Anarchy 51/The catchers in the Right

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The catchers
in the Right


THE UN­ATTACHED by Mary Morse.  (Pelican 3s. 6d.)

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
ques­tion these val­ues for them­selves. “To a dis­turb­ing de­gree it was found that the un­at­tached young people were often con­sciously or un­con­sciously at­tack­ing the work­ers’ own stand­ards and val­ues.” Surely they were in­tel­li­gent and aware enough to real­ise that no set of val­ues is ever a way of life in isol­a­tion, but, in a com­mun­ity where op­pos­ing val­ues ob­tain, is un­avoid­ably an im­plied cri­ti­cism of those val­ues? All they man­aged to do was worry about the seem­ing im­possib­il­ity of their task. “Faced with all the dis­crep­an­cies be­tween tra­di­tional middle-class be­liefs and middle-class be­ha­viour, how was the Sea­gate worker to in­dic­ate . . . that middle-class val­ues were prefer­able to the ‘bum’ philo­sophy” (note use of word “that”). Al­though this troubled them con­tinu­ally, they never—and this is the tragedy of the pro­ject and the book—managed to find the right ques­tions to ask. The only cri­ti­cisms of adult so­ci­ety, voiced with the nervous de­fi­ance of minor her­es­ies, are to the ef­fect that its fail­ings lie in not hav­ing helped “these young people to feel that they belong”. Des­pite some shilly-shally­ing, the basic creed is al­ways re­turned to: These are The Un­at­tached; at­tach them. . . . They are in the wrong. We are in the right. NAYC know best.

  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 Sellershead­master,
“go round with a crow­bar and prize them apart”?).

  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,
en­cour­aged the group to ap­ply in what he de­scribes as “the hope” that “a more posit­ive at­ti­tude to­wards of­fi­cial­dom might en­sue”. This is un­likely while the func­tion of the Youth Ser­vice is to gra­ciously wel­come “the young people” to the adult world of dreary jobs and—to avoid awk­ward con­trasts—mean­ing­less pas­times. Most of the un­at­tached, quite reason­ably, were dis­satis­fied with their jobs and, like the habitues of the Teen Canteen (anarchy 27, but not men­tioned in this book) “at­tached ex­ces­sive im­port­ance to their off-work hours . . . they seek in lei­sure the free­dom and dig­nity de­nied to them in work”. This is pat­ently not pro­vided in the ping-pong and party-games type of youth club, which is really a time-killer for the well-adjusted and “normal” (a word they have the grace to put in in­verted com­mas). Nothing is thought of such as the Teen Canteen or Ray Gosling’s fam­ous Leicester Club. (“It started as a caff run by the lads for the lads; grass roots, ground level”[1]) which, al­though eventu­ally closed down, was a suc­cess in terms of in­volve­ment:

  “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.”[2]

  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.”[3]

  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.

  1. Sum Total” by Ray Gosling. Faber, 1962. p 154.
  2. Ibid. p 161.
  3. Ibid. p 149.