Books: Incoherent, angry, incompetent and Crass

Shibboleth: My Revolting Life by Penny Rimbaud aka J J Ratter AK Press pounds 6.95
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The Independent Culture
Founder and reluctant guru of the early 1980s anarchist activists and two-million-selling punk group Crass, Rimbaud was an outsider from the start. His earliest memories are of being screened by a tablecloth and the arms of his mother from the threat of Nazi bombs. He was unnamed till the war's end, awaiting the return of his father to confirm his mother's choice.

These are amongst the more lucid episodes in an autobiography which isn't subject to the usual strictures of linearity, logic or taste. Instead it reads like anguished jottings, the march of time interrupted by social commentary and violent fiction, manifestos and confessions, set down according to the writer's shifting state of mind.

Rimbaud's first programme of resistance was directed against his middle- class background. He found comfort in the first rebellions of the 1950s: rock 'n' roll, the peace movement, and the Angry Young Men. In the 1960s, he retreated to an Essex cottage, which soon became a thriving commune. Having passed from Angry Young Man to Hippie, Rimbaud needed punk to pull him beyond his private revolts.

The members of the commune became Crass. The London gig which made their name was incoherent, incompetent, but Rimbaud's pent-up rage sparked a riot of reciprocal disaffection in the crowd. Crass, and Rimbaud, had staggered into the public domain.

The early 1980s was a time, you suddenly recall, when men and women sobbed themselves to sleep at the thought of nuclear apocalypse. It was also a time whose margins Crass warped out of all proportion to the beer- boy thrash of their music. From the circled-A anarchy sign to the revival of CND, Class War to Stop the City, Crass had a hand in half the symbols and social movements you could catch from the corner of your eye, sprayed or stickered on walls and jackets.

But this is only half of Rimbaud's story. He admits his obsession with social problems hid "deeper and more personal ones". What he really wants to write about is the death that haunts his life. Wally Hope, once Phil Russell, was a colourful member of the commune in its carefree, pre-punk days. Hope set out for the second of the Stonehenge Free Festivals that he'd helped found in 1975, and returned a sunken-eyed near-vegetable. Rimbaud pieces together convincing evidence that his friend's arrest and incarceration in an asylum where he was chemically half-lobotomised, and subsequent death, was State murder.

Crass expired in 1989, wound up by the combined stress of State interest in their activities - a climate of fear which Hope's murky end established beyond paranoia - and the strain of sublimating themselves to communal living. Shibboleth's final passage sees Rimbaud revert to his insular beginnings, pondering personal revolt, claiming communal action abrogates the anarchist's individual freedom.

Shibboleth is a book that's often hard to take seriously. Rimbaud doesn't have the knack of couching his message in a way which might win him converts; he's capable only of the head-banging fervour which gave Crass so many fans, and made many more cringe. But in the face of Wally Hope's haunting death, and the cynical State power that has hardly changed, yet attracts few opponents of Crass's simple vigour now, his efforts become sympathetic.

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