Another piece from another notebook: documentary evidence pertaining to an event organized in 2006. Followed by some brief supplementary notes.
A tip of the hat to friends: the good Drs. Ashford, Brown and Pender.
In March 1967 International Times, London’s premier ‘underground’ publication was subject to a police raid following a complaint to the Department of Public Prosecution. In protest against this ‘piece of classic intimidation’, poet Harry Fainlight roused various staff members and supporters into staging an impromptu happening, ‘The Death of IT’. Spilling out from UFO, a nightclub linked to the newspaper, several ‘pallbearers’ carried a coffin containing Fainlight down Tottenham Court Road and onto Charing Cross. They were following a route which would noisily weave through Trafalgar Square and Whitehall eventually arriving at the Cenotaph to meet an assembled group of photographers and journalists. In addition to the press this colourful, traffic disrupting group also attracted the attention of the police. According to author, musician and one time IT editor, Mick Farren, a confrontation was avoided by the happening participants escaping into a tube station, thereby getting off the ‘all too historic streets and causing the plods a good deal of jurisdictional confusion’. Farren continues:[…] the underground decanted into the Underground and rode around with coffin and noise spreading alarm…At first we rode at random, but with a pigeon-like hippie homing instinct we ended up circling the Circle Line until we arrived at Notting Hill Gate where we re-emerged into the surface world and began to wend our way north up Portobello Road, to the obvious displeasure of the market traders who had just set up for Saturday, the big business day.
Farren shows the tube offering a space conducive to the carnivalesque aims of the happening. The retreat is not so much an admission of defeat, a loss of the attacking impetus as it is a movement into psychogeographical ‘play’. The circling and the eventual wormhole-like re-emergence represent an effective negotiation of various surface-based restrictions through a non-standard experience of London’s transport system. The gravitation described thus suggests that there is perhaps more than mere ‘semantic coincidence’ linking the word ‘underground’ as a spatial concept to its role as a cultural signifier.It was this intersection and its multiple permutations which formed the focus of Urban Underworld, an international conference held at the University of Cambridge in September 2006. Responding to the general subject rubric of ‘London’s social, spatial and cultural undergrounds from 1825 to the present day’, Eighteen speakers presented on a variety of topics including; Jack the Ripper, Quatermass, Iain Sinclair, Mark Augé, Creep, Alexander Trocchi, Henry Meyhew, narratives of descent, criminal slang, The Wombles and others. A performative element was also incorporated with the event concluding with a special happening featuring Michael Horovitz, Ian Patterson, free jazz quartet Barkingside and films by Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins. The event aimed to highlight potentially unexpected points of overlap between literary, cultural and historical perspectives of the underground in its various manifestations.
Spatial metaphors seen to proliferate when considering notions of the counterculture: underground, subterranean, marginal, periphery. Associated terms like ‘heathen’ spring to mind with its combination of theology and geography. To be out on the heath means to be ‘outside’ both in terms of a physical position and a subject position. Trocchi understood the normative binary at play in these distinctions. Hence, the Sigma project aimed towards a totalization of the spontaneous activities described by Farren. Trocchi wanted the ‘underground’ to be rendered almost indistinguishable from its opposite so as to participate in an efficient ‘outflanking’ rather than a frontal attack. There’s a similar scene in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962) where Jack Dulouz finds himself in a strange liminal zone. Walking back to San Francisco from Bixby Canyon he feels cast out of his retreat but at odds with the flow of tourists driving to the coast. He’s neither at the centre nor the periphery; the city nor the sea, and is momentarily aware of the contingency of both spaces. Neither has the oppositional silence that's posited at the start of the book as a productive alternative, counterpoint and / or escape.The oppositional structure of any ‘counter’-claim threatens to negate the potency of its stance. As a label, the ‘counter’ is constantly haunted by that which it seeks to oppose even if such ‘opposition’ takes the form of rejection, flight or transplantation. In the meantime the centre is a black hole: dense, oblivious. ‘Culture’ is the more operative and useful of the combination. Raymond Williams offers sage counsel: “one of the two or three most difficult words in the English language”. Let’s plough on anyway:
1. The independent and abstract noun which describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development.
2. The independent noun whether used generally or specifically which indicates a particular way of life, whether of a people, period or group.3. The independent and abstract noun which describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.
And then there’s the link to the cultivation of plants, by way of cultūra, ‘cultivating’, from colere ‘to till’. This root in tillage puts a useful spin on the notion of counterculture and its possibilities, not least because it highlights the presence within the term of concepts relating to geography and materiality. To understand ‘counterculture’ in this light, leads not to hypothetical spaces of alterity but different modes of cultivation within a shared stretch of land. The recourse to utopian impossibility is still easy, of course, (associative conceptions of hidden islands, enclaves and untouched spots) but grounding the signification of the word in cultivation rather than confrontation at the very least modifies a restrictive binarism. I guess in this mode the notion of an ‘underworld’ ceases to act as a level within a two-story model but begins to connote something akin to a substrate, a kind of sedimentary matter: the material that underpins and constitutes a given architecture. Such a model posits a reiterative language of counter activity (re-structuring, re-organisation, re-constitution), as opposed to one that is projective.