1976 : year zero
In year zero I left school in Scotland and went to work on a small-holding in Gloucestershire. I helped look after the goats and geese, ducks and chickens while rebuilding a derelict cottage. Only one room was habitable so I stayed in caravan. The summer of 1976 was ferociously hot. The cottage was built up against a hill. My main job was to dig out a six foot wide by 15 foot deep cutting between the cottage wall and the hillside. The hot weather meant the red clay soil was dry, which made the digging easier, but it was full of large lumps of sandstone rock. These were used to build a retaining wall against the hill. The spoil was tipped at the front of the cottage. Even for a physically fit teenager it was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I imagined I was a Victorian navvy, making a railway cutting. There wasn’t a flushing toilet and there was no bath. I could get a bath nearby, but due to the drought had to syphon the bath water, red with clay dust, out of the window onto a vegetable patch. Cooking was done on a coal fired stove. The cottage was in the Forest of Dean. Under laws dating back to the middle ages, people born in the forest had the right to dig for coal. So when coal was needed, it came from one of these ‘free’ mines. The mine was tiny, just a long sloping tunnel (a drift mine) into the ground with an ancient electric motor to pull tiny trucks of coal up a narrow gauge railway up from the coal face. The coal was tipped into a heap and every so often a lorry would take it to a power station in Wales. I was given a pile of sacks and told to fill them up from the heap. Each sack held about a hundredweight (50.8 kilos) so twenty sacks made a ton of coal. So the next time I had a bath the water was black, not red.
In the middle of the summer of year zero I went to London for a few days. I went via Stonehenge, I had heard about a free festival there. It was advertised on Radio Caroline, a surviving offshore pirate station. The festival was long gone though . He heat at midday was intense, the stones shimmering and dancing I the hot air. The land was parched and dust dry, more like Egypt than Wiltshire. There were dead elm trees everywhere (Dutch elm disease) which made the countryside look like winter. In London I wandered around Notting Hill and Portobello Road. I ‘d been sending Hawkwind science fiction stories and had a reply from Nik Turner. I was hoping to find Hawkwind’s office but didn’t. I did find some old copies of Oz and Frendz and Forbidden Planet where I bought an International Times, which was still going. If there were punks about, I didn’t notice them.
Then one night I I saw flashes of light and thought it was a nuclear war. Then it rained, only a violent thunder storm. Went back to Scotland to Stirling to university and joined an anarchist group. Most of the group were older, post-grads. We sold Black Flag on the anarchist stall, but they were more green, selling a magazine of ‘radical technology’ called Undercurrents. There was a book as well, called Radical Technology which came out in in 1976. In these days of peak oil and climate change it seems very sensible stuff –
Industry can expect to be taxed according to energy units used. Since goods imported from far afield will bear the tax incurred through energy used in transporting them, local materials will be more attractive. Similarly, since finished products sent to distant markets will bear the tax incurred by transport , manufacturers will cater chiefly for local markets. [Rad Tech p.227]
1977: year one
But I didn’t carry on, instead, by late 1977 I was back in Gloucestershire and working in factory. It was down by Lydney docks on the Severn. I worked in the engineering department , in the drawing office between the machine shop and the assembly shop. My job was to keep huge lists of all the parts, right down to each nut and bolt, for a rubber glove making machine which we were building. It was huge great thing. As each section was erected it was checked and the parts numbered then put into containers and sent off to Malaysia. It took a year to construct then deconstruct. The photo below was taken in late 1978 as the last load was shipped.
You can see the engineering shop on the right. I am in the front row, kneeling down, third from the right. As you can see it was an all male crew, although most of the 1000 workers on the site were women who worked packing the rubber gloves we made. It was a family affair, with wives and daughters/ husbands and sons all employed by the J.Allen Rubber Company – which was part of the London Rubber Company group. It is a sad photo really. The whole factory site was shut in 1981/2 and a thousand people lost their jobs. But more about that later.
1979: year three.
After the rubber glove machine had been shipped, my job was over. Luckily I was offered a job in the engineering department at the main site/ headquarters in London. So on 2 Jan 1979 started work there. It was a huge sprawling place on the North Circular Road near the river Lee near Walthamstow / Chingford. There were four rubber glove machines, two household ( Marigold), two surgeons gloves plus two Durex condom making machines and the condom testing and packing lines. On top were a set of offices where all the managers worked. I worked down in the bowels in the engineering foremen’s office. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I got there, the Conservatives got elected. By 1980 their monetarist economic policies were devastating manufacturing industry. The claim was they had to attack inflation but Alan Budd (who was an advisor to the Thatcher government) said in a 1992 TV documentary [Pandora’s Box by Adam Curtis] –
The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes — if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since. Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.
Quoted in New Statesman March 2010
The full episode of the documentary plus comment by Adam Curtis can be watched here
[Thanks to Nick Hydra. Documentary also in ten minutes sections on youtube.]
In 1979, this was still in the future. In the even more distant future there was global warming/ climate change. With the benefit of hindsight, I now regret not going along to the editorial meetings of Undercurrents magazine which were held in London and open to readers. I might have become greener sooner, joined the Ecology Party as it then was (now Green Party) and … done something useful? Instead I went to a Ceinfuegus Press readers meeting which was also a Persons Unknown support group meeting … which led to the Crass/ Poison Girls Bloody Revolutions / Persons Unknown single and the Wapping A Centre and – at another meeting towards the end of 1979- meeting up with the Kill Your Pet Puppy collective.
To be continued.