From The Ramblers To Punk: Why We Need A New Age Of Trespass
, September 21st, 2016 11:45
Last week a group of London punks staged a gig on the Thames foreshore in a defiant statement of public rights over our land. Gary Budden argues that they're in a fine tradition stretching back through the ramblers of the Kinder Scout trespass and the 17th century Diggers - and that is a tradition we need to uphold.
I'm down on the foreshore and the tide is going out as a crowd of black jackets and patches, DMs and shaved heads, tattoos, piercings, dreads and rat tails gather. This is the second annual Trespass gig organised by Punk Ethics, featuring Shot!, The Restarts and anarcho-punk legends Conflict. It's a deliberate act of protest - staging a punk gig on the very banks of the Thames in the heart of tourist London. London's punk scene is often only half-visible to the outside world, but today it's breaking cover, and actually doing something. In sight of the OXO tower and the This Morning ITV studios, it feels transgressive.
I'm a big fan of this stuff and have been a part of the UK scene, to varying degrees, for over fifteen years now. I'm aware how the more visible elements of the current punk scene are viewed by those outside of it – naive black bloc anarchists, white people with dreadlocks, speed casualties masochistly wallowing in their own grubbiness, squatters with endless stories of bad drugs, STDs and little else. I suppose elements of that are true, but there's an entire underground punk culture still in existence following the basic punk values of DIY, promoting autonomous culture, anti-fascism, -sexism, -racism, -homophobia and much more, and importantly trying to put those ideas into action. There's a long history here if you're willing to find it, drawing from various and unexpected sources. Today all manner of odd kinships become apparent; anarcho-punk and the Ramblers Association, Guy Debord and modern urban exploration.
This Trespass gig is linked with the campaign directed against the proposed Garden Bridge, TCOS (Thames Central Open Spaces), 'dedicated to saving public space on the South Bank and over the River Thames.' As they emphatically state 'THIS IS A PRIVATE BRIDGE RUN BY A PRIVATE COMPANY WITH NO PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY'. Hopefully the problem with that is obvious.
So this gig isn't a throwback to any mainstream conception of old-fashioned punk and has nothing to do with the depressing recent 40th anniversary of punk celebrations (if Boris could endorse it you know it's fucked); it's consciously aligning itself with other, relevant, contemporary campaigns.
If the punk scene on display here may no longer be innovative in its sound or aesthetic, it also is resisting being confined to a museum, where people can to respect something radical that happened then, but not engage with anything now. Viv Albertine taking a sharpie to a misjudged British Library exhibition is interesting, it's worthwhile and newsworthy, but it's still about only an engagement with the past.
The Trespass gigs, as well as making a protest about public space and aligning with other likeminded groups, is an attempt to show that the punk scene can still achieve something of value now. If there's nostalgia down here by the Thames, I'm not feeling it. What I am aware of is a continuity.
The foreshore is public ground, open access, but public space isn't necessarily public knowledge. Stepping from concrete onto sand feels, today, like stepping out of the official narrative and into something messier, more chaotic, a lot more fun and with a whole history of it's own.
The Thames Path itself is contested space. Ostensibly holding National Trail status, actually walking unimpeded along the banks can be difficult and confusing, fragmented patches of riverside swarming with razor wire and security cameras. It's designed to make people give up. The line between public and private is blurry by the water. Even London's iconic river is not apparently for everyone.
'What developers are counting on is that ordinary people want to avoid threat and confrontation, and so spaces like this are designed to feel threatening and confrontational,' said Bradley Garrett, discussing the Thames Path last year in The Guardian. He's right. Most people don't want a fight on their days off. But the suggested answer "is to defy them and invite the confrontation. We need to drag these divisions to the surface."
This is what Trespass is about – an open act of nuisance and defiance, dragging a hidden issue into public view for a few hours. I think we can, and should, place the Trespass shows in the grand tradition of happenings, Situationist stunts, a kind of landscape punk with as many roots in anarchism as psychogeography. These things do bleed together. Take for example Laura Oldfield Ford's superlative Savage Messiah, a caustic and poetic crawl through London's grimy underbelly in the age of neoliberalism; soaked in British punk culture, it lifts as much from Ballard and Baudrillard as it does from the grim black-and-white aesthetic of anarcho-punk. London has always been contested space, and lately it feels that we're all forgetting that a city isn't it's architecture, but the people who live in it.
It's clear that this gig is about more than just some noisy punk rock – London's identity is bound and tied together by the ribbon of the Thames. What we can and can't do down by the water takes on symbolic significance way beyond the confines of some punks making a nuisance of themselves.
I was never a punter at Fabric. Not my scene really. But with the recent announcement of it's closure, came a real sense of unease. I was happy Fabric existed. Similarly, I don't know much about grime, but I'm happy it's there and alive and real. Things like Form 696 matter, which many saw as a racialised piece of legislation aimed at shutting down grim gigs under the guise of spurious worries about audience safety – even going so far as to shut down grime events at cultural bastions like The Barbican.
We can see parallels with the Criminal Justice and Public Order act of 1994, that specifically targeted 'repetitive beats' in an effort to neuter the rave and free festival scene. Fabric has closed partly due to a moronic and backwards drugs policy - and related to this, the mainstream public attitude to these things. I agree that there is a renewed puritanism rising in the post-Brexit world we find ourselves in. It's not anything new – we've always been a country beset by folk devils and moral panics – but Fabric's closure does set a dangerous precedent. It's hard not to think: what's next?
I came to London like so many people before me because I wanted to find what was important to me, to find my scene. I found it, then I found others, saw things I could never imagine, was exposed to huge swathes of music, art, performance and literature in shitty squats, pub back rooms, occupied warehouses, indie bookstores, all the way up to the mid-size venues and places I thought, naively, would last forever. Places like the Astoria meant nothing in the face of a train that would get people to and from work faster. But a city with no public space and no culture is not a city at all.
There was a term I first encountered reading George Monbiot's Feral - 'shifting baseline theory'. It was related to the degradation of the natural environment, how as human beings we tend to veer towards a viewpoint, unless taught to think otherwise, that the halcyon days when Everything Was Fine was our own childhoods. We seem to be unable to comprehend that a lot could have been lost years or generations before we were even born (or at least conscious of the wider world). We can apply this to to the culture we have access to and the spaces they happen in; to our public space. It's a slow lowering of standards, steady erosion not only of public and cultural space, but of our very ideas about what these things mean.
But I can see a positive, and that is that there's a continuity here. None of these fears and battles are without precedent.
Your right to walk through the British countryside? You have the people who organised the Kinder Scout Trespass, and many more like them, to thank for that. Odd to think that we can find a kinship between the Trespass gigs and a wilful trespass by a bunch of ramblers in the Peak District back in 1932.
The M11 link road that cuts through east London? There were streets of people there, old women who'd spent their whole lives in a place where cars now race through. Twenty years ago, back in the 90s, whole streets were occupied in East London as part of the wider wave of protests against the Conservative governments mass road-building scheme. This is living memory, worth preserving, or else it gets buried beneath tarmac.
Despite it's negative public image, squatting is not new. What we now call squatting existed as far back as the Peasant's Revolt of 1381; again, following the English Civil War with The Diggers, whose ideas still resonate through the generations and inform modern day actions and protest. We can, and should, rupture the dangerous spirit-of-the-Blitz narrative that periodically raises its head with stories of the returnees from World War Two who became self-housers. Ex-servicemen and their families installed themselves in empty properties and derelict camps, at one point reaching 40,000 in number.
There's a history, not hidden as such but always under threat of going under, being crushed beneath the wheels of that bigger, stronger and more boring narrative, fuelled by new puritans worrying about what other people are doing. People in the UK right now need to remember that people can, and have, and do, fight back against this creeping tide. Not everything is inevitable and that baseline does not have to shift, but people have to decide what kind of country they want to live in.
It can be big, challenging, diverse and exciting world out there if we allow it to be. The punk stuff is just one tiny part of something much, much bigger. If necessary we must preserve it by walking all over it in a new age of trespass.
I'm on the side of people who want London and the rest of the UK to remain a culturally diverse place with cities that don't fight their own inhabitants. The people who've never been to a rave, squat or warehouse gig, free festival or street party, the people who only ever bought their culture from others, people who'd complain about the noise from the cinema they've just moved above, people morally outraged by other people's fun – they're the ones to worry about.
For me it was especially apt Conflict were playing down on the Thames. I have a faded tattoo of their logo on my left arm, and down by the river, icon of my city, why all this matters came back to me like a punch in the gut. Lyrics from 'Increase the Pressure' ran through my head as I wrote this, words that seem as relevant now as they were 34-years-ago.
"You try working for something that a system can't make / Creating something that a law can't take"
There was a simple statement at the end. 'This isn't about Conflict, it isn't about the bands. It's about fighting for what's ours.'