An Ass on the River: Pulling Back the Curtain on the £5million Punk Burning

After all, what is more punk than a well oiled press campaign for a shit bonfire only attended by bored journalists?

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29 November 2016, 1:22pm

For thousands of years, human beings have dwelled by the banks of the Thames. The river has been worshipped as a god, played host to one of the world's mightiest ports and provided the backdrop to any number of romcoms starring a delightfully flustered Hugh Grant. 
 
These days, the water no longer sparkles like the eyes of a deity worth worshipping. The river has taken on the green hue of the money that dominates the city around it, hiding the capital's secrets from the wide-eyed stares of the tourists - that or an unfeasible number of rusting washing machines, Oxbridge rowing boats and human faeces. On Saturday, one man sought to harness the power of the river, but ended up crawling around in its murky depths. He'd been planning it for a while...

Over the summer, Joe Corré – son of the late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and the legendary fashion designer Vivienne Westwood – publicly announced that he would be burning £5million worth of punk memorabilia to express his anger at Mayor of London and British Library-endorsed plans to mark 40 years of the subculture called Punk London. He wanted to highlight the "hypocrisy at the core of this hijacking of 40 years of 'Anarchy in the UK'" by burning his extremely valuable collection on the anniversary of the Sex Pistols song. And, obviously, I would have to go and witness all this unfold.

So, who is Joe Corré really? Well, he is a man who founded the lingerie company Agent Provocateur and then sold it to a private equity firm a decade later, but also says he hates the corporate world. And his moment of prosaic rebellion didn't come without its fair share of planning and preamble. For months, an interminable press campaign has drawn attention to his radical sacrifice. There's nothing more punk than a PR campaign, after all: Three chords and a press release. Three chords and a hundred press releases. Three chords and a press conference in the grandiose Bloomsbury mansion to which you invite all of the most reputable journalists in the country. So, a few days before Saturday's big burning bonanza, I head down as Corré's team assemble the press one final time.

Wearing wire rim glasses and an open shirt with a map of London on it, the former lingerie executive tells us that the mainstream commemoration of the 40th anniversary of "Anarchy in the UK" makes him sick. He says that Britain's cultural institutions remember a neutered version of punk, ignoring the truth and telling a safe, banal lie they can market to the tourists and the squares. "London is a theme park and punk is one of the attractions," he says. 

When he says these things, you agree, because you feel trapped and enraged by a world that has money running through every little part of it, turning everything truthful and vital into a commodity. But then when Corré is asked why he can't just sell this memorabilia and give the proceeds to charity, he launches into a diatribe about the weakening of the welfare state and the rise of the 'charitable-industrial complex'. He talks about rich bastards making themselves feel better by giving to charity. "This is not about me not giving it to charity," he says, though few agree. 
 
"I've had it all", he says, when asked if he's worried he's become the thing he's criticising, if he's just a rich guy posturing. "People calling me a rich cunt… punk rock gave me a huge amount of confidence in my own ability." Corré says that if you've got no money no one listens to you, but when you have money it compromises your opinions. In your mind you know that again he kinda has a point: that too often when people with money express left-wing views those views are pulled down as hypocritical, as if to have money makes you an automatic bastard, as if having money means you have to fight the class war for the rich. Then you remember that Johnny Rotten called Corré a "selfish fucking lingerie expert". Yeah, says Corré, there were "some stupid comments from John Rotten".

At the burning on Saturday, one of Corré's friends stands on the bank to watch. He's middle-aged and is wearing a Vivienne Westwood coat made of bear fur - worth at least £6000. He describes himself as a collector, but says he doesn't sell anything. A younger man is with him. I ask him if he's a punk? "No, I'm young", he tells me. Cliff is next to them. Cliff has dyed blond hair that flops down over his face. He's wearing tartan trousers and a flowing camel-coloured coat. Cliff looks like he might have been the talk of Chelsea back in the late 70s. He says that bands today "look like they're walking the dog". Cliff works for Vivienne Westwood.

As Corré speaks from the boat, the fire coming into pathetic life, he spits buzzwords into his microphone: "Bullingdon Boris… Theresa Mayhem… Jeremy Hunt – Doctor Death… Fracking… George Osborne… Dodgy Dave and Anarchy Andrea…"

He says he's burning things to draw attention to climate change, which seems unfortunate, given the fumes. He's also burning the proceeds of his privilege to make a point about the lives of the unprivileged, apparently. "Why can't he just help people?" asks Max, an onlooking 9-year old boy who likes to listen to punk with his dad. To his side, members of the press outnumber members of the public. It's a sad and depressing sight, which naturally makes you wonder who the hell this is actually for.

Dame Vivienne Westwood sits at the back of the upper deck of the campaign bus. Wearing white-rimmed sunglasses she looks out at the river, obscured from the crowd that doesn't know she's there, Miss Havisham re-cast in Rear Window. After her son has done his thing, the media moves like one organism toward the back of the bus and now Dame Vivienne is re-cast as Eva Peron, addressing her people from her balcony on the bus. She tells us that she's an activist and that as an activist her job is to make things clearer.

That said, she can't explain why burning some of your old punk tat has got anything to do with climate change. In fact, she can't really string a coherent sentence together. "Why did I only find out about climate change five years ago?" she asks us, as if the answer had nothing to do with her living inside a bubble made of high consumer fashion, wealth and intellectual myopia.

Yet apparently that's not the reason. Apparently it's because the "anti people" (bankers) stop us from getting to the information we need. She talks about the "rotten system" and explains that when she writes it, the "s" in system is made to look like a dollar sign. She decides that after all, the solution to our climate woes is simple: we just need to change our electricity provider. She explains that Ecotricity is good. Her rabble-rousing speech turns into an advert for the green-energy provider. Then the fire brigade turns up. They're joined by a handful of policemen and women.

Of course, it's important to care about and engage with the problems we can from climate change, a weakened welfare state, and a world in which everything is commodified and privatised. But despite being able to identify the problems, Joe Corré and his mother can't do anything other than feed their own egos. In a way, they're doing damage to progressive movements by being so monumentally banal. In the end, they see radical politics as nothing more than a coat made of bear fur, something to impress the hangers-on and shock the easily shocked, just another grand distraction from lives hollow at their core. 

What a waste of vinyl.

You can follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.

(All photos by Jake Lewis)