Friday, December 2, 2011

Shibboleth, My Revolting Life

by Penny Rimbaud aka J.J.Ratter

Fans of Crass will know that besides producing noisy punk songs with great lyrics, the band also recorded a few sprawling ambient works overlaid with spoken word. It's not surprising then, that the band had at least one member who wrote for the page as well as the microphone. This member was drummer J. J. Ratter, who took the stage name of Penny Rimbaud.

This book is very loosely an autobiography, interspersed with a few fiction pieces and a bit of self-reflective waffle. Ratter's life has been very interesting and before the punk scene even began he had already had considerable adventures. As a small child he experienced the German bombing of London and went on to be involved in the teddy boy subculture. Later he became part of the 60s counterculture and for many years was a respected art teacher. He established the famous Dial House, a commune in Essex, and met a young man twenty years his junior - Steve Ignorant. Together they formed Crass in 1977 and for the next ten years, played hundreds of shows and were the perpetrators of several notorious media stunts.

Ratter was also a close friend of Wally Hope, an eccentric visionary who started the free stonehenge festival in 1974. Wally Hope was later arrested for drug possession, and given involuntary psychiatric treatment which lead to his death. Ratter then investigated the strange and terrible story, and claims to have compiled a book which contained enough evidence to overturn the official version of events. Astonishingly he then claims to have burned the book in order to symbolically put the past to rest. Unfortunately, rather than solving the mystery Ratter seems to have become part of it. Why burn evidence which may have brought justice to the wrong doers? The reader is forced to question not only the official version of events but also Ratter's. Despite trying to move on it is clear that Ratter is still deeply troubled by Wally's death.

This book is also a composition of several different styles of writing - the book has a suitably punk feel. There are a few gratuitous fiction pieces which have been inserted into the story and these make for good reading. My particular favourite involves the murder of a pimp who has his throat slashed in full view of a McDonald's children's party. Ratter also occasionally divulges some very personal things. He talks about his first sexual experiences and even admits to routinely suffering diarrohea before performing due to nervousness. Essentially Ratter comes across as  a remarkably likeable, humble and refreshingly unambitious person.

While the first half of the book makes for great reading, the second part descends occasionally into aimless self-reflection. The best parts of the book are about the band and the political campaigns they were involved in. Unfortunately there are many interesting annecdotes which could have been fleshed out, and a lot of meaningless passages which could have been removed. 

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