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.
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.