Punk Women

A punk writes in Spare Rib, number 97, August, 1980.

Punk Women

Dear Spare Rib
I am deeply shocked by Vivien Pixner’s letter ‘Punks are Nasty (SR 96). I am a punk, 24, experience of life – married six years, two children, just taken A levels, heavy experience with my parents… I don’t know why I should have to prove my validity as a woman. I’m stopping.
My “way of dressing”, and painting my face and hair is a visual expression of my rejection of how society (male dominated) dictates how women should look. So I am a visual joke, shocking others sometimes, though not purposely wanting to offend.
Punk women have a lot in common with the women’s movement. We (though I can’t speak for all) refuse to support a society that oppresses women, and we wish to give back to the people, those “ordinary women, leading ordinary lives”, the chance to live their lives as they choose.
I feel so angry. I feel like gobbing and cursing, but I won’t offend Vivian’s delicate sensibilities by using “gratuitous bad language”. Don’t “ordinary women” swear? Besides who are all these women? It seems that Vivian’s ‘ordinary’ is interchangeable with ‘normal’. Who’s ordinary, who’s normal? I find her assumptions offensive. Am I the only one?
My own husband is loving, liberal, ‘lets’ me do what I want, but…can’t rid himself of feeling that my freedom is a concession from him. I love him dearly, but he is a part of the male world and its values.
I would hate to see Spare Rib concede to a viewpoint which in Vivian’s words would include more “common sense” just in order to get a wider readership. It is quality not quantity of readership that would count. I don’t want to see you conform.
In defiance and sisterhood,
Edgware, Middlesex.


British Surrealism

George Melly in anarchist quarterly The Raven, Vol 1 Number 3, November, 1987.

Gentlemen First

Much as it grieves me to agree with Franklin Rosemont (his book on Breton was a hideous piece of hagiography), I must admit there is a great deal of truth in what he says about British Surrealism.
It was ineffectual. It did not consist of an effective ‘movement’. Its adherents were thoroughly confused as to its meaning. It held people until they were offered something unacceptable to it (eg. Henry Moore’s ‘Madonna and Child’), whereupon they left it immediately. Not only Herbert Read but Roland Pensrose accepted knighthoods – in fairness, it is impossible to imagine Breton wearing the L├ęgion d’Honneur, etc., etc.
The question is: What stopped Surrealism from taking root in Britain?
Rosemont suggests individualism as the reason – the usual explanation. But he is rightly a ltiile tentative as to whether this alone is enough to explain its failure. I propose the following additional causes:

(A) English Protestantism

Surrealism nneded Catholicism to work effectively. That is why France was its true home and Spain its powerhouse. Its atheism was central to it. You can’t profane the Host without transubstantiation. No point in jumping on a piece of ordnary bread or pissing in admittedly inferior wine! It is interesting that David Gascoyne, this country’s most commited Surrealist, should have become religious. The rest remained gentlemanly freethinkers.

(B) The non-existence of cafes
Yhis may seem frivolous, but it is not. Pubs are hopeless settings for the exchange of ideas; restaurants too formal. The British Surrealists tried both and found them wanting. The cafe was surrealism’s natural theatre.

(C) Timing
The great ‘heroic’ years of Surrealism were from 1924 to 1930. The movement didn’t reach here ubtil 1936! This enabled highbrow critics to dub it ‘old hat’, for high society to patronise it as ‘amusing’. Even in France by this date there was much that was suspect – Minotaure had replaced La Revolution Surealiste etc., but here it started out as a sensation, a joke.

(D) No Breton
The paradox of the movement was that, devoted to total freedom, its long life can be put down to Breton’s imposition of his own view as to what Surrealism stood for at any given time. Aragon remarked slily that ‘Andre always gave the impression of being in a majority of one.’
Here in Britain the leader of the movement was my much loved, much missed friend, E. L. T. Mesens, a Belgian. Intelligent, an admirable poet and collagist, he just didn’t have the muscle to act as legislator. If he tried to institute a Surrealist commandment, those it would affect adversely just left. Jacques Brunius, a Frenchman of great charm, stood in, as it were, for breton’s Peret.
I attended many of the later meetings of the group. They were rowdy, good fun, even challenging, but they achieved nothing.

(E) Yes, Individualism
The British are bad at collective action. In some cases, it is just as well they are!
Edward Burra, for example, in my eyes the most genuine ‘Surreal’ painter we’ve had, left almost as soon as I’d joined. When I asked him why, he explained, ‘I didn’t like being told what to think, dearie!’

The war finished Surrealism in Britain. The nation turned in on itself; neo-romanticism became the measure of our insular preoccupations. You couldn’t give away Surrealist paintings until time tuned them into ‘investments’.
There was a revival of interest in the ‘mechanism’ of Surrealism in the 1960s, but none in its rigorous programme. A few people did try to keep it alive as a movement. In particular, grumpy but endearing John Lisle in Exeter achieved the authentic tone of breton in orchestrating quarrels and declaring excommunications. He was, however, as Mesens described him, ‘a general without an army’.
Mesens, by the way, had his own explanation of the movement’s failure in this country: ‘The English are always gentlemen first, Surrealists scond.’

George Melly

London Town

This poem was in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, 3 July, 1926.

London Town

I left with joy the crowd, the heat,
The gay profusion of the street;
This way and that, and to and fro,
I saw the stream of pleasure flow,
Pomp, folly, idleness and sin
So smooth without, so sick within.

A corner turned, and what is there?
A sight to raise a cynic sneer,
A pinched and ragged multitude
That haggles for its sickening food,
Hardship and poverty and care
Stark desolation everywhere.

Yet not a stone’s throw lies between
Yon glittering and this loathsome scene;
Squalor and squandering side by side
Our too unhappy world divide:
‘Tis here the worker hides his head,
Who finds those drones their very bread.

Then can you wonder at a choice
That fain would lend these woes a voice,
Woes which, if passed in silence by,
The very stones must rise and cry?
Better with misery here to dwell
Than yonder in a gilded hell.

C. W. Beckett

Skinhead Wankers

An upset punk writes to the NME, 18 February, 1978. The letters page was edited by Les Miserables of the Snivelling Shits.

I’m just writing to say I think Skins are the biggest wankers out. On the 28th of Jan ’78 I went up to the LSE to see Sham 69. When I arrived at Holborn tube station The Skins were hassling all the ol’ ladies and unsuspecting beings into corners and ‘phone boxes.
When (evenyually) everyone got in, everyone was fairly well behaved. Then downstairs, about 400 people broke down the doors and came charging up the stairs throwing bottles and cutting into people’s flesh with kitchen knives etc. – so eventually I left (without seeing the band).
I’d just like to say I think it’s a shame ‘cos Sham are a good band but I won’t go to see them again ‘cos I refuse to go through another charade with the Skins. I also heard a bunch of Skins saying if any of the Clash came to see Sham they’d give ’em a rough time ‘cos they thought “The Clash should have supported Sham, not the other way round” quoted an extremely large looking Skin, playing with a knife carelessly near my jugular vein.
I know you won’t print this letter ‘cos you never print anyone’s letter unless they mention the boring, beautiful, blonde Debbie Harry at least twice, but it really pisses me off when you can’t see a band ‘cos you’re not a Punk/Skin/Ted/Rasta.
London N10

We had the same trouble when they wouldn’t let in a guy ‘cos he had on a Beatle jacket. The management didn’t know we’d given up punk. Dunno why Jimmy Sham puts up with them skins, they should stick to Skrewdriver. – Les

More Heat Than Light

Colin MacInnes in Anarchy, number 59, January, 1966 reviews an anti-racist anthology. This issue of the magazine stated it focused on ‘the white problem’. He makes the excellent point that we all know what the far-right think, we should be watching what they do.

More heat than light
Colin MacInnes

Victims Of Our Fear edited by Tina Morris (Screeches Publications 2s. 6d.)

It gives such a warm glow to write against racialism that often your words have more heat than light. What’s nice about this anthology is that it’s muti-racial, international, and its authors young. What’s disappointing is its banality.
To begin with the quotes. Those from libertarian prophets of the past are too familiar; while of those from the present, even a fine speech like Nelson Mandela’s, is too well known. As for the racialist snippets, they’re too silly to be worth repeating. (We all know what Colin Jordan ‘thinks’: we should much more be watching what he does)
Of the essays, the longest, on Malcom X, comes from Arthur Moyse. This wraps up poor Malcom who becomes in it a sort of coloured jordan. Well, I agree with Arthur Moyse’s critique of Malcom’s ideas, yet how is it every coloured militant I know of speaks of him with respect? It wasn’t all destructive, was it? Incidentally, what Moyse calls “the hysterical prose” of James Baldwin, I see as passionate rhetoric. Are those three collections of essays, with their measured, painful analysis, really just hysteria? And by the way, the Negro intellectuals are far from being, as Moyse suppose, “spear-headed” by Baldwin’s prose (hysterical or otherwise), since many of them regard him as one who writes too exclusively for whites.
The poems are rather better – though usually, I fear, when emotional, wallowing in self-indulgence. When they’re satirical they’re sharper, as Mari Evans’ celebration of her being given, as a symbol of her being the New Negro, the “key to the White Locked JOHN”.
So I’m sorry to be disparaging, but this number, in general, seems impeccable in sentiment, but woefully lacking attack. having taken up a positive position on racialism, it is fine to shout in slogans, but even better to think and feel more deeply as to how it can be combated. Otherwise this anthology is like those hymns which are resounding in themselves, but are sung only by the faithful, play to empty churches, and win few human souls.

Colin MacInnes