David Widgery and the Unfinished 1960s

In the following article, David Renton, co-editor of Against Miserabilism, discusses the life and work of writer, doctor and political activist David Widgery.

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When the definitive history of the sixties in Britain comes to be written, few characters will play a larger part in it than David Widgery. He wrote for the magazine OZ, introducing the bohemian left to the novels of Jack Kerouac and the politics of Leon Trotsky and Rudi Dutschke. When OZ was put on trial, in its notorious and now almost incomprehensible prosecution for obscenity, Widgery was briefly the editors' McKenzie friend and later their stand-in while they were in jail.

 David Widgery sitting in a doorway in Soho in 1973. (Image: Michael Gray)

David Widgery sitting in a doorway in Soho in 1973. (Image: Michael Gray)

Widgery took part in the first Women's Liberation conference, in so far as his gender allowed: by running the crèche. He was a friend to Sheila Rowbotham, the historian of the women's movement, and to Marsha Rowe, the editor of Spare Rib magazine. He was the first archivist of his generation, his collection The Left in Britain 1956-68 giving a place to the left in all its chaotic glory, libertarian, syndicalist, rank-and-file.

As unemployment rose, and the hope of the 1960s was mixed with the fear of later decades, Widgery reinvented himself. He was on the organising committee of Rock Against Racism and helped to organise in its huge Carnivals against the National Front. A local GP, he chaired the Campaign to Save Bethnal Green Hospital and participated in countless anti-cuts campaigns.

Twenty-five years have now passed since David Widgery died in 1992, more than fifty since his voice emerged, in the course of a radical critique of the Arts Council, praising "the near total dissent and cultural revolt of a new young generation" and counterposing its energy to the grey conservatism of postwar Britain.

What does Widgery offer to those readers who perhaps weren't born at the end of the 1970s, or even by the year of his death?

One thing they might notice is that Widgery had a talent for spotting the recurring tension points of radical politics and culture. Here he is, writing in 1976 about two contemporaries. One was Eldridge Cleaver, the leading Black Panther then in exile from the US. In the 1960s, white liberals loved and admired Cleaver, seeing him as the authentic voice of black male resistance to American power. The other was the black and gay novelist James Baldwin, well known in Britain today because of last year's film I Am Not Your Negro, but almost entirely unknown here forty years ago.

 The politically active ex- OZ  contributor and trainee doctor in May 1976. (Image: Michael Kidron)

The politically active ex-OZ contributor and trainee doctor in May 1976. (Image: Michael Kidron)

"In 1968," Widgery writes, "Cleaver savaged Baldwin, pinned him mercilessly against the very ghetto doorway he had occupied, robbed him blind of his political possessions. And turning away, sneered in Baldwin's sexual face, that bushbaby face, that he didn't make it because he wasn't enough of a man.” Widgery contrasted Cleaver's hyper-masculinity to Baldwin's critical intelligence: "Baldwin has seen that conquering man and been sexually vulnerable to it … He understands what a misshapen piece of work such a man would be ... and what a bad lover or leader."

Widgery loved and championed Rock Against Racism, which he saw as continuing the cultural revolution of 1968 in changed times and with different weapons. Instead of surrealist poster slogans, the music of Joe Strummer, the films of Don Letts.

As Widgery wrote in one piece for RAR's propaganda broadsheet Temporary Hoarding: "Racism is as British as Biggles and Baked Beans. You grow up anti-black, with the golliwogs in the jam, the Black and White Minstrel Show on TV and CSE dumb history at schools. Racism is about Jubilee mugs and Rule Britannia and how we won the War … it would be pathetic if it hadn't killed and injured and brutalised so many lives, and if it wasn't starting all over again."

Widgery was never satisfied with repeating the commonplace observation that the world was about to be transformed under the impact of the change from analogue to digital communications. Rather, he used this realisation as a starting point from which to criticise the low ambitions of his comrades who concentrated their message in books and newspapers. As he wrote, "If socialism is transmitted in a deliberately doleful, pre-electronic idiom, if its emotional appeal is to working-class sacrifice and middle-class guilt, and if its dominant medium is the printed word and the public procession, it will simply bounce off people who have grown up this side of the 1960s watershed. And barely leave a dent behind."

Above all else, Widgery was a writer. Whether his immediate focus was Billie Holiday and the legacy of slavery in New York or the premature death of his own daughter Molly, he always kept a vision of that different, more equal, society which for years we have been told was a utopia and is now – maybe – coming back within reach.

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David Renton is a barrister and the author of Fascism, theory and practice: Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the 1940s, Dissident Marxism (including a chapter on David Widgery), When We Touched the Sky: The ANL 1977 – 1981, and Colour Blind?: Race & Migration in North East England. He has also written histories of the British Communist Party and biographies of Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James.