“Worth less than zero”? When the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a biker gang

“If your going to survive riding a motorbike you have to be totally concentrated on the here and now. About everything observed of the here and now. You don’t think about the past, you don’t think about the future you don’t have expectations except the immediate ones which are negotiated… This concentration of the here and now is curiously calming.”

John Berger, 2016

How did the Church of England cope with social change in the second half of the 20th Century?

The answer that trips off the tongue is: very badly. Two clips spring to mind. The first is the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood debating John Cleese and Michael Palin in 1979 following the release of The Life of Brian:

Concluding by stating that “they’ll soon have their thirty pieces of silver” Stockwood (who was widely considered a “liberal”) can most charitably be viewed as a rabbit in the headlights, a man staring dazed and confused at a world changing all around him.

The second clip is drawn from Privilege Peter Watkins’ 1967 (Birmingham filmed) pop music “mocumentary”:

Here the church is an sinister, malevolent and insidious presence locked in a repressive ideological marriage of convenience with capital and the state. The aging priestly characters lurk with almost lecherous intent, moving their pop star manque around like a chess piece, as they plot the reassertion of their traditional moral and social authority. Of course, whilst its dominant codes are seldom radical the culture industry-in reality-never formed an alliance with the established church. However, echos of a backlash in the name of the established “Christian” order against “permissiveness” can be heard in everything from the short lived-Cliff Richards endorsed-Festival of Light Movement in 1970-71, to the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher ten years later.

And of course-stretching across both the out of touch and the actively reactionary positions-is a graph. A graph with steadily declining church attendance on one axis and increasing lack of identification with any kind of religious faith on the other.

The thing about this narrative, the story of how hundreds (if not thousands) of years of (supposedly) monolithic Christian culture rapidly breaking down, is that it is a little bit to neat, to tidy, to comfortable for lumpy secular liberalism. What if sections of the Church of England, including parts of its hierarchy, were rather more in tune with-and eager to adapt to-the changing society that they found themselves in? What follows is a case study from Birmingham which shows how in the later 1960s a group of Anglicans attempted to do just that.

Between 1965 and 1970-71 the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a motorcycle club based at the disused St. Basil’s Church, Digbeth. Today with its pop-up concepts, contemporary art galleries and design studios the area has a rough and ready chic. In the 1960s it was part of the inner-city “twilight zone”, a messy, crumbling, insanitary, urban wasteland awaiting the bulldozers. It was here that the Reverend David Collyer the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” facilitated the establishment of the Double Zero Motorcycle Club.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) Rea Valley towards Digbeth, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

In of itself what Collyer was doing was not radical. With varying degrees of formal church input, Anglicans had been founding “Boy’s Clubs” centered around recreations that they thought would appeal to tough working class youth’s since the 19th Century, as any Smiths fan could tell you.

It is possible to read the Double Zero as merely a late flowering iteration of this tradition, however, it is clear that Collyer and his supporters thought they had a rather different agenda.

The name Double Zero reputedly came about because the club’s membership thought that “they were worth less than zero”. Which seems on first glance an incredibly nihilistic starting point for a church run youth group. Collyer secured St. Basil’s from the diocese to start the club because he felt that he needed a more solid base for the youth outreach work he was doing. 1965 when it first opened was near the height of the moral panic that surrounded the “mod” and “rocker” violence of the mid-1960s meaning that the club’s target audience were high up the public’s list of folk devils.

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St. Basil’s Digbeth as it appears today, author’s photo

Birmingham in the 1960s was well placed for the development of a motorcycle subculture. New motorways and expressways with exhilarating underpasses sliced through the city allowing for speed, it’s industrial economy was predicated upon exactly the kind of mechnical skills needed to maintain a bike and the baby boom generation was leaving school and entering workplaces that combined, hard, dull work with relatively high wages.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1966) View from the Rotunda over the roof of New Street Station, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

From the start the club was popular, and by 1966-7 St. Basil’s hundreds of regular attenders and thousands on the peripheries. Members ranged from a hardcore of Hell’s Angels and “greasers” that were widely deemed anti social and frequently in legal trouble, through a much larger pool of wayward disaffected teens and young adults, to those who were essentially young motorcycle enthusiasts that appreciate the club’s free tools and engine oil. Collyer had a keen eye for a good story and little objection to being in the limelight (to the consternation of many more traditional Anglicans) and a splurge of charitable donations, local authority and central government grants funded an expanding cadre of salaried staff, building extensions and better catering, games and musical equipment. The lowering of the age of majority in 1969 even allowed for a charity appeal to fund the institution of a licensed bar!         

In 1973 Collyer published his experiences as a diocesan youth worker in Double Zero: Five Years with Rockers and Hell’s Angels in an English City. Brought out by Fontana it is a lively book clearly aimed at the mass market. In genre terms it recalls earlier generations of Christian testament and faith autobiography, but also secular life-stories especially those dealing with war-time service, or other extraordinary situations (like: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Escape from Colditz, Kon-Tiki), that were published in large numbers in the 1950s when Collyer was a teen. All in all more “Boys Own” than Hunter S. Thompson. These qualities make the book an excitable and at times even lurid source. Did Collyer really gain the respect of Birmingham’s biker’s by playing “chicken” at 100 miles per hour-on the back of a bike-between two double decker buses going the wrong way down the A45 towards Coventry? Win a fist-fight with the leader of a gang of Hell’s Angels? Or drive over to a brothel on the Varna Road to “rescue a fallen girl” with dozens of rockers in train? Likewise the book’s religious symbolism is at times overly neat. For instance: Collyer’s car breaks down in the Staffordshire countryside late at night and the only person willing to stop and help him is a leader of a (different) gang of Hell’s Angels that a few weeks previously threatened him with a sawn off shotgun. Handily this Wulfrunian Good Samaritan’s day job is as a mechanic’s mate.

Collyer’s work must be read in light of these dramatic moments. But, lively points aside; Double Zero provides a brilliant insight into what the community of volunteers and paid youth workers that gathered around St. Basil’s and Birmingham’s biker youth hoped to achieve. Their objectives can be best understood through division into three broad categories: the pastoral, the participatory and the iconoclastic.

In pastoral terms the “Double Zero model”, whilst delivered almost entirely by staunch Christians with a very deep belief in the values of their faith, was in practice far closer to the developing fields of youth and social work than traditional faith based charity. By Collyer’s own admission the club’s-frequently troubled-clientele “just wouldn’t come” if they felt that they would be preached to, forced to express gratitude and contrition, and reformed, in exchange for support and assistance. Instead the Double Zero’s practice was to offer food and drink (including alcohol), company and contraceptives with an understanding that housing, legal, employment (and spiritual) support was there if asked for.

This lack of overt moralism was far removed from the stance adopted by many state, and especially local authority agencies in the period, and in the late 1960s attracted many observers. Indeed, half a century later, the Double Zero experiment with its communalism and emphasis on free spirited human flourishing seems quintessentially of its era. Collyer’s account balances a social concerned, bang up-to-date, sociological understanding of the persistence of want in Britain despite “full employment” and the welfare state, with the traditional moral concerns of his religion.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (0019) The Bull Ring Shooping Centre. [Image] (Unpublished)

Perhaps the most quintessentially 1960s part of the Double Zero experiment was its emphasis on participation. The club was supposedly run on a “dual power” basis with authority vested not just in Collyer and his staff of church youth workers, but also in an elected members committee, as if the Double Zero was any other biker’s chapter. This arrangement-unavoidably-led to tensions and constant politicking. But also vividly illustrates the genuine desire on the part of the Anglicans (who it can be assumed secured and administered the government, local authority and Church of England grants that lubricated the club’s day-to-day functions) to manage the club in partnership with, rather than for; the membership.

This spirit of participation extended to other organisations and milieus. From the “major figure in his firm” who discreetly found work for bikers down on their luck, through the radical students “Pam” and “Alan” who despite little love for organised religion arranged for their “Student Action” organisation to support the club, to the “elderly anglo-catholic priest” with a “quiet parish” in “an affluent suburb” who woke up early to rouse a bailed biker for his probation appointments, like any project the Double Zero had many architects. Key amongst these was Leonard Wilson who was the Bishop of Birmingham until 1969. A liberal clergyman of a previous generation, he appears to have had little affinity for or understanding of modern youth culture, but believed that Collyer’s schemes merited support and sanction. Capitalists, student radicals and aged clerical grandees enabling the same scheme for their own divergent ends, graphically illustrates that changes are multi-authored, multi-purposed and frequently driven by impulse.   

Iconoclasm, the Double Zero project’s third key strand, is tightly woven into Collyer’s narrative of what the Double Zero was about. This is perhaps unsurprising, early in the book he sets himself up as a maverick, someone who from an early age reckoned “rules got in the way” and “people mattered more than organisations”. On the most basic level there is evident glee in his presentation of how the Double Zero differs from “traditional” youth clubs. The club is a place where youths can come and blast the juke box, fix their bike, or kick a ball around in the church. In contrast to the Boy’s Brigade or the Scout’s physical activity was generally scorned. An attempted outdoors bound trip cheerily written off as a disaster-utterly alien to the Double Zero membership’s everyday experience-a certain pride taken in their short lived football team scraping along the bottom of the league.

The decision to relate these trappings of rebellion paints a picture of Collyer’s radically egalitarian objectives for the club. However, aspects of the theology on display at St. Basil’s were equally radical. Prior to becoming the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” Collyer gained a degree of notoriety for publicly disclaiming the concept of infant baptism and refusing to have his children baptised. The style of worship-in so far as there was a style of worship practised whilst the Double Zero was based at the church-was equally radical. Collyer gleefully recounts how memorials services for dead bikers and wedding blessings departed from the standard practises of the Church of England to take into account “the situation” “circumstances” and “life experiences” of club members. This practice is defended by arguing the anything else would be perceived as “unreal” or “false”-in a Holden Caulfield sense-by the audience of bikers.

As priest in charge Collyer’s actions-he reports gleefully-are condemned by “traditionalists” and “[his] persistent evangelical critics”. He states that his aim was to “reach out to people who are failed by the parish system” and make “religion relevant to everyday life in the inner-city”. Evidentially he and his supporters felt the form of religion they sought to enact was well suited to injecting some compassion into the highly stratified, atomised and brutal, affluent society. This comes across clearly in one of the self-written hymns Collyer includes as an appendix to Double Zero:

“When you’ve looked in the streets just lately

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the slog, slog of the factory

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the concrete flats of the suburbs

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?”

The sound of alienation according to another group of 1960s Birmingham musicians 

It is at this point that the Double Zero’s progressive brand of Christian humanism intersects with the dominant discourses of mid-late ‘60s grassroots left-wing activism. It is possible to discern in Collyer and his supporters intensely practical attempt to reach out to Birmingham’s damaged, disaffected and alienated youth a Christian counterpart to the cry of anger against the compromises and contradictions of welfare capitalism that can be found in the pages of the New Left Review or the work of Marcuse and Debord. Far from our inherited picture of the Church of England in this period as bewildered and reactionary in its decrepitude, the Double Zero experiment shows that parts of the church were tuned into and engaged with criticisms of the social order and working to overcome it.

What then became of this strand of Anglicanism? Why is it that the Double Zero club closed in 1970 and those involved with it were scattered? Why did Collyer’s brand of open minded, socially engaged, Christianity seemingly gain so little traction that it’s been largely forgotten? Why these things came to pass is possibly best explained through comparison with another product of 1960s critical emancipatory thought: cultural studies.

In 1972 Paul Willis, an early PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, completed his thesis: Popular Music and Youth Culture Groups in Birmingham.           

In the first chapter of the thesis Willis traces a lineage of rebellion. A pop genealogy that can be traced from progressive rock:

Through the Rolling Stones:

And Dylan:

To Marlon Brando in the early motorcycle movie The Wild Bunch (1953) answering the question: “…What are you rebelling against?”

By asking: “What have you got?”

Willis sought to establish the validity of pop culture’s own “great canon”. A rebel canon, an emancipatory canon, a canon showcasing youth culture’s increasing sophistication and refinement.

In the early stages of his research, perhaps through sympathetic student radicals, although more likely through earlier University of Birmingham researchers who’d found them accommodating, Willis found himself in Digbeth at the Double Zero Club interviewing the club’s members.

Willis hoped to show through interviewing the biker boys about their love of early rock ‘n roll that their critical judgement was just as developed, discerning and reasoned as critical conclusions about established art forms expressed by the upper middle class.

It is also clear that he found the Club’s members exciting and fascinating in of themselves. With their den in the dingy backstreets of Digbeth and “greasy” “unkempt” “appearance calculated to shock members of the middle class and respectable society” Willis found the Double Zero “authentic”. They emerge from the text as totemic representatives of a form of unpredictably vibrant working class masculinity. Qualities that despite being-as a Cambridge educated upwardly mobile research student-in society’s terms a “success”, he clearly envived.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1960) Old Crown, Heath Mill Lane, Deritend, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

Yet, he was also fascinated by Collyer and those who worked with him. The idea of a Christian run youth club for rockers and Hell’s Angels evidently grabbed his attention. As it did me. Discovering through Willis’ thesis that the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron in the 1960s of a Digbeth based motorcycle club sent me hurtling to Google and from their to Collyer’s book.

He provides-seemingly with a half raised eyebrow-a comprehensive list of some of the voluntary activities “community spirited” Double Zero members undertook in an attempt to “improve the public image” of young motorcyclists. All orientated towards biking, these included:

Leafleting to support road safety campaigns

Transporting emergency blood supplies to hospitals

Guiding emergency vehicles through the fog

Lending their premises to one of Birmingham’s grammar schools for their end of year prom. An event that was apparently poorly received by both parties….

He also comments upon the club’s ethos and its goals. With his thesis noting in several places how egalitarian the club seemed and how unbound by rules, Willis’ observations indicate that the environment at the Double Zero was much as Collyer hoped it would be.  

At times he suggests that this might even have gone too far, finding the atmosphere of constant engine revving, loud rock music and physical boisterousness “edgy”, “unnerving” even “intimidating”. In discussing the club’s management he describes how despite the club’s ostensibly Anglican foundation he “never saw Collyer or any of the other workers preaching or moralising” and praises their warmth and open mindedness.

An open mindedness that perhaps went a little bit too far. Willis’ thesis notes that whilst he was undertaking fieldwork at the club and in the surrounding streets (including the still existent Forge pub on Fazeley Street) he had reason to suspect that stolen goods were being fenced inside the club. Indeed one of his key subjects was jailed for burglary during the course of his research. In Double Zero Collyer’s recounts that there were hundreds of incidents when club members were arrested and charged with crimes of theft and assault, he also writes about three or four cases when club members were charged with unlawful killing, including murder.

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“The Forge Tavern as it appears today”, author’s photo

These details, together with Willis’ observations and snatches of tape transcript which record copious examples of fairly extreme misogynistic and racist statements falling from the mouths of Double Zero members, remind us not to overly romanticise them. By the same virtue, whilst Willis’ subjects were mostly older members in their twenties, Collyer’s reminiscences of the kind of pastoral work he was doing at the Double Zero indicate that most members were teenagers frequently using the club as a refuge from what today would be viewed as abusive and exploitative situations. This probably goes some way towards explaining the aggressive, impulsive, even self-loathing, behaviour displayed by members.

From a twenty first century perspective Willis and Collyer’s approach towards tackling and discussing these issues seems naive. But at least they were attempting to raise and address them. At the time practically every formal state agency and charitable organisation was set up just to meet material needs, and then, even twenty years after the National Assistance Act, frequently with explicit conduct based strings attached.

Which leads us to the question of what happened to the fiery, naive, yet iconoclastic; ‘60s optimism that fired both the Double Zero project and the early years of cultural studies. It did not disappear it just grew-up, got wise and was assimilated.

The open values that underpinned Collyer’s charismatic, yet liberal and pragmatic, brand of Christianity, were transmitted via a process of general osmosis to the youth and social worker sectors as a whole. Cut to the bone and highly regulated (only one of which is in of itself a bad thing) today’s outreach, homeless prevention and counselling services at least pay-lip service to the idea of user-provider co-production and even at their most marketised are a far cry from the kind of cold, one-sized fits all, overbearing; forms of social provision that Collyer felt had failed his clients.

The seeds of this change were already apparent in the 1960s. Many of the volunteers that facilitated the Double Zero’s work at St. Basil’s were “young girls” (and a few young men) who wanted to go on and study for teaching, social work and youth work qualifications. Assuming that they then went on the practice and have careers in these fields, they will have had an impact upon shaping the delivery of these services in the UK and further afield, that extends to the present day.

In a sense the set-up at St. Basil’s that the Double Zero established has also continued to exist. Today St. Basil’s sits at the heart of the eponymous St. Basil’s youth homelessness prevention charity. How the charity has changed since it was established in 1972 reflects well shifts in society. Firstly the massive increase in housing and employment precarity that has emerged in cities like Birmingham since the decline of mass manufacturing in the 1970s. Secondly the neo-liberal state’s shift towards contracting third sector organisations to deliver key social services. St. Basil’s is a brilliant example of an organisation that has met these challenges and delivered a brilliant service to its users in very trying circumstances. It retains church input but is fundamentally secular and whilst retaining a focus on listening to, working with and empowering its service users, operates to standards of professionalism light years away from those that prevailed at the Double Zero.

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“St. Basil’s Church Digbeth as it appears today”, author’s photo

The cultural studies project has followed a similar trajectory. Today when every broadsheet has a pop music critic and BBC Four happily broadcasts documentaries about post-punk alongside those about Prokofiev, few would seriously dispute that Willis’ notion that pop culture has a worthy canonical tradition that deserves serious attention. But (great as they are) the deification of New Order and The Fall in no way extinguishes the inherently elitist and exclusionary notion of a canon: it just reproduces it with less cello and more guitars.

Cultural studies related academic disciplines, whilst (due in large part to the political climate) not as powerful as they were fifteen or twenty years ago, are well established in the academy. According to Peter Mandler, whilst relative numbers are lower than in the 1980s and ‘90s one in ten British undergraduates are currently studying for a degree in social studies. But all this shows it that the study of popular culture has been accepted into the academy, it hasn’t fundamentally altered, or even exploded the academy. As with radical youth work what has happened is that cultural studies concepts and the radical ideals and critique that they embodied have been co-opted.

It’s clear-as my exploration of the Double Zero initiative indicates-that many Anglicans, at all levels of the church’s hierarchy, from the cathedral throne right down to the rank sat in their parish pews, were far from dismayed by the cultural changes of the 1960s. Indeed they agreed with many criticisms of the affluent society and traditional cultures of deference and morality. For them as many as anyone else the spectre of cultural change in the 1960s was welcome, exciting and pregnant with opportunities.

However, like so many other radical initiatives from the period it was co-opted, incorporated into a slightly liberalised version of the existing system. Life in 21st Century Britain might be rather less authoritarian than the society that Willis and Collyer railed against. However, is it really any less rigid, brutal or alienating? Parts of the superstructure have been smoothed down but the base remains as hard as ever. The Church of England’s 1960s experiments in socially involved agape are forgotten, its spasms of pearl clutching remembered; because they legitimise rather than problematise the existing order.

“Jesus Built My Hotrod”, (Redline/Whiteline Version), Jourgensen, Rieflin, Balch, Haynes (Sire, 1991)