Dick Pountain, The Guardian Wednesday 8 July 2009
In London in 1966, Chris Gray, who has died of cancer aged 66, teamed up with Charles Radcliffe, an anarchist blues aficionado, to produce Heatwave, a magazine blending radical politics with the nascent youth culture. They soon attracted the attention of the Situationist International (SI), in Paris.
The leading lights of the SI, founded in 1957, were the French theorist Guy Debord and the Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem. A descendant of earlier 20th-century European avant gardes, the dadaists, surrealists and letterists, it added its own libertarian strain of Marxist politics. Its 15-year existence was hectic and expulsion-prone, but it achieved an influence on radical culture and politics – especially the May 1968 events in Paris – far beyond its tiny numbers. Gray was more attuned to the sensual post-surrealism of Vaneigem than Debord’s cerebral Hegelian Marxism, and he translated Vaneigem’s Banalités de Base (1962-63) as the pamphlet The Totality for Kids (1967), thus helping to introduce the SI’s ideas to British radicals.
English members Don Nicholson-Smith, Tim (TJ) Clark, Gray and Radcliffe parted company with the SI in 1967: the first three and others then assembled King Mob, a group named from a slogan daubed during London’s 1780 Gordon Riots, along with a magazine, King Mob Echo. Nicholson-Smith remembers King Mob as being composed of “ex-artists, ex-socialists and radicalised hippies” who were caught “between the dialectical certainties of Paris and the no-holds-barred, risk-everything example” of the New York group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, a “street gang with an analysis” founded by the painter Ben Morea and the poet Dan Georgakas.
What most distinguished King Mob from late 60s student revolutionaries was its sense of humour, displayed in stunts such as entering the toy department of Selfridges, in London’s Oxford Street, dressed as Santa Claus and giving away the toys to passing kids, or scrawling erudite graffiti around west London. King Mob participated in the March 1968 anti-Vietnam war protest in London – culminating outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square – under a banner drawn from William Burroughs that proclaimed: “Storm the reality studio and retake the universe”.
King Mob had dispersed by 1970, and two years later Debord dissolved the SI. Gray turned away from politics, his parting act being his 1974 publication of a valedictory anthology of SI writings, Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International.
Gray was born in Crosby, Liverpool, and his parents separated after his father returned from war service in Kashmir. Chris was raised by his grandmother until the age of 10. In 1952, his parents reunited and moved to Cornwall, sending him to Repton school in Derbyshire. He evaded a university education and in the late 1950s gravitated to London’s Soho, where from 1959 to 1961 he was to be found helping the poet and playwright Neil Oram run one of London’s first basement jazz cafes, Sam Widges, in D’Arblay Street. Then he travelled across the US with the film-maker Conrad Rooks, returning to London in 1965.
By the late 1970s Gray was spending much time in India, as a trekking guide in the Himalayas and a not uncritical follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (known after 1989 as “Osho”). Under the pen-name “Sam”, Chris published Life of Osho (1997) and The Acid (2009).
Charismatic, charming and perpetually amused, Gray was a romantic rebel in the Byronic mould. Clark remembers most his distinctive laugh – “a high-pitched, disbelieving, boyish cackle, full of delight in human folly. The kind of laugh one imagines Rochester or Rimbaud having. Chris was about as remote from the moralising puritanism of the British left as one could imagine.”
I first met Chris on the steps of an occupied London School of Economics in 1969 and that laugh changed my life, convincing me that mischief-making would be far more fun than staring at test tubes.
Towards the end of Leaving the 20th Century, Gray wrote that “Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible … I want to find it again – that quickening in oneself and in others, that sudden happiness and beauty.”
He is survived by a daughter, Maria, with former partner Brenda, and a son, Elian, with former partner Usha.
• Christopher Nelson Gray, activist and writer, born 22 May 1942; died 14 May 2009
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