DIY Cultures 2017: The Counter-Culture Is Alive and Well at a Zine Fair in Shoreditch


Zines and posters from DIY Cultures at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, London on May 14, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.


Last week I paid a visit to DIY Cultures, a wonderful — and wonderfully packed — one-day event celebrating zines and the DIY ethos at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, curated by a core collective of Sofia Niazi, my friend Hamja Ahsan and Helena Wee, and was pleasantly reminded of the presence of the counter-culture, perhaps best summed up as an oppositional force to the prevailing culture, which has long fascinated me, and in search of which I am currently bouncing around ideas for a writing project I’d like to undertake.

Next week it will be exactly ten years since I started publishing articles here — on an almost daily basis — relating, for the most part, to Guantánamo and related issues. Roll back another year, to March 2006, and my Guantánamo project began in earnest, with 14 months of research and writing for my book The Guantánamo Files.

Before that, however, I had been interested more in notions of the counter-culture than championing and trying to reinforce the notion that there are absolute lines that societies that claim to respect the law must not cross — involving torture and imprisoning people indefinitely without charge or trial.

Before Guantánamo took over my life, I had spent the previous ten years looking at ancient sacred sites of the neolithic and Bronze Age, and, particularly, Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, making countless visits to these two sites and to numerous others — not just across the length and breadth of the UK, but also in Malta and Brittany. After years spent trying to write a book about my experiences — particularly focused on three long-distance walks I undertook with friends in 1997 and 1998 — it was suggested to me that a book looking specifically at the Stonehenge Free Festival, which I had visited in 1983 and 1984, and had included in my writing, might make a publishable book, and so I embarked on the life-changing process of researching and writing what became my first published book, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, in June 2004. See my archive of subsequent articles about Stonehenge here.

Interweaving the archaeologists’ story of Stonehenge with that of the various outsiders drawn to the monument over the years, the book was, at some fundamental level, a counter-cultural history of post-war Britain — something that had always interested me. Growing up, my cultural reference points were the 1960s, and I was drawn to the hippie movement — the music, the fashion, and the hippies’ anti-establishment position — even as homegrown dissidents, the punks, were railing against the legacy of the 1960s.

What interested me — and the punks were no different, fundamentally — was the energy of a life established in defiance of the status quo, and this was clearly something that had happened in the 60s, when the existing culture was challenged in terms of music, fashion and politics, and a distinctive counter-culture developed, with the creation of underground magazines and newspapers, free festivals, free food kitchens, squatting, cooperatives and communes.

A Rock Against Racism poster from Hull in the late 1970s, from an exhibition at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, London in May 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).By the mid-70s, the punks responded to what they saw as the bloated failure of the 60s, but they were only partly right, and they were only partly in revolt. The punk movement also brought its own DIY ethos, and a whole raft of fanzines too and other graphic output, like the poster reproduced here, from a series that was on display at Rich Mix, made by Rock Against Racism in Hull in the late 70s, when I lived there. I actually saw some of the gigs, and was also a founder member of Human Zoo, one of the bands featured on this poster.

What had happened in the early 70s, I later realised, was that the hippies’ two main impulses — the political desire for change, and the more metaphysical desire for self-knowledge — had become separated, and while the influence of the former dwindled, after manifesting itself in some genuinely revolutionary movements in the late 60s and early 70s, the latter became the all-consuming monster that it is today — the quest for self-knowledge having turned into the most cynical and all-encompassing cult of the individual, in which everyone’s individual desires are regarded as “needs” and we are all encouraged to believe that we are entitled to whatever we want — or whatever cynical marketing types try to convince us we want, because, as the saying goes, “we’re worth it.”

In the 80s, under Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, the establishment pushed back in a concerted and often violent manner against the counter-culture — see, for example, The Battle of the Beanfield in the UK, when Thatcher used the police as a paramilitary force against the travellers, anarchists and environmental activists planning to set up the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival. Despite this and other assaults on the counter-culture, however, Thatcher’s obsession with stifling dissent and creating a population of pliant homeowners was only partly successful.

Acid house and the road protest movement — both emerging completely unexpectedly in the late 80s and early 90s — revealed the counter-culture to be both surprisingly adaptable and, at the time, fundamentally uncrushable, and the pre-Blair 90s, in hindsight, following on from 1990’s Poll Tax Riot and Thatcher’s resignation, were memorable as the time when the Tories’ control of society, under John Major, was close to tenuous. For millions of people, myself included, mutiny was an almost permanent facet of life.

Then came Tony Blair, and what I describe as the psychic cosh with which he pummelled the British counter-culture into submission. “Unless you’re rich, go to bed early and don’t make too much noise”, Blair seemed to say, as he led the second wave of Thatcherism, the exultation of greed above all else, the commodification of everything, the dull primacy of money above the endless fascinations of a life where money is explicitly NOT the defining motivation of existence.

Since then, the counter-culture has struggled to survive, as the mainstream corporate world now eats up everything that shows the faintest signs of challenging late capitalism’s control freak omni-presence. Added to this, the rapid evolution of technology — in particular via the so-called smartphone — has ushered in a new, and as yet incompletely understood era of mass communication and interconnectivity, whose positives, it seems, threaten to be outweighed by its negatives.

Although, on the one hand, we can make friends around the world and the internet has created the opportunity for an extraordinary abundance of DIY publishing and all manner of creation online, there are profound problems too: far too much money is concentrated in a handful of tech companies, while creators are squeezed, and, of course, there are the problems of search engines and their dodgy algorithms, and echo chambers dumbing down politics and creating ghettoes of the like-minded, as well as the existence of cyber-bullies, individuals who spread hatred and encourage violence while hiding behind convenient pseudonyms.

In a world where everything is online and ephemeral, the counter-culture, it seems, is partly reasserting itself by taking back the means of manufacture and creating artefacts. That’s partly visible in the resurgence of vinyl, although, cynically, the major corporate labels have tried to take that over, and it’s also visible in the return of the audio cassette, a few of which were available at DIY Cultures. Primarily, however, there was an ocean of zines, posters and postcards, printed using real printing presses, or photocopied — some dealing very explicitly with politics (left-wing, anarchist and sexual, for example), while others dealt with the more whimsical and fantastical, but all of it, it seemed to me, was reasserting the counter-cultural necessity of reclaiming our creativity, and expressing it in forms and venues that are outside of corporate control.

And to add to this printed output, the day also featured several panel discussions, with themes including how to deal with Theresa May, how to deal with Brexit, and guests including the Artist Taxi Driver, who is raising funds for a “Brexshit” film, and Saffiyah Khan, the activist who recently stood up to the EDL in Birmingham.

Next year I hope to find a way to take part, but in the meantime I hope to find the time to further develop my project to analyse and curate a history of the counter-culture from the 60s to now. Any suggestions or leads will be very gratefully received.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a review of the excellent DIY Cultures one-day festival, curated by my friend Hamja Ahsan, Sofia Niazi and Helena Wee at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, showcasing the capital’s vibrant zine culture, and also featuring political discussions dealing with topical issues – Brexit, Theresa May, disability and discrimination. I place the zine resurgence as part of the endangered counter-culture, a necessary challenge to the dominant, money-obsessed, technologically omnivorous culture, and a continuation or revival of the counter-culture of the 60s to the 90s that I have spent a lot of time studying over the years, and that I hope to focus on in more detail in a forthcoming new project. I hope you enjoy the article, and will share it if you find it useful.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Please also check out Hamja Ahsan’s newly published book (launched at DIY Cultures) – ‘Shy Radicals: The Anti-Systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert’:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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