Tag Archives: London Anti-University

King Mob, the Camden Poster Workshop and revolutionary London in 1968

 

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While most recollections of 1968 concern events in Paris, Germany, the US and South America, there was also a minor uprising in London. That is being commemorated with a suitably bijou single-room exhibition at the Tate Britain, and also a new publication in Four Corners’ Irregular series – about which I first wrote here.

The book is an anthology of the work of Camden’s Poster Workshop, a collective that silkscreen protest posters for any cause that needed them, directly inspired by the famous posters of Paris in May. It includes examples of every poster the group produced from their premises on Camden Road, plus essays explaining how they worked and their social context.

 

 

 

 

 

The graphics, slogans and general attitude are a perfect expression of the spirit of 1968, with campaigns focusing on big issues like Vietnam but also looking at very localised political issues such as rent strikes and student protests. There is a whole wall of those posters on display at the Tate, sitting opposite various artworks that capture the anti-establishment spirit of 1968 – a photograph by Richard Long, some work by Joseph Bueys.

In the space between are a handful of exhibition cases containing some ephemera related to 1968. Much of this relates to protests at Hornsey Art College and LSE, but there’s also some terrific King Mob and Anti-University paraphernalia, plus issues of IT and Black Dwarf. It’s definitely worth a quick look if you are planning to visit either of the current two main exhibitions, one on the impressionists on London and the excellent All Too Human, a very London-orientated featuring art by Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Bomberg.

 

The King Mob elements particularly interested me, as this group had a striking way with word and image that anticipates – and inspired – the artwork of punk. “Comrades stop buggering about”, one pamphlet implores while another quotes Antonin Artaud in a perfect mix of the profane and the artful. They may well have been little more than annoying provocateurs, the Spiked Online of their day who said things like “football hooligans are the avant-garde of the British working class” but they certainly had wit. As Alan Marcuson explained to Jonathon Green in Days In The Life: “They were much more fun, their writings were more fun, they were a more interesting group of people, they were doing more interesting things, their pamphlets were more interesting than the boring fucking Trots, who really were the most tiresome bunch of people I have ever come across.”

King Mob were outliers in the London revolutionary scene. They formed in Notting Hill as an offshoot of the Situationist International. In ’68 – The Year Of The Barricades, David Caute writes that they “derided both passive, drugged hippies and the usual New Left rent-a-crowd who were forever ‘counting arseholes’ and pursuing stale ‘issue politics’.” It’s noticeable that there is no index entry for King Mob in Barry Miles’ history of the London counterculture, London Calling. That could be because one of King Mob’s first actions was to go to Miles’s Indica bookshop, where the hippie Trots of IT were then based, and “scaring the wits out of them”.

Like most left-wing revolutionary groups, King Mob believed they were the real thing. They articulated a keen sense of humour that was borrowed from the Yippies and Situationists, and also nurtured a belief in “creative violence” that they admired in New York’s brilliantly named and short-lived Motherfuckers. As a result, King Mob celebrated serial killers and planned audacious actions – blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District; hanging the peacocks in Holland Park – none of which came to pass.

Their most famous activity was when a group of King Mobbers, including Malcolm McLaren, invaded Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas and handed out toys to children. They are also said to have been responsible for some of London’s best graffiti, including the famous “How much more can you take?” in Ladbroke Grove. Their influence on the political climate of 1968 was minute, but McLaren and Jamie Reid would soon take King Mob’s love of ‘chaos and anarchy” and apply it to punk rock.

 

 

 

 

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The London Anti-University

This newsclip of the London Anti-University from 1968 is wonderfully evocative, not just for the interviewees’ earnest insistence that they could change the world of education, but also through the grim tattiness of late 1960s Shoreditch, reproduced in glorious colour.

The London Anti-University was formed after participants at 1967’s Congress on the Dialectics Of Liberation at the Roundhouse decided they wanted to continue to explore some of the themes and conversations that had started there (sample debates: The Future of Capitalism; Black Power; Imperialism and Revolution in America).

Based at 49 Rivington Street – previously home of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – the Anti-University was opened in February 1968 by David Cooper and Alan Krebs, and featured lecturers such as Cornelius Cardew, CLR James, Robin Blackburn, Bob Cobbing, RD Laing, Yoko Ono, Jeff Nuttall, John Latham and Alex Trocchi – all key figures on the intellectual left-wing of the 1960s counterculture.  The Anti-University syllabus covered three main areas: radical politics, existential psychiatry and the artistic avant-garde. 

 Poster announcing the opening of the Antiuniversity of London (1968)

An idea of the direction of the Anti-University can be gleaned by a reported exchange at Joseph Berke’s course on ‘anti-universities, anti-hospitals, anti-theatres and anti-families’.

He asked the class: ‘How can we discuss how we can discuss what we want to discuss?’ After a long silence, somebody answered ‘Maybe we don’t need to discuss it.’ Berke pondered this for a while and then left; the class continued for an hour despite his absence.

The Anti-University lasted almost a year, which isn’t bad by the standards of the time, but it’s premises soon became squatted, and the landlords, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, reclaimed the campus.

But the Anti-University’s most important legacy may have come from a conversation in the classroom of psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, who lectured on literature and psychology.

One of Mitchell’s students, Diana Gravill, had inherited some money and was intending here to spend it on a women’s refuge. Mitchell instead persuaded her to put it towards a bookshop. This she did, and the shop, named Compendium, was opened by Gravill and her partner Nicholas Rochford on Camden High Street in August 1968.

Over the next thirty years it became one of the world’s great bookshops, stocking everything from academic studies of the women’s movement to punk fanzines. It was still going strong when I used to go there in the late 1990s, fascinated and intimidated by the content of the bookshelves. It eventually closed in 2000, a sad end to one of London’s greatest counterculture institutions, but a longstanding tribute to the ideas and passions raised by the London Anti-University.