Norman Allan
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Short Stories







Vie and the Sussex Students' Strike

I have wanted to write about Vie and about the Sussex University Paint Throwing incident for some time. I have thought that together they would tell a story about passion and action and change. I believe that all well meaning people want change, yet political action often seems to change very little, where passion can change your life. The link that ties Vie and the paint throwing incident together is Gary, but when we have a woman of Vie's proportions she may tend to take centre stage and others may be ignored, or at least upstaged. The men might be left to play their games like Vietnam, or the Paint Incident.
     Now Vie was as big as the sky. I think she invented the "New Age"; invented it and then left it for Punk. When I met her she wasn't yet Vie. She was Frances. She was giving a workshop on bodywork, imaging and such, in the crypt above Rached's café. "Tell Pasha about the Body Show," said Gary.
     "The Body Show is a group of students who want to take a revue up to the Edinburgh Festival. They've done a couple of shows, so they think that they are experts. But they want to include some Townies," said Frances.
     "A sociology project," said Gary.
     "For our verve and piazzas," said Frances. Frances was from London and from culture. She was alive. She had been a potter, quite successful, living in the country, big house, married to a lawyer… but that palled. She took Gary's "Creative Engagement" course. At the end of the semester she left her kiln and husband and moved down to Brighton with Gary. Gary came from Coventry where they used to make cars. Gary was lectured in sociology at the London Polytechnic, so now he commuted to town on the Brighton Belle. "The Pullman cars of the Brighton Belle have finally pulled me out of the working class," said Gary. Later, when they phased out the Belle, Gary phased out of his job.
     Among Frances's first projects in Brighton was an attempt to start a Community Centre. For two years that was unpaid paperwork and proposals and meetings. And meanwhile there were workshops, and the Body Show.
     Frances and Gary and I became fast friends. I read them my fantasy, "Pipedreams", as I wrote it. And we worked out the problems of the universe. Frances thought the problem was that we were caught in nineteen sixty eight and couldn't escape into the mid-seventies. "We have to look forward." So we worked on the Body Show.
     What was the Body Show? We didn't know. But it would manifest. We intended that it would highlight mind-body dualism and, with a little bit of luck, abolish it. We dreamed it would be "deep". We hoped that it would be fun. We were determined that it would be entertaining, and informative.
     "If the show is going to have any value," said Frances, "we will have to achieve an intimate sincerity."
     "And a sincere intimacy," said Gary.
     "We will have to overcome all our resistances. Where are the blocks between us, within us? What pertinent truth you would rather not tell me? Ah, there is something, Pasha. You looked away."
     "I'm not sure it's relevant," I hedged, but it was. "I suppose the one thing I've avoided saying that is pertinent to the Body Show is that I don't find large women a turn on."
Frances seemed to take this in her stride, never batted an eye. "Oh," she said, "and I thought all this time that you were coming on to me." Then she must have brooded. At the next rehearsal she presented us with a song, The Kitchen Floor Stomp. "I'm cleaning up all trace of you from off my kitchen floor," she sang. And then after the rehearsal, when we Townies were alone, dissecting the Show in our adults cabal, Frances announced that she didn't appreciate my hang-ups, and she told us all, all of us with balls - me, Gary (and her wild child, Danny) - that she was fed up with the leaching of her energies, an activity, this, sucking, which "all you men and boys do." Hence, she explained, the rage behind the Kitchen Floor Stomp.
     "Well, we weren't going to have any secrets," I said.
     "And now we don't. Fuck you too."
     "Take it like a man," I said.
     "So now we've cleared the air," said Gary.
     "Okay, Pasha," said Frances. I was Pasha in those days, though Frances was not yet Vie. "So what do you want to do?" asked Frances.
     I shrugged.
     "What do you want to do in the show? What do you want to show us?"
     "I don't know. I guess I'd just like to strut."
     "So strut," said Frances. "Get up there and show us your stuff. Strut!" But I was shy and tongue-tied by such an unfriendly challenge. I went home in a huff and wrote "A Strut for Alice".

A Strut for Alice

I'm a tower of passion
and a cauldron of wisdom and truth
I've been perceived as a power quite smashing
'cause I'm so perfectly balanced hard and smooth
and nobody fucks with Pasha
but that ain't because I'm uncouth
I ain't tread on your tail yet
sister don't hedge your bet
take a seat with your brothers
you ain't deified yet

Alice remember the Queen of Hearts
she was raving right through from the start
I know the tarts that she baked
were really hot cakes
but the knave who enjoyed those tarts
remember the liberties he gave you

me babe I just wanna be another sort of caterpillar
remembering what the dormouse said
feed your head Flower
or you ain't never gonna see no butterflies

I read Kano my poem. Kano lived up stairs from me in our not-quite-a-commune on College Terrace. "It's a song," said Kano and he gave me two chords and a melody. "A Strut for Alice" became my musical offering in the revue. The Body Show, our sophomore revue, was turning into a musical. We did "The Kitchen Floor Stomp" and "A Strut for Alice" and half a dozen other songs, mostly Frances's compositions, Frances and Richard's. Richard was one of the students, one of the twins' boy friends. He was our guitarist and he helped Frances with the melodies. Gary played drums and Kano played bass. We took the Body Show to Edinburgh and performed it as a fringe event at the Festival in 1975. The Scotsman deigned to reviewed us. "More painful than a visit to the dentist," they said.
     "Do you remember him sitting there all tight arsed," said Frances. "Too frigging full of himself to see this is a work in progress."
     "Something's going on and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" sang Gary.
     After the Body Show Frances, Gary and Richard stayed together as a band. They went punk and became "Poison Girls". Meanwhile the Brighton Council approved the proposal for a Community Centre. There would be salaries. An old warehouse in the Upper Lanes was leased. Frances was asked to direct the Centre. She contemplated this for several weeks, but Poison Girls had caught her. She was forty years old. Life would pass her if she just blinked her eye. She was a Punk rocker now. She became Vie Subversa. The Poisons rehearsed at the Community Centre for a spell. And Frances and Richard became lovers. Gary stayed with the band, as the drummer, and with the extended family. He explained that he had invested too much in the children (Frances's children) to quit. The Poison evolved into a way of life. The extended family moved up to London and beyond to the Essex suburbs with its cheaper rent, larger house, next door to another band, more Punkers, and next to the Common. No other houses around to be disturbed.
     The band enjoyed a little recognition among the Punk cognizanti. Ten years later, 1985, I was living in Toronto, studying Alternative Medicine. The Poisons did a small North American tour. Well, they played Philadelphia (where one of the Body Show twins was living) and Newark, and Toronto. They had a following in Newark and in Toronto. About four hundred fans turned up at Lee's Palace. "Frances, you're God!" the Punk beside me shouted.
     I spent the next day with the Poisons. They spoke of Frances's fiftieth birthday bash. They hired Brixton Hall and all the Punk bands came and played a Poison Girls songs in tribute, bands including luminaries like the Buzzcocks and the Boomtown Rats. Neil made a giant crow (a Poisons' image that) that flew down a wire, wings flapping, from the gallery to the stage.
     Neil was one of those unassuming persons who make it their function to be of service. When I met Frances and Gary, Neil was often round Sudeley Street just helping out. And soon after we met, Neil started looking after me too. Little things and bigger things. Things I couldn't do for myself, and things I could but that Neil choose to do for me. Why do I mention Neil. I am embarrassed and ashamed that after I left to return to America in search of a trade and profession I lost touch with Neil. I didn't extend him the courtesy of my continued attention and gratitude, and I think he may have liked that, some recognition. I could have returned the favour. I think that he, like most of us, enjoyed approval, and I don't think I ever adequately showed it?.
     Neil. There are the loud and the quiet, and the sometimes loud, like me. Neil was quiet where Pasha wanted to strut and Vie was as big as the sky. It is not a gender thing, though, the fore-stage, backstage continuum. Just another parameter.
     Gary was a quiet one too, though he pushed himself forward in a effort to be of service: he played the drums in a rock and roll punk band, for God's sake. He spoke of how it felt to meet with young punkers at their gigs, Poison Girl's gigs, to meet with skinheads, punk fans, in the washrooms and discuss with them their thought and feeling towards skinhead Nazism and/or anarchism and this was real politics, nitty-gritty stuff: not like his academically inspired social agitation of the sixties.      "The Sussex paint throwing incident was one of my class projects," he told me.
     "Oh," said I. "I thought it was Sean Linehan and that American dude." (Sean has recently sent comments, appended here as footnotes.)
     "Yes," said Gary, "but who supplied the paint and the idea?" (2) I raised my eyebrows. "It was a class project," said Gary. "I wanted to give my London Polytechnic kids an example of impact in social engagement."

Once upon a time in nineteen sixty eight when we thought the times were changing, the American Press Attaché (3) came down to Sussex University to explain why America was waging war in Indochina and somebody (4) threw red paint over him - which we felt was a pretty legitimate thing to do, a relatively nonviolent response to the war. A few days later the University suspended (5) Sean and the American grad. An urgent meeting of the student body was convened where it was pointed out that Sean had had no trial or hearing. He could not defend himself. And who were his accusers? What evidence was there of his involvement? The student union wanted to know, or at least the left and the hippys (6) wanted to know. A spokesperson for the right wing students (7) got up to defend the University's actions "We've got photographs!" he said waving a manila envelope.
     "Fair cop," thought the student body, and it shrugged. On to other business. But then someone grabbed the envelope and peeked at the picture. "Hey, these don't show anything. Just somebody's back." (8)
     The mood of the assembly pendalummed. Even would-be docile students don't like being duped. A strike was instantly put to the vote and passed.. Sean must be given a chance to defend himself. Justice must be seen to be done. No classes for Sean, no classes for anyone!
     The strike had the active support of a large caucus of enthusiasts and the grudging respect of the bulk of the student body. Few tried to cross the picket lines.
     Asa Briggs, a noted liberal (9) historian and the Vice Chancellor of the University, offered to meet with the students to discuss our grievances. The administration in those days was housed in a single story red brick building near the rear of the campus. They were all red brick, the buildings at Sussex, which was the architectural theme of the campus, red brick among trees and lawns and sidewalks on which we stood surrounding the administration building with signs and megaphones, dozens, even hundreds of us. "No Sean, no classes! No Sean, no classes!" Briggs came out to speak to us in a rationale, non-confrontorial manner and we listened respectfully. He spoke about the Universities sociopolitical situation; we were supported by the Government through grants, and we were not above the law. The student body had invited the Press Attaché and so the University owed him some respect and protection. The administration had irrefutable evidence of Sean's involvement, Briggs claimed. (10) Further, Sean's suspension would only be till the end of the fall term, another few weeks. His grades need not suffer (11), and he could return in the new years, in January, and he could sit his exams then (12). "We all need to be reasonable," said Briggs. With the word "reasonable" the picketing students let out a groan which still echoes in my mind these decades on. "Reasonable?" Good grief. Reasonably they send us to slaughter. Reasonably they poison our air and water. (13)

A few years on I met Sean on a bus. He was a graduate with honours in "Sociology" (14) and he was, for a spell (15), a bus conductor. "Its the end of my shift," he said. "Can you come for a beer."
     "Will I keep my honorary Irish status if I refuse," I asked.
     "You will not."
     So over Guinness we discussed the state of Ireland, the world and the Sussex Student Strike. "You know the scary thing," said Sean, "was that I only told six people, all good friends, and one of them probably ratted me out."
     "And I was one of the six."
     "Ah, but your an honorary Irishman," said Sean with a wink.
     "Tank God," says I.

So what's this all about? It's the loose ends of my Brighton stories, Frances and Gary and the Student's Strike, and the theme, if there is one, is our need to be heard, and we are heard through our passion as much as through our reason. So raise your glass, and here's to Ireland, and sing us a song.
    "I'm a tower of passion…" (16)