Pete Cresswell: Life on Mars

The centrepiece of Pete Cresswell’s talk was his Life on Mars skit, but he began by recalling Pete Ryrie:

First of all, Dave mentioned Pete Ryrie earlier. Pete was the Guild president in 1967, the year I arrived in Liverpool, and he ended up as one of my best friends and indeed a neighbour. By the time of the occupation he was already a teacher at the start of a long career devoted to the children of Liverpool, but he supported the occupation and its aims and did whatever he could to help, both during the sit in and its aftermath. He never once abandoned his principles. In truth I can’t feel too sad about Pete because he was just such a great bloke.

The other day I got an envelope through the post and it had two carbon copies in it. For the benefit of the younger members of the audience here I should explain that a carbon copy was a copy made of something you wrote on a typewriter. A typewriter was ………………oh, good grief, I can’t explain everything. Anyway, this is what it said:

My name’s Sam Tyler.  I’m a chartered accountant.  I was in an accident in 2010 and I woke up back in 1970.  Am I asleep, am I dreaming or am I dead?  And how can I get back to 2010………?

As he walked down Bedford Street North, Sam realised from his shoulder length hair and Afghan coat that he must be a student.  But what was he supposed to be studying?  He doubted that they’d even heard of chartered accountancy back in 1970 and decided that the only thing to do was to ask the university.  He turned into Abercromby Square towards what he remembered as the admin block from his time as a student in the late eighties.  And there it was, the Senate House.  There was something different about it, though.  A red flag on the roof for a start – he certainly didn’t remember that.  Maybe Liverpool had won the cup or something.  And there were scruffy posters on some of the windows, possibly a first year art exhibition.  They couldn’t even spell crimes.  ‘Students, eh?’ sighed Sam.

He knocked on the door and after a short delay it opened just a few inches.  A young man with bright red hair and a beard peered out suspiciously and asked what he wanted.  ‘I just want to look at my file…’ started Sam.   He didn’t get the chance to finish.  ‘Well, don’t we all?’ interrupted Redbeard, smiling now and ushering Sam into the building.  ‘Demand number three!’

Sam was puzzled but before he could say anything else he was whisked away by another very tall guy – a student by the look of him – wearing an Afghan coat much like Sam’s.  His face was strangely familiar.  ‘Ah, you’ll be new’ he said briskly.  ‘Well, come on, there’s work to be done’.  He thrust a broom in Sam’s hand and guided him to the basement, ignoring his protests.    ‘We all want to see our files’ he declared, ‘you’ll just have to wait.  It’s important we keep the place clean; these revolutionaries just aren’t interested in the practicalities’.

Sam was set to work cleaning a corridor, still in a daze.  Was this really how things were run in the 60’s? No wonder that Mrs Thatcher got in.   A few youths, even scruffier than the ones who’d shown him in, were slumped on some chairs by the basement entrance.  They seemed to spend all their time moaning about discipline, though Sam couldn’t see they were very disciplined at all.  They were smoking too, sharing the same cigarette.  Sam was about to remind them about the smoking regulations when another, slightly older, man appeared, possibly an undertaker, wearing black trousers, a black corduroy jacket and a black tie.  The youths hid the cigarette, stopped babbling and launched into an incomprehensible discussion about someone called Al Thuser, possibly a 1960’s rock star thought Sam.

This was interrupted when a voice echoed through the building, causing Sam to start.  A silky, slightly sinister voice appeared to be calling people to…. well, he couldn’t be sure.  ‘Fast eating time’ perhaps?  In any case, it unaccountably perked the scruffy types up a bit and they set off upstairs.  Sam tried to join in the fun: ‘Fast eating eh?  What do we get, McDonalds?’ he said.   They stared at him blankly.   ‘McDonald who?’ said one of them.  ‘Anyway, you’re just in, aren’t you – you’d better keep guard while we’re at the meeting.  Just don’t let anyone in, especially any engineers’.  Sam nodded, though he was again baffled. What they were guarding, why were they expecting engineers and if so, why on earth didn’t they want to let them in?

He settled down to ponder his next move when there was a sharp knock at the door.  It was a middle aged man with a briefcase, a grey suit, grey hair and greyish complexion.   He didn’t look much like an engineer – no overalls or tool box – so Sam opened the door to ask who he was.  He didn’t get the chance.  ‘Burchnall, Registrar’ the man barked as he pushed past Sam, who fell back into his chair.  He disappeared up the stairs and within what seemed like seconds pandemonium broke out.   The grey man reappeared, this time his face brick red with anger.  ‘How dare they’, he muttered as he marched past Sam. ‘Someone will pay for this’.

By now even Sam realised that he had blundered in to some sort of protest.  He’s heard about them in history lessons at school.  He decided there was no chance of seeing his files, and in any case people were looking at him oddly; he started to hear mutterings of ‘spy’ and ‘engineer’.  What was this thing about engineers?   He sneaked out of the building while everyone was in yet another mass meeting, the third that day.

The only thing that can be said about what happened next is that at least Sam was getting used to it.  As he left the Senate House he was caught a glancing blow by a passing Ford Anglia, his second accident that day.  As he came round he looked up at the Senate House roof.  It looked as if the Evertonians had taken over now – there was a blue and white flag up there.  And he had a tie on!  He was back!  Two people ran over the road to help.  As they lifted him up he realised that one of them was the cleaning superintendent and this time Sam did recognise him.  He was that bloke off the telly; the one with the swingometer at election time; Peter Snow, that was it!

The other one said – ‘Hang on, I know you don’t I?  Aren’t you the engineer?’  There they went again!  He recognised this one too; his hair was more salt and pepper now but his enthusiastic beam was unmistakeable.

‘Well’ said Redbeard, ‘Welcome to the reunion’.

So yes, welcome to the reunion!

I want to start to answer Mike Smith’s four questions – not that I can remember them exactly, but they’re about how the occupation affected the rest of our lives and what its politics meant to us then and now.    Don’t worry, I’m not going to run through the whole of my career and this won’t take too long.    Some of what I’ve got to say is in Gerry’s fantastic blog, so those of you who’ve memorised the whole thing may find it familiar.  A few years back, when we last moved house, probably 17 years ago, I came across my small file of documents from the occupation – mainly about the trial.  I can’t tell you how distant it all seemed; it was like a piece of ancient history in faded manuscripts, especially the witness statements – it was almost as if it had happened to a different person altogether.  This event and the blog has brought much of it back to life for me.

As for the consequences of being expelled, well one was that I stayed in Liverpool, something I’ve never regretted – I just love this city.  At the time I certainly couldn’t really go home – my parents weren’t desperately impressed by my being kicked out – and I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.  I also found it a bit hard to get a job – my CV was, to say the least, a bit thin at the time.  So I spent a couple of years as a hospital porter in Newsham General Hospital, mainly moving dead bodies.    But it was there that I cut my teeth as a trade union organiser and after that I got a job as a community worker with Liverpool City Council.   From then on it probably didn’t make much difference at all. On my CV I always had to explain my three years at university without getting a degree so I wrote ‘expelled for political reasons’ and it’s fair to say that nobody ever showed any interest at all in it!   Apart of course, from the University of Liverpool.  When I was going to do a professional social work training course I was accepted onto the university course after an interview and I honestly thought that the university wouldn’t even remember who I was; I was obviously a bit naive.  The university hierarchy wouldn’t let me start the course so instead I had to go on the course at the Polytechnic.   I hadn’t appreciated that expulsion was for life!

Move on to about 1990 and for some reason I decided it would be a nice idea to finish my degree – not to just be given one , but to do some part time study and do the exams along with everyone else.  So I wrote the  uni and got a letter back – possibly from Neil Lewis’s office junior – quoting some regulations and basically telling me to sod off.  It even referred to my ‘past misdemeanours’!

I know the politics of the occupation aren’t everyone’s main concern here – the reunion’s mainly about meeting old friends and having a good time.  But the politics do mean something still, certainly to me.  People associate the 60’s with unreasonable, global demands.  Gerry’s favourite Black Dwarf headline sums it up – ‘Don’t Demand, Occupy!’ with its emphasis on action above content.  But we weren’t making demands like that- we weren’t demanding an end to the war in Vietnam.   Early on in our attempt to break the record for the world’s longest chain of emails Dave pointed out that our campaigns and demands were in fact about what he called good old fashioned social democratic concerns – opposing racism, campaigning against high rents and slum housing.  Far from being unrealistic or even unreasonable our demands were things that the university could – and of course should – have agreed.

Look at them forty years on.  Salisbury – good grief, even David Cameron, slimeball though he is, wouldn’t give someone that houseroom in the Tory party today.  It was blindingly obvious even then that someone like him had no place at the head of a multi racial university. Or any other for that matter.  As far as the investments go, our initial demand was to reveal what they were but Mr Chrimes handily admitted that they did have investments in South Africa, as we’d suspected. And it’s now accepted that the disinvestment campaigns were a big support to the South African people in their struggle to overthrow apartheid and create a multi racial democracy.   As for opening the files, well, Tony Blair looked after that one for us with the Freedom of Information Act.    And then there were chemical and biological weapons – or weapons of mass destruction as we now call them, don’t we?   Well, nowadays the usual response to people having them is to invade the place isn’t it?  The university should be grateful that all we did was occupy the Senate House!  And remember, just because we didn’t find any weapons there it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist!  They could have hidden them or moved them to another university!  Anyway, wasn’t even Lady Di opposed to weapons like this?

So, forty years on we’ve been outflanked by the Tories, Tony Blair and the royal family!  Our demands obviously weren’t extreme enough!  So I’ve got a new one – when we were talking earlier  we realised that Salisbury Hall is still there, named after Lord Salisbury – it’s only a few hundred yards from my house.  So here’s a campaign for Danielle and the present Guild leadership – change the name of Salisbury Hall!

And then there’s the fifth demand.   I remember Dave Steyn saying when we drew them up, ‘this is the one we get out on’.  In other words it was the one we could actually achieve!  What an irony!  But in fact as far as I’m concerned Howard Newby’s letter brings that one to a close.  Gerry quoted  it  earlier so I won’t repeat it.   My original idea was just to write to the university demanding that the Senate admit the university had been wrong.  But Dave added the sort of language that he thought a vice chancellor might actually read and it certainly did the trick.  I have to admit that the letter did mean something to me, and now I’ve even got the badge that they give to graduates.  I’m wearing it – in fact there’s a load of them over there, apparently anyone can have one!  But after forty years, the hostilities are over!

A few years ago I said something to Richard Davies – it was at James E Brown’s funeral, and the last time I saw him.  And those six words sum up what could be the slogan of this reunion:

WE WERE RIGHT. THEY WERE WRONG!  End of story.  It’s great to see you all again, thank you.

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