Tag Archives: white poppy

Radical Gardening at Housman’s Bookshop, London, 18 April 2012

Thanks to all who made it to the event on Wednesday night. A packed house, good discussion, books sold out, lots of interesting people there doing great things with private, public, squatted gardens. Now, as someone suggested, when and where are we planting Kropotkin’s Garden?…




I am delighted to be doing a talk about the book at perhaps the best-known radical bookshop in London, Housman’s. (More soberingly, Housman’s describes itself as ‘one of Britain’s last radical bookshops’.) This is in a series of weekly talks about politics, culture, contemporary society organised by STIR magazine (alliterative strapline: ‘ANGER. ANALYSIS. ACTION’).

Housman’s has a hugely interesting history, related to and a pivotal part of the peace movement since the 1930s:

Housmans Bookshop originally opened on 26 October 1945. Its roots, however, go back to the great upsurge of the British pacifist movement in the 1930s, marked particularly by the founding of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) by Dick Sheppard in 1934….

In 1958, thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of Tom Willis and other Peace News supporters, it became possible to acquire a freehold building at 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. After renovation of the then almost 100-year-old premises, Peace News moved into the upper floors during the summer of 1959, and Housmans resumed as a fully fledged bookshop. Dora Dawtry publicly declared the shop open, in the presence of Vera Brittain, at a ceremony on 20 November, to coincide with the Peace News Christmas Bazaar held nearby.

A definite fillip to the Housmans business was the emergence of the vibrant nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with CND and Committee of 100 material, and a proliferation of other pamphlets and literature, in stock. The shop also served the local community as a general bookshop, greeting cards stockist and stationery retailer. Endsleigh Cards (named after the street in which the PPU offices stood), another trading brand of Peace News, were regularly stocked, especially useful for sending to imprisoned COs all over the world on Prisoners for Peace Day, 1 December each year.

Do come to the talk! And ask a question or make a comment. 7 pm, Wednesday 18 April, Housman’s Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX (just round the corner from the British Library).

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Manchester Salon: a public forum for engaging and debating ideas

Salon Discussions

Crafts and gardening: the new frontiers of radicalism?

Monday 19 September 2011 (Import into Outlook)

Kate Day, Professor George McKay, Barbara Hastings-Asatourian and Rob Lyons will discuss the impact crafts and gardening are having in society.

Kate DayThe current wave of interest in craft, and in particular in the process of making things for yourself, surely has its roots in recent social, political, and economic developments. It is often argued that the fashion for creative activity can be regarded as a backlash against an increasingly virtual and corporate world that promotes the passive consumer – albeit a Web 2.0 one. Alongside the grow-your-own allotment movement, the make-your-own approach enables craft participants to experience shaping their material world, creating objects that have an individual stamp and a narrative in their production. Is this just a repeat of the rural craft revival of the 1970s for a new generation, or perhaps a new twist to the fashion for eco doom-mongering?


Prof George McKayOver the past 10 years, and emanating initially in the U.S., the DIY craft movement has played a critical role in promoting craft activity as a democratic and political tool. Online movements such as Craft Mafias, guerrilla knitters and ‘craftivism’ have encouraged a younger generation to regard craft as a platform for sharing ideas and protest. The activist approach shares common strands with the ‘guerrilla gardening’ movement, with activities such as seed-bombing and yarn-bombing linking to a new generation of political protest that prioritises community and direct action in the reclamation of social values, vs corporate or state ideologies. Alongside this, selling sites such as Etsy have developed a burgeoning market for user-led trading, often at a low price point due to the predominantly amateur nature of the traders. Perhaps the ultimate outcome of the of self-styled ‘craftster’ movement, the website Regretsy celebrates some of the worst excesses of where ‘craft goes bad’.


Barbara Hastings-AsatourianAn aspect of the craft and gardening revival is how connected and virtualised it is, rather than isolated or disconnected. Making groups, once regarded as the prevail of the Women’s Institute and over 60s, are now attracting hip young things keen to share techniques and learn new skills. Crafting events, from knitting groups, through local meet-ups to the V&As popular Craft Rocks evenings, are attracting cool urban (and predominantly female) audiences. A far cry from the cloth kits and macramé owls of the 1970s, these activities do nonetheless contain an element of nostalgia. The rediscovery of ‘grandma’s skills’ (possibly not passed on by grandma herself due to changes in inter-generational connections), hints to a lost generation in terms of craft skills development. Notions of a make do and mend approach prompted by recession, don’t ring true as buying new if often cheaper, and with the erosion of craft teaching in schools and further education, there has to be a deliberate desire to learn crafting skills to then use them to ‘make do’. From a fashion and style aspect, bunting, village fetes, and Cath Kidston’s ubiquitous patterned homewares hint at a longing for a more innocent age of pretty things and pride in the home-made.


Rob LyonsIs the backlash against the generic high street chains, alongside environmental and ethical concerns a positive one? A growing interest in authenticity and provenance presents the capitalist project as faceless consumerism promoted by big chains producing throwaway items (in conditions that are often questioned), has prompted ‘discerning’ consumers to seek out locally sourced products. The popularity of farmers markets and craft fairs of course articulate this trend from global to local, with interesting outcomes regarding price and quality when we’re mindful of the additional pressures posed by economic recession. This trend has naturally not been overlooked by global luxury brands and major retailers hit hard by the loss of confidence in ostentatious consumption. Brands such as Mulberry and Camper have been quick to inject craft values in to their product ranges and marketing, facilitated by big budgets and up to the minute consumer intelligence way beyond the reach of individual craft makers and retailers.


Craft as technical ability and a medium for expression has also received renewed interest, perhaps notably from the previously aloof fine art world. Grayson Perry’s winning of the Turner Prize in 2003 was something of a coup for the craft world; less shocking than Perry’s transvestite alter ego Claire and his acceptance of the award in a baby-doll frock, was that Perry defines himself as a potter and is actually skilled in his craft. Perry’s journey in bringing craft out of the wilderness was carefully orchestrated, and having received support from the Crafts Council he strategically aligned himself with the fine art world to achieve his ambition. Is this blurring of the boundaries between art and craft such a good thing, and why does it seem to be the case that the constituency is largely female and middle class?


Some background readings

Guerilla gardening, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

BBC crisis over ‘fake’ sweatshop scene in Primark documentary, by Ian Burrell and Martin Hickman, Independent 17 June 2011

Guerilla gardeners target housing estate in Somerset, BBC News 15 August 2011


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Venue and Time

The Shakespeare Pub, 16 Fountain Street, Manchester, M2 2AA at 7:15pm for a prompt 7:30pm start, expected to finish just after 9:00pm. Tickets are £5(£3 concessions) payable in advance, using the PayPal Donate button on the Manchester Salon website (feel free to donate on top of the £5 ticket), but can also be paid for on the night if booked in advance by Emailingevents@manchestersalon.org.ukThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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Radical Gardening: where does this book come from?

An introduction to Radical Gardening, in George McKay’s own words [from press pack]:

Where does this book come from? Over the years I have written extensively about alternative, radical and community cultures, including:

  • researching pop, rock and jazz festivals,
  • cultures of the peace movement,
  • community music,
  • and activist politics.

Most of these things appear in gardens in some form, with surprising regularity in fact.

Festivals. Festivals are themselves usually a particular use of the landscape in a rural setting, often selling the idea of the temporary pastoral idyll to an urban public (think of Woodstock in 1969, marketed as a retreat from New York). With the idealism of certain festivals—notably Glastonbury, the CND festival in the 1980s—the festival site becomes a version of ‘polemic landscape’, using the land, trees, fields, to try to evoke or symbolize a different way of thinking, even a different (green) politics.

Peace. I was also interested in looking at the way the peace movement used the special green space or symbol of the garden as part of its cultural protest—the ‘peace garden’ favoured as a statement of anti-nuclearism by socialist local authorities in the 1980s, for instance, but also, historically, going back to the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union of the 1930s. I wanted quite simply to think about these in the context of challenging what seems to be our current orthodoxy of militarism—to do my little bit to reinsert into public discourse practices of  dialogue and negotiation which don’t culminate in aggression, war, death.

Community. As a musician I’ve often written from that cultural perspective—I’ve described much of my work as ‘cultural studies with a soundtrack’—jazz, rock, pop, punk, rave, and so on. I worked as a community musician in the early 1980s—with hindsight I realize it was an early effort to combine culture, politics, education, areas I’ve stuck with since, really—and co-edited a book about community music a few years ago. So again, when I started thinking about community gardening, allotments, I had something to draw on: the way in which a social and cultural focus might help construct community, might help us redefine it. 

Activist politics. A lot of my work has been about social movements—the way people form campaign groups, make political protest happen, how they use culture to symbolize the campaign and to change society. And gardens figure significantly here, from the simple fact of needing a public park for the political marchers to wind up at for their speeches and rally, to the invention of Speakers’ Corner as a privileged (and at the same time limited) space for free expression. On the other hand I also looks at the darker side, at the fetishisation of land in, for instance, Nazism, and at the sinister echoes of that in white racist or extreme nationalist movements since. Not every garden is a paradise.

And I really loved the idea of all these kinds of big questions—different ways of living, war and peace, community, politics and social change—being situated in the space of the garden or the practice of gardening in some way. I came up with this massively ungainly term to think about these sorts of things: ‘horti-countercultural politics’. Don’t worry, I only use it a couple of times though in the book. In fact, Radical Gardening is more a book about ideas (‘ideologies’ is the word we used to use) in gardens, really. I liked the surprise when I talked with people about the book I was writing: ‘What, in a garden?

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