‘Horror movies don’t create fear, they release it’ – Wes Craven
Jeremy Millar’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (2011)
Mental health is political: political on multiple and intersecting dimensions. For R.D. Laing ‘insanity’ was ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world’. Unsurprisingly an ever-intensifying pandemic of mental ill-health is a direct consequence of the entrenchment and intensification of a now half-century long political-economic project that substitutes the baubles of consumerism for social solidarity and psychological grounded-ness, only to reward the now atomised and isolated consumer with the horrors of penury and precarity. That devastates the biosphere of this planet upon which we all depend for the gross over-enrichment of a global handful who measure their wealth in billions. That project which having in 2008-9 imploded under the burden of its own greed and short-termism, now is reconstituting itself in the form of multiple explicit and implicit fascisms, like Terminator 2 (1991) reconstituting itself after being blown apart, of Frank’s resurrection in Hellraiser (1987). Thus, we, the peoples of the pagus (pace Bhabha), find ourselves – and this mental illness is collective, not individual — locked in a foie à deux with a thanatoid political-economic system, a reality of horror in which even the glitziest trappings of late capitalism’s consumer-reward system conceal piles of rotting corpses. Where the ‘hardworking’ (what is so great about being ‘hardworking’?) discover that Arbeit macht Armut, where dead refugee children wash up on English seaside holiday beaches and a portion of the population cheers. Where a morally depraved Home Secretary sells her ‘dream’ of mass deportations to Rwanda to a morally degenerate sector of the British electorate. A nightmare-reality of horror where, perversely, the noose or the speeding express train seem to offer a kind of solution.
The only way out is through, to break through the nightmare; but how, when resilience, an attribute so used and abused today, is utterly inadequate as a battering-ram? For Gramsci, culture is a field of struggle where the intellectual, the artist, the activist understand that a society cannot be changed until it has changed the way it perceives itself: therefore art, like mental health, becomes political; therefore, horror becomes politically and therapeutically a form of empowerment. Capitalism as castration, and the castration of capitalism and its underpinning order, are acted out symbolically through the monstrous-Queer and the empowering counter-gaze of non-conforming sexualities and libidos. Politically, horror renders the normal abject, collapsing hegemonic socio-political meaningfulness; therapeutically, artistic horror works as a kind of inoculation, creating within us risklessly something of an immunity to the real horrors of everyday living, enabling within us the genuine resilience needed to push on through the nightmare. Small wonder then, the creative chronology of The Horror Show! exhibition starts around the mid-‘70s, when those unlikely (and sometimes symbiotic) bedfellows, punk and neoliberalism were new, continuing through the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s, the ‘10s to more-or-less the present moment: half a century of evermore horrible political-economics, but also fifty years of resistance, sometimes as folk monsters, sometimes as ghosts, other times as witches, to that horror.
Toxic Grafity No.5 (Spring 1980) was subtitled ‘A Reality of Horror!’ Even then I had an awareness of the ways in which horror lurks beneath consumer enjoyment, the everyday, the fun, the youthful, the pastoral, from May 1976 when I witnessed the deaths of two close friends (see the post under ‘Bikes’). Appropriately, perhaps, TG5 in on display in the ‘Monster’ section of the exhibition in a glass-case along with other DIY anarcho-punk material of that time. Above it, the original Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher (1984) snootily holds its nose in the air in distain at all this filth, all the more demonic for the grotesque puppet’s decontextualization from its TV series. ‘Monster’ seeks to delve:
‘ … into the economic and political turbulence of the 1970s and the high octane spectacle and social division of the 1980s. Against a backdrop of unrest and uprising, it charts the origin story and ascent of the individuals who will go on to disrupt, define and destroy British culture ….’
Yet while we artists and activists of the day were partially successful in changing the culture and thus the way society perceives itself, the political-economic monster at which we Quixotically tilted from strength to strength from 1979 until 2008, when it disemboweled itself. It refuses to rest quietly in its grave. The eternal consumer present, fuelled by low interest rates and house price hyper-inflation, has now collapsed into a new 1980s of social division. Now new unrest and uprising beckon: now we artists and activists of the day, now in late middle-age, find it is time to renew our efforts. One more heave. More monsters lurk in the exhibition, courtesy of the Bauhaus (Bela Lugosi’s Dead, 1982, provides an aural backdrop), Marc Almond, the Chapman brothers, Don Letts, London Leatherman, Jamie Reid, Ralph Steadman, Poly Styrene and many, many others. David Bowie as Diamond Dog is there (1974), as is the Traffic Warden from Hell from Threads (1984).
Aesthetically and conceptually, if not chronologically, the Chapman’s ‘Return of the Repressed3’ (1997) forms a bridge between ‘Monster’ and ‘Ghost’. ‘Ghost’ is the exhibition’s Second Act, with work spanning roughly the fall of Thatcher after the Poll Tax riots and mass civil disobedience in 1990, through Millennial anxiety to 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008-9, an event from which the neoliberal experiment in which we have all been lab rats has never recovered, taking in Reece Shearsmith’s severed head from Inside No.9 (2018), a photo essay of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993-4). Kerry Stewart’s ‘The Boy from the Chemist’s Is Here to See You’ (1993) is disturbing and haunting, clips from the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992) flicker on screens, there is Graham Dolphin’s ‘Joy Division Door’ (2011) evoking a suicidal loss of control. David Shrigley’s taxidermised cat protests its death; Jeremy Millar’s ‘Self Portrait as a Drowned Man’ suggests the Channel crossings. And there is more. The sheer horror of a filmmaker condemned to blindness before an inevitable death: Derek Jarman’s final film Blue (1993) is poignant as always, recalling the human consequences of epi- and pan-demic. The Horror Show! was delayed for two years due to the Covid pandemic. AIDS is now a liveable, chronic condition; but only in the wealthy West. To the right of the screen is a door, I open it then to my left find a set-maker’s workshop with saws, blood-effect pain, the smell of varnish and freshly cut wood. Some viewers follow me in, ‘Is this art?’ I mention that it is, of the unintentional variety, assuming unintentional art is a thing!
The Third Act is ‘Witch’ presents more-or-less contemporary work, some of it commissioned specifically for this show. It presents a ‘digital coven’ where the monstrous-feminine and the monstrous-Queer suggest a new spirituality predicated upon social and ecological justice, and an anarchic autonomy of both the body-proper and the body-politic, while rejecting the ‘patriarchal occult’. Penny Slinger’s ‘Red Dakini’ (2018) suggests a digital Kali; Bert Gilbert’s ‘The Vesica’ (2019) presents a large Nazar, the ‘Evil Eye’ amulet of the eastern Mediterranean, topping lips that are at once facial and vaginal, evoking Ishtar and Ashtoreth the Bronze Age Levantine goddesses, each a goddess of both sex and war. Tai Shani’s ‘The Neon Hieroglyph’ offers a feminist mythology of psychedelics. Almost the final item, Gazelle Twin’s audio installation in a small room dominated by red and black hangings and ambient lighting presents an evocation, a hex. It reminds me strongly of the Poison Girls work from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, almost as if, where Vi Subversa (1935-2016) were still alive, this might be the kind of work she would be doing today, I think the strong resemblance is coincidental, a meting of souls. At least for me personally, this installation completes the exhibition, reconnecting the contemporary world of ‘Witch’ with the 1970s-‘80s world of ‘Monster’ in which I was a participant over forty years ago.
But herein lies a critique of the exhibition. Especially in ‘Monster’, I (now aged 63) noted what was missing. The cover of The Clash’s first album (1977) should have been there: it’s not ‘horror’ in the cinematic sense, but that ‘You lookin’ at me’ street gang pose blocking a dank innercity ally would have struck horror into the hearts of all of us who were in the dirty, violent London of that time. Malcolm Owen of the Ruts’ 1980 death from a heroin overdose was every bit as horrific as was Ian Curtis’. In their very different own ways, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division laid the foundations of what would soon become the Goth subculture, they should have had a bit more prominence, and should have featured in the show.
More radically sub-culturally, Crass’ ‘Reality Asylum’ (1978) is an extreme statement tearing apart patriarchal religion even by today’s standards, and its flip-side ‘Reality Asylum’ is prefigures much in ‘Witch’. Their ‘Nagasaki Nightmare’ (1981) and anti-Falklands War ‘How Does It Feel (to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?’ (1982), and ‘Sheep Farming in the Falklands’ (1983) expose the horror of war, a kind of horror (I say this as a survivor of conflict-induced PTSD) somewhat missing from the exhibition. Then London-based NYC performance artist Annie Anxiety’s ‘Hello Horror’ (1981) would work well with the exhibition, ‘The car-crash thrill of smashing steel / good god / blowjob/ rigour mortis bop; children playing lynch-mob’. Conflict’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985) exposes the horror of factory farming and human complicity in horrific animal suffering. Flux of Pink Indians ‘I Wanna Marry a Tube Disaster’ (1982) outs the shameful pleasures of consuming vicarious media rubber-necking of urban disaster. Horror? Then say no more than Throbbing Gristle’s experiments in the macabre, the fetishist, our darkest thanatoid desires: they should have featured in the exhibition. Above all, the Poison Girls oeuvre from the 1970s to the ‘90s bring together ‘Monster’, ‘Ghost’, and especially ‘Witch’, nearly squaring the circle (or should that be pentagram?); their omission was an error. It’s not as if these were simply records: Throbbing Gristle, Crass (something from Gee Vaucher surely should have featured?), and the Poison Girls, in effect DIY multimedia arts collectives, also produced significant visual and audio-visual output.
A weakness of the exhibition is that with its Central St. Martins, Goldsmiths, and ancient university graduates, Turner Prize winners and nominees, The Horror Show! can come over as a bit well-to-do middle-class mainstream and bourgeois-radical. Kinda alt mainstream radicalism? The autodidactic aspect of punk DIY is often underestimated. I’m not dissing those awesome academic institutions, went on, belatedly, to get a PhD in 2000, after dropping out of Sixth Form for punk in 1976, and spent a large part of my adult life as a higher education practitioner. So I’m not dissing that at all. But punk autodidacticism is underestimated. We weren’t all postcard punks, Sid Snot, nor Vyv Basterd. While I understand and respect the rationale for the exhibition’s 50-year time-frame, a nod to the work of William Blake (1757-1827) might have added a bit of deep historical, radical context.
That critique aside, the exhibition is of course haunted in a different sense: many of the artists, activists, filmmakers, performers, and writers are of course now dead, some recently, some now long-gone: Jordan (1955-2022) features prominently in ‘Monster’. A good few of those now lost to us were personal friends of mine. Marx would have seen the cultural as merely ‘superstructural’, and the political-economic struggle merely ‘infrastructural’, ephemeral. The neo-Marxist Gramsci, writing a century ago under Fascism disagreed. At times it seems, with seemingly endless ‘culture wars’, that today’s now mainstreamed far-right have learnt Gramsci’s lessons on culture better than the rest of us. But this is a superficial perception, a kind of fleeting horrific nightmare. To that can be added the radical insights of feminist and Queer psychoanalysis vis-à-vis Horror and oppositional subcultural artistic praxis. This important exhibitions reminds us of what we have achieved, reminds us that, The Reality of Horror notwithstanding, we are stronger than that and them. And, that we, political-economics being a box still to tick, have achieved aesthetically, artistically, culturally, morally, and philosophically, far, far more than today’s mainstreamed yet flailing and failing far-right could ever hope to achieve in their wildest, washed up bodies, refugee deporting nightmares. We are stronger than them.
Of course, the exhibition is not all doom and gloom, dark kink, nor po-faced horror; there are moments of great humour too: Harminder Judge’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (2016), Jamie Reid’s ‘Monster on a Nice Roof’ (1972), Strigley’s cat, and the severed head. As many of us who have cared for a loved one through their final illness might have found, dark humour, macabre humour, gallows humour makes bearable the unbearable for both the carer and the cared-for. Even dying can have its funny side. There were great laughs at this show: much of the time I had a huge grin on my face, and that was before I discovered the free bar at the private viewing!
Do see this very important event.
David Shrigley’s I’m Dead, 2007
 The Nazar is the blue and white ‘Evil Eye’ motif of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, used by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region it nonetheless has deep pagan roots.
 The Shaam is, broadly, the old ‘Levant’, what’s now Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Mediterranean Turkey (the old Cilicia).
Never mind Liz Truss, she’s a nobody going nowhere who very soon shall be forgotten, or remembered with faint embarrassment.
The right used until very recently, be very clever with their soundbites, “Citizen of Nowhere” was deeply sinister in a divide et impera kinda way. Al de Pfeffel’s “Oven ready Brexit” was deceptive, but plugged into a reactionary populist desire of a populus drugged on consumerism to “Get [insert] Done!” or “Make [insert] Great Again!” Cameron’s “Big Society” and “The Greenest Government Ever” was just plain deceptive. But Truss’s “Anti-Growth Coalition” was just plain dumb.
Except, except. As an own-goal it was brilliant, the best since Southampton vs Sunderland, 2014. Divide et impera has got away with an awful lot the past two decades, certainly since the 2008-9 Financial Crash, which holed neoliberalism below the waterline. Ever since then, the right, and even sections of the left, have been flirting with differing projects based around a revival of fascism.
But The Anti-Growth Coalition! With that Truss’s speechwriters have managed to unite the Anglers Society and the most extreme Eco-Warriors, Anarchists and the Liberal Democrats, the Celtic independence parties and Unionist one nation Tories, Extinction Rebellion and the National Trust, Vegans and Hunters, the Labour and Communist Parties, the BBC and Another Angry Voice, Marxists and idealists, atheists and the pious, the police and whoso they hunt. Doubtless, there are many other “Persons Unknown” who are part of Truss’s Anti-Growth Coalition.
But Truss is a nobody. The truth she has inadvertently established will have a life well beyond her theoretical radioactive elements political life, beyond the deeply deluded UK, which still likes to imagine is the Centre of the Universe. There is indeed a movement that it anti-growth, or at least anti- the neoliberal/fascist version of growth so eloquently expressed by Truss’s hydrocarbon-funded “think tank” wonks and speechwriters.
Or at least those who might question “growth”, or advocate minimal growth, with what might remain of growth targeted at global social justice, or renewable or fusion energy, or education, science, and the arts.
While back in the mid-C18th an economic system predicated on endless growth on a finite planet might have made sense. Now it, capitalism, is killing us, maybe it’s time for a rethink? Even over something as innocuous and uncontroversial as, say, a four-day week or a Universal Basic Income? That’d be a start! A global Zero Carbon commitment within the next decade might also help. A bit.
This image combines the original 1978 Toxic Grafity “Anarchy and Peace” logo, in Green and Black, with, hey guess what? “Anti-Growth Coalition”. The pink monster thing combines the image of a metastasising cancer cell with H.P. Lovecraft’s (a notorious racist himself) Cluthu, who, as we all know, is a great friend of Humanity and this Earth.
As neoliberalism attempts to metastasise into fascism (Italy, Sweden, France? Brexit led them all; let’s all flush Bibi, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, and Drumpff and their -isms into the cess-pit of history), it emerges as a “growth”, a cancer in the body-personal brought on by pollution and novel viruses, and a cancer on the body politic; a cancer on the face of this earth, a tumour in our hearts and brains, a THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE Cluthu in our minds, souls, spirits.
Viva the Anti-Growth Coalition!
Together, our differences aside, we are strong! We may well all fall out, the Anglers Society and Extinction Rebellion, along our journey; but the journey is, perhaps, more important than the destination. Divide and rule is over!
I wrote this back in 2018 for the edited anthology Ripped, Torn and Cut: Pop Politics and Punk Fanzines from 1976 (The Subcultures Network (eds), Manchester University Press, 2018). I reproduce it here partly as an example of my more recent writing, and partly because it helps fill in the reader about some of the things I’ve been involved in since I produced the last Toxic Grafity back in 1982! So yeah, in this piece there is: the Middle East; academia and higher education; revolution; counter-revolution; political violence; mental health, breakdown and recovery; autoethnography, and: a punk reawakening. It’s written in an academic voice, or semi-academic one, not quite the very ‘objectivist’ voice I’ve used elsewhere in sociological writing. Indeed, at the levels of voice, vocabulary, structure, and conventions I set out to subvert academic writing, or at least try to push it in a different direction. I also set out to subvert the idea of a discrete, knowing “I” or author, presenting myself as multiple personalities. ‘Mental Liberation Issue’ is the sub-title of Toxic Grafity 5.
All that follows below is data, Alec Grant (2013)
What was I thinking when, in the summer of 1980, I subtitled issue 5 of Toxic Grafity the ‘mental liberation issue’? As Matt Worley notes, Toxic featured ‘politically charged collage, essays on anarchy and diatribes against state repression’ in which the music coverage was ‘all but subsumed within a series of nihilistic ruminations on the inanity of work, the illusion of politics and the stifling abjection of everyday life’. This issue also carried a flexi-disc of the hitherto unreleased Crass track ‘Tribal Rival Rebel Revel.
It is challenging reflecting back 38 years to invoke the subjectivity that was ‘Mike D’, aged 19; I’m not sure it’s possible. The ‘mental’ was intended as a double entendre: Toxic, I fancied, was about ‘liberation’, and the theme of the issue was the liberation of the mind from the constraining constructions through which socialisation reproduces conformity (I’m retrospectively projecting academic language onto Mike D): an ambitious task for a punk who had not thought to undertake the basic intellectual groundwork of first framing theories of either ‘liberation’ or the ‘mind’. But Mike D was primal enough for his mind not to need ‘liberating’ from that stuff, the conventions and conformities of academic prose. Yet ‘mental’ also sought to evoke punk ‘chaos’: the liberation imagined by Toxic was to be ‘mental’ in the way that the mosh-pit or pogoing was ‘mental’: chaotic, crazy, primal, angry, ‘going mental’; a V-sign; a phlegmy gob; a half-brick Molotov aimed at conformity-constructing socialisation of the sort that (had Mike D known) shaped the working-class subjectivities of Paul Willis’s ‘lads’ in his seminal study Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (first published in that punkiest of years, 1977). Such socialisation enabled ‘self-damnation in the taking on of subordinate roles in western capitalism … damnation experienced, paradoxically, as true learning, affirmation, appropriation and as a form of resistance’. Rejecting such socialisation, Mike D and his ilk were empowered with the agency to flob their gob and lob their bricks at hegemonic structures that were reconstructing Willis’s ‘lads’ as capitalism’s ‘dummies, dupes and zombies’. This empowerment took place through the countercultural milieu of ‘anarcho-punk’ (I can’t recall the term being used in the day), which shaped Mike D’s subjectivity and enabled his agency. In turn, through Toxic and related performances, Mike D’s enabled cultural agency helped shape shape that milieu.
December 2012, Beachy Head, East Sussex; meet ‘Mental Mike’:
The body would be smashed open as it hit the crags as it plummeted, white cliffs stained blood-red against sea of gunmetal, leaden sky. The pounding waves would flush away the mess.
The phone rings.
‘It’s Richard from Time to Talk … How are you feeling today?’
‘Is this some kind of tracking app?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Beachy Head … It’s okay, there’s someone with me, I’m just going for a walk ….’
Still the waves crash and flush: as with the Brighton express that cuts through Mid- Sussex stations at full speed, ending this way would be to stop the pain, not a cry for help.
Mental Mike is ‘mental’, mentally ill, sick in the head, crazy, neurotic, psychotic, under therapy and on medication, on a therapist’s watch list: driven mental through Anxiety, Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he might be a danger to himself, or others.
From the perspective of 2017, semi-retired academic ex-punk Mike (‘Old Fart Mike’) wonders what the adjective ‘mental’ might say about the relationship, if any, of those two half-recalled subjectivities – Mike D and Mental Mike – that haunt Old Fart Mike’s consciousness as he taps out this paper, pulling on the rusted chains of memory? How might Mike D’s ‘mental liberation’ – ‘“THE VILEST FORM OF COMMUNICATION” B.U, … @ … O.K. …?’ – inform our understanding, as an exercise in narrative mental health writing, of Mike’s mentalness? Moreover, as an investigation into ‘the truth of revolution’ and the politics of counterculture, how might Mike D’s ‘mental liberation’ help us understand the complex of emotional, military, political, social and vocational forces that drove Mental Mike – with his thousand-yard stare like the GI on the cover of Gee Vaucher’s International Anthem(1979), his jumps, starts, tics, panic reflexes, anxiety attacks and mind fragmented into a legion of ‘characters’ (his word) – over the brink into suicidal insanity?
In 2015, Mental Mike recalls ‘Higher Education Manager Mike’ of 2007–11:
December 2008, Jidd Hafs Maternity Hospital, Bahrain. My daughter’s a day old. Just outside the hospital white-helmeted mercenary-police in riot gear confront a small group of shabaab in this most Baharna of neighbourhoods.
My partner asks for baby stuff from my Oxford blue Land Rover Discovery, I leave the ward to fetch. Something’s wrong. My eyes, my throat, burn. An ecstasy of fumbling: CS gas canisters over the hospital’s perimeter wall. My mucus membranes choke off my throat, I stagger back to the ward. MY DAUGHTER’S NOT IN HER COT!
‘SHE’S IN an incubator … ’ The jidd hafsy nurse senses my panic. ‘We always put the babies there when the gas comes into the hospital … it’s just routine … ’
Two years, three months later I’ll see entire villages carpet-gassed, houses and shops invisible in a thick fog of CS.
Bahrain Teachers College, October 2009: ‘Where’s Hussein?’ The student’s missed three classes.
‘Don’t worry where Hussein is’, the senior academic mercenary tells me, ‘he’s the authorities’ problem now, not ours. Make sure his name’s taken off the records.’
Bahrain Teachers College, 11 March 2011. I refuse to leave with the mercenary educators. I must bear witness to my students’ bid to occupy the campus. They are attacked by baltajiyya: regime-loyalist vigilante gangs who seemed to have turned up on campus by pre-arrangement, police and military out of uniform, sectarian street gangs, jihadist fanatics, gym-bunnies brutalize the students.
Thugs brandish swords, spears, clubs, chains: broke glass, brain-blood. Builders, fishermen, armed makeshift with the tools of their trades arrive to support the students. The ‘police’ arrive, shotguns, CS, baton rounds, birdshot.
Then the military, helicopters, live fire. I run and hide … pools of congealing blood, scattered handbags, women’s shoes, wrecked vehicles. The counter-revolution has begun.
November 2012. Some Job Centre Plus clown has suggested I take a role as a Christmas Santa.
Iain Duncan Smith opines that the unemployed are unemployed because of the moral choices they have made.
Tell me about it.
In anger I say that Bahrain has made me mad. This is unfair. Bahrain and its people are dear to me.
Bahrain didn’t make me mad, the nasty little British-dependent family-state that runs it did. I’m tougher than that.
No, it was coming back to Britain that pushed me to the brink of that cliff, the edge of that platform. I felt like a witness to a rape or a murder. I had to tell the world what I’d seen, felt. But the powers of this world denied it. It never happened.
‘The truth of revolution, brother … ’ is what? ‘Mental liberation?’ Mental Mike is more mental than liberated. And yet, standing there, in ‘Pearl Square’, Bahrain’s Tahrir Square, in February 2011, the young Wordsworth’s words on the French Revolution entered Manager Mike’s consciousness: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very Heaven … ’
In 2009, he had heard about an emerging body of scholarship in ‘Punk Studies’. Writing in his reactionary delusion to the Kill Your Pet Puppy website, treating punk scholarship with snobby condescension, he had written at the end of a turgid piece about Toxic:
‘I’ve repudiated so much of what I used to believe in during those days in the late 1970s, but the closing words for Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ track ‘but the truth of revolution, brother, is Year Zero’ still appeals to the Burkeian in me!’
When the revolution happened, confronted by real, actual revolution, Manager Mike moved about amid it, smelled, touched, felt revolution ‘in the air’, in the crowds. He felt privileged, honoured, to be there. He was staggered to witness the world that Mike D had once dreamed about, fantasised about, fanzined about, actually actualise before his eyes: vast numbers of individuals en masse self-organising autonomously, bypassing the state and state structures to fulfil their everyday needs; becoming one great collective entity expressing powerfully a unified revolutionary will, defying the military, taunting the riot police to occupy public space in the name of the revolutionary overthrow of the detested regime:
‘There’s no stopping us unless it’s under a hail of bullets!’
Hundreds of thousands of people occupying the so-called ‘prestige’ social space between the financial and the diplomatic districts, wresting control of the streets from the state with carnival-like creativity – protest as performance and performance as protest – organising autonomously the essentials to maintain bare life while making art and poem and performance and song, graffiti and creative appropriation, mocking humour and creative insurrectionary play: all this in defiance of guns and tanks.
Manager Mike felt himself decentring, fragmenting: an epiphany amid the chanting and the slogans and the singing and the marching, the to-ing and fro-ing, crowds surging, confronting then defending against the riot police: the scales of conformity dropped from his eyes, his public persona, his knowing ‘I’, his owning ‘me’ fractured, fell away. An ancient presence emerged into his being; a new-old subjectivity conjured by the chanting from the abyssal depths of the decades. Mike D, newly summoned, saw around him in Bahrain the ancient promise of the Stop the City protests fulfilled in his new present.
As Rich Cross observed, Stop the City was ‘imaginative, inspired, subversive and norm breaking’. Organised in 1983 to 1984 without a coordinating committee but with ‘willful, passionate utopianism’, Stop the City were carnivals of action designed to disrupt the flow of capital and draw attention to issues of arms manufacture, apartheid and exploitation. Targeted first at the City of London, they ‘punctured for all of time’ (Dave Morris) the ‘secrecy and supposed invulnerability’ of the state. Many punks were involved. Yet here in Bahrain there was none of the ‘marginality’ and ‘fragility’ that Cross noted of Stop the City; rather, the state’s haybat ud-dawla, the ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ that made possible the state’s thousands of daily oppressions, the state’s projection of itself into the consciousness of its subjects as a God-like entity, all-powerful and enduring, intimidating people from taking collective action against it, here this haybat, this toxic charisma, was ‘punctured for all time’, just destroyed. And Mike D, a living, witnessing link between Stop the City and the Arab Spring grew up in the punktured shell of Manager Mike.
Few if any of the participants in the Bahrain Revolution would have known of Stop the City, but a genealogy connects them via the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist protests of the later 1990s to 2000s and the Occupy! movement. Bahrain has a long history of uprising against, firstly, de facto British rule, then the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty during the British Protectorate. This opposition dates back at least to the 1920s, into Bahrain’s ‘independence period post-1973. Most recently, the 1995 to 2002 ‘Bahrain Intifada’ forced the regime to make major public life concessions. I knew from teaching radical Bahraini students that young Bahrainis were exploring fresh models of resistance, including the anti-globalisation and the Occupy! movements. Fellow eyewitness and political anthropologist Toby Mattheisen observes:
‘… we could hear the voices of thousands, the shrieking of megaphones, fanfares, music … how relaxed everybody seemed to be. There were thousands of people at the roundabout and two had been killed [by state security forces] trying to reach here, but … it felt like the most natural thing to bring your family to a demonstration in the heart of the capital … protestors had set up tents, screens, makeshift kitchens, medical centers, mobile phone charging stations and a podium for speakers … Hundreds of tents and mattresses had been set up in the first two days.
Mike D was resurrected, a living link between Stop the City and the revolution flowering before his eyes. Shortly after, four battalions of military and riot police surrounded the occupation site and cleared it with lethal force. As Matthiesen observes: The image that came to symbolize that night’s events was a photo of a [protester’s] skull, cracked open by a shotgun fired at close range, with the brains spilling out. Counter-revolution is scarier than revolution, especially if the revolution is as velvet as I witnessed at the roundabout.
The events of the counter-revolution and his fleeing from Bahrain to the UK put Mike D back in his Toxic box and Mental Mike emerged in his place. His route to sanity would be to reclaim Mike D – to revisit and re-story these events away from insanity-evoking catastrophe to bring to the fore once more that life-giving epiphany, to make it work once more, curatively, therapeutically, in his present. Reflection was painful, but he persevered. Reflecting on Toxic, selfhood and revolution on the Kill Your Pet Puppy website in 2015 Mental Mike observed:
‘Looking back from the perspective of 2015, the ‘me’ of 1978 or 1979 [i.e. Mike D] seems far closer to the ‘me’ of 2015 [Mental Mike] than does the ‘me’ of 2009 [Manager Mike]. That ‘me’ is no more. I hesitate to say ‘dead’ because I doubt one’s earlier selves can ever really be ‘dead’ to one’s present self. Rather, I see that 2009 self as having been distilled away by a kind of alchemy, as dross burnt away in a crucible, as a fragile construct devastatingly deconstructed, shattered, and blasted across the four cardinal compass points by a tsunami of fire.’
Stripped of the façade-like persona I had constructed around the ‘me’ of 2009, I now see a person remarkably like the ‘me’ of 1978, although I hesitate to say that is the ‘real’ me: to what extent can any of our constructed personas be ‘real’ in a fundamental, existential sense? … Nevertheless, the transformation has been remarkable. The immediate question that arises when contemplating that transformation, then, has to be ‘What were the factors that brought it about?’ These factors are easy to identify, but hard to write about.
There is the experience of revolution. I don’t mean reading about revolution or merely witnessing one, but of experiencing that inexorable movement that draws one – almost drags one, in some ways reluctantly – from bearing witness to a revolution to becoming part of it … a survival of the ‘me’ of 1978 lurking about unnoticed among the cacophony of conflicting voices that constitute my consciousness.
Whatever it was, it was able, with a daring and disturbing deftness of touch to take over … As this happened the part of ‘me’ that is supposed to direct my actions in accordance with rational self-interest retreated, letting the ‘me’ of 1978 (or something very like it) dictate my actions, even though ‘rational self-interest me’ knew in doing so I would be writing the execution warrant for 2009 ‘me’: deprived of the material and professional symbols that announced my 2009 ‘me’ to the social world beyond me, it would wither … .
[W]hat I was witnessing in 2011 … was a people, young and old and of all walks of life making history, becoming the subject-objects of their own revolutionary becoming. This was bigger than ‘me’, of any of the [plural] ‘Me-s’ that noisily occupied the conscious space of my individuality. I understood how social and political forces flowed through my subjectivity, shaping it and in turn being shaped by it, as a river forms the landscape even as its course is determined by it. I saw subjectivity not as a stasis, but as a process, that my ‘me’ was a construct that would always be a work in progress, never complete. I saw how this transformation of one’s understanding of self and society was inherently part of the revolutionary process. That in rejecting the static social and political structures in which both coercion and ideology corral us, revolutionary consciousness, life-as-becoming, is re-initiated.
Old Fart Mike reviews from his experience a rant, ‘The Admition’, from Mike D’s Blakean innocence:
‘God is a lie. There is no god, god is a con-trick, death is oblivion … I reject religion, I reject work, in a system of capitalism (or state capitalism, as in fascism, or communism, the same thing) … work is slavery, it never sets you free, that’s a fucking lie, the ‘myth’ of capital … yes, I reject contemporary values and past values … I see no political solution, for politics left and right is lies … REALIZE THE INSANITY OF ‘CIVILIZATION’ AND ITS STINKING OVERKILL, OVEREAT, OVER EVERY FUCKING THING THEN ACT TO DESTROY IT.’
There are some familiar ‘anarcho-punk’ tropes here: ‘religion’ as an archaic form of oppression enslaving the governed; politics and the state as serving the vested interests of capital; the rejection of political left and right; elements of nihilism and misanthropy. But I’d now say that God is a verb: an eternal and sentient verbal imperative BE!, which we can embody and enact in moments of transformation.
Thinking of Mike’s journey across the decades as an autobiographical ethnography, we find here continuities with his pasts and presents: substitute Mental Mike’s deconstruction of subjectivity, the ‘I’, for Mike D’s demolition of ‘God’ and there is continuity; substitute Mike D’s undifferentiated rage at politics, left or right, at work, even at ‘civilization’ itself, for Mental Mike’s rage at the Al Khalifa family state’s murderous suppression of a popular uprising – a Stop the City writ large – that he witnessed in Bahrain, then there is continuity again. In this, the rediscovery, the re-evocation of his punk subjectivity across the decades allowed him to re-story tragedy and trauma; in this lay the cure for Mental Mike’s Madness.
My intention above has been to write a ‘poststructuralist autoethnographic’ to explore how a ‘punk subjectivity’ has endured, sometimes subliminally, sometimes epiphanically across my lifespan, influencing my social and political agency and my action-in-the-world in a range of contexts which are very different to the original ‘anarcho-punk’ context of Toxic and its wider milieu.
By ‘autoethnographic’ I mean an approach to qualitative research that involves ‘research, writing, story and method that connect the autobiographical to the cultural, social and political’. Autoethnography can be seen as ‘rewriting the self and the social’, as ‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’. It is ‘the use of personal experience and personal writing to purposefully comment on/critique cultural practices; to make contributions to existing research; to embrace vulnerability and purpose; and [very punkily] to create reciprocal relationships with audiences in order to compel a response’. It is a contemporary reflexive qualitative research methodology in which ‘the researcher and the researched are the same people’.
Yet the ‘personal’ in experience is problematic, given poststructuralist scepticism as to the existence of essentially discrete and authoritative subjectivities: by calling the above ‘poststructuralist’, I refer to that approach to autoethnography that deploys ‘multiple, de-centred voices to represent fragmented experiences. Rather than presenting unproblematic ‘authentic’ or ‘lived’ experiences, I seek to present the above narrative in a way that problematises the possibility of ‘a direct transmission from thinking to describing to receiving’ from one holistic narrating subjectivity to a receiving subjectivity.
Insisting that ‘the personal is political’, I have sought to relate the endurance of my ‘punk subjectivity’ to my agency in a struggle for social and political justice in the Middle East, using an epiphanic event which ‘seizes hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (Benjamin) to ‘rediscover the past not as a succession of events, but as a series of scenes … images and stories’ (Ulmer). The epiphanic event is the re-emergence of a subsumed Mike D during a riot police assault on a Bahraini demonstration; Mike D having been buried for decades under the conformity-constructing structures of professional academia and the conformities of an academic career (a conformity as constraining as the conformity Willis’s ‘lads’ experienced in their work in a 1970s factory). The text above is ‘messy’, ‘discordant’ and ‘contrapunctal’ to problematise ‘my’ authority and presence in the text.
I have tried to show how cultural, social and political forces have flowed through and shaped my subjectivity; how subjectivity-as-agency-in-the-world in turn shapes the cultural, social and political forces that flow around us. I’ve attempted to show how we ‘are inscribed within dialogic, socially shared, linguistic and representational practices’ across our lifespans, so that our selves can be seen as ‘social and relational rather than as an autonomous phenomenon’, producing ‘difference(s) to be lived with’. Thus, I have acknowledged the crucial agency of revolutionary Bahrainis in rebirthing my subsumed ‘punk subjectivity’, giving me a new and post-revolutionary perspective on the world, the localisation within the individual of a ‘revolutionary consciousness’. This new consciousness survived the Saudi-led counter-revolution that crushed the Bahrain uprising and, since my return/flight/exile to the UK, has enabled me to engage in countercultural, social and political justice movements in ways that are innovative yet grounded in my punk past.
I’ve sought to acknowledge the therapeutic potential of autoethnographic writing that is ‘ethical, vulnerable, evocative’ for writers, readers and for those with whom we have shared experiences. Hence, I have foregrounded and personified as ‘Mental Mike’ my struggle with the multiple mental illnesses resulting from my experiences in Bahrain and exile. To treat this, I have revisited the concept of ‘mental liberation’, which was the organising theme of Toxic Grafity in 1980. I allow Mental Mike to give an open and frank account of his mentalness and allow him to revisit traumatic events, restorying them therapeutically as a positive and empowering epiphany, an evocative epistemology that uses tales of suffering, loss and pain not only to create catharsis, but to spur Old Fart Mike on to reflective, critical, creative action in a socially and politically just praxis. Using paraphrases and quotes from material written between 2011 and 2016, I’ve traced Mental Mike’s ‘mental liberation’ from potential suicide case to a re-authored and re-voiced writer. This has paralleled my experience using narrative in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and when writing-up ethnography. Thus, the above participates in the genre of narrative mental health writing. As Mental Health practitioner, mental health survivor and autoethnographer Alec Grant notes in Our Encounters with Madness (2011): ‘[An] important function of mental health narratives is that they provide testimony … giving witness to … the experiences of recovery, healing and endurance of sufferers of mental health problems’. Mental Mike wrote in 2016: ‘I felt like a witness to a rape or a murder. I had to tell the world what I’d seen, felt. But the powers of this world denied it. It never happened.’
Alec Grant continues: ‘in the provision of testimony, both writers and readers are witnesses. This places an onus on both groups to treat stories with care and respect, learn from them as oral history and take the necessary subsequent action in the spirit of social justice’. I’ve sought to confront these ‘powers of the world’, Mike D’s ‘CIVILIZATION AND ITS STINKING OVERKILL’, through a storied ‘hero’, Mike D, my adult self at its most innocent and primal.
This chapter further contributes to studies of the wider ‘Arab Spring’, also to critical discourse on higher education: non-elite academics who have struggled through higher education having had diverse life histories are highly likely to end up in out-of-the-ordinary higher education contexts such as the Gulf – how do their life-stories and those of the students they interact with intersect and what are the civil society, cultural, ethical, political and public sphere consequences
I’ve suggested new ways of writing about the punk experience, going beyond history writing, discourse analysis and cultural studies-based approaches to reveal how punk pasts can be used in personal-political presents to enable personal-political agency for social and political justice, and to effect therapeutic or curative transformations in a context of a neoliberal mental health pandemic. Important here is the idea of the ‘punk epiphany’: the sudden and unexpected return of punk consciousness at a life-changing moment: such epiphanies have both ethical and aesthetic aspects. Connecting the personal past with the social, they become almost a kind of pedagogy. For us who were participants ‘in the day’, these punk pasts seem, when we recall them, purile, simplistic, naive and youthfully exuberant; yet when they epiphanically reshape our presents we restory them, projecting them into our futures they are present to us as ourselves at our most raw, primal and, in that Blakean sense, ‘innocent’. This offers new vistas in writing about punk.
The re-voiced Mike D says to the world of 2018 ‘The truth of the counter-revolution, sister, is a mental health Year Zero, and today’s big issue, is ‘mental liberation’ from neoliberal toxicity.’
I now see my breakdown as a breakthrough . . . .
Toxic ran for six issues, 1978–82; each issue carried a different misspelling of ‘graffiti’.
 Matthew Worley, ‘Punk, Politics and British (Fan)zines, 1976–84: “While the world was dying did you wonder why?”’, History Workshop Journal, 79:1 (2015), 76–106.
 Paul Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (Farnham: Ashgate,  2000), p. 113.
 These are Arabic slogans from the demonstrations and occupations I eye-witnessed: the last one anticipating what, tragically, eventually came to pass – they were stopped under a hail of lead.
 Rich Cross, ‘Stop the City’, in Mike Dines and Matthew Worley (eds), The Aesthetic of Our Anger: Anarcho-Punk, Politics and Music (Colchester: Minor Compositions, 2016), pp. 151–2. Morris was a Stop the City organiser, quoted in ibid., p. 155.
 Mike Diboll, ‘The Admition’, Toxic Grafity, 5 (1980), p. 18.
 Worley, ‘Punk, Politics and British (fan)zines, 1976–84’, 98–9.
 Carolyn Ellis, The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaVista, 2004), p. xix.
 Deborah Reed-Danahay, Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 6.
 Stacey Holman Jones, Tony Adams and Carolyn Ellis, Handbook of Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013).
 Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner, ‘Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity’, in Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000).
 Alec Grant, Nigel Short and Lydia Turner, ‘Introduction: Storying Life and Lives’, in Nigel Short, Lydia Turner and Alec Grant (eds), Contemporary British Autoethnography (Rotterdam: Sense, 2013), p. 12.
 Alec Grant, ‘Writing, Teaching and Survival in Mental Health: A Discordant Quintet for One’, in Short, Turner and Grant (eds), Contemporary British Autoethnography, p. 34.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 257; Gregory Ulmer, Teletheory (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 112.
 Maggie MacLure, ‘Qualitative Inquiry: Where are the Ruins?’, Qualitative Inquiry, 17:10 (2011), 997–1005; Grant, ‘Writing, Teaching and Survival in Mental Health’, p. 33.
 Grant, Short and Turner, ‘Introduction’, p. 5.
 Here I am alluding to the ‘poststructural’ voice as a forever incomplete, shifting, discordant performance, always contingent, forever becoming, always subject to re-authoring, re-voicing, re-reading. (See Grant et al ‘Introduction) p. 7-8.
 Alec Grant, Francis Biley and Hannah Walker (eds), Our Encounters with Madness (Ross-on-Wye: PCCS, 2011), p. 2.