Marjolaine Ryley: Growing up in the New Age
Published by Daylight Press, Growing up in the New Age is a culmination of the collaboration between Ryley, Val Williams(PARC), Malcolm Dickson (StreetLevel Photoworks) and the Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery.
Remembering the Counterculture
When we consider the counterculture, as played out against the complex background of post-austerity Britain, a multitude of images and memories come into play. For some these are personal- Marjolaine Ryley’s recollection of the Kirkdale Free School in south London resonate with a larger, more collective memory of the Free School movement, epitomized for many in its best-known manifestation, A.S. Neill’s Summerhill founded in Suffolk in 1921 where: ‘ We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction.’
Neill’s philosophy resonated within the new alternative communities which emerged in post-war Britain. The rejection of authority and of paternalism coupled with the exposure to other cultures offered by the opening-up of travel in the form of overland ‘magic bus’ journeys to India and Nepal, by the emergence of radical feminism, the re-fashioning of traditional music into ‘folk-rock’ and the availability of decayed and empty housing stock across Britain, all worked together to provide the premise for the New Age.
Squatting had become common in post -WW2 Britain, as homeless families and ex-service people moved into vacated army camps and requisitioned buildings (See http://www.amersham.org.uk/camps/index.htm for reminiscences of life in the Amersham camps, these experiences are echoed throughout many similar accounts of squatting in post War Britain). The Vigilantes, a group of ex servicemen established a UK-wide network to organize the squatting of empty houses, particularly in coastal resorts (Squatting: The real story. Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar. Bay Leaf Books, 1980. ) Grand hotels, which had been used by both British and Canadian forces during WW2 also became home to post-war squatters. Local authority demolition and clearance policies throughout the Uk, together with bomb damage in cities, had led to acute housing shortages, and squatting was a temporary solution to the problem of homelessness. While the occupation of empty housing in the 1960s and 70s is commonly seen as a product of the counterculture, history makes clear that the practice of squatting was already well established.
But countercultural squatting was as much to do with a new philosophy of living as it was with housing. It signalled both a challenge to authority and to slum landlords and prohibitively long housing waiting lists. It was of particular interest to young, single increasingly mobile young people no longer willing to make the choice between the parental home and the lonely bedsitter. Liberated by education and impatient with Britain’s social hierarchy they embarked on the adventure of communal living. Squatting, which had all but disappeared in the 1950s, re-emerged as a vital part of the narrative of British housing and social history.
Though Britain’s most well-known countercultural squat in the 1960s -144 Piccadilly, run by the London Street Commune (http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/tag/squatting)- became the focus of media and political disapproval, squatting became widespread across the UK, bringing disused housing back into occupation, and becoming the foundation for co-operative living which, though in forms, continues to this day. Just as post –WW2squatters soon discovered the merits and necessities of communal living, organizing committees, co-op shops and nurseries (Squatting: the Real Story, Yates, Wolmar, 1980, p112), so too did the squatters of the counterculture. Though the squats of the 1960s, 70s and 80s were formed, generally, along more philosophical lines, with the new politics of feminism, gay liberation, an infusion of interest in alternative religion, vegetarianism, all overlaid with a culture of pop and drugs, the ethos of make and mend, was almost identical to that developed by the squatters of the late 1940s.
The story which Brigitte Ryley tells of her time spent in London squats and in primitive French homesteads impinges directly on Marjolaine Ryley’s work. In her essay, in this book, she describes living in a squat in Thicket Road, Sydenham, and of her involvement in the Kirkdale Free School, where Marjolaine received her early education:
81 Thicket Road was no ordinary squat. For a few years it housed a group of eccentric talented individuals whose intention was to create an urban “commune”. The group consisted of around ten adults and four children. They lived communally sharing resources, childcare, cooking, and chores. They wanted to support each other’s growth, experiment with pushing the boundaries taken for granted within conventional relationships, deal with conflicts creatively.
(The Meandering River – Memoir of an alternative life by Brigitte Ryley, 2012)
Brigitte Ryley’s story is an important one because it provides one of the few detailed descriptions of communal living in Britain in the early 1980s. It is a narrative of a group of people developing an alternative way of living, which would challenge the insularity of the nuclear family, address feminism and sexual politics and strive to be a self-supporting, creative community:
A lot of visitors came to the house, artists, intellectuals, performers, single mothers from other local squats, unemployed guys good at making or fixing things. The cost of living seemed low and people were able to live on little money… The house at times hosted personal development events, enlightenment intensives, Arica, encounter groups. Participants, many outsiders would come out of the group room into the kitchen looking weird and spaced out, sometimes crying. I watched from a distance filled with a mixture of fear and fascination. In a way I felt I was missing out on the fun. There was an atmosphere of spontaneity. Members of the collective were striving to have deep, honest communication with one another. They wanted to be seen using their imagination. This showed in the way they dressed. Women were enjoying long colourful clothes. They sometimes used old-fashioned sewing machines to make their own clothes, bought stuff in jumble sales, second hand charity shops, Indian market stoles. People showed great imagination in the way they decorated and furnished their rooms, using exotic fabrics and warm colours to decorate.
(The Meandering River – Memoir of an alternative life by Brigitte Ryley)
The counterculture in the UK is a slippery mixture of modernity and a longing for utopia. In his recent book ‘Electric Eden’, writer Rob Young describes some of the many instances of communal retreat to the country- the singer Vashti Bunyan made a pilgrimage from south to north in a horse drawn caravan in the late 1960s, and at around the same time, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band, were producing the music which would define a generation from a remote cottage in the west of Scotland. Even for those who remained city dwellers, rural values and pursuits were central- John Seymour’s seminal publication ‘The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency’ (1976) became as important to those who lived in a Southwark squat as it did to those who colonized the redundant farmhouses of mid Wales.
Nicholas Saunder’s 1975 book ‘ Alternative England and Wales’ became a valuable guide for alternative living in the 1970s and 80s. It taught DIY, gardening and political life skills to a generation of middle-class youth, enabling them to manage the kind of housing and educational projects which are so much of a remembered presence in Ryley’s work and an actual one in the remarkable archive of photographs made by Dave Walkling in the 1970s. ‘The Squatters Handbook’, first published by the Advisory Service for Squatters in 1976 (and now in its 13th edition) was another survival manual for a new generation.
The ‘looking back’ which was so much part of the British counterculture of the 1970s is evidenced too in work made by the new independent photographers of the decade. Homer Sykes’s ‘Once a Year’: Some Traditional British Customs’ was published in 1977, and documented the anarchic combination of pub culture and ‘ancient’ customs. The idea of the ‘Fayre’, celebrated by Sykes and other 1970s photographers, would mutate into the music festival with its roots in folk and alternative culture now symbolized by the annual Glastonbury celebration in the west of England.
Marjolaine Ryley’s ‘Growing up in the New Age’ is a new series of photographs which explore the repercussions of memory. Shortly after Ryley began work on her series, she discovered the work of Dave Walkling, who had documented the squatted housing where she grew up, in Thicket Road in South London and the Kirkdale Free School, which she attended. The meeting of Walkling’s documentary and Ryley’s meditation on the past, constructed through a series of colour photographs, research and writing is at the core of this project. They reinforce and reflect upon each other.
Like her earlier series The Villa Mona and Residence Astral , Growing Up in the New Age had a lengthy gestation period. In 2003, she was one of a group of artists selected to produce work at Braziers Park School of Intergrative Social Research, a community ‘promoting conscious co-existence’ (http://www.braziers.org.uk) At Braziers, she reflected upon her early upbringing in communal groups, and began to develop ways of expressing these reflections through contemporary photographic practice:
Braziers reminded me in so many ways of aspects of my upbringing that I had forgotten; life as a child in the South of France, the Victorian houses and rambling gardens of the South London squats, Kirkdale free school and the satellite Summer and Easter camps, festivals galore and memorable visits to alternative rural communities. It was visceral, tactile even. Shades of green, sunlight, water, rambling gardens, mud, woven rugs, vegetables, flowing skirts and charcoal blackened pots all writ within my own eyelids.
(Growing up in the New Age: A Journey into Wonderland. Marjolaine Ryley 2012)
The photographs that Marjolaine Ryley produced, after many years of thought and experimentation, are elusive and suggestive. We are shown very little- a fragment of hair, a flower, a toadstool, interiors bathed in light, promises of sunshine, but these glimpses open a window into a remembered childhood reality, mediated through an adult consciousness. Without the text which becomes part of the artwork, Ryley’s photographs could have a multitude of meanings, and are open to our own interpretations, but backed by Ryley’s own creative writing, and underpinned by extensive research, they become totemic, ritualised expressions of both desire and dismay. These are photographs which ask many questions.
In some ways, Ryley’s photographs address the conundrum of contemporary photographic practice- do they concern itself with subject, as documentary photography has tended to do, or are they about the act of photography, the performance of remembered history? Fictional narratives constructed from the half-real, they inhabit the edges of consciousness both as testament and crafted lyrics.
The visual resonance of the British counterculture resonates through the contemporary practice of numerous photographers. In Ryley’s’ Growing Up in the New Age’, in photographer Tom Hunter’s continuing study of countercultural communities, in David Spero’s series of alternative dwellings in ‘Settlements’, made in the early 2000s and in Iain McKell’s photographs of new age travellers in’ The New Gypsies’, (2010), there are many different resonances. Both Ryley’s and Hunter’s work is based, in some parts, on autobiography, mediated through a photographic practice which is subtle and partial, while Spero and McKell work as observers, making documents, assembling information, producing engaging narratives of contemporary subculture.
The autobiographical, as demonstrated in Brigitte Ryley’s writing, and Marjolaine Ryley’s photographs and texts is a complex methodology- exploring personal histories, telling stories, reinterpreting, reflecting, remembering, and producing a kind of real fiction from the shadows of the past. Walkling’s photographs provide clues from the past, Brigitte Ryley’s essay is revealing in its detail and clarity, and Marjolaine Ryley’s photographs and texts are both a distillation of both and the mysterious remembering of childhood.