Toxic Grafity: Reflections on Self-hood and Revolution

14th February, 2015

I write this on a significant date. No, not St. Valentine’s day (3id l-7ubb, ‘The Festival of Love’ in the Arabic-speaking world), but the fourth anniversary of Bahrain’s 14th February revolution, a revolution that was suppressed by a lethal combination of Saudi tanks and British political and diplomatic cover. I lived in Bahrain at the time of the revolution, first teaching Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain, and later Teacher Training at Bahrain Teachers College. Many of the students who I taught between 2007 and 2011 were activists directly involved in the uprising.

The Kill Your Pet Puppy website did a feature on my old fanzine, Toxic Grafity (1978-82), early in 2009. I don’t think I’d quite got it back in 2009, but post 2011 I now see that what the KYPP website was about was a new way of taking Punk seriously.

Of course, Punk (broadly defined) has always been taken seriously in some ways, first and foremost by ‘old’ punks (nowadays ‘old’ in multiple senses) who had always, in one way or another ‘kept the faith’, but also musicological and as a minority interest in Cultural Studies.

But where I think the online KYPP circa 2009 was ahead of the curve was in taking Punk seriously not simply as a ‘counter-culture’, but as a movement which, if not ‘revolutionary’ in direct political sense, was, very significantly, a sustained reaction against and attack on the political-economic phenomenon that would later be called ‘neo-liberalism’. In this regard, Punk was as important as, indeed was perhaps (in a way that we participants didn’t quite see at the time) an extension of the counter-cultural revolutionary movements of the 1960s.

Since the end of the first decade of twenty-first century, the serious scholarly study of the Punk phenomenon has blossomed, in large part through the use of ‘life history’, and ethnographic and auto ethnographic qualitative research approaches. The lazy 1980s and 1990s stereotypes of punks as yobby, mouthy, slightly comical nothings has, I’m sure been laid to rest. In their place, in the second decade of the C21st punks are beginning to re-emerge, I think, not just as counter-cultural figures, but as revolutionaries, of a sort.

In the light of this, I have to revise the glib response I gave in 2009 to KYPP’s feature on TG. Not least of all because of my witness of, and involvement in, a real revolution during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. In early 2009 I’d just been appointed to a senior position at the teachers’ college, and had been involved in its 2008 start-up. This in turn had been part of a significant reform initiative, the Bahrain 2030 Vision, which was supported by the reformist faction of Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, and in extension the Bahrain regime’s British backers.

On 20th February 2009 I wrote some short reminiscences for KYPP to go with their TG feature. However, the version of ‘me’ that wrote that now seems a very distant figure, writing from a complacent middle age how:

“I’ve repudiated so much of what I used to believe in during those days in the late 1970s, but the closing words for Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ track ‘but the truth of revolution, brother, is Year Zero still appeals to the Burkean in me ….”

I kidded myself that that was a smart thing for me to write at the time, looking back at 2009 me from the perspective of 2015 it just seems smart-arse, smug and deeply reactionary.

But that’s how I was at that time, insufferably smart-arse, smug, sliding into an abyss of reactionary complacency. True, I had to be careful of what I wrote about myself: even before the vicious counter-revolution that murderously suppressed the 2011 uprising, the Al Khalifa family-state in Bahrain was a surveillance state and a police state with a nasty reputation for torture; yet I was, as a well-paid British expatriate professional a beneficiary of that state.

Looking back from the perspective of 2015, the ‘me’ of 1978 or 1979 seems far closer to the ‘me’ of 2015 than does the ‘me’ of 2009. That ‘me’ is no more. I hesitate to say ‘dead’ because I doubt one’s earlier selves can ever really be ‘dead’ to one’s present self. Rather, I see that 2009 self as having been distilled away by a kind of alchemy, as dross burnt away in a crucible, as a fragile construct devastatingly de-constructed, shattered, and blasted across the four cardinal compass points by a tsunami of fire.

Stripped of the façade-like persona I had constructed around the ‘me’ of 2009, I now see a person remarkably like the ‘me’ of 1978, although I hesitate to say that is the ‘real’ me: to what extent can any of our constructed persona’s be ‘real’ in a fundamental, existential sense? Although I have a sense of there being a kind of essential core to my being, I am skeptical about that core being anything at all to do with any of the conscious persona’s I have sought during my life to project into the world.

Nonetheless, the transformation has been remarkable. The immediate question that arises when contemplating that transformation, then has to be ‘What were the factors that brought it about?’ These factors are easy to identify, but hard to write about.

Firstly, there is the experience of revolution. I don’t mean reading about revolution or merely witnessing one, but of experiencing that inexorable movement that draws one – almost drags one, in some ways reluctantly – from bearing witness to a revolution to becoming part of it. In so far as there is any sort of essential essence to ‘me’ (and I’m not sure such a thing exists), that essence found itself yearning to become part of the world of the revolutionary students whom I taught. Perhaps it wasn’t any sort of ‘essence’, but was merely a survival of the ‘me’ of 1978 lurking about unnoticed among the cacophony of conflicting voices that constitute my consciousness.

Whatever it was, it was able, with a daring and disturbing deftness of touch to take over from the more cautious personae within me and direct my actions in the world. As this happened the part of ‘me’ that is supposed to direct my actions in accordance with rational self-interest retreated to the edge of my consciousness, letting the ‘me’ of 1978 (or something very like it) dictate my actions, even though ‘rational self-interest me’ knew in doing so I would be writing the execution warrant for 2009 ‘me’: deprived of the material and professional symbols that announced my 2009 ‘me’ to the social world beyond me, it would wither.

But if such a transformation is to be anything other than a form of neurosis, it cannot take place entirely within one’s self. Rather, the re-emergence of the 1978 ‘me’ was only possible through my interaction with the social and political world beyond me. That this social and political world was the world of the revolutionary students rather than the world of reactionary expats in their exclusive clubs (of which I was a member) is almost entirely a result of my work in higher education.

Specifically, this brought me directly into contact with the revolutionary youth, and that my reflexive philosophy of education meant that I experienced each and every teaching and learning encounter as a co-construction of knowledge in which both myself and my students were active agents, and in which I was learner as well as teacher, and in which I sought to enable my learners to teach. In the context of pre-revolutionary Bahrain, this inexorably meant that my students educated me in revolution, as I educated them in Comparative Literature, Pedagogy, and the rest of it.

When the revolution happened, I was amazed to witness the world I had dreamed about, fantasised about, in the late 1970s actualize before my eyes: the world in which vast numbers of individuals en masse self-organize autonomously of the state and state structures to become a great collective entity expressing with powerfully a collective political will.

Hundreds of thousands of people out of a population of 1.1 million occupied social space and in an atmosphere of carnival-like creativity organizing not only the essentials needed to maintain everyday bare life – food, water, shelter, waste management – but articulated a revolutionary culture and aesthetic of awesome. The state seemed about to wither away before my eyes and the words of the young Wordsworth on the French Revolution ‘Bliss it was that dawn to be alive ….’ hardly seemed to do it justice.

My 2009 ‘me’ had allowed itself to be convinced that these things were merely a whimsical fantasy, a delusion, a platform for the adolescent showing of and grandstanding of the emotionally insecure and immature. This, had I even thought of it in such depth at the time, was probably 2009 ‘me’ critique of the 1978 ‘me’, and perhaps there was validity in that critique. I still see aspects of 1978 ‘me’ as having been hopelessly immature, insecure and perhaps inadequate.

But be that as it may, what I was witnessing in 2011 was something altogether different to immature fantasies of revolution. Rather, it was a people, young and old and of all walks of life making history, becoming the subject-objects of their own revolutionary becoming. This was bigger than ‘me’, of any of the ‘mes’ that have noisily occupied the conscious space of my individuality. I saw how social and political forces flowed through my subjectivity, shaping it and in turn being shaped by it, as a river forms the landscape even as its course is determined by it.

I saw subjectivity not as a stasis, but as a process, that my ‘me’ was a construct that would always be a work in progress, never complete. I further saw how this transformation of one’s understanding of self and society was inherently part of the revolutionary process. That in rejecting the static social and political structures in which both coercion and ideology corral us, revolutionary consciousness, life-as-becoming, is re-initiated.

But I also saw how vulnerable this is. How, its awesome social power notwithstanding, revolutionary consciousness mobilized on the streets was vulnerable to the state’s ruthless projection of military force. I have no desire to denigrate the Western ‘occupy’ movements, but in the Arab world the occupation of social space is a far more dangerous act, and a far more overt challenge to the power of the state than it is in the West. It is not so much to ‘occupy’ social space as to bring social space into being.

As social space comes into being so the space in which the state can ceremonially display its power, a kind of ‘ceremonial violence’ diminishes. When this happens haybat al-dawla, the ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ of the state that maintains unfair power relations vanishes, and if it is to survive the state then turns ruthlessly on its own people.

This is what happened in Bahrain, and this is also what I personally witnessed. No, more than merely witnessed, what I experienced and participated in, most notably on 11th March 2011 when an attempted occupation of the University of Bahrain was viciously crushed by the state’s police, military, and vigilantes.

When protesters oppose live fire with their bodies, or seek to fight off tanks with bricks or Molotovs, they are making a moral case to the outside world, ‘help us’. Yet the ways such messages are mediated in the global media are geopolitically determined, and the Al Khalifa family-state’s status as a regional ‘ally’ of the trans-Atlantic West ensured that that moral case went unheard, that Bahrain’s was the ‘forgotten’ or ‘inconvenient’ revolution, that the tank tracks could roll across blood and brain-soaked pavement with impunity.

Yet the resistance continues, although seldom now is it a contestation for control of the prestige social spaces of the capital, Manama. As the family-state’s forces sought to push into the villages, the heartlands of the revolution, the villages fought back, continue to fight back.

I returned to the UK a shattered, broken person. My wounds opened afresh and salt poured in them by my realization of the sickening extent of Britain’s complicity in atrocity in Bahrain, the bloodthirsty, greedy hypocrisy of its wider Middle East policy, at the realization of the re-establishment of colonial relations in the region: in 2014 Britain announced the building of a new naval base in Bahrain, a drastic reversal of Britain’s 1971 ‘withdrawal from east of Suez’, and the de facto return of Bahrain to protectorate status. But the British public seems hardly aware of this.

The years since 2011 have seem me struggle with mental illness, specifically with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. I have come close to suicide, but now I now longer see this as illness, although the pain and anguish continue. Rather, I try to feel the pain as the death-agonies of my 2009 ‘me’ as it burns in a hell of its own construction, and as the re-birth cry of the ‘me’ of 1978, but older, more mature, far better educated, hopefully wiser.

The pain of this coming-into-being I am learning to live with, and I am struggling now to see my painful inner experiences not in pathologized terms as mental ‘illness’, but as a form of rage against a gross injustice that is being perpetrated on us by a neoliberal elite in Britain as well as in Bahrain and elsewhere. The 1978 ‘me’ has been reborn in and of fire, and this rebirth is of itself a revolutionary act.

Perhaps I’ve been too harsh on myself, but only on my 2009 ‘me’. And I’ve been a bit critical of my 1978 self, and Toxic Grafity, Crass, and in extension the rest of them. Really, back in the day the whole lot of us were more than a bit virgins-talking-about-sex about revolution. All of us. But my main point in this reflective essay, I think, has been about the shifting nature of subjectivity, and how this relates to revolution, and how the latter shatters and then reformulates the former.

In some ways, 2011, on a subjective level, was about the exorcism of my 2009 self, a persona that led to the embodiment and re-enactment on my part of a whole heap of neoliberal, late capitalist values that have been rammed down all our throats over the past thirty years. As such, I suspect that what I experienced in the Middle East might be some sort of vanguard of a process which, I fear, we might all have to go through in Britain lest we are to fall into the thrall of some sort of fascism.

I have the people of Bahrain to thank for this rescuing of ‘me’ from the ‘self’ I had constructed. Toxic Grafity and Crass’s ‘Tribal Rival Revel Rebels’ – ‘the truth of revolution, brother, is Year Zero’ – were a kind of meditation, a kind of reflection, on revolution, albeit essentially an imagined revolution. There are ways in which I still see both as having been hopelessly ill-informed, but I can no longer ‘repudiate’ them as my 2009 ‘me’ did. Instead, I value that meditation, mistakes and embarrassments of a youthful past notwithstanding, for without them the ‘me’ that writes these lines would not exist.

Although I didn’t understand it as such at the time, the Bahrain 2030 Vision reform movement I participated in 2007-11 was itself a failed attempt to offer ‘reform’ as a sop to buy of an earlier revolution, the Bahrain Intifadha of 1995-2002. This Intifadha had developed into a stalemate between the family-state and the revolutionary masses. In 2002, this reform had had some credibility, when I naively blundered into Bahrain as a professional expatiate, it was morally and politically bankrupted. I got up to speed quite quickly on this one.

While the Bahrain revolution of 2011 may have ‘failed’ in its immediate objective of overthrowing the Al Khalifa family-state, it has succeeded in transforming consciousness. The pre-2011 genie cannot be put back in the bottle, change is coming, big time, not only in Bahrain, but in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region. Punk failed in the sense that bands sold out to major record labels, and punk became a kind of fashion and consumer statement, before finally becoming a kind of safe TV dinner ‘Young Ones’ joke.

But another Punk continued, the counter-cultural, revolutionary Punk that fed into the Western ‘Occupy’ and similar movements. I was involved in the early days of this with ‘Stop the City’, before I became a deluded reactionary. These guerilla-Punk ‘occupy’ strategies and tactics, the occupy asthetics and modes of protest-as-performance were in turn, in far more drastic and violent contexts, adapted in the Arab world, and elsewhere in Greece and Latin America from 2011 onwards. I suspect that in this altered form they will yet return to the UK as the crisis deepens further in this decade.

It was an honour to have been part of both 2011 and 1978, and for fate, in the form of social forces that determine the shape of my subjectivity, to have intervened to connect my youth with my later middle age.
Fuck the system.









This edition of Toxic Grafity was put together while I was squatting in New Cross, south London and originally printed during late 1979, but it didn’t really get into folks homes until early 1980, when a substantial reprint was done. Originally 2,000 came off the presses, quite how many were eventually printed, I am not sure.

Joly from Better Badges (who also printed the first three KYPP’s fanzines, the last three were printed by Little ‘A’ Printers) used to always swing things so it seemed that I owed him lots of money (quite large sums for those days); I’m sure he may well have been diddling me, but that was my fault, because I was very naive in those days and thought that anything do with business, copyright etc, was bourgeois and reactionary, so perhaps I deserved it. *** Also, it must also be added that I was off my head a fair bit in those days, but of course so was Joly! Judging by the number of flexi’s that were sent to Better Badges, I suspect the actual print run was over 10,000, perhaps well over.

A year before the release of this particular issue of Toxic Grafity, in 1978, and also during 1979, there had been some really nasty rucks at Crass gigs at the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square in west central London. These rucks had mainly been fought between boneheads and bikers brought in by the SWP.

I can’t remember what the gigs were in aid of, but it was something the SWP had a hand in. The boneheads were used to pushing punks around, but got far more than they bargained for when taking on the bikers, some of whom were grown men in their 30s and 40s armed with bike chains, knives etc. After those experiences at their concerts Crass seemed to get a lot more edgy than they had been previously about sharing any sort of platform with members of the ‘hard’ left wing.

The lyrics to the Crass 7″ single ‘Bloody Revolutions’ is based on that feeling from the band around this time.

Basically it was the left wing causes that Crass would sometimes support, that seemed to aggravate the boneheads, and of course the boneheads would generally mill around the halls looking dangerous, and on occasions causing some real trouble.

Toxic Grafity didn’t really have those left wing associations, and (luckily) I also knew a few of the bonehead contingent quite well. I had always despised their ideology, but on a human level I was quite friendly with some of them. This I think helped diffuse things when Crass performed at the Toxic Grafity event staged at the Conway Hall late on in 1979.

It was not a violent night at all, which was obviously good news at the time considering the previous gigs at the Conway Hall. There were of course some minor problems, but those situations were quickly nipped in the bud by some friends of my family that had come to witness the gig.

The flexi disc followed on from the Toxic Grafity benefit gig, it was Penny’s idea, he bought it up one evening at Dial House, the Crass commune, way out in North Weald, Essex.

The original Toxic Grafity benefit was staged because of an incident late on in 1978 when I was pulled by the police in Soho, the seedier area of the west end of London. The police stopped me on one of those charges they used to pick punks and other ne’r-do-wells up on, the infamous SUS law.

I had stopped off in Soho on my way back from a visit to Dial House, and had the artwork of an earlier Toxic Grafity on me.

The police found this highly amusing, as you might imagine, destroyed the artwork, treated me a bit roughly, threatened me, and said that they’d put me on some sort of Special Branch terrorist watch list. Looking back on this as a 50 year-old I can see that this was almost certainly bullshit, but I took it seriously enough at the time!

As a result, Crass decided to help Toxic Grafity out (a previous issue had carried one of the first in-depth interviews with them), and the gig at the Conway Hall and the flexi disc followed on from that.

The track on the flexi disc, was not one of Crass’ more in-depth or enigmatic tracks, rather it was what it says it is, a protest against violent political sectarianism screwing up the young. Of course I was extremely grateful never the less.

I’ve repudiated so much of what I used to believe in during those days in the late 1970’s, but the closing words for Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ track “but the truth of revolution, brother, is Year Zero” still appeals to the Burkeian in me!

Joly at Better Badges did the litho printing for the fanzine and sorted out the badges. Southern Studios took care of the flexi disc by Crass, but I can’t remember where they had it pressed, or how many exactly were manufactured. The Crass flexi discs were written in red for the original publication of Toxic Grafity, others were written in silver for subsequent issues of the fanzine.

There were five Toxic Grafity fanzines that were produced and sold from 1978 – 1981.

Toxic Grafity issue 6 and 7 were planned and in large part nearly prepared, but I became a father in March 1982 (I’m now a grandfather, twice), and ‘reality’ stepped in quite soon after so all those projects were cancelled.

The later Toxic Grafity’s, including the issue above, had dropped the whole band interview thing and had become more like an anarcho-punk agit-art magazine, similar to what Kill Your Pet Puppy would evolve into.

By 1983 I was doing a lot of dispatching and also a lot of ‘white van man’ work until sometime in 1989. While doing these small jobs, a friend of mine, Wayne Minor (from Brixton’s 121 Railton Road bookshop) and myself brought out one issue of “The Commonweal” which was a more mainstream anarchist publication in 1985.

In 1989 I entered university as a mature student. I now live and work in the middle east.


*** This statement has been discussed by Mike and Joly subsequently in the comments to the original KYPP post from February 2009 but I feel I should leave that part of the essay in for this reproduction on this KYPP post in March 2015.

  1. AL Puppy
    AL Puppy
    March 15, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    This is a very powerful piece of writing.

  2. Graham Burnett
    Graham Burnett
    March 15, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    Nice one Mike! Or should that be ‘MVD’ 😉

  3. arthur
    February 24, 2022 at 5:51 am

    Mike, thank you so much for this essay. despite the differences of time and geography, it resonates to my own experience of punk and selfhood in the U.S. pre – mid – and “post” 2020 uprising. would it be okay to print this out and distribute it here in NYC? we do an anarchist free paper and a budding interpersonal/intergenerational radical history zine project, i feel like this would strike a cord with many of us here. thanks for considering 🙂
    arthur / chaos star –

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