London has always been a punk city, full of people who have done things their way, who have started out as not being accepted by whichever establishment they secretly desired to be a member of, and thought fuck it, I’m going to give it a go anyway. Punk was a concept given birth to in the twentieth century, born, arguably of the austerity of 1970s Britain, which drove people to despair, a desperation which Britain responded to with extreme creativity and aggression. Key proponents of the punk era in the 1970s were the Sex Pistols, whose DIY, anti-pop, anti-establishment and anti-fan approach, driven through with an unerring psychopathic self-belief, won the hearts of millions, and proved an inspiration to a generation. They were accompanied by the Clash, the Damned and aided by American contemporaries, The Ramones.
But what of the twenty-first century? Banksy, might be thought of a great example of a twenty-first century punk, someone who didn’t feel he would be accepted in the world of art, and thought fuck it, I’ve got a talent, and I’m going to go out there and show people what I’ve got, by painting on public property, whether they like it or not. Besides Banksy, you’ve also got people like Simon McAndrew, who, in 2008, managed to bring together a group of innovators, logisticians and artists, to create an artists squat in a six storey Georgian mansion in Mayfair, and create the art exhibition of the decade. This all started one chilly night in 2008, just fifty yards from the heavily guarded American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, directly opposite the Michelin starred Corrigan’s, a young man climbed a ladder leant against the wall of a six-storey Georgian mansion. Clambering on to the balcony he was pretty sure this property was empty. His associates, stood below had, for the last six months, been putting tape over the keyhole of the front door and peeking through the letterbox to make sure. A push on the window frame gave way to a freedom of movement, which caused joy in the congregation of hearts below. This was not a robbery, but the first step in the realization of a collective dream, the establishment of an art squat, which would come to be known as MADA!, the MA standing for Mayfair and DA! standing for the name of the collective.
Besides art London is also the place for flash squads, groups of people, trained in one performance art or another, who co-ordinate with each other to turn up to a particular space at a particular point in time, to put on an performance, sometimes announced within certain circles, sometimes not. In 2010, a group of BMX fans, for example, mounted two BMX ramps under the Bow String bridge which conveys the traffic of Kingsland Road over Regents Canal, one Friday night at eleven o’clock in the evening, and put on a phenomenal show of BMXing. The police turned up, at first two officers, and then a big van, illogical it seemed given the van then reversed back into obscurity, as if the whole thing was some ill thought out bit of action in a badly programmed computer game. As the night drew on the numbers engaged on the ramps and the intensity of action grew. A sense of wonder began to fizzle inside of me each time an attempt to defy gravity was pulled off; each time two spots of rubber were imprinted on the vertical browning brickwork; each time the back of a hoodie came within centimeters of caressing the underside of the bridge. I felt invigorated; the mugginess in my mind displaced by the sensation of goose pimples, prompted by the cold and the excitement. This show was like street art, something, somewhere and some time all unexpected. Two young children from the flats across the canal, still up at half past eleven, were let into their front garden to watch. Overcome with emotion; they jumped up and down and screamed with excitement. I felt the same way.
In the twenty-first century London has frequently been subject to flash dancing, where people, dressed ordinarily and mingling with the public, are, by the first beat of a previously concealed ghettoblaster, sparked into action, into a co-ordinated performance of dance, which takes place in and around unsuspecting members of the public.
The quirkiness, creativity and hipsterishness of Shoreditch and its surrounds is London’s biggest punk centre. There’s a whole host of offbeat nights out, distractions, alternative forms of entertainment and dress, which heavily influence British culture and fashion. One night I saw a bunch of guys and gals having a game of cricket on a street besides Spitalfields Market. They were having a right laugh.
There is something about the crowds in London too, how people swarm together and take over the streets for a while. Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass are two good examples, the latter, a few years back, deciding to occupy the crossroads between Shoreditch High Street and Commercial Road one Friday evening, leaving the motorists in a purple funk. The London Riots of 2011, which started off quite spontaneously on Tottenham High Road were pure punk, a spontaneous call to arms against the police, more punk and more Sex Pistols than the Sex Pistols. A less nihilistic punkiness, which also took place on Tottenham High Road, occurred one year prior with Ghanaians and Jamaicans spontaneously spilling out on to the streets, to celebrate Ghanas progression into the last eight of the World Cup. Red, yellow and green flags out on the street, as if it was an impromptu carnival, men and women out, bass thumping from cars stationary, packed full of revelers, double decker, buses crawling along at a snail’s pace, trying to push ther way through the congestion, a happy porridge. Drums, whistles and rattles, in front of the Turksih restaurants and cafes. “Me born in Jamaica but me African, African descent, Ghana me say, Ghana me say!” celebrated one Jamaican man. On Blackstock Road, whenever Algeria win in a major international football tournament, the coffee bars are emptied within minutes, and there are usually fifty to sixty Algerian men, climbing lamp posts, beating drums, clashing chests, jumping up and down in unison singing 1-2-3 Viva Algerie. Its a soul refereshing, exhilarating, sense of unadulterated love and passion, and celebration of self, so far from home, in this dirty, miserable part of London.
Another example of the punk ethos is the things that people do for other Londoners in the virtual world. For example, one guy, an IT developer, during the Olympic Games, created an Application for Londoners, and anyone who wanted a ticket for the games in the UK, to receive regular text updates when tickets became available, for free, something which the organisers of the London Olympic Games had not been able to develop or devise, whether free or otherwise. In Audust 2008 London commuters started making themselves Oyster card wristwatches, which Tube bosses vowed they would not tolerate.
The purpose of all these moments of punk, is, it would seem, to create a sense of awe in the public, to give them something special, to communicate with them, to carress them, to bring them into one’s mind, to keep them company, to show that you care.
The DIY and punk ethos in London is prominent in London for several reasons. One of them relates to the number of people around, the concentration of people. You couldn’t and wouldn’t have the celebrations on Blackstock Road every time Algeria won an important match in the World Cup or African Nations, if it wasn’t for the closely packed Algerian café bars, which provide the critical mass for a street celebration each time.
Its also something to do with the skills, know how and talent of people around, and the fact that they arguably not only inspire each other to reach for the stars, they actually have the ability to make it happen. I mean the BMX flash scene couldn’t happen without engineers who knew how to mount two BMX ramps inside an hour, and flash dance scenes couldn’t happen without a choreographer and people with the ability to dance.
Sometimes it is not just about having the skills to pull it off but also about having a vision, having a kind of audacity, a determination to make something happen, to see opportunities in places where there was no opportunity. Street art is a good example of this, with Banksy either making grizzly parts of East London a canvas for his work, or otherwise integrating parts of London into his work, so it becomes his work. Simon McAndrew, who in 2008, used a good understanding of laws around squatting, and a desire to see empty spaces in London used for public benefit, to lead a small army of innovators and artists, to squat a six-storey Georgian Mansion in Mayfair, enabling one of the most fascinating exhibitions of art ever seen in twenty-first century London.
And finally invariably these punks have money, time and resources. The punk ethos is not about making something out of nothing. It is about making something greater from the something you already have. The BMXers in Hoxton couldn’t put together a ramp and put on a BMX show without transport, tools and bikes. Artists can’t saturate Shoreditch in art, without having paints, computer aided design software and in some cases, jacks on wheels, which elevate street artists to heights of twenty feet so they can complete their pieces.