Articles - 29th April 2019

Filthy and Furious Freelance Culture

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

I learnt about the origins of the punk movement from BBC Four documentaries I taped off the TV in the leafy confines of North Devon where the internet connection was too piss-poor to watch even the most lo-fi of YouTube videos. I’d bunk off my Wednesday afternoon jazz flute lesson, emboldened by clips of Poly Styrene, The Slits and Siouxsie Sioux. I wrote my A-Level English Language coursework on the Bill Grundy Sex Pistol’s interview, memorising a select number of hilarious retorts which I’d throw back in the faces of my parents when I was feeling particularly threatened (“fucking rotters”).

Eager to learn more, I sourced a copy of Jon Savage’s seminal guide to punk, England’s Dreaming, for £2 beneath stacks of Katie Price biographies and weight-loss pamphlets in the South West’s beating heart of knock-off literature, peacocks, water features and Euroscepticism; Trago Mills. I desperately tried to source grubby records and errant safety-pinned relics in my favourite charity shops, instead finding an offensively palatable selection of Petula Clarke and well-thumbed friends. Needless to say, the politics of punk washed over my head, and yet, somewhere between those 600 pages of Savage, I fell in love with the fury.

I’m hardly the first to draw parallels between today’s dystopia and the Thatcherite conditions of 1979. In the aftermath of Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Hurricane Human’, we are reminded of the overwhelming demand for political action around climate change, championed by the bright-eyed figurehead, Greta Thunberg. We are, as Malcolm McClaren once described us, “the human architecture of the city”. We can stop traffic with our bodies, bringing cultural landmarks to a stand-still with nothing but a few pop-up tents, some potted plants and a couple of rogue sticks of patchouli. But where’s the fury? Where’s the filth? Now is the time to refill our communal chalice with rage-filled culture. Let’s wipe the warm gob from our snarls and tuck into some rabble-rousing delights.

If, like me, you fell for those anachronistic darlings of the iPod generation, The Libertines, then you may be pleased to hear that their former front-man and Babyshambler Pete Doherty has recently released a new album with his side project The Puta Madres, ‘Peter Doherty & The Puta Madres’. Having recently given an unapologetic interview with the Guardian, Doherty is every bit as provocative as he’s ever been, albeit, with a dwindling fan following and relocation from punky Camden to sunny Margate. With bear-poking, muddled lyrics that include “I’d like a full English Brexit”, it’s clear that Doherty’s hour is up. If you’re hankering for a palpable taste of the hey-day, pay a visit to what’s left of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s notoriously named SEX boutique on King’s Road in Chelsea. Now named ‘World’s End’, the shop remains a living shrine to days of yore and with an impressive list of former pioneering employees including Pamela Rooke, Chrissie Hydne and Glen Matlock.

We are in the midst of a particular resurgence of interest in the punk writer and performance artist, Kathy Acker, following Penguin’s reissue of Blood and Guts in High School, hotly followed by Chris Kraus’ (2017) and Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018). My fondest memory of Acker, secondary to the polarised undergraduate seminar where I first studied Blood and Guts, remains the crowning moment in her 1997 interview with The Spice Girls, wherein her opening question (“If paradise existed, what would it look like?”) provokes Geri Halliwell to deliver the following anti-Capitalist tirade, which feels oddly reminiscent of exchanges I’ve had in the Goldsmiths Student’s Union; “Money makes the world what it is today . . . a world infested with evil. All sorts of wars are going on at the moment. Everyone’s kind of bickering, wanting to better themselves because their next-door neighbour’s got a better lawn.” In honour of the late and great punk hero, ICA are hosting an exhibition series showcasing the artist’s work from 1947–1997, archiving Acker’s written, spoken and performed work. On Wednesday, Literary critic N. Katherine Hayles will be lecturing on ‘Nonconscious Cognition’ and Acker’s ‘Language of the Body’.

Channelling punk’s bellowing aesthetics, Edvard Munch’s retrospective at the British Museum Love and Angst is on show until the 21st July. Munch’s hollow-eyed paintings and prints are veritably bursting with the painter’s characteristic brand of lonely despair. For those affluent enough to afford the £17 tickets, what makes the exhibition worthwhile is the unique insight into the artist’s process of continuous revision and adaptation of his works, familiar shapes and patterns ultimately synthesising in the artist’s best known and twice stolen work, The Scream.

For a taste of the contemporary, take a trip to the Battersea Arts Centre’s production of Status. Written and developed by Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin, the play asks us to consider what it truly means to ‘have’ nationality, and where this might be located. It’s analytical and self-conscious of the white male privileges afforded to its protagonist, Chris, who admits “I look more like people who did the starving than the people who were starved.”

Chris exists somewhere on the precipice of reality and fiction, strumming an electric guitar with all the protest panache of a young Billy Bragg with Katharine Williams’ lighting intelligently employed. ‘It’s not a Brexit show’, Thorpe promises, although the discussions of borders and the citing of Theresa May’s assertion ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’, grounds the work unequivocally in the present day. Not to the play’s detriment, I spent the entire production nervously sat behind/ thoroughly distracted by Mark Kermode.

Hell, wherever the microcosm of today’s protest culture is located, it’s certainly not on King’s Road any more.

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