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Tony Elliott RIP
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Tony Elliott was at Keele University, from which I graduated in 1968, the same year he dropped out and founded Time Out, thus becoming by far the most famous and influential graduate of that radical institution, which pioneered a 4 year degree course (not the usual 3) , the entire first year dedicated to a foundation course in Western civilization and its achievements; the second to studying Minors in both science and art together with two Majors, which carried for another two years.

In my case I had an early taste of Economics, English Literature and Philosopy, then a whole second year of Physics and English Literature, while starting on my Majors of Philosophy and Psychology, which two I continued till graduation.

Tony Elliott must have done the Foundation Year and then one year of French and History, during which he wrote for the university arts magazine, before leaving to make history.

Keele was hard work, with lectures, practical experiments, essays, discussion groups and evening meetings. Too much like school, said the older sophisticates. Great to be educated said the rest of us. The Kremlin on the Hill, said the locals.

Keele had another claim to radical fame: condoms. It was unusual in that half the undergraduates were women, far more than the 15% at other universities. Visiting the other sex was allowed in the afternoons, but not evenings or nights. Without access to the contraceptive pill, students asked that condoms be sold in the Union shop. The Press were outraged, and contributions to the university fell, and we became famous overnight.

Time Out was a radical publication, giving as much space to agitation and propaganda as to cultural affairs. Elliott picked his time with superb precision: 1968 nearly brought down De Gaulle, and it ushered in the swinging 60s, which had previously been mostly pretty staid. We knew what was happening, and found out exactly when and where by reading Time Out, which also taught us how to dress, think and argue.

The magazine was an egalitarian dream, with all workers on the same salary. As the magazine blossomed Elliot wanted to bring in a highly paid designer to lift it out of its listless lists-of-lists format, but the staff rebelled and went on strike. For 3 months the stand-off continued, and Londoners had no guidance on which films it was proper to see. Elliott sat out the strike at the cost of half a million, but then got 17 higher paid journalists to put together an even slicker version of the magazine before the competition could launch their replacement offerings. The magazine prospered, and local variations spread around the world.

The story of a drop out who does well is designed to taunt those who stayed the university course, and went on to less famous pursuits. These entrepreneurs become beacons of daring, showing us the lives we might have led. Timing counts for a lot, but you have to be aware to notice which way the times are pointing. Elliott was a good guy, by all accounts genuinely amiable and kindly, who learned the hard way that running a business requires meeting the need of customers, not producers. He wised up. As you might expect, he was educated at Stowe, a fee-paying school, so you might say it was bound to happen. Single-handedly, he helped define what was cool in Swinging London, and then in other cities of the world, no mean feat in a world not yet globalized. He surfed the wave, and made it roar.

I would love to tell you my very personal stories about him, but I was well into my third year when he arrived, so had no reason to talk to a newcomer and, as far as I know, never met him. A great pity, and too late now.

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  1. dearieme says:

    It’s interesting to see that a new university, of no established reputation, could offer a good education as recently as the late 60s, and assume that such an education would attract good applicants. When did it all go wrong?

    I and an old colleague exchange the occasional email bemoaning what’s happened to the universities. The habit started from an incident when I was emptying my office before retiring. He chuckled when he saw my fresher maths and physics lecture notes and exercises, and pointed out that the material was too difficult, the work load too high, for current freshers.

    Things seemed to be OK into the early 80s. Was it in the 90s that things fell off a cliff, or the aughts?
    Should we blame the cultural marxists or Toni Blair? Since the phenomenon infects the US too I suppose it’s the CMs. Or just general decadence. Dark Ages here we come.

  2. I was retrospectively impressed by Keele. It was a genuine attempt at innovation. As I understand it, it struggled into existence without much state backing in its early years, unlike, say Essex or York which were prepackaged clones of redbricks.

    Branson, another dropout, was wandering around the same forest at the time. There was cultural change, some were there to catch the moment.

  3. Interesting as I only had contact with Time Out during my 3 visits to London in 97, 99, and early 01. I had no idea of its history. At the time, to me, it just seemed to be an informative of what was up in the city.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. IIRC the binned Time Out journalists founded City Limits as a co-op, which all good London lefties like myself read in the 80s in preference to “Sold Out” . It lasted 12 years, 1981-93.

    (one great advantage of Keele in hitch-hiking days was that you could just walk over the field to Keele Services for a lift, or be dropped there when heading back to uni)

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  5. @YetAnotherAnon

    Yes, Keele service station was a gateway to everywhere, so long as you wore a scarf .

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  6. @James Thompson

    I’d forgotten the old uni scarf – does anyone still wear them, indeed do they even exist outside Oxbridge and maybe Durham?

    I asked a recent grad and got a blank look “I’ve not even seen one and don’t know anyone who wore one“.


    • Replies: @James Thompson
    , @dearieme
  7. I wasn’t at Keele, but I hitched a lot in the mid-70s and you’d meet people at junctions (or at Keele services) going to and from Keele.

    Sometimes used to be quite social – I can remember going down the M1 to London on the back of a flatbed truck whose driver stopped at every junction to pick people up – there were about ten of us, the police would stop such a vehicle nowadays. Good times.

  8. dearieme says:

    You still see college scarfs in Cambridge – cycling in winter means people will wear a scarf anyway.

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