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The Impersonal is Apolitical: A Review of

Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (London: Serpents Tail, 2007), 310 pps., ill., pbk, £10.99/$15.95, ISBN-10: 1852429372; ISBN-13: 978-1852429379

Michèle Roberts, Paper Houses: A Memoir of the Seventies and Beyond (London: Virago, 2007), 352 pps., ill., hbk, £16.99, ISBN-10: 1844084078; ISBN-13: 978-1844084074

Janet Street-Porter, Fall Out: A Memoir of Friends Made and Friends Unmade (London: Headline Review, 2007), 320 pps.,ill., pbk, £7.99 (£16.99 hbk), ISBN-10: 0755314964 ISBN-13: 978-0755314966

Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal got Political (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 240 pps., hbk, £60, $74.95, ISBN-10: 0719074347, ISBN-13: 978-0719074349

James Heartfield

From the 1970s to the 1990s Britain changed markedly. Looking back it is clear that the greatest change was between the sexes. In 1971 there were nearly seventeen million men in work, and just over nine million women—almost two men for every woman.[1] By 2000 just over half of all workers were women.[2] Those dry numbers cover up a sea-change in people’s private lives. Still worse off in wages, women have not got equality, but they have got economic independence. There were more marriages in Britain in 1972 than any other year, and fewer in 2007 since records began.[3] Then women passed from parental to marital home; now they can live alone, and fewer than ever choose wedlock.

Gender studies professor Lyn Segal, author Michèle Roberts, journalist Janet-Street Porter, and the Gay-Rights activists in Lucy Robinson’s Gay Men and the Left took part in a revolution against the nuclear family. What is more, they seem to have won, though reading these memoirs reminds you it did not feel like that at the time. Michèle Roberts and Janet Street-Porter follow the memoir form closest in their books—both being based on diaries. Segal begins with a memoir, which breaks down into a thematic discussion. Robinson’s is a history based on interviews and original sources.

Lyn Segal came from Australia and threw herself into the alternative London life-style, as did Michèle Roberts, down from Oxford. Both experimented with communal living in the seventies, and with same-sex partners. They were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement, crossing paths from time to time, Segal with radical psychology and writing for the Islington Gutter Press, Roberts in the Spare Rib Collective and with the publication of her celebrated gospel according to Mary Magdelene, The Wild Girl (1984, re-examining her own Catholic education). Janet Street-Porter’s journey was a bit more commercially mainstream, rising through the women’s magazine Nova, writing columns on the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, before breaking into radio and television, but she was clearly on the side of sexual liberation and women’s equality. In tandem with the fight for women’s liberation, the Gay Liberation movement, as described in Lucy Robinson’s marvellous history, attacked the heterosexual norm, as well as setting up their own communes, like Bethnal Rouge (p. 76). Segal and Roberts judiciously set out the downside of sharing clothes, domestic chores and lovers, both finding something to learn from Jo Freeman’s 1971 essay, ‘The Tyranny of Stucturelessness’.[4]

While communal living was on the wilder shores, the mainstream was changing, too. 1967 saw abortion and homosexuality (partly) decriminalised and family planning available on the National Health Service. Over the next three years, divorce law was reformed to allow no fault divorce and grant women a share in matrimonial property. In 1973 the word ‘obey’ was taken out of the marriage vows.[5]

In 1971, evangelist Christians Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and Lord Longford helped to set up the National Festival of Light to arrest the moral decline they saw all around them (Robinson, p. 72). The Festival of Light rallied large crowds to praise the family and damn alternative living. ‘A futile attempt to turn back the clock’, thought Janet Street-Porter, who provoked the reactionaries curating The Body Show at the ICA in 1973 (p. 139). While Roberts was reviewing at Gay Times in 1978, Mary Whitehouse led a successful prosecution for blasphemy (the first since 1922) after editor Denis Lemon published James Kirkup’s poem about Jesus’ homoerotic feelings on the cross (Roberts, p. 182 (she thought the poem was poor); Robinson, p. 125). Far from going away, the reactionaries got bolder:

The decade was ushered out, ten years later, with the election of the regally coiffured, first ever female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, leading one of the most conservative Parliaments in British history. Women were on the move, that much was certain, though far from headed in the same direction. (Segal, p. 108)

The Conservative Party continued to govern Britain from 1979 to 1997. Mrs Thatcher appealed in part to the ‘silent majority’ that felt the decline of the family unsettling, not liberating. She promised a return to ‘Victorian Values’[6] setting up a Family Policy Group to promote them. Under its chair Ferdinand Mount, the group proposed that mothers stay at home, social services be cut back and schools teach ‘clear moral’ values.[7] In 1988, clause 28 of the Local Government Act forbade authorities to ‘promote teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.[8]

Overall, the 1980s were a time of failure for radicals, though these memoirs remind us that being in opposition could be exciting, too. Lynne Segal was a part of a curious late flourishing in the life of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Having lost ground to the groovier New Left in the sixties, the Stalin-inspired party of trade union officialdom tried to reinvent itself as rainbow coalition of feminists and multi-culturalists in the 1980s.[9] Segal’s contributions to the party journal Marxism Today lent it credibility among the ‘new social movements’ that were supposed to replace the old Labour movement as the vehicle of radical change. Michèle Roberts was carried along by the radicalisation of London politics led by left-wing municipal authorities like the Ken Livingstone-led Greater London Council and Lambeth’s Ted Knight. The GLC financed the fortnightly magazine City Limits — founded by striking journalists on Time Out — where Roberts edited the poetry page (Roberts, p. 203). Janet Street-Porter’s more upwardly mobile feminism found her on the other side of that union dispute, as she was married to the Time Out’s proprietor, and target of the journalists’ ire when she was made head of a new consumer section. Street-Porter’s scathing tale of the ‘bunch of left-wing mouthy journalists’ is about Roberts and her friends (Street-Porter, p. 230). Roberts’s story of teaching on a creative writing class in a psychiatric home while writer in residence at Lambeth Council gets the gallows humour that ran through the Labour Party’s Town Hall revolution all too well.

That was the odd thing about the eighties. The radicals were losing out to the right all the time. But even though the Conservatives were in power, the thing that they were pledged to defend — the family — was losing its hold over private living arrangements. It turned out that it was not the radicals who were undermining the family, but the conservatives. ‘No more job for life’, they said — forgetting that that was the grounding for marriage for life and the sexual division of labour. Breaking the unions’ closed shop held down wages, but it let more women into the workforce, too. Though they were on the losing side in one General Election after another, the radicals took succour from a new plurality in lifestyles.

The slogan that made the point was ‘the personal is political’. What the slogan meant is that questions that had been thought to be less than political, like ‘who does the housework?’ or ‘what does a beauty-contest mean?’ or ‘should you come out?’ were, on the contrary, as important, or even more important than which party has more seats in parliament, or a wage demand. It is hard to find where it was first said. Chris Knight made it the headline to an editorial in London Labour Briefing in the early eighties, but it was common among feminists long before then and the point of Shulamith Firestone’s critique of Marxism, The Dialectic of Sex, in 1970. Irritating to the more traditional left, the ‘personal is political’ summed up the new politics being followed by feminists and other radicals in the eighties.

Lucy Robinson shows that the personal did not get political overnight. Long before women’s liberation or gay liberation, the Labour Party revisionists led by Hugh Gaitskell were giving politics a different focus when they turned away from the workplace strife to look instead at consumer choices. The growing importance of young people, as voters and consumers, the coming of the teenager, and the post-war boom all set the scene for the personal to get political.

Was it all a good thing, though? Lynne Segal prefaces her memoirs with some interesting grounds for doubt. She notes:

a startling decline in democratic participation beginning in the 1980s, whether in trade unions, political parties or any other collective associations. This accompanied reports of the dramatic rise in political cynicism, evident not just in voting patterns but people’s absence from any form of community organization. Six in ten people born in the 1940s apparently belonged to at least one collective group by the time they were in their thirties, compared to less than one in ten young people born in 1970 reaching that age (Segal, p 6).[10]

The decline of mass politics is the background to these memoirs. For Segal and Roberts, the radical community politics of the seventies became incorporated in the municipal socialism of the eighties, before finally being symbolically abolished with Mrs Thatcher’s actual abolition of the Greater London Council. For Lucy Robinson’s Gay Left, the high noon of municipal socialism was the passage of Clause 28. From that point on Gay Liberation made its own way, outside of the left-wing milieu, in the radical identity politics of campaigns like Outrage or the health activism of the Terence Higgins Trust. Robinson ends looking at the way that party politics collapsed into the game show Big Brother when the Prime Minister was moved to condemn the race-baiting of contestant Shilpa Shetty (Robinson, p. 189 onwards). If these writers were coming from a more traditional outlook, they would have told the story of the decline of Church, Nation and indeed, of family.

The dissipation of party politics was also the end of a distinct public realm. We can see it in the London they describe. At first all is drawn together, pulled towards special sites like Grosvenor Square (anti-Vietnam demonstration), the Westminster Hall (where transvestite protestors disrupted the Festival of Light) or County Hall (the Greater London Council’s last stand). But that gives way to a procession through different rooms in shared homes (Roberts’s Paper Houses); a long-march not through the institutions, but the suburbs; not the quest for the one true love of romantic fiction, but a restless serial monogamy which reminds me of Saussure’s endless play of signs, refusing a singular meaning.[11]

Segal’s north London does not have the dusty left-wing bookshops it once did and the Islington Gutter Press is long gone, though Jeremy Corbyn is still the Member of Parliament. The Secular Society bookshop Roberts passed at the top of the Holloway Road, copies of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian bleaching and bending in the sun has shut, and her Yerbury neighbourhood is prime real estate now as parents trying to get into the catchment area of the league-table topping primary school bid up the prices.

Does this have to be told as a loss, or could it be seen as a positive change?[12] Only a fool would want to recreate the psycho-sexual nightmare of the traditional nuclear family. Still it is compelling that it was not just the political that was subordinated to the personal; but the personal, too that lost its distinctive character.

The story of gay activism offers up a striking story of what happens when personal health becomes a political football. AIDS activists felt compelled to resist the evidence that gay men were a ‘high-risk’ category, insisting instead that all were equally at risk. Later, when it seemed that the activists would lose control of the AIDS agenda to the Department of Health, they called for a ‘re-gaying’ of the disease. It was a curious journey that led the gay liberationists of the seventies to become the cheer-leaders of a government safe sex campaign, calling not for liberation but regulation (See Robinson, pp. 176-77).

Lynne Segal raises some interesting examples of what happens to private life when it becomes open to public examination in the practice of giving testament to traumatic events:

it was not tales of shared hope, but rather of individual triumph over trauma, that had popularly surfaced in the memories pouring forth at the close of the twentieth century. This was and still is a time of unprecedented interest in life stories, highlighting the importance of memory, but their nub was regularly the recognition of childhood damage and the unfolding journey was solitary transcendence … [the 1990s] saw an extraordinary flowering of cultural obsession with trauma, everywhere encouraging the cri de coeur of the ‘walking wounded’, detailing their uniquely gruesome tales, whether of sexual abuse, personal injury or parental loss or the living of one’s premature dying (p. 6).[13]

This descent into victimhood, though, is surely one avenue opened up by the politics of identity, the idea that the personal is political. And curiously, the breakdown of the separation of high politics and personal identity issues leads not to an elevation of the person, but its diminution. As Alan Badiou says, ‘the status of victim, of suffering beast, of emaciated dying body, equates man with his [sic] animal substructure, it reduces him to the level of a living organism, pure and simple’.[14] Or in other words, victims are without personality. Segal tells the following story of the way that a fascination with victimhood led students to seek protection from imaginary harms:

the German writer and feminist scholar Frigga Haug, recalls the ‘catastrophe’ attending her attempt to teach a course on ‘memory work’ in Canada in the 1990s. She was shocked to discover that her students insisted on the need for attendant therapists and the imposition of other psychological safeguards. The all though it self-evident that ‘memory work’ would involve attempts ‘to reveal an incestuous past, an idea that they found fascinating and horrible in equal measure’… (pp. 6-7).[15]

The literary genre of ‘misery lit’, memoirs of redemption from personal abuse has one compelling feature: uniformity. The formula of suffering and redemption does not point to unique personalities, but sameness. This was not, surely, what the original intentions of radical feminism intended, argues Segal:

my generation had early on turned to Left-Wing politics to help us move beyond personal anxieties. … Soon as newly emerging feminists, many sought collective solutions to shared female afflictions: ‘An End to Sexual Misery and Exploitation’, ‘Solidarity with our Sisters,’ especially those in prison or mental hospitals, were just two of our early quixotic catchphrases. Little hint of such demotic grandeur attends today’s fondness for self-narration, where psychological damage has become the ‘secret’ the world loves to divulge. But its disclosure unlocks doors leaving only into private households of shame or suffering. No wider political maps are provided for locating them within regimes of male dominance, or for underlining the brutalizing effects of poverty, insecurity, failure, disregard, disparagement, on those seen as losers in our world (p. 7).

Segal’s thoughts on the confessional mode are compelling insights, and it is a shame that they are not followed more single-mindedly through the book. They lead us I think to the conclusion that the nineties did not enshrine the ‘personal as the political’ so much as the ascendance of the apolitical as the impersonal. Segal and Roberts dabble with the ‘traumaculture’ Segal describes, though without enthusiasm. Funnily enough, it is Janet Street-Porter, wrongly thought of as the least politically correct who comes out of this comparison as the most compelling personality, for her robust refusal to dwell on difficulties.


[1] Paul Doyle, ‘Consistent historical time series of labour market data’, Office of National Statistics at

[2] Craig Lindsay, ‘A century of Labour Market Change’, Labour Market Trends, March 2003, p. 138, at and see James Heartfield, ‘There is no masculinity crisis’, Genders 35, 2002,

[3] 480,285 and 236,980 respectively, ‘Marriages fall to record low’, Sunday Times, 30 March 2008, at

[4] Reproduced at

[5] Kate Marshall, Moral Panics and Victorian Values, London, Junius, 1985, p. 24-5.

[6] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, London, Harper Collins, 1995, p. 627.

[7] Kate Marshall, Moral Panics and Victorian Values, p.2-3.

[8] Sunday Times, 29 May 1988, reproduced at

[9] See James Heartfield, New Left, Old Pessimism, Mute 10 October 2007 at

[10] Footnote cites Elsa Ferri, John Bynner and Michael Wadsworth, Changing Britain, Changing Lives, London, Bedford Way Papers, Institute of Education, University of London, 2003, pp. 264-8.

[11] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, New York, 1966, McGraw Hill, p. 128

[12] As for example Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan did in Freedom’s Children, Demos, 1995.

[13] Her footnote cites Roger Luckhurst, ‘Traumaculture’ in ‘Remembering the 1990s’ New Formations, no 50 Autumn, 2003.

[14] Alain Badiou, Ethics, London, Verso,11.

[15] Her footnote cites Frigga Haug, ‘Sexual deregulation or, the child abuser as hero in neoliberalism’, Feminist Theory, vol. 2 no.1, 2001, p. 56.

To Cite This Article:

James Heartfield, ‘Review: Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics; Michèle Roberts, Paper Houses: A Memoir of the Seventies and Beyond; Janet Street-Porter, Fall Out: A Memoir of Friends Made and Friends Unmade; Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal got Political’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at heartfield.html. Accessed on [date of access]