Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile

Five Leaves Press Nottingham April 2013 Political activists  are popularly  supposed to be  wild eyed visionaries or ranting dogmatists  who spend their time manning  real  or imaginary  barricades. Bibliophiles, in contrast, are expected     to be quiet retiring  academic types who send their whole lives in libraries and can only relate to the world at second hand  through books. In this memoir, Phil Cohen, alias Dr John of the London Street Commune, and erstwhile Professor of Cultural Studies  at the University of East London,  explodes these stereotypes as he re-traces his   chequered career from blitz kid  to public school dropout,   from hippy squatter  to cultural theorist, and from  urban ethnographer   to poet, through his obsession with books. 

Reading Room Gallery

Below are images from my book Reading Room Only which is described in more detail here. ” order_by=”sortorder” order_direction=”ASC” returns=”included” maximum_entity_count=”500″]

Phil Cohen Curriculum Vitae

View Phil Cohen’s Curriculum Vitae  

Phil Cohen Biography

Phil Cohen  was born in 1943 into a medical family and the blitzing of London by V2 missiles. He  has spent  much of his life attempting to recover from these two experiences and from his mis-education at expensive private schools in London.  He went up to Cambridge  to read history and anthropology but quickly  got caught up in the excitement and craziness of the times, dropped out and  became involved in various counter-cultural movements, including the London Street Commune squatters and community action in Covent Garden and Kings Cross.  He wrote a book, with the late Dave Robins  about some of these experiences :Knuckle sandwich: Growing up in the working class city (Penguin 1978).  At about this time he gave a talk to the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birminghham about youth subcultures and working class community in east London, triggered by his local encounters with skinhead gangs. The [Read More…]


Note : This piece of writing, in which real events in my family  history  are interwoven with  those fictions of  self  invention  which Freud called the family romance, is in part a response to  the current  furore in the UK about antisemitism on the Left  and the problematic nature of Jewish identity politics. 1.Genealogy This much I was told: by night you slept soundly, framed between pictures of Lenin and Kropotkin as if guarding still untroubled dreams of Power and Freedom joining hands in  Zion’s promised land. By day you sold blankets  and Socialism  door to door to  miners wives  who bought them both on tick and left you broke but rich in expectations. Your papers  said Place of Birth Vitebsk, by trade a tailor. It was enough   to allow me, years later, to picture you flying like Chagall’s bridegroom ,leap frogging over Tsarist police, making landfall in Glasgow,in time [Read More…]

Ben Cohen Obituary Royal Society of Medicine

  Ben Cohen, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, has  died  at the age of 101.  He was born into a family of poor Jewish immigrants who settled in the Glasgow Gorbals before the First World War. His father was a militant socialist and fled from Vitebsk to avoid both political and religious persecution under the Tsar. The son grew up  in the political culture of ‘red Clydeside’, attended Socialist Sunday School, and accompanied his father to many  meetings where he heard Jimmy Maxton and John Maclean  speak of social injustice, early experiences  which left a lasting impression on his political sympathies. He won a scholarship to Hutcheson’s Grammar School, where he excelled in Classics, but was persuaded  by his family  to study medicine at Glasgow University, where he qualified at the age of 22. He wanted to volunteer for the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War but [Read More…]

Ben Cohen – My Story No Mean City

    Click on the picture to view the slide tribute to Ben Cohen         Also, please check out the interview with Ben entitled  MyStory – No Mean City: Memories of the Gorbals in the twenties

144 And All That Proud Archivist Event

I was recently invited to read from my memoir ‘Reading Room Only’ and to reflect on the political legacy of  Sixties Counter Culture for the current struggles of ‘generation rent’ and the new precariat. This is a video recording of the talk. I hope you enjoy it. I would love to hear back from you if you have memories of this period and/or any comments on the contemporary relevance or otherwise of the London Street Communes.

ARE WE THAT NAME? Some reflections of the use of pseudonyms (for Ste)

Note: I wrote this for Ste, shortly before his death in September 2013. It relates to a topic he was working on as part of his course at Birkbeck. According to Encarta, pseudonym ( literally in Greek a false name) is a ’name that is assumed to hide one’s identity’; it was first used by the   French, in the mid 19th century – although as we will see the practice certainly predates this in England – and is conventionally used to apply to pen names, or ‘noms de plume’ as they are still sometimes called, though why it should be so restricted is not clear. The definition would seem to cover a whole lot of other uses. Like most dictionary definitions, this one is disarmingly simple. It rests on the notion of duplicity and the intent to conceal. But how is intentionality to be established rather than simply inferred? People [Read More…]

Scenes From A Missing Childhood

 Introduction:   ‘Scenes from a Missing Childhood’ is based on the author’s experience of growing up in London during the blitz; it consists of a sequence of short prose poems depicting screen memories associated with the V2 bombs,  his being sent away from home as an 18 month old baby to his grandmother in South Wales and the subsequent return. These pieces seek to create a narrative from fragments of experience which remained embedded like shrapnel in a badly damaged landscape and to convey a some of the feelings that had to evacuated in order to hold on to a sense of identity, however tenuously sustained.The sequence is included in Graphologies which is to be published  in May by Mica Press ( see New Books for further information). Here, as a taster  is one section: Siren calls The baby wakes up out of a bad dream. He is  being  attacked again. The [Read More…]