Writer/composer/musician/fell runner Boff Whalley is one third of the creative powerhouse behind Sick of Being Normal. Back in the punk moment, he was a stalwart of Chimp Eats Banana. Boff considers how that unruly creative flowering has stayed with so many contributors through their later lives, and how punk in Pennine Lancashire has contributed to a longer story of nonconformism, independence and dissent.
History is a slippery, shape-shifting thing. I found out long after I’d left school that all the history I’d learnt had been filtered through someone’s opinion and that it could be changed to suit whoever was doing the telling. In my case, at school it came via a few dog-eared standard textbooks that, judging by the roll-call of pupils’ names listed inside the front cover, had been around for decades. It also usually came via a boring teacher who was clearly bored stiff of teaching bored kids about the boring stuff in the boring books.
Years later I realised that history could be relevant, exciting and crucial to the way we understand the world. Which didn’t make it any less of a shape-shifting thing – the same event could still be re-told in completely different ways, and time itself could shape our opinions: over a period of many years, the things that initially seemed outrageous and anti-social could be accepted as innovative, crusading and essential to the way we lived.
Reading old newspapers from the time of the suffragettes you’d never believe that these pioneering women would one day be championed and celebrated. (The Guardian at the time declared that the actions of the suffragettes were “such as one was accustomed to attribute to women from the slums” while a Daily Mirror editorial was simply titled ‘Let The Hunger Strikers Die!’).
Fortunately the chosen Pendle Radicals that are being celebrated in the ongoing MPA series are old enough (and, frankly, dead enough) to have come through being pilloried and criticised and we can now collectively agree on how the suffragettes and suffragists, along with the trades union organisers, nonconformists, pacifists, Chartists, Clarion clubbers and more, are remembered as inspiring trail-blazers.
I was wondering about all this history stuff a couple of years ago, realising that a lot of the firebrands and rebels who I’d looked up to were still dotted around the world, working away and still passionate and driven in their radical ideas. Pacifists, theatre-makers, poets and anarchists, demonstrators, feminists, writers and activists. And it dawned on me that it would be good to try to weave into our local and regional histories of radical subversives and free-thinkers those people who I’d grown up with, ordinary kids who made their own little history in the Pendle area, fired up by punk and by opposition to Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ ideology to create their own social community.
This is how Sage, Casey and me first came together to talk about the Pendle Punk exhibition – not as a nostalgic look back, not as a sort of school reunion with hair dye, but as a way of incorporating those strange and inspiring times into ‘proper’ history, a history that’s survived the ridiculous headlines and cliches (as the Burnley Express headline said at the time, ‘MP Slams Obscene Punk Magazine’) and become a small part of the story of the Pendle Radicals. Maybe it was also a way of rescuing that little slice of history from being shape-shifted by London-centric cultural commentators, a way of saying that we can tell our own history in the way we want it to be told.
And the way we wanted it to be told was with large-scale portraits of those punks as they are now, with a newspaper to give them space to talk about the way their lives were altered by those times. By holding an opening event that partly reflected the music of those days but could be mixed up with what’s happening now, how that punk aesthetic still resonates with a young grime artist. By filming interviews with people and giving them the chance to think and talk about what that punk culture meant historically and what it can mean personally, now. And by holding this exhibition the hope was that we could situate the East Lancashire punk explosion within the history of the infamous Pendle Radicals – even if only as a nagging, sleeve-tugging footnote.
When the opening of the exhibition was held at Burnley Library I was worried about it turning into simply an excuse for nostalgia; and though I love the idea of meeting up with a lot of those folks who I haven’t seen for decades, this had to feel like more than that. Even digging through my old badge collection for them to be photographed for the exhibition reminded me how loudly political the punk movement in the area was – and at the Library, talking to people who’d travelled from all over the place to be there, I was told constantly how those few years had changed and shaped people’s lives, made them socially aware, responsible, questioning, radical.
History will always be ‘up for grabs’, available to be twisted and distorted by people. Which is why it’s essential and inspiring that local people can re-tell the stories of the folk from their area – whether it’s ancient or recent history – so that they aren’t forgotten, dismissed or just written out.
Sick of Being Normal will continue after the lockdown, with further showings of the exhibition by Casey Orr, and additional special events. Watch out too for a short film captured at the February event, and further blog posts.