Wilson & The Angry Brigade

Was Tony Wilson influenced by Situationism or was he just posing?

(At the risk of harping on, this follows on from the previous post. Quotes are from The Angry Brigade: A History of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr 1975, pages 27, 28 & 33.)

When Wilson went up to Cambridge University in Autumn 1968, reverberations from the Paris student riots and London anti-war protests would have been all around him on campus.

Also reading English in the year above (possibly 2 years above) was John Barker, who had visited Paris during May 1968 and would, in 1972, be imprisoned for a series of bombings, along with three other members of The Angry Brigade.

While at Cambridge, Barker “read, understood, and later translated some of the works of Debord and Vaneigem, and that, combined with his experiences in Paris, gave him a certain prestige among revolutionary inclined students. Those who had actually been involved in the May events could quote from first hand knowledge and they regularly tried to pass on the spell to their less politicised fellows, who had merely read about it all in the papers, or seen it on telelvision.”

Barker, along with other Cambridge students, became involved day-to-day in a disruptive campaign, directly challenging the university authorities:
“the kind of behaviour the Situationists had used at Nanterre… over several months there were sit-ins, forced debates, occupations, disruptions of lectures, graffiti on the college walls, but perhaps the most melodramatic gestures came with the so-called Campaign against Assessment.”

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“Barker, Greenfield and others… felt they were being brainwashed by Cambridge… Their identities were threatened by the traditions, the rules, the “external categorisations” they felt the university was imposing on them….
They learned about the practical side of protest politics, about meetings, committees, how to get people to listen, how to produce leaflets and pamphlets. Barker, for example, also learnt how to produce silkscreen posters.”

…”Cambridge had its own broadsheet, too. The exact authorship was not disclosed, but the authorities saw it as emanating from the Kim Philby Dining Club… founded by a group of Cambridge Situationists in honour of the man they regarded as having done more than any other in recent times to undermine and embarrass the Establishment.”

“In June 1969, in a last and consistent gesture against the university,… Barker and several of his friends ripped up their final exam papers and went down from Cambridge for good.”

These goings-on would have been infamous within the student body while Wilson was at Cambridge, particularly among those associated with the English department. Tony didn’t experience Situationism as a set of intellectual theories… he witnessed a roller-coaster of rebellion, led by a bunch of glamorous, high-flying, risk-taking individuals, who ultimately crashed and burned.

Many students probably found the disruptive antics of their Situationist fellows massively irritating, but Tony seems to have admired them. He claimed he went to a Situationist meeting in London in 1969, which he described intriguingly as ‘The most horrendous evening of my life,’ though apparently the journey wasn’t wasted because he also discovered a cartoon he liked.

“The idea that theory and practice, thought and action, are one and the same go a long way to explain the life that Barker, Greenfield and many others like them began to follow… No one could be revolutionised by introspection, by reading books and studying political theories. One had to organise a programme for oneself of action and confrontation.”

So, Situationist students John Barker and Jim Greenfield chose to drop out of Cambridge in ’69 and move to London, where they became embroiled in local radical politics, communal living and a violent anti-establishment campaign.

Tony made no such sacrifices. He finished his degree in 1971 and then also headed down to London, to train as a TV reporter, although he left the post early to come back up North in 1973.

I wonder how he felt in 1972 as details of the Angry Brigade’s high-profile trial were discussed around him in the ITN newsroom? Freaked out maybe? Did anyone put two and two together and realise that he probably knew at least one of the defendants? And did Tony just keep his head down and say nothing?

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The Angry Brigade trial demonstrated that if you challenged the Establishment head on and were caught, you would be crushed. The only way to practice Situationist ideas and get away with it was to do so obliquely.

TW wasn’t an earnest idealist like the drop-out political activists… and he didn’t appear deeply angry with the establishment… but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t impressed or motivated by the Situationists’ anti-establishment ideas. He just wasn’t prepared to sacrifice his career or his freedom for them. This instinct to compromise and survive makes him a recuperator in some people’s eyes, but I doubt that was intentional. Immitation is often the sincerest form of flattery.

There is a discussion around some of this here: Graveyard And Ballroom: A Factory Records Scrapbook.

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Postscript: What is Recuperation exactly?

According to Wikipedia:
“Recuperation… is the process by which politically radical ideas and images are twisted, co-opted, absorbed, defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified within media culture and bourgeois society, and thus become interpreted through a neutralized, innocuous or more socially conventional perspective. More broadly, it may refer to the cultural appropriation of any subversive works or ideas by mainstream culture. It is the opposite of détournement, in which images and other cultural artifacts are appropriated from mainstream sources and repurposed with radical intentions.”

By comparison with the actions of The Angry Brigade, the whole of punk and post-punk including Factory Records look like forms of ‘Recuperation’. But in the context of the mid-70s music and entertainment scene, punk and post-punk offered genuine challenges/alternatives to the mainstream… and real opportunities for ordinary people to express themselves.

So whether a thing is seen as ‘Recuperation’ or not is relative to a person’s experience, understanding and particular point of view… one person’s rebellious or subversive act can easily be dismissed by another knowledgeable person as a form of Recuperation.

Maybe it’s a mistake to take the Situationist view of ‘Recuperation’ as negative, because often the adoption of ideas in less radical forms is just a natural trickle-down process.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve always taken the Situationist guff with a large vat of salt thinking much of it was the outcome of Wilson and the boys spending too much time in smoke filled rooms. Wilson was always a cod-intellectual and prone to adopt attitudes and poses. If you ever saw him with an expert or someone who knew what they were talking about, he was easily exposed as shallow and a cultural magpie. That’s not to insult him because it made him a great broadcaster and a good journalist but in reality he was someone who knew a little about a lot and was definitely style over substance. I doubt he fitted in at Cambridge-he didn’t do that well but I can see that Situationism would have attracted him and been easier to understand than some of the dusty literature he must’ve had to get to grips with. He probably found a receptive audience amongst the musical fraternity of the 80s/90s although few must’ve questioned him. I doubt he was pursuing a Situationist agenda with Factory- by all accounts Factory came into being by accident after Zoo (I think) records blew them out. Peter Hook has exposed the MO that dominated the Factory years and it often seemed a self-indulgent lurch from one hare-brained scheme to the next vanity project, missing out on money spinners and genuine talent such as the Smiths.

    • Hi Jude, thanks for commenting – I think your view is shared by David Nolan, writer of “You’re Entitled To An Opinion”.
      I looked into this because Nolan gives so little consideration to Wilson’s university life in his book and I found the omission very frustrating. After all, Wilson influenced many young people when they were in their late teens and early twenties – why wouldn’t we want to know what influenced him during the same important period of his life?
      Although I’m sure a lot of your observations are very fair, I think it’s worth noting that the milieu Wilson encountered at Cambridge was extreme and unusual. All the students would have been affected by what was going on, one way or another. And it seems that some of the more radical characters were quite glamorous… which would have impressed him.
      Like you, I don’t give him much credit for being an intellectual (see previous post) but to adopt a set of ideas and run with them you don’t need to be an intellectual, you just need to be impressionable.
      I think that the radical students Wilson met at Cambridge probably impressed him greatly and this provides a clue to the motivation for some of his actions later on.
      Once he was employed as a broadcaster, most people in his position would not have invested time and effort on bizarre projects in other businesses (unless there were big profits to be made.) In the case of most TV people I’ve met over the years, their job is their raison d’etre. But Wilson acted differently.
      I suppose he may just have been so bored by the media bubble in provincial Manchester that he became desperate to do something, anything, to keep himself amused. But I suspect that he always aspired to be involved with projects which were ‘radical’ and subversive. His Cambridge experiences led him to believe that anything less would be a cop-out. This would explain why his broadcasting job, which would have been enough for most people, wasn’t enough for him.
      In a nutshell, if he hadn’t wanted to do something subversive, he would just have stuck to his broadcasting job, and all the Factory stuff which we take for granted would never have happened in the way it did.

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