Squatting was a political act for many of Argyle Street’s early residents. Some, including Caroline Clarke, and her daughter Maddie, had stayed at the Bishopsgate squats, some it is said, had even squatted the Mancroft Street in the early 1970s.
David Nielson wrote in the Argyle Street newsletter - Streetlife (Jan 1982) - an article entitled "Towards a Street Manifesto" which shows that they strived to produce a political basis for the Street but he recognised that to "form an alternative society within the broader constraints of capitalism is a big task."
It may seem a bit strange today to read his essay, reproduced below, which speaks about solidarity, the "shackles of capitalism" and a new social order. It is an important anachronism though because it shows that many in Argyle Street dreamed of a different future and they dreamed big.
Their goal was the "overcoming of the force and influence of capitalist society on our lives, and as a logical consequence, forming our own social order." An alternative model where profit and exploitation were replaced with social ownership and socially produced wealth given to the community. The author dreamed of "a school, a newspaper, a community and cultural centre, transport and entertainment facilities." Was it a dream? Well, actually, no because there was a small school ran by Carol Clarke, and Streetlife itself was a newspaper, the Street did have a communal house at number 52 and entertainments were regularly put on. As for transport - with the number of buses on the street I don't think that should have been a problem. And it was culturally rich with bands and performance artists such as Karmakanics and the Tibetan Ukranian Mountain Troupe.
Graham Burnett wrote to me with an extract of his article published in the Idler.
“It was 1978, a few months after I’d left school, when I discovered Anarchist artist Clifford Harper’s utopian ‘Visions’ series of graphics in a little alternative bookshop tucked away in a Brighton back street. The basement walls were decorated with six A3 posters consisting of lovingly detailed line illustrations of what a post-revolutionary society might look like. Depicting community run printing and industrial workshops, solar and wind powered housing estates and publicly controlled radio and TV stations, they were yellowing and dog eared, belonging to an optimistic age of counterculture that was unfashionable at the pre-dawn of the Thatcher era. But for me they were an epiphany, especially the image of the Collectivised Terrace – an ordinary street in any town or city where the fences dividing previously private and isolated backyards have been torn down, with the resulting open spaces turned into productive plots of vegetables, fruit bushes, chicken houses, cold -frames and bee hives managed by urban farmers and libertarian communards. Thatcher’s hardline ‘there is no such thing as society’ agenda was just around the corner and already looming large in the public consciousness. But this was a positive glimpse of how things could be, revealing both the enormous potential of the power of community, and the urban food growing space available by applying just a little common sense, cooperation and imagination to what surrounds us. All it takes is a small shift in our perceptions to see that we all have the power to create better times for ourselves and each other. Maybe this is subversive talk, but who needs supermarkets and agro-chemicals when London alone has some 1.4 million households with gardens, 1388 ha of derelict land, 53,600 ha of protected open space, 14,411 ha of agricultural land plus school playgrounds, rooftops and parks?
The dream of an alternative society within capitalism wasn’t a new one - after all the commune movement had experimented with it. But those were rural enterprises and the Argyle Street dream would take its model from somewhere else. From 1972 to 1984 Undercurrents magazine published dozens of articles about alternative living and many of those were urban-based. Clifford Harper did many illustrations for the magazine (it is to him I owe the website home page illustration) and he built a pictorial image of what many squatters were aiming for in his series of visionary posters.
What Clifford Harper did was to instill the idea that with cooperation so much more was possible. I love the idea of the church steeple being used as a radio mast in the Community Media Centre print. Norwich had already played around with the idea of redundant churches as arts centres. If the idea of a street of squats having a radio service sounds far-fetched then you probably never went to St. Agnes Place in South London (and that had a Rastafarian Temple too). Argyle Street never had a printing press but the Freewheel Anarchist Bookshop, just down the road, did.
Rod Earle, an Argyle Street resident, produced a booklet at City College in 1983 which used Clifford Harper's illustration of the Collectivised Terrace.
Below the magazine cover is an extract from Streetlife which explores some of the goals that some of the residents were trying to achieve.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a capitalist society. We cannot sweep this fact under the table, or pretend we are not subject to its rules and influences, for its dominating presence is everywhere. The attempt to remove its presence, to take control of our lives, is as difficult as it is desirable. To form an alternative society within the broader constraints of capitalism is a big task.
The path to this goal, if indeed that is our goal, requires careful consideration. We must decide on the practical aspects of the goal. Then we must consider the stages to that goal. However, at all times we must bear in mind the countervailing forces which could frustrate our aims, and also the resources and agreements we require from external authorities if we are to attain our goals.
The goal, and I think we all agree, is twofold: the overcoming of the force and influence of capitalist society on our lives, and as a logical consequence, forming of our own social order. Our first objective, therefore, must be the establishment of a secure, independent, and self-sufficient micro society. This is the only concrete basis on which we can begin to overcome the dominating influence of capitalism. At the same time, our society would offer an alternative to capitalism.
Our society would attempt to replace the negative aspects of capitalism with our own positive alternatives. This implies the replacement of private ownership with social ownership and the return of socially produced wealth to the community as a whole. We would form an economic structure which would counter a structure of profit and exploitation, and eliminate our practical dependence on capitalism for the necessities of life.
This is the most important first step if we are to counter the direct influence of capitalism and form our own alternatives.
A solid economic basis would give us a chance to counter the more indirect influences of capitalism. In practical terms, a sound economic base would give us the resources to establish our own political, cultural, ideological, community and educational structures and facilities. This could include a school, a newspaper, a community and cultural centre, transport and entertainment facilities.
But we also hope that we will create a community which has spiritual security as well as material security, a community identity as well as a community centre, that gives us conscious control over our lives, and that is a free and open society. These ultimate aims require our constant consideration as we attempt to construct the more practical and concrete aspects of our community, for the latter provide the practical underlying bases for our ultimate aims.
STAGES TO THE GOAL
The stating of our goal helps illuminate the stages to that goal. There were three steps:
The path begins with the formation of an economic structure which could give them material security and economic independence. This meant requiring resources.
The cooperative ownership of resources. This was seen as a fundamental condition for achieving collective control over the community and undermining external control. In doing this they recognised that they required the assistance of the capitalist state.
They required a high degree of communal solidarity. Without this unity and a common purpose all efforts would come to nothing.
David went on “ Let us not run before we can walk; let us not think we can throw off the shackles of capitalist society and usher in an anarchist era in one fell stroke. There is no point in setting ourselves task we cannot achieve; we must work within the limited historical possibilities.
Socialism is a possibility. We may have the means and commitment to achieve a socialist goal.
1 We may be able to realise the social (cooperative) ownership of our community.
2 We may be able to form a socialist production unit which could produce a surplus for the whole community. It would also provide employment which does not entail exploitation for private property and which leaves room for individual creativity and initiative.
3 We may be able to seriously undermine both the direct and indirect influences of capitalism on our lives.
4 From these starting points, it then becomes possible for us to achieve a high degree of conscious control over our lives. We may be able to have a high degree of control over both our living and working environments.
5 It becomes possible for us to realise a sense of community identity, mutual aid and mutual support. We could establish a community which brings us together on the basis of a common goal and common needs and interests, as opposed to capitalist society which divides us into groups with competing and antagonistic interests.
6 It is possible for us to work towards a political order which above all else insures that the needs, interests and wants of the community are the central guiding force in all political decisions and actions.
Ah the old six point manifesto! David Nielson talks in very general terms about producing a surplus of goods but he gives nothing concrete in terms of what to supply. The reality of the economic situation was that while Mr Nielson was inventing his socialist utopia Argyle Street was providing services to the city of Norwich via the supply of soft drugs. The people providing the said drugs were also willing capitalists because having shouldered the risks why would they want to share the profits? Apart from the many residents who went to work in traditional roles one business that was run from the Street was Morris' Ethnic Engineering (his red truck above). This was a successful venture which provided the services and utilities needed at the Albion Fairs - the long drop toilet pits, the showers, bins and water supply all needed to be provided.
Samurai LSD was popular and many thousands of them arrived in books, a bit like cheque-books, down the Street from Holland. The designs on each tab were taken from Samurai sigils
Morris in green overalls (photo by Tilly Bond) ran Ethnic Engineering from the end of the Street and kept all the bits and pieces he needed in his front and back yard.
Economically the Street worked as a cooperative as the figures below testify: