Penny at The Palace on Remembrance Sunday
This was the penultimate tête-à-tête at John Robb’s Louder Than War‘ Open Heart, Open Door’ three day event that was held in Manchester this weekend (11th-13th November). It was an ambitious event which was set within the opulent confines of the Palace Hotel which glitters with stained-glass, faience and iron; and is lit with the ghostly green glow of Welsbach lamps.
It was both absorbing and engaging. Penny was the man lest we forget who’s band Crass: ‘we were question marks ultimately’, had the unique distinction, because of their allegedly blasphemous and government-baiting lyrics, to have been discussed in the British House of Commons! And all of this directly and ironically from a man with such a kindly countenance allied to a measured, even soothing, vocal tone.
I think its worth mentioning that John Robb’s interviewing ‘technique’ was perfectly pitched between teasing out salient points and when required knitting together seemingly disparate threads; as the septuagenarian would occasionally wander off -topic with an endearing : ‘what was the question again’?
This was not because he was confused but because he’s packed a lot of thinking and direct action into his ‘journey’. A journey in which he also freely admits to having many ‘dark nights of the soul’ especially in his recent attempts to get ‘inside’ the work of WW1 poet Wilfred Owen. He cited a line from Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ that continues to resonate particularly deeply and profoundly: ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’.
Although there were frequent references and allusions to figures & philosophies that Penny had tried for size and become disillusioned with, Descartes: ‘I think therefore I am’ & Zen-Buddhism: ‘there are no levels of violence, just violence’; it was actually the personal recollections and often jarring anecdotes from his time line that really seemed to provide a key to the man; and all of this seems to be at the heart of his seemingly relentless pursuit of the answer to the question : ‘what does it means to be alive today and at this moment in time’.
He was a classic ‘war baby’: born in 1943, and as an only child, and with his father away fighting in foreign fields, his mother obsessively doted on him to the point that when his father returned ‘dripping with war’ at the cessation of WW2 in 1945, he suddenly developed an aversion bordering on hatred of him; believing that he’d now been permanently relegated to ‘second’ place In the Ratter household.
It was also at this time that he developed what would become a near lifelong obsession with ‘the Holocaust’, specifically the Birkenau concentration camp. He found a book of distressing images secreted away in a draw and thought : ‘so this is what my dad was doing’.
John Robb asked him if his growing interest in music post-WW2 was a direct attempt to ‘drown the dark shadows’, to which Penny replied that although he was correct initially, eventually he began to feel that rock & roll was empty and part of the ‘Marshall Plan’. Clearly he was beginning to think in free form whilst other ‘rock’ musicians were ploughing the same stylistic furrows; he was clearly losing interest in popular music.
Amazingly during his teens there was a chance meeting with ‘Lennon’ which I misheard as ‘Lenin’, and although the scion of Soviet communism had passed away decades earlier, it seemed more likely that he’d met him as opposed to the famously acerbic Beatle! Happenstance twists and shouts again.
Eventually in 1967 Penny founded ‘Dial House’ in Epping Forest and turned it into an open house where the then prevailing ‘hippy’ ideals were promulgated; everything was shared and nothing owned ; which he now sees even all these years later as an ongoing project : ‘’a fanciful idea, and I’m still waiting to see what happens!’’.
Dial Houses’ non-judgemental and rule eschewing credo would one day provide uncomfortable reading for the ‘punks’, who would come to realise that these values of free-thinking and communal living were perilously close to those of mid-seventies notions of punk and ‘anarchy’. Baking and Bakunin?
This event fell on Remembrance Sunday when we remember the ‘lions led by donkeys’ and honour the ‘ordinary soldiers’ and not those that gave the orders; so it seems entirely fitting that an avowed pacifist, heart attack survivor and humanitarian is clearly still energised and still trying to spread ‘the word’.
I think it appropriate that the quietly verbose Mr Rimbaud have the final word at the end of what was a fascinating, thought provoking and in some respects a moving; seminar.
This is a semi-famous and enduring Crass-derived credo written many years ago; but which for many still retains its power and potency:
‘There Is No Authority but Yourself’
Lennon Meets Penny!
Hear more from Penny, Steve Ignorant, Gee Vaucher and other members of the Crass in this definitive (my words) full-length doc: