I’m not actually sure if I ever had my own copy of this poster but if not I would have been about the only Lefty student in the 1980s who didn’t. It must have been hanging on the wall of every bedroom I slept in or living room I partied in during my art school days, and is as iconic a symbol of its era as the Tennis Girl poster — just the thing to have on the wall of your student digs when you brought a girl home to listen to your Smiths’ records because it showed that you were into politics but had a sense of humour too.
Amusing though it was, it did reflect a real anxiety that Ronnie Reagan was crazy/stupid enough to start a nuclear war – limited to Europe of course — and that Maggie, his ideological girlfriend, was too turned on by the size of his missiles. This feeling wasn’t just reflected on student bedroom walls either as the possibility of nuclear holocaust was all over popular culture at the time. There was When The Wind Blows in book shops, Two Tribes in the pop charts, and Whoops Apocalypse on the telly along with the nightmarish Threads which still gives me the willies today (the whole film is on YouTube if you want to relive the horror). We were hardly reassured by the government’s Protect and Survive booklet either.
Apparently, before it became a poster this image originally appeared in the Socialist Worker newspaper which surprises me because I had a mate in the SWP at the time and they didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.
“They are the first band not to shrug off their political stance as soon as they walk out of the recording studio. The first band with sufficient pure, undiluted unrepentant bottle to keep their crooning necks firmly on the uncompromising line of commitment when life would be infinitely easier — and no less of a commercial success — if they made their excuses and left before the riot.”
It’s hard to overstate what a ballsy move it was for Tom Robinson to follow his catchy, radio-friendly Top 5 pop hit “2-4-6-8 Motorway” in 1977 with the strident anthem “Glad To Be Gay” but that was a time when lines were being drawn all across Britain and a lot of people felt they had to declare which side of the barricades they were on. It’s a lot easier being openly gay these days, cool even, than it was back then when homosexuals were often thought of as either perverted kiddie fiddlers or John Inman. A mate of mine at school told me he threw away his copy of “Motorway” in disgust when he found out Robinson was “a bloody shirtlifter” — but he joined the Young Conservatives when he left school so I guess he had issues.
Their third single “Up Against The Wall” is one of the most blistering records to come out of punk, a riot of guitars and pulverizing drumming (the terrific Danny Kustow and Dolphin Taylor) that hits you like a boot in the groin — or a truncheon over the head. This led off their classic 1978 debut album Power In The Darkness which, along with the first Clash album, is the best snapshot of the tense, angry atmosphere in England at the time. Some of it seems like naive sloganeering now but back then it felt like life and death, you were either on Tom’s side or you were with the National Front and the SPG.
This is a scan of an old flyer I have for an Anti-Nazi League rally in Fulham in 1981. If I remember correctly the National Front were going to march through the Broadway so the ANL were staging a counter-protest. I didn’t go to the rally because, for one, I thought it might get a bit violent (it did) and, secondly, it was on my birthday and getting a brick in the head from a skinhead wasn’t my idea of a good way to spend it.
The main reason I kept the flyer was because I loved the style of the ANL’s graphics. Their very bold and direct posters were the work of the great David King who in his time also designed The Sunday Times magazine, the covers of City Limits, and the sleeve of Electric Ladyland.
On the back is a polemical description of what the NF and British Movement are really all about and what life in England would be like with them in power, written in very simple language (“Don’t be conned, they’re all supporters of Hitler! And look what Hitler did!”) and obviously designed to appeal to the kids — the same ones the NF were also trying to recruit — especially bits like this:
Not sure if the musical part of that message would have worked though, I knew people (friends, even) who supported the NF and every single one of them loved reggae and soul music. Go figure. But I suppose you shouldn’t expect logic from a racist.
Being a responsible and mature adult I suppose I have to tut-tut the violence but I must admit that seeing those students rioting at Tory party headquarters in London during the protest against tuition fee increases last week did warm the cockles of my heart quite a bit. I didn’t think students had that kind of fight in them anymore, having long ago swapped the dangerous passion of political activism for dull, conformist careerism and it brought back fond memories of my own time at college — except without all the fire-starting and window-breaking stuff.
I was at Maidstone College of Art in the early 80s (the same year as Tracey Emin — oh, the stories I could tell you) when we had clear “enemies” in the form of Thatcher and Reagan and while there I went on (non-violent!) marches in support of the GLC, CND and the striking miners. More locally we were involved with fighting a plan to merge Maidstone with the nearby Canterbury and Rochester art colleges that was being forced through by the Thatcherite National Advisory Board for Education against the wishes of not only the staff and students but even the local Tory council. Being a soulless technocrat Thatcher obviously didn’t see the point of any higher education that wasn’t “practical” like the arts so we had to be made more “efficient” and the art school system turned into a vocational sausage factory. We had a big protest march through Canterbury but the main event was an all-night sit-in at the college which turned out to be more of a party than anything with live bands and dancing but who said political activism had to be boring? It certainly felt great to be involved in something like that and what’s the point of being young if you can’t make futile, idealistic gestures?
As usual it was all for nothing, Maidstone was merged with Canterbury and Rochester in 1987 after I left (though they were stopped from closing one of the colleges down completely) and now those have been folded into one multi-campus monster called the University for The Creative Arts. It turned out that our new Principal — the very man who attended all our Student Union meetings and assured us he was on our side in opposing the merger — was actually appointed by the Advisory Board tasked with the job of helping the merger happen so basically the bastard was a mole who stabbed us all in the back.
With the draconian budget cuts his government is passing David Cameron could become a hated bogeyman on a par with Thatcher and we could be in for a replay of the 1980s — futile or not. Let’s hope the music will be as good too, we may have been on the losing side in most of the battles but we had a bloody good soundtrack.
I remember well how Michael Foot was vilified when he was leader of the Labour Party, how the smug, sneering Thatcherites mocked his shabby Worzel Gummidge appearance, his donkey jacket, how such a brilliant intellect wasn’t cut out for the modern age of television politics with it’s shallow soundbites and telegenic haircuts masquerading as human beings. But look around you today and the man seems like a giant among pygmies — a passionate speaker, a great writer, an idealist and a founding member of CND. I voted for him proudly. RIP.