Post war Hull was a bleak and forbidding place. It was still recovering from the trauma of the Blitz, as it was the second most bombed city in England. Officially Kingston-upon-Hull was a thriving port city and the centre of the fishing industry, but for most people the reality was different. Daily existence was harsh, life for many was brutal and short. It became one of the most violent places in the country, an indirect consequence of the alcohol dependency that afflicted a huge proportion of the population after the war years.
This was the unlikely location for a collective of enterprising art students, attracted by low rents and cheap living costs. However these were not the only factors that inspired them, there was an undercurrent brewing. It was barely perceptible at first, but there was a growing clamour for artistic revitalisation in a city scarred by the blight of nihilistic violence.
In 1969 COUM Transmissions was established. It chiefly consisted of Hull native Christine Newby and her partner Neil Megson, who originally hailed from Solihull but briefly attended Hull University. However they adopted artistic pseudonyms to represent their aesthetic and philosophical vision. Newby was “Cosey Fanni Tutti” , a hybrid of a childhood nickname and pun on the Mozart opera of the same name. Megson called himself “Genesis P-Orridge” to reflect upon the creation of the world and to acknowledge his limited diet, porridge oats were cheap, but filling and both were reliant on this staple food during a lean period. COUM expanded to include other like minded individuals who were committed to the vision.
Newby was a bright young woman from a humble background who excelled at art at school, but was hampered in her ambitions by wider Hull society which saw little value in creative work. She was fortunate that her teachers encouraged her talent, but the prevailing attitude about the role of women in a predominantly working class community was not so favourable.
Megson, in contrast, was born into a privileged family, and attended Solihull School. He was also exceptionally bright and creative. However his burgeoning intellectual and artistic curiosity frequently clashed with the staid figures of authority at school and the more genteel aspects of wider Solihull society.
Megson was an outsider, a deep thinker and natural rebel. He only had two close friends at school as they shared the same desire to question everything. Together they organised “happenings” at various locations across Solihull. The bemused locals and press were unsure of the motives of these strange teenage boys and even castigated these events as sinister satanic rituals. Megson applied to the University of Hull as he loathed the atmosphere of privilege and elitism that he had grown up in.
Whilst at the University, Megson developed a prodigious talent for poetry and won an award judged by the resident librarian Philip Larkin. However he was becoming rapidly disillusioned by academic life and felt stifled, dropping out after a year. When Newby met Megson there was an instant understanding between them, both were misunderstood by conventional society and they believed that it was their mission to challenge these conventions.
COUM Transmissions was a project of performance art and music and centred on contentious themes like sexuality and violence. The artistic community in Hull championed their work, as they had a real insight into the message that was being portrayed. However the rest of Hull was less than understanding and they faced constant harassment, and the threat of arrest.
The Hull performances were marred by violent elements in the crowd, and the prejudice and ignorance of the authorities who could not understand the difference between theatrical presentation of deviancy and the artists enacting the scenes. Eventually the collective had to move to London so that their artistic vision could evolve. Intelligent, imaginative people were appreciative of their work and were grateful that difficult conversations could be opened up through the medium of art.
However the narrow minded philistine element of British society condemned them, with one MP famously accusing them of being “wreckers of civilisation”. This phrase was subsequently adopted for another show. Megson and Newby had a tempestuous relationship, both personally and professionally, and they had prolonged periods of separation and reconciliation.
It was almost a fateful combination where two very sensitive, creative but fiercely ambitious people could not stand to live or work with each other. The eventual split was acrimonious, but was fruitful for Newby artistically. She began another artistic trajectory on sexuality, reflecting on the sexism that she experienced as a young female artist.
COUM was transgressive and shocking for its time, but a necessary counterpoint to a culture dominated by violence and sexual oppression.