Monday, April 06, 2015

Geoff Dyer on Underground Culture in 1980s London and Now

The novelist Geoff Dyer wrote an article for the Observer this week entitled 'Underground culture isn’t dead – it’s just better hidden than it used to be' (5 April 2015):

'Looking back – and I’ll explain later how I came to be looking back – I realise how much of my social life in the 1980s was spent at “underground” events of one kind or another... In my teens, I’d been a devotee of magazines such as Frendz and Oz with their illegibly swirling psychedelic designs and still blurrier editorial agenda. These publications represented an (open) marriage between insurrectionary politics, prog rock, fashion (loons) and porno graphics. I was interested, mainly, in photographs of Hawkwind.

That may have been the golden age of the underground, but its spikier manifestations or descendants were part of the social landscape of London in the 1980s: the squatted cafe in Bonnington Square, Vauxhall, the Anarchist Centre at 121 Railton Road, Brixton, and, of course, the ubiquitous underground parties that later morphed into raves'.

Dyer's initial take is that all that is in the past - 'Maybe new variations of such things still exist in London and I’m too old and square to know about them but, broadly speaking, the counterculture has given way to an over-the-counter culture of cool cafes and pop-ups that lend a subversive slant to one’s retail experience'.

But attending an event in New York changes his mind -  'my visit... got me thinking about the long and nourishing role the underground has played in my life. It also made me realise how easy it is to fall into elegiac mode and how important it is to resist doing so. In different forms, in spite of everything, places like this will keep popping up, unbeknown to the middle-aged likes of... me. So, as a way of combining the urge to lament and the need to affirm, we’ll close with the final words from Larkin’s Show Saturday in High Windows.. “Let it always be there.”'

I generally agree with Dyer's position, even though I think the notion of 'the underground' itself has always involved a heavy dose of self-mythologisation. Of course I was most interested in him name checking places I used to hang out at too in the late 1980s/early 1990s - Bonnington Square cafe, scene of many Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax benefit nights, and the 121 Centre (which has been mentioned many times on this blog). Dyer lived in Brixton in the 1980s, I think slightly earlier than me, and his first novel - The Colour of Memory (1989) - is a fictionalised account of Brixton dole life in that period.

121 Railton Road, Brixton, in 1984/85
(photo from Kate Sharpley Library)