1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame


Strength in vulnerability

Political roots

My grandfathers, who became close friends, were socialists and anarchists in a quiet, non-activist way. Apprenticed as sign-writers, they were Jewish immigrants who had fled Russia in the early years of the 20th century. One escaped penal servitude in the Russian army; the other boarded a boat with his mother the day after the Odessa pogroms, which killed four hundred plus Jews while the police stood by.  Not surprisingly, they both had an abiding fear of the oppressive state. My dad’s dad and mum eventually acquired  a grocery shop/photography studio on the Seven Sisters Road. On the back of that he managed to buy a little property to see him into retirement. (This gran sadly died before I was born). My mum’s dad tried and failed to make a living in the fur trade. So my grandma set up shop in Camden High Street without any capital selling linen and baby-wear, and managed to make a living for both of them. She was a gentle soul and people liked her. My grandfather had a heart attack in his fifties, and went back to painting, his first love – portraits and still lifes. He made a bit on the side colourising studio photos.  Strong, resourceful women were deep in my culture.  So was art, music, literature: deeply felt, not much theorised.

I was born towards the end of WWII amidst the V2 bombs. My mum’s worst memory of the war was picking shattered glass out of my pram. I had been left outside for the fresh air and a bomb had dropped nearby.  My dad was an architect; and my mum because she was good at languages had done interesting stuff like working for the Free French in London during the war. Nevertheless after I was born she became a full-time housewife.  Big mistake, because her very great energy, anxiety, determination and rage were all focused on me. My infancy became a kind of personal holocaust, in the shadow of the greater one. My dad was a gentle, but distant man, and ineffectual in mitigating my mum’s anger.  I alternately fought her and acquiesced to her throughout my childhood.

My mum and dad were active in the Labour Party, and I delivered leaflets through the neighbourhood from a young age.  Words like justice, equality, internationalism seeped into my bloodstream. I got a scholarship to a day public school which at that time was both institutionally and culturally anti-Semitic. I became both ashamed and secretly proud of my Jewishness, and learnt to ‘pass’.

The son of Sidney Silverman, the left Labour MP, was in my school for a while. I remember him marching out of the class in fear and anger during the Cuban missile crisis, upbraiding the teachers for their apathy. I joined the early Aldermaston marches, carried a banner alongside Michael Foot, and was introduced to jazz and eccentric English upper-middle class leftism.

I studied economics at Cambridge, which was firmly Keynesian. The student body was still apolitical but the stirrings of change were in the air, more to do with rock and roll and sexual liberation, challenging Victorian values. I climbed over the wall of the girls’ college in the middle of the night to spend a few illicit hours with L, my then girlfriend. I spent as much time as I could acting and directing, but I did it because I enjoyed it, I had no idea that there was a career to be built at Cambridge. I later understood that a lot of people were already busy building connections.

I studied film for a year at the Royal College of Art amidst the ferment of change in film, theatre and art, but didn’t become politically radicalised until 1967-8 during a lonely but incredibly liberating postgraduate year at Harvard, the year of the student sit-ins and the height of the campaign against the Vietnam war. I was studying the sociology of underdevelopment, started reading Freud,  Marx and the post-Marxists, and got involved in making avant-garde movies and a drama about a rent strike. I was a founder of the Committee on Latin American Solidarity, sharpened my analysis of American imperialism and its connection to the ‘military-industrial complex’, met some brave and honourable people, and encountered the stirrings of the first of the second wave of feminism as women reacted angrily to machismo in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, the largest socialist anti-war grouping.

Stepping off the track

Back in London I decided to pursue films rather than continue academic work and managed to get a job in Current Affairs at the BBC, where L was already working. I had a schizophrenic couple of years making two films a week for a daily programme, in some ways being quite close to the centres of power and at another level feeling totally outside it. I was active in the union, became shop steward of my local branch, and helped to organise a conference on workers’ control of the media. I strived to make what were normally formulaic presenter-led films as artful and subversive as I could within the confines of the programme.

In my spare time I became involved with a community arts group, documenting their street theatre troupe and working with kids with home-made pin-hole cameras on an adventure playground. I lived in Notting Hill opposite the slogan ‘THE ROAD TO EXCESS LEADS TO THE PALACE OF WISDOM’. Through the Situationists and Marcuse I was developing a sense of how capitalism was sustained by consumer culture, and that power was located in all institutions of society,  not just the polity and economy:  in the community, the education system, the media – where I saw how liberal traditions meant that radical moral debate was somehow excluded from the agenda – and most importantly inside people’s heads.

My big moment at the BBC came when I made a movie with John Lennon and Yoko Ono which was transmitted to coincide with their ‘Give Peace a Chance’ poster campaign. It was well-received and I could have stayed and gone on to a BBC career from that. But I couldn’t reconcile the responsibility and authority to shape opinion that I had at the BBC with how young I was and how little I felt I knew about the real world. A lot of the people there were also young but were happy to reiterate received opinion. Not long after, I resigned my position at the BBC and went with L to work full-time at the community arts project in North London. At times since I’ve regretted that choice – times of economic insecurity and feeling creatively frustrated and adrift. Other times I just think I had to do what I had to do,  and learn from it. Those were very different times. There was a current of optimism and excitement about change in the air that made a decision to ‘drop out’ more conceivable.

Although the arts organisation purported to be a collective – we lived communally in low-cost housing on subsistence wages, ate together, and gave up our property for the greater good – in fact it was a not-so-benign dictatorship ruled by fear of humiliation and run by an innovative and charismatic genius, E, who took talented but relatively unformed young people and moulded them to his artistic will and enterprise. The creative group-work he developed was ground-breaking and very exciting; I learnt a lot from him. I respected also his entrepreneurial elan. But he was socially right-wing, and resisted making any connection between people’s restricted personal circumstances and the wider structure of society. (Later he was to become an adviser on the Inner Cities to the Thatcher government.) He was also sexually predatory and began to piss off the women he reduced to support roles.

I worked with young people and community groups with the new portable video cameras, helping make films with claimants and the local Troops Out group, and ran creative summer schemes building dramascapes with tough kids. E got nervous when we initiated a local community action group to campaign for a permanent playground – too political. However when it became clear that the site could potentially become a permanent base for the organisation, he changed his tune.

In the end the tensions came to a head. The deeply depressed director of the organisation’s experimental theatre group drank and drugged himself to death over a period of nine months, while he waited, ostensibly, for E to come up with the money to send him to California for Primal Therapy with Art Janov. I was numbed by the experience. One of the members of the theatre group, also grieving, began to demonstrate Gestalt therapy work with me. It was a revelation to discover feelings sitting below the surface that I didn’t know I had. I found that along with my sorrow I was angry at the man who had killed himself, angry at E, and angry at myself for my helplessness. In my anger I was also feeling more alive. It was scary, but I wanted more of it. I began to explore the burgeoning human potential movement that was arriving from California. The community arts group could no longer hold me.

There was a mass exodus. The organization survived, but it had lost many of its brightest talents.

Entering Big Flame

I was young, idealistic, but not totally green. I had some experience of organising and some sense of how to be effective. L and I began meeting with a group of people through my dear friend V who were talking about living together collectively and devoting themselves to political activism. I liked them. I don’t think I really believed that a revolution in Britain was on the cards, but I thought it was incumbent on me at that time in my life and in this period of social ferment to give it a go. To help try to build a more equal and free world where power was shared and altruism rather than selfishness would be supported by the structures of the society. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.

I have to admit my memory is hazy and my time-line may be inaccurate. I remember much discussion about the relative merits of east and west London as a base for activity. Though we examined the industrial base, ethnic mix, community traditions, etc.,  in the end for me personally it became a more sentimental choice about returning to the East End my grandparents had settled in 70 years earlier. In the end the group split and went two ways, east and west.   L, V and I together bought a tiny house in Mile End – ironically our revolutionary moment was predicated on getting a foot on the housing ladder – we helped to squat another house nearby, and the nucleus of the group began to consolidate.

We had taken a trip to Liverpool and met and stayed with members of an emerging political group, Big Flame, which took its politics from Lotta Continua in Italy. I was impressed by their seriousness of purpose and the freshness of their analysis. It made sense to me, and fitted our belief that power was everywhere, and could be re-appropriated everywhere. It wasn’t about a vanguard party making a coup at the top. We didn’t see ourselves as a cadre of the elite.

We shared cooking and childcare, which was challenging but fun and a privilege also. I put a lot into being with the kids in my time with them, and got a lot out. I felt like I was creating my alternative family, perhaps the first family I felt truly connected to, and in which there was a common purpose.

Life became an intense series of meetings, often with much the same people wearing different hats. It was a strange heightened existence, unlike that of many of the working-class people we began to be in contact with, not so unlike that of the male militants I was beginning to meet: shop-stewards from Fords and militants from the building industry united around the cause of the then Shrewbury Six – activist shop stewards who had been arrested and sentenced to prison,  victims, as I remember,  of new Draconian picketing laws.

The Ford (Fraud) Group

There was already a Big Flame Ford Group in Liverpool making headway at Halewood near Kirby, and the beginnings of a group based around Fords Dagenham, with a clear analysis of how ‘Fordism’ and assembly line work reduced people to machines, and how ongoing skirmishes over,  say, the speed of the assembly line, were central to workers maintaining a sense of their humanity. The group had a few contacts within the factory. V and I joined and before long I think we became the humanist section, good at talking to people, involving them in the activity, visiting them in their homes, and composing leaflets out of their own words and concerns.  

I learnt to operate the photo-litho printer. We leafleted the vast factory at Dagenham regularly.  It was immense and intimidating and lonely, handing out leaflets in the grimy early morning to workers pouring in or out of the different plants. To start with I felt very small, and somehow out of place, inauthentic. Over time, as the response to our logo - ‘Fraud’ - became more favourable, and workers began to seek out the leaflets for information and perspective, it became easier, and even satisfying. The management began to take an interest in us. We were followed. They made it harder for us to distribute the leaflets. I was arrested, and locked up for the day, but never charged. A lawyer friend of a friend from Cambridge got me out. But I felt vulnerable nevertheless. There were powerful forces at work, and we were a tiny group, punching above our weight.

The Ford Group recruited new members and affiliates from inside the plant – people who identified with what we were doing and supplied information but didn’t have time to come to meetings.  In one leaflet we approvingly spread the news of a couple of racist and oppressive white foremen who had been beaten up by black assembly line workers. Now I regret that we may have tacitly encouraged further violence, however provoked. I didn’t feel I knew enough to be sure of what we were advocating. A couple of newer members of the group chose to go and work in the plant themselves. I wondered whether to join them.

As a Jewish kid I had gone to a predominantly working-class primary school. I had envied and felt intimidated by the physical confidence of the tough kids. My mother sent me to elocution lessons to mitigate their influence, and discouraged me from bringing them home as friends. From that experience there was something unresolved in me,  even after my time in community arts and local activism,  about my relationship with working class men.  In hindsight I think the Ford group was for me in part a way of trying to resolve that split. In spite of that, my politics weren’t workerist. There was a lot of self-denial in the way I approached life, but I didn’t think what I had to say or thought or felt as a middle-class Jewish kid was irrelevant. We were all entitled to a better life, was how I saw it, and all needed to have our voices heard.

I was living on the dole, occasionally supplementing my income by going off and shooting a sponsored documentary through Kestrel Films, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s company. A documentary I had made at the end of my time in community arts had been very successful and had won me the Grierson Award, the premier award in documentary-making, an honour which almost completely passed me by, so little focused was I on a career. The film was about disability and sexuality, and in retrospect I am very proud of it:  it helped to generate a climate for the disability movement. It was screened on TV, and repeated soon after, and shown every year for some twenty years following.

Enter men’s politics

Alongside all this, I and the other Big Flame men were also figuring out how to deal with the challenges posed by the women in the group and by feminism. V had been in a men’s group earlier in the seventies in Boston. Together we founded a men’s group composed of some men in east London and others also involved in collective politics in Brixton. The group cohered, and before long we found a way of talking intimately about our fears and our feelings that felt mostly safe and warm and an incredible relief.

We were fortunate that the women in the Big Flame group mostly saw themselves as socialist feminists. They weren’t against men per se. They liked us, even loved us. But we couldn’t avoid the current in feminist thought which sometimes spilled over  which saw all men as the enemy. Yes there were things to look at: I had absorbed habits of dismissive language, or assumed authority, that had to be owned and re-formed.

At the same time, we began to recognise that much that was bad for women in the deep patriarchal structures of society was bad for men also. That to be brought up to be strong, invulnerable, not to cry, to be responsible as the breadwinner, to be distant from children – all this was oppressive and unhealthy and limiting – and reinforced in the institutions of the society, from the family courts to the male public schools and centres of privilege. Many pubs at that time were men only enclaves, where men could and did hide from their families - which is not to say all male bonding is bad and that men don’t sometimes need a space to be with one another.

It dawned on us that the choice women sought for equality in the workforce also meant a corresponding freedom for us – to be close to our children and to one another, and to recover our emotional expressiveness as men. Where women were using consciousness-raising as a means of gaining confidence in order to go out in the world, our job at this time was primarily to go inside; to reshape our relationships with the women and men around us, and with ourselves. That meant that instead of being emotionally dependent as men on the women around us – in a sense being experienced as extra children in the family – we could find our own inner emotional well-being, and derive support also from one another. We could meet our partners, where we were in heterosexual relationships,  truly as equals. We didn’t want to feel ashamed of our maleness, even if we opposed a lot of what some men did. Nor did we want to set ourselves apart from other men. (The term ‘new men’ was a media invention. We acknowledged our share of ‘old men’ qualities inside us – not all bad. We didn’t want to differentiate ourselves in that way, and make ourselves easy targets for put-downs and stereotyping, which were nevertheless endemic.)

These were incredibly exciting discoveries.  Some of us began to feel we wanted to spread the word, and that there was a place for an autonomous men’s movement, supportive of feminism, in which we campaigned for the freedoms described above, and figured out our particular role as men in helping create a better world. Just as feminists had discovered that history wasn’t just the story of powerful men and that there was a hidden history which included women, we began to see that there was a way of rewriting history that included all men, with their real feelings and fears, not just the kings and heroes.

We helped to organise men’s conferences, and we founded a magazine, Achilles Heel, intended as a kind of cousin to Spare Rib, which gave a voice to the men’s movement. Achilles Heel because in our vulnerability lay also a different and more real kind of strength. I also organised residential weeks for men and children. We eventually founded a men’s centre in a condemned building in Bethnal Green.

This current became for me the work that I am most proud of from my time in East London. Going public was both very exciting, and at times scary. The opposition came from all quarters: sneering from other heterosexual men; rage from gay men who felt we were trying pretend victimhood when theirs was real; hostility from some feminists who feared that this was some kind of pre-emptive back-door bid for power; and of course the dismissiveness of the established media. It was a kind of coming out, without the extreme risks some gay men experienced, but with some of the same vulnerability to rejection. And of course many women, gay men and other men did come to support us, as we supported them.

Therapy and healing

Earlier some of us in East London Big Flame and on the fringes had come together to form a self-help therapy group, using techniques and approaches we had learnt in other settings to work with one another. Anxious to justify what we were doing politically, and much influenced by the writings of Wilhelm Reich on the way  our neuroses make us politically passive and timid, we called our group Red Therapy. We saw therapy not as a tool that enabled people to return to ‘normality’, but as opening the dam that allowed us the fullest expression of our true selves, and make us correspondingly less afraid to make demands on the world around us.

It was exciting and cathartic. At the same time, looking back,  the work was pretty uncontained. We were better at learning to express difficult feelings than we were at learning to hold and manage them. But it was a great release for me from years of self-denial and self-torment, helped me get to know the members of the group at a much deeper level, and was an incredible opening into a whole new fascinating world of people’s inner lives that has continued to exert a hold on me ever since. Indeed, like many in the group, I ended up training professionally as a therapist, and ended up practicing alongside my film work.

Our underestimation of the need for boundaries extended into the political work:  I don’t think we fully took on board the needs of the people and communities we were working with for security, safety and cohesive structures in their lives. Even if often ‘the rules’ worked against them, it was better than no rules at all. (We knew this to a degree – we were totally opposed to the scare tactics of the Angry Brigade for example.)  The Right were much more tuned to people's fears of melt-down, and able to play on them, and parade the symbols of unity – like the flag – in their own interests.


The people in the Ford Group who didn’t work in the plant were totally essential to the running of the group. They could leaflet, they could make connections between people on different shifts and in different plants, they oiled all the wheels. But I still felt a kind of outsider. Eventually I decided to resolve the contradictions by quitting the dole and going to work as a labourer on a building site. I had become close to a couple of the leading local building worker militants, needed the cash, and was drawn to the world, and the work, maybe because my dad was an architect and I was once destined to be a civil engineer.
My life became a lot simpler. The work was physically tiring and occupied me all day. The evenings and weekend continued to be intense and demanding, but I felt entitled to draw limits.  I befriended another young labourer, idealistic and hungry for knowledge about socialism, and together we unionised the site we were working on. The song ‘You can’t get me, I’m part of the union’ had been big in the charts, and groups of young labourers spontaneously would burst into the refrain. It was good to feel briefly part of the organised working class. We had a laugh.

The next site I worked on was bigger and tougher;  divide and rule among the sub-contractors was endemic. There was no chance of organising there, even though I brought along some of the experienced militants I knew to speak in the canteen at meal break. Towards Christmas the atmosphere became poisonous, there were some bloody fights among and within rival gangs of workers. One of the guys I was closest to turned out to be lethally violent with a few drinks inside him. I was a middle-class Jewish kid who didn’t know how to handle myself with fists or knives or planks of wood or a broken bottle. I was out of my depth. I took my Xmas bonus, and left.


Over much of the period I have so far described, L and I were non-monogamous. We didn’t want to own one another, or control one another. We didn’t want to be ‘possessive’. Possessiveness was a no-no, a dirty word. We weren’t promiscuous, but we had other relationships, more or less intense ones. They were meaningful relationships, and  I am very glad to have had them. At the same time I continued to hold a torch for L and  endured terrible pain and hurt and loneliness when it became clear that she was consumed by her other lovers. I hung in way beyond what I should truly have tolerated. And I am sure by my actions I dished it out.

I had the hope that psychotherapy could ‘perfect’ me,  could heal all past hurts and take me to a place of such sureness in myself that I would be beyond the pain and jealousy that I actually experienced. In moments this felt achievable, moments of calm after a therapy session when I felt confident enough in my own lovingness and sense of inner security that my hurt fell away. But for the most part the ache banged on through everything else I did. I had learnt from my relationship with my mother to tolerate great loss, and I continued to tolerate it. L and I had a child together, and continued to try to make it work. We didn’t succeed.

Now I believe that there’s a place for possessiveness. That a deep bond demands it. That if we choose to make a commitment with someone we need to honour it. I came from an unbounded childhood and it took me years to recognise that boundaries are necessary and indeed can give us and our partners freedom, rather than proscribe it.

The end

Why did we run out of steam? The obvious reasons: that the Labour Party never seized on the mood for change, nor had a language to encompass it, and in the vacuum the right were driving the agenda and playing successfully to people’s fears; that social change anyway is slow; that we were burnt out; that our interest in personal politics was threatening within Big Flame nationally; that the sexual tensions to some degree fractured the group; that in L’s and my case we by then had a child with special needs who demanded a lot of looking after. And finally that we had begun to individuate, that in this extraordinary time we had each gotten a little clearer about what we wanted to do with our lives, over and above serving the wider vision.

As far as I know, none of us in the next forty or so years went to the other side; we stayed pretty close to our ideals in the work we chose, and how we went about it. I feel good about that. I have much enjoyed reconnecting with others in the group, some after many years, and reflecting on the person I was then, and the times. Sometimes those days feel very distant and I wonder if I am the same person. At other moments when we get together it has felt like yesterday. I feel proud of the work we did then, and compassionate towards my young and idealistic self. I still think the world has to change. I know a lot less than I used to about how. My model is probably closer to one of healing than of class struggle, but the vision is much the same. Right now our world badly needs a large dollop of both.

Lessons for activists

Listen to what people say, even if you disagree. There’s still some need that’s being expressed.

Be as brave as you feel. Respect your own and others’ limits. Don’t over-reach yourselves.  (But I’m sure people will, and how else will they learn, and how else will we learn from them?)

Keep your feet on the ground, lead a balanced life, harness your energy for the long campaign.  (Well I’m still struggling with that.)

Be kind to one another and to yourself.