London underground

Nearly forty years ago, an explosion of surreally subversive magazines brought sex, drugs, gay liber

The prosecuting counsel held the publication up disdainfully. "It deals with homosexuality," he told the jury. "It deals with lesbianism - on the front cover! It deals with sadism; it deals with perverted sexual practices; and, finally, it deals with drug taking. You will, having read the magazine through, ask yourself: 'Does such a magazine in fact tend to deprave and corrupt a person in whom those sort of practices are latent?'"

The date was 1971, the place the Old Bailey and the trial that of three editors. Nearly 40 years later, the media and an editor have been in the dock again over the coverage of sexual practices but the issues are as far apart as the intervening years. That earlier case, brought under the Obscene Publications Act, was the trial of the three editors of Oz - Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson - who were convicted and jailed briefly, before the Court of Appeal freed them, for producing what was seen then as a subversive, not to say perverted, magazine.

The trial judge, Justice Argyle, famously inquired of one expert witness, George Melly: "For those of us who don't have the benefit of a classical education, what do you mean by the word 'cunnilinctus'?"

Soon those days will be recaptured in a film, by the director Beeban Kidron, based on Neville's later book Hippie Hippie Shake, which was published in 1994. I have been revisiting that period for a novel set in the same year as the trial, a time when the underground press, as it was called, was at its peak. But what legacy did those publications - Oz, IT, Ink, Frendz and the rest - bequeath us?

The first and longest-lived was International Times or IT, which arrived on the scene in 1966. "Even within the wonderful museum of British subversive publishing, International Times had no logical antecedence," wrote Roger Hutchinson in his book High Sixties. "It was not a piece of scurrilous pamphleteering and it was not a Fabian tract." While Private Eye had already donned the mantle of Claud Cockburn's Thirties subversive publication The Week, IT addressed a different, stranger audience.

Hutchinson credits the litho presses of the Sixties with the making of the underground press: they circumvented hot metal and made production of a publication available to all. "Suddenly, all you needed was a typewriter and a few hundred quid," said Hutchinson. And here is the first obvious connection to today. Just as litho allowed anyone to publish, so does the internet. While much of what was published then may have been ephemeral, it allowed hundreds of would-be writers and designers who had not found their way into the mainstream press, or did not want to be there anyway, to express themselves, as the blogosphere does today.

Full-colour and full-on

Having edited IT, Hutchinson headed to Skye and the West Highland Free Press, which had also been founded in the early Seventies, although it was "alternative" rather than "underground" and, unlike all the others, continues to this day. One of its founders, Brian Wilson, who went on to become an MP and a Labour minister, realised that one way a radical weekly could survive was by making itself essential reading for the community it served, which meant covering shinty results and marriages as well as local politics. Hutch inson, whose own book, Calum's Road, is soon to be filmed, also worked for the Australian upstart that arrived in London at the end of the Sixties.

Oz was visually unlike anything we had ever seen before, although it had its critics, not least among its own editors. "The early Ozes were an uncomfortable hybrid of satire, Sunday journalism and pirated titbits from the underground," said Neville later. But it packed a punch.

When the still youthful San Francisco-based Rolling Stone made a brief and doomed attempt to launch a British edition, it stressed that it, at least, was not trying to be "underground". "Poor baby," retorted Germaine Greer in Oz. "It's awful to be misunderstood. You just want to talk about music and fucking and dope and that's all. We know you have no intention of overthrowing the Vichy government." Rolling Stone's wounded reply was a classic of the period. "Revolution is a happening thing. I hope you won't be stuck in your bag of defending the underground; like the man said, let's make it for the hell of it."

While Oz was brash, full-on and full-colour, in keeping with the days when the skies were marmalade, Ink, which was launched in 1971 and for which I wrote a few times, described itself as "The Other Newspaper". It took a more serious approach.

John Lloyd, later editor of the New Statesman and now director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, was one of Ink's editors. What legacy does he now believe those papers left us?

"I would argue that you had issues taken up, often quite intemperately, which have passed now into normal, liberal practice. There was a lot about the gay liberation movement in the United States, a lot about feminism and both have passed into liberal discourse, although they were then still way out. At their best, they were good-hearted and opened up a whole series of things.

"Frendz and IT were very druggy and the staff there were famously stoned, while Ink was more lefty in a non-denominational way. It was a vehicle for stuff that was happening much more loudly in the US and it was backing liberation movements in Latin America and Africa, which were then regarded as very outré."

Critics of the underground press at the time saw many of the publications as self-indulgent, unpolitical and misogynistic. Anna Coote was a young reporter on Ink who covered the Oz trial.

"We saw it as defying the Establishment," says Coote, who had come from the Observer. "By comparison to Ink, the Observer was seen as very stuffy. Ink was much freer. It was certainly male-dominated, no doubt about it, but the boys at Ink were very careful not to call us 'chicks' or get us to make the tea. Spare Rib and Red Rag [which were both soon to follow] were seen very much as a riposte to the male-dominated ethos."

At its peak, IT was selling 50,000 copies and its admirers found articles there about drugs, sex and music that appeared nowhere else and were unremittingly anti-Establishment. The Establishment fought back. Police raids were frequent. Apart from the Oz editors, staff at IT, Nasty Tales and the early Time Out all found themselves in court charged with offences ranging from conspiracy, via corrupting the public morals - by running gay small ads - to breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

Some musicians of the time, already distrustful of the mainstream media, would only talk openly to IT and its sister papers. The early editions are a treasure trove. "We're playing and we're pretending to be Beatles," George Harrison said in one interview with Barry Miles for IT, "like Harold Wilson's pretending to be prime minister and you're pretending to be the interview on IT."

Intellectual compost

The underground press also offered the only honest information available at the time on drugs and encouraged much of the most interesting music and theatre. There was always a tension between the organised and increasingly factional political left and the "Groucho Marxists" who worked on the underground press, although there was much overlapping, exemplified by the late David Widgery, who combined his international socialism with technicolour prose in Oz.

One of the great joys - and drawbacks, on occasion - of the old underground press was that anyone could wander in off the street, as they often did, with their manuscripts, their cartoons and their crazy ideas and stumble into the, usually, basement offices of the paper concerned. So far the internet has not quite found a way of recreating that communality, except electronically.

So what survived? In his book Underground: the London Alternative Press 1966-74, Nigel Fountain noted that the right saw the baleful effect of the "revolting students" of the Sixties in the "revolting teachers" of the Eighties. He added that "the issues raised by the underground press in all its forms, IT, Mole Express, Frendz, Grass Eye, Black Dwarf, Ink, Oz, 7 Days, even Gandalf's Garden, were never resolved. The arguments about self-activity, about the failures of reform, the limitation of conventional politics, the need to step outside an alienated system, were never refuted. History filed them for future reference."

He quoted Richard Neville's reflections on his former colleagues: "Some grew rich. Some grew wiser. Some have fallen dead as junkies. Some have suffered. But it was a period of intellectual ferment. It was a compost heap."

Now that we are in an environmentally conscious age, it is only fitting that we should value this compost.

Duncan Campbell's novel "The Paradise Trail" is published by Headline (£7.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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