As follows is a reprint of a piece I wrote for the Vancouver Sun a number of years ago. It only came to mind because I recently read that the Sex Pistols were embarking on a world tour. Sex Pistols minus the late and utterly unlamented Sid Vicious, I might add. And, think what you may about them, a tour by the Sex Pistols is much more pleasing to me than a tour by the overfed, overpraised and hubristic Sting (what kind of a name is that for a grown man) and the outdated Police. At least, that's what I think.
To grow tired of London is to grow tired of life, or Dr. Johnson’s words to that effect, indicating all that was happening of worth in the 18th Century was indeed happening in Britain’s capital. Probably it was.
What was true then, may or may not be true today, because one ‘can’ grow weary of London very quickly. It is too big, too crowded, too congested, too noisy, too unfeeling, and too obsessed with the belief that it just may be too stuck on itself. At the same time, as one might grow fatigued with all that is there, one can never be uninterested.
As is the case with New York City’s residents, Londoners frankly don’t give a damn what any outsider (or even resident) might think or feel. They do what they do; whether Chelsea toff or Whitechapel villain, and they know that life is harsh and fundamental, so don’t bother interfering.
However, one aspect of la vie de Londres
that has always prevailed is existential trendsetting nature. Existential in that, to the Londoner, it exists for itself, with no heed about what the outside world might think or not think. ‘Swinging London’ of the post-Beatles 1960s set trends all over the world, in music, fashion, literature, film and much more. Knickers-flashing, Mary Quant-skirted dollybirds offered a certain flair that the rest of the world aped, but never got quite right.
A similar phenomenon transpired about a decade later with the rise of ‘punk’. While punk extended beyond the confines of London, London remained the spiritual home of the movement in music, style and attitude. And it remained the home for jolly good reason. That reason being, there was little need for it elsewhere.
I lived in England at the peak of the punk phenomenon and, quite frankly, as a colonial boy, I was fascinated. Furthermore, I was interested enough, in those slightly cynical days of Thatcheresque Britain, that I wanted to see the punks and punkettes in their natural setting.
My motivation was somewhat sociological. Punkism, as a collective categorization of anarchistic defiance by disenfranchised and disenchanted nowhere boys and girls, had fascinated me for some time back then in 1981, by the very overtness of its nature.
Before my expedition to England, my exposure to punk had been minimal, and indeed I believed the movement to already have become passé – that it had left the scene with the demise of Sid Vicious (who “died for our sins,” according to a graffito I saw etched on the wall of a derelict factory near Dagenham, in the East End.)
Quite frankly, on the west coast of North America punk was never really a factor. While it had a big impact on the New York scene, with the Dolls, Blondie (bless Deborah Harry, I still have erotic dreams about her) and the Ramones, among others, it didn’t translate easily to, say LA, and the other La-La Land wannabe places up and down the coast, like my own (not so) laid-back and resolutely stuck-on-itself Vancouver. Punk was ghettoes and anger, not Starbuck’s and smoked salmon.
One time my wife and I were staying with a friend in North London -- we were down for a few days from our temporary home in Great Yarmouth (where punk was not much of a factor, either) – and one of my motivations was to see punks in their glory. I had made earlier tries, including a vain attempt to secure tickets to a Siouxie and the Banshees performance that ultimately ended up being cancelled due to Miss Sioux’s perceived antagonism towards the draconian censorship rules of the day.
I had also walked through Piccadilly and had spied plenty of spikes adorning the pates of the chronic glue-sniffers in that London focal point. But, I wanted to walk among them on their home turf.
So, I got in conversation with my friend. I always enjoyed conversing with her, as charmingly neurotic as she was, because she was a true free-spirit who had once been married to a very well-known movie star (who shall remain nameless), so I loved her gossip. Anyway, I asked her where might be the best place to see the punks in full flower in their natural habitat.
She said Piccadilly was indeed the most popular spot, but so many remnants of the 20th century dream were inclined to gather there that the place was neither savory nor entirely safe. Furthermore, a lot of the Piccadilly punks were poseurs
– there to encourage the tourists to take their photos, and then to seek payment for the photos on threats of bodily mayhem if the pounds and pence weren’t forthcoming.
So, she recommended the street markets; at such places, she said, the punks were out for show, and there was also less chance of the unwary tourist being mugged.
Camden Market, complete with the ghost of Bob Cratchit and winos in the doorways of the shabby and filth-littered high street – only a stone’s throw yet a million miles from the Bentleys of Hampstead – was the venue of choice.
The market punks were all that she had promised they would be. The cliché of ‘Fellini-esque’ was unavoidable as garish face after garish face crossed one’s line of vision, in painted, pierced and piercing waves, as one wove amongst stalls cluttered with overpriced leatherwork and exotic ‘eastern’ jewelry that had likely been turned out on the domestic assembly line of a bed-sitter in Hackney.
Dress was ill-defined, as was gender, unless one made an uncomfortably close perusal of the crotches of the bondage-leather pants that ran a close second to the paramilitary school of trouser modishness. With the baggy camouflaged fatigues, it was excruciatingly difficult to tell boy from girl.
Most striking was the hair; multi-hued, shaved, ducktailed, mohawked or teased into a tressfallen Deborah Harry look-alike – at least in the days of ‘The Tide is High’ – and none of it truly inviting to the eye. But the disagreeableness was, of course, part of the intention in punker fashion.
Punk was protest, and the hair and garb were part of that protest. But, it was in the faces wherein ‘anarchy rules’ (as the popular slogan went). The contradictory punker credo had to be reflected in a deformed, violent and defiant visage that attempted to both fascinate and frighten – much as does a clown’s face, if we honestly grant him his purpose.
Consequently, paint, though part of the package, was secondary to laceration (the mark of the borderline personality disorder, by the way), which was permanent and seemed to indicate a greater devotion to the cause. The entire point of mutilated noses, ears, cheeks and even breasts lay in its pointlessness. Oglers would regard with horror an ear pierced in a dozen or more places (now as commonplace a fashion statement as thong undies, even among respectable kids), and the punks were pleased with the response. It had worked! Small children, equally socially impotent, gain the same perverse satisfaction over a parent’s horror over a gashed knee.
At the time we were there, the press reported an incident in which a punk was charged with assorted counts of vandalism and general mayhem. He appeared in court in a swastika-emblazoned leather jacket, and it was reported that each ear was pierced in 25 places.
“Why do you dress like that?” asked the nonplused, yet bewigged and robed judge.
“Because my aim in life is to shock people,” the punk replied. “I shocked you, didn’t I? Anyway, why do you dress like you do?”
It was not reported whether or not the judge was shocked, but the eloquence of the punk summed up the philosophy of one who might not be able to spell anarchy, but understood it well enough to melt the heart of Groucho.
Labels: punks and punkettes and Siouxie and the Banshees