Hackney Women’s Centre and Matrix Feminist Architects

I was pleased to see the above flyer included in a post by Glasgow Women’s Library entitled “The Personal is Political: Lesbian Life“. As they say:

This events programme for Hackney Women’s Centre Lesbian Group is typical of some of the social events programmes and flyers which we have throughout the archive. It illustrates the wide range of social activities that these groups promoted amongst the women that used those spaces. Flyers like this are often interesting because they can often underline the intersectional approaches to organising that feminist and lesbian spaces often tried to institute around building access for wheelchair users, childcare facilities and language interpretation.

Glasgow women’s library

I also like that the events are social rather than overtly political – precisely because in the 1980s lesbians socialising together would haven been a political act in itself in many ways.

Hackney Women’s Centre on Dalston Lane, photograph courtesy of Rio Cinema Archive on Instagram

Hackney Women’s Centre appears to have been based at 27 Hackney Grove E8 and then at 20 Dalston Lane E8 around 1984/5.

The Centre’s origins stretch back to at least 1981, with this call to action in Hackney People’s Press:

An early story about the Centre from Hackney Peoples Press #72 September 1981

The group seems to have prioritised a feminist approach to the entire project – the commitment in the article above was matched by ensuring the premises were accessible to disabled women.

Similarly, the renovation of the Dalston Lane property was overseen by Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative – an feminist architecture co-op who were also based in Dalston at the time:

There is an interesting post about their work on Hackney Women’s Centre at Matrix Open Feminist Architecture Archive including a scan of some pages from a brochure about the renovations needed at the 20 Dalston Lane building.

In “Evaluating Matrix: note from inside the collective” Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne note that not all of the GLC funded women’s centres were as successful as the Hackney one:

Matrix was involved in projects for Hackney, Brixton and Bermondsey. Of these, only one, Hackney Women’s Centre, was built. The borough council had made a rundown shop building on Dalston Lane available, and much of the limited funds for building work went into repairing it before it could be converted for use: here the kitchen, built by women joiners, was at the heart of the social space, and as much of the building as possible was made accessible for disabled people.

Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne

Matrix also helped with the development of Dalston Children’s Centre.

Alongside the technical renovations and building work, the Centre commissioned some lovely stained glass by femalie artist Anna Conti and the photos on her site are the only tantalising glimpse of the interior of the Centre I have been able to find:

The flyer below gives a flavor of the sort of activies that the organising group were hoping the Centre would be able to offer. And of course there is the inevitable mail box at Centerprise!

An advert for the Centre, reproduced in The RIo Tape/Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in the 80s (Isola Press)

Hackney Museum has a nice badge too as part of its collection:

Aside from the Hackney Lesbian Group flyer at the top of this post, I’ve not found a huge amount of material on what actually happened at the Centre after it opened. There are some interesting adverts in the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project newsletter from 1988 and 1990:

An event fron 1988.
A regular event in 1990.

The longevity of these events suggest that the Centre was able to maintain the commitment to intersectionality noted by Glasgow Women’s Library.

Inevitably it was not all plain sailing, as is evident from this unpleasant exchange of letters between the Pan African Congress Group and the Centre. They concern an argument over a group obtaining a Malcolm X tape which is mainly about homophobia in the black community:

Letters page, Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project newsletter June/July 1990.

It appears that Hackney Women’s Centre was in operation until at least 1993. A lot of organisations that had been supported by the GLC struggled to maintain funding beyond this point. (Although it is worth noting that London Irish Women’s Centre was at 59 Stoke Newington Church Street until 2012).

The Centre appears in several novels: “Calendar Girl” by Stella Duffy (1994), “Hello Mr Bones” by Patrick McCabe (2013) and “All Girl Live Action” by Sara Faith Tibbs (2015)

If you have any memories of Hackney Women’s Centre – or access to archival material, stories, people relating to it, please leave a comment below.

Sources and further reading

Petrescu, D. (ed.) (2007) Altering Practices: Feminist Politics and Poetics of Space, New York and London: Routledge – includes “Evaluating Matrix: note from inside the collective” Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne.

Grace Quah – Beyond the Home: Re-evaluating feminist representations of domestic space through contemporary cinema (Thesis for Bartlett School of Architecture, 2017) – available on academia.edu

Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative Wikipedia page

Matrix Open Feminist Architecture Archive

Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project newsletter is availabe online at Bishopsgate Archive.

Interview with Christine – Hackney Womens’ Paper 1972

Christine contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in a scan of Hackney Womens’ Paper – a publication she had been involved with producing in 1972. And of course I was!

The Paper includes invaluable first person accounts from women about their experiences at Hackney Hospital and some demands for better treatment and conditions:

Alongside this, there are some great insights into the paternalistic/patriarchal views of Doctors, and analysis and commentary on contraception, welfare provision, health & class and the effects of proposed Council rent increases on women. And some sharp asides on everyday life for women in the early 1970s:

I think it holds up really well in 2022.

The scan of Hackney Womens Paper #1 that Christine kindly provided has now been uploaded to archive.org so you can read it cover to cover for yourselves.

Christine also agreed to have a chat with me over Zoom about her time in Hackney. We talked about Hackney Womens Paper, communes, squatting, healthcare and a whole lot more…

How and when did you end up in Hackney?

I went to India overland in 1969 when I was 20, as many young people did those days. On the way back, I met two guys having breakfast in a railway station. We got talking, they were architecture students from Cambridge university who had dropped out, which was what I was also doing. 

And they wanted to start a commune. It ended up being in Hackney, Hackney Wick. We bought a house in Hackney for something like £6,000 pounds. A four-story Victorian house with a big garden, near to Victoria Park. 

We moved in there in the autumn of 1970 and lived there for a couple years or so. These were heady times. It started with six of us and a plan of sharing everything. Soon lots of other people were turning up, and coming to live in the house, going in and out of the house, having meetings. We had lots of radical ideas but only slowly asked ourselves “what exactly are we doing here?”

Well, that was going to be one of my questions. Was it already an overtly politicised thing, or just simply a convenient way to live – or was it both?

I guess it was different for different people. Basically, we were idealistic, some were more politicised than others. We all knew there was definitely something not working with society and the world as it was. So much injustice and inequality. I can’t remember exactly the basis of the politics at that time, it was fairly eclectic but we definitely thought that we could live together and share everything and there was a political aspect to that.  I’d never particularly thought of myself as political – but I used to hang out with some ‘anarchists’ when I was at university…

There was “flower power” and there were hippies. Actually, where I first became more politically aware was through Civil Rights movement in the US and then the Vietnam War and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher – reading his poems in Peace News. When you are, 17, 18, 19, there’s sort of real energy, where you really see the suffering and want to do something, help people, see a change….

I had been to a Bob Dylan concert in 1964 when I was 14 and what he was singing really touched me and changed my life in a way. So I was political, but it wasn’t like I was a ‘Marxist’ or a “this” or a “that”. What did we call ourselves? I don’t know, libertarians maybe. And by the 70’s, the women’s movement was also coming up – “consciousness raising” groups! 

Were those groups held in your commune?

No, that tended to be something that the women from the house went and did with other groups of women. But we held women’s meetings at the commune too. Interestingly, looking back, we had this idealistic naivety, to think that we could just all go in and share everything. We’d all had fairly middle-class backgrounds and didn’t know what was hitting us [laughs]. It went right up against our habits. 

So, doing it became quite difficult, I guess? In the way that communal living throws up all sorts of psychological, economic and political issues. You said you stayed there for a couple of years. Is that why you left?

No, that wasn’t why I left. It was why it was psychologically difficult. We had lots of great times too. There was a wonderful big round handmade table, we used to cook meals together, we renovated the house, grew vegetables, there was always something happening, people coming and going. I moved on because I wanted to focus more on community action.

There was another similar commune nearby, in Grosvenor Avenue, which was much more politically orientated. Some of the guys there had also been in Cambridge with the people that I was with. It was the same tendency you might say. 

Absolutely. I saw a talk recently by some of the Grosvenor Avenue people. Some of them disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in 1970… 

And I remember watching it on telly knowing it was going to happen. It was incredible. 

So maybe that leads us onto the context of producing Hackney Women’s Paper. It sounds like it was a natural reaction to the experiences people were having. But in a way, putting something out there – putting pen to paper and printing things is a bit of a step up from what might be a quite insular communal world? So how did it come about and how was it received?

Just to say one other thing about the atmosphere of those times. There had been a Dustmen strike in Hackney and one night we got word “the people in the flats have put all the rubbish out on the road”. So we headed straight down to Cassland Road and there’s lots of people around and there was loads of the rubbish that had accumulated blocking the road. To get the Council to deal with it, you know? So, there was that sort of energy around,  fighting back, not taking it lying down. Of course, the working-class tradition in England is just remarkable. So well organised over many years. I think the Women’s Paper also came out of that.

There were three or four women living in the community who were interested in taking more community action and what galvanised us was the experience of our friend who had her baby in Hackney Hospital. She did have a really hard time, especially because she was unmarried and was French.

And so to begin with, we just researched, we went around the flats knocking on people’s doors and saying, “have you had a baby in Hackney Hospital?” – a mixture of courage and naivety! And so, we collected a lot of these stories and we put them together in the paper. 

And actually, I read it all today, which I hadn’t done for years. The first time I tried to read it recently, I thought “oh, I can’t look at this language. I can’t go there.”  But I quite enjoyed it today, really.

The interesting thing is over the last 10, 15 years, I’ve worked in a place we call the spiritual care center. It’s a place for people who are living with illness or facing dying can come and find spiritual and emotional support. And I also helped run workshops with nurses and carers to explore how to offer that sort of support. So that was interesting, because I’d not made the link, that I’ve always been interested in this. 

I can’t remember all the details of putting the paper together, there were three of us, three of our names are on it. I remember we worked together well, each offering different skills and ideas, and we had some fun with the cartoons. I think the front page is great and actually there’s a lot of humour there and the cartoons are all pretty good. They go in there – at the right sort of level.

It stands up really well, I think. I was really surprised when I saw it because I’m a massive Hackney radical history nerd and I hadn’t heard about it. 

You wouldn’t have heard of it. I mean, it was number one, but there was never a number two. 

Do you remember roughly how many you produced? 

No! [laughs]

I imagine hundreds rather than thousands? 

Yes, absolutely. We knew guys who had a printing press so they did it for us. I think this came out before Hackney Gutter Press?

Yes there were things like Hackney & Stoke Newington People’s Paper that I think became Hackney People’s Press. But certainly, most of the ones that had quite a big distribution seemed to be a couple years later…

At the time that we were putting this together, my address is given as is 96 Eleanor Road [Hackney Central / just north of London Fields]. And that was a squat. I moved out the commune into a house squat in early 1972. So actually, [the paper] must have come out in early 1972. 

So that was exciting, opening up an empty house, putting on a new lock and moving in.

Lots of empty houses to break into, presumably? 

Yes there were. I actually found an article today from October ’72, when Hackney Council took us and the women next door to court to try and evict us.  Our neighbours were West Indian, extended families, lots of children. The women were the strong ones, there were men living there as well of course, but the women were holding it together. In fact, it was these women who showed us how to get into the house. Amazing. So, we ended up living next door. 

When we went to the court, we all went together. We took all the kids, 14 adults and eight kids. And we all went to court and we fought it. What happened was the judge granted the eviction order, but said it couldn’t be enacted until the council actually needed the house. 

And I think that was the first time that had happened. I’m not sure. It says in the article that there was a Councilor involved, but I don’t remember him at all. I thought we did it all ourselves! 

We weren’t a housing cooperative or anything at that time. We just wanted to stay in the houses. There are some great quotes in the article: 

“And people are just saying, we’d like to stay here until the places are needed. We don’t want to be moving into substandard accommodation. We’re angry at the situation. The council leave many houses empty. People around here are glad to be involved because we cleaned up the rubbish and discouraged rats and mice.” 

And we had sort of testimonials from a lot of neighbours saying that we were great neighbours and everything. So that’s a bit of a diversion from the paper…

But that’s the interesting thing for me – that it isn’t just the paper, it’s the wider social context that produces it. By today’s standard, it’s quite an alternative lifestyle and then the paper springs out of that. I was going ask about how it was received – how much tension there would’ve been with men? 

Yes, we were looking for an alternative life style. There wasn’t a lot of tension with the men. In the house, they supported us but also left us to it…

Actually, looking back and seeing what’s happening now, in many ways there have been very positive changes, and there’s a much greater awareness. But these days, I sometimes feel for the young men, it can be hard on them to ‘get it right’ and they come in for a lot of criticism. I can see real paradoxes in where this has got to now, you know?

At the time, there were guys like Roger. [When you sent the link to me] I thought, “is this tongue in cheek?” But I think it was probably just too much psychedelics! 

My impression is that there was that very druggy hippy current and the political one. And at a point they had to break part and be different things… 

I think there was a whole spectrum, from very stoned or trippy to hardline left-wing groups, So at the extremes they were very different, but there was also overlap, people found where they wanted to be and also moved around. 

Coming back to the Women’s Paper, after printing I think we took them around shops and left them there. We also just gave them away. I mean, it said two pence but I’m sure that we weren’t busy collecting the 2p’s. There were quite a lot of other things going on at that time.

Because we do say, [in the paper] “if anyone has been bothered by this, please come and contact us.” But I don’t remember many people coming. I remember the contact with people more from going around and talking and collecting the stories. 

And actually, all the stuff about doctors – it’s interesting again, how things have changed over the last 50 years. But there was a bit at the end, I thought, “wow, were we really writing that then?”.

Do you know this book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande? It’s a tough read but very good. Basically, it’s about how we’re all going to die, and how people aren’t treated according to what they actually need or want. And particularly around death and dying, because dying is seen as a bit of a failure of the hospital system. Doctors don’t like people to die so there’s all these heroic measures for keeping people alive these days.

And there is an article in the paper saying “we’re being treated not for what we need, but what for others need.” So that’s interesting – 50 years ago, we were writing things like that.

My impression of being a man who’s gone through the birth of our daughter, in Homerton Hospital is that there was still some way to go. But it was described in the paper as being like going to a factory. And from my perspective, in the year 2000, you could see that there was at least a little bit of sensitivity around the parents’ needs and different ways of doing stuff.

Yes, back then the hospital structures were more regimented so it became a bit factory like. Nurses were told ‘You are here to do a job so get on with it’ Today there is a lot more acknowledgement of the need for sensitivity, but staff are still overworked and underpaid which makes this hard to maintain. In 1970’s nurses were also fighting back, looking for better wages and working conditions. 

Sometimes when I speak to people that are a lot younger than me, they seem to feel that things are just terrible – it’s gonna be the end of the world – we’re all doomed. And I think we do need to tease out the things that have got better. Because otherwise, what’s the point? 

Things have got better and they’ve got worse. I live in Ireland now, in Southern Ireland. I was talking to someone today who was involved in a similar movement, at the same sort of time but in Ireland. It was different in Ireland. They were fighting for the right to buy contraception, you know? 

And we were saying that we really thought the world was going to come to an end at the beginning of 1980s, we thought capitalism would collapse and that would be it. So we didn’t look for long term jobs. We didn’t get careers. We really thought it was going to happen. Then slowly but surely, we realised “oh, maybe this isn’t happening”. 

But it makes me think of how it is for people today, because these days we think “climate change, it’s got to be the end.” Not denying that the situation is very serious, but who knows what solutions will come.  My generation thought – nuclear war, we’d wipe all ourselves out. When I was a teenager main thing was CND. There had been two major world wars in that century already. So, in my childhood, my grandparents talked about the first world war. My parents and their friends talked about the second world war. And now there was nuclear weapons. So that radicalised us. And that’s what was making us look for alternatives. You could say it was a revolutionary time. 

I really can’t tell you much more about what happened with the paper, only it was very formative for me! And obviously I ended up carrying these views with me.

I did think of myself as a Marxist for a while, after the paper. We had been busy being active, squatting and working in the ‘Claimants Union’ supporting people to get what they were entitled to, sometimes harassing people working at the social security office. Also helping people to open up houses and squat, all of that. We aspired to be ‘revolutionaries’, so at a certain point we started to study Marx and other communist writers, to learn and understand more about the history and dynamics of class struggle.

Some of the guys from the other commune, were more politically oriented than we were and we started meeting together. Interestingly enough, I only realised afterwards that one of them, his parents were in the Communist Party. It was quite male dominated. I remember saying very little. I bought into it a lot. It was Marxism but with quite a lot of influence from Wilhelm Reich? [Sex-positive psychotherapist and communist].

We called ourselves, but never publicly, The East London Anti Rents Group! We talked, but we didn’t really take much action. This was like ’74, ’75 and there was a bit of a feeling like “it’s not 1968 anymore”. That energy was gone and I think Margaret Thatcher was already around. And so, it was falling apart, in a way. 

Sometimes people have their radical youth and then edge away from it, but still retain some of the values. Especially if you’ve been involved with something quite intense, like squatting and communal living and being a Marxist. So I guess that’s the question: what happened then? Would you still call yourself a Marxist and where did you end up? I don’t want create an idealised version of you that just exists in squats in the early 1970s…

I’d love to show you where I ended up. [Christine turns her camera around and shows me a lovely view out of her window of the sea.]

[laughs] OK that does look quite good!

I love showing it to people. It’s an amazing place, but very windy. In 1977, I moved to Ireland. Because the group disbanded and it seemed the revolution wasn’t happening, I actually worked in Hackney Hospital for a while in the laundry and I delivered glue around shoe factories and I did meals on wheels, different stuff working around in Hackney. 

And, my Mum died suddenly around that time. I was quite young and that threw me into a lot of grief and I decided wanted to move out London.

I drove around England and in a Morris Traveler [iconic 1970s mini-van with wooden window frames] trying to work out where to go. And then someone suggested I went on holiday to Ireland. So I came to Ireland and – there’s space here, you know? At that time, there was something like 4 million people in the whole of Ireland. And there were 8 million people in London or something [laughs]. And things just fell into place for me. I got a job, I found a place to live. I moved to Dublin to begin with.

I’d been doing Tai Chi and I got interested in Buddhism, which is something that quite a lot of the political people did. It’s a bit like the Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”. And there was always an element of that with the Wilhelm Reich stuff, that we carry the political structures within us. There was a level of trying to work with that within ourselves already. 

Reich said that there could be issues around hyper political activists and their character armour and repression and things like that…

A certain level of it could be very male dominated. Which is probably why there had to be a women’s movement at that time. Because the men articulated and the women…

did the typing and washing up? 

Yeah. Cooked cherry pies and all these things. I couldn’t type!

So this is where I’ve ended up. I helped to found a Buddhist Retreat Centre in the West of Ireland. Which is now building the first Buddhist Temple in Ireland. And we built this spiritual care center, which is quite unique. Though again, it was a little bit, “what are we doing here?” 

We started off thinking we were going to build a hospice two hours’ drive from the nearest big hospital, on the edge of a cliff. It was a new thing. We were saying in Hackney Womens’ Paper that there’s need for spiritual, emotional, care and this is what we were trying to offer. Particularly for people who are facing death or facing an illness that might lead to their death.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s still being invented… this [is now an issue] for the next generation. 

Yeah I think “dignity in dying” is going to be a huge issue as opposed to keeping everyone alive for as long as possible regardless of the situation…

I think, these days there’s a certain denial of death, partly because of our expectations of modern medicine. So within the hospitals, there’s not an acceptance of death in a certain way. So, people are heroically kept alive over a prolonged time. I worked for a while as a hospital chaplain in Cork and I remember one woman, she was 86 and she just had major heart surgery. And when I was talking to her, she said “I can’t believe God didn’t take me”. 

I recently heard someone say “we need to die because it makes space for other people on the planet, so more human beings can enjoy this planet”. My generation’s been incredibly fortunate actually, just for starters, better pensions than ever before. But there’s a quite lot of us… so it’s a drain on the younger people who are keeping it together, always paradox.

It sounds like you have done your bit, though! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Christine.

Be well, thank you.

Rosalind Delmar – Sexism Capitalism and the Family: A paper written for the Women’s Liberation Conference, London, November 1972

Roger and The Gang seek “chicks” in Dalston (1972)

A letter to underground magazine International Times, 1972.

Gender balance seems to have been a serious issue for Hackney communes in 1972. I have previously posted a similar notice from the same year by a gay collective in nearby Abersham Road E8. The difference is that Abersham Rd notice explicitly mentioned “we are into smashing our male patriarchy” whereas this would not appear to be a concern for Roger (and/or “the gang”).

For me this speaks to a clash of subcultures – on the one hand the hedonist druggies of 86 Sandringham Road. On the other the hard-edged feminist political milieu that would host figures like the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll and Dalston Men’s Group. The hedonist faction is less well documented, for obvious reasons… I’d love to speak to Roger and the gang about their time in Hackney if they are still around.

With thanks to Pocock Rare Books on Instagram for posting this. And Paul STN for bringing it to my attention.

See also:

History Workshop Journal: Feminist squatting in Hackney

Anti- Apartheid and porn “redecorations” in 1980s Hackney

“Daughters of Amazon” attack Hackney porn shop (1983):

From the anarchist newspaper Black Flag 17th June 1983

Anti-Apartheid activists attack Barclays Bank on Green Lanes (1986).

From Black Flag 13th January 1986

Damage to property as direct action was reasonably common in the 1970s and 1980s. It had a dual function of “propaganda by deed”, where the business owner (and the community) were left in little doubt about the strength of feeling against them – and of course there was economic damage to the business too.

Furthermore, activists were able to claim responsibility anonymously through the underground and anarchist press via their political statements. The Angry Brigade excelled at this in the 1970s, with some very powerful manifestos – and one of their early targets was Barclays Bank on Stoke Newington High Street (now Stoke Newington Books) which was firebombed on October 26th 1970.

But most damage to property was far less spectacular than that meted out by the Angry Brigade. Indeed, the attraction of low level vandalism was precisely its accessibility – it was cheap and could be done by one or two people at night, etc.

“Diary of ALF Actions” from Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group Newsletter 10, April 1984

In the 1980s Animal Liberation Front activists must have damaged thousands (if not tens of thousands) of butchers shops and other properties involved with animal exploitation in the UK. Common actions would be anything from graffiti, to glueing up the locks so that the building could not be accessed the next day.

Hackney based anarchopunk band The Apostles (who lived at Brougham Road E8, off Broadway Market) captured the spirit of this particular direct action subculture in their 1983 song “Pigs For Slaughter”:

“Glue the locks of all the banks and butchers – or kick them in,
Spray a message of hate across a Bentley – or smash it up,
Sabotage the meat in supermarkets – poison them all,
Go to Kensington and mug a rich bastard of all his cash.

We’re knocking on your door,
We’re taking no more,
For this is Class War.

Put sugar in the petrol tank,
Deflate the tyres with six inch nails,
That’s the way to wreck a Rolls,
So get stuck in it never fails.
We’ll smash it up and we’ll bum it all down.”

The Apostles – pigs for slaughter

This kind of politically motivated damage to property seems far less common now, mainly because of the increased prevalence of CCTV, but also the laws around incitement are much harsher, so I think people that published manifestos or seemed to be encouraging this sort of thing might find themselves in far greater trouble with the law…

There’s probably a lot more to be written about this area, so any pointers about direct action generally in Hackney or Animal Liberation / animal rights activity in the borough would be welcome.

Further reading

Hackney HOWLers book launch Thurs March 17th

Slighty short notice but there is an online book launch of “Write Women Into History: Recollections from older Hackney feminists” this Thursday.

My review of the book is here: https://hackneyhistory.wordpress.com/2022/02/05/hackney-howlers-write-women-into-history/

Hackney HOWLers – Write Women Into History

Write Women Into History: Recollections by older Hackney Feminists was published last year as part of the HOWL (History of Women’s Liberation) project.

HOWL was established in 2019 to mark 50 years since the earliest UK Women’s Liberation Groups were formed and to:

“reveal and collect the wealth of stories by grassroots women from diverse backgrounds who were part of this important movement”

The fourteen contributors met online during the lockdown to discuss their lives, their writing and to draw each other for the cover artwork.

The resulting booklet is nicely produced with a great variation of styles from diverse contributors and numerous photographs and illustrations. I especially enjoyed Sue O’Sullivan’s recollections of the Sheba feminist publishing collective in 1980s Dalston, BJ & MJ’s dialogue about their mother/daughter relationship and Gilli Salvat on the first UK black lesbian support group – but there is something of interest on every page. (I was also excited to see a chapter by my next door neighbour – hello!)

The concise (and very readable) contributions tend to focus on the positive (and frankly we all need a bit of that). So this isn’t the place for extended accounts of fallings out and schisms. There are some simply stated differences though. For example Stephanie Henthorne’s “political lesbians (what was that all about?)” is perhaps affectionately at variance with Jan S’s “For me, heterosexuality seems incompatible with feminism”.

I think the most striking aspect of the book is the general impression it gives of the oppressions women faced in the late 20th Century in the UK, the courage it took to join a movement that was battling them – and the fun that could be had being part of that. Of course, some progress has been made since – not least because of the hard work done by the contributors and their allies in the feminist movement. But if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’d agree that there is still a long way to go – so it’s gratifying to see that many of the Hackney HOWLers are still active in a number of radical projects today.

Copies of the book can be ordered from Lulu for £5 plus p&p.

Photo by the project designer Luise Vormittag

“The only black and the only woman reporter…” Hackney Gazette in the 1970s

The following piece appears in the book It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media edited by Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner and published by Comedia/CARM 1982.

It’s a remarkable account of a young black female reporter of working at the paper at the time, and what she had to overcome.

Juliet Alexander

Since this was published, Juliet has worked in a wide range of senior roles including Education Careers Manager at Hackney Learning Trust and with a huge number of local community and voluntary organisations. Her Linkedin profile will tell you more. She tweets at @julietshares

Two tokens in one: the only black and the only woman reporter…
Juliet Alexander interviewed

Juliet Alexander was a reporter on the Hackney Gazette in East London for five years. At her initial interview the editor said that taking her on meant that he was killing two minorities in one. He was joking. She is interviewed by Geoffrey Sheridan[1].

I started at 18, when most people in the office were young, left of centre, and anti-racist. Being black didn’t affect what I did at the beginning — that was in 1975. Being a junior reporter meant that I had to do all the crap that was going. Even after I had been on the paper for a few years, if a kid drowned or something like that, I was the one who went to see the family to get a picture of the kid. That was mainly because I was female. Yet in an area that is a quarter black there was no way I could cover all the black stories. And there was no reason why I should go out on those stories, with a few exceptions.

An obvious case was Maurice Hope, the light middleweight world champion, from Antigua. A reporter went out to interview him, and he couldn’t understand a word that Maurice said. His mother had an even heavier accent. So I was taken along. Maurice was anti-white before he won the world championship and the white press had ignored him. He said in the interview that the Hackney Gazette was the only paper that had given him any publicity, apart from the West Indian World.

Some blacks would only deal with me, such as Eddie Grant, who set up the first black recording studio[2], and Pastor Morris, who does the Finsbury Park Carnival. I covered news from the estates and word went round like wild fire that Juliet did housing stories, so there were lots of blacks there, but whites, too. They found it hard to separate the fact that I was a reporter from the fact that I was black, which is as it should be, I think.

Before I went on to the Gazette there had been trouble at Dalston police station. A black youth had his head flushed down the loo. It was felt it might do the police some good if they got to know a black person in a different way. I probably did very good PR work on behalf of black people. The only blacks the police met were those they arrested. Meeting a black person on professional terms was as much an experience for them as it was for me.

Sexism and racism

In fact their attitude was of a bunch of men to a woman, rather than to a black. They were incredibly sexist in some cases, and began with the attitude: ‘This silly little girl can’t do her job, so we’ll go out of our way to help her.’ Realising that not all blacks wear woolly caps, there was a slight shift in their thinking. With another reporter they’d say: ‘Two niggers were picked up for mugging an old lady.’ With me it was: ‘Two muggers were picked up…’ But sometimes they’d say ‘mugger’ meaning ‘nigger’. It was ingrained.

Racism came from outside the office, not inside. This man called Sid rang up one day complaining about blacks vandalising his estate. ‘He didn’t mind blacks,’ he said, but it was obvious he did. That’s what a lot of people who rang up said. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I told Sid his experience was really awful — I was doing my middle-class Tory lady bit. I invited him over to the paper and met him at reception. He recognised my voice, dropped his head in his hands, and called himself ‘Sid the Shit’. We had a long talk. There was one of those phone calls every day.

The paper’s policy led to abusive phone calls. We followed the NUJ policy of not putting in someone’s colour unless it was material to the story, such as a black musician where his colour is part of the description of what he does. We would never put emotive terms into the headline or the introduction of an article. The North London branch of the NUJ was very militant and backed the union’s guidelines. The editor agreed with that. But if it was common knowledge that someone was black — if the evening papers had said so — we’d get abusive phone calls wanting to know why we didn’t call ‘a spade a spade’.

Striking against racism

We had a walk-out over racism. During the Greater London Council elections in 1977 a reporter noticed that an advert for a National Front meeting was due to go into the paper. The management said they couldn’t remove it. It was an immediate decision to go out on strike. I was doing the front-page lead article that day. I put it in my bag and walked out. We were out for three days, and picked up a hell of a lot of signatures supporting our action. We normally completely ignored NF meetings. The only time we mentioned them was in unfavourable terms — who they’d beaten up that week. In elections we gave details of all the candidates except the NF’s. We simply said they were standing two candidates, or however many it was.

Before I went to the Gazette it had given coverage to Derek Day[3] — a leading NF member — and to tenants in Hoxton, which was a fascist base. Things changed a bit. When Day’s address was published in the paper, because his son was involved in a court case, he came down to the office, distressed the receptionist, and demanded to see the editor. I volunteered to go down. He was ranting and raving. He came up to me, nose to nose. ‘I’m Derek Day,’ he yelled. `I’m racist and proud of it.’ He described the Gazette in unglowing terms, tore the paper in shreds, and threw it over me. I thanked him for his comment and excused myself.

As far as the NF was concerned, we were a ‘Nigger-loving Commie rag’, which is what they sprayed on the building. When flags were put up for the Jubilee, someone came into the office to lower them. ‘We had no right to fly the British flag,’ we were told.

(Juliet Alexander left the Hackney Gazette to work on the BBC Radio London programme Black Londoners. She now works in TV in the Midlands.)


Some new notes

1. Geoffrey Sheridan who interviewed Juliet also has Hackney Radical History connections. He was son of a tailor, and Communist party member and grew up in Stamford Hill. He was a member of the International Marxist Group and wrote for a number of radical and socialist publications, From 1987 until his death in the year 2000, he worked in business planning for Hackney council. Guardian obituary here.

2. The legendary Coach House Recording Studios, founded in 1972 and based at 81 Osbaldeston Road, London N16.

3. Derrick Day was a notorious racist thug and National Front member. He was in charge of security at the NF’s headquarters Excalibur House in Shoreditch in the late 1970s. Veteran anti-fascist Martin Lux described him thus:

“Times were much harder then and a lot of the NF were very hard, violent people. You just have to look at the head of the Hoxton NF back then, Derrick Day, a fuckin gorilla with a face covered with razor cuts.”

It should go without saying that it would be remarkably brave for a young black woman working as a junior reporter, to volunteer to meet a ranting and raving fascist bully. Derrick Day died in 1995 during a protest against live animal exports in Brightlingsea, where he then lived. It’s unclear whether he had recanted his support for violent white supremacy later in life.

Lenin in Hackney – revisited

Nine years ago I wrote about the visit of prominent communists to Hackney in 1907:

Since then, additional information has come my way about:

  • The press hysteria concerning some of the female delegates attending the congress
  • The location of the place in Dalston where hundreds of the revolutionaries stayed throughout the event
  • The identity of the painter who portrayed this momentous occasion

I’ve also added details of some source material at the end and reuploaded the short film discussing it all…

This has been added to the original post to keep everything in one place, so click on the link above…

Hackney against the Vietnam War

Flyer courtesy of Wisconsin History Society

In May 1971 American soldiers in London handed a petition to the US Embassy expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War.

As you can see from the bottom left of the above flyer, this event was supposed to be followed by a celebrity Peace Concert. (“People Emerging Against Corrupt Establishments” was a UK newspaper “by and for GI’s with the intent to foster a more humane military. Published underground and RAF Mildenhall, England”.)

The concert apparently happened in Hackney according to Peoples Press (a newspaper “by and for the G.I.s at Fort Campbell” in Tennessee.):

From Peoples Press vol 1 number 3 June 1971

I was initially a bit sceptical that this had actually happened, but a comrade came up trumps with this from The Guardian:

Jackie Leishman, “US servicemen protest against the Vietnam war,” The Guardian (London),
1 June 1971.

The same comrade pointed me to a photo of Vanessa Redgrave at the event here.

Embed from Getty Images

“English actress Vanessa Redgrave takes part in a theatrical event in Victoria Park, London, as part of an anti-war protest, UK, 31st May 1971. (Photo by D. Morrison/Daily Express/Getty Images)”

And here is Mia Farrow:

Embed from Getty Images

American actress Mia Farrow takes part in a theatrical event in Victoria Park, London, as part of an anti-war protest, UK, 31st May 1971. (Photo by D. Morrison/Daily Express/Getty Images).

Shutterstock has an image of Mia and Vanessa together at the event with the latter wearing a P.E.A.C.E. organisation t-shirt.

Report Digital has a number of heavily copyrighted images of the event of interest:

Redgrave recalls the event in her autobiography:

In the summer of 1971 a sturdy group of U.S. airmen presented a petition to the embassy in Grosvenor Square, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. In the afternoon we held a concert for them in Victoria Park, Hackney. Mia Farrow took part in this. Jane [Fonda] had sent me the texts of some sketches she and Donald Sutherland had used in their antiwar concerts. Gerald Scarfe, the political cartoonist, made some papier-mache heads of the president and his wife, Pat.


PAT: Dick! Dick! Who are all those nasty men on the lawn waving cards at us? Can’t you do something?

NIXON: I don’t know what I can do, Pat.

PAT: Send in the army and clear them off my lawn!

NIXON: Pat, they are the army.

Victoria Park was jointly run by Hackney and Tower Hamlets until 1994, when it unfortunately escaped our clutches for our Easterly neighbours. Any memories from the Peace Concert would be very welcome, please leave a comment.

The largest UK organsation opposing the war was the Trotskyist Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. The VSC was heavily inflitrated by spycops after the infamous 1968 demonstration at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

From June 1967 until February 1968, the VSC national HQ was at 49 Rivington Street, EC2 – a building owned by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that would subsequently host the Anti-University.

Hackney also had its own branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the late 1960s. Its distinctly unsinister activities included a social at the White Hart:

From Vietnam Solidarity Campaign Bulletin 18 (1968)

Veteran socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham has her own recollections of the mundane work being done at the time:

My own Vietnam Solidarity efforts that January in Hackney were not exactly at the cutting edge, being rather the revolutionary equivalent of ‘doing my bit’. The saga of the jumble sale for East London VSC was continuing. At the eleventh hour, with jumble bursting out of my bedroom, I discovered the Trotskyist secretary had considered himself too much the grand revolutionary to book a hall for the jumble sale.

Suspecting sabotage and hardly able to move around in my room for boxes, I defiantly stuck up the notices in the newsagent’s anyway: ‘Victory to the Vietcong Jumble Sale, 12 Montague Road.’ Sure enough, the tough gangs of elderly women who were regulars at all the local jumble sales were in the door, down the corridor past the `Dialectics of Liberation’ poster on the wall and bargaining fiercely. Then off they went, like the proverbial greased lightning, leaving sad little piles of debris in their wake.

The momentum of the jumble sale went with them. A few lost Hackney souls, bemused and aimless, were left ambling around my bedroom, evidently disorientated at finding themselves in a house. Indeed, one Caribbean man, who must have decided the solution to this oddness was that we were an extension of Mr Archie’s business next door, propositioned Mary and me. I steered him past the ‘Victory to the Vietcong’ posters and out through the front door.

Sheila Rowbotham – Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties

(It is probably worth mentioning that not all opponents of the war were quite so gung ho about supporting the Vietnamese regime. Bob Potter’s Vietnam: Whose Victory? published by the libertarian socialist Solidarity group is a good example of principled opposition to the ruling class in both the USA and Vietnam at the time.)

I’m sure a lot of Hackney residents attended the many large demonstrations against the war. I would be interested in hearing about any Hackney protests or solidarity work, so please do leave a comment below if you have memories of them.

The Vietnam War finally ended in 1975. From the 1970s onwards thousands of Vietnamese people displaced by the conflict and the regime that followed it resettled in the UK. Hackney hosts one of Britain’s largest Vietnamese populations. Hackney Archives is in the process of documenting the history of the Vietnamese community here.

Dalston Mens Group (1977)

Few figures are so universally mocked as the male feminist. Dalston Mens Group seemed too good to be true when I chanced upon it. An almost perfect artefact of “right on Hackney”, like the satirically elitist “Stoke Newington Jazz Club” in The Mighty Boosh tv comedy series.

But Dalston Mens Group was a real and fascinating example of the plethora of radical organisations in the borough in the 1970s. Its oddness and the feelings of awkwardness it raised with me made it even more interesting.

Breaking through the cringe

Looking into the embarrassment people feel about male feminists is a scab worth picking. So here is a summary of what I reckon are the problems people have:

Earnestness. The idea that male feminists overstate the importance of their area of interest (and that it is better to not talk about it, probably). That it’s embarrassing and unmanly to be interested in feminism rather than traditional manly pursuits. Especially if it means that you veer into “feminine” territory, like expressing your feelings. And that all this is unattractive to “real” (i.e. not feminist) women anyway. Alongside this, there is a feeling that male feminism is an indulgence for middle class people who have too much time on their hands.

Virtue signalling/Insincerity. That basically male feminists are broadcasting their niceness for the benefit of feminist women as they think it will help them gain credibility and perhaps get laid. In doing this, male feminsts want to appear to be superior to “normal” men who are untainted by feminism. There is an overriding suspicion that male feminists don’t actually believe any of it. At its most extreme there is the idea that men are genetically predisposed to be bestial gropers and male feminists seek to deny this is the case.

Most people reading this have probably been irritated by people who are simply too “right on” to be enjoyable company. But many of us would also concede that occasionally being challenged on our behaviours and language has been a good opportunity for learning and reflection. So there is a balance to be struck.

All of the above has meant that I would probably call myself someone who was a supporter of feminism and women’s rights, rather than a feminist. It’s clear to me that the struggle for gender equality is real and ongoing, so we all need to play our part. And I try and do what I can, but I’m not some kind of super-enlightened mega-activist crusader or anything.

There is something in all of this about what masculinity is and what being “a real man” entails, which I have struggled with myself. As a straight cis man, I have taken pride on several occasions in the past with the suggestion that I was “not a real man” from various people (some of whom were probably well-meaning and some definitely not), but these days I’m less sure if that’s helpful.

Being a “real man” is as unattainable for most of us as being the sort of perfect embodiment of womanhood suggested by mainstream culture is for women. It’s probably better, in the short term, to radically expand the definition of what masculinity can be and so try to make it less important, rather than jettison it entirely (as suggested by John Stoltenberg in his provocative book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Social Justice (1989)). As well as supporting the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, obviously.

Recent campaigns like #metoo, Everyday Sexism, Everyone’s Invited and Reclaim These Streets have seen increased focus on men taking responsibility for their behaviour – and that of other men.

Alongside this inspiring upsurge of feminism there has been a regrouping of anti-feminism on the alt-right. The very online world of disaffected young men can be a recruiting ground for far right movements. The 2016 documentary The Red Pill (directed by Cassie Jaye) has been a lightning rod for some men’s grievances against what they see as feminism and the problems it has caused them.

The film makes a reasonably compelling case for the problems men face in western societies in the 21st century, but then blames these difficulties on the gains of the feminist movement. In fact many of the issues raised by the men in the film could be resolved by feminism.

For example men not being able to express their feelings does lead to mental health issues and a greater likelihood of death by suicide than in women. Feminism seeks to deconstruct the binary divide of macho men / feminine women, so that all human beings can express themselves sincerely and authentically.

And many of the issues men face could be solved by socialism. Men are more likely to die in workplace accidents than women – and the solution to this is a strong trade union movement rather than whining about feminists.

So men organising as men is both necessary and rife with all sorts of problems. And examining mens groups during previous waves of feminism might help us with unpick some of the issues of today. Or give us a laugh. Or maybe both of these things.

The origins of Dalston Mens Group

Dave Phillips (photo courtesy of The British Library)

The British Library has a helpful audio interview with Dalston Mens’ Group founder Dave Phillips. It’s clear that the sort of reservations I have set out above were also present in the 1970s:

There was a men’s conference, which I didn’t go to, held somewhere I think in the Seven Sisters Road, it must have been about 1973 or ’74. So we were aware that there were these men’s groups starting up, but we were very suspicious of them, innate personal conservatism being one reason, but… [laughs].

What else? Subterranean homophobia, I don’t know, I mean the sense that these were kind of all a bit sissy and a bit sort of.. but then we were trying to sort of work out what the different kinds of strands around were, there seemed to be one strand around which was very much about trying to do something to assist the women’s movement. These were people who called themselves anti-sexist men.[…]

There were about ten of us all told. And we were trying to fit together a kind of, you know, our commitment to Trotskyist politics, as we thought it was, and feminism, and trying to fit our response to feminism.

Dave Phillips

Dave and several of the other founders were also members of the International Socialists (I.S.), one of the larger Trotskyist groups in the UK. (I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977). Dalston Mens Group was not an official I.S. group or front – indeed several comrades I’ve spoken to about this have expressed their surprise at this connection. For me, one of the most striking things in the texts of Dalston Mens Group is their openness about their doubts and insecure feelings – something that is anathema to the cast iron certainty of most Trot papers and groups. In fact I’d say that their attempts to organise without hierarchy and to combine the personal and political had more in common with some anarchist groups.

What does a Mens Group do?

Dave goes on to mention their activities:

All these groups in effect, with the benefit of hindsight, were quite limited in their effects, but they were into things like setting up crèches and looking after the kids while the women went to give out leaflets and stuff like that.

[…] there was another strand which was very much into personal exploration. The Brixton men’s group, were very into Reich and Gestalt therapy and stuff like that and were into exploring their own selves and were quite good, much better than we ever were, at being critical of each other, and exploring the kind of contradictions inside people’s personal positions.

There was a kind of position that we termed the guilt tripping, which was the kind of men who felt they were personally responsible for sexism, and were very into kind of trying to change themselves. So as we went on we became quite critical of that position, we felt you couldn’t really strip out sexism through an act of will, or self-development. They were people who were into developing a lifestyle, you know, a non-sexist kind of lifestyle, which took various forms, you know, a lot of sandal wearing and brown rice, nut rissoles and that sort of stuff.

Dave Phillips

The group apparently also published at least five issues of Mens News, which is how I came to find out about them. I’ve only managed to obtain one issue, which I have scanned and made available as a PDF here. (Leave a comment below if you have access to other issues or know where they can be found?)

The contents of Mens News are a mixed bag. “Dalstons Mens Group – A History” is reproduced in full below and covers the origins and anxieties of the group. There is more mention of the consciousness raising than the practical support given to the feminist movement.

“Ideals & Reality” contrasts socialist and mens groups and how the practice of both falls short of the theory. It has some, frankly, slightly dodgy passages like this one that veers towards “Nice Guy Syndrome”:

“I remember the parties I went to, the girls I lusted for, the impossibility of matching the charisma of [musician] Jet Harris, the unattainability of the women, who now 15 years on tell me that I exploited them, when I couldn’t get near them.”

“Sixteen Thoughts” is a political/theoretcial analysis of the history of feminism with some interesting conclusions about seventies culture (for example the “ham masculinity” punk rock and horror firlms). I thought these bits were good:

“Feminism shows us yawning holes in present day socialism’s ways of organising and lack of popular appeal and has a critical contribution to make to tjhe creation of a new revolutionary movement.

Mens groups are not inherently anti-sexist, it is all-male groups which administer most of capitalism.

The point finally is not a purely mental effort to abolish our sexual conditioning, but the abolition of the material relations which give rise to our condition.”

Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts

There are also three articles on the difficulties of parenting in a nuclear family:

And finally an article on Islington Mens Group from 1974 which was allegedly “found in a disused squat”.

This probably all sounds quite dry, but there is self-deprecation in Mens News #5 as well as some amusing collages and graphics:

Illustration from Mens News #5, with a graphic nicked from anarchist Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex

Menswear: male feminist style & fashion

“I think we all had long hair, but then, everybody in the 70s, almost everybody had long hair, I mean coal miners had long hair, everybody had long hair, footballers had long hair. There was one strand amongst men’s groups, I mean I seem to be centred on Wandsworth, who were trying to construct an androgynous lifestyle, which went as far as, you know, they removed their body hair and they waxed their chests, and [laughs]…

But remember, this was the period of glam rock and the glam period, so I can remember being in this men’s conference we organised. Well there we all were, we’d be wearing our kind of bell-bottomed baggy trousers, a lot of sandals. I think we were into nail varnish a bit. I used to have a toenail that was always a very, very, I don’t know what colour you’d call it, not turquoise exactly, but quite strikingly coloured toenail. Not too much, but you know, a real hint. [laughs] There was quite a lot of wearing of kind of ethnic neckwear and stuff like that about at that time.”

Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library

The back page (above) lists a number of kindred groups around England. As usual there is scant information about what happened to them, how they fizzled out etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that some people drifted away and others got involved with other campaigns.

Perhaps traces of the 1970s mens groups can be seen in 1980s/90s organisations like Men Against Sexist Shit. I was also inspired by seeing large numbers of men supporting the 2019 Womens Strike rally in London with cooking, childcare etc.

In Their Own Words: Dalston Mens Group – A History (from Mens News #5 1977)

Our group really started in January 1976 out of a nucleus of 5 men, who had been meeting together for 3 months. We had only hazy ideas of why we wanted to be in a group, some of us had heard, or read about other mens groups or been to the early mens conference in London. We wanted to try and create the sense of community that many women seemed to have in the Womens Movement, and which we as men seemed to he lacking, lost in a world of ritual personal isolation. We had all been influenced by women in Womens Liberation and were very much aware of the personal limitations of ‘comradeship’ in most socialist groups.

The 8 of us in the group are involved or connected to socialist political groups, mostly to the Socialist Workers Party (or IS as it then was) and heavily involved in trade union branches at work plus the usual left campaigns. We know we are opposed to Reformism and Stalinism. But we don’t have a definite ‘line’ about personal politics, we are not trying to function as a mens’ cell inside political groups, or as an organised grouping inside the mens movement.

We do believe that part of the process of linking the personal and the political involves bringing together socialist politics and personal and sexual politics. That means, at this stage, straight Marxist men need to be a lot more emotionally honest with each other. We are critical of and get upset and depressed about the way left groups have traditionally resisted or opposed developments in personal politics, especially the Womens and the Gay Movements in recent years. But we also criticise those who reject left groups and socialist politics as one focus of an assertion of personal politics.

We have all recognised the impact of our experience as socialists and the role of the Womens Movement on our lives as men. In the group we have tried to bring these two strands in our lives together. We don’t claim we have had any conspicuous success at doing it – it’s not easily done and the two worlds of experience continually resist each other – but in the end that is at the centre of what we are aiming to do. It would be nice to produce a neat theoretical analysis of all the questions and issues that we’ve raised and discussed, but we’re still muddled.

As a mens group, we are not activists, we don’t go out into the world and do things around mens politics, nor are we a reading group, holding theoretical seminars. Consciousness-raising is the best way to describe our meetings. What we have discussed has always started from our own personal accounts of our experience. Through sharing our personal experience of sexuality we have tried to understand our experiences and to change the way in which we see the world in terms of how we relate to other men, women and kids. From our personal experience of lives and relationships, loves, problems, fears and hopes we’ve set out to connect what we have in common with the rest of our politics. This has been vary erratic – mainly, sometimes with great intensity, we have discovered each other in new ways and gained a lot of strength and support from being together and sharing our personal feelings with other men. This comes as a great relief after many years of ‘relating’ in traditional blokish ways.

Four of us have kids, one very recently. Three or us have been married at one lime, but all have split up from their wives, one recently while in the group. We are all straight with a spattering of gay experiences. And we’re all in the ‘educated middle class’ now, professionally employed… or unemployed, although we came from a much wider class background in the working and lower middle class with parents who wouldn’t have dreamt of going to college themselves. Which defines some important limitations about our group. We meet once a week for about two or four hours, with lapses and sometimes month-long breaks owing to problems of time, work and other commitments. We have mainly been a closed group, and there is no formal structure – it’s a leaderless group and though meetings usually have a main theme decided on at a previous meeting we don’t often keep to it. Sometimes we just start talking around what has been happening to us the previous week. Or wait till someone says something everyone else picks up on.

Most of us have known each other for some years – some of the relationships in the group go back over a decade! Surprisingly, this didn’t cause difficulties – in fact being in the group helped open up relationships which had got stuck in old grooves and being friends outside the group has helped us stay together as a group through times when we felt very unclear about our aims. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, or we are all tired or fed up, we can always just have a drink together. But the meeting provides the institutional framework in which we talk about mens politics and try to develop our political understanding of men and the male role. At times it is a very frustrating and stagnating process but by and large we go on feeling that we benefit from meeting and that it has changed us in the way we function with other women and men outside the group in the rest of our lives. Though often it is difficult to put your finger on some of these changes or to find words to describe them.

At first we talked about our selves – personal histories of what our childhoods were like, parents, schools, learning about fucking, our current sexual states and the way we were living. This helped us get to know each other and put everyone in the same positon – those who were new to the group as well as old mates. We went on to discuss a lot of topics that we variously thought were important adolescence, fucking, nuclear and multiple relationships, having children, work, jealousy, the women’s movements, sexuality and sex objects, male relationships, loneliness, collective living, drinking, pornography, fascism.

It is impossible to summarise what we discussed and learnt in all this. Usually we just learnt about each other’s ideas and experience. We hardly ever felt we got to the stage of working an issue right out so that we all ended up sharing a particular analysis or conclusion about something. Two themes did keep cropping up repeatedly – one was the importance of kids when you start thinking about almost any of these matters, how having them affects you totally and comes to influence your relationships and what you can give and take from them. Secondly, we talked a lot about monogamy and multiple relationships and their different problems in the context of seeking some sort of change from the limitations of nuclear set-ups, their closedupness and resistance to change. Multiple relationships in which most of us have been involved sometimes for several years and sometimes with women who are also with other men in the group have their own problems, to say the least.

These discussions, have not got us to a position of formulating any grand theories – in fact we’ve often felt bogged down and confused about where we are supposed to be going. We constantly discuss the nature of the group, whether it ought to exist and where we are at, usually in terms of whether the group should set out to be supportive or ideological or interventionist. We’ve tried to be supportive within the limits of our own personal psychologies and our experience, and we’d like to develop a clearer ideological grasp of ourselves.

Mainly, we’ve been led on to asking more questions about what we aim to get out of the experience. How do we get away from the pragmatism of our approach to issues in order to develop a socialist critique of men, masculinity, chauvinism and sexual oppression? How do we do this without losing a lot of what goes on in the group that is new and exploratory? What should be the relationship of men to feminism and the Womens Movement? How do we avoid colluding in our own forms of mystification? How do we get to be more critical of each other? How can mens issues be raised on a more general political basis — in trade unions and political groups? Unless we can begin to generate specific demands around the experience of being men in a sexist and capitalist society, for instance, demanding rights in our conditions of work that recognize men have relationships with their children, mens groups risk remaining small, inward-looking and irrelevant to the outside world.