Books: Talking about degeneration

Shibboleth: my revolting life by Penny Rimbaud A K Press, pounds 6.95, 344pp; The Last of the Hippies by C J Stone Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99, 240pp

George McKay
Saturday 15 May 1999 00:02

Only a true anarchist dedicates a first book, an autobiography, "to myself, with thanks for hanging around". Penny Rimbaud was the drummer and leader of the 1980s anarcho-punk band and collective Crass, a group that grabbed the early antagonism of punk and transformed its "explosion of negatives" (Jon Savage's phrase) into one of self-righteous anger. Theirs was an extraordinary, if sometimes unlistenable, contribution to political pop music, influencing today's bands like the Levellers or Chumbawumba (minus the Top of the Pops appearances, even though Crass did sell around two million records).

The most interesting parts of Shibboleth trace the origins of Crass through the experiences of Rimbaud - originally a 1950s public school boy, Jeremy Ratter. His life is a decade-by-decade catalogue of contumacy. Expelled from public school, he hung around the coffee bars of London listening to rock 'n' roll and playing in his first band, Les Bohemes. A few years later, he threw open his large (rented) farmhouse outside London as a commune, and formed an art happenings group, Exit, that toured the country and played at the Roundhouse. (I would have liked Rimbaud to write more about the influence of 1960s happenings on Crass).

The early 1970s saw Rimbaud's involvement in the organisation of the Stonehenge Free Festival, the summer solstice event that helped create the New Traveller lifestyle and that led to the ludicrous annual exclusion zone around the stones by the police. Why worry about the damage a few hippies can do to the ancient stones when English Heritage is there to protect them with its crummy coach parks and concrete tunnels for tourists?

A few years later, it was Crass's good fortune to exist during a time of social upheaval (or to be created by it), through the period that included Thatcherism, the revival of CND, the Falklands War, and the Miners' Strike. Everything in Rimbaud's life until then seems to have been preparation for his band's particular "aesthetic of anger".

C J Stone's The Last of the Hippies is a less politically serious book than Rimbaud's, but a funny, sometimes astute, one too. When the young hippie Jude is asked by her father why she takes acid, she replies: "Dad, you had the War. We have LSD". Pinpointing the class privilege of much of the counterculture (including, of course, that uncompromising anarchist Rimbaud), Stone notes that: "Public school blazers were quite the thing with hippies, a fashion statement that probably goes a long way towards revealing the social origins of most of them."

In a converted ambulance, Stone traverses a refreshingly uncool landscape (Birmingham, Hull) digging out friends from a quarter of a century ago. They are his counter- cultural characters, but now they are living in council houses surrounded by pictures of crop circles. Or else they went straight and became antique dealers, or had mental breakdowns (there are quite a lot of these). By Stone's reckoning, the Children of Albion have not achieved that much; even less so when measured in the context of the characteristic arrogance of the New Agers in the 1960s and 1970s.

The lad insane, David Bowie, who in 1969 sang the praise-song "Memory of a Free Festival" but whose fascist flirtations a decade later led to the founding of Rock Against Racism, appears in both of these books. He gives Crass their name, from the lyric to "Ziggy Stardust" ("The kids was just crass"), and he inspires one of Stone's mates, the wannabe rock star and presumed later acid victim "Piss-Off Pete", with his own glam- rock act. Stone writes this message directly to Pete: "But whereas Bowie's character was a tragic hero, yours was a tacky parody."

This is unkind. Pete is unemployed in the early 1970s, living in a flat in Cardiff, having a crisis about his sexual identity. Of course his little local embodiment of Bowie is parodic, parochial - what else could it possibly be? Hitting teenage years in Norfolk at that time, my own eyes were always drawn to the bigger boys with Pin-Ups feathercuts and Aladdin Sane red hair. Every village had a local Bowie, usually hanging round the red phone box (just like Ziggy on the album cover). Nobody minded that he wasn't the real one.

In the end - perhaps because, as Stone writes, he was "too young to be a hippie, too old to be a punk" - The Last of the Hippies veers between nostalgic, stoned reminiscence and a sneering, and wearing, dismissal. Stone recognises the ambivalence of his position, and dedicates a chapter to his old, rediscovered friends' highly critical responses to reading his work in progress. "You've used the word `hippie' like a dustbin, to chuck in everything you don't like," says one. Or "You'll lose all of your friends if you carry on writing about them like this".

In fact, the book is doing something strange to me. It is making me want to defend hippies - me, an ex-punk who took years of persuading that Stonehenge Free Festival wasn't just a bunch of stoned no- hopers sitting in a field listening to Hawkwind and (stop me if this is getting embarrassing) The Enid!

The ex-beat, ex-hippie, ex-punk Penny Rimbaud is more supportive, more generous, in his estimation of that generation's achievements than C J Stone. Rimbaud himself produced a booklet called, like Stone's book, The Last of the Hippies. Writing 20 years ago, at the height of punk's anti- hippie sentiment, Rimbaud argued forcefully in it that "Critics of the `hippy generation' would do well to remember that the majority of alternative bookshops, printing presses, food shops, cafes, gig venues, etc, are still run, for the benefit of us all, by those same hippies, old maybe... but not boring."

George McKay wrote `Senseless Acts of Beauty' and edited `DIY Culture' (both Verso) and is currently working on a cultural history of the Glastonbury Festival

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