22 March 2022
In 2020 the British Library acquired the papers of Anthony Barnett, best known as the founder of the campaigning organisation Charter 88 and the website openDemocracy. This series of six posts highlights a discrete part of the archive, consisting of documents and ephemera from Barnett’s time as a member of the collective behind the revolutionary weekly newspaper '7 Days'.
Fifty years ago, on 22 March 1972, '7 Days' published an emergency issue that saw it go into ‘suspended animation’. Funds were sought for a relaunch but, apart from a special issue in May 1972 to commemorate the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, the paper disappeared. In this sixth and final post in our series, Maxine Molyneux recalls her time as Arts and Culture Editor and reflects on a unique experiment in cultural politics.
Cover of the emergency issue of 7 Days, March 22, 1972. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
Not long before the launch of the first issue I was invited by the 7 Days collective to take on the job of Arts and Culture Editor. At the time, I was stitching together a living as a freelance journalist, writing articles here and there, doing part-time editing and translation jobs and writing PR leaflets on art shows for the amusingly titled Tomorrow’s News. I was lucky to have a regular commission for the International Herald Tribune to cover exhibitions and fine art auctions, and write the odd feature and book review, for which I was paid $12 a piece, almost covering my weekly rent.
In 1971, London’s cultural scene was alive with radical groups of artists, film makers and playwrights who were part of the broader political ferment, not only of the student movement but of a generation. At various times in that transitory world I had found myself sharing houses and flats with activists and artists, one time with the founders of the Red Ladder agitprop theatre group, another with one of the leaders of the radical film activist group, Cinema Action. There was a feeling of excitement, of innovation about, but there was also an intellectual appetite for the radical cultural moments and thinkers of the past, whether in drama, art or film.
Young activists debated the work of Brecht and Eisenstein, read Freud and Lacan as well as Marx, Mao and Lenin. I recall attending a very serious weekly (or was it fortnightly?) - Theoretical Practice group  run by Kasim Kahn from his flat in Finsbury Park. We travelled up by car, me, the feminist artist Mary Kelly, and Clive Goodwin (our driver), literary agent and founder of the Black Dwarf. There, in our group of seven, we pored over passages of Althusser, Balibar, Pierre Phillipe Rey and learned that The Grundrisse marked a distinct break in Marx’s thinking.
My life then was lived in contrasting spaces – private views in the old art world’s Bond Street galleries – and the fringe world of art activism, politics and theory groups, and they would often collide. I remember being at some private view held at the Royal Academy when a group calling themselves ‘the Black Hand Gang’ let off a small smoke bomb leading to a dramatic evacuation of the assembled guests. Agitprop cinema and theatre, fringe performance and avante garde music, and some madness too – all were part of the wave of creative energy and radical politics of that time.
What was compelling about 7 Days was that it was a project of the independent Marxist left, and was fully committed to serious and critical coverage of culture. I was ready for a change, and without hesitation I accepted their offer and took the post of Arts Editor for the brief life of the paper.
7 Days’ arts coverage attempted to bridge high and popular culture. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
I knew some members of the collective if not personally then by name. I had met Peter Fuller in his art critic days at an ICA exhibition of Picasso’s Minotaur prints which we were both covering, and got to know him as a friend. I had also met Fred Halliday earlier at the offices of Black Dwarf, on my return from a work trip to Argentina, and was serving as interpreter for some Latin American revolutionaries who were on a European fundraising tour. When Fred and I met again in 7 Days we ended up sharing a tiny office with grimy red lino, and freezing, but for a bar heater which my co-occupant would stand in front of to warm up while the backs of his trousers slowly burned ever larger holes. No one cared much about their threads on the 7 Days collective.
Reviewing the 21 issues of the paper half a century later I am struck by the breadth and depth of its cultural coverage. 7 Days aimed to transform what it saw as the regressive tropes contained in ‘British values’, racism, sexism, philistinism, homophobia and elitism among them.
The first year of the gay liberation movement’s existence celebrated in 7 Days with a discussion of the London GLF group’s manifesto. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
More ‘Gramsci than Guevara” it was a platform for feminist ideas, and it was committed to anti-racist struggles and cultural interventions. In its arts coverage in particular it sought to create a bridge between high culture and popular culture. Short articles were accompanied by longer think pieces, underground and radical manifestos, analyses of advertisements, reviews of books like One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. Thanks to being able to draw on a pool of talented writers sympathetic to 7 Days, there was no difficulty in finding a diversity of cultural content. Peter Wollen (aka Lucien Rey) on Realism, John Berger and Anya Bostock on a biography of Mayakovsky, but also a ‘Rock Special’ which included an interview with Jack Bruce ‘Life with Cream” and an appreciation of Miles Davis.
Issue 4 ran a photo-feature on the 1971 Miss World protests by womens’ and gay liberation activists. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
By today’s standard 7 Days was neither egalitarian nor inclusive in its internal relations.
As Rosie Van de Beek observes, the collective was made up of ‘insiders and outsiders’. Nor was it as inclusive in its coverage – notably of Black artists and writers - as it would be today. A piece on Mustafa Matura’s play As Time Goes By was perhaps the exception.
Yet feminist content there was aplenty, thanks largely to the women in and around the collective. Articles included ‘A bash at Women’s Hour’; a review by Sally Beauman of Cosmopolitan, flagged up as ‘an odious new magazine for women’, a critical discussion of the Playboy exhibition, a special feature on Miss World and Mecca, a photo feature on what was described in somewhat patronising language as a ‘ large and satisfactory demonstration’ that ‘took place outside the Albert Hall’. This, along with critical coverage of vaginal deodorants - symptomatic of capitalism - a report on a revolt by members of the BFI against the governors, pieces on Surrealism, a Hogarth show, and Kathleen Tynan interviewing Germaine Greer on the publication of The Female Eunuch. Positive appraisals of Alexandra Kollontai and an extended interview with Simone de Beauvoir by Rosalind Delmar, and pieces by Laura Mulvey and Mary Kelly, brought feminist analysis and politics into art theory, film and popular music.
Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive
It is sad to note how many of the active members of the collective and its supporters are no longer with us, friends Peter Wollen, Clive Goodwin, Peter Fuller, and dear Fred Halliday  among them. Also sad to recall others whose brilliant work in the cultural field has fallen out of favour - I think here of Trevor Griffiths whose play Occupations, on the Turin strikes of 1922, was a subtle exploration of Gramsci and left political strategy.
Playwright Trevor Griffiths respond to Tom Nairn’s review of his play ‘Occupations’. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
Since those times the work of the margins has mostly moved into the mainstream, and the members of the collective went into the academy, publishing, or into other professions. 7 Days was a short, intense, highly rewarding and formative experience for those associated with it. It was a space where politics, culture and radical ideas found expression. It forged some important and enduring friendships. When it folded I decided not to continue in journalism but to head for university, where I remained.
The times of 7 Days were so very different, shaped as they were by a young generation that believed that political progress and social change was possible. Important and positive things were achieved in and after the 1970s before reaction set in. Today we live in more threatening, darker times, but a new generation of radical activists has come into politics, incensed by growing inequality, corrupt elites, and the failures of governments to tackle the climate crisis. There is a revival of interest in Marxism and radical thought among students, and more urgent talk of the need for change. The work of cultural transformation continues, but proceeds by other means - the print media is joined by podcasts, social networking, blogs and much else besides. I suspect that if 7 Days were alive today it would be in one of those formats, or perhaps something entirely new, and, who knows, it might well have been able to survive and to flourish.
‘Seven days to save 7 Days’. Credit: CC BY-NC 4.0 by 7 Days, Image courtesy of Amiel Melburn Trust Archive.
 Theoretical Practice started in 1970 as a reading group and set up other groups dedicated to thinking critically about Marx’s work and that of the French structuralists. It went on to produce seven issues of a journal also called Theoretical Practice, that published translations of leading theorists in the Althusserian school.
 Fred and Maxine married and had their son Alex in 1985.
09 April 2019
XKCD, “Click and Drag”. © Randall Munroe, 2012 https://xkcd.com/1110/
We're really excited to announce two new Collaborative Doctoral Awards for research into web comics, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are working with City, University of London and University of the Arts London to engage in new research on digital comics creation, reading and collecting in the UK.
This work will help us to understand collection management challenges for the diverse and innovative field of web comics in the UK. The knowledge generated by this research will not only help us to build collections of web comics, but will help those writing, reading, collecting and researching web comics. We will be able to apply the research more widely too, supporting our development as we explore complex digital publications through our work on Emerging Formats.
Understanding UK digital comics information and publishing practices: From creation to consumption
In partnership with City, University of London, this research will take a User Experience centred approach. It will examine the use of tools, technologies and sharing of information in the production, publication, collecting and reading of web comics. We're interested in what motivates people and how this informs their behaviour and use of particular technologies. Knowing the sorts of platforms and tools people use will help us prioritise and plan our own collections and collection management requirements. More importantly, knowing what's important to people in how they choose to create, share, and read web comics will help us understand what's important in building our collections.
At City, University of London this PhD will be supervised by Dr Ernesto Priego and Dr Stephann Makri at the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design. Ernesto is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. His research covers a wide range of themes on digital and print comics, and also digital information management practice. Stephann's work focuses on information and behaviour in digital contexts. His research has covered legal information and news, as well as how readers work with libraries and archives.
Collecting UK Digital Comics: social, cultural and technological factors for cultural institutions
In partnership with the University of the Arts London, this research will investigate the form and content of digital comics, exploring the differences between comics that are adaptive, hypertextual, interactive, multimedia, motion based and experimental. It will look at how cultural institutions respond to innovative digital material, and the cultural, social and ethical questions that inform collection building. There are strong links between the characteristics of digital comics, and other types of innovative publication we are considering under our Emerging Formats work. The collection management challenges are not solely technological, and this research will help us understand the wider cultural and social questions that influence the way that digital comics can be represented and used within the Library.
At the University of the Arts London, this PhD will be supervised by Professor Roger Sabin and Dr Ian Hague, and the student will be able to join the newly-formed Comics Research Hub. Roger is the author of Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (Phaidon, 1996) and is series editor for Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels. His work has helped establish the academic field of Comics Studies in the UK. Ian's research has been on the form of digital comics and cultural and social studies of comics. He is the director of the Comics Forum annual conference.
The awards support fees and provide a stipend for 3 years for the PhD student. More details on how we work with PhD students can be found on our Research Collaboration pages.
05 October 2018
For the past few months, we've been working behind the scenes with Comichaus to help us collect more UK independent comics. From 1st October, we're able to start collecting. Here is what we are doing, and why ...
Independent comics in the UK reflect a huge range of energy and diversity, and are influential on other types of writing and expression. This was very clear both in the line up at this year's Thoughtbubble festival in Leeds, and also the Comics Forum - where comics art and writing could be found across healthcare, archaeology, local history and autobiography (as well as Victorian magic, space villains and giant robots). But, collecting independently published comics is a challenge. While the Library does receive comics from many independent creators, not all people who make and distribute their comics think of themselves as publishers, or that they should be submitting their work to the British Library, or know how to do this. Information about independently published comics is generally not available in the same way as for books with ISBNs, so it’s hard for us to know what is available to collect.
So, over the past year, Comichaus has been working with the British Library to ensure that digital comics submitted to the Comichaus app can also be sent to the British Library (with the publisher’s consent) in fulfilment of Legal Deposit obligations. This helps the Library ensure that its collections reflect the diversity of UK independent comics, ensures that the comics will be preserved long-term, and means that they are available and discoverable in the Reading Rooms of the British Library and the five other UK Legal Deposit Libraries (the National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Cambridge University Library and the Library of Trinity College Dublin).
We're excited to see the first digital comics arrive in this way, and look forward to watching our collections of UK comics expand with more digital comics. Our work with Comichaus is one example of the ways in which digital legal deposit helps us extend the breadth of our collecting for UK publications. You can find out more about how legal deposit works on our new web pages at https://www.bl.uk/legal-deposit
28 February 2018
Last month, Olivia Hicks completed a 3 month PhD placement at the Library, investigating our collections of 21st century British comics. You can read more about how this project started in Olivia's blog post at http://blogs.bl.uk/socialscience/2017/12/21st-century-british-comics.html. In this post, Olivia describes the creation of a comic for comics creators, explaining Legal Deposit - and helping to build our collections.
Olivia Hicks is a second year PhD student at the University of Dundee. Her PhD focuses on the superheroine in British and American girls' comics. Her favourite superhero is the Spoiler, alias of Stephanie Brown, because they both love waffles and are penniless students.
For the first two months of my placement here in the Library, I kept things fairly academic. I regularly went into the reading room, digging up old zines and small press comics – everything from roughly printed, handmade artefacts to glossy, professional-looking publications. I supplemented my research on 21st century British small press comics with plenty of serious and studious academic reading, learning from the grand-daddies of British comics scholarship, David Huxley and Roger Sabin. I complemented this by compiling my data into pretty (if slightly incomprehensible) graphs, which intricately detailed the gender and regional location of each creator I came across. My aim was to use ‘best of British comics’ anthologies as a representative sample for the comics industry; to try and gain an understanding of who was producing comics, and where.
Of course, these books are inherently curatorial, which problematizes the use of them as definitive statements on the UK comics scene. As a humanities student, this made them even more fascinating; what was the vision of UK comics that people were choosing to present. I spent my days poring over the editorials, introductions and statements of intent which accompanied these volumes. They provided a view of Britishness that was varied, and, in the volumes published in the wake of Brexit, increasingly unstable. However, because the Library’s collection of 21st century comics is both overwhelmingly large and also somewhat incomplete, anthologies represented a manageable microcosm for me to examine over my placement.
This was all well and good, if a little numbers heavy and dry for a final report. But this was only the first two months of my placement. The final month was completely different.
Ian, my supervisor, agreed to let me try and aid the Library’s collecting by creating a comic to raise awareness amongst comics creators of the legal deposit system, and that it is a legal requirement for them to deposit their work in the Library. The final month my desk space, already quite messy, became swamped in pencilled pages and I could regularly be found at my desk, headphones in, inking something which was at first, quite incomprehensible to the rest of the office, but which has slowly morphed into a wee comic which is silly, colourful, but packed to the gills with information about the legal deposit. The completed comic is now displayed above my (still messy) desk, and hopefully will serve as a reminder for the next PhD student to not be afraid to get creative with the placement. While my report findings will interest relatively few, the comic has taken on a life of its own in the office, and has encouraged lots of interest in the Library’s online and physical comics collection. By finding a creative angle to compliment your more serious output, you can broaden the audience for your research and get more people engaged, which is the aim for any academic, and indeed, for the Library as an institution. What can I say, the sky is blue, water is wet and people love comics!
All images in this post from The Legal Deposit and You, by Olivia Hicks (coming to the British Library's website soon)
17 December 2017
Wilma, Ashling Larkin, Ink Pot Studio, University of Dundee
Hello! My name’s Olivia Hicks and I am the latest in the long line of British Library PhD Placements – this time based in the Contemporary British Collections Department and looking at 21st Century British Comics.
The placement follows the logic that the vast majority of comics produced in the Britain are not available at newsagents – the traditional place of comics retail – in fact, it’s unclear how many of them are even available in specialist comics shops. Thus traditional methods of examining a country’s comics culture (namely looking at the readily available published material), are slightly defunct. Therefore, to get a full understanding of British comics in the new millennium, it is important to examine not only the comics output of DC Thomson and 2000AD but also small press comics and independent creators. These alternative comics are currently blossoming in Britain; but what are they about, who’s making them, who are they for, where are they being made and where can they be found?
Being let loose in the largest scholarly sandbox in Britain is an exercise is discipline and restraint. It is a fine line between ambitiously aiming to make the very most of this exceptional opportunity, and bearing in mind that it is only three months (and it has to be useful). It is easy, in such circumstances, to get lost.
In order to combat this, I drafted a research proposal before coming to the Library, identifying the kind of questions and themes that seemed to me particularly pertinent. Then, throughout the first few weeks (has it been four weeks already? Nooooo), I began, in cooperation with the Library, to identify outputs. Some of these outputs had already been identified and agreed upon beforehand (in our case a report and a comic), but others made themselves apparent as I began the placement.
The first, and most important output, is of course the report, where I will attempt to answer some of the questions asked in the second paragraph. The questions are a good mix between those that the Contemporary British Collections Department are particularly interested in, and those which will feed back nicely into my PhD (namely, as a girls comics scholar, it is helpful to understand how women are represented, and how girls are currently catered to).
The second output will be two comics; one will aim to summarise the findings of the report into an easily accessible format for members of the public. The second comic will be for comics creators, explaining how their work falls under the legal deposit scheme. In this way we hope to rectify what is one of the biggest hurdles for studying 21st century British comics and preserving them for future generations – getting small press and independent comics into the Library’s collection.
This is a brief summary of the work I hope to carry out over the next two months. If you have any comments or queries, or simply want to talk more about comics (especially girls’ comics or superhero comics!), please get in touch at [email protected].
See also: Earlier this year, Jen Aggleton explored digital comics publishing in the UK. You can find more details of this project in blog posts on digital comics in the UK and creating a web archive collection of digital comics.