Robertson!: Sphinx article, May 1970

This impassioned article by Dave Robertson appeared in the summer 1970 edition of Sphinx magazine, which at that time was edited by Graham Leach and priced at 12.5p. The inscrutable design of the feature (columns of tiny white text on black background!) was by Phil Gusack. Dave’s article was untitled, the cover of the magazine simply alerting readers to Robertson! This was the issue of Sphinx that had as its cover the wrap-around photo of the red flag flying over Senate House that features as the header for this blog.

The rain had been catching their hair and the wind had been rapping at their overcoats now for just on thirty minutes.  The wait was almost over. It would not be long.

A red banner caught in the wind as a black car came sliding through the rain haze. The crowd surged forward over the rough pavement and the slippery road. It swirled past in a curtain of spray and vanished up a ramp. Cheers, claps, and a few boos broke the gloom. People fidgeted.  She had come and that was that.

Three hours later, the gathering quietly melted into the afternoon sun, and the slums and streets of Liverpool 8 gently faded into the shadows. They would vaguely remember a royal blessing.

One thousand workers, tenants and students had witnessed the arrival of Princess Alexandra. It was 2:15 p.m. the afternoon of May 15th, 1969.  The Senate House was born…

‘I’he same wind was blowing, but a little harder now. And a new sun was shining. They had waited, but it was over. And they came – three hundred – one for each day of waiting. They marched down in defiance, some running, some hurrying, in the Spring sunshine. The rebellion that had brought them out that May day, now brought them back again to the place of their anger.

It glistened in their eyes and spilled from their smiles. lt was done at last. They were laughing and chattering. And above them all, against the blue sky, fluttered the Red Flag. Once they had waited – poor men on the rich man’s doorstep. Now they entered. It was 2.15 p.m. the afternoon of March 9th,1970.The Senate House was occupied.

The occupation of Senate House from March 9th until March 21st, 1970 will be remembered in future years as a small event. It will be seen, not as an isolated outburst of anger and frustration, but in the context of a movement far bigger. It will be noted as the beginning. It will be viewed sympathetically. It  will be remembered long after its effects have been swallowed by greater occasions. That is the prophecy.

This is not an attempt to develop the political analysis of the occupation to any conclusion, nor to make any observations upon the success or otherwise of such a tactic at such a time. That must come, but elsewhere. The intention is to describe some of the moments of a community for the benefit of those who did not take part. lt is to try and demonstrate that while the action was essentially political, it was also creative, imaginative, and elegant. The aim is to encourage others to understand, and ourselves to remember.

I do not apologise for the fact that I have an interest to declare, that I was in favour of the occupation and fully committed to the reasons for the action, that I was present every day of the occupation, that I am dedicated to the three hundred, and that I will fight in defence of the ten, and any others which the university may seek to eliminate.

Neither do I apologise for believing that the institution of Liverpool University is amongst the most vicious, cynical, hypocritical complacent and reactionary places in the country. Nor do I apologise for believing it is racist, authoritarian, inhumane, bourgeois, and corrupt. I only apologise that a times my anger is so great, that if words could destroy citadels, Liverpool University would now be in ruins, and that would destroy the fun of those who now share my anger.

So be it.

Liverpool University is a strange place. Not many people manage to remain apart from the environment in which they live. Perhaps monks and kings. But Liverpool University tries to ignore with great effort what is all around it. One cannot help feeling sorry for it at times. It would doubtless have preferred to have been built in the middle of the Downs with rolling fields and little hedges, and buttercups and mushrooms to foil it from reality. Indeed, it had its chance. But as it was, Fate decreed it should be placed, shivering and helpless like a new born lamb, in the middle of some of the worst slum housing in all Britain, in a city renowned for its cosmopolitan nature, amongst some of the most advanced sections of the labour movement in the country.

It was not until the contradictions of their situation were pointed out to them rather brusquely last May that the university awoke to realise that it was not built in the middle of a field. They have spent the time since avidly growing grass.

No wonder its administrators and professors run away each evening to the green suburbia of the Wirral, and no wonder the university could own those very slums and charge rent, without moving a muscle to assist the people they were exploiting. No wonder – because it is not a pretty picture for the refined and delicate eyes of an academic.

The fact that the Chancellor of the university would be more at home in the South African cabinet, six million pounds of investments may be tied up directly and indirectly with companies in Southern Africa, germ warfare contracts have existed in the university, and its Vice-Chancellor is able to say with assurance, ” I am not competent on capitalism”, is of course neither here nor there. ‘

Liverpool is a university which possesses a Treasurer who can say of apartheid, ”You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion.” as well as a Vice-Chancellor who can say in all seriousness, ”Nothing is so distasteful to me as bringing all the paraphernalia of the law into a university which knows nothing of these things” and then go and hire a barrister for £1500 to prosecute ten students.

It is a university whose Chancellor has spoken of Africans as “only one generation removed from a savage state” and who has given a lifetime of work to the support of white supremacist rule in Southern Africa. It is a university whose students know nothing of decisions, because there is no representation. And it is a university where the hammer falls hardest, the wound is the greatest, but the hatred is the deepest.

And so the occupation.

Ultimately, the occupation will prove to those for whom it is still necessary, that the university could never have succeeded in agreeing to the five demands without causing a few rumblings within the fabric of capitalism, and that its yellow liberal mask was unreal all the time. In the meantime, it has demonstrated the resourcefulness and capacity of the left-wing movement in the university.

In terms of the expression of the actions and emotions of three hundred radical-revolutionaries it is immediately important. For no one single event has caused so much thought, provoked so much argument, and created so much bitterness, as the occupation. There are those who argue that the occupation as a tactic is a blind alley; there are those who maintain that it is often relevant; there are those who ponder its theory; and there are those who become fetishistic about it. There were a few of each on March 9th running down Oxford Street towards the Senate House.

It was the culmination and the fusion of all the angers and hates, the cries of despair of many people, fighting against the ridiculous and the irrational.

When the Vice-Chancellor rose and turned his back on 2500 students, he turned his back on peace. He ignited the moment with a spark of intolerance and contempt. He let rip the inevitable upon the immovable, and as Dawn colours the mountain, for a while he produced the light of a flame.

That flame, he found, took time to die down. The fire is not yet out in Liverpool. It is well to judge that it has just been lit.

The Senate House of Liverpool University cost £600,000. It also cost a massive demonstration, months of embarrassment caused by angry tenants, and finally a broken community. It has stood since its chaotic birth as a symbol of all that the university has stood for in this society- an edifice of bureaucratic insensitivity, technocratic isolation, and plain old-fashioned indifference to external problems.

As a building, it is boring. In twelve days we got to know every part of it. Our view never changed: it is boring. From the outside it looks like a fortress, a fact that caused the planners of the occupation some considerable apprehension. In fact it is as easy to enter as a brothel at midnight. Ask any of the local kids.

Around the ground floor windows runs a parapet with purposefully constructed battlements, echoed higher up on the roof by a similar design intended to landscape with the rest of Abercromby Square. In between there is a series of rather dull windows, all monotonous and regular.

The entrance hints briefly of grandeur. You climb the stairs with the expectancy of observing some modern creation of a neo-Gothic temple, as the roof rises away three storeys high to timber slatted skylights. You might expect a polished mosaic floor, chairs and low tables, pictures, flowers, even tapestries. Instead, you reach the top and see a glass porters’ box. Nothing else, not even people – just a porters’ box and a few doors. As a Senate House, it compares unfavourably with its American counterpart. It is clinical, stereotyped, uninspired, cold and boring. It is not even functional.

At first, you think it must be an administrative building, because it is so unhappy. Then you realise that most of it is also dysfunctional. Apart from being so constructed that it would go up in flames like an old barn, with the fire crackling merrily away at its wooden features and the draught coursing between the gaps in the timbers, and apart from having this immense entrance hall, which serves for absolutely nothing except to point the irrelevancy of the balcony that runs around it, the building is still wasted by the two hundred or so people who use it every day. The office corridors are typical of any administrative building, with doors flushing into the walls incognito. Only the third floor, the Vice-Chancellor’s suite, is any different, with thick carpeting and a few pictures.  It appears that the pecking-order philosophy of social organisation has found a quiet little corner here.

By far the greatest extravagance is the Senate Room itself. This is genuinely beautiful. Circular and half-saucer shaped, with a central shaft of light and a corona opening reminiscent of the Catholic Cathedral, with four varieties of lighting and deep-piled light walnut brown carpet. It is like living in a world of milk chocolate and biscuits, soft and warm, quiet, firm, and sure. The walls absorb the gentlest whisper, but the normal voice carries everywhere. For the pleasure of entertaining  our senses, the university paid £100,000 for the building and uses it ess than twenty times a year. We probably gave it five years wear in wo weeks.

In times of low morale – that is, once – it was hard not believe that the building was the sepulchre of some malevolent and oppressive spirit, that it was not the people who worked there who were at fault, but the extra-human forces of darkness playing games with mortal minds. At others, it was possible to think that for the first time in its life, the building was happy, radiating a warmth to its inhabitants who looked so different from the traditional grey-faced, grey-suited automatons of every day. In the end, feelings leapt between insufferable claustrophobia and gentle homeliness.

We tended in the end to absorb and dominate the building. The limitations it might have imposed on our activities were removed so that we had sufficient sleeping places, showed a film and seated three hundred in the foyer, and staged a play from a touring company. We took over the kitchen, built an operations room and a public address system, and had multi-purpose committee/seminar/games rooms.

It was quite an experience for a few of us to see rooms of State desanctified by people lying and chattering all over them. I found it pleasantly amusing to walk and sleep in a room room which I had been asked to leave some months before. Then it was the occasion of the Structure Commission and we all sat round in sombre grace, ready to talk about students and university. It seemed ironic that the staid, intransigent, deathly atmosphere of that room then should have changed into a light, breathing, living community. It seemed historically mischievous that the issue under discussion that previous time, if resolved, might have changed the whole direction of the radical-revolutionary movement at Liverpool.

As it was, the immense clash of cultures and ideas that brought us to the building again was as wide if not wider as it had ever been. The occupation could have been about the manifestation of different life styles.

The general ad hoc method adopted to living in the building was a testimony, not only to the resilience of the people produced and sustained by commitment, but moreover, to a way of thinking which was orientated less to property than to people.

It occurred to me at one stage that the policy employed by business of  sending small groups of managers into the country for a weekend together to talk and get to know each other in the hope of producing a more binding social unity and group identification had a living example of success in the occupation. Three hundred people had been forced together in relative discomfort and in very close proximity, with the permanent threat of external danger.

They emerged bound together in something approaching that tightly-knit group of politically-motivated people. From this point of view, no recriminations from the university will destroy us.

Whoever said that the psycho-sociologist was the person who went to the Folies Bergere to watch the audience? In this case, my own observations are not clinical. Being involved with a unique event in a series of experiences tends to make any objective appraisal contorted by certain emotional commitments. I am no different. Watching the organisation of the occupation develop was not a conscious thing because, unlike the journalist or scientist who is designed to play the observer, I was as involved as anybody. The organic growth of experience, as we saw the limitations of our resources evaporate before us and new channels open for use, was common to everyone.

The university authorities have refused to accept joint responsibility. They have said that the occupation was conducted by ringleaders. They do not know. Throughout the occupation most people helped with most things. Nearly everyone took a turn on security; nearly everyone helped clean up; nearly everyone assisted catering. For some people, it is impossible to conceive of a community without hierarchy. During the occupation we came very near to such a community.

A committee of ten was elected on the first day. Within four days, its functions were overrun by the enthusiasm of the mass meetings. Certain people were responsible for certain duties throughout. They acted as convenors for the ad hoc group of people who wanted to help at a particular time, but there was never any kind of ringleading. Obviously some people did more speaking than others. Equally, some people had more coherent ideas in political and tactical discussions than others, but by the end of the occupation it became more and more difficult to finish meetings with a decision without missing some new angle or an alternative idea.

It is no doubt hard for many people to envisage an organisation without leadership, certainly without leaders. It was obviously hard for the university authorities. But the simple truth is immutable: there were no leaders, no one person at any time who could sway a meeting by force of rhetoric or some curious notion of charisma. In mass meetings arguments were often heated, often naive, sometimes sophisticated, sometimes turgid, but there were always arguments. It was never a case of one person standing and delivering a speech. The didactic, demagogic oratory of the established speakers was of little avail on the rare occasions that it was used. It soon became obvious that the members of the occupation had certain things in common, one of which was a disregard for the conventional, simplistic politics of big meetings in which arguments are telescoped into superficial slogans, and a preference for relatively full discussion upon some topics.

Inevitably, some discussions floundered – one in particular. The decision to leave caused more heated argument than any other issue. Would it be Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, or never? A group of people were quite prepared to stay until the Revolution caught up with them, failing to remember perhaps that one day it would be they who would do the chasing. Others argued that the Saturday- the anniversary of Sharpeville -would be the most appropriate occasion, while some wanted to leave straight away. The decision was a compromise, and as usual, the least satisfactory result. We left on Friday -all together.

Throughout, the mass meeting was sovereign. It discussed, formalised, formulated, analysed, and executed. Responsible to it were all the various strands of organisation – security, catering, press, cleanliness, printing, further action. At no time was the occupation ever threatened by an adverse vote. In fact every vote to continue the occupation was unanimous.

One of the most important aspects of the action was the unity and unanimity that was present. Great stress was laid upon maintaining the security of the building- a feeling that pervaded everyone to the extent that there was rarely a shortage of volunteers for guard duty at critical times. There was just the one tragic lapse which was to allow the entrance by a back door to the Registrar. He wriggled into the building unknown, he was detected by one of the few people in the university who have ever seen him. He was laughed from the building immediately. Two weeks later one person was expelled from the university for recognising him.

Unity was experienced at other times. The notice to quit from the Registrar had two effects: one, derision; two, an increased feeling of community defence. This note from the Registrar became symbolic. The external attack upon the occupation in the form of a curiously typed note was all that the university bureaucrats represented for us: the other end of an official communication. They were not people; they were appendages of an IBM typewriter, feeding inadequate responses into an unresponsive machine.

The defence of the community was the defence of all that they did not understand. It was the defence of sensitivity and common interest, the defence of generosity and selflessness, the defence of sacrifice, the defence of self-defence. For the consciousness which held the occupation in obdurate opposition to the authorities was the feeling of positive suffocation, frustration and sheer nullification of all they wished to see  – a university in society, a society in a world, a world in peace, and peace with power.

For it was against power that the attack had been made. The physical omnipresence and paternalism of a university that still acts in many spheres in loco parentis, that still refuses to emerge from the quiet backwaters of Edwardian England, was besieged. In Senate House, cold and clinical, there was power.

Certainly, the university had moved much of its administration days before and was carrying on in embarrassment rather than physical discomfort, but it was impossible not to understand that this £600,000 building was manipulated by another form of humanity, with different priorities and different modes of action. The building had been turned from an administrative shell into a cocoon of self-delight.

To turn from the door, senior officials who had for so long refused to admit of the existence of other people in the university was a pleasure in itself. To watch their pompous, self-righteous anger as they reddened, flustered, sallied into argument about the law of the land, and retreated in indignation was like watching an old peppery colonel argue the permissive society with a libertarian egghead.

It took some time for the authorities to realise that we were there to stay. The story is told that the Vice-Chancellor could not believe the occupation had continued overnight. He was informed in the morning and his mouth dropped open in disbelief when he heard.

But while our argument was with the university authorities, it was never with the porters, cleaners, or general university staff. Only once in the occupation did we exclude a university staff member in the belief that they were giving information to the Registrar. The head of university security and his assistant were excluded when they came to the door next day. Poor men. Confused and distressed because he could not get his lecture notes, the chief of security was a pitiful sight. We got him his notes. We did him a favour. Some days later his evidence formed the basis of the prosecution. An ex-policeman with the mentality of a has-been copper. We learnt our first lesson – do not trust the university security force, no matter how friendly.

Half of them are used as spies. Apart from the one case of the security men, we still allowed the rest of the security force normal access, which proved a silly mistake since we learned again that their duty reports were used as evidence, sometimes without the individual security patrolman knowing. All the porters, maintenance men, cleaners and general staff were always allowed immediate entry. Our fight was not with them; in fact, it might well have been with them, because the reaction of the university to the occupation was to use one of the most wretched tricks possible which enabled us to discover that staff wages in the university are between £7 – £11  a week.

The university managed to plumb the depths of hypocrisy and deceit when it announced that they could not pay staff overtime rates because all the information was locked in the computer. They did not point out that we had offered the university all facilities to pay the wages, including the computer, and they had refused. The only time they ever asked for the computer was to check some minor detail on the Guild electoral roll a day before the Presidential elections began. Not only was such action unconstitutional and unnecessary, but it also showed us just what sort of priorities the university had. They were quite prepared to place a Guild election before the interests of their poorly paid staff. That is their order of things.

If one thing became clear during the occupation, it was the deceit and hypocrisy of the university authorities. They lied, they misrepresented, they manipulated. They imposed their dirty jobs on employees who would rather have taken no sides, were it not for the fact that families depend on their instant obedience. They twisted and distorted everything they could lay their hands on, even when they were dealing with the welfare of people. From the university authorities, we learned quickly that you never expect goodness. You always get the worst form of corruption.

The desire of established power to maintain its position of privilege allows the utmost treachery, the absolute corruption, and eventually the infinite repression.  At Liverpool, the authorities desire established power to the greatest degree. They will destroy all rather than cede the smallest gain to progress. They will even humiliate the defenceless. We can expect nothing less from them.

The manner in which local politicians performed with the university in a macabre circus of oppression was the most amusing series of events. It was not sufficient to take the strong-line decision from the Vice-Chancellors’ meeting; all forces must be mobilised to create, as quickly as possible, the myth that the public was behind the university.

Some called for strong measures in the courts; others urged extreme internal discipline. One Pro-Vice-Chancellor entered the arena with militant statements calling for everything short of capital punishment, and promptly banned discussion of the occupation in his own house. The University delayed comment until the end.

It is hard to assess the reaction of the university or the Tory party to the visit of the local Tory councillor who only the day before had urged the suspension of grants by all education committees. In himself a pleasant enough person, the alderman was a political illiterate, unable to understand the politics of the occupation and swimming in realms where ‘left’ still meant “Labour”.

He was honest with us and himself; it is possible he left impressed with us, if not agreeing; but it is certain that he saw nothing that his preconceptions demanded. When he came into the building, he was genuinely scared. He asked if I could guarantee his safety. As he walked down the hall, the Red Flag was blaring away in his ears. Only the vanity of bravado got him there in the first place. He spoke of Chairman Mao.

Things like this, he declared, would not be allowed in Peking, referring to the occupation and general student unrest. “Yes, they were,” someone shouted at him. “and it was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. There was several minutes of deafening laughter. The poor alderman was dead. We heard no more from him.

Not many people need to be told that local politicians live in a different world from people like ourselves. If  it were only a matter of communications with these people, then everything would be easy. As it is there just happens to be a political difference. The alderman proved that. He was reasonable, and so were we. It made no difference; we still disagree.

The occupation for some people was bred out of a lack of communication, a lack of understanding of what each other was talking about. It may be so. But an actual political disagreement is far more than a mere breakdown in communications. It is possible that communications would exacerbate such a difference. For others, the occupation was the ‘People’s Park’, the opening of Abercromby Square to the local kids, the use of the ornate for a simple human requirement – play.

Day after day, the centre piece of the square goes unused. It is closed at five o’clock each evening, after a day in which no one has entered it, looked at it, rolled on its grass, smelt its flowers, or in any way enjoyed it. For the best part ot two weeks, while the sun was shining, we opened it to the children and played football together. The grass was worn; the few flowers were broken; some mess was caused out there; but for every trampled blade and for every torn petal, maybe we made some people happier. I’m not sure the university understands such things. The square is closed again now at five o’clock.

And for others, the occupation was a chance to peddle their sectariana, driving the politics through like some unwilling beast sent to devour the angels. We must discuss this; we must discuss that; they cried out impatiently. It was discussed, as it had to be in a situation of crisis, and people left saying not that racism was naughty, not that the university was an aberration, but that it was all so typical and necessary.

The attack upon power is ultimately the attack upon capital. A few illusions were smashed; a few new ideas created for many people. We got the politics home somewhere – in seminars, in meetings, in simple examples given us by the university.

Someone once said, I cannot remember who, “They live by hate; by hate we’ll see them die. We’ve seen them die before; the hate lives on.” In the days during and after the occupation many of us have learnt to hate the university authorities. The occupation was not a question of 30 pints of milk and 20 loaves of bread, 10 lbs of butter and 40 packets of soup, 200 pies or crates of fruit. It was not about Women’s Liberation Movements nor communes. It was not about “Aggro” sessions nor prayers in the park. It was not even about the unity of Marx and Freud which some people found possible.

From the action we took and from the community we created, from the conclusions at which we arrived, we emerged, most of us, in the understanding that licence is given to the maintainers of the status quo to use any action which they decide is necessary in order to defend their privilege. In reply, we conclude that the only means of struggle is to answer the cup of tea with a Molotov cocktail, the slap on the back with a kick in the teeth.

The university, in response to action which it provoked yet did not understand, has taken such steps to ensure by it severity that people will be scared to repeat the action. They hope to ensure that such talk of further occupations is eliminated and Liverpool lapses into the swamp from which it has lately risen.

Let the university understand one thing. Let them hear it loud. We shall guard our wounds, but we shall not leave the field. Let them remember that the organisation created from the occupation will not be easily destroyed. Let them consider that their action has bound more people in struggle against them.

Let them awake one day to find their world in ruins.

There are those who are determined, despite the cost, to shake them from their cosy towers and drag them from their chairs. There are those who will stay and fight. There are those who now scream, “Burn!” and mean it. There are those who hatred does not express itself any longer in great rantings, but lies deep within, driving them on against this place and all it represents.

There are those who now give their time to work against them – slowly, methodically preparing to raze them to the ground. There are those whose violence and hate is channeled now against all they see in this university and all it stands for in the world.

The day a degree from Liverpool was worth anything anyway is fast going. The day that Liverpool can hold its head high is far away. Let its administrators sleep restlessly in their beds. Let them think of what they have done and where they take their stand. Let them remember who we are.

The sun was cool and the corridors cold. Every step made an echo. lt was like a morgue. Across the ugliest of halls, engraved in stain-glass, shone the famous words of Liverpool, “Sans Changer”. Fifty stood in the entrance hall of the Victoria Building.

Down a corridor, ten others waited laughing nervously in the echoing silence. They wondered. One by one they climbed a tall staircase, and returned. Slowly, they came back down the corridor towards us, drifting over the tiles and through the scrum of porters and security guards. We huddled around them and listened.

The chant began. Two years, two years, one year, two years, two years, two years, one year, two years, two years, expelled. They told us slowly. We grasped. Very little could be said.

Three shots from a cap gun had been fired. The university system dived under a table. It was 11.30 am the morning of April l lth, 1970. How we hated them.

Dave Robertson


One thought on “Robertson!: Sphinx article, May 1970”

  1. Re-visiting this for the first time in 40 years has been quite difficult for me. The eponymous title made me uncomfortable at the time, even moreso today. And I remember arguing fiercely with Phil Gusack that one simply shouldn’t reverse the graphics, that it wouldn’t work. But it does. White text on a black background is utterly visually arresting, even if the text itself overwhelms the page. There’s another very recent and charming story in here, but I’ll describe that another time.

    What of the writing itself – the real source of my nervousness? Words have been my life in a directly professional sense: millions published in one form or another; many millions more spoken in public lectures, conferences, seminars and so forth. How would my self-critical self today respond to my self-conscious self decades earlier?

    There’s plenty in the text that I’d craft differently. Some turns of phrase try too hard and fall short. But there are many nice choices that I’d be happy with today; and much of the piece is nicely observed. Towards the end, a few paragraphs seem overwrought. The word ‘hate’ pops up frequently, and that’s wrong. There’s not much in the world I hate, and the word should be reserved for those special instances. ‘Contempt’, ‘disdain’ – these would have been better choices, I think.

    It’s clear though that I was angry – an anger that has never really left me. It’s the anger I still feel whenever I see something of great public value turned to public disservice; when small minds frustrate great visions. When the university authorities turned on a small group of students, using the power vested in them to crush a minor nuisance, they negated the purpose of a University.

    For leadership in ideas and values cannot be exercised without causing a nuisance. To that extent, we were the real leaders in 1970. The university authorities subsequently have had to follow us in all the things that matter.

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