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


The tygers of wrath

I went on the CND Aldermaston Marches to ‘Ban the Bomb’ as a teenager, and in the late 1960s the anti-Vietnam War demos. My partner regularly led the way into innovative and challenging situations. But I didn’t get really politicized and find my own voice till I was working in the media in the early 70s, outraged at the autocratic management, class divisions and censorship of content at the BBC.

So I came from workplace politics and my activism was inspired by the Situationists, in particular Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:

‘The spectacle is the uninterrupted conversation which the present order maintains about itself, its laudatory monologue…
…as information or propaganda, advertisement or direct consumption of entertainments, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life…  The form and the content of the spectacle are identically the total justification of the conditions and the ends of the existing system.’

At the same moment of discovery I was reading Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

‘Without contraries there is no progression’… ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.’  ‘Exuberance is Beauty’. (…though his proverb about never nursing unacted desires proved unworkable in the long term in practice…)

My rebellion was also inspired by – yes – Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, in his description of the ‘poverty, filth and wretched contentment’ of those who acquiesced with the system, and his encouragement to ‘invent your own virtue’ and to live dangerously.

At first I thought the route lay through vandalism, subversion and semi-legal covert agitation.  Then at Mile End I directed the same impulses for social justice into community activism via getting involved in the playgroup, the Food Co-op, squatting a house for Tower Hamlet’s Women’s Centre, leafletting and marching against the National Front, supporting the Fords, Lesneys and other groups with back-up when needed, campaigning against bias and job insecurity in the media, contributing to the writing of leaflets and pamphlets, etc. etc.

Changes in consciousness and changing the fabric of life through building democratic structures in the community were less clear-cut than confronting employers/the state, but I liked the grass roots activism. I was zealous, passionate, hungry and driven: probably not easy to be around.

When our group joined the national organization of Big Flame, I was looking for opportunities to share ideas and experience, not wanting a central body to tell us what to think and do, and I was always a bit wary. Also, I’m not capable of thinking politically in very theoretical ways and I often felt inadequate and put down in discussions.

I was very involved in the Red Therapy group. Even before coming to Mile End I was aware of my own hang-ups and also felt that to live in a better world we needed to challenge our conditioning in capitalist values. Although overall the experience of Red Therapy did revolutionize my emotional life, I gradually came to realize that I was over-optimistic about how much could be achieved on that last score.

My own anti-authoritarianism was probably fuelled by needing to stick up for myself against a beloved but bossy dad; and my hunger for social justice partly derived from having to fight for fair shares in a big family. But I also had deep insecurities from childhood and ultimately couldn’t handle the sharing in sexual relationships that we aspired to.

It’s debatable how much we achieved. I know we impacted positively on individual lives of people we worked with, as well as making a contribution to an alternative culture at the time and a movement that has sent various changes rippling through the system since (sadly, without changing it fundamentally).

Overall it was an incredible experience: empowering, energizing and fun. Living collectively, sharing childcare, cooking in turn, organizing locally together, doing therapy together – despite various stormy episodes, it all generated personal honesty and a deep trust in other people, and nourished friendships and a sense of purpose that have endured throughout my life.

What I learnt at the time and looking back

I learnt that to work with other people you need forgiveness. In that pressure cooker we all saw the worst of each other and the fact that we carried on together, even mostly liking or loving each other, is one of the things that for the rest of my life has given me faith in human possibilities. It has helped with many various job-shares, collaborative projects and activist groupings that I’ve been involved with ever since.

I also deeply assimilated ideas and values which, together with the continuing friendship of several people from the ELBF years, have given an anchor and inspiration for everything I’ve done since. I’ve never had a proper ‘career’, but that experience enabled me to do many types of work (from massage to writing, from dance therapy to history) without feeling fragmented.  All those activities formed part of a larger vision and consistent purpose that started from Mile End.

Advice to anyone now?

Don’t follow leaders. Work continually for equality between people in a group as well as in the world at large, addressing issues of gender, race and class that have not been resolved.

Personal change is important but hard. As on the macro level, so on the micro/personal: there are things you can realistically hope to change in your lifetime and others not. Most fruitful is to focus energy on changing what you can. Don’t bite off more than you can chew (like we did).

Need to engage with the Spectacle which is one of the main tools of the status quo and has a devastating ongoing effect in fostering prejudice, passivity, envy, compliance and impotence, and luring people into vicarious rather than lived experience.

Social change isn’t just about structures but about the fabric of daily life. That can be slow to change. And gains need to be guarded on the ground. The establishment has long-term organization and resources;  they can outlast us and will try to recoup any victories we achieve.

We are all full of contradictions and difficulties and we need to work with the best in each other, not condemn the worst. Be forgiving and generous. Good political work calls for skills of co-operation that have been trained out of us in favour of competition. We need to re-learn those skills.

Do what you enjoy. Sometimes there are things you don’t want to do, but you do them because they’re fulfilling and make sense of everything else. That’s OK. Just as long as the impulse is not from guilt or moralizing but with your heart set on freedom and happiness, your own and other people’s.