Monday, 16 November 2009

Cannonball Read 6: Shibboleth: My Revolting Life by Penny Rimbaud a.k.a J.J. Ratter

"Whatever we do, we have to accept that our hopes and fears will be mercilessly exploited by those that have nothing better to offer than money."
Penny Rimbaud

Shibboleth: My Revolting Life is the autobiography of Crass founder, lyricist and drummer, Penny Rimbaud. Crass, perhaps one of the most influential rock groups in history, were a British punk band active throughout the late 70's and early 80's. Popularizing the anarcho-punk movement, Crass had an unquestionably significant impact on the punk scene philosophically, politically and aesthetically. As advocates of direct action, animal rights and environmentalism, the group became a minor thorn in the side of the Thatcher regime. This fact would lead to several encounters with authorities, and ultimately to Crass' members being tried under the Obscene Publications Act. While the book details Rimbaud's life from his childhood in London during the Second World War, through to his time as an art student and, later, teacher, the bulk of the book centres around the commune where Rimbaud spent decades of his life. Living with a variety of activists, artists and drifters, Rimbaud was involved in numerous creative and political endeavours throughout the years, though Crass remains the most notable.

Rimbaud is an intriguing figure who has lead a unique and fascinating life. A man of great intelligence and passion, his book nonetheless suffers as the result of his disjointed approach to storytelling. His non-sequential narrative, as well as his proclivity to flip from life event, political diatribe to philosophical musing, make for a frustrating read. Is this a memoir? A rant about the potential and/or limitations of revolutionary politics? A philosophical journey? It would appear to be a combination of all of the above. Thusly, it fails. This is compounded by a tendency to dryly list off the events of his life, rather than delving into any sort of detail that might engage the reader. Additionally, I often felt that Rimbaud's experiences were being listed to back up his ideology, rather than detailing how they organically led to his conclusions. My greatest criticism, however, is reserved for the almost comically pretentious descriptions that take over countless pages of this memoir. One particularly difficult section to stomach, detailing an early Crass gig, reads as follows:

"Sprays of alcohol burst in frothy trails from flying beer cans. Bodies surfed by on waves of grape and hop. Wild dancers dragged body to body, down onto the filthy floor in parodies of our fathers' violence. Touch on touch, in parodies of the awful coldness that had ripped us from our mothers' bodies. We heaved away at our adopted umbilical, sharing this moment of re-birth, ready to nurse each other's wounds, for, within this parody of violence, we realised that we loved each other."

The narrative deviates drastically as the book progresses. The central chapter, The Last of the Hippies, is the story of the death of Phillip Russell, a.k.a Wally Hope. Hope, a leading figure in the development of the Stonehenge Free Festival, was a close friend of Rimbaud's. Arrested on the commune where he sporadically resided, Hope was charged by local authorities for possession of a small amount of LSD and institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Cut off from contact with the outside world, he was administered a cocktail of experimental drugs, often by force, that ultimately destroyed him as a person. Ten weeks later he was unexpectedly discharged. He returned to the commune a broken human being. Shortly thereafter he died, asphyxiated by his own vomit. The death, ruled as suicide, had a profound effect on Rimbaud, who devoted a great deal of time and energy investigating the authorities alleged complicity in Hope's death.

Indeed, the tragedy of Hope's death is truly harrowing, and forms not just the core of Rimbaud's attitude towards authority and government, but also the emotional centre piece of the book. However, as effective as the inclusion of this devastating story may be, it also serves as another obstacle in identifying what the core of Rimbaud's book actually is.

I want to be more generous with this book than I have been. At times it was engrossing, intelligent and thought provoking. Nonetheless, it remained a frustrating and often pretentious mess. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anybody that isn't specifically interested in the anarcho-punk movement and/or radical politics in general. The book comes to a very strong end, however, and the last section is particularly engaging, albeit deeply depressing. Crass dissolves, Rimbaud abandons his creative ventures to take care of his dying parents, and the world we all live in fails to improve. Rimbaud, much like the reader, is left without answers.

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