Watching Antonioni’s Red Desert at the weekend – his first film in colour, his last before he reimagined the eerie London which is now further away, chronologically, than the London of Humphrey Jennings was when the City exploded and Canary Wharf went up – I thought despite myself of the recent book on 1965, the year of the film’s UK release, by Mail on Sunday writer Christopher Bray, which makes connections and comes to conclusions which even a decade ago, let alone when Ian MacDonald first came to them, would have been about as likely to come from a Mail contributor as a defence of paedophilia. Even at that early stage, there is emerging a battle of modernities: an artistic vision rarely equalled before or since, but also airs and echoes of those who would exploit it for cruder ends. In the signs and symbols of capitalism in the films that made his name – how much more modern a 1960 cityscape after how much more total a year zero is that of La Notte compared to any in Britain at that time, how much more like the world that exists today, even as it is outsourced from the West, are the colours of Red Desert compared to those of mainstream English-language films of the era; in their very stylisation, they speak of what was to come – you can already see the barely-understood backdrop of his Anglo-American adventures, those of an interested outsider in all the right ways (and, as we shall see, many others in the same place and time as Blow-up were so in all the wrong ways), observing the battle between those for whom pop really did mean enlightenment and those for whom it simply meant profits, the twin radicalisms that would half-marry 30 years later.
The 1960s and what followed emerge more and more as a battle of liberalisms: between the one that brought Antonioni over, that aspired towards and imagineered true cosmopolitanism and recognised that the mainstream American cinema was on the brink of being rendered obsolete by actually existing popular culture, and the one that simply wanted to make as much money as possible out of individualistic aspirations and the rituals of pop, and in the process create something arguably less cosmopolitan than the tightly-structured post-war culture that both opposed. The latter won out in the long term, of course – even to the point where it took over many of the symbols and shibboleths of the former – but it wasn’t inevitable or certain, and whatever the Stalinists I once almost envied might still think, they were never the same thing, for all that they shared a set of passions and feelings and antipathies. What the story of those years and everything after does tell us, however, is how promises of liberation can blur into exploitation if people aren’t sufficiently careful, how easily dreams of a more egalitarian world can become a nastier, cruder one if people don’t know exactly what they’re doing and exactly what they mean. How easy it could be – still can be – to give the Stalinists ammunition when you thought you were destroying them for good, and how easily it could be – and this certainly still applies, not least to those on the English Left who think that what most people in this country think of as pop culture is a meaningful bulwark against UKIP – to make friends out of people who should be your sworn, ultimate enemies.
And so, inevitably, we come to another unholy alliance which haunts us today more than ever: the Paedophile Information Exchange and its legacy (immense for such a tiny organisation; how often do we say that about fringe groups that emerged from those times), and its connection to wider abuses in the same era which appear (I put it no more strongly) to have happened in and among other, more conservative institutions. For me, the best analysis of how and why these abuses could happen and become, for a time, accepted and seen as normal and even desirable in certain circles is still that written by Christian Wolmar some fourteen years ago, reproduced here. I would urge my readers to read this in full before continuing with this piece, because it explains and describes all the things I expand on and develop – in the light of new knowledges and new realisations – below; I aim not to replace it, but to fill its gaps and openings. I have myself, in the past, written about PIE as the sort of horrible phase that might have to be gone through while a series of dangerous assumptions are in the process of being overturned, however much we might wish it didn’t. For things to be better in the long term – and as Wolmar rightly says, they indisputably are; if they were not, there would not and could not be the public sympathy and feeling for the victims, whatever the environments and social contexts in which they suffered, that there is today – there may have to be terrible mistakes made in between, before the fog has lifted and a new realisation and understanding becomes clear. But somehow that doesn’t seem remotely enough; more has to be said, written and thought.
The right-wing media today have of course, for their own reasons, placed most emphasis on the New Left tendency within PIE, and a good many such people were obviously involved: Peter Righton, one of the few people in history whose very surname could be considered by some to be a sick joke in itself, will have been a major influence on many of a New Left bent through his 1974-82 stint as Director of Education at the National Institute for Social Work, a career which naturally appealed to many of such a grounding, who would have seen themselves as taking it in a more progressive direction, one much closer to the needs and desires of children, than the less specially-trained “old dears” who had held similar jobs before. He had a clear and significant influence, one of several “unknown revolutionaries” of his time with dubious views in one field or other, whose opposition to the post-war norms seeped through into the lives and practices of many people who might never hear their names; others include Oliver Smedley, and there is a sense in which, as Smedley and his fellow offshore radio entrepreneurs were not part of pop culture themselves but were attempting to use it for neoliberal ends, Righton was equally not part of it but attempting to exploit liberation politics for his own chilling intentions. Others followed in his footsteps; if the treatment of women in the newly-liberated pop culture (which merged, within BBC Radio 1, with an institutional culture already questionable from another age and for other reasons) was, often, far worse and more exploitative than that enforced by such things as the Hays Code – the 1960s needed second-wave feminism arguably even more than second-wave feminism needed the 1960s – then how much worse, potentially, could be the treatment of children?
And it is impossible, even if you were specifically aiming to mock and parody the concept, to imagine a more soixante-huitard academic position than that of Head of Sociology at the University of Essex, a position once held by a PIE supporter. (The Essex University connection has multiple layers, of course: as local resident James Wentworth Day ranted against the evils of radical students, the cover shots of Fairport Convention’s What We Did on Our Holidays were taken there, placing it firmly at the beginning of the Left-Right battle for control of the entire English ruralist territory which, like so many related things, only reached an uneasy, unsettling truce in the Cameron era with the deeply troubling halfway house of Mumford and Sons et al. And even though they were in wholly different parts of Essex – the University is not in the commuter belt but the K.M. Peyton / Martin Newell landscape which has been, or at least was during their first real upsurge in the 1980s, surprisingly resistant to the most radical and extreme forms of neoliberalism considering where it is and the associations it brings on – there are the comparisons with the other radicalism that would have its heartland in that county later on sharing an equal contempt for the paternalistic ancien regime but wishing to put something wholly different in its place. But that must be a separate argument for a separate piece.)
But in almost all cases (the principal exception must be Islington, site of far and away the worst things ever to have been done in the name of the ’68 generation), the people the soixante-huitards in PIE were in practice defending, the people with whom they were effectively allying themselves and for whom they were making excuses, seem to have been the very people they would otherwise have despised, seen as their arch enemy, the bulwarks that had to be ground down: Tory MPs, prep and public school masters, priests, figures from the BBC light-ent side of pop culture who they’d have seen as a paternalistic, State-imposed barrier in the way of revolution and liberation (if you’d asked New Leftists to define the inadequacy of the BBC’s response to pop and the related ideas of youth ritual of which the ideas some of them had of children “expressing themselves” through sexuality, as though that could be distinguished from adult exploitation, were largely an extension, many if not most would have summed it up in two words: Jimmy Savile). The prep school masters in PIE, or the choirmaster member who was so close to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (and who is defended by Rice – also a “good character” witness in Jonathan King’s trial – in his autobiography), seem – and this pretty much explodes the dangers of even attempting to extend the New Left’s broader worldview to this field, the blatantly obvious fact that the soixante-huitards were being humiliated on what they saw as their own ground – to have been far closer to the core of the movement. As would happen when New Leftists merged in the 1990s and 2000s with the radical capitalists who had grown up in parallel, they were being laughed at behind their back by forces they couldn’t control. (Not that the Blair connection is the only aspect of the latterday Left indicted by the PIE legacy; I don’t think the tendency of some Leftists – in this case an alliance of third-worldists and residual ghosts of the pre-68 Left – to regard Islamists who stand for everything they don’t as beyond criticism, out of a misguided application of identity politics, will be looked back on any more positively, when we reach the middle of the present century, than the similar invocation of identity politics a comparable length of time ago in defence of PIE.)
Of those charged thus far, the one great exception to the general rule – that New Leftists were defending people with whom they barely had more in common than the modern secular Western Left has with Islamists – is Roy Harper. You could argue that Max Clifford, unlike the light-ent types, was a first-generation Murdochian who at least shared a common paternalistic enemy with the soixante-huitards, and that William Mayne – still for me the most troubling and haunting of convicted child sex offenders – was part of the post-war paternalistic culture, revered and heralded and protected by the state-led enlightenment that the soixante-huitards and Murdochians alike despised, and which even the light-ent types, who directly benefited from its preferred model of monopoly capitalism, barely tolerated. For the record, like so many of those who would eventually respect his feeling for what Julian House and Jim Jupp would, sadly, embalm in an attempt to resuscitate – Mayne’s feeling for landscape, place, isolation and the power of the past are without rival or equal in their field, even when they’re accompanied by chilling, frightening characterisations which feel now like mere objectifications – I barely knew of, and probably wouldn’t have understood, Mayne when I was in his notional target audience.
But Harper was a bona fide soixante-huitard icon and hero; I myself knew an Essex University graduate – retaining the anti-BBC resentment so common to people of his generation and worldview (which had not in his case mutated into Thatcherism, but rather into a Leftism which denied, out of a basic desire for comfort and reassurance, that the collapse of paternalism had even happened at all) – who actively revered him on a direct, personal level. Even for me, born after his cultural peak, much of his music has meant almost everything – “One of Those Days in England (Parts 2-10)”, which I quoted on Sea Songs back in the mirage that so soon faded, is the only real caught-on-a-train people’s history in its field, and “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease” is as great an evocation of a place, a time, a world, a state of being, as Mayne at his very best (the uncodified, engulfed class war of Sand, the frozen East Coast lost world of Winter Quarters, which latter could be David Peace writing I Often Dream of Trains). But Harper’s 1974 song “Forbidden Fruit” – which, if he is convicted, would feel permanently like a Peel-show “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)?”, and would be just as unplayable – even now, when nothing has been proved, feels like a blatant codifying of PIE’s invocation of liberation, a sort of late-night, cult-studs companion piece to Paul Gadd’s crude exploitation. It feels as if the objectification had two faces – one for the student set, one for daytime – just as PIE itself did. Quite possibly some of the more soixante-huitard PIE supporters – who’d never have touched anything remotely connected to Glitter, King or any of the Yewtree types, indeed seen those people as simply a repackaging of pre-1960s non-enlightenment – listened to “Forbidden Fruit” keenly, sensed and felt its message.
But the strange alliance of convenience that was the Paedophile Information Exchange does actually shine some kind of light on New Labour, but a light that cannot be seen or felt by those for whom neoliberalism is unchangeable and unalterable. A small number of people of the soixante-huitard generation were willing to ally themselves with those they would otherwise have condemned as the “repressive Tory establishment” because they saw a misinterpreted, misunderstood sense of liberation in what those very Tories actually, in their vileness itself, understood better – as pure exploitation of the vulnerable and isolated. Twenty years later, a much larger number of people of the same generation and tendency – when they became Blairites – were similarly willing to ally themselves with those they might otherwise have seen as their enemy – global plutocrats – because they similarly saw the radical, anti-traditionalist element in a global capitalism which, ultimately, came down to exploitation and abuse. Both movements represented – and keep in your minds here what I wrote recently about Scotland as a place where 1968 never really happened – an element of the Left allying itself with the Right at its crudest and most indifferent to the plight of the voiceless because it saw the latter’s potential to sweep away the narrowness of the world which they were the last generation to have seen in the flesh. There is not, of course, a direct comparison between even the worst manifestations of global capitalism and child molestation (and obviously, whether or not abuse was justified on soixante-huitard terms matters little to its victims; they’ll be just as permanently traumatised and damaged, just as unable to become humans as most people use the term, high-functioning or otherwise, whatever the imagined reasons). But in terms of how allegiances of convenience are formed and work in practice, there is.
And so there are connections between PIE and New Labour after all. Just not ones that the Mail titles – with the partial exception of Hitchens Minor, who delights in quoting Marx’s faith in the radical potential of capitalism, and himself likes global capitalism far less than most of the modern Left, though he baulks in fear at where that should take him, because he still thinks logic is inherently un-English – would begin to understand or grasp. Because they don’t really understand capitalism or Toryism, they still think PIE was a completely soixante-huitard project, and cannot face the wider lessons of those times for fear of being indicted themselves. One of those days in England, indeed. Sometimes I think we’re all trapped. How selfish it must seem to wish for others we respect not (Billy Bragg wildly overstates what he and his ilk could practically do on this front) to trap us more.