Events in Newcastle in the late 1960s


Street theatre and radical intervention against rock music. Wrecking the English Surrealist festival and subsequent critique of English Surrealism. Newcastle Art School firebombed! Tyneside shipyard workers and a (kind of) Situationist critique. Jack Common and Vis Comics.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 17, 2023

There was much overlap between on-going activity in London and what was happening in Newcastle. At this point, it's probably worth going into a few details about subsequent events in Newcastle simply because nobody has done so and some of what took place was quite remarkable. The Icteric period had waned and a more direct response was called for. After "closing the Art School forever", Johnny Myers had erupted in a meeting of leftists against the Vietnam war shouting out, "We've got to make a Ho Chi Minh Trail out of Northumberland St" (the main drag in Newcastle). It wasn't that the guy was a leftist; he merely wanted to experience a crazy and exhilarating mayhem of unexpected eruption down the city's main thoroughfare. True, in his shouting it would have been better if Johnny had been more ironic about references to Ho Chi Minh, perhaps bringing in something of Bunuel's L'Age D'Or, as that was his intended effect. It never materialised as a mass event but a little later, on a hot sunny midday, Johnny took all his clothes off and walked down Northumberland St. He was arrested, banged up in Durham jail and later sectioned.

In response to this new mood, by 1967 many of us were quite willing to throw away many treasured possessions like art books, even ones you regularly looked at like Goya's etchings, jazz records – even a revered collection of Charlie Parker among which was Bird Symbols, basic craftsman's tools etc. It was a case of giving them to anybody who might want them. It was an attitude of "let everything slip from your grasp" and a slogan from the Peasants' millennium which possibly might smell of private property. It was however, taking place before a general historical time had been seized when it would be possible for everybody to let go of commodities precisely because commodity relations, the wages system and money would be in the process of self-liquidation. However, coming out with such common sense objections at the time wouldn't have met with much of a response as truly a force was rising within us and within so many other dispersed and disparate individuals that it was impossible to resist. We knew we were calling the shots and things must crumble before us...

First though it's worth making a few points here about that process which ultimately leads towards the abolition of money. In the late 19th century and some of the early years of the 20th century, it was reasonably common among a minority of workers, perhaps as a naive afterthought, to nod in the direction of the abolition of wage labour. Eventually, it was inscribed on some of the logos of the various union outfits (e.g. the National Union of Railwaymen and in the statutes of say, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, etc.). That didn't mean the object was pursued – quite to the contrary - but it had to be mentioned occasionally as a kind of litany. If anything most of the impetus went into a form of nationalisation, whereby many things would then become free particularly bus and train travel and the health services. Many millions of workers in Britain around the time of the second inter-Imperialist world war subscribed to these illusions about nationalisation, so in that sense the notion of a world free from monetary exchange remained a powerful living force, if a very misguided one on how it could be achieved. After twenty years of nationalisation by the mid-1960s, most people knew this hadn't worked out they way the scriptures had suggested cynically shrugging off the hopes they might have had in following such a path, though such a lacunae though, almost like nature, abhorred a vacuum. As the shades of darkness fell, the owl of Minerva took another course as it again flew towards a moneyless future. The momentum transposed itself as it became more personal though nonetheless still collective at the same time often presenting itself as just who was into money and who wasn't. Of course the latter individuals were really rated! If you'd come from the well-off, it was a matter of spending money generously on others and not saving it, or else using it to fund projects. Essentially just get rid of! On a more general level there was the street hippy lingo directed against "bread heads" within their own ranks, which was powerful and scathing. Though the abolition of money and wage labour wasn't proclaimed as such as a revolutionary banner, it was palpably there in the atmosphere. Some individuals even refused to touch money for a number of years. Disdaining to sign on the dole, remarkably, they often succeeded. Many people had respect for them and though always in a tiny minority they nonetheless were admired for their ideological persistence, even though the emphasis here has to be placed on ideological and in that sense not too dissimilar to the old slogans. All of this had virtually disappeared by the mid-1970s merely lingering on here and there. A true monetary hell then set in when the only need and even eternal verity in society became money itself. True we all know about this but we didn't sufficiently grasp just how out of kilter this 'new' mood was with the changing but incessant undertow of the previous 130 years or so. Truly, a concerted reaction was trying harder than ever to abolish the becoming of history. Today, we have the abolition of money alright but in the sense of vast teeming millions on the outskirts of Mexico Cities everywhere plunged into the capitalist nightmare of commodity relations without a peso ever passing through their hands. Certainly, we do need more perceptive, in depth, theorizing about the abolition of money – of just how do we get from the here and now of money to the there of the post money economy where value in all its implications has been abolished?

Other things weren't so dramatic but there was a drift here too. The Alfred Street theatre project was set up by Ron Hunt and some friends (shades of Alfred Jarry?) together with the paraphernalia of exaggerated costumes that had characterised this form from Futurism through Dada to the days of agit prop after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Alfred Street theatre figured fairly prominently in a quite ferocious on-going rent strike in Elswick, a run down suburb flanking river bank heavy industry in the west end of Newcastle which later, in 1992 became the focus of bitter rioting between youths and police. The Alfred Street theatre like all other street theatre didn't leave the terrain of art behind nor did it encapsulate a much more lucid trajectory – the shock tactic – inherited from the best traditions of modern art. Even though taking place in the streets with non professional actors, it relied upon the passive spectator / performer dichotomy - a dichotomy that had to be vanquished. Later in the 1970s, a film company, Z Films, based in Newcastle and following on from this somewhat Meyerhold axis produced some docu-fiction social realist films with a mixture of actors and non-actors on aspects of Tyneside life (Launch etc) which were completely without any consequence. Ron Hunt though in the late 1960s was strung out between street theatre and active intervention. He somehow acquired a copy of a super 8 home movie of the Motherfuckers garbage for garbage protest when, during a New York street cleaners' strike, they collected together rubbish from the streets of the Lower East Side and dumped it on the high culture Rockefeller Plaza. Ron really liked this intervention. It was certainly one of the best actions of the Motherfuckers and considerably more to the point than their super-militant histrionics which always invited jail and a far too arbitrary media attention which they hoped would produce a copy-cat effect or would add recruits to their small but fancied, Durutti-like, guerrilla image.

Some of the same people though who were engaged with Alfred Street theatre also simultaneously took part in some excellent interventions. A Surrealist weekend conference with various speakers held in Durham during the heady year of 1968 was wrecked. One of us pissed all over the stage at the same time wildly proclaiming to a 220 plus audience the failures of Surrealism. Obviously the harangue relied heavily on Situationist critique. In response, Patrick Hughes, the Surrealist painter, exploded in outrage, later claiming we'd destroyed the Surrealist movement in Britain. If only! A few years later and Patrick Hughes continued on his way, only this time via a TV series that was painful for its dull conformity and no different from the typical English Surrealist product found regularly in the cultural market place from the 1930s onwards. Ron Hunt objected to this disruption saying you had to give people the chance of finding out about Surrealism, particularly as now, in the shape of the magazine, Transformation a greater emphasis was being placed on its revolutionary kernel. OK but the mag only went as far as praising Cohn-Bendit ("Cohn-Bendit we need you here"), neglecting any deeper critique and was retarded in comparison to Maurice Brinton's fairly commendable effort for Solidarity in reviving the ultra-leftist critique. In any case, as it transpired even this emphasis on the revolutionary kernel of Surrealism in England would be rapidly abandoned.

Surrealism in these islands had always been a very tepid affair, eschewing the real nitty-gritty of the movement – the disruptions, (the Saint Pol Roux banquet et al) the manifestoes, the wild experiment - despite the fact that Surrealism even in France always tended to re-instate art after engaging in provocative acts. Under the conservative guidance of Roland Penrose, Surrealism in England remained a precious arty movement producing nothing significant. It never remotely broke the hold of a dominating artistic culture powered essentially by an Eng Lit ideology firmly cast within a long gone and once glorious past which could never be repeated. It never questioned the boundaries of art and its politics never made any imaginative leap, basically inclining towards leftist social democratic and Communist party sympathies. They stood on the same platform as Clement Atlee, the future post second world war, Labour Party PM extolling Picasso's Guernica and Ceri Richard's Surrealist poster campaign supporting the Spanish revolution that never went beyond a No Pasaran popular front stance. Surrealism in England was, unfortunately, merely a means of displaying a wearisome juxtaposition of images – coming from some kind of delving into the subconscious – in order to change a little the subject matter of traditional and outmoded categories like painting, sculpture, novels and poetry. It tended to reinforce a tradition of benign whimsy which was all too common, basically unable to shock anything apart from some right wing daily newspapers which even then, were avidly looking for copy. In a way, Surrealism made no impact on Britain precisely because it was already its greatest success story. We mean by this, that cornball and popular concept which sees Surrealism as really nothing more than placing disparate objects side by side to create some kind of frisson, a technique which was about to be taken up with increasing alacrity by advertising. Nowadays, these same techniques are accelerating ever faster with computer generated digitalised images. Although English Surrealists met and often struck up on-going friendships with some of the best French Surrealists, you are constantly amazed at how little – if any – of the real meat of Surrealist drift rubbed off on them. Some, like Nancy Cunard, even had close personal and sexual relationships. What on earth did they talk about – merely dreams and art? Surely though it proves the profound grip reaction in England had over even its more tempestuous personalities? Even that slightly more interesting part of English Surrealism – say the collaboration between the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe and the painter, Rueben Mednikoff – lent itself towards the reformist impulse at the Portman Clinic and that notion of civilising the criminal or the insane through changed therapy. It certainly turned out to be instrumental in the now ubiquitous art therapy treatment cum tranquilizers which now fills you with so many predictable groans. Vaneigem's comment in his book on Surrealism is pertinent, "The contempt which the Surrealists heaped on torturers in white coats did not inoculate them against a temptation to co-opt attitudes usually treated clinically for purely artistic purposes". In fact, John Lyle launched the 1960s English Surrealist magazine Transformation with an exhibition of the "art" of the mad in an Exeter art gallery. For those later who were to fall foul of the psychiatric police and who'd developed a critique of art to be forced to paint and draw in the loony bin was quite an insult!

Like English Surrealism, English whimsy – of which it was a part – could also never embrace revolutionary violence against culture, ossified rituals, or some aspects of politics like Surrealism had done in France. In England it tended to fit in too neatly with its well-known eccentric image – e.g. the "wild nature crank" picked out for vicious ridicule in Blast – the Vorticist paper around 1913. Although English absurdity and whimsy had brought forth very penetrating and remarkable things, particularly in the late 19th century in the humour and profound fantasy of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, it rapidly lost its real cutting edge. Even so, both were liked by Queen Victoria who wasn't quite as reactionary as one may think having also once asked a lady in waiting if she could point out Karl Marx to her in some crowded theatre! However it could be said the French surrealists liked Lewis Carrol precisely because it went against the stifling dominant though limited 'rationalism' of post-1789 French ideology, but in England it conformed well with the dominant anti-rationalism of the ruling ideology. Since then, the same vein has kept resurfacing in more and more popular forms from the Goons radio shows to the Monty Python prime time TV shows. Indeed, the leftover English Surrealists in the 1950s commented – perhaps with a certain jealousy upon the mass appeal of the Goons – obviously impressed and wanting similar fame themselves. On a broader level, English Surrealism was more an expression of a current which produced those Heath Robinson whimsical sketches of fantastic machines than any pushing through of artistic negation like happened with the origins of Surrealism in France. At a later date, towards the end of the 1960s, Monty Python was able to divert and spectacularise the serious and subversive intent behind a revitalised and more all-rounded concept of play as a weapon against capitalism and the state into an up-dated comic relief fit for purpose and peak TV viewing times. It was clever recuperation. For all its pitching at English foibles – the piss takes on the upper class accent, the army (often the breeding ground for mad cap pranks anyway and where The Goons were spawned) etc, English absurdity always ends up supporting the status quo and the revolutionary transformation of everyday life is the last thing within its ken. In a sense though some of the British trad jazz scene had prepared the opening via the blues singer George Melly plus the mass market, surrealist packaging of Dick Lester's films. No wonder Melly, Spike Milligan and John Lennon have been called; "the unofficial trinity of British surrealism".

More than this though -and the real point - which should have been emphasised in the Durham intervention against Surrealism was that the annals of English Surrealism in the 1930s reads like a litany of almost everybody who was to become part of the mainstay of the cultural establishment by the late 1960s – from Henry Moore, to (Sir) Herbert Read, to William Coldstream etc. Those, who like Read, became academic cultural critics added nothing of value even though in the 1930s Read's motto had been: "To hell with culture". It's the usual familiar tale of modern times. Latter-day Surrealist influenced individuals in France who became academics like Georges Bataille and Henri Lefebvre really did contribute something in that ever widening momentum of a theory of negative becoming more total in scope. Where would the notion of potlatch be without Bataille; a notion emphasising riotous, festive destruction and where would the anti-specialism of everyday life – the terrain of total revolution - be without Lefebvre? Instead, we had Herbert Read's The Meaning of Art. A joke indeed if the implications weren't to be so dismal. It meant in this climate always coming up against a solid brick wall of incomprehension. Nothing much has changed since in that respect.........If only some of this had been communicated in a more enduring form at Durham. Interestingly, a guy called Anthony Earnshaw tried to be conciliatory during the bust-up. Indeed we still feel some affection towards him because he was a misfit not working at the time in some cultural capacity, but variously employed as crane driver, engineering fitter and lathe turner. He'd evolved his own kind of Surrealist walks in West Yorkshire boarding trains, descending at will and roaming thus for hours. Alas, only to abandon his negativity as slowly but surely he became an Art School lecturer allowing him finally to devote himself full time to art.

Other interventions took place. At the time there was this spate of right wing lecturers who seemed to enjoy giving talks at various university venues throughout the country knowing they were going to get disrupted by left wing Dave Sparts (a Private Eye, lock–jawed, spoof Trotskyist invention) who were going to call them racist, anti-working class etc, which of course they were but that was hardly the real point. In Newcastle, the Sparts were shoved out of the heckling limelight against Patrick Wall by a vociferous cabal hollering "beans, beans, beans" at the top of their voices, (see previous comments earlier on this intervention). In short, it was a playful detourning of an advertising jingle; if you like, it was nonsense for nonsense and a rather more appropriate way of dealing with right wing ideologues. At least it was enjoyable and a rather more infectious way of sparking off the beginnings of some real communication.

Perhaps the most significant intervention though was that against The Mothers of Invention at the City Hall, Newcastle when a bunch of protagonists got up from the audience and shouted "Up against the wall Mothers" to which Frank Zappa replied, "Surely you mean Up Against the Wall Motherfucker". The response was quickly shouted back, "No, no, no, we mean up against the wall, Mothers". Both big audience and performing band were perplexed and neither knew what was going on, and what exactly was being said in this intervention? There was also the in-joke side too, despite the seriousness of intent. Just who in Newcastle City Hall in this relatively out of the way place, in this, if you like, brusquely un-hip town in the boondocks would have heard of the Motherfuckers apart from Frank Zappa, his band and the protagonists? Most likely nobody. Those who stood up and shouted from the audience knew Zappa was one of the hippest dudes of the pop spectacle and "Up against the wall, Mothers" would probably fall on the audiences deaf, unknowing ears. They were right. Zappa did, after all, have some notion of a crazy negation if probably not much more. Remember, through his commercial power and influence, Zappa was able to fix it so that Wild Man Fisher, the very amusing paranoid schizophrenic anti-music musician who couldn't play a note on that guitar permanently glued to his hand, was given a recording session. Some of this complexity could have been suggested in a leaflet. Often there's nothing like some simple, packed with fact explanation to help the bigger picture on its way, and the leaflet could have been scattered throughout the audience in the old time-honoured way. Explanations like this are needed also because people otherwise are left in the dark, most likely considering the protagonists to be nothing more than malcontents with some personal grief against a particular celebrity or pop group. This just wasn't the case, but a little later it was just such damaged responses which were to become more common, spilling over into some kind of psychotic identification like Mark Chapman's killing of John Lennon in New York City in 1980. In fact as early as 1972, a "yob" - according to the media - called Billy Howells really hurt Zappa when he was performing at the Finsbury Park Empire in London. The alternative / libertarian leftist press still very active at that time, never commented upon the event, even though Howells got six months in jail. The attack wasn't probably too enlightened but some kind of explanation might have been revealing. You never know it might have contrasted nicely with a coherent leaflet from the Newcastle intervention and given it an extra dimension in terms of lucid contrast. Though most people don't understand such leaflets, one or two do and seeding starts from there and maybe in this dry desert one day, after rain, flowers will bloom. Moreover, such subversive challenges have to be clearly delineated – simply so they don't get confused with the prevalent, often eroto-maniacal, obsessive assaults on stars - in that combination of adoration-cum-hate. For sure, the latter maybe demonstrates some damaged kind of praxis, but it lacks the necessary ingredient of real enlightenment.

Obviously what was basically being contested here, like in other nonsense interventions, was the passive audience / performer relationship particularly as the pop concerts in the 1960s were moving on from club venue and City Halls to the giant pop festival and were in this respect, spectacles of gigantic reification we often compared with Chinese Maoist calisthenics. Some of us at the time even felt them to be some what akin to fundamentalist religious revivalist meetings in their role as pacification of rebel activity. Whilst undoubtedly true, it also did mean that we'd unwittingly blocked our ears to the last moments of great popular music from the Doobie Brothers to the sheer magnificence of Jimi Hendrix, who as a musician trying to escape the boundaries of music was quite the equal of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell or Django Rheinhardt.

A little later though and we had no real simpatico with the trouble which began to erupt at the huge rock festivals. Sure we thought it was OK, but recognised that it failed to address the real problem of spectacular separation. Though welcoming the tearing down of security fences at the Isle of Wight rock festival, we had serious reservations knowing that even if they made the concert a completely free event, the formal focus, the essential reification, had to be the real core of contestation which the Zappa intervention had hit fair and square. The pop musicians were meant to disintegrate, to commit suicide, to end the music. In essence we preferred that photo from an American Life mag from the riots in Detroit in 1967 where a black guy with his back to the camera is seen walking out of a looted store carrying a double bass. Scribbled underneath, Debord had commented, "Negro carrying a musical instrument after assassinating Mozart".

To be sure, the transcendence of art was particularly central to the developing revolutionary critique in Newcastle and had always been given a sharp focus. However a couple of years later and a lot of hard headed and by then excellent historical knowledge about its unfolding trajectory, particularly throughout the 20th century, had been added as further 'censored' pieces of the jig saw were revealed. The university art school became a beacon of anti-art ferment in response to this call to arms coming from the outside. Finally, sometime during early 1969 persons unknown firebombed part of the art school at night and most of the Art History dept was gutted. It took some time for firefighters to put out the blaze. Although Newcastle university art school never experienced the sit-ins like Guildford or Hornsey College of Art in London, it did more than partake in the most radical critiques-in-action; in fact it was way in front of everybody. In short and to put it bluntly, why occupy a place making mealy-mouthed reformist demands about different course content or inter-disciplinary studies – which always produces some variant of the same old crap – when you can burn the place down? Though nobody was ever arrested for this exemplary act, we were basically accused of being the instigators. To this of course we still proudly plead guilty! Perhaps more importantly a greater decision had been forcibly imposed on us because of this action, meaning there was now little hope of crawling back into safety shot employment on the fringes of the art scene (i.e. art academia) or even to become if you like, "independent scholars." But it went further than that; the Special Branch had names and blacklists threatened and this didn't just concern employment of a professional nature. One of us was even denied employment cleaning out blast furnaces at a steel mill in Rowley Regis in the west Midlands 'Black Country', the manager seconded for hiring new hands saying he'd received a report listing trouble making at the London School of Economics! It was no more than what many experienced at the time as both the blacklists and the official denial of their existence mushroomed. As the years went by, you could have groveled to the powers that be and asked for forgiveness - as many did – but think of the self-inflicted humiliation! In any case, you'd never be really forgiven so why give them the pleasure of capitulation in the first place? We have only to recount the case on a more spectacular level of the Hornsey College of Art agitator, Kim Howells, himself influenced by King Mob, who cravenly some years later crawled up the Labour party hierarchy, became a Welsh MP and an ardent adherent of Blairism and free market ideologies yet got nowhere as his past continued to haunt him through periodic tabloid exposure. In his present position as Minister of Culture, Howells plays on his provocative past though by now his critique has lost all semblance of coherence and comes across like some cantankerous fuddy-duddy.

If we'd had any hesitancy as to where we were headed, there's nothing like the political police to finally focus negative theory clearly for you. As the radical German playwright, George Buchner said in the 1840s; "The Darmstadt police were my muses"! Any immediate hope of making any kind of living in the cultural /educational field had been sealed off in any immediate sense - a survival venue you had messed around with, now and again, on a desultory few hours a week basis. Rarely though are things ever fixed immutably like that. Finally though it was nothing to bleat about as you really didn't want their fuck-crazy, mind-abusing jobs compromising clear thought in any case. For sure you could have been obsequious but unless you were prepared to eat shit, denying everything you'd experienced with the truth of capitulation ringing in your ears for ever more, then yes, baby, you were on the outside. If you'd done what was demanded, asked for forgiveness, ameliorated your words, scrambled your brain, then the world of lies and secure monetary compensation lay at your feet. There's always a choice to be made. Perhaps there was too much pride, perhaps past insults had been too much but there was finally some irreducible voice inside which said: NO.

What happened in Newcastle though sent shock waves throughout the city but like everywhere else where a revolutionary theory was posited, recuperation was its closest admirer. Two architectural students showed quite an interest only to use a few ill-digested ideas to update the crises in architecture as they cynically shaped a new architectural style leading up to the ghastly formal plagiarisms of post modernism. To be sure we'd applauded plagiarism , (Lautreamont's "Ideas improve, Plagiarism is necessary") but not in the sense of aesthetic additions and updating the role of architect! Their names were Nick Grimshaw and Terry Farrell and there's no need here to say more about these couple of twerps though Farrell subsequently was to receive a knighthood! Sufficient to point out that Farrell two decades later designed the monstrous new M15 secret service building in Vauxhall, London and Grimshaw designed the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station. The mini plethora of cartoon hand-outs in Newcastle with new bubble-speak lines and captions also became a marketing idea for a new cartoon comic in the shape of VIS with its now well-known notorious characters and launching very lucrative careers for its illustrators and producers.

Again what is most interesting is something that's really unknown. Some aspects of the Situationist critique, particularly the provocative interventions captured the imaginative of young workers, particularly apprentices in the Tyneside shipyards. In the early 1970s, wildcat strikes mushroomed on the Tyne and the situation became barely controllable both for the bosses and union officials alike. Caught up with the notion of a "Strasbourg of the factories" then current at the time some rather more clued-in individuals decided to concentrate on the waterfront, but whether this had any effect or not isn't clear as general knowledge of their activities remain obscure. (What the "Strasbourg of the factories" refers to is the famous anti-student scandal at Strasbourg in 1966 which had such a massive impact in May '68 in France. In essence it was hoped there could be an even more profound follow-up with some kind of radical intervention in a big factory which would act as a beacon for others to follow) Somehow or another leaflets written, it seems, by Tyneside apprentices, appeared in wildcat strikes suggesting that foremen should be clobbered, local union officials ignored, and extolled wrecking machinery, suggesting furthermore that your lathe bench could be turned into a comfortable bed complete with extra tips on how to permanently dodge work while still getting paid etc. Indeed according to Dave Dunbar of the 1970s Infantile Disorders based in Leeds - though hailing from Newcastle - on one of the ships being built there, there was a secret section with beds where workers slept out of sight of the foremen. Such provocations finally resulted in Jimmy Murray, area boss of the Boilermakers or Transport union, exploding on local TyneTees television condemning "irresponsible Slituationlist (sic) leaflets" and waving a selection of them at the cameras whilst reading out choice phrases. Shock horror! In a way though, the Tyneside engineers had a long tradition of such libertarian subversion. Jack Common had come from their ranks and his account of The Right to Get Drunk Strike in about 1912 was in a similar vein. Common was a member of the Independent Labour Party - one of the best of the old organisations – and, which had quite a presence in County Durham around that time and among its members were many free-thinking libertarian workers who we remember with great affection from our childhood there. Initially Common had come from an engineering family background on the Tyne and was employed as a clerk. He was made redundant and experienced the harsh realities of the means tested dole in 1930s Newcastle. He then went south and ever after took more menial employment like unskilled assembly line work or caretaker jobs partially because he even felt some shame about white collar work he'd previously relied on for survival. Surprisingly, he even refused to become an engineering worker like his father.

In a way though revolt was returning to its roots. Had not Jack Common suggested in those excellent scraps of broad theoretical comment before he succumbed to the role of novelist that the best thing to do in a cinema was to go behind the curtains and look at the audience? Whilst not quite possessing the cutting edge of Vache's revolver pointed at the actors, it's not bad all the same. You cannot help but speculate that there was a subterranean continuity between notions like The Grand National Holiday (as the early form of the General Strike was once called on Tyneside), Jack Common and the events of the very early 1970s in the shipyards. It wasn't only the engineering apprentices but young miners from the west Durham coalfield who began to turn up at the broad, informal Solidarity/Situationist axis in Newcastle, no doubt attracted by the local publicity some of the interventions inevitably acquired and you wonder just what was this relationship between this and the thoughtful early writings of Dave Douglass, who was later, unfortunately, to become such a wooden anarcho-syndicalist and TV hogging demagogue? The concrete backdrop to this were the first shop floor led wildcat strikes beginning to break out in the nearby coalfield. Whatever. It was a fruitful pot-pourri of good old time and modern influences that was also marked by a heavy class bitterness. Miners would turn up in Newcastle on a Saturday night hoping to bed some radical middle-class young women and not averse to employing a bit of simplistic class demagoguery in order to achieve their ends. During 1969 we took a visit to the local Ashington Miners' Gala. It was a boiling hot day and Don Smith started shouting "revolution" over and over again. Responding to this and also shouting "revolution", Chris Gay jumped into the River Wansbeck where a number of young miners were already gambling in the water. Not at all put off by this - indeed kind of joining in – the lads playfully replied in their local pitmatic Geordie dialect which none of us 'outsiders' really understood, yet there was subliminal communication alright.

The bug of the social apartheid still dogs Jack Common in relation to George Orwell just like it does that other forgotten, brilliant engineer, Alfred Russell Wallace, the cofounder with Charles Darwin of natural selection. Although we critically commented upon Orwell in the late 1960s, the fact is, even those of us who'd hailed from Newcastle hadn't even heard of Jack Common. Colin Hutchinson, a guy around the Newcastle agitation, was the first to put together a selection of Common's critical writings in a well-produced booklet called Revolt in an Age of Plenty. Sure we'd made some acid comments about Orwell especially his dumb take on Surrealism though liking many of his essays and thoroughly respecting the excellent Homage to Catalunya, though noting his insistence on being termed a writer and his lack of comprehension regarding the decline of artistic form. As Don N Smith acutely said at the time it was just as well Orwell died when he did as his inadequacies would have meant he'd probably have ended up becoming a pathetic TV hack like Malcolm Muggeridge. If we'd known about Common in 1967-8 it would have been quite a revelation as his attempt to grasp the essence of rising modernity was far in advance of Orwell's and you can sense in some of his often convoluted expression that he's trying to get into shape a theory which was nigh on Situationist. Be that as it may, in passing we note their dissimilar deaths. Orwell died in a University College Hospital bed surrounded by so-called literary lions like Stephen Spender, Muggeridge, Anthony Powell and BBC journalists, Common died as a labourer on a building site in Newport Pagnell, Bucks.

Jack Common was a different kettle of fish as he defied categorisation and couldn't be fitted into some neat specialist place on the bookshelves. He wasn't a Surrealist nor was he a Social Realist, though both left some kind of mark upon him. If he had been a Social Realist, he would have been much more acceptable to the polyglot mix of the Establishment here particularly as social realism is acceptable to British leftist conservatism. Social realism was there well before the "Angry Young Men" writers, which the early Situationists derided in the mid to late 1950s precisely because they were writers and historically ignorant of the revolt against literary form (and which Jack Common had been more than vaguely aware of). Although social realism in the thirties had produced some haunting moments in the films say of Humphrey Jennings etc, as an increasingly denuded style, it was to remain a constant thereafter and to be much embraced by the new medium of television. In no way though did it disturb all those many time-honoured faceted and funded cultural roles beloved of the hierarchy here. Moreover, it was to serve as educator to all those aspiring cadres with high hopes of position in the new frontier posts of the state, whether as councillors, stress managers, social workers or even newly-fashioned crafty Leninists with their aspirations of leading the working classes. Social realism buttressed the emerging palliative concept of a basically PC community politics which nonetheless originally had its origins in the Empire pacification programmes of the old British Colonial Office. In Newcastle, it found an expression in "Z Films", a hip local outfit and previously mentioned, led by a cineaste creep called Murray Martin whose later claim to fame was a film based on the Meadow Well estate, which exploded in riot in the early 1990s. He tried to capitalise on the riot in order to further his career nationally though nothing really came of it. Moreover, the underlying slant of all these films - itself also indicative of social realism - is within a leftist social democratic framework with the state as enlightened facilitator. The state, the state, always the state!

In a sense Jack Common was the epitome and most clearly articulated expression of an open-minded probing which was not un-common on Tyneside and parts of Co Durham. This subversive tendency lurked behind a quite pervasive official cultural yearning it was plainly at odds with. Although it could be said Newcastle upon Tyne was an out of the way place the city nonetheless strived to achieve a major cultural image. City boss, T. Dan Smith in the 1960s banally wanted the city to be, "A Florence of the north". To even think you could build a "Florence" just like that and set aside from its essential historical time and place was a priceless piece of philistine and bureaucratic absurdity, though with the demise of that nonsense Newcastle was to achieve a massive post-modernist impact by ironically ditching its grandiose Renaissance project by recuperating that late 1960s life-enhancing experiment and more than embryonic subversion and turning it into its opposite. The city drew its sting forcing most of the instigators into exile, proceeding to pave the way for a bankrupt modernity by massively promoting 'end of culture' culture in the forms of gigantic displays from the sculptor Antony Gormley's moronic "Angel of the North" to the new waterfront Baltic Exchange Flour Mill, the veritable temple of Saatchi & Saatchi vacuity.