From the Vaults: ISIS Double Bill, 1968-1969

In his memoirs, Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens laments that as a student at Oxford in the late 1960s he was referred to as “only the second most notorious person at the university.” He adds, “Of course I knew without asking who had won the laurel as the most famous person. This was Mike Rosen.”

Hitchens described Rosen as “a tall and rangy and bushy and charismatic Jewish socialist who could draw all eyes.” However, as “Rosen’s parents were of the Old Left” Hitchens thought Rosen’s family “was fatally compromised by Stalinism.”

Poet, former Children’s Laureate and award winning author, Michael Rosen,  on occasion appears in the comments section of this blog. When it comes to his political poems, particularly those favoured for publication by the Socialist Workers Party, it would be fair to say that I would vigorously oppose the opinions he expresses. Having stated such opposition, it can be noted that in an interview Rosen gave to the student magazine at Oxford, ISIS, on February 7, 1968, he was happy to declare, for publication, “I do also happen to be a maniac.” He said it, not me.

If I allow myself to ignore his political opinions and consider some of his other work, such as the performance of his own piece, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, then I have to concede that in this instance, at least, it is simply brilliant. I said it, not him.

It is certainly true that Rosen made a splash for himself at Oxford. According to Bill Cran (ISIS, February 7, 1968), Rosen’s play Backbone “was the first by an undergraduate to be given a full week in the [Oxford] Playhouse.”  He also managed to get his name in most national newspapers for some demonstrations that he inspired.

After an anti Vietnam War demonstration in London, Rosen wrote a poem published by ISIS and remembered by Hitchens in his memoirs as “haunting.”  I managed to track down the poem in the vaults. I reproduce it below with the permission of Michael Rosen who also provided me with some further information: the “don” in the poem is not a university don, but Donald Macintyre, currently the Jerusalem correspondent of The Independent.


sunday march 17 1968, grosvenor square

by Mike Rosen

ISIS, May 1, 1968, p.2.

and old don came through the coach door
like a sack of coal and sat and shook
on the front seat wiping hair and blood
off his eyes
and above, it was glass and steel
which is america thankyouverymuch
and away through our windows
friends in knots struggled with the thin blue line
of the stalwart boys of the neapolitan ice
and then in through the door came dick
I’m alright he says
and you remember the bit behind the coach
where tired and footsore they got the boot in
thankyouverymuch said the ambassador today
so the door shuts like a school trip to hyde park
except that the man in blue on the door
said the answer would be to drop
a fuckin a-bomb on china or you lot huh
and the skin beneath don’s eyes stretches and shrinks
there’s a woman going round taking names
and saying it out to her (incredible black shoes) …
… muswell avenue n. ten student proves you’re the enemy today
If you want to know the time
Ask a getawatch
But you have to choose to be a copper don’t you
which on some days means shielding the eagle
though don’s remembering the old grizzle officer
going pale and flailing (probably good on zebra crossings)
and I suppose the wife of J 625
who tried the knuckle as well
was as worried as my mum (mosley and cable street or not)
when it came up on telly
and somewhere creeping about your head
are the films and photos of the splash of shrapnel
in the paddy fields
so as they took us past the hilton
and we thought about fines and lost jobs
and tomorrows journalists slobber
a long line of police-punching hooligans
stretching from queens park rangers to N. Audley St.
you know we lost, don, and so we said:
please let it be that a photo of the splintered shrubs
of grosvenor square
reaches at least one village of that country in the monsoon
lady with the gun on the poster
should we bite their heels as they tread
I love you?

ISIS magazine had a regular habit of publishing obituaries of people still alive. Mike Rosen was honoured with one in the January 29, 1969 issue. It is not just a clearly fake obituary as forty two years on, Rosen is still alive, but I suspect that other information in the obituary is also not true. For example, “P.ES.” claims that the obituary was written by Rosen’s self-declared “old friend and colleague” Max Beloff.  Given Rosen’s political activities and the fact that ISIS had mentioned only a few months earlier (October 9,1968), that Beloff, who was a senior don at All Souls College, had urged the University to get “tough with militant students,” I doubt that Beloff was the true author. Violence is also ascribed to Rosen. It is alleged that he had the ability to deliver a “fistful of knuckles.” When I asked him about this, Rosen informed me that he did not think he had ever laid a finger on anyone. I copy the obituary, in full, below:


Mike Rosen

ISIS, January 29, 1969, p.24.

The death last week of my old friend and colleague Michael Rosen, after a severe drinking bout in the All Souls’ cellar, came as a great shock to all of us who respected him as the warm and wonderful human being he almost certainly was, writes Max Beloff. His valuable research into the importance of Scatology in the consumer society, a field hitherto the sole prerogative of a few dreary, left-wing playwrights, had after all only just begun. How well I remember his refined, almost gracious approach to this most delicate subject. Was there something, I wondered, in the psychology of this unique personality which enabled him to devote himself so generously to what can scarcely have been a rewarding subject? He seemed so … well, so at home with his work.

Laying false modesty aside, I must admit that I was one of the first to notice his extraordinary abilities when he was still an undergraduate. There were some, I know, who regarded him as a course-minded, loud-mouthed, angry young thug. And people who dislike him often went further than that. But I chose to disregard that kind of petty jealousy. Sometime, I knew, they would all come to love this gentle giant among men. True to his early promise, he soon proved me right. As his patron, I put in a few good words for him with the proper authorities, and he shortly made his television debut with “Gasser and Smith’s Laugh-In” on BBC-2. From this I knew he would go on to greater things—and indeed he did. The cheerfulness with which he broke the neck of an examiner who wanted to give him a mere Second Class honours degree, the gallant way he came to aid of all of Oxford’s oppressed minorities, be they girls reading English at Somerville or just girls reading English at St. Hilda’s, and his inimitable prose style, ranging from the straightforward incoherent to the downright disgusting—these were the hallmarks of the man they called Rosen.

Before coming to us at All Souls he had already made quite a name for himself as a Reader in Violence at Sussex University. It goes without saying that nobody who was fortunate enough to be tutored by him there will ever be the same again. We at All Souls will always remember him as the toast of High Table—he of the ready insult and lavatory joke, always willing to deliver what he charmingly referred to as a “fistful of knuckles” to those whom he honestly believed would benefit by it. Without him All Souls would be a little quieter, a little richer, and, yes perhaps, a little duller.


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