British Observed: 6 'The alternative world of Argyle Street' by Ian Walker (New Society 12.11.81)

NEW SOCIETY was a weekly magazine that explored the social issues of the day via objective reportage. The tone of the magazine was described by editor Paul Barker as "rational, humane, unsectarian and unsnobbish." Barker described his political position as one of "libertarian anarchism" and the magazine as an "outsider." Ian Walker, who wrote the piece reproduced about Argyle Street was only in his twenties and Paul Barker gave tribute to "his remarkable gift for getting into other people’s lives." Walker wrote about football hooligans, skinheads and punks but also about communities such as the Jews of Cheetham Hill and an Northern Irish Protestant enclave. So it seemed right for Walker to write about a community of squats but some of the residents saw his writing as exploitive, filled with errors and formulaic. Brian Palmer wasn't too impressed and he wrote to New Society with a response which can be found at the end.

No one is quite sure how many live on Argyle Street. People come and go. But around 120, maybe, most said. Two minutes' walk from Norwich City football ground, the street was squatted two years ago on Guy Fawkes night.  

Under a wan sun, rags cut into flags for a festival in the summer were still strung out across the street. Children ran screaming in circles, men lay underneath rusting cars, and a pack of dogs sniffed round for some action.  

The prewar redbrick terraces have been jazzed up here and there, one with a mural of stylised swirling flowers, another with bricks painted with colours of the rainbow.  

Scraping oily hands on his jeans, a black mechanic waltzed down the street, shouting "How ya doing?" to all his neighbours. It was said that he used to a drummer with Procul Harum. He pushed open a door, disappeared inside. Even though there has been a rash of burglaries recently, the doors along Argyle Street are rarely locked.  

And while Jane sat rolling the first joint of Tuesday morning, her door kept swinging open. By 11.45 there were ten people in the front room. Her three children played with toy guns, to the evident annoyance of Nigel, who was part of the original group which met in Freewheeling bookshop in the town, had a couple of beers, then came down to squat the street.  

Nigel raked a hand through his thick black hair. "The street could become a new utopia," he said. "Or another suburb." 


He is concerned about the new mood of respectability on the street, about the £250,000 grant enabling the formation of a co-op which is to buy 16 houses off the council; and he is dubious about the professional architects who have been hired to produce plans for re-roofing, double glazing, and the like. When Nigel has finished the caravan he's building, he'll drive it off somewhere, he said, and probably won't come back.  

Her peasant headscarf bent over the task, Jane said she could skin up a joint in 35 seconds these days. Sandy, a very short Aberdonian who moved into the street ten days ago, said he'd seen it done quicker.  

"Look," someone shouted. Everyone stood up to peer out the window. A cat had been painted bright pink, or perhaps it was dye. "Must have been the punks," Jane said, sitting down, and explaining for the benefit of newcomers that there was one household of punks on the street, but they were fine really, no problem.  

One woman looked out of place among the congregation in Jane's front room. Wearing a black pencil skirt, stockings and polished shoes, Alison folded her hands in prayer on her lap. Her accent was southern, middle class. Sandy, she explained, was her second husband. Her first was a businessman" "One of the original prats."After Alison met Sandy, she fled suburbia, had a nervous breakdown, split up from him too, for a year, then got back together with him and their two year old daughter, Dee. For six months all three of them lived in a slum in Aberdeen called Woodside. She said it was too dangerous to let Dee out of the door.  

Sandy worked as a chef on an oil rig, till it all got too much for him. So that he could get taken off the rig, he said he deliberately slashed his arm while he was cutting up frozen steaks. Heads turned as another face appeared at the door.   


The man standing there, in black riding boots, asked if Jane could possibly lend him a tenner for a few days? She said she could give him a fiver later on that afternoon, after she'd got back from social security. A fiver would do fine, he said: thanks a lot.  

In the corner of the room was a curious three-foot high metal structure, around which a pipe was coiled. It was a chillum, Jane said, laughing - a kind of hookah. Her husband was making it for her birthday next week. Jane pulled on her coat to go into town, ten minutes' walk away, and the congregation dispersed.  

It was a cold afternoon all right, said David, one of the residents in No. 26, at the other end of the street. He poked the wood on his open fire.  

Born in Hackney, David left home when he was 18, and lived in a cottage in Suffolk with two friends. They all gave up drink, drugs and meat. That was ten years ago, he said, slightly wistful. Wooden beer crates stacked up against the walls of the living room serve as display cases for David's collections of old packets of cigarette papers, painted tins from the fifties and sixties, and different kinds of spoons.  

When David first arrived in Argyle Street, that bonfire night, he just owned the clothes he stood up in. Everything in the room, he said, he's collected over the last two years. Around Christmas he runs a market stall, selling plaster plaques, bits of junk, Moroccan blankets and Portuguese paraffin lamps. "They sell quite well at Christmas. Other times, it is a bit of a drag."  

He is on the dole now, but he'd love to get off it. He has been to a couple of interviews, but when he said he lived in Argyle Street potential employers lost interest.  

A short man, with light brown hair, David has a sad face. He apologised for the room being in a mess. It was just that he had a heavy night last night. About 15 people were round here till late.  

The dogs are barking.

David, like Nigel, is 'suspicious of the current collaboration with the council. "I agree with those who say we don't want to turn the street into a mock-Tudor suburb," he said. "There's an undercurrent of bolshiness about them, which I like. And it keeps the old ideas going."  

Outside, the dogs were barking. Rolling his cigarette, David said that the dogs were a nuisance sometimes, but they were good for street security: they always seemed to be able to sniff out, and harass, officials from the DHSS, and the cops.  

One of the dogs got run over and killed by a police car not long ago, he said. The man who'd bummed a fiver off Jane walked in and sat down. His name was Harry. An elegant 21 year old, his curly hair, short on top, he had three tiny plaits tied by ribbon falling on his neck. Harry said that the local cop who came down the street on his bicycle was okay, but nobody like the ones who'd cruise up and down in the cars.  

"Now and again, they get the odd egg thrown at them," said David.  

"Or the cars get spray-canned," added Harry, who was making preparations to leave Argyle Street and move into the countryside with his girlfriend. He was going to squat a derelict cottage.  

"This place has had its time," he said. "I don't know. Maybe it's about to blossom into another stage. But I doubt it."

Harry has had enough of the street. He doesn't care for the creeping bureaucracy, and he's tired of being on the dole. He's a potter, he said, but it's so hard to get anything together on the street. He's been signing on for two and half years, apart from a month and half's washing up, and some grape-picking.  

"It's difficult here," he said, sipping his coffee. "People are into talking to you, rolling a joint, coming in with their traumas and whatever it is."  

This is the third house David has lived in on the street. Harry has been in a few different ones, too. People tend to move out of one house when they've fallen out with a lover or friend. Rolling another cigarette, David spoke like one who'd been bruised by the experience. "It can be difficult when you get into involvements," he said. "It's the sort of thing which'd happen in a village, really."  


"It does mangle you up sometimes," said Harry, sympathetically. "I've learned a fuck of a lot about people. That's been the main value."  

Harry said he had to go home to get something to eat; but before he went, he said that the problem with winter was the aggravation on Saturdays when Norwich were at home. Fans park their cars on the street, and gangs come marching down, terrorising everyone.  

"Some of the fans like to throw bottles into the gardens. And there's a lot of children round on Saturday. Usually it's a very safe road. We tried blocking the street off with logs and that, but it didn't work." David said, "We've applied to get 'sleeping policemen' put in."  

Most people on the street are peace-loving, he added, but they do get the odd nutter who'll come to his door wielding a machete. "There's a lot of tension when the matches are on. You spend a lot of time standing on the doorstep, just being there and trying to quieten things down. You find yourself hanging around a lot on Saturdays."  

A teenager in a blue boiler suit (everyone called him Maggot) wanted to know if anyone required anything from the fish shop. Harry said he was just off. David ordered a bag of chips. David looked round his room, at the sun glasses wrapped around a plastic skull, at the collage of cat photographs and art postcards stuck on one wall, and some local newspaper cuttings going yellow on the chimney breast. At one time, David and Harry remembered, there was a party on the street every night.  

That brought its troubles as well. In the middle of the night you'd wake up, David said, to find a bunch of strangers going bananas in the living room.  

"Mostly acid casualties, things like that," explained Harry. "Just want to crash on your floor for one night, man."  

Chips and tea   

Saying he had to go, Harry walked out the door. Maggot came back with the chips under his boiler suit, and a clean-cut young man called Mick wandered in. He'd just started at the university and David had let him have the spare room. He sat in the corner reading a paperback on underdevelopment.  

It had come on to rain. A few doors up the street, the secretary of the Argyle housing co-op, a 24 year old New Zealander called Dave, was in the kitchen eating tea with his girlfriend, Sylvia, and her two small children. In the front room, another small girl lay on the floor with her colouring-in book.  

Dave is at the University of East Anglia, doing a PhD on marxist theory and working class consciousness. Sylvia works at Freewheeling, the libertarian bookshop in town. She left Scotland a year and seven months ago with two kids and a bag of Christmas presents. Her husband and her job had made her seek relief in heroin. She needed to get out to break the old habits.  

She's 28, but her face is prematurely lined. "I hate it here sometimes," she said. "It's difficult for you to be on your own, instead of sitting down and talking all day. You need a lot of willpower not to stay on the street for weeks on end."  

Everything that people need, added Dave, is right in the neighbourhood. A corner shop, a friendly local pub called the Maltsters, and a local drug dealer. Sylvia's son, Stephen, walked into the front room and started beating Dave round the head till he was ordered to stop.  

There are around 15 children on the street. Dave said it was a good environment for them. They could play in the woods on the hill just behind. The street itself didn't have much traffic. There was no chance of the children being short of playmates. It was good for parents too, he said. "If you need a babysitter. Five minutes before you're going out, collar someone in the street."  

At one time, he said, there were plans to educate the children independently of the state system, and there was a school still running in the community centre on the street. But it only had two pupils. Most parents preferred to send their kids to the local primary school, which Dave said was all right, even though its attempts to socialise the offspring of Argyle Street were at times absurd.  

One of Sylvia's children once told her teacher that Margaret Thatcher was not very nice because she made bombs. Her teacher replied that that was not true: Mrs Thatcher had to make bombs.  

Sylvia said she was going for a quick xxxx before a meeting that night at Freewheeling. Having placed a reggae LP on the turntable, Dave sat back down on the sofa. Running a hand through his hair, he talked about the current split in the street, between those who want secure housing for the future, and who support the co-op, and those out-and-out anarchists who want no truck with councils, security or double glazing.  

"My personal view is that Argyle Street is a society in microcosm," he said. "And we are trying to look for alternative ways in organising that society. The co-op gives the street as a whole the chance to form a proper economic base, when before there was no chance.  

And bureaucracies previously hostile to the street, like the gas and electricity boards, have softened up, he said, since the co-op got some collateral. After the street has been renovated it will have a life of 30 years. Long enough. Pushing open the door, a young man with a limp. "Hello, Willy," Dave said, rather wearily.  

Dave is like the parish priest. People come to him for advice and support and, sometimes, money too. Shuffling around nervously, Willy explained he was broke and, er . . .  Dave said he was broke too. The discussion continued in the kitchen. It ended with Dave slipping Willy a quid.  

A young Aberdonian, Willy used to work "on the fish." In all manner of trouble with the law, he came down to Argyle Street a few months ago. He'd heard about it through Sylvia's husband. The street is like an extended family in perpetual motion. Bits of it, husbands and wives, come and go. It's never all in the same place at the same time.  

"Cheers," shouted Willy, as he limped out to face the rain.  

Next morning at the Freewheeling bookshop, another runaway from Aberdeen who lived on the street, Bob, the brother of Sandy, was taking two trays of quiche out of the oven. Bob runs the cafe at the back of Freewheeling. A post office engineer for eleven years, he said he decided to have eleven years on, eleven years off. He has a passion for computers.  

Short and stocky with long hair, and a beard that has trapped some drips of tomato from the quiche he's just devoured, Bob has had a busy morning. He was in court, on a deception charge which was remanded. (After obtaining someone else's cheque book and card, he had gone down to London with two friends.)  



"British Rail got their money," he said, smiling. "The cheque was guaranteed. The only people out of pocket were the bank, and I'm sure they could well afford it."  

His London binge ended up in a topless cocktail bar in Soho. "We had, between us, two pints of lager and two cocktails, which came to £60 all together," he said. How did they get caught? "Fingerprints," he said mysteriously, adding that he expected to get three months. "Doubt if I'll get a fine. Might get community service. That's popular at the moment."  

Facing the Japanese pastoral scene painted on one of the kitchen walls, Bob stood stirring the vegetable soup. He has built a z80-based computer, which is at home in Argyle Street, he said. At the moment it's just an expensive toy, but he intends making good use of it. He has heard of a claimants' union which has started using a computer: claimants' particulars are tapped in, and the computer produces a print-out of their entitlements.  

"The social security accepts these printouts as gospel," he said, taking 20p for a slice of quiche.  

Computers, he continued, had all manner of progressive uses. They could be programmed, for example, to run the electrics - heating, light, radio, TV, the lot - in houses occupied by the elderly or disabled.  

Walking past the browsers in the bookshop, Willy drew up a seat in the coffee bar. Although he'd bummed a quid off Dave the night before, it seemed he was skint again. He couldn't pay for his quiche.  


Lawrence (Maggot), Charlotte, Johanna, Daif, Collette and baby Emma, Bruce pictured by Kathy Mackenzie. 

His financial embarrassment reminded Bob of the time that the people came down to film Memoirs of a Survivor, the Doris Lessing film now on general release. For once there was work. Everyone on Argyle Street was hired as an extra, paid £10 a day plus food. "And the food was really excellent," said Bob. "I really enjoyed it."  

Since he came to Norwich, Willy said he had been really happy. When he was in Aberdeen he was always getting into fights in pubs, was always up for assault. "Since I've been here, I've realised that there are more or less good people. Everyone I knew in Scotland was really rough. Hard. But here it's no hassle. You can really live."  

Bob shook an empty box of tea bags. Willy said he'd go and get some more.  

Hoovering her threadbare carpet, Alison glanced up now and again at the television, something about world war two. Her daughter, Dee, sat on the sofa sucking a thumb. It was Alison's eleventh day on the street. She'd heena'd her hair, which had gone a bright orange, and she was now stockingless. "I feel more primitive now," she said. "Got no perfume on me."  

Almost 30, she said she wasted the best years of her life in suburbia, with her first husband, the businessman, who has custody of her two children from that marriage. "I feel much better living this way," she said. "There's friends. Cry on a friend's shoulder if you want. In suburbia there was just nobody there. I was trying to be Yoko Ono, and my husband was respectable." 

She giggled, folded and unfolded her arms. She delivered her biography at breakneck speed. Her current husband, Sandy, she met on a commune near her suburban home. "It was a new scene. All this dope and everything. Very avant-garde." Her father used to work for the American civil service. Her parents have disowned her now. She went to a girls' grammar school. When she was a middle class housewife, she wore all the latest fashions. Her husband was mean, she said; but because he wanted her to look nice, he would always give her money for clothes.  

Her large blue eyes switched all round the room while she talked.  

"I used to go to all these dinners. All these men trying to seduce me. I dressed up like a doll for so many years. It started to upset me when I was 23."  

After her nervous breakdown, and her separation from Sandy, she decided finally to go back to him. "To bring Dee up," she said. "Got to fight. This place has taught me that kids aren't possessions. I was totally hysterical. I was into another trip. Being a mother machine. I was taught this as a way of life."  

The front door opened, and through it walked Colette, carrying her baby girl, Emma. Striding across the room, her black hair failing round the shoulder straps of her embroidered denim dress, she said she was here to collect some clothes she'd stored here before Alison moved in. She asked if anyone knew anything about educational psychologists. She'd just got a note from the school saying that here son, Luke, had an appointment with such a person.  

The only problem with Luke, she said, was that he was an eight year old smart ass. Once when he'd made a mess with oily water overflowing from a paint palate, he told the teacher he was demonstrating Archimedes's law of displacement.  

While Colette continued talking about Luke, there was a knock on the door. Pushing it open, and giving out "hello" warnings, a posh-sounding man in a dark suit walked in and placed a brown envelope on the sideboard, next to the flower press. Alison picked up the envelope. A moment of panic  

"Oh," she said. "Only the register of electors. I went into a blind panic. he sounded very straight, didn't he?"  

Sitting herself down, Colette said she would be leaving the street in two months, as she's bought a cottage in the Broads. She will be glad to get out. The street, she said, was more conservative than suburbia. She'd found a greater sense of neighbourliness and solidarity in Wimbledon, where Colette lived, with her husband, before she came to live in Argyle Street in February of last year.  

It was a freezing February, she said. She arrived, with her two children, in a rented 13CWT van full of teddy bears. She had pleurisy. She was trying to decorate her flat, make it habitable, and there were all these men just lying around doing sod-all.  

Alison's face grew longer and longer as Colette exuberantly went through her repertoire of horror stories. (While Colette spoke, her daughter, Johanna, in navy-blue school uniform, came in and stood silent. As far as gossip was concerned, Colette said, the street was worse than Coronation Street. In other respects, like its complete isolation from other neighbourhoods, it resembled an open prison.  

Then, with the two children she had when she came, and the baby who was born on the street, Colette walked out of the door carrying with her a pile of possessions in a green bag. Alison breathed out slowly. Colette had worried her, but not so much, she decided, as that stark council block which stands bout 20 yards from the entrance to Argyle Street.  

"I couldn't go and live in that tower block," she said. "I think I'd die if that happened to me." That 15 storey block, Normandie Towers, is the pebble-dashed symbol of, she isn't quite sure, confinement or conformity or just rank ugliness? Looming over the street, it reminds this community of runaways of why it was they had to get out.  

That morning, Bob said he's love to build a massive computer with a thousand flashing lights and a display unit as big as a cinema screen. He could site it at the end of the street and block out the view of Normandie Towers forever and a day.    

response to new society

From Streetlife Magazine:


"New Society" is a liberal sociologist's magazine that isn't about any new society at all, but about the old one we know so well and get bored by so much. Every so often it takes time to write about a "subculture": punks, skinheads, ageing Teds, they've all had the treatment. The style is one of unsympathetic mockery based on half-truths and out-of-context quotes.  

Ian Walker went to Argyle Street; and on 12th November his report was published. To anyone who knew "New Society" the report was no surprise. To the people who had befriended Mr Walker, it was a shock.  

There are errors of fact: - the street wasn't squatted on Guy Fawkes night, but on 9th December. It's not Freewheeling bookshop, just Freewheel. The alternative school has four kids, not two. More seriously, there's a description of Jane rolling a joint. Mr Walker didn't say that "Jane" was a pseudonym (he used everybody else's real names), so a real Jane living there was instantly labelled a dope fiend, with bad consequences for her and her family, especially her children at school. I hope their teachers read New Society's apology.  

Okay, incompetence is pardonable. The distortions, omissions and implications are not.  

Sylvia, who Mr Walker is rude enough to describe as having a "prematurely lined face" is quoted as saying "I hate it here sometimes". She also said that she loves it, too; but that wasn't quoted. Her son is shown to be some kind of uncontrollable hooligan who beats up adults, not a five-year-old boy who has still not fully recovered from being injured in a road accident. There's no mention of the support Sylvia got when doctors predicted that Steph would never walk or talk again, or of Sylvia's patient nursing which proved them wrong.  

Mr Walker could be picked up in a similar fashion on other points. Some people still think that he captured one part of the atmosphere and character of the street. What he didn't do, by any means, is catch the atmosphere of the street as a whole, in all its diversity.  

No justification of the original squatting was given. Nothing was said about the setting up of a housing co-op and winning a licence to stay from the council. (And incidentally, it was setting up the co-op which enabled the allocation of the H.A.C grant, not the other way around.) The proportion of pro-co-op to anti-co-op opinion, according to ballots, is at least three to one in favour. The article had three negative quotes about what the co-op was doing, and only one quote in favour.  

Most of the people mentioned in the article came down from Scotland, and most of those who didn't said they wanted to leave soon. Yet most people living in the street are local, were homeless, have been there over a year, and have no plans to leave. And several who left, later returned.  

Where Mr Walker went wrong was in not seeking out any kind of cross-section of the street's population. As a professional journalist he needn't feel too clever about this.  

Probably the most insidious aspect of the article was the sensationalist talk about drug-use. At least one of New Society's editorial staff has been known to partake of illicit substances too: Shall I repeat that in retaliation for the nine mentions of drugs in just the first half of the New Society article? Sure there are drugs in Argyle St. And in other places - but why go on about it?  

This is why.....New Society can't titillate its educated readership with sex, because sex is not taboo with them any more. So it uses soft drugs to spice up snide articles about groups to which it feels far superior. Treating Argyle Streets culture and politics seriously would constitute a threat to the comfort of those who are doing well in the old society. And that's more than we can expect from a magazine which is just an up-the-intellectual-market version of "News of the World".