact lists, and it’s clear what a disparate body it was. Artists, activists, anarchists and academics were all here, as were curators, musicians, novelists and poets, some well-known, others not so much. Some of the most familiar were novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, both figures championed by Edinburgh Review under Kravitz. Kelman in particular was an auto-didact who captured a working-class voice that would go on to influence the likes of Irvine Welsh and others published by Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc lit-zinea few years later in Edinburgh.
Kelman too was instrumental in getting no less a figure than Noam Chomsky to be key speaker at Self-Determination and Power. This was a major coup. As a linguist, philosopher and radical agitator who could use the words ‘anarchism’ and ‘enlightenment’ together without histrionics, Chomsky was and remains the quietest of figureheads for the none-aligned left and a forensically precise critic of his American homeland. In Glasgow Chomsky spoke calmly but passionately as he would on a much bigger platform at Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall sixteen years later.
It was in this very room in Edinburgh, it should be noted, where the famed international drama conference of 1963 when In Memory of Big Ed, an intervention led by artists Mark and Joan Boyle with dramatist Charles Marowitz, Ken Dewey and Charles Lewson and involving a naked female performer, made front page news.
But in 1990 in Govan, Chomsky didn’t need such accoutrements to court and captivate the 330 in attendance. According to an article on the blog, City Strolls, titled Coffee With The Riff-Raff, in his two keynote speeches, Chomsky somewhat tellingly ‘disparages nationalism, the exercise of political power by leaders who do not answer to citizens, instruments of social control and isolationism such as television, and the collusion of media in the process of oppression and the spreading of lies.’
Self-Determination and Power, then, with all its break-out groups, plenary sessions and film and audio documentation, was itself something of a Happening. It was too that rarest of alliances; a place where politics, art and activism could co-exist without the flag-waving populist embarrassment of Red Wedge, the Labour Party supporting package tour of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Neil Kinnock that would quietly disband once Kinnock lost yet another Westminster General Election.
For someone who’d left school at fifteen with ideas above their station in terms of what was expected of them anyway, and who, eventually, went on later than most to further education, being exposed to and taking part in the Self-Determination and Power event was a kind of rites of passage and a wake-up call.
Not that there hadn’t been other epiphanies, from record shops and bookshops and art galleries and performance spaces and the early days of Channel Four and the revelatory epistles of Scritti Politti, who deconstructed the love song with Marxist theory and wrote pop tributes to Jacques Derrida, and seized the means of production before turning glossy pop entryists. All this stuff took me off-syllabus and into all the left-field ephemera in the library at college and pretty much everywhere else besides. But, and perhaps for the first time, the Self-Determination and Power event wasn’t just about ideas. It was about hearing those ideas out loud, ideas about art and politics and philosophy and poetry that weren’t readily available to those expected to unblinkingly and unthinkingly follow the school-work-good-and-useful-citizen route.
It was a series of ever enlightening little glimpses through the bullshit fog of misinformation and into something that questioned and confounded and confused with its lateral leaps into the unknown. It contextualised and challenged and embraced the contradictions. It wasn’t three R’s simplification or some ill-informed and out-of-touch public school-boy prime-ministerial platitudinising about ‘education, education, education.’. It wasn ‘t about well-meaning but ultimately vapid box-ticking notions of social inclusion and access. Like Beatie Bryant, the country girl heroine of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play, Roots, it wasn’t about regurgitating hand-me-down information because it sounded right. Blust to all that. This was about finding a voice.
Free University Glasgow had been ‘established’, as Malcolm Dickson, one of the prime movers behind the Self-Determination and Power event, wrote in Justified Sinners, Ross Birrell and Alec Finlay’s impressive ‘archaeology of Scottish Counter Culture (1960-2000), published by Finlay’s Pocketbooks imprint in 2002 between 1987-91 ‘in recognition of the potential in cultural activity to push things along and make connections between people. It was about breaking down isolation and people linking up with one another.’
What this meant, according to Dickson, was a series of meetings in flats, houses, galleries and other spaces on such topics as ‘Joseph Beuys, Paolo Freire, the German Green Movement, computers in the workplace, art and class.’ Two larger public meetings also took place; a seminar on Culture and Politics in 1987, and a Scratch Parliament in 1988. The spirit was of a grassroots sharing of ideas that seized, if not the means of production itself, then certainly the theoretical keys to those means.
The first name mentioned by Dickson, of course, was crucial to Free University Glasgow. It was Joseph Beuys, after all, who had founded the Free international University in Dusseldorf in 1973 as ‘an organisational place of research, work and communication’. A loose ad hoc network of Free Universities developed, stuttered, faded from view and were occasionally reborn in Amsterdam, Munich and across Europe and beyond. Beuys’ much documented visits to Edinburgh, initially with the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970 and the nexus of activities that sprang from it could also be seen as a form of spreading the Free University virus.
Rewind two years before the Self-Determination and Power event to late 1988, and, in a large but packed to capacity church in the centre of Edinburgh, a small but wizened old man is speaking in barely a whisper to the hushed crowd hanging on his every word. The man is Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire, another key thinker discussed by Free University Glasgow, and, like Beuys, a radical in that much overused word’s broadest sense.
Freire’s 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argued that, as there is no such thing as education systems controlled by those in power, who use it as a tool to keep that power, then those oppressed by that power must effectively educate themselves in other ways in order to be liberated from it. Freire’s notion of ‘fundamental democratisation’ and of not treating students as passive recipients of knowledge by rote, but as co-educators, was a form of self-determination by any other name.
Freire’s theories were a direct influence in Edinburgh on the setting up of the Adult Learning Project (ALP), which was set up in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected as Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, as a community resource to explore notions of self-hood through a variety of projects in the Gorgie-Dalry district. These included projects on family, school, national identity, health and parenting, and in form and structure were subjective and experiential. A full history of ALP and Freire’s influence can be found in the expanded 2011 edition of Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland, by Gerry and Colin Kirkwood, and originally published in 1989.
Yet, if Beuys and Freire were talismans turned accidental gurus of cultural self-determination, the seeds of Self-Determination and Power were planted a lot earlier.
The person who took me to see Paolo Freire was a man called George Byatt. George was a Glasgow-born playwright, whose dramatic poem, The Clyde Is Red, which was a part revolutionary, part holy piece about how the people of Glasgow learnt to walk on water, had won a Prix Italia award for its BBC radio adaptation in 1988. George was an unholy trinity of Glasgow Catholicism, Marxism and Buddhism, all mixed up in a strident stew of anarcho-syndicalism. In short, he was a believer.
George had written for television in the 1960s and 1970s, but had some kind of wake-up call that had made him start writing for the stage. In 1972 George worked as press officer on the great Northern Welly-Boot Show, which Tom McGrath had done the music for and John Byrne the design. Three great playwrights to be, all doing different jobs. Loosely based on the Clydeside shipyard protests in Govan, The great Northern Welly-Boot Show was a riot of grassroots popular theatre forms and techniques that would inspire 7:84 writer and director to create The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil a year later. The Great Northern Welly-Boot Show would also go on to make Billy Connolly, himself a former Govan shipyard worker, a star.
George introduced a co-operative way of working into the Welly-Boot Show company that he would later hone in his own company, Theatre PkF (Peace-keeping Force). This was based on a none-hierarchical idea of discussion, which, depending on how George told it, he’d discovered in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, through Native American culture, or at Sandhurst.
With PkF, and with Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which he co-founded, George would hold discussions after every performance. He called this the second act of the play, and, just as he wouldn’t work with directors, these discussions would work, not with a chairperson hosting a panel of experts behind a table on a stage that immediately set up an us and them situation, but with a facilitator. This facilitator would then move to each audience member, by now gathered in a circle, in turn, and allow them to say as much or as little as they liked without interruption. If someone didn’t wish to speak, they said pass and moved on to the next person in the circle.
It was a wonderful if somewhat time-consuming ideal of participation and inclusiveness as opposed to being talked down to, although of course, George, who would be facilitating, invariably dominated the discussion. But then, out of anyone there, he probably had the most to say.
You never hear George being talked up as some iconic figure of the left the way you do with some people. The way George operated pissed off the powers that be, and you can sort of understand why. He’d worked out his own way if doing things with PkF that didn’t fit in with the status quo. Other writers and theatre companies didn’t fit in either, but they somehow managed to give the appearance that they had. George didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t, and it’s a crime his plays are never done anymore. Some say he was his own worst enemy, but he taught me a lot.
By the time the Self-Determination and Power event was set up, Glasgow had long had an oppositionist outlook aesthetically and politically, from poets Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the old Third Eye Centre, now the site of the CCA, where original director Tom McGrath introduced the city to Miles Davis, Ivor Cutler and Sun Ra, and where, in 1984, the New Image Glasgow exhibition of painters introduced the world to the audacious romances of Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Stephen Conroy. More recent initiatives included the committee-run Transmission Gallery, which could be said to have set the template for much of the DIY visual art activity that exists in Glasgow and Edinburgh today. Networks were loose and based around the social.
It was the Third Eye, however, as Glasgow’s first multiple art form space, that was the catalyst, and it was McGrath who made it all happen. McGrath was a crucial figure in counter-cultural activity, not just in Glasgow, but in Edinburgh where his plays were performed at the Traverse, and in London, where he’d edited Peace News and underground bible International Times, or IT before falling foul of a heroin addiction and decamping back to Glasgow to clean up.
Key figures during McGrath’s 1960s years were two fellow Glaswegians; novelist Alexander Trocchi and psychiatrist R.D.Laing. Trocchi was a loose affiliate of the Beat Generation who, after leaving Glasgow University, had decamped to Paris, where he published Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller in literary magazine, Merlin. Surviving financially by writing pornographic novels under a pseudonynom, his first novel, Young Adam, was published in 1957, and in 1960, a second, the similarly biblically titled Cain’s Book, followed. By that time Trocchi had acquired a heroin addiction, become involved with the Lettrist International and the Situationist International and had moved to America.
In 1962, the same year he appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Conference organised by publisher John Calder, Trocchi published what amounted to a call to arms, first in New Saltire Review, then in Internationale Situationiste and City Lights Journal. A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds was Trocchi’s precursor to Project Sigma, a grand utopian scheme of a global network of artists and intellectuals who would enable a shift in consciousness via a ‘spontaneous university’, as Trocchi wrote in his actual manifesto, sigma: A Tactical Blueprint, in 1963, an ‘experimental laboratory’, where art and life were inseparable.
Key figures of the counter-culture such as William Burroughs, R.D. Laing, writer and artist Jeff Nuttall and sound poet Bob Cobbing all signed up to Sigma, exchanging missives and manifestos by post. If such ideas were picked up later on by the London Anti-University, Laing’s Kingsley Hall project for the radical treatment of schizophrenia between 1965 and 1970, and fellow anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation at London’s Roundhouse in 1967, nothing concrete came of project Sigma itself. But then, maybe that was the point.
Because, when Trocchi spoke of an ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds,’ he was predicting the internet just as much as Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village had done in the Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, also published, incidentally, in 1962.
Put Project Sigma into a Google search, today, however, and top of the list is an organisation offering masterclasses in business management and sustainable development. This probably isn’t what Trocchi had in mind. McLuhan, on the other hand, might understand.
In 1965, a man named Albert Hunt arrived at Bradford College of Art to teach something called Complimentary Studies on a proposed Diplomas in Art and Design course. Hunt’s background was in criticism and teaching drama, and in Shrewsbury he had set up a young peoples theatre group. The course in Bradford Hunt had signed up to never happened, however, and, frustrated, he drafted a manifesto of what he would have done with the course if it had been approved, and gave it to the college Principal. Hunt was hired on the spot.
Hunt’s proposal was to do away with the ten per cent of weekly Complimentary Studies classes students were meant to attend, and to focus instead on projects lasting just a fortnight. In 1966 Hunt worked with Peter Brook – not entirely satisfactorily – on US, a large-scale anti Vietnam war play conceived and directed by Brook for the Royal Shakespeare Company in what was one of the earliest sightings, in Britain, at least, of devised theatre.
The idea for the play had initially been inspired by Adrian Mitchell’s anti Vietnam poem, To Whom It May Concern. Mitchell had read the poem at the International Poetry Incarnation, a major event at Royal Albert Hall in London, at which the city’s counter-culture came out to play. Allen Ginsberg may have been the big draw, but all the poets who read represented a who’s who of the underground. No beatnik, Mitchell was a moralist, and To Whom It may Concern, with it’s mantra-like refrain at the end of each verse of ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ his anthem. As seen in Wholly Communion, Peter Whitehead’s film of the event – hosted, incidentally, by Alex Trocchi – Mitchell looks and sounds like the era’s conscience. To Whom it may Concern was used in US, and Mitchell wrote song lyrics for the play, although, as with Hunt, the experience wasn’t entirely satisfactory.
By 1967 in Bradford, Hunt was facilitating a re-enactment of the Russian Revolution to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. In what was part civic spectacle, part living memory project in the subjective spirit of Paolo Freire, and part site-specific epic, the streets and public buildings of Bradford were over-run with three hundred students playing Bolsheviks overthrowing the old order. Another project, The Survivors, recorded the experiences of World War One veterans in a manner that bridged the generation gap.
In 1968, as documented in Hunt’s 1976 book, Hopes for Great Happenings, Hunt founded the Bradford Art College Theatre Group, developing original material using extensive researches into real-life events. Looking Forward to 1942 recorded the beliefs of fundamentalist sects and a spiritualist medium, and told the story of World Tar Two in the form of a Pentecostalist meeting. John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis, James Harold Wilson Sinks the Bismark, The Fears and Miseries of Nixon’s Reich and The Passion of Adolf Hitler melded typically hot topics of the day with audacious theatrical techniques that brought history to grotesque life. One play, A Carnival for St. Valentine’s Eve, which was about the bombing of Dresden, actually played Dresden, where, after initial hostility from audiences, it seemed to dredge up a series of discomforting and long repressed memories that had finally been given a voice. Again, this was pure Paolo Freire.
In the autumn of 1982, and with dreams of being a teenage performance poet, I made my first ever solo trek to London for an event called the Poetry Olympics. I slept on the floor of the Kilburn flat where Annie Milner, a stage manager who’d worked at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and who’d got a gig with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican, lived with her boyfriend, a young actor who was in a rock and roll musical at the Half Moon theatre with his three brothers. The show was called Yakety Yak, and was based on the songs of Lieber and Stoller.
Not that I knew that at the time or understood what any of all this was about. Outside of seeing Little and Large in a pantomime of Aladdin at Liverpool Empire I’d never been to the theatre, and, although I did know that Annie’s boyfriend and his three brothers went by the name of McGann, I could never have predicted the various levels of success they’d all have in the years that followed, Annie’s boyfriend Paul especially.
The Poetry Olympics took place over two nights at the Young Vic theatre, which I now know to be just across from the bookshop run by John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras and a myriad of others from the European avant-garde. Calder was also active in the setting up of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and set up the Edinburgh International Writers Conference in 1962 at which Alex Trocchi had appeared.
One of the books published by Calder was Trocchi’s novel, Cain’s Book, a first-person narrative about a junked-out smack addict’s internal trip as he travels along New York’s Hudson River in a scow, much as Trocchi himself had done. The book’s predecessor Young Adam, an existential thriller set around the Clyde, was filmed much later by David Mackenzie with Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullan in the lead roles. The film’s production company, incidentally, co-founded by Mackenzie, was called Sigma Films. The company’s first feature, made in 2002 and again directed by Mackenzie, was The Last Great Wilderness, a road movie in which two men on the run stumble on a Highland centre in which a Laingian style guru figure played by David Hayman holds court over a coterie of residents with serious mental health issues. Until everything turns ugly, the touchy-feely vibe recalls what one might imagine Kingsley Hall to have been like.
The Poetry Olympics, meanwhile was organised by poet Michael Horovitz, who had organised the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall back in 1965, and as a direct result had edited and selected the work for Children of Albion, the definitive anthology of UK underground poets published by Penguin in 1969. Recognising his place in the pantheon, Horovitz was clearly intent on keeping the spirit of the International Poetry Incarnation and Children of Albion alive, both through the Poetry Olympics and his magazine, New Departures.
New Departures was the sort of small press magazine which, thanks to the internet and what used to be called desk-top publishing, you simply don’t see the likes of anymore. It was printed in black and white on paper that looked just a couple of steps up from a photocopy, with the text of all the poems clearly rattled out, not in some smorgasbord of fancy fonts, but on an old-fashioned typewriter, not even an electric one, and probably by Horovitz himself. It was effectively a DIY lit-zine of Horovitz and his mates, who’d happened to be in the right place at the right time when everything kicked off.
The Poetry Olympics event itself I remember as a mixed affair, with as few truly memorable moments offset by an occasional air of smugness, as though Horovitz and co knew something I didn’t. Which, given that I knew nothing about the Royal Albert Hall and Children of Albion, was fair enough.
Jerome Rothenburg did something shamanic and Fran Landesman was terribly serious. Benjamin Zephaniah used his whole body to perform, and another black poet, Michael Smith, who was shot dead a few years later, was pretty intense. Roger McGough wore a big floppy hat that was possibly plum-coloured, and took to the stage from the row of seats near the front of the auditorium he was sat quietly at, watching the other poets with a suitably beatific woman at his side. Kathy Acker, who’d yet to have her hair cut short and punky and peroxide, gave swear words a brand new sense of rhythm.
One of my favourite performers was Richard Jobson, the singer with Scottish punk band The Skids who’d decided to become a serious artist, and did a freely-adapted male Scots-accented take on Sylvia Plath’s poem, Daddy. Jobson’s version was a dramatic duologue that had him act out all the parts, and which, years later, would form the basis of his first feature film, Sixteen Years of Alcohol.
Best of all, though, was Adrian Mitchell, who I now know did To Whom It May Concern, which was effectively his greatest hit. It was another poem, though, about walking down the stairs with his little girl, that got me. It was a tiny poem that I now know to be called Beattie Is Three, though it wasn’t just the words that proved so evocative. It was how when Mitchell said the line about wishing the stairs could go on forever, he squeezed his own hand in a way that you could see that he saw his daughter right there beside him.
There was a stall at the back of the auditorium of the Young Vic selling current and back issues of New Departures for a pound each. I could only afford to buy one, so had to choose carefully, and ended up buying issue thirteen. Not because of Peter Blake’s collage of images of John Lennon, who’d been shot dead by Mark Chapman in December 1980, on the front cover. More than likely it was because there was a new poem by John Cooper-Clarke, who was and still is a hero of mine, inside. There was also stuff by all three of the Liverpool poets, McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, who I’d heard of if never read much by them. Ivor Cutler, who I’d heard on John Peel, had a couple of daft pieces in as well.
In the intervening years, it’s the writers I didn’t know in New Departures 13 that have had the biggest effect. Three of them, Jeff Nuttall, Adrian Mitchell and Tom McGrath, I’ve even ended up writing obituaries for. There may be others yet.
As is often the way, sometimes people are educated and subsequently radicalised by default. It happened in 1994 when the UK Tory government introduced the Criminal Justice Bill to put sanctions on the use of ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’, while reserving the right to arrest two or more people they believed to be preparing to hold a rave, or ten or more people they believed were about to attend one.
This effectively attempted to outlaw the new dance music scene. Still underground in its early days, rather than hire out regular clubs, organisers and DJs took advantage of the death of old industries by co-opting deserted warehouses or else forests off the beaten track for hedonistically-inclined all-night parties that remained untouched by branding, sponsorship or the corrupting influences of commercialism.
This may have been a political statement in itself, but such a crude attack on alternative culture provoked a show of strength, both among electronic artists such as The Prodigy, Orbital and Autechre, who all attacked the bill on their records, and among the scene’s myriad of advocates. In 1988, Angus Farquhar’s group, Test Department, who had used tribal, military and post-industrial beats in shows performed on the site of old factories and using metal instruments, even went so far as to revive the ancient Pagan May Day rite of Beltane on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, opposite the Scottish Office. Significantly, Farquhar and Test Department were supported in the revival of Beltane by Hamish Henderson and the School of Scottish Studies, and, while Farquhar is no longer involved, every Mayday since the festival’s revival has seen gatherings of considerably more than ten cavorting to the sounds of repetitive beats en masse.
What became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act still stands today, albeit with substantial amendments. As for repetitive beats, they went on all through the superstar DJ era and continue today in arenas both great and small.
Something similar happened again in terms of radicalisation by default in the early 1990s with the Pollok Free State in Glasgow. This was an alliance of road protesters and local residents who occupied parts of Pollok Country Park on the south side of Glasgow following moves to build a section of the M77 motorway cut through the park, effectively splitting it off from the neighbouring housing schemes. Originally home to the Maxwell family for seven hundred years, the park, which is home to the Burrell Collection, was gifted to the then Glasgow Corporation in 1966 by Anne Maxwell Macdonald. This was on the proviso that the land remained a public park.
A camp of tree-houses was occupied by activists to prevent trees being felled. Increasingly draconian tactics by police and security guards, however, had a knock-on effect of mobilising residents of the housing estates to join forces with the protesters and become politically engaged in direct action in ways they might not have considered before. The stretch of the M77 that was eventually built as protesters were removed forcibly from the site may have cost fifty-three million pounds and saw five thousand trees chopped down over a seven mile stretch, but what it has meant to people in terms of their own self-determination is priceless. Much of the story behind the Pollock Free State is documented in Given To The People, a film by Glasgow-based artist Simon Yuill, who interviewed many participants in the protest as it happened for a piece originally commissioned by Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.
The Self-Determination and Power event, it should be noted, as with many of the events mentioned here, took place under the most authoritarian Conservative government ever elected. By the end of 1990, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had attempted to destroy any parts of society that dissented from her philosophy of greed and self-interest that went with a free-market economy, may have been ousted by her own party following the spectacular failure of the Poll Tax that provoked mass protests and rioting on the streets. But she had paved the way for the grinning triumphalism of Tony Blair’s New Labour project and the old school tie pomposity of David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Con-Dem Alliance.
Twenty-one years after Noam Chomsky spoke Common Sense and Hamish Henderson sang the internationalist truth in the Pearce Institute, then, the world is a different place, and people and ideas have moved on. Or have they? Sure James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel, How Late It Was, How Late, despite one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, denouncing the book as ‘a disgrace’. Kelman looked magnificently scowly on TV as he was forced through the rounds of media punditry that saw the chattering classes rushing to dissect his novel only to patronise an entire class in shamefully spectacular fashion en route.
And sure, Peter Kravitz left Edinburgh Review the same year as the Self-Determination and Power event, but he did take everything that was achieved in the previous twenty years into the mainstream in 1997 when he edited the Picador Book of Scottish Fiction. Kravitz is now a counsellor and therapist using the methodology of transactional analysis.
Hamish Henderson may have passed away in 2002 and Free University Glasgow may no longer exist, but an entire new generation, weaned on the internet and with history a click away, are doing it, not just for themselves, but for each other.
Malcolm Dickson is currently in charge of Street Level in Glasgow, and has been both before and since the gallery’s rebirth on the ground floor of Trongate 103. Beyond the exhibitions, Dickson has retained Street Level’s speak-easy vibe via a series of events, including DIY concerts by members of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra alongside visiting guests such as Steve Beresford.
As well as writing about the Self-Determination and Power event in Justified Sinners, in 2006 in its still rough and ready space, Street Level hosted a tribute night for John La Rose. La Rose was a radical Trinidad-born poet, essayist, publisher, film-maker and director of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. He had also taken part in the Self-Determination and Power event. As well as screenings taken from La Rose’s archive, performers at the 2006 event included James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
During an exhibition of photographs of the 1960s counter-culture by John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins that featured images of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall and a myth-making, lascivious-looking editorial board of International Times, Hopkins appeared with prime mover behind Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Jim Haynes before a packed room to discuss the era’s influence.
That influence is something that can certainly be felt in Instal, an almost annual festival of ‘Brave New Music’ that has existed in Glasgow for the last decade, taking place initially at The Arches and more recently at Tramway. Initially Instal operated within a recognisable remit of putting on various strands of avant-garde and experimental music that up until then had a fairly minimal platform in Glasgow or anywhere else in Scotland. Early editions of Instal featured an array of left-field contemporary artists including Merzbow, Philip Jeck and Boredoms, as well as twentieth century icons such as Henri Chopin, recent Instals have explored a more critical notion of how a festival such as Instal should actually operate.
In an offsite event to accompany Gustav Metzger’s revisiting of his notions of auto-destructive art as examined in his 1966 Destruction in art Symposium held in London and attended by Yoko Ono and other key artists and thinkers, Metzger attended an event at Glasgow School of Art which looked at similar ideas.
Crucial too to recent Instals has been the presence of Glasgow Open School, a loosely defined initiative set up by assorted activists in Glasgow. ‘A participatory proposition for redefining of education,’ the Glasgow Open School’s website reads. ‘This school is yours. The City is our campus. Come along to any event or propose your own! Let’s work together to imagine and implement new futures!’
If this new body that sounds like a twenty-first century take on Free University Glasgow, or Project Sigma now we have the technology, or the grand-children, not just of Albion, but of Joseph Beuys and Paolo Freire, have a manifesto, this is it.
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, Archive Trails is a new initiative set up by micro-indie DIY music promoters Tracer Trails, who would rather co-opt church halls and other off-beat venues to host their events. Archive Trails has enlisted three musicians, Alasdair Roberts, formerly of Appendix Out, Drew Wright, aka Wounded knee, and sound artist Aileen Campbell, who has frequently played as part of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra at low-key gigs at Street Level, all of whom have some connection with what we can broadly describe as ‘folk’ culture.
Each musician is then let loose in the archive of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, and, with a free remit, will develop a new piece of work of some kind informed by their researches. Which brings us full circle, from Hamish Henderson co-founding the School in 1951 and helping kick off the Scottish Folk revival, to singing Freedom Come All Ye in the Pearce Institute, Govan, in 1990. If anyone’s responsible for everything that followed, Henderson – and Chomsky and all the rest, must carry the can.
To sum up how much the oppositionist spirit of self-determination and autonomy has trickled down into the collective psyche, one only has to look to Glasgow-based band Mogwai’s 2011 album, Hardcore Will never Die, But You Will. Released – crucially – on the band’s own Rock Action label, Hardcore Will Never Die, But you Will is a typically apocalyptic-sounding affair for Mogwai, of instrumental bombast tempered by textured subtleties and nuanced atmospherics amidst the storm of guitars. One track stands out, a heavily vocodered affair on which you can’t quite make out the words, but which sounds by turns celebratory and defiant. It’s title? George Square Thatcher Death Party. As far as self-determination and power goes, that’s quite a day to look forward to.
Line Magazine Number 5, Summer 2011