Sunday, 1 December 2013

I never got round to posting on that Sunday, but here's an event on Wednesday instead

Five Leaves presents:
‘Liberation in the 1960s?’
with Phil Cohen
Wednesday 4th December, 7pm, Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross
Entry £3, redeemable against any purchase

Phil Cohen, author of ‘Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile’ (Five Leaves 2013) will talk about his involvement with various movements of the 1960s, including the mass squat of the Queen Mother's house at 144 Piccadilly with the London Street Commune, taking LSD with RD Laing, the early days of the Situationists, setting up Street Aid... and assorted run-ins with the police and gangsters.

In his memoir ‘Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile’, Phil Cohen, alias Dr John of the London Street Commune, and erstwhile Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London, re-traces his chequered career from blitz kid to public school dropout, from hippy squatter to cultural theorist, and from urban ethnographer to poet, through his obsession with books.

The first part of the memoir provides a vivid account of wt it was like to grow up in Bloomsbury in the late 1940s and ’50s and how its famous squares, buildings  and local characters  influenced  his imaginative life.  He describes  how he created  an alternative identity centred on his own  personal ‘reading room’ in counterpoint to the official  success story he was supposed to be,  as he rebels against the  ethos  of his  public school, with  its traditional emphasis on Classics and negotiates the  fraught identity politics of being a Jewish  ‘mitschling’.
The memoir goes on to detail the author’s  adventures as he goes up to Cambridge  to read History, runs away to sea  and then  becomes involved in the ‘underground’ counter culture  emerging in the London during the so called ‘swinging sixties’. Books were  at the forefront of his activities, whether ‘liberating’ them from bookshops, gluing them together in a situationist provocation against bourgeois culture,  or setting fire to them in an ‘event structure’  by artist John Latham.

The author relates how the British Museum Reading Room provided a much needed port in the political storm stirred up by his activities as a leader of the ‘hippy squatters’ at 144 Piccadilly in 1969,  helping him resume his  studies whilst continuing to  engage in radical  community politics over  the next decade.  Part One concludes with some observations about the culture of the reading room itself, discusses   ten books that shook the author’ world and  the impact of  new technologies of research linked to  the opening of the British Library at St Pancras.

The second half of the memoir  explores the  author’s life long love affair with books, and situates this consuming passion  in  relation to the issues   raised by  Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘On Unpacking a library’.  The author considers what books might have to say about how  they are  treated if they were allowed a voice; he goes on to  discuss  the place of collecting in a ‘throwaway society’ and  details   the strategies, both rational and irrational, that informed his  project of building a personal library. A concluding section  celebrates the pleasures of browsing, and  speculates about   what keeps bibliophiles acquiring books right up to the end.

Phil Cohen is also author of ‘On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics’ (Lawrence and Wishart, 2013)

No comments: