King Mob, Santa Claus and Selfridges: Christmas 1968

Malcolm McLaren re-enacts the King Mob intervention at Selfridges in his film "The Ghosts of Oxford Street" (1991)

On situationist-inspired group King Mob's riotous intervention at Selfridges.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 15, 2023

Libcom introduction

"Shopping should be all about pleasure."

- Harry Gordon Selfridge

"Making a spectacle

Today, Selfridges’ window displays are famous across the world, but back in the early 1900s the theatricality, scale and even the fact that these were the first store windows to be lit at night meant crowds gathered around them at all times of the day."

- Selfridges website, 2023

Selfridges is a chain of department stores in the United Kingdom, founded by American retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge. Its flagship store on London's Oxford Street was the largest shop in Britain when it opened in 1909. In December 1968, King Mob staged an intervention there:

A London group swept into Selfridges one Christmas with their key man dressed as Santa Claus. 'Free presents' were pressed into surprised but eager hands. Not long afterwards, shoppers were treated to the spectacle of police confiscating toys from small children, and arresting Santa Claus.

Richard Neville - Play Power 1970 p17

...twenty-five members or affiliates [of King Mob], one dressed up as Santa Claus, crammed into Selfridges' toy department and started thrusting toys into the hands of passing children and their startled parents. This action was accompanied by an anonymous, one-page, broadsheet manifesto: 'Christmas: it was meant to be great but it's horrible,' ran the headline. 'Let's smash the great deception. Light up Oxford Street, dance around the fire.'

[Sex Pistols manager Malcolm] McLaren was one of the twenty-five:

'We were all handing out the toys and the kids were running off. The store detectives and the police started to pounce: I ran off into the lift. There's just me and this old lady: the doors start to open and I can just see all these police. I grab the old lady really tight and walk through like I'm helping her. As soon as I got out of the store, I belted out of there.'

Jon Savage - England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock 1991 p34

It's generally acknowledged that the action was inspired by New York City's Black Mask group1 and their "mill-in" at Macy's department store in 19662 . The Selfridges incident soon became part of the mythology of punk rock prehistory.

Malcolm McLaren re-enacted the scene in his 1991 Channel 4 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street3 (see photo at top of this article) but subsequently changed his mind about his involvement...

“That was organised by Christopher Gray and the Wise twins were involved as well. I never actually went to it but I heard of it. In those days nobody would tell you how things were going to work. There was all this rumour and hype. So, no, I was never involved as such.”

- quoted in Tom Vague - King Mob Echo: From Gordon Riots to Situationists and Sex Pistols 2000

... but King Mob founder Dave Wise4 recalls McLaren being there along with Ian & Diana Clegg, and Ben Trueman who was wearing the Santa Claus outfit. What follows is Wise's recollection of the event - and its background, written in 2007.

On what happened at Selfridges - Dave Wise

For Ms Vicki Maguire:

I just wanted to explain a little more about the anti-Xmas, anti-consumer intervention so that you may be able to correct Jamie Reid's false assumptions. And I hope he doesn't get annoyed with you about it! He in fact quite recently put on a display in a shop window in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill for Pepe jeans. It was simple consumer advertising but deployed a lot of his old props like the Boredom and Nowhere destination buses he gleaned from Point Blank in California decades ago5 . As an aside to this did you know that the Blue Man Group performance troupe is a child, or rather offspring, of Point Blank via Chris Winks? He used to visit me in the 1970s and we'd talk about Yves Klien and the use of blue which acquired some mystical potency for the latter. I'd wanted to meet Chris because I did find some interesting things in his At Dusk pamphlet6 and rather better than all the pro situs I was meeting who simply reiterated verities and whom by then I found wearisome most of the time. (Klein had for a short time been big among us in Newcastle in the Icteric days). After that Winks produced Processed World but his critique of art I noticed was getting sloppier and sloppier throughout the early 1980s. So it came as no surprise when his name resurfaced though this time he calls himself Chris Wink having removed the 's'!

Anyway back to Selfridges. After some rudimentary planning in early December 1968 I informed Maclaren and Vermorel about what we intended doing and could they get plenty of people along to Oxford St. By that time I was very friendly with both of them and they listened a lot to what I had to say which meant I could go on and on and on. I ranged all over putting forward my theories on English romanticism, English philistinism conjoined to British imperialism, Yorkshire and the northeast, plus my knowledge of Russian Constructivism, Surrealism, International Lettrism and the like. Much of the latter - apart from Lettrism - had though come from Ron Hunt in Newcastle. Fred Vermorel was more clued in about tendencies within the workers' movement and knew and could discuss the Friends of Durrutti and the antics of the different Trotskyist sects etc. In that sense he was very 'French' and in any case his mother hailed from the country and of course Fred had fought splendidly on the barricades in Paris in May 1968. None the less, Malcolm Maclaren[sic] had dash and audacity and proved to be very plucky and imaginative darting here, there and everywhere during the battle for Selfridges. (Ashamed to say, I utterly wallowed in the way these two guys listened so attentively. It was very flattering). From an exciting and fulfilled childhood amongst the northern coalfields I too in Newcastle had become very French!

I know Maclaren was particularly fascinated with the concept of the drift, the derive. That allowed me to take-off, not only about Baudelaire but De Quincey especially and how Charles Dickens was influenced by him in his endless walks through London getting right in a way some wonderful aspects of the cockney character like mispronouncing words that unbeknown to them, end up being very inventive. De Quincey and the old urban rookeries fascinated MM and the latter's experience of them really got through. (Incidentally one of the most haunting descriptions of Liverpool is conjured up by De Quincey as he sits in a room for days on end top of Everton Hill looking down on the harbour and listening to all the foreign voices stoned out of his head, motionless. Laudenum of course, or as De Quincey's children delightfully called it 'doddenum'!) Later, much later, MM made an arse of all this in his ill-digested attempt to play for Lord Mayor of London with his programmed version of a drift through cultural events, museums and the like.

The Selfridges intervention was really a disparate, collective effort. No one at the time really thought it was something to be claimed, something to be copyrighted for in any case, that was the enlightened no property spirit of the times. Later Maclaren was to say he was dressed as Santa Claus which wasn't true. A good friend, Peter 'Ben' Trueman, out of his head on speed, did that! In the Oxford St film, The Ghosts of Christmas Past Maclaren voiceovers the leaflet we gave out but it was the Clegg's and myself who wrote that and then I 'designed' it making it into a spoof Christmas card kind of thing. I couldn't help thinking also that Shane MacGowan's performance in the film was meant to be Ben Trueman because Ben lolled, loppeled and rolled, outta control and very like. Maclaren was certainly in awe of the guy. Ben was spectacularised by all the recuperated radicals who were essentially using him as thesis material advancing their future careers. It was as if the guy was the pure essence of uneducated, wild, pristine hooligan revolt, hailing from a working class background in Winchester. Never a student. Ah wonderful! Ben was no fool though and rapidly realised he was being used and even set up. We became excellent friends and had some great times in the pub where he liked to drop a vibrator in pints of beer watching it froth all over the table - to much hilarity. He was a builder too though half the time you wondered if he was casing the joint or the church next door where he'd nick the lead off the roof. (This happened!) Around about 1974 I was working with him on a site. It was Xmas Eve (again!) and the boss after faithfully promising all of us we'd get paid on the dot at 5 in the evening came up and told us he had no money. Ben knocked him out with a heavy left to the jaw and then proceeded to elegantly seduce his wife who didn't need any enticing. (I think in any case she'd had enough and had probably wanted to engage in some kind of fisticuffs herself as her husband was such an arrogant prat).

The Selfridges intervention was really all about playing with consumerism in a kind of liberated way by taking apart its essential cash nexus and/or subverting the commodity form plainly emphasising that everything has to be free. I guess this is why the intervention is still so powerfully remembered years later. Recently (23.06.07) there was a review in the Saturday Guardian of a book entitled Consumed by Benjamin Barber with the subtitle of How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantalise Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole. Debord is mentioned for emphasising pseudo-needs alongside Marx and it looks as though there's some kind of drift to the concept of commodity fetishism within its pages. However, Barber being a professional go-between (The book jacket blurb says: 'He consults with political and civic leaders throughout the world on democracy, citizenship, culture and education') means the guy is a right idiot with absolutely no idea of relevant praxis and how to get out of this shithole? I would however like to think something of that essential impulse is returning. Indeed it must do if the planet isn't to be utterly destroyed through ecological catastrophe.

However, when we started off on our anti-consumer jag in the late 1960s ('Consume more, live less' etc) contradictions quickly became apparent. In a way the Clegg's weren't objecting to consumerism per sea merely cheap consumerism and its extension to the working class. I remember one evening around the same time they started sneering about Blackpool . My beloved Anne was there and she went bananas throwing things around the room. A button had really been pressed. Anne as a kid used to go to Blackpool on her Wakes' Week break with her parents who worked in the Lancashire cotton mills. She remembered the resort with a simple joy. (Wasn't Blackpool called Manchester-on-Sea and Morecambe Bradford-on-Sea?) My sympathies were entirely with Anne as it had also been my experience though for me it was Bridlington where I built endless sand castles in a state of utter bliss. The Clegg's though were so snooty they knew nothing about the reality of Wakes' Week. And as for consumerism, for sure they didn't possess fluffy teddy bears or had toby jugs on the mantelpiece but they had property all over the place. An ex-crofter's cottage up in Sutherland near Quinaig and later, a cottage near Penyghent, a house in Leeds , one in Clapham etc. Buy, buy, buy. The hypocrisy was plainly obvious. (Diana Clegg - nee Marquand - was the sister of the Liberal party MP, David Marquand etc). Who you are related to doesn't matter of course but if one of them happens to be some rich or important fink you have to tell them where to get off.

Undoubtedly with Anne this kind of thing created resentment and unfortunately envy. In no time she sadly began to see in me a loser, a man with no prospects, or as she called me in a letter when in agony we broke up 'an outsider'. This really hurt particularly as the Special Branch at the time had me watched and visited etc. Jobs became very difficult to get and an employers' blacklist had curtailed any hope of an academic career etc even if I'd wanted one. Since then I'm afraid Anne just went for money and property becoming a kind of serial divorcee: 'I do thee wed until the inflated price of property doth us part and I need to make a further buck' etc. I'm sorry if this sounds brutally cynical but it's part of the general drift of things in a terminally horrible direction. At the same time it looks as though Anne went from unhappiness to unhappiness, a reflection of the trivial commodity sickness of our epoch noted not only by Barber and people like Oliver James in books like Affluenza but more and more others.....Maybe Anne couldn't forget the Selfridges intervention as she certainly enjoyed it. Is this a sign of more optimistic times on the horizon?

I also wonder about the ideological effects of background. Anne's parents in Droylesden, Manchester were also Tory voting working class. I'd really never come across this type of thing before as my background had been Labour oriented to the core and my Dad's best friends on the railways were in the Independent Labour party and so much was discussed. I know the signalman next door to us was blanked because he was a Stalinist etc. It all got through even it took a long time to realise what major strikes our parents had been involved in. Then to hear Anne's poor mother saying in 1969 that two Spanish radicals (Maoists) called Garmendia and Orteaga should be garotted was too much. I know it was genuflecting towards the TV but I found it difficult to handle and then an uncle coming around saying he hated strikes even though he was only a print worker and the bosses are always right etc. And yet when it was all gone I missed Droylesden so much and even now when I go through northwest Manchester past Chadderton, Failsworth, Newton Heath, all the way up to Ancoats I'm so quiet, internal, so absorbed and Stuart always says to me: 'I know who you are with and what you're thinking.'

Best: Dave. Spring 2007

Text above from:

"It was meant to be great but it's horrible" Confessions: S. Claus 1968

Leaflet written by Dave Wise and Ian and Diana Clegg, and distributed to shoppers in Oxford Street by King Mob during their anti-consumer intervention at Selfridges department store in December 1968. Text, with Christmas decorative illustrations designed by Dave Wise.

It’s lights out on Oxford Street this year. No more midnight neon. No more conspicuous glitter for compulsive sightseers to gawp at the wonders of capitalism. Even the affluent society can no longer keep up with its electricity bill. You don’t deserve Christmas this year. You haven’t worked hard enough. You haven’t trotted fast enough through the in-put, out-put, clock-on, clock-off, the vicious circle of production and consumption. Save and spend, screw yourselves into the ground in preparation for the one time in the year when you’re allowed to let go, feast yourselves, overreach yourselves in a frenzied effort to enjoy – and spew it up afterwards.

So the sick gnomes of Europe have turned off the lights this year. You can't even have the fantasy of enjoyment: the grisly spectre of Father Christmas has put the prices up: you can't afford the gifts, you don't deserve to afford them because you haven't sweated your guts out to keep the treadmill turning.

Christmas is a punishment this year. It always was a drag: a duty to be cheerful, to play the fool, let down your hair as soon as they switch on the lights and raise the curtain. It's a holiday, and you'd bloody well better appreciate it. It's a time to be with family and you'd bloody well better be nice to them, because we're all one happy family, aren't we?

This year Christmas can't even pretend to be fun. You can hardly afford to get pissed and forget it. They want more from you: more blood, tears and sweat. And more smiles. Don't let on that you're cold and tired, sick to the bloody back teeth of all the trash they try to sell you, sick of the kids who are trained to sing in chorus a whole lot of lies about love and mercy mild. It's your duty to carry on buying, even though they've hardly left you enough cash to get yourself a coffin and opt out of it all.

Let's smash the whole great deception, occupy the fun palace and set the swings going. Grab the gifts, and really give them. Light up Oxford Street. Dance around the fire. Exult in the funeral: the final show-down of the Christmas con.