‘Senseless Acts of Beauty’
by George Mckay, Verso 1996.
Review and Interview by Ally Fogg
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 60.
I was basically a sad, sneering, old punk who has had to rewrite my opinions about the original hippies and then rewrite my opinions about nineties style DIY culture.”
The sad, old punk is George Mackay, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, and his source of enlightenment was research for his book, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the 1960s. The central argument of his book is that DIY culture is neither new nor historically unique, but is the latest stage of a process with its roots in the sixties and which began to flower with the free festivals of the early seventies. Beginning at the Windsor Free and Stonehenge festivals of the early seventies, he hitch-hikes through an alternative history of Britain. From the mischief and dreams of festival founders Ubi Dwyer and Wally Hope, he pays visits to the anarcho- punks of Crass, to the peace camps and convoys of the eighties, to ‘New-Age’ travellers, the rave scene, direct action politics, the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill and beyond. He has succeeded in writing a book which not only accurately records the phenomenon of DIY politics, but puts it in a much needed perspective.
His accounts of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and movements are inspiring and authentic, including excerpts from his own diaries. He writes throughout, but particularly about Crass, with the intelligence of an academic but the passion of a fan. To his study of contemporary events Mackay brings a level head and a clear eye, and the result is praise when it’s earned, criticism (usually) when it’s deserved. Those who have attempted to document nineties counter-culture normally fall into two camps, the sneerers (“we tried all that in the sixties and it didn’t work”) and the cheerers (“the new Diggers are on the march and the world will never be the same”).
I asked George how he’d avoided both.
“I hadn’t planned to study nineties culture, I’d originally wanted to write a book about Crass but it grew into this. Maybe because of that I had fewer preconceptions.”
He succeeds because his sources are authentic, activists from Justice? proof-read his manuscript and he quotes first hand sources extensively, including accounts of the Exodus Collective borrowed from Squall. When he is inspired by his findings he inspires the reader in turn. Writing about the roads protests of the Dongas and at Claremont Road, Stanworth Valley and Pollock his plain narrative and eye-witness accounts do great justice to great campaigns.
The downside is that where he is less excited by his subject matter, his analysis appears shallower. In attempting to examine rave culture for instance, he holds up Californian cybernutter Douglas Rushkoff as spokesperson for the ‘E’ generation, quotes his excesses and then ridicules them, an exercise largely irrelevant to the British rave scene. Is this fair, I asked?
“Well I do also talk about Castlemorton and Exodus and that side of the rave scene which is important and exciting, but I can’t get away from my belief that an awful lot of ravers just talk a good revolution. I’m not yet convinced that there is a politicization of rave culture, it stills seems to me just about getting out of your head at the weekend. If I’d heard it in time I would have quoted the line in the Pulp song, Sorted for E’s and Whizz: ‘or was it just a thousand people standing in a field?’, that is how it looks to me”.
I suggested that, particularly post-CJA, there has been a merging of rave culture with DIY politics, political stalls at events like Megadog and a newer more eclectic dance scene that encompassed radical politics.
“I hope you’re right,” he replied, unconvinced, “but I’ve yet to really see it. What I do see is rave culture being turned back on itself with ‘The Nine o’ Clock Service’ in Sheffield, which suggests to me there may be some kind of vacuity in the scene.”
This ideological vacuity is clearly one of George’s deeper reservations about DIY culture. He is distressed at the lack of understanding of its direct predecessors, the deeds of the hippies and situationists or the ideologies of socialists and anarchists. Instead DIY prefers to court comparisons with the Diggers and the Levellers of the 17th Century. I could have argued that the rejection of recent history and ideology is what gives contemporary protest politics its strength, but I sensed that he might start talking about post-modernism and so quickly changed the subject.
Senseless Acts of Beauty has an unashamedly rural feel. One can almost smell the spliffs at Stonehenge and the trees of Solisbury Hill. Although the M11 and M77 are given due attention, one senses they are there almost by accident, an essential link between the M3 and the M65. George admits
“The book is very much a celebration of rural youth, I don’t really want to write about London, there’s plenty of others doing that already. I would have liked to write more about the M77 because it was largely a working class campaign which is interesting, but also my family were from Cowcaddens in Glasgow and the house I lived in until I was seven was demolished to build the original M8. My family moved to Norfolk and I became a country boy. It wasn’t until I was writing this book that I made the connection between motorway construction and my own life- story.”
As a celebration of unruly rural youth, ‘Senseless Acts of Beauty’ is a pleasure to read. It is accessible to the lay reader and written in deliciously plain English, but is probably informative enough to stand as an academic work. It may not be the definitive account of the DIY movement but it should be essential reading for any activist with an interest in their own political ancestry.