“Once it reaches a tipping point where a lot of people join in or support it, then it has the power to be truly counter-cultural and lead to change.”
Cheryl Robson is a writer, editor, producer and publisher. Born in Sydney Australia, Cheryl has lived in the UK, France and Singapore, always liking to change things wherever she goes. During the late 80s and 90s she was one of the main players behind The Women’s Theatre Workshop. WTW staged several full-length plays, dozens of performances and delivered hundreds of workshops on writing and directing. In 1995 – in association with The New Playwrights’ Trust and the Directors’ Guild – Cheryl helped establish the first mentoring program for women writers and directors in the UK.
As well as having founded Aurora Metro – which publishers authors ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Benjamin Zephaniah – Cheryl established the Virginia Prize in 2009. Named in honour of Virginia Woolf, the prize encourages and promotes new writing by women.
Cheryl’s latest project is as co-editor of Subversive Scene: Counter-Culture UK – a celebration. Currently undergoing a Kickstarter campaign, this one-stop guide promises a unique look at the diversity of sub-cultures which have emerged in the UK since the war. an integrated movement. Participants will include DJs, graffiti artists, musicians, writers, poets, fans, and protesters. Contributors will examine the arts, isms, access, representation, as well as the world-shaping impact of counter-cultures.
You can track Cheryl’s progress at supernovabooks.co.uk
What’s your definition of counter-culture?
I think it means any group of people, of any age, who get together because they share common attitudes which are different in some way to the beliefs and values of the mainstream.
Does the value of counter-culture exist solely in its capacity to counter something else, more established?
Often it can simply be innovative or fun like ‘The Twist’ became a dance craze, or have its roots in a particular community seeking expression in its own way, such as hiphop. Once it reaches a tipping point where a lot of people join in or support it, then it has the power to be truly counter-cultural and lead to change.
How do counter-cultures emerge and die?
They emerge when individuals feel drawn to each other to do something together eg. skateboarding or graffiti art or protesting such as the Occupy movement. When the group or its followers reach a critical mass, they become a new community which can be identified by the media in some way. Sometimes they demand social change such as Gay Lib, Feminism or most recently the Anti-Fracking groups.
Sometimes they voice their criticism of the status quo without any real agenda for change and so without leadership or real goals, the energy burns out. Sometimes the followers of a new group create a new market of some kind such as the market for R & B records, or the market for punk-styled clothing or the market for computer games. Once the group achieves mainstream popularity or success, its adherents may eventually lose interest. If the trend is absorbed by the mainstream, its power to change society may slowly dissipate unless it is revitalised by a new generation or new leadership.
Subversive Scene is scheduled to feature chapters by activists, a spiritual healer, academics, producers and a stand-up. As an editor, how do you even begin to weave such potentially disparate threads into a comprehensible narrative?
The time span of the book means that each chapter covers the changes in society since the post-war years, with each writer describing the main changes which have occurred in a particular genre, movement or field. This is the unifying concept of the book and it provides insight into how the impetus for change can come from different sources simultaneously.
How did you go about selecting your authors?
We advertised on a number of websites and in newsletters and Facebook. It quickly became apparent which writers aligned with our aims for the book.
You’ve a list of publications as long as Mr. Tickle’s arms, what makes the Subversive Scene project special?
It’s inspirational to read about all the artists who found new ways to express what people were feeling about their lives, or the activists who marched or protested or lobbied governments for years to get things changed. And we see changes happening all the time. One recent example is that the Irish people have just voted in favour of same-sex marriage.
Why aren’t you writing the ninth chapter (on publishing)?
We look for great contributors who tell us what we don’t already know. The chapter on Underground publishing has been written by Ben Graham who is far more knowledgeable than I am about the history and range of incredible ventures in the publishing world.
Would it be unfair to say there is a political current running through much of your work? What’s its source? Is it unvarying, or have there been events, personalities and moments which have altered its course and force?
We like writers with something original or provocative to say and sometimes this goes against the mainstream political view such as Carole Hayman’s satire of Tony Blair’s government Hard Choices. It was deemed almost sacrilegious to be critical of New Labour in the early days. With projects like The Arab-Israeli Cookbook we took a fresh perspective on those troubled events, which has since been much copied. The book was awarded Best Innovative Foodbook UK and a Special Jury Prize for Peace from Gourmand World Cookbooks, and as far as we know, gave cultural equity to both Arabs and Jews in one book, for the first time.
Subversive Scene is billed as a celebration. Can a celebration also be critical?
The aim of the book is to bring all the disparate elements together to remind people that counter-cultures have many forms and often very humble beginnings such as Gay Liberation starting in a basement at LSE with 17 people present. From those tiny acorns mighty oaks can grow…
What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Subversive Scene?
What would be your choice? There are so many great tracks to choose from. Check out the video on our Kickstarter campaign here to hear one of our faves: http://kck.st/1LDjf92
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