THE LAST LIVING PUNK - in conversation with Penny Rimbaud

When people talk about learning from history - to stop history from repeating, we would do well to remember that none of this is new. Penny 'Lapsang' Rimbaud, poet, activist, musician, artist and founding member of CRASS - Britain's most important Punk band - hasn't led by example, but lived by example. A life's work dedicated to creating the conditions of being in opposition, without being oppositional. A quiet [and not so quiet] riot, demolishing pillars of doctrine and the systems of oppression they inspire - and all with a mindful care and consideration to not create new ones in their place.

Making space, not only to raise his own voice within, but maintaining and facilitating an environment for others to do the same. The door of Dial House on the edge of Epping Forest is open to anyone with a story to share... well, as much as possible anyway.

Many have come before us, and many will come after. We have much to learn from each other in collective DIY solidarity. Tear up each new manifesto with every new cycle. Repeat.

This piece from the Vicious Archive has been transcribed from a recorded conversation back in 2014, between VC's Conrad Armstrong and Penny Rimbaud - above The Macbeth of Hoxton Street, one night before Penny was due to perform downstairs with Louise Elliott on an evening of poetry, performance and music.

The unabridged conversation has been transcribed as authentically as possible.

image by Conrad Armstrong

Conrad: I’m with Penny Rimbaud. He’s a philosopher, poet, activist, musician, performance artist and we’re going to have a loose conversation around three subjects: anarchism, communal living and the importance of live performance.

I thought it would be interesting to start with anarchism as it’s been an important subject to you, an perhaps is at the core of a lot of the things that you do, or maybe it isn’t?

Penny: No, it isn’t. In the sense that particularly anarchism is now seen as a sort of doctrine and I don’t need to follow any doctrine. I arrived at being defined as anarchist because in the early days of Crass, who were a punk band in the late 70s, we got a lot of pressure from the left and the right to sort of ‘buy in’ – and we weren’t having that… We were simply free thinkers.

I mean, you know, I knew the term anarchism, related to it in some way, but, you know, certainly as a political theory I wasn’t interested. I’m not interested in political theories.

So really a way of showing that we weren’t interested in either the left or the right, or buying into any of their ideologies - we effectively did a big A with a circle around it and stuck it up when we did gigs. Which, you know, was a piss off.

“We’re not interested in any form of propaganda.”

And that identified us with anarchy. Then in that era, from the late 70s to umm… 84’ when the band disbanded, we slowly became leaders, and certainly not by choice, of the new anarchy - which was very different to the more academic approach, or the barroom approach. You know, there were two forms, the very learned anarchists who really knew the Bakunin and stuff, and then there was the barroom approach.

Conrad: Do you feel it was put upon you as a kind of title?

Penny: No… I mean, we put it upon ourselves by sticking up a flag, and you know, saying piss off. So, I can’t blame anyone else. But yes, increasingly we were identified with that. And then there was a sort of wing of the punk… ‘THING’ – which became known as the anarcho-punk movement.

Conrad: Well people like being part of a tribe?

Penny: Yeah, well I didn’t like that. I mean, I saw that as a sort of almost traditional method of the media, of separating out groups. And it allowed them to put us outside of… well, we were having a big effect on the mainstream. But we were never actually allowed, or you know, never given any authorisation or support in that. It was a way of pushing us out, as it was very uncomfortable to the system, to the media, to the authorities, by making it just like

“oh, they’re just out there in a sort of ghetto.”

So, they ghettoised us effectively.

Conrad: So, by giving you the title of the anarchist-thing [Penny sniffs] they closed you off to other people? Instead of just saying – “listen to these guys and listen to what they have to say.”

Penny: Yeah yeah yeah, Yes exactly.

Conrad: Because a lot of people have a lot of preconceptions about what anarchists are and all that kind of thing. Because, you know, I used to live in a kind of squat in Dalston, which was my first experience of living with so called anarchists, but they were more interested in shoving ketamine into their faces and listening to dubstep…

Penny: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Conrad: And they talked a lot - but, I didn’t really get the whole sort of thing with them?

Penny: Well yeah. When you said the whole thing about anarchism at the beginning, I mean I don’t… [exhales] Obviously there is a large amount of my lifestyle that could be defined as anarchistic, but I’ve got far greater roots in existentialism for example, or in Buddhism – or certainly the Zen-wing of Buddhism - that’s my background, more than any sort of political… and I mean I’ve never actually been interested in anarchism.

Conrad: It’s the freedom. The freedom of thought.

Penny: Yes, totally.

Conrad: We’re not going to just stick on anarchism, this is going to move on now, [Penny sounds hopeful] but the time with anarchism that I’ve felt that I really understood it, or felt any connection to it was when I read Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta…

Penny: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah [chuckling] - well I’ve seen the film.

Conrad: Ah right, he completely disowned the film.

Penny: Yeah, yeah, I can imagine.

Conrad: Because it was a completely American, Hollywood version of his thing. He hasn’t had a lot of luck with his forays into the film world. Anyway, the general theme that I got from it, was the idea of destruction for rebirth, that is what he kind of proposed for the dystopian society. But then, as an artist, I see that as a very important process – to destroy to then start again.

Penny: I agree. I think I’ve always been a kind of deconstruction… -IST. I’ve always been interested in questioning any form of Holy Cow, any form of fixed idea, doctrine. Be that social – which is more easy - because you can get your fingers into it, get your fingers into the pie, while obviously questioning one’s own doctrines, one’s own ethos, one’s own being is a very different matter. And that has brought me now, you know, in my later years in life – back – to the Zen I was first introduced to in my early teens. You know, I now meditate because that’s a very good way of challenging one’s own conceits – revaluating. And that is all part of the same – deconstructing. You know, I’m trying to deconstruct any form of, if you like - conditioned belief. Be that in the idea of the emotions? Or be that in the idea of social interactions, all sorts of things… you know, I probably don’t have that much more of my life to live, and you know, I’m really trying to go for the nitty-gritty now.

You know, I’ve sort of dealt with the external things now, I’ve found a way of living, I’ve promoted my way of living - by being in it – for 50 years of my life. Over 50 years of my life has been living in an open-house community. It operates on an open-door system whereby there are no locks.

Conrad: Could you tell me more about the commune that you set up?

Penny: Well basically I was an art lecturer at an art school and then became very disillusioned – not with my interactions with the students, which was great, but with the whole political [slightly snarled] THING - that goes on in the staff-rooms and you know, the bureaucracy was tiresome and contra-creative… [sighs] and so I started fucking up by questioning everything, you know the students were fantastic, it became quite a sort of Dada-approach to myself, my teaching and the art school – and that obviously immediately led to problems with other members of staff. So, I wasn’t actually sacked – because they couldn’t sack people in those days, on the sort of contract I was on. What happened was you were just given so few students at such strange times, that actually it became not worth doing. So, I was sort of squeezed out. I wanted to go anyway but didn’t know where I wanted to go – so, that’s why I was hanging on. So, anyway, actually it was very fortuitous, I suddenly ended up without a job and not knowing where to go. I was already living in this place called Dial House, which was an old farm-labourers cottage in the Essex countryside on the edge of Epping forest.

I had a studio there – my painting studio. Two others of the lecturers from the art school lived there. And I saw this film, I think it was called the Inn of the sixth or the seventh – I can never remember if it was the sixth or the seventh happiness [The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1959)], anyway, there’s the whole story, but part of it was that there was this Inn, and the way that people paid for the night was by telling a story. And I thought that was such a lovely idea, that I wanted to do that with the house. So, I presented it to the other two guys and they weren’t in the least bit interested – so they left – you know, on amicable grounds, and I was then left on my own with this idea. And I didn’t know how to implement it, I just had the idea.

So, I took the locks off the door because I thought, well, people can’t get in if I’m not here. And, you know, I was able to define it better as I grew more experienced at it. I now see… I define it by its - open door, open heart. That’s the principle, there is no other principle. It’s open door, open heart, and sometimes it’s hard to keep to…

And then I just allowed it to happen and people just started turning up, out of the blue, the first person who lived there was… well, to make enough money to buy my food and stuff I was working on the farm in the summer and then as a coalman in the winter. And those were jobs that I felt, you know, were real. You know, there wasn’t politics, it was hard-labour, I felt very clean and good with it. And I didn’t have to do it all the time, I’d do it for three months and then not for three months etcetera etcetera. And people just started… you know, I was picking potatoes once in the field and this young lad came up and said

“are you, (in those days I was called Jerry) are you Jerry”?

And I said “yeah”

and he said “have you got somewhere to live?”

and I said “well how’d you know about that?”

and he said “oh, well someone in the village told me”

and I hadn’t said anything, actually - really, to anyone.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: And that is how it started. And He came in, then his girlfriend moved in and then other people turned up, you know, then people I knew maybe came by and it sort of, it was very organic.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: and very lovely, and that, you know, as it happened, I was developing ideas and you know, making it work. Initially making it work turned into me having to work very very hard as a coalman, whilst there was about 6 people living in the place and not doing anything. And so, learning how to balance that and etcetera etcetera.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: And that’s how it’s remained, it operates on that principle [open door, open heart].

Umm it isn’t a commune in the sense that, umm you know, I think that a commune requires some kind of overall ideology, or principle, and you know I had not wanted to operate on any principle.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: I mean, there have been things, like it is a vegetarian household. Umm… and that’s strict. Err for a long time it was a drug-free zone, and still is effectively, but it was a drug-free zone in the days when having drugs in the house meant it would have lasted for a week.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: It’s much freer now, I’m not too bothered if people want to smoke for example. I don’t like it because, to my mind, it’s an exclusive activity. So, if someone from the village turns up, then they’re going to feel in some way…

Conrad & Penny: Excluded.

Penny: Excluded by that presence, because it’s not part of their culture, so I discourage it. It’s never been on moral grounds, what people do is their business, I personally, you know - don’t do drugs. Had done on short periods of my life.

Conrad: Do you have studio spaces there? Or, you know, are people kind of creating there together?

Penny: We have all sorts. I mean at the moment there is four people living there, each person has the space they require, I mean, at the moment we have a music studio there and a guy who runs it lives there. We have, the other most long-term resident, who at the time was my partner, a woman called Gee Vaucher, who is the woman who did all the artwork for Crass. She lives there still; she’s got studio space. And we’ve got a filmmaker and graphic designer living there, he’s got his own space, so, people are given the space they need. Umm and…

Conrad: Did Crass form there?

Penny: Yeah. Yeah yeah, yeah.

Conrad: So, did you know the guys before? Did they all come …

Penny: No no, well some of them I knew before.

Conrad: You kind of sparked there?

Penny: Well, Crass was just the same. I mean, actually it was at a time when the house became empty because I’d been investigating the death of a friend, and becoming very depressed about it, and very dark about it, and people had just sort of been disappearing because the atmosphere wasn’t very good. Understandably.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: But it was heavy you know. It was heavy, I mean we organised the Stonehenge Festival, the first Stonehenge Festival from Dial House. It wasn’t their idea, it was one of our visitors, a guy named Wally Hope, and anyway, he was I believe ‘put out’ by the state. And so, I investigated that etcetera etcetera and so… [a long pause] that gave me an impetus. I wrote a book about all that, I became very disillusioned with just writing what would probably have been quite a successful book about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll basically.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: And I thought no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to feed the system on the death of a friend. So, I burnt the book, but I was still angry. You know, I wrote the book because I was still angry about the death of a friend. And out of that anger came Crass. And you know, everyone had left, and then this young kid turned up who was the brother of one of the earlier residents, who I knew vaguely, I mean he was what, ten fifteen years younger than me. I was in my thirties by then and he was still in his teens. And he was pissed off. You know, he was just a pissed off working class kid, and we just really hit it off together.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: And that’s where Crass came from. It was just the two of us arsing about.

Conrad: Do you feel like a lot of the themes from that book [Penny sniffs] emerged within the band?

Penny: Oh yeah definitely, yeah.

Conrad: Going back to the idea we started with of destruction for [rebirth]…

Penny: Definitely, I mean up until Wally [Hope] came along – I’d moved to Dial House. I’d worked as an artist there, I’d worked as a lecturer from there, then I’d abandoned that, and then I was allowing things to happen, but it was always actually an opening up. I mean, it was the experience with Wally that made me think, no, you can’t just dropout, you can’t just live on the outside and smugly think you’ve got it sorted.

Conrad: Yeah.

Penny: So, it’s politicised me, in a way, you know, with a small p… I realised that I had to take other action, and you know, looking back on it now, I’d say maybe I made some wrong decisions – and I maybe should have gone into myself more deeply, rather than going out – on the attack. But it was obviously the right time socially, which was reflected in the huge social effect that Crass had. Umm, but I’m not proud of the fact - now - that it was driven by anger. I mean, I’m not denigrating what we did, I just… [sniffs]

Conrad: Well, Vivienne Westwood recently said that, (because my mate was modelling for her), and he said that at her… she gave a speech, which basically said to everyone that punk wasn’t about hate and all that shit, it was about love, at the end of the day.

Penny: Yeah yeah, that’s absolutely right.

Conrad: And that’s what people have forgotten with all the Destroy t-shirts.

Penny: No, totally, of course it was. And interestingly I think it might be the piece I do tonight, is a rewrite of the… Crass’s sort of, well it wasn’t a terribly successful album - it was called Yes Sir, I will, and it was completely played in the manner free-jazz is played, purely improvisational, but it was a very long script, it was about a 45 minute RANT [Conrad laughs] about everything, and it was the most sort of vicious, angry, it was after the Falkland’s War, well, during the Falkland’s War that I wrote it. And it has been sort of been heralded as being probably one of the most violent, daa-dee-daa-dee records ever made. And we came under threat of prosecution as usual for it - etcetera etcetera…

And earlier this year I was asked to do the Rebellion Festival, which is a big ‘Punk-Retro-Festival’, which I am not in the least bit interested, I’m not interested in buying into any sort of ‘retro’ form, but because it was the anniversary of the First World War, because the date was pretty much the date that war was declared, I said well look, I’ll so Yes Sir, I will. I’ll take that piece back. But when I looked at it, I thought, no, I can’t do this. It doesn’t honour the principles of how I am now. Then I thought okay, I can’t do it, so what can I do? Well I thought I’d rewrite it, but I thought I’d rewrite it from a you know - Zen perspective.

Conrad: Yeah.