I just celebrated my birthday. I was born back in 1976, a year that, arguably, also birthed the movement of punk. In this entry, I’ll look at what it means to be punk – and it may surprise you, even possibly inspire you.
When I mention “punk,” it may instantly conjure images of mohawk hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, and Doc Marten’s boots. And yet I’m going to explain how, even though that’s all well and good, punk itself is about much more than those things, nor does it even have to include them.
For many years since I was born, particularly during a period of intense bullying, I have been subjected to all kinds of insults – the gentler ones I can repeat here including “asshole,” “tosser,” “fatty,” “nerd,” “geek,” “freak,” “psycho,” and, by North American partners’ ex-husbands, “little English prince,” “duke,” and, yes, “punk.” As you’ll have guessed, I co-opted “duke” long ago, but I’d never ever thought of embracing the “punk” tag until recently.
I have an older brother and sister, both of whom remember punk’s rise because they were approaching their teenage years at the time of its explosion; my brother, and my sister’s best friend, both embraced the punk culture at the time and have still done so since – even if their appearances have changed, they’ve still attended punk concerts to this day and remained staunch supporters of everything it’s all about.
So what is it all about? Well, the thing is, punk isn’t about the stereotypes of punters at punk rock music gigs. It isn’t even just about the music. When we talk about punk, we’re really talking about an ethos.
Writer Jon Savage has explained punk as a “bricolage” of many post-war youth cultures in the Western world ‘stuck together with safety pins’ – but a key influence was the Situationist International, the group predominantly comprised of Marxist, anti-authoritarian, avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the 1960s. As I wrote about in my book Pissing in the Mainstream, while Sixties hippies let their long hair down and wore soft flowing threads while preaching “free love,” punk responded to what was often seen as the failure of Sixties “flower power” to change the system by shaving their hair off or putting it upwards in mohawks, sporting hard-edged clothes complete with safety pins, studs, or spikes, and flipping gender stereotypes and norms completely – punk women cut off their hair and stomped around in boots and pants, while punk men sported eyeliner and wore kilts or even skirts.
While the Sex Pistols image was guided by their Situationist-influenced manager Malcolm McLaren, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and visual artist Jamie Reid and, stateside, The Factory (Andy Warhol’s art studio) spawned many punk artists, it’s important to recognise that the punk scene in general has always been very organic, with an emphasis on a more working class, grassroots, do-it-yourself approach, bands publishing their own music, retaining control over their own work, rejecting major record labels, and railing against larger institutions and those who “sold out” by working with them.
This has transcended beyond just music, to include the art and fashion industries, as well as print: zines have been a prime example of the punk ethic, made independently by ordinary people and distributed almost like political pamphlets to undercut the elite narratives and provide an undercurrent of information at a grassroots level. The punk approach can be applied to almost anything.
I’ve known many people – family and friends included – who I had assumed were punk due to their appearance or taste in music, and over time realised I was making the same ignorant judgements as many other people…and that, in fact, I was probably the biggest punk I knew.
One fine day in 1988 my mother met me at school and, as we were walking home, sensing my fatigue at the incessant bullying I’d been subjected to yet again, asked me a question: ‘What if I told you,’ she began, like Morpheus offering a choice in The Matrix movie years later, ‘you never had to go to school ever again?’
Yes, thirty years ago, the least punk-looking person in the world, my mother, became my first true punk role model by defying the education authorities and, despite being threatened with legal action, pulling me out of school to teach me at home.
This process of “teaching” generally consisted of my mother literally letting me spend most of my days learning whatever I wanted to learn, as long as I could hit a few milestones set by curriculum books along the way. While my dad was working hard operating a fork-lift truck to shift pallets at the glass factory, we went for walks to take notes on nature, we visited libraries and museums, we drew and painted together; learning was almost disguised as unstructured fun – organic and enjoyable. My brain was like a sponge as a result. This “holistic” approach has been partly embraced by the Finnish school system itself (and as a result has some of the most successful education results in the world). But most countries around the world still stick to the same old ways of doing things.
In retrospect – likely largely as a result of my home schooling – the punk ethic has influenced my entire life.
I joined and subsequently quit numerous college courses. I dropped out of my media degree with just a few months left and flew off to the United States – an absolutely disastrous adventure, I came back to Britain and took a welfare-to-work role at an arts centre, that in turn led to a job in the youth service’s multimedia department; when that was shut down, I raised funds to continue its work outside of the auspices of the council and got my old university drop-out buddies to help me make a movie with forty local young people about life in their neighbourhoods.
I then wrote, directed and produced my first independent documentary, Get Over It, to a jam-packed Showroom cinema audience who gave it a rousing ovation while I was so shy that I sat in the bar the entire time talking to one of my fellow drop-outs even while people whose lives had been affected by the film’s subject matter were waiting outside the screen hoping to talk to me, seeming like I had my head stuck up my backside when the reality was I was simply so painfully awkward with the attention, and never satisfied with my own work – because after all it wasn’t “professional”; it was made on a shoe-string budget and I wasn’t a qualified, experienced, or professional filmmaker. I’d soon realise (and accept) that really didn’t matter.
I made another film, Escape from Doncatraz, this time embracing the “B-movie” vibe and turning this critique of Blairite surveillance state, border controls, and fear of invading aliens into a sort of sci-fi style, post-modern documentary, premiering at the post-modern Kitchener City Hall in Ontario, Canada, where I had moved over to and, complete with Anglo-Canadian accent, actually hosted the event. I was still uncomfortable with the attention, despite (or because of) the standing ovation the film received.
I’d gambled everything I ever had on my venture over there and, much like my move to the States a few years before, it proved disastrous, except this time I had much more to lose. Basically, I lost everything, including my independent film company back in Britain that was seized by my colleagues in my absence, and every penny I had. I ended up out on my arse before managing to go and live with family on a Spanish island for several months. So, I self-published a book, Soon To Be Banned, which was simply essentially a collection of all my blog posts ever, most of which criticised the powers that be. To my amazement, it actually sold a fair few copies, so I started working on an entirely original book about (funnily enough) how we have to change the mainstream culture rather than just rail against it – titled Pissing in the Mainstream, and bringing in friends to help put it together, fact-check, and design the cover, it did nowhere near as well, sadly: one of the very few copies ever printed and sold was bought by yours truly, and it’s on my bookshelf! Gah.
I again came back to Britain, returning to a country by now subjected to “austerity” and thus leaving even fewer scraps of grant funding for me to grab to make another film. So, with my partner Jane Watkinson, I utilised crowd-funding to make Return to Doncatraz, which provided an exposé of austerity itself as an excuse for powerful people to sell off public services to the private interests that financed them. Despite several people encouraging me to host another screening, I simply premiered it online mere days before the general election, and rather than a few hundred people, it reached a couple of thousand.
By this time Jane was integral in supporting me to start up a brand-new digital media company, and we then worked together to also create the only socially progressive, independent women’s football club we knew of, AFC Unity, and actually legally incorporated it as a not-for-profit company. As Jay & Jane, we are absolutely flat broke but trying to do something radically different with our lives, work with social impact over monetary rewards (and are drowning in debt as a result…crap).
But also, many of my hobbies and interests reflect this punk approach: vegan cafés, free open source software, independent comic books and films and pro wrestling, and my own fan fiction (which has been the subject of much ridicule from former friends, as well); I’ve often been drawn to things that are in many ways alternative.
I’ve known so many people over the years with more tattoos than me, who knew more punk bands than I ever could, but who still went back to their 9-to-5 jobs Monday to Friday.
And so it turns out, whether I wanted to be or not, I’m pure punk. And now pretty proud of it.