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Celebrating Women in Punk at The National Video Game Arcade

23 August 17 words: Hazel Ward

A night of exploring women's role in British punk...

Punk It Up

Punk It Up - Photo via Punk It Up Facebook

British punk turned 40 in 2017*, and in celebration Punk It Up! are putting on a series of talks, screenings and exhibitions exploring the legacy of punk music and ethos. Tonight’s event casts a look at the women in punk.

Acting as host for the evening is Ruth Elias, of Hagar and the Womb. We begin with a question and answer session with Celeste Bell, a musician in her own right, but here tonight to talk about her memories of her mother, Poly Styrene. As the vocalist and songwriter for anarcho-punk band X-Ray Spex – most famous for feminist anthem Oh Bondage, Up Yours – Poly was on the frontline of the punk scene. Celeste spoke about her mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and fame, both of which are explored in an upcoming documentary and book.

After a brief interval, the front wall lights up with a burst of graffiti as the 2010 documentary She’s A Punk Rocker starts projecting. The film was directed by Zillah Minx, lead singer of Rubella Ballet, who explained during the second Q&A that she wanted to turn the camera away from the usual faces representing punk, and onto the women who made punk happen in the early days. Through interviews and archive footage we were shown the roots of punk from the perspective of musicians, journalists, artists, and even Poly Styrene’s bodyguard. These are women who were at the birth the scene and helped shape its direction, their experiences a rebuttal to the popular media narrative that put Malcom Maclaren as the grand-puppeteer of Britain’s punk scene.

Punk It Up

Punk It Up - Photo via Punk It Up Facebook

It’s a treat to watch the three musicians, all still very much punk in their own way, discuss how the scene changed their lives (mostly for the better) during the talk afterwards. For Zillah in particular, still dressed and made-up magnificently in the dayglo colours that typified Rubella Ballet's style, it was obvious that punk was more than just a rebellious gimmick – it was a movement that aimed for equality across class, race and sex. It may not have succeeded, but it still clearly means a lot to people.

Unlike many talks I’ve been to, there was a real sense that much of the audience shared the same history as the speakers – they’d too been there in the depths of punk. Consequently, they had few qualms about riotously joining in with the discussion come audience questions, making for a fun back and forth (although the commenter marking out Celeste’s beauty, while well-meaning, creates an awkward moment in what is supposed to be a feminist-leaning night!). By the end of the night, everyone seems to have agreed that punk’s best philosophies are still needed, and it’s hard to argue with that.

*mind you, depending on who you ask it may have started as far back as 1970.

Women in Punk was at The National Video Game Arcade on Saturday 12 August 2017.

Punk It Up! website

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