From an activist notebook

The term activist is a bit odd as it implies everybody else is inactive, which is far from the case. But for this we will imagine an activist as someone engaged in public life, in political life, is interested in things outside of the private. Should that not be everybody? Is there such a thing as inactivism? After all, to do nothing has as big an impact on things as whatever else happens.

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Today maybe more than ever. So what is meant by activist, or activism, here is a marker to describe those odd people, to varying extents, that have some kind of political obsession. I guess what is meant by politics here needs some clarification to. Politics, in this sense, is what we do together; by discussing things, coming up with ideas consensually, by inclusion and by keeping as many people happy as possible, before making final decisions and acting on them. Politics is the act of engaging in public life. This description for the purposes here, should not be confused with “party politics”, which is something completely different.

So what is activism here, in terms of what has being described above? Well specifically, activities towards implementing ideas that will force institutional change. The banking institutions; corporate institutions, state institutions and the powerful conglomerates, who for profit, ensure that many live in poverty. This is the high end of what needs to be achieved. If we can understand a bit about what is going on up there, we can understand what we need to do down here. This is the bit, apart from the obsessed, where peoples eyes start to glaze over. Attempting to explain to folk who are politically disengaged for many reasons, what is going on up there, in the corporate stratosphere . All they can see is the mad rush of their lives flashing past. All the things they need to do, or would rather think about, apart from, (to them) the abstract and intimidating world of the “activist”. What’s this got to do with me?  A question constantly posed and rarely answered.

The general problem with the activist, (self included) is that they usually know a lot more about what is going on up there, than they do about what is going on down here. This isn’t a criticism of the need for better understanding, more a question of context, more a question of what is needed at this point in time. The question is not only about getting folk away from the television, consumerism and private life into public life, into the community, but also about getting the activist away from academia, social media, esoteric groups, the protest culture and the constant defense of their own righteous position, into the same community. We all need to have things we enjoy doing and that interests us. The point is. If that is all that we are doing, no matter how important we feel it is, we also need to ask. Who, and what purpose is it serving?

“If you look over the developments in recent years, there’s been severe retrogression on economic and political issues, but considerable progress on cultural and social issues.” Noam Chomsky

In other words we are making much progress in cultural change and around social issues. There are a mass of wonderful things going on. But there are two things. Where is the infrastructure work growing out of this progress that will be powerful enough to challenge institutional power, i.e. the banks? Where is the work going on to engage the many ordinary folk we will need to raise to that challenge? In the world of the activist, we can usually fill rooms to listen to and watch how others, in other countries build and raise the kind of awareness and solidarity needed to challenge corporate power. Which is ok in itself. But in our own communities the same handful of folk will turn up when the problem is our own social housing, or such like, that is at stake. Sure there is commendable stuff going on on the ground and much to admire that we should be thankful for.  But it is enough to shift the might of the powerful? To hurt as Michael Albert says, what they hold dear? That will take a massive mind shift in the population, but will still have more to do with practicalities than philosophy. A bit less peer to peering on the network and a bit more education to where it is needed most. By us getting out more, by showing up, by being active, in all the right places.

The following offers some ideas for going forward. Yet again not much is mentioned of building grass roots networks that relate to peoples day to day lives. Maybe that could be part of a shared program?

People for a Shared Program
People for a Shared Program is a place to explore, develop and organise around left programmatic ideas.!faq/ryp9j


City Strolls “Enough already” walk

With their 1994 battle cry, “Ya basta!” (“Enough already!”) Mexico’s Zapatista uprising became the spearhead of two convergent movements: Mexico’s movement for indigenous rights and the international movement against corporate globalization.

‘I think we have to start by admitting that we don’t have the answers. The fact that we think that taking state power is the wrong way to go does not mean that we know the right way. Probably we have to think of advancing through experiments and questions: “preguntando caminamos” — “walking we ask questions” — as the Zapatistas put it. To think of moving forward through questions rather than answers means a different sort of politics, a different sort of organization. If nobody has the answers, then we have to think not of hierarchical structures of leadership, but horizontal structures that involve everyone as much as possible.’ John Holloway

Join us on an “Enough already”, walk. Meet at Govan underground and come on a walk into town, taking in the landscape and discuss the changing social dynamic and ways we can move forward. Or just come for the stroll. All ages welcome.

Saturday 18th June. Meet 12:00 Govan Underground. Walk around two hours. Finish with tea at the Electron Club CCA Suchiehall street.

Recent videos – Radical Imagination Project

Film crew

Norman Armstrong Free Wheel North
Radical Imagination Project. Discussions with folk who have worked and committed much of their time to community activism. Norman Armstrong
Norman, a tenacious community worker, who “gets things done” but unlike many fly-by-night “social entrepreneurs” is rooted in his community and has the philosophy and principals to match.
(Filmed by Radical imagination film group)
View on VIMEO

May Day picnic Glasgow Green 2016
A small may Day event on the Glasgow green at Free Wheel North. Part of an effort to have the Glasgow’s May Day event in the open. More information for next year to follow.
(Filmed by Radical imagination film group)
View on VIMEO

John Cooper on the spirit of revolt and the Castlemilk connection
John Cooper, a name synonymous with Castlemilk and community struggle over the last 40 years or so. The evening took us through the adventures and campaigns of himself and his Castlemilk comrades, from the miners strike to the present. A social history. Find more on the “Spirit of Revolt” website at. Film in two bits Talk and after discussion.
(Filmed by Radical imagination film group)
View on VIMEO

John Cooper – After talk discussion (Castlemilk Against Austerity) Castlemilk, experience and its relevance to the youth who take up the mantle today of community organising.
(Filmed by Radical imagination film group)
View on VIMEO

The Downtrodden Tenant
Bad housing exists not because the housing system is not working but because it is the way it works. Peter Morton has taught me more about technology in the last few months than I knew before. His boundless energy to educate, given the fact he is in a wheelchair and on strong medication through bad health is an inspiration. We are working on a pile of projects around the Radical Imagination and opening the “Open Source” to the people who need it most. This film denotes Peters struggle with Renfrew Council, their lack of duty of care and how the use of his technological skills were used to collect empirical data to back up a case against their failure to uphold their own housing policy. Downtrodden Tenant Blog
(Filmed by Radical imagination film group)
View on VIMEO

Self Determination Power Event Common Sense and Freedom 1990
A wee blast from the past. The Self-Determination and Power event was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne. Also involved were Variant, then a glossy magazine containing provocations from Stewart Home, Pete Horobin’s Dundee-based Data Attic and others; West Coast literary magazine, Here and Now magazine, the radical-based Clydeside Press, and the Scotia bar, then a hub for free-thinking dissent down by the river just across from the Gorbals.
(Produced by Street Level)
View on VIMEO

Videos can also be viewed on Youtube

Norman Armstrong Philosophy, environment, access and bikes

Youtube    Vimeo

Discussions with folk who have worked and committed much of their time to community activism.

Grace Lee Boggs, said. “The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put”. If our interest is building movements we need to learn to stay put some of the time to see ideas through.

These videos will be about folk who work on the slow burn for the long term.

Radical Imagination Project

Bring MAY DAY back to the green

MAY DAY,Sunday, May 1 Glasgow Green at 1 PM – 3:30 PM. Meet at Free Cycle North, near People’s Palace

Tired of the ritual Glasgow May Day, a boring walk through the city, to
sit in a hall listening to “our leaders”, pontificating and spouting
about how they will save the world. Well, a group of us are trying to
bring May Day back to The Green and make it what it was meant to be, a
family day, a fun day, a day to celebrate the solidarity of the working
class. Sunday,

May 1st we are organising a family get-together/picnic in the Green,
Based at Free Wheel North, with activities and bikes, in and around the

With a little bit of the history of May Day. Bring what you expect to
find, it is our day. It is early days yet, but we expect face painting,
music, singing and performance poetry, among other events, and a picnic,
with some eats. It should kick off on The Green around 1:00pm and end
by 3:30pm on May 1st.

You can have your march around the city and come back to the Green to
meet up with friends and comrades and have a friendly afternoon with all
the family. May Day belongs to the people, and belongs on the Green,
let’s bring it back. Bring a picnic and food to share.

If you can sing, dance, juggle, face-paint play an instrument, ride a
mono-cycle, read a poem, or any other wee skill that might entertain the
people. Bring it along. If you feel you would like to take part, please
do get in touch.

We will be doing some banner and sign making at the Electron Club his
Saturday 23rd, from 2:00 come along and help. Electron, CCA 350
Sauchiehall St, Glasgow G2 3JD


The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town

From the Archive: Agitate! Educate! Organise! The Day Noam Chomsky Came To Town

Originally published in the Alternative Strategies issue of Line


When a seventy year old Hamish Henderson sang Freedom Come All Ye at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow in January 1990 , it was the ultimate folk-song cabaret. Here, after all, was the man who’s co-founding of the School of Scottish Studies in 1951 had kick-started the Scottish folk revival, and here was singing the song he’d penned that many believe to be Scotland’s real national anthem (with a small n, for Henderson was nothing if not internationalist in outlook). Henderson sang it too in his own slightly cracked tones not as part of some officially sanctioned flagship event for Glasgow’s status as European City of Culture that year, but for a low-level grassroots initiative that brought together art and activism in an event that would prove to be of huge trickle-down significance. Continue reading

The Self-Determination and Power event was organised by a loose alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, the Edinburgh Review, then under the editorship of James Kelman advocate Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, edited by Rosemary Milne. Also involved were Variant, then a glossy magazine containing provocations from Stewart Home, Pete Horobin’s Dundee-based Data Attic and others; West Coast literary magazine, Here and Now magazine, the radical-based Clydeside Press, and the Scotia  bar, then a hub for free-thinking dissent down by the river just across from the Gorbals.

Self-Determination and Power had been set up in part as a reaction to Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, which was seen by many as a cynical attempt to put gloss on what already existed. All the bodies behind it were key thinkers in radical thought that had little truck with political parties and was more to do with a spirit of punk and hippy-inspired DIY. Edinburgh Review had become a major platform for this, as, too a lesser extent, had Scottish Child. The crossovers with the Free University, however, were crucial.

In the days before the internet, such networks required a lot of envelope-licking and paper folding, and, leaf through its pages of contact lists, and it was clearly a disparate body. Artists, activists, anarchists and academics were all here, as were curators, musicians, novelists and poets, some well-known, others not so much. Some of the most familiar were novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, both figures championed by Edinburgh review under Kravitz. Kelman in particular was an auto-didact who captured a working-class voice that would go on to influence the likes of Irvine Welsh and others published by Kevin Williamson’s lit-zine Rebel Inc a few years later in Edinburgh.

Kelman too was instrumental in getting no less a figure than Noam Chomsky to be key speaker at Self-Determination and Power. This was a major coup. As a linguist, philosopher and radical agitator who could use the words ‘anarchism’ and ‘enlightenment’ together without histrionics, Chomsky was not only the quietest of figureheads for the none-aligned left, but of his American homeland he remains so rationally critical of. In Glasgow Chomsky spoke calmly but passionately as he would on a much bigger platform at Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall sixteen years later.

It was in this very room in Edinburgh, it should be noted,  where the famed international drama conference of 1963 when In Memory of Big Ed, an intervention led by artists Mark and Joan Boyle with dramatist Charles Marowitz, Ken Dewey and Charles Lewson and involving a naked female performer, made front page news.

But in 1990 in the Pearce Institute, Govan, Chomsky didn’t need such accoutrements to court and captivate the 330 in attendance. According to an article on the blog, City Strolls, titled Coffee With The Riff-Raff, in his two keynote speeches, Chomsky somewhat tellingly ‘disparages nationalism, the exercise of political power by leaders who do not answer to citizens, instruments of social control and isolationism such as television, and the collusion of media in the process of oppression and the spreading of lies.’

Self-Determination and Power, then, with all its break-out groups, plenary sessions and film and audio documentation, was itself something of a Happening. It was too that rarest of alliances; a place where politics, art and activism could co-exist without the flag-waving populist embarrassment of Red Wedge, the Labour Party supporting package tour of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Neil Kinnock that would quietly disband once Kinnock lost yet another Westminster General Election.


For someone who’d left school at fifteen with ideas above their station in terms of what was expected of them anyway, and who, eventually, went on later than most to further education, being exposed to and taking part in the Self-Determination and Power event was a kind of rites of passage and a wake-up call. 

Not that there hadn’t been other epiphanies, from record shops and bookshops and art galleries and performance spaces and the early days of Channel Four and the revelatory epistles of Scritti Politti, who deconstructed the love song with Marxist theory and wrote pop tributes to Jacques Derrida, and seized the means of production before turning glossy pop entryists.  All this stuff took me off-syllabus and into all the left-field ephemera in the library at college and pretty much everywhere else besides. But, and perhaps for the first time, the Self-Determination and Power event wasn’t just about ideas. It was about hearing those ideas out loud, ideas about art and politics and philosophy and poetry that weren’t readily available to those expected to unblinkingly and unthinkingly follow the school-work-good-and-useful-citizen route.

It was a series of ever enlightening little glimpses through the bullshit fog of misinformation and into something that questioned and confounded and confused with its lateral leaps into the unknown. It contextualised and challenged and embraced the contradictions. It wasn’t three R’s simplification or some ill-informed and out-of-touch public school-boy prime-ministerial platitudinising about ‘education, education, education.’. It wasn ‘t about well-meaning but ultimately vapid box-ticking notions of social inclusion and access. Like Beatie Bryant, the country girl heroine of Arnold Wesker’s 1958 play, Roots, it wasn’t about regurgitating hand-me-down information because it sounded right. Blust to all that. This was about finding a voice.


Free University Glasgow had been ‘established’, as Malcolm Dickson, one of the prime movers behind the Self-Determination and Power event, wrote in Justified Sinners, Ross Birrell and Alec Finlay’s impressive ‘archaeology of Scottish Counter Culture (1960-2000), published by Finlay’s Pocketbooks imprint in 2002 between 1987-91 ‘in recognition of the potential in cultural activity to push things along and make connections between people. It was about braking down isolation and people linking up with one another.’

What this meant, according to Dickson, was a series of meetings in flats, houses, galleries and other spaces on such topics as ‘Joseph Beuys, Paolo Freire, the German Green Movement, computers in the workplace, art and class.’ Two larger public meetings also took place; a seminar on Culture and Politics in 1987, and a Scratch Parliament in 1988. The spirit was of a grassroots sharing of ideas that seized, if not the means of production, then certainly the theoretical keys to those means.

The first name mentioned by Dickson, of course, was crucial to Free University Glasgow. It was Joseph Beuys, after all, who had founded the Free international University in Dusseldorf in 1973 as ‘an organisational place of research, work and communication’. A loose ad hoc network of Free Universities developed, stuttered, faded from view and were occasionally reborn in Amsterdam, Munich and across Europe and beyond. Beuys’ much documented visits to Edinburgh, initially with the Strategy: Get Arts exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970 and the nexus of activities that sprang from it could also be seen as a form of spreading the Free University virus.


Rewind two years before the Self-Determination and Power event to late 1988, and, in a large but packed to capacity church in the centre of Edinburgh, a small but wizened old man is speaking in barely a whisper to the hushed crowd hanging on his every word. The man is Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire, another key thinker discussed by Free University Glasgow, and, like Beuys, a radical in that much overused word’s broadest sense.

Freire’s 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argued that, as their is no such thing as education systems controlled by those in power, who use it as a tool to keep that power, then those oppressed by that power must effectively educate themselves in other ways in order to be liberated from it. Freire’s notion of ‘fundamental democratisation’ and of not treating students as passive recipients of knowledge by rote, but as co-educators, was a form of self-determination by any other name.

Freire’s theories were a direct influence in Edinburgh on the setting up of the Adult Learning Project  (ALP). Set up in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected as Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, as a community resource to explore notions of self-hood through a variety of projects in the Gorgie-Dalry district. These included projects on family, school, national identity, health and parenting, and in form and structure were subjective and experiential. A full history of ALP and Freire’s influence can be found in the expanded 2011 edition of Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland, by Gerry and Colin Kirkwood, and originally published in 1989.

Yet, if Beuys and Freire were talismans turned accidental gurus of cultural self-determination, the seeds of Self-Determination and Power were planted a lot earlier.


The person who took me to see Paolo Freire was a man called George Byatt. George was a Glasgow-born playwright, whose dramatic poem, The Clyde Is Red, which was a part revolutionary, part holy piece about how the people of Glasgow learnt to walk on water, had won a Prix Italia award for its BBC radio adaptation in 1988. George was an unholy trinity of Glasgow Catholicism, Marxism and Buddhism, all mixed up in a strident stew of anarcho-syndicalism. In short, he was a believer. 

George had written for television in the 1960s and 1970s, but had some kind of wake-up call that had made him start writing for the stage. In 1972 George worked as press officer on the great Northern Welly-Boot Show, which Tom McGrath had done the music for and John Byrne the design. Three great playwrights to be, all doing different jobs. Loosely based on the Clydeside shipyard protests in Govan, The great Northern Welly-Boot Show was a riot of grassroots popular theatre forms and techniques that would inspire 7:84 writer and director to create The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil a year later. The Great Northern Welly-Boot Show would also go on to make Billy Connolly, himself a former Govan shipyard worker, a star.

George introduced a co-operative way of working into the Welly-Boot Show company that he would later hone in his own company, Theatre PkF (Peace-keeping Force). This was based on a none-hierarchical idea of discussion, which, depending on how George told it, he’d discovered in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, through Native American culture, or at Sandhurst.

With PkF, and with Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which he co-founded, George would hold discussions after every performance. He called this the second act of the play, and, just as he wouldn’t work with directors, these discussions would work, not with a chairperson hosting a panel of experts behind a table on a stage that immediately set up an us and them situation, but with a facilitator. This facilitator would then move to each audience member, by now gathered in a circle, in turn, and allow them to say as much or as little as they liked without interruption. If someone didn’t wish to speak, they said pass and moved on to the next person in the circle.

It was a wonderful if somewhat time-consuming ideal of participation and inclusiveness as opposed to being talked down to, although of course, George, who would be facilitating, invariably dominated the discussion. But then, out of anyone there, he probably had the most to say.

You never hear George being talked up as some iconic figure of the left the way you do with some people. The way George operated pissed off the powers that be, and you can sort of understand why. He’d worked out his own way if doing things with PkF that didn’t fit in with the status quo. Other writers and theatre companies didn’t fit in either, but they somehow managed to give the appearance that they had. George didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t, and it’s a crime his plays are never done anymore. Some say he was his own worst enemy, but he taught me a lot. 


By the time the Self-Determination and Power event was set up, Glasgow had long had an oppositionist outlook aesthetically and politically, from poets Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the old Third Eye Centre, now the site of the CCA, where original director Tom McGrath introduced the city to Miles Davis, Ivor Cutler and Sun Ra, and where, in 1984, the New Image Glasgow exhibition of painters introduced the world to the audacious romances of Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Stephen Conroy. More recent initiatives included the committee-run Transmission Gallery, which could be said to have set the template for much of the DIY visual art activity that exists in Glasgow and Edinburgh today. Networks were loose and based around the social.

It was the Third Eye, however, as Glasgow’s first multiple art form space, that was the catalyst, and it was McGrath who made it all happen. McGrath was a crucial figure in counter-cultural activity, not just in Glasgow, but in Edinburgh where his plays were performed at the Traverse, and in London, where he’d edited Peace News and underground bible International Times, or IT before falling foul of a heroin addiction and decamping back to Glasgow to clean up.

Key figures during McGrath’s 1960s years were two fellow Glaswegians; novelist Alexander Trocchi and psychiatrist R.D.Laing. Trocchi was a loose affiliate of the Beat Generation who, after leaving Glasgow University, had decamped to Paris, where he published Samuel Beckett and Henry miller in literary magazine, Merlin. Surviving financially by writing pornographic novels under a pseudonynom, his first novel, Young Adam, was published in 1957, and in 1960, a second, the similarly biblically titled Cain’s Book, followed. By that time Trocchi had acquired a heroin addiction, become involved with the Lettrist International and the Situationist International and had moved to America.

In 1962, the same year he appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Conference organised by publisher John Calder, Trocchi published what amounted to a call to arms, first in New Satire Review, then in Internationale Situationiste and City Lights Journal. A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds. This became Trocchi’s precursor to Project Sigma, a grand utopian scheme of a global network of artists and intellectuals who would enable a shift in consciousness via a ‘spontaneous university’, as Trocchi wrote in his actual manifesto, sigma: A Tactical Blueprint, in 1963, an ‘experimental laboratory’, where art and life were inseparable.

Key figures of the counter-culture such as William Burroughs, R.D. Laing, writer and artist Jeff Nuttall and sound poet Bob Cobbing all signed up to Sigma, exchanging missives and manifestos by post. If such ideas were picked up later on by the London Anti-University, Laing’s Kingsley Hall project for the radical treatment of schizophrenia between 1965 and 1970, and fellow anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation at London’s Roundhouse in 1967, nothing concrete came of project Sigma itself. But then, maybe that was the point.

Because, when Trocchi spoke of an ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds,’ he was predicting the internet just as much as Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village had done in the Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, also published, incidentally, in 1962.

Put Project Sigma into a Google search, today, however, and top of the list is an organisation offering masterclasses in business management and sustainable development. This probably isn’t what Trocchi had in mind. McLuhan, on the other hand, might understand.