ANARCHY IN THE UK
Nothing evokes fascination with our cultural cousins across the pond like the pomp and circumstance of the Monarchy; a dependable visual historical framework on which we can project our fantasies and wishes for good fortune. But when we do close our eyes and think of England, there is another aesthetic that has had a continually evolving influence on youth culture across the globe. Born in the late ’70’s, the music, style, art, and fashion of the punk movement were truly DIY, street born, and overtly political. It was a time and place where princes and princesses paraded through cities wrought with crippling unemployment and a general populace spoken down to by an establishment government that had swung brutally to the side of conservatism. Thatcher’s England was a perfect petri dish for new expressions, for a disaffected youth to scream out into the universe and take their own creative reigns against a backdrop of fear of total destruction of the earth and the overwhelming angst that comes with official public policy pointing to a futureless future.
But as British writer and one time punk Mark Liam Piggott laments in his new piece, it is “hard to believe that in 2019, as the UK falls apart, when the only stores booming in the high street are food banks, when a New York-reject like Boris Johnson can zip up his pants for five minutes and declare himself PM, and Europe is busy wishing us a not-so-fond adieux, that there isn‘t a single punk band ready and willing to rage against the machine, the light, the dumbed-down cultural vacuum in which art, books and music must be inclusive, representative, nice. Believe it or not my American friends, punk used to MEAN something in the UK. In the long-lost days of the 70's-80's it kept us mad, activated, entertained. Maybe our targets were easier: Thatcher unemployment, nuclear war, or maybe we managed because we had the dole instead of internships, allowed precious time to kick our heels in squats as we waited for the four-minute warning.” And create they did; the bands, the shops, the kids gathering on the Kings Road every Saturday, showing off their self created identities and pledging allegiance not to kings and queens but to Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. They invented a language for themselves, signals recognizable only to each other. As Westwood herself described, “rips and dirt, safety pins, zips, slogans, and hairstyles. These motifs were so iconic in themselves - motifs of rebellion.”
So within our present shared state of dystopia, one might guess there would be a new safety pin, a different definition of dirt, another type of mohawk, a new uniform of rebellion. Instead those very motifs have been co-opted by corporations, ready to wear and share, squeaky clean in all sizes with free delivery included. “In today’s UK, tribes are separated by race, religion and class, but not by music, by art: because it’s all congealed into some bland amorphous 50-shades-grey goo that gets in your eyes, ears and mouth but not your heart. Kids today: the oldest refrain, all the way to Aristotle. Except now the kids are “All Right”: right on, concerned about cars and coffee and coke but too afraid to pick up guitars, brushes and pens, too scared to live. They write songs you can whistle: you can hear every word, but what are they saying?” Read Where Have All The Punk Rockers Gone?
But how does one rebel in the age of political correctness and identity politics? In a time when kids seem to be ruled by the fear of missing out, the entire concept of hashtag inclusivity precludes the formation of real tribes—the act of declaring we belong to something other than a corporate marketing scheme, something unvetted, original and therefore extremely dangerous. “We screamed from rooftops and sewers— you [young people] close down speech. No-platforming sad Alt-Right Incels in the hope they’ll go away. Let ‘em talk, let ‘em scream: fuck ‘em, shout back. Racism exists, it’s going nowhere fast, but here’s the thing – white boys with dreads and students in Mexican hats ain’t the issue. Cultural appropriation? Culture IS appropriation. We steal, bend, break, make new and destroy. Recycle, regurgitate, reject. That’s the cycle.”
We all feel the same crippling angst about our shared chaotic uncertain future, no matter what your age or generation you identify with. So come on kids, pick up those guitars and start destroying something. It's more than a style choice, it's a truly creative act in a world that needs creative activism now more than ever. “Think you’re the first and only generation who cares about the planet? Get over it. You’re wrong. So am I. We’re all wrong. Life’s not fair: turn off Twitter, close down Facebook, stop Instagramming your lunch and your ass, get out in the street and stop counting calories, carbs and alcohol units, stop counting beans and go plant some. Find magic. Make magic. Try harder and fail and try again. Stop being offended and get angry."
All photographs © Janette Beckman Courtesy of Fahey/Klein
In the age of remix culture, it’s hard to remember when things originated, where movements started, and what true life even looked like before everyone had a camera and started looking mostly at themselves. When exactly did people start wearing leather jackets and letting their hair grow long? When did mods become punks and punks become new romantics and everyone else in the UK become the characters in Love Actually? And overtime, the lines get blurred and we start to think of cultural time periods as the stereotypes only as we see them represented on TV and in movies. Think the hippies in Dazed and Confused or the greasers in Grease for that matter. Which is why, as time goes on and styles start to become merely faded photocopies of their gritty originals, it becomes even more important to stop time for a little bit by, you guessed it, making a ‘zine.
This is part of the reason why Craig Atkinson created Café Royal Books, that is, besides a true devotion to the importance of documentary photography. He founded Café Royal in 2005 with the goal to create an archive of British documentary photography. Roughly 70 titles are published each year, with a small edition ‘archive box’ every 100th title. The 'zines are printed on paper in black and white and are 14cm x 20cm and usually sell for 6 pounds, which is around 8 US dollars, give or take. “Café Royal was a kind of way of getting my and other artists' work out into the world without a having to have a gallery. It was more about getting work out in a more democratic way, rather than expecting people to go to the gallery to see the work and work that might not get into a gallery anyway. I wanted the work to be out there, for people to have access to it in public spaces.” Craig told us.
The Café Royal ‘zines are filled with photography documenting moments found over the years and all over the streets of the U.K. serving as a sort of societal evidence for us to reference. As Craig explained, “Street photography is in my opinion overused at the moment. Street photography is always artistic, but it’s kind of an overused cool term at the moment. For me, the work becomes more interesting after say five or ten years. I think photographs of now go disregarded a little bit because we’re living it so we don’t need a photograph to show it. We see it anyway. Whereas in ten years time, we might look back at photographs of today and maybe understand today differently with hindsight.”
We need these cultural artifacts to set the record straight. And these pictures were taken by the photographers who were truly there, photographers like Janette Beckman, who has just released her first Café Royal book. “When Craig reached out to me I looked at some of the books he done and I thought “this is so up my alley” because in a way the concept itself is kind of punk,” Janette said. “So many of the pictures in the book are unseen, I’d never printed them! London was very mixed. The punk, ska and the reggae scenes were mixing - even the Clash were using those sounds. I really wanted this book to show that there weren’t just white people —the cultures were very mixed, and there were many different styles. I love these pictures of these kids because it tells such a story about London at the time. I think people will really like this edition and then next one we will do is Mods and Rockabillies, and then two more over the next year.”