Anarchy 51/The catchers in the Right
in the Right
One of the basic tenets of anarchist evangelism (if they aren’t mutually exclusive terms) is, common with that of the church or any other body, to catch ’em young. In the anarchist case this applies more in practice than in theory, simply because anarchist characteristics—open-minded questioning, dislike of authority, a capacity for honesty—are essentially youthful qualities. Not all the young possess them, alack, but they tend to be lost rather than acquired with age. They are a bit more common, though, than a discouraged anarchist might think; it’s just that those who possess them have a healthy suspicion of any organisation and are, logically, unlikely to form themselves into that notorious paradox, an anarchist organisation.
There are, however, other hunters out. In 1960, three incognito social workers were sent to three different towns “to make contact with unattached young people, to discover their interests and leisure-time activities and, following this, to help in whatever way seems appropriate”. The project was organised by the National Association of Youth Clubs, and the unattached is an account of these people (“unattached”, as might be expected in a NAYC project, meant unattached to any official organisation; nobody seems to have expected that the unattached might be perfectly happily attached to each other), and how the workers fared in “Seagate”, “Northtown” and “Midford”, finding, and establishing relationships with, the unattached in, mainly, coffee bars (an apt subtitle might have been: “With Net and Notebook Through Darkest Gaggia-land”). The principal value and delight of the book is that it is an amazingly real piece of evidence (about the unattached and the workers); almost as good as a novel—if not better in parts; the bald sketching-in of characters which nevertheless reveals very clearly the real people behind them, and the in-spite-of-itself moving description—written in best casebook manner, not unsympathetic but asympathetic—of the sad and inevitable disintegration of the Seagate group.The workers, although not at all painfully impaled on its horns do give some indication of being faintly aware of the dilemma that haunts (or should) everyone whose job involves mental welfare: whether to encourage basically healthy mental attitudes whenever they are found, regardless of the conflicts this will lead to in a sick society, or whether to so amputate and adapt them that they will fit neatly into society as it is. The workers all speak of rebellion against “adult values”, “authority”, “society”, but never stop for long enough to even briefly
Nevertheless, the workers’ own experiences of “adult” attitudes and social conditions obliquely support the unattached’s resentment and distrust. The Northtown worker’s horrifying description of the factory she worked in, and the Seagate worker’s difficulty in finding “adults with an attitude sufficiently tolerant and understanding to accept the group for what it was without wishing to impose change or insist on conformity to narrowly defined standards just for the sake of it” both speak eloquently for themselves.The workers themselves all achieved a fair measure of identification with their unattached. Surprisingly so since they didn’t know what to expect. The Seagate worker—age 22, played jazz piano, liked drama—met up with a vague but cohesive group of intelligent middle-class rebels, many of whom had thrown up “lifeless, secure and comforting” office jobs, and only worked casually when they were short of money. Their ambitions were to become actors, artists, writers, models. The worker dismisses these as being “centred around highly-paid occupations”, but goes on to say, “Paul W., who felt he was being creative at the arts college was the only one during the three years that the worker heard admit to enjoying his work”. The Seagate project was perhaps the most successful. Under the worker’s guidance, the group produced an Ionesco play. At Midford, on the other hand, as befits a more rural community where unavoidable social mixing between age-groups produces a more conservative attitude in young people, the worker—a 28-year-old schoolmaster—seems too stolid and humourless. While the Seagate worker can talk almost non-judgementally of a girl being “sexually generous”, the Midford man writes: “Mavis . . . has been involved with a great many local boys. Jean (an older, outside person) talked to some of this group recently and told them of the dangers of leading this sort of life. They bluntly told her she didn’t know what she was missing.” He also mentions “rescuing” girls from “compromising situations with local boys” (did he, like the Peter Sellers’ headmaster,
Maybe, however, the workers simply found, of the many available, those teenagers that responded to their personalities; the Northtown worker’s account is the most dreary, despite the fact that she was working in what was even then one of the most exciting cities for the unattached. She makes no mention of the several hundred beat groups and clubs even then operating in the city, apart from a vague “jazz group” (she is “uninterested in jazz”) that played once a week above a coffee bar.
The type of activity most popular with all the groups (apart from the play produced by the Seagate group—a logical next step for a group consistently more self-integrated, articulate and creative than the others) was discussion, almost as a group therapy, talking about themselves, their environments, and about larger issues—the unattached were far from unattached in their concern for society, vide the “ban-the bomb, abolish-hanging” group at Midford. All three workers used their flats as centres for discussions, where their function was to act as a catalyst; encouraging, provoking and occasionally holding back. This was only possible because each worker was totally accepted as one of them by his or her group. (Most unattached groups naturally possess somewhere some such older, wiser member.) It was this fact of total acceptance that made it “an insoluble problem” for the workers to find suitable replacements for themselves when the projects finished—it will continue to be so as long as they continue to look to the present Youth Service for this facility, and to refer to it as “adolescent counselling”.This is where the project really falls flat. The whole tone and evidence of the workers’ reports indicate that the authoritarian and condescending attitude of the existing youth service is unsuitable and inadequate for the needs of the unattached. They found the clubs “unsophisticated” and the clubs found them “disturbing”. The Midford worker wrote frankly: “To some extent these clubs seemed to me to attract the sort of members they deserved (‘thirteen-year-olds’, ‘kiddies and hearties’; ‘a load of twots’). I could never recommend such a club to the attention of my present unattached contacts.” But they never quite lose faith. In Seagate, after the group’s play had been performed at a Youth Drama Festival, where it was not allowed to compete on account of the group not being affiliated to the local Youth Association, the worker persuaded them that the affiliation would be worth their while. “Rather reluctantly, the group decided to apply. The official application form proved impossible to complete and the application was finally made by letter in which it was argued that the group had never found it necessary to draw up a constitution nor officially appoint officers and a committee. The work of the group had been done efficiently and enthusiastically without the aid and support of such a structure. The letter went on to state that the group was a spontaneous and flexible one and that the element of formality implied by the form was contrary to the spirit of the group. As a result, the Local Education Authority granted the group ‘temporary affiliation’ . . . The principal motive in applying was the purely selfish one of being able to enter competitions and use LEA equipment.” The worker, although aware of this,
“I remember coming back one night from Oxford, and it was around four in the morning, and as we came in over the bridge to the Central Station, I could see the lights and the open door. Walking down the street from the station and in through the door, and the jukebox was playing, and there were two dancing couples, beautifully and slowly soft, and one behind the bar. There had been a good take-in from the till, and the coffee was still good and hot and fresh. There was blood on the floor, and the dirt from a fast night. It had a wonderful used look about it. It was an oasis in a city of the dead. The only place open. That was the way I liked it. That was the way it could have been. It became that night both open and exclusive; the sort of place where I could feel proud at being a customer.”
The nearest this book gets to anything like that is the tentative suggestion that “some members of the community may be especially well-placed to help—fish-and-chip-shop managers, coffee-bar proprietors and public-house landlords have unique opportunities”. As Ray Gosling put it in ’59, a year before this project started: “An idea—to bridge the gap between those with high ideals, and good intentions, those who care and do not make contact; and the commercials who make contact but don’t care.”
And meanwhile the NAYC go on talking about looking for a breakthrough, and chucking sandbags of piety into the one staring them in the face. The project—by our standards and even by theirs—must be counted to have failed. However, failures are invariably more interesting than successes, and, while not hoping with its authors that “as a result of this book, public opinion will be roused and action follow”—I have less faith in public opinion, particularly when roused—I think the report, with its quaint mixture of priggishness and enlightenment, might give some of the right people something to think about.
- ↑ “Sum Total” by Ray Gosling. Faber, 1962. p 154.
- ↑ Ibid. p 161.
- ↑ Ibid. p 149.