DIARY 13 July 1971. A small degree of academic recognition

On 13 July 1971 I graduated from Leeds University. Despite my aversion to such formalities, I was pleased to attend my own graduation ceremony. My sister, Cynthia, came up from Birmingham to witness my academic triumph. I was ‘admitted to the Degree’ of Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy although I only just stumbled through my exams with a second-class Honours.

I could not afford the formal graduation photograph,
but this is what the day probably looked like.
Clothworkers Hall in the 1970s[1].

I studied philosophy at Leeds because I failed my first year at Chelsea College of Science and Technology.  It was not the science that caused me to falter but the compulsory mathematics course. And so it was that I frantically went through the University Clearing Scheme in the summer of 1968 to find somewhere, and something else to study.

I had not lost my fascination with chemical and biochemical processes, or my practical skills in chemical analysis. However, in London I had discovered contemporary culture; literature, film, art, music opened my mind to new ideas. I no longer wanted merely a qualification for a job. There was a universe of knowledge to explore.

Courses in Philosophy required no specific ‘A’ levels, so I did not need to worry about a prior qualification. University courses were on offer in the Clearing Scheme, usually combined with another subject. My own knowledge of philosophy was minimal. At my school, the headmaster was a classical scholar who added lectures on Plato to the curriculum where I learned about caves and mirrors. I had also picked up the phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’. I did not understand at the time that these ideas were fundamental to the history of western philosophy.

I also thought I knew something of the philosophy of the Existentialists. I had read Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir but only their literary work. A copy of Being and nothingness borrowed from Chelsea Library left me mystified. But it was enough. I was on a voyage of intellectual discovery, and I looked for another university to help me chart my course.

London School of Economics offered me a place to study Economics combined with Philosophy but with no ability in mathematics I could not have suffered it. Nor could I face a return to the loneliness of London. Leeds University offered me a place on a new course entitled The History of Scientific Thought, combined with Philosophy. They were pleased that someone who had a background in science would want to take up the course. I accepted and went to Leeds in October 1968.

My first year was an introduction to the usual list of figures in the history of Philosophy. I read Plato, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume as directed. Spinoza and Leibniz were mentioned but philosophy stopped suddenly at the English Channel at the end of the eighteenth century. The History of Scientific Thought was more interesting with the controversies surrounding Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin inter alia. I was also able to study the History of Art as a subsidiary course. With all this Philosophy, Science, History and Art, would I become a twentieth-century Renaissance man?

I was lulled into a false sense of intellectual security as I relished this knowledge. At the end of my first year, I was introduced to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings. I should have realised that a man who entitles a book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was not going to be an easy read. Peter Geach, Professor of Logic at Leeds, was formerly a student of Wittgenstein at Cambridge. He was married to Professor Elizabeth Anscombe who was a friend of Wittgenstein and translated his Philosophical Investigations. Unknowingly, I had been enticed into a Wittgensteinian cabal presided over by someone for whom nothing existed except logical theory (and his Catholic God).

My second year at Leeds would be dominated by a study of Gottlob Frege. Frege is one of the founders of analytic philosophy and a precursor of Wittgenstein.  I was expected to study the former to better understand the latter. Frege is now considered one of the great logicians but fifty years ago he was rarely discussed, even in philosophical circles where his work was seen as mathematical. Geach, who had translated of some of Frege’s work, was also his devoted disciple. My second year turned into a peculiar type of hell with weekly incomprehensible lectures.

I was saved by my other course which taught me about the history of science. The course was new, administered by Jerry Ravetz, Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science, who was considered something of a radical[2]. His approach was to analyse the social and ethical aspects of scientific knowledge[3]. I was also taught by Maurice Crosland, a lecturer in the Philosophy Department, who was an authority on the development of scientific knowledge in France from the eighteenth century.

Their lectures were interesting enough to make me take a course in medieval Latin to understand sixteenth century scientific texts. I would spend hours in the library translating Napoleon’s letters about scientific education using my schoolboy French. I still have some of my essays from the time, written in long-hand on foolscap sheets.

I was no scholar when it came to Frege and Wittgenstein. I tried to formally abandon Frege and complete my degree solely with Ravetz, but it was not permissible.  I struggled through my final year and prepared as best I could for the examination in May. I challenged the examiners by answering one question with a short story about time travel to demonstrate the philosophical difficulties of such an endeavour. It must have been my interest in the History of Scientific Thought that pulled me through.

How I looked in 1971.
I am unsure how I managed to wear a mortar board.

Having passed the examination, I celebrated my Bachelor of Arts suitably attired in a rented gown and mortar board. And with my studying days over I had to consider what my next step in life would be…

[1] The building appeared to be of grey Yorkshire stone. Nowadays, having had its Victorian grime scrubbed off, it is resplendent in red brick and honey-coloured stone.

[2] Jerome Ravetz was an American mathematician who studied at Cambridge. In 1955 his US passport was cancelled during the McCarthyite purges. I recall his tweed suit with a pinkish tinge.

[3] Whilst he was teaching at Leeds, he wrote the seminal book Scientific knowledge and its social problems (published in 1971).

DIARY 4 May 1969. Race awareness. David Oluwale.

David Oluwale 1930 –1969

In Britain, by the end of the nineteenth century, tramps were folk heroes.[1] Tramping from place to place looking for work or a place to sleep, they were a common sight across Britain. Myths would grow up around them, such as how they would chalk codes on gate posts to denote how amenable the occupant might be to a little begging. Some would become local characters.[2]

As a child, seeing the occasional tramp was hardly noteworthy. Because of their ragged appearance and unsavoury smell, we would avoid them but considered them harmless, a part of the landscape. In Selly Oak, a few were attracted by a local convent which would dole out marmalade sandwiches. As a butcher’s boy whose job it was to deliver meagre supplies of meat and sausages to the nuns’ kitchen, I learned to avoid those times when I would be gently ribbed about carnivorous habits by the queue of tramps.

Every industrial city had its shifting population of tramps who might find opportunities for short term jobs, free food or places to sleep. Leeds was exceptional in the opportunities it provided among its small factories and shops, with accommodation in the many derelict houses left during slum clearances.[3] It was said that there were more hostel places than hotel rooms in Leeds.

The death of a tramp was unremarkable. In May 1969 when the body of a tramp was found in the Aire Navigation to the south of Leeds city centre, I did not even notice the news item in the Yorkshire Post. Only later, when the circumstances of his life and death became known, did his name become engraved on my memory – David Oluwale.

He was born in Nigeria in 1930. In 1949 he stowed aboard a ship bound for Hull. Arriving there, he was put in prison for 28 days in Armley Jail, Leeds charged with being a stowaway. He was not an illegal immigrant. At that time, all citizens of the British Empire were British Citizens and entitled to come to Britain as their Mother Country.[4]

Having been trained as a tailor, David remained in Leeds which was the centre of the woollen textile industry. In those days Leeds boasted the largest clothing factory in the world with 10,000 workers making suits for Montague Burton, the Tailors. David made a little money and bought a stylish suit of his own. With his smart clothing and swagger he was nicknamed ‘Yankee’.

A few years later he was arrested for disorderly conduct and imprisoned again for 28 days. It may have been during his arrest and imprisonment that he suffered some trauma. David suffered from hallucinations which resulted in him spending several years in a mental hospital diagnosed as schizophrenic, undergoing ECT and drug treatments.

David’s journey: Menston Asylum; Derelict houses;
Kirkgate market, Knostrop Weir.

Leaving the hospital in 1961, David’s youthful vigour had gone. Unable to hold down a job or find somewhere to live, he fell into a cycle of living off handouts, sleeping in doorways, petty crime and periods of time in prison and mental hospital.[5] He spent the last two years of his life sleeping rough in Leeds city centre, where he was the target of routine mental and physical abuse at the hand of two police officers, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching. David Oluwale was last seen in the early hours of 18 April 1969 being chased by the officers towards the River Aire. His body was found a few miles downstream two weeks later.

In 1970, a Leeds police cadet, Gavin Galvin, uncovered evidence of the way Ellerker and Kitching had treated David Oluwale. An inquiry began and charges of manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm were brought against the police officers.

At the trial in November 1971, the court was told how Ellerker and Kitching, made it their business to make life unpleasant for David Oluwale because they ‘simply did not want him in the city’. Racist terms were used on charge sheets relating to David, including having his nationality described as ‘wog’. Despite that, there was no mention of racism during the trial.

The officers were jailed for a series of assaults but found not guilty of manslaughter on the direction of the judge. The trial received national coverage but justice and civil rights campaigners considered it a whitewash, which presented David Oluwale as a social nuisance.

When the details of how David was treated came to light, it had a profound effect on me. Others died violently in the 1970s including Tosir Ali (murdered by racists, 1970), Gurdip Singh Chaggar (murdered by racists, 1976), Altab Ali (murdered by racists, 1978) and Blair Peach (murdered by the police while demonstrating against racism, 1979). These are only a few among many more racist murders in Britain.[6] I became a dedicated anti-racist, joining the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s.

David’s story is now well documented, with books, plays and events and activities by the David Oluwale Memorial Association.[7]

[1] The most famous fictional tramp was the character invented by British actor, Charlie Chaplin.

[2] I will ignore the later US usage of the word ‘tramp’ to denote a promiscuous woman, an insult both to women and to the usually mild-mannered tramp.

[3] Derelict houses were plentiful in Leeds due to clearance programmes which swept away acres of back-to-back houses. They were colloquially known as ‘derries’. I lived among them in Hyde Park and Burley between 1969 and 1975.

[4] This situation would not last long when it was realised that this could mean massive immigration from Asian and African countries. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 introduced immigration control for those without a connection to the UK. Further controls have been introduced since with successive Immigration Acts.

[5] I have used information about David’s life from Kester Aspden’s highly recommended book, The hounding of David Oluwale.

[6] The Institute of Race Relations has documented dozens of murders in the UK with a racist element since 1991. Website: https://irr.org.uk/article/deaths-with-a-known-or-suspected-racial-element-1991-1999/

[7] https://rememberoluwale.org/

DIARY 25 September 1969. Coming of age

DP 1969 - Copy

Coming of age 1969

In September 1969 I turned 21 years old. I could already legally smoke, drink, marry, have children, or be called up to fight for my country. Or, although extremely unlikely, I could even be killed by my country. I was liable for any crimes I might have committed and, although capital punishment for murder had been suspended, it would not be abolished until December 1969[1].

Despite having these responsibilities, I was still considered too young to choose who would represent me in parliament or the local council. They lowered the voting age to 18 in 1970 but it was too late for me[2]. I was finally able to vote in the general election held during that year which saw the defeat of Harold Wilson and a surprise victory for the Conservatives under Edward Heath[3].

I was living in Leeds, waiting for the new university term to start. I had spent some of the summer earning the money to take me to Italy with my girlfriend, Gill. We flew out to Rome and hitch-hiked back to England via Perugia, Florence, Milan, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium, returning penniless.

Not having money was not a problem. My rent was one pound and ten shillings a week and I was waiting for my student maintenance cheque for £128 which would see me through to Christmas. I had few possessions and no aspirations. I had grown into my environment in Leeds, met new friends, particularly Gill who made me feel comfortable. I was trying to put aside the confusion and loneliness of leaving home and going to London. A tiny terraced house in Beamsley Mount, Leeds became a haven, despite its lack of plumbing.

20191007_163203 - Copy

Gill bought me a present for my twenty-first. A rather fine art-deco statuette of a young woman, reclining, clad in something diaphanous[4]. It was an unlikely but perfect gift which I still own. Whilst it represented an incongruous ideal beauty among the cobbled streets and back-to-backs, it had a kitsch appeal. Something that I could enjoy for its own sake, given to me by someone who accepted me for whatever I was.

[1] Capital punishment for murder was suspended for five years on 9 November 1965. It was abolished permanently on 16 December 1969 but not in Northern Ireland until 1973 or for treason and piracy until 1998.
[2] The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, with effect from 1970 and remained in force until the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013 which allowed 16 year-olds to vote for the first time, but only in Scotland and only in that particular referendum.
[3] It was under Edward Heath that Britain negotiated to join the Common Market, as the European Union was then called, finally doing so in January 1973.
[4] Only a year ago, she suffered an accident and was damaged. I repaired and repainted her in as original a manner as I could manage. I took the opportunity to find out about her. Whilst there are art deco statuettes by significant artists, she is not one of them. She was made in plaster of Paris and would have taken pride of place on a sideboard in a northern terraced house, albeit in a bay-windowed front parlour. She was made in 1936 by Baci & Baci. Not a continental artistic endeavour producing sculptures for smart European drawing rooms but an Italian couple with a small workshop in Salford. I like it even more for for its unpretentious origins.

DIARY 18 August 1969 Woodstock: the drowning of the Age of Aquarius

Woodstock 1

In August 1969, anyone looking at me in the street would have assumed that I was a ‘hippie’. In Leeds, where I had just finished my first year as a philosophy undergraduate, there weren’t many hippies. There was a bloke called Reg who dressed scruffily like me and wore his hair similarly in an unkempt halo. That was all. I was gently patronised by my fellow students for my poor dress sense and hygienic habits but accepted because I was perfectly likeable but eccentric rather than dangerous[1].

Bethel, New York State, where the Woodstock festival was held between 15th and 18th August 1969, was 43 miles from the town of Woodstock. However, when a resident of that town threatened to ‘shoot the first hippie that walks into town’ the local authority withdrew permission. A dairy farmer from Bethel offered his farm on the promise there would be no more than 50,000 people. Half a million turned up. This initial dislocation presaged the disorganised chaos that would follow.

Leeds, Yorkshire was a long way from Bethel; about three thousand, three hundred and fifty miles. In the 21st century the world is much smaller, with instant communication via satellite on television and radio or, even faster, through social media. Imagine the overload on Facebook or Instagram if Woodstock happened today. In 1969 there were only a handful of communication satellites, including the first successful versions of Telstar. Satellite broadcasts then were highly managed affairs. Fifty years later there are over 2000 satellites deluging the stratosphere with broadcast data 24 hours a day.

In the terraced house in Leeds which I shared with two other students we didn’t have a television. Radios were small transistor-powered devices although the BBC, being the main broadcaster, barely covered the event, treating it as a footnote to the Vietnam anti-war movement. A few thousand young people gathering on a farm over three thousand miles away did not generate much news interest until it all went wrong.

Information about Woodstock that did get through was far from today’s idealised memories of people were probably not there. There was torrential rain, deep mud, food shortages, overflowing toilets, bad acid trips, drug overdoses, low-fi sound systems and bands not turning up. I had never much enjoyed the very few festivals I had attended but these were only mildly uncomfortable compared to the chaos that was Woodstock. The drowning of the Age of Aquarius.

Woodstock 3 mud

Woodstock was a financial and environmental disaster. Conditions became so bad that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was ready to call out the national guard. Clearing up the mess took months. Fires from piles of rubbish burned for weeks. It was years before the land could be returned to agricultural use. The organisers ended up $1.3 million dollars in debt; it took eleven years to clear the debts, helped mainly by proceeds from the 1970 documentary.

Rather than the fabled ‘summer of love’, by the time of Woodstock the hippie dream was turning sour. Haight-Ashbury had become an anarchic drug den full of homeless junkies. Woodstock was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: three days of peace and music’. Instead of heralding the new age of Aquarius, it was more of a wake for the hippie dream that was already turning into a nightmare.

Woodstock 2

Only a few days before, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family. Charles Manson was a psychopath who manipulated his cult members using hippie imagery. He was no hippie but this event would stoke fears about its darker side.

More chaos followed at free concert held by the Rolling Stones at Altamont in California on 6th December later that year. Meredith Hunter was murdered, stabbed to death, and there were three accidental deaths. Dozens were injured, there was extensive property damage and numerous cars were stolen.

For this hippie, sitting more or less alone in his small room in damp, grey Leeds the dream was definitely fading. I never went to San Francisco or wore flowers in my hair. It was too cold for sandals. I did a few weeks work in a frozen food factory, bought a ticket to Rome and hitch-hiked round Italy with Gill. At least it was warmer.

[1] This was how I looked the previous year. I doubt if I had improved at all by the following summer.

1968 Derek Perry-001

DIARY 20 July 1969 If you believed they put a man on the moon


20th July 1969. One of the defining moments of the twentieth century. However, I seem to have missed it. The moon landing was one of those news items where you are supposed to remember where you were when it happened, like JFK’s murder or Winston Churchill’s funeral. Except that I can only guess with hindsight what I might have been doing at the time.

The first footprints of a human on an extra-terrestrial body were televised all over the world and seen by an audience of perhaps two billion. I did not have a television; somehow I missed the event. Perhaps it was faked; perhaps all those people were duped.

I was twenty years old and my first year at Leeds University had ended a month previously. I was living in the house I shared with two other students. It was a very small terraced house in a row of about ten in a cobbled street that went nowhere, ending in a patch of grass surrounded by high walls, an incongruous oasis in that red brick desert.

Despite the technological advances which would put two men on the moon, our primitive house did not have a fixed bath and the toilet was in a shed outside. The landlord eventually installed a bathroom but at the expense of my bedroom which was reduced to the width of a double bed.

With the term’s work over, and my student grant spent, nearly three months of leisure and utter penury awaited me. There was little prospect of a job. Despite the relatively full employment of the 1960s, many businesses slowed down during the summer. Some even closed completely as their workers trooped off en masse to their traditional boarding house holidays in Scarborough, Skegness or Blackpool.

There must have been several hundred students scrambling for the few jobs available. It was not difficult for the presentable ones but I was scruffy and hairy; I would not be a suitable front of house or office worker. I considered the possibility of leaving the city for agricultural work but eventually it came to me. A minibus would turn up early in the morning at a road junction in the Hyde Park area where many students lived in the half-empty terraced streets.

The chosen few would be taken to Union Cold Storage, a food refrigeration processor in south Leeds. There we would wait for lorries to arrive from Lincolnshire where they had been loaded with the newly ripened harvest of garden peas. My job was to inspect them as they flowed past me on a conveyor belt, picking out the remnants of stalks, twigs and pods. I had no idea where they had been before me, or even where they had been podded. Nor did I know where they went after me and my colleagues but I assumed they disappeared into a deep freezer.

Mind destroying work but the money was good, especially when you could do double shifts. On one shift, I spent eight hours holding a ladder, a rudimentary health and safety role, on guard for maintenance workers clambering on the roof. The work was intense but it would end soon, once all the peas were ripened and had been picked. Between us we probably processed a high percentage of the UK supply of frozen peas for the coming year.

It was all over within two weeks. But I had earned enough money to pay my rent over the summer vacation and enough to buy a one-way flight to Italy.

DIARY 10 June 1968 Discovering the avant-guard

Discovering the avant-guard

The impressive buildings of the West End epitomise the fabulous cultural edifice that is London. Galleries, theatres, cinemas and concert halls present masterpieces of art, music, drama and film. Museums heave with the cultural artifacts of other civilisations and of other times.


High art: Renaissance master; National Gallery; Queen Elizabeth Hall; Modern art; Theatre.

At 19 years old I was intimidated by this establishment culture. This might have been the pinnacle of the civilisation that had nurtured me but it hadn’t penetrated very far into the terraced streets of Selly Oak. Here was a cornucopia of sensation and stimulation that I had barely glimpsed before.

When I went to the National Gallery I was presented with Renaissance masterworks which dazzled but made no sense to this boy unable to decipher the myths or the religious symbols. I could just about grasp the sentimentality of a few Pre-Raphaelites which I had seen in Birmingham Art Gallery. If I went to the Tate Gallery, turning right after the entrance I was faced by a large canvas by David Bomberg of red, blue and white shapes (detail above). Having been subjected to no art education whatsoever, I was challenged to make sense of this meaningless abstraction.

These galleries were free to enter but  tickets for theatres and concert halls were out of my price range, putting music and drama out of my reach. I would not have known what to choose anyway. I could not tell one composer from another or say anything about drama, except for schoolboy Shakespeare. I began to regret the opportunities I had missed at school although there had been no effort whatsoever to present art or music as interesting, let alone stimulating and enjoyable. I do not recall any discussion of art history, only some desultory lessons about how to draw a tree (upside down, to make the branches more natural). Music lessons were about the structure of symphonies but I do not recall being expected to actually listen to much music. I was never given the chance to learn any musical instrument. A teacher once played us an Ornette Coleman[1] record but left the room frustrated by our incomprehension, calling us cultural morons.

Deprived of high culture by lack of access or ticket money, I learned how to find venues where entrance was cheap or free or with special offers for students. I would take whatever was on offer if my meagre grant would stretch to it. One such place was the French Institute in Kensington, not far from my college. Here I saw plays by Jean Anouilh and Jean Cocteau and films by Jean-Luc Godard. They were in French without subtitles but Chelsea Public Library might have an English translation.

Many of these venues presented contemporary or avant-garde performances which were more interesting to me than the established arts. I recall a play, if that is the correct word, at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane by a group calling themselves ‘The People Show’. More of a comedy sketch although the subject was suicide. There were similar, often improvised performances, at other venues such as Gandalf’s Garden in Chelsea.  

Ustad Vilayat Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_book  Lichtenstein

Music, drama, painting.

Another local venue was Chelsea Town Hall on King’s Road. Here I saw a concert by Usted Vilayat Khan. George Harrison had played the sitar in a couple of Beatles’ songs and here was my chance to hear the real thing. One day I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Old Vic on a cheap student ticket, standing in the gods. I had not even seen Hamlet (except by Olivier on the television) but this play opened my eyes to modern dramatists, some of whom with names like Stoppard were being talked about in magazines as new creative forces.

A new arts venue, The Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, opened in 1968 with an exhibition of work by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the first galleries to present Pop Art. These new artistic movements, Pop Art and Minimalism among others, came to the fore; music was reinvigorated by other cultures and electronic sounds; drama became philosophical and absurd. Theatre was freed from the limitations of censorship by the government[2]. New conceptual art and installations perplexed their audiences. The Computer Arts Society was established and one of the first exhibitions of cybernetic art was presented by the ICA in September 1968.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) was older than me, established in 1947. Set up by artists and critics, it challenged the moribund art establishment of post-war Britain, becoming the focus for a new avant garde. Note the plural in ‘Arts’; contemporary music, art and film were all displayed, sometimes in the same presentation.

OBS Collage1

Obsession: Matta, Thek, Dubuffet, Bellmer, Haworth, Lindner, Bacon, Hockney.

The ICA moved to new premises in The Mall in April 1968. Its opening exhibition The Obsessive Image presented works depicting the human figure in new and innovative ways by over seventy artists including Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, David Hockney, Rene Magritte, Claes Oldenburg, Pablo Picasso, Graham Sutherland and Andy Warhol. I was completely unaware of any of these artists at the time and I knew nothing of contemporary art.

I was astonished by the many and different approaches to representing the human figure. Unlike pure abstraction, the image represented was recognisable and I did not have to ponder what it was or if the picture had been hung upside-down. I could just marvel at the inventiveness of Paul Thek’s Death of a hippie, Lichtenstein’s comic cartoons, Dubuffet’s doodle-like figures, de Saint-Phalle’s painted papier-mache torsos, or Stevenson’s massive close-ups.

Until then I had thought that a painting or sculpture was mainly an exercise in technical skill, requiring years of practice and probably some innate talent. Now I saw that images could be manipulated, coloured, distorted, broken down and reassembled to produce not just a picture but introduce new meaning and emotion. It triggered something in me that opened my senses to new possibilities.

The publicity surrounding ICA’s move to the unlikely stuccoed classical premises designed by John Nash must have drawn me in, or perhaps they just offered very cheap student membership. I joined in April 1968 and was presented with art, film and music that surprised and inspired.

Scorpio  Herostratus  Herostratus Mirren  media   

Scorpio rising; Herostratus; Herostratus[3]; Mr and Mrs Kabal.

By the 1960s there was a long-standing tradition of short films which could be shown in cinemas and on the television. This was an innocuous artform, often produced as semi-documentaries about aspects of life in Britain. This was very different to the short films I saw at the ICA. Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio rising featured biker subculture, homosexuality, religion, the occult, Nazism and rebel icons of the time. It was one of the first films to feature a soundtrack of pop music by The Crystals, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and others but no dialogue. Was it a dream or was it a trip?

A film by Don Levy called Herostratus, on the other hand, was over two hours long. It told the story of Max (Michael Gothard), a young poet who hires a marketing company to turn his suicide into a media spectacle; such themes were controversial at the time. Helen Mirren made her film debut at age 18. Both director and lead actor would later commit suicide.

Walerian Borowczyk was another very different film-maker whose work I saw at the ICA. His 1967 film, The theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, was a full length animation which properly deserved the epithet ‘surreal’.

The ICA also introduced me to contemporary music. Luciano Berio was an Italian experimental composer who experimented with electronic music. His most well-known work Sinfonia (1967-69) for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices do not ‘sing’ in the classical manner but shout and whisper in a musical collage. I discovered how an orchestra can do more than produce academic musical forms but can build an aural landscape.

Revolver Berberian  Revolver Beatles

Revolution by Berberian; Revolver by The Beatles.

Cathy Berberian was an exponent of contemporary vocal music with a distinctive voice. She was married to Luciano Berio until divorced in 1964 but they continued their musical collaborations begun over a decade previously. She worked with many innovative writers and composers including John Cage, Igor Stravinsky and Anthony Burgess. Free from the formalities of lieder and aria, her voice became a creative tool. One of her productions featured a baroque reworking of twelve songs by The Beatles.

I was not actively looking for the avant-guard but it appealed to me more than establishment art and was more accessible. I was hooked; I would thereafter seek out obscure film-makers, theatre groups with a mission, innovative music-makers and artists who looked for new ways to interpret the world.

I took my time to catch up on established arts; later at another university I learned about the Renaissance. It would take twenty years before I really began to enjoy opera; classical music largely remained elusive. I became a culture-vulture, picking up whatever I could.

[1] Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist who was one of the main innovators of the free jazz movement in the 1960s. As schoolboys we never stood a chance of getting to grips with it.

[2] Until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office could refuse licenses to ‘unsuitable’ plays. Theatres such as the Royal Court had to turn themselves into private clubs in order to present anything controversial. This censorship was abolished by Act of Parliament in September 1968. The following day, the ‘love-rock’ musical Hair featuring nudity on stage opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The Royal Court was situated just down the King’s Road in Sloane Square, not far from my college, but I never went. The complications of buying membership, and not understanding the ideological importance of the plays they presented, were barriers to my participation.

[3] Helen Mirren.

DIARY 27 May 1968 The times they are a-changin’

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’. (1)

It was a watershed year in history. The ‘old road’ was coming to an end; there was revolution in the air. Revolutionary bonfires would be lit in Paris, Prague, Los Angeles and many other places; the sparks fell everywhere. Mutually assured nuclear destruction may have kept the peace in the developed world but bloody battles between the superpowers were being fought in Vietnam and would flare up across other continents. There were increasing demands for recognition, rights and self-determination. The world became smaller through technology; culture burst into multi-colour.

My own ‘old road’ was ending too; 1968 was one of my personal watershed years. This diary is all about how this boy from south suburban Birmingham discovered the world, went abroad for the first time, suffered the pangs of unrequited love, became both confused and enlightened by philosophy, and was awe-struck by music, art, drama, films. That year defined me in many ways that I am still trying to understand fifty years later.

I watched the events of May 1968 in Paris on television. I had been there and it was no longer just a news report. In London, colleges were being occupied by students; all I had to do was to get on a bus to join them. I joined a student demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It was supposed to be about cuts in grant funding but with students occupying in Paris and London, there was talk of more than just subsistence allowances.

I was impressed by a student leader from Leeds who was making various radical demands. I was equally impressed by the support he had brought, some ten coachloads from his university. I was disappointed by my fellow students; I saw only one other person from Chelsea College at the demonstration despite the fact that the number 11 bus would get you there in 20 minutes. Jack Straw, the president of Leeds University Union, had brought several hundred on a 400-mile round trip.

My political awakening was just beginning. It had no name but I was becoming anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist and anti-establishment. The latter was possibly the most important at the time. Organised politics meant little and I would not be joining any political party, at least for some time. Certainly not the Labour Party which was part of the establishment. Having been subjected to no particular socialist, liberal or conservative influences during my tender years, I was politically naïve and could best be described as a hippie (student section).

1968 Derek Perry-002  Me in 1968.

61HBN+VQlHL Bob Dylan in 1968.

(1) Thanks, Bob. You got the mood right and with such poetry.

DIARY 2 November 1967 King’s Road Chelsea. Part 1

Swinging down King’s Road Chelsea part 1

If you are new to London, don’t bother with an expensive sightseeing tour bus unless you like an open top in the rain and commentary in 12 languages. Just take the number 11 bus. I would get on it near Manresa Road on King’s Road and it would take me eastwards towards Victoria and thence to the City. It would pass Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Fleet Street and the Bank. Get off anywhere and within a short walk you will find most of London’s worthwhile sights.

Although I would arrive at South Kensington station in the morning and walk to college, the most useful bus was the number 11. It would take me to cinemas, clubs, demonstrations, galleries; or I could simply stay on until the terminus at Liverpool Street and take in the sights.

That is, if I wanted to escape from King’s Road. In 1967 it was the epitome of swinging London with new boutiques pioneered by Mary Quant and others, bars and clubs frequented by pop stars, lurid colour schemes applied to both buildings and vehicles, and bright young things in their mini-skirts and paisley shirts.

Collage Kings Road

Of course, I quite liked it. The vibrancy, the music that blared from shops, cars treated as art objects with two fingers in the face of stuffy 1950s London. Here I was in a place that seemed unique and promised to be the centre of a new expanding universe providing what some of us young people wanted.

It might have looked wildly chaotic to the staid observer but it was really not much more than a fashion statement, however revolutionary the mini-skirt and psychedelic colours appeared. The celebrities were pop stars or the entrepreneurs themselves such as Mary Quant and Alvaro Maccioni the restaurant owner.

There were some attempts to show that this was a dangerous place; but King’s Road was no Haight-Ashbury with its free love and drug-taking. I recall a popular sensationalist magazine called Titbits which asked the question ‘Are our girls in danger in swinging Chelsea?’. This headline was above a picture of a group of young women walking down King’s Road arm-in-arm. They need not have worried. These women were all known to me as fellow students and with their knee-length tweed skirts and sensible shoes they were completely incorruptible. King’s Road, with its new shops and restaurants patronised by some of the better-off was something of a breath of fresh air in a London still showing the scars of the Blitz, dirty buildings and grey streets. I had to go to Soho or Covent Garden (still a vegetable market) or the East End to find the darker places where there might be danger.

Collage My places

Not that I could actually go to many places in King’s Road. As a penniless student I could not afford the entry fee or the price of drinks and I knew no-one who could introduce me. Fortunately, there was a new concrete shopping centre called King’s Walk with a Boots and a supermarket where I could buy my essentials. The places I could afford were the Picasso Café where I ate my first proper spaghetti and the Six Bells which served ghastly Watney’s keg beer; I was forced to drink bottled brown ale. I chose this pub because Dylan Thomas had been a regular and they had jazz upstairs on Fridays; this was old bohemian Chelsea. I could buy a meal at The Chelsea Kitchen or The Stockpot. It was free to go into Gandalf’s Garden where you could lounge on large cushions and drink herbal tea. Late at night you could have tea and a sausage sandwich at a stall in Sloane Square; this is where I witnessed the cliched conjunction of a man in evening dress, a drunk, and a ragged homeless man all together at 2am one morning.

In the evening, I would meander back through the streets of South Kensington and take the Piccadilly Line back to Turnham Green and unremarkable Acton.


© Derek Perry 2017