Adventures in Punkland, Part 2: Things I Learned in Old Bars

Why do we remember the things that we do? Obviously, it’s a question to which I don’t have an answer, but it’s been on my mind a lot since I started jotting down these memories. I can barely remember where I was last week, yet I can still remember the time in 1986 that I learned of the existence of that most British of comestibles, the chip butty. Why can I still remember buying a copy of the second BGK LP on a street corner in Nottingham from Dig Pearson (who would subsequently start Earache Records), or getting chased by skinheads down the High Road in Beeston? History is the enemy of memory, they say. There are people out there who lived these events, and perhaps remember them differently than I do. But these are the things that shaped me, and the fragments of memory are all I have left.

***

One thing that strikes an American about the U.K. is how startlingly old things are there. This was not a complete surprise to me when we moved there in 1986. My father was a Medieval English lit professor, so I was about as heavily immersed in British culture as it was possible to be as a 17 year old from the U.S. Still, it was a strange experience upon arriving in Long Eaton that the town had existed at the time of the Doomsday Book.

Precious little of that history was actually in evidence in the town, but there was more in Nottingham proper. Of course, as with practically every speaker of English, I associated Nottingham with the legends of Robin Hood. When I began hanging out in the city with the guys from Concrete Sox, I started to get a real feel for the way that the old and the new intermingled.

On Saturdays, the thing to do was to hang out at a bar called the Salutation (or the Sal for short). Nottingham, it might be worth mentioning at this point, is home to two of the oldest pubs in Europe. Ye Olde Salutation Inn is reputed to have been in operation since 1240. The Trip to Jerusalem, build into the cliff below Nottingham Castle, is supposed to have been going since 1189. How strange it is now to think that I spent so much time hanging out with arch modernist punk rockers in the these hoary establishments.

Anyway, the Sal was the Saturday hangout spot. The first floor was, as I recall, more of restaurant, the kind of place where “normal” people hung out. The second floor was almost wholly given over the punks, metalheads, and bikers. There was some fellow (a biker as I recall) who would bring his turntables down on Saturdays and spin discs while we all kicked around shooting pool and drinking lager. This must have seemed like a perfectly everyday occurrence to the people I was with. For me, it was the height of cool.

I was four years away from being able to drink legally in the U.S. In fact, the drinking age in the U.K. was 18, but I never once saw it enforced. I’d never hung out in a bar before, nor had any of my friends back home. What was more, the whole place was loaded with punk rockers. Where I came from, we were a pretty rare breed, and it was not entirely safe for us to go out in public. Here, they were completely open about it and there were so many punks around that you could get a real feeling of security.

This was in the days of the old licensing laws left over from the era of the World Wars. As such, the pub had to close at 2:30 or so (not being allowed to open again until 6:30). I think that I read somewhere that this was originally meant to prevent workers in war industries from drinking away the afternoon, but it probably wasn’t a bad idea to keep it around because at least it got you out of the bar and walking. When the bar closed we would usually get some more beer from the off license, and then head off in search of more entertainment. The CS guys knew this fellow named Dean who had a VCR in his gaff, so often we would go over there and watch cheesy old movies or Bones Brigade videos.

This brings me to another odd things about the punk culture over there in those days: there was a lot of (though by no means universal) fascination with the North American skateboarding culture. I had brought my old Roskopp skateboard with me, which used more for transportation than anything else. This was particularly true after I got my first part of Doc Martens (black, ten eyelet) which made doing anything on a skateboard besides rolling straight ahead an invitation to a wipe out. In the end it served me well. I traded the wheels (a set of OJ II’s as I recall) to Les from CS for an obscure Chaos U.K. 12”. Later, I traded the deck for an old leather jacket (covered with studs and painted with a huge Amebix design no less). I felt like I had done pretty well out of both deals.

The thing that impressed me most in my time in the U.K. was the difference between the British and American punk cultures. I use these terms advisedly, at least in the case of the U.S. The scene in S.F. was much different than that in N.Y. or D.C. As anyone who remembers the This is Boston, Not L.A. comp, this was something that was clear to everyone involved. For those of us who grew up outside the major cities, punk took on myriad forms. For us in Walla Walla, it was a matter of compiling the fragments that filtered down, comprising the records we could get in town, stuff procured on our infrequent sojourns to Portland or Seattle (three and six hours drive away respectively), as well as what we could learn from issues of MRR, Flipside, and Thrasher.

We knew we were different, disaffected. We didn’t fit into the abhorrent Christian conservative culture so dominant during the Reagan era, but in terms of positive politics, or serious political criticism, we were pretty much at sea. Hanging around with Concrete Sox and their friends, I met people who were a lot more politically engaged. They were vegetarians or vegans. They were anarchists. They had very developed criticism of the government, of militarism, of apartheid. Talking to them, what it meant to be involved in the punk scene took on a very different dimension for me.

I remember having a conversation about the differences in the cultures of punk in the respective countries with a bunch of the Nottingham crust set, sitting on the grass outside of the Trip to Jerusalem, drinking lager in the late spring sunshine. I remember someone saying, “Aside from Crucifix and Final Conflict, there really aren’t any American bands that I take seriously.” This was a little unfair, but only a little.

My introduction to serious politics (and drinking in bars) changed me pretty radically. By the time I got back to Walla Walla, I felt even less like I fit in there than ever before. On the other hand, I had firsthand knowledge of some things in the real world. None of my hometown friends had hung out in squat (or council houses), known anyone who was on the dole , or been tear-gassed by the police. I felt like an outsider among the outsiders.

[In Part 3 of this series, our young hero travels the land in a van full of cider swilling anarchists, meets Anti-Cimex, and watches Concrete Sox run out of a burning pub. Stay tuned.]

Magadh

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