How I went from Boy Scout to punk (to museum piece)
Forty years after it exploded on to the scene, punk is being celebrated for the way it improved society. About time, says former safetypin fanatic Patrick Sawer (right)
Punk London: 40 Years of Subversive Culture, Daily Mirror The Young Ones.
AScout camp in the Channel Islands may seem an unlikely setting for a Damascene conversion, but that’s where I had mine. One minute I was a wogglewearing 12-year-old, collecting knot-tying and map-reading badges, the next I had a chain around my neck and was trying to look mean and moody in a pair of home-made bondage trousers. Four decades on from when punk rock first set the landscape of British pop ablaze, the movement is being celebrated with a series of exhibitions, film festivals and seminars across London. Old punks can relive its music, design and clothes at the British Library, watch films by in-house directors Derek Jarman and Don Letts at the British Film Institute and reminisce wistfully over its personalities and participants at the Photographers’ Gallery. Along with hundreds of former angry young teens of my generation, I’ve reached the age where one of my most formative experiences has been turned into a cultural artefact. The “rip it up”, “do it yourself ” spirit of punk has become a museum piece. That would have been unimaginable to the small group of Scouts from the 2nd Oxford pack who, in the Silver Jubilee summer of 1977, pored over the at their Guernsey camp. Emblazoned across the front page was a Teddy boy brandishing two bricks, alongside an intoxicating account of fighting on London’s King’s Road between gangs of Teds and the latest teenage tribe to emerge from the creative maelstrom of the British music scene – punk rockers. Malachy Smith, the bravest – and most reckless – among us, promptly marched into the nearest pet shop and, watched sheepishly by the rest, bought a dog collar. When the puzzled owner asked what type of dog it was for, he pulled open the collar of his Scout shirt, mustered his best sneer and declared: “It’s for me.” On returning home to Oxford I resolved to leave the Scouts, with their obligation to salute the Union flag and pledge loyalty to the Queen, and become a “punk”. Ever since my family had moved back to the UK from Italy in 1972, my Italian mother had encouraged me to join sports teams, youth clubs and, eventually the Scouts, so that I could make “English friends”. But now I had my own tribe and was desperate to sign up. Off came woggle and neckerchief and, armed with needle and thread, I sewed half a dozen zips on to a pair of trousers from the Army surplus shop. With impromptu slogans scrawled on to a T-shirt I felt quite the part, even if it took a while to turn my tame “feather cut” into punk’s trademark spikes. In the popular imagination, punk is safety pins, spitting and Vyvyan from But for those of us who seized on it with glee it was – and still is – so much more than that. Punk was intellectual. As Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash, said in an early interview: “People ought to know we’re anti-fascist, we’re antiviolence, we’re anti-racism and we’re pro-creativity. We’re against ignorance.” Coming from a Left-wing family – Sheffield-born father an active socialist and trade unionist, Roman mother a lapsed Catholic, feminist and early environmentalist – I’d already been schooled in the radical causes of the day. But punk gave me my own framework through which to revolt in style. There was a strain of violence within punk. The Sex Pistols’ bass player Sid Vicious once – idiotically – threw a glass at a pillar and blinded a girl in one eye. But for the majority – smart, scrawny kids who turned their noses up at yobs and football hooligans – punk’s embrace of the different, the “unpopular”, the “ugly”, provided welcome refuge in which to recognise fellow outsiders. I’d arrived here speaking heavily accented English, the butt of “wop” jibes in the playground, so the militant anti-racism appealed personally as well as politically. It was fundamental to all but a fringe part of the movement (Siouxsie Sioux’s brandishing of a swastika was a crass and naive attempt to shock a public with relatively fresh memories of the war, rather than an expression of anti-Semitism) and helped make the idea of multiculturalism a reality. Punk’s anti-racism found perhaps its finest expression at the great Rock Against Racism carnival of April 30 1978, when many of us put on our leather jackets and zipped trousers and joined 80,000 trade unionists, black and Asian teenagers and gay rights activists in marching against racist attacks and the growing electoral support for the National Front. On stage were The Clash and XRay Spex, reggae band Steel Pulse and gay singer Tom Robinson. Punk was also steeped in history, graphic design, fashion and modern art. The Clash’s bass player, Paul Simonon, was drawing on pop artist Jackson Pollock when he splashed paint over the band’s early outfits. The Sex Pistols’ antics had their roots in manager Malcolm McLaren’s fascination with the French Situationists. And many record sleeve and poster designs were inspired by Soviet artists like Rodchenko and Lissitzky. Then there was a world of music to revel in. One of our great selfimposed myths of punk was that it heralded a “Year Zero” in musical form, rejecting the rock’n’ roll canon that preceded it. Hardly any of us inside punk really believed it. Strummer and his writing partner, Mick Jones, were musicologists. Johnny Rotten, the Pistols’ frontman, was a fan of experimental musicians Can and Captain Beefheart, and Siouxsie and the Banshees were heavily influenced by David Bowie. Punk also made the feminism of my mother’s generation a practical reality. Siouxsie Sioux and her severe make-up and S&M clothes; the Slits – four girls who taught themselves to play instruments; X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene and her prominent braces: these women defied Seventies “bimbo” notions of beauty and sex appeal. What became of all that? Grey heads may bemoan the lack of a contemporary youth movement with the politics and sheer cultural breadth of punk, but its legacy is all around us. Its anti-racism is now an accepted part of the youth scene. Punk-inspired designers such as Vivienne Westwood became influential industry figures. And where would a generation of skinny guitar bands be without The Clash, the Pistols and the Buzzcocks? I’m happy the best of punk’s anarchic creativity and political energy is being celebrated in museums and galleries. Mind you, how my 12-year-old former self and his friends would have laughed. ‘Punk London: 40 Years of Subversive Culture’ is at various venues around the capital until the end of August; www.punk.london