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Eel Pie Island - Cliff Harper

The following extracts are taken from "The Education of Desire - The Anarchist Graphics of Clifford Harper", London 1984), the text of which is mainly based on an extensive interview with Clifford Harper by Adam Cornford in September 1982.

What was interesting about that period [1965-68] was where I was living - Richmond.  The first town to have its very own drug squad. Where the Rolling Stones started playing.  A special place in the history of English counter culture.  A large bed-sit population up on Richmond Hill, a couple of local Art Colleges, lots of drugs, good music, and an anarchist group right in the middle of it ....

The flat where we had meetings gradually became a sort of commune and I moved in.  Shortly after we got hold of an old farmhouse in Cumberland .... from the anarchist group about eight of us went to live in the country together .... We were there for a year... we came back to London .... we had lived collectively.  I wasn't going to forget that experience.  By now I was a confirmed communalist and more of an anarchist.  I was journeying to Freedom Press, talking to anarchists there, reading a few pamphlets.  I hung around in bedsite and early squats waiting to 'get something together'.  Then we hit upon an empty hotel on an island in the middle of the Thames.

It was called Eel Pie Island.  I began Eel Pie Island Commune.  It lasted for two and a half years.  It had 25 bedrooms and at one point 100 people from all over the world were at Eel Pie Island.  It was anarchy.  I've lived in an anarchist way for over two years.

So how were things organised there?

(Laughs) They weren't.  No organisation at all.  Sometimes attempts.

So who wound up maintaining the place?

Nobody, it literally fell apart.  By the winter of 70/71 we'd our water, our gas, our electricity - all cut off.  It was a very old building, built around 1830, principally of wood.  We were heating the building with the building.  We started on the ground floor, because the bedrooms were on the first and second floors, ripping it apart for wood to burn.  It dawned on me it was getting ridulous when one night I saw the bannisters go from the stairs.  That was OK, but when I saw the stairs themselves going, I thought, "how the fuck are we gong to get to the first floor?"  There was a lot of that craziness, also a lot of drugs and junkies.  You see - it's true what they say about anarchy.

Well you say that was anarchy.  As a, still to this day, convinced anarchist you surely can't see that as being a practical way of doing it.

I've modified my views. Anarchy and order rather than anarchy and chaos.  Though I'm not an anarchist who says anarchy is pure order.  I am interesteed in the chaotic aspect of removing authority.  I've lived in chaos.  We lost everything, those things that as I've got older I've become more reliant on.  A good gas fire, good food, electric light when I press a button, but we lived without it and we got on just great.  Sort of..

But how do you think you would have got on having older people around, people who were going to suffer from the cold more, things of that sort? It seems to me, having been through comparable experiences myself, that when you're young and fairly unattached and so on, it's alright but you can't really imagine everybody living that way.

No.  I'm not bananas.  I'm not advocating that for society. As you say, it worked because we were young and could get by.  But I think the same applies to, say, motor cars, that's the parallel.  We can do without TV, as it is at the moment, things like that.  Enlarging it to a social scale, I'm not advocating we all have our gas cut off or get by dropping acid, which is what we all did..  I was in hospital at the end of it.  People died, all kinds of things, it got terrible towards the end, it was absolute hell, you see it was anarchism on one island..

Yes.  If 'socialist' state capitalism in one country is tough it's easy to see that anarchy on one island is going to be a lot tougher, because you're finally driven to cannibalise whatever material wealth you share.

Yes, we couldn't step beyond that island and extend ourselves so, as you say, we ended up eating ourselves.  But I think that is irrelevant.  What was crucial was that it taught me what it's like to live closely with a variety of people.  I was about the only anarchist in the joint.  I was 'politically committed'. Also there was a division between middle and working class, the old game.  The middle class got shucked on that whole hippy number.

Peace and love, man.

That ideology - which turned me against ideologies, it's one reason why I moved more into anarchism (although these days I regard anarchism as yet another ideology.  But they had an ideology, although they claimed they didn't.  I thought it was a load of old rubbish.

Their idea was to bring about a sort of mass conversion.

We'd all drop acid and we'd all read some esoteric junk from the Far East or somewhere and everything would be great.  I was forced to the other extreme.  Constantly raving about Dagenham Auto works, what the hell are you going to do about Dagenham Auto works?  What do you think about that?  That just didn't exist as far as they were concerned.  There was a terminology - 'heads' and 'hippies'.  Although 'hippy' was a media construction.  I was amazed that some people swallowed it and started calling themselves hippies.  The working class people called themselves 'heads'.  That was more of a licentious, sensual thing, more just experience, drink, drugs, music, full stop.  For no reason, not to take it anywhere, just to get the hell out of work.  When summer came, work on a building site; when winter came, go wherever the sun was.  I would have done that if I hadn't been so political.  I was, am, concerned to clear it all up and then see what happens.

So you had your own idea of changing the world that was not the same as their idea of changing it at that point.

By example.  Eel Pie Island I intended as an armed camp.  I droppped that idea within two weeks because the people didn't want to know, so I just let it go the way it wanted to go.  But my idea was that it would be a centre from which we raided society.  With experience, theatre and vibrant agitation.  I'd seen the Living Theatre when they were in London, I went to every 'performance'.  That was my model.  Whereas Living Theatre were mobile, moving round the world, I wanted to start creating static bases to do it from.

Eel Pie Commune was a hot-house.  When its international fame grew by the summer of 1970 there were 100 people there.  It had a big lawn and some grounds and the hotel was full of people.  It was astonishing.  In the middle of that I was nagging away about working class revolution.  Next door was a boat builders.  Every morning at 8.30 the workforce trooped past, 100 guys in overalls, and every evening at 5.30 they trooped out again.  The window in my room faced onto the boat yard and the first thing I did was to hang out of my window upside down and paint in red letters on the wall "Why work?".  Every day those poor bastards would see that.  It was directed towards them and towards the people in the commune.  Later on I painted on the wall of the hotel a poem by Christopher Logue, it's called "Know Thy Enemy".  A very vibrant poem.  I was forced to become a foreign body within the commune.  Of course it didn't work.  Eventually I was up against the mass ranks of hippiedom.  Eventually, the commune ended and I decide to draw a comic book about it ....

What about the middle class hippies?

(Laughs)  In the communes and squats the middle class kids were in every sense passing through.  On the other hand you had those 'weekend Hippies', who I sympathised with, that put their levis on at the weekend then went back to work and so on.

They were working class, a lot of them?

Well they were working, that's for sure.  We had an interesting mirror of that in the commune.  The hippies would slope off to their parents' suburban homes at the weekend for a bath, to use the washing machine to clean all their clothes, to get a decent meal.  They were very furtive about it, you never know where they went.  I thought they were establishing contact with some other commune somewhere, but in fact they were all off for a bit of R and R.  They'd be back on Monday morning ready and eager to combat the dominant ideology or whatever it was they were doing.  One guy was getting a weekly cheque from his father, a Zurich millionaire.  Because I was the rigorous revolutionary in the commune, one evening he came and confessed, and asked me not to tell anyone else that there was this drop where he went once a week - presumably his father's bank in London - and picked up his pay cheque.  You've got to laugh.  A lot were doing that, whereas myself and others had to get by.  I try not to put a puritan morality on this but nevertheless that was real.  Also I don't know where those fuckers are now but I'm pretty sure they're not pushing to overthrow the state.  In that sense they did 'pass through' that decade.  I think in their heads, when it was all over there would be a job for them somewhere.  Not a job on the line, a building site, shop or office ....

I was saying "We've got to think about this.  If we're enjoying what we're doing, in order to carry it on we've got to concretise it somehow;  it won't always go on like this, not always living in communes and squats, it'll get more difficult, we'll get older or slower."  So there was all that going on.  It's angered me that history is rewritten of the 60s, as being this.. it's hard to define the way they describe it ....

Talking about my formative years in communes and squats, taking drugs and so on, my description has been a little negative.  I didn't stress the more positive things that happened ....

You came out of Eel PIe Island with a case of TB which these days one has to get pretty damn run down to get.  Which means that you must have been in appalling shape.  You must have had a very bad diet for a long time.

Yes.  I had it for a year before it was diagnosed.  Inconspicuous consumption, you might say.  I went to the doc and she said "Oh, you've got a cough, take some cough mixture"..  I took that to be the case and went away for a year.  I had progressively worse consumption and toward the end was almost dead .... I went back to the doc [who] took one look at me and her mouth dropped open.  I went into hospital.

I was a drug dealer, at one point, dealing marijuana.  We had lots of dope, as much dope as we wanted.  So there was a period in the middle of my TB when all I was doing was smoking dope.  Me, Ame and a friend happened to drift into dealing marijuana.  Living in Eel Pie Island Commune we were ideally placed.  Part of the hotel we opened as a dance hall on Friday and Saturday nights.

Yeah, I heard about those gigs.  They were famous.

Out in the suburbs, six to seven hundred kids would turn up.  The doors led from the dance hall to the hotel.  So we had this captive market there on Friday and Saturday night.  They had a couple of quid in their pockets for some dope so they were directed to our room.  We were sitting there.  They were walking in and we were collecting the money, plus we had as much dope as we wanted.  We were up till dawn, then we'd sleep till about 8 or 9, then we'd start smoking again.  God knows why, we simply sat there for hours on end smoking dope, which coincided with me contracting TB.  But in my head it coincided with getting money.  As dealers we were making money hand over fast.  Ever since then I've associated having money with being terminally ill ....

Had you had much in the way of female relationships with lovers prior to Ame?

Not really.  At the commune there was the usual sort of thing which I didn't really get on with.  I had a couple of intense relationships that seemed to involve a mutual love, but they didn't last.  On the whole the men's ethos at the island was the 'screwing chicks' number.  I just felt distinctly uncomfortable about it.  It was a horror show ....

In 71 the commune folded, I went into hospital.  I felt completely defeated.  I'd wanted to live revolution.  I wanted to live a revolutionary life, I didn't want to work.  I didn't want to pay rent.  But it was all over.  What next?  This is how I drifted into drawing.  I've always regarded my art as the result of a defeat.

When the 70s came along they were all off, leaving London, the notion of urban communes, heading out to the country, to Wales, to Ireland, to the East.  I was saying don't go.  Eel Pie Island was on the edge of London.  I was saying let's do it again, let's find somewhere in the middle of London and do it again

- from The Education of Desire - The Anarchist Graphics of Clifford Harper"
(Anarres, London 1984)

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revised 2 February 2007