The gospel of Crass

The Story of Crass

By Tom Hodgkinson
Independent on Sunday
October 22nd, 2006

In the late Sixties, two young artists rented a tumbledown cottage near Epping in Essex. Inspired by Lennon, Kerouac, Camus, RD Laing and other counter-culturals, the pair had no interest in commercial art or indeed the commercial world as a whole. So they changed their names, becoming Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, and set about creating a bohemian household, growing their own vegetables and living simply. Rather than a commune with strict rules, the idea was “open house”.

Over the next 40 years Dial House would be home to scores of adventurers, outsiders, artists, musicians, writers and assorted Bohemians, and out of it would emerge a series of radical creative projects, the best known of which is the punk band Crass.

The Crass project was conceived as a reaction to the anarchic outbursts of punk and the Pistols. Using the medium of punk, Crass would go out there and get their message across. And the message was: look after yourself. Do it yourself. Take responsibility. You are in charge of your own life. With their fantastic symbols and art and straightforward rage, Crass found a huge audience among a generation alienated by Thatcher’s policies. It affected even this writer as a 13- year-old: I remember listening to Stations of the Crass on holiday in France with my friend Simon. Back home we wore black jumpers and bought CND badges.

Crass defiantly refused to sell out, and that meant running their own business affairs. Crass members sat at home with a Gestetner machine and made all their own sleeves. They also set up their own label and encouraged artists as diverse as Bjork and Chumbawumba in their early days. Derided by some as hippies, they were in truth existentialist bohemian anarchists for whom punk music was a means of communication. Penny Rimbaud certainly is more at home sitting on the porch with a Gauloise, an espresso, Walt Whitman and Schoenberg than pogoing, gobbing or getting pissed on lager. Indeed, his more earnest approach was sometimes criticised by Steve Ignorant, Crass singer, who wasn’t above having a laugh and drinking beer. Not that he wasn’t above reading Walt Whitman either.

In creating a self-sufficient exstence where they grew their own vegetables and kept goats and chickens, they were actually doing what punk had suggested people do, which was to create anarchy in the UK. By anarchy, I am of course not talking about smashing up bus stops – although that has its place – but responding to the practical ideas of thinkers like Kropotkin, who argued that to be free we need to make work something meaningful and to “look after ourselves”.

Crass were hugely influential, and turned on a generation to the possibilty of creating a life for oneself that was outside the restrictions of conventional 40-hour a week employment. In one aspect Penny is disappointed: in creating an open house, a place of refuge and inspiration that would be open to all, he imagined that he would inspire the creation of a network of such houses across the UK, each within a day’s walk of each other, something like the monasteries of old which would dole out hospitality to any passing traveller. That has not quite happened yet. But there is still time.

But, by 1978, when Crass was formed, Dial House already had a 10-year history of radical projects. Penny Rimbaud had been involved in the creation of the Stonehenge Free Festival. He became sickened by the medical establishment when his friend Wally Hope died following some kind of hellish One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type psychiatric treatment. To this day, he claims that Wally was murdered by the State, an idea argued in his book Shibboleth. There was also Exit, an experimental art group that handed out packets of seeds and prints by Gee at their gigs, which were always free.

In creating a space for outsiders, Dial House and Crass are in a tradition that stretches right back to the Middle Ages, According to historian Norman Cohn, the 13th and 14th centuries saw the flowering of a movement called the Brethren of the Free Spirit. To the pure of heart, they said, all was pure, and therefore you could sleep with your sister on the altar and it wouldn’t be a sin. The followers of this cult were drawn from all walks of life, and women found it particularly liberating as an alternative to domestic life.

Much later, the Industrial Revolution and the extreme Protestant individualism that accompanied it led freedom-seeking artists and writers to recoil in horror from the “dark Satanic mills” and attempt to create their own communes and retreats. Coleridge and Southey dreamed of establishing a “Pantisocractic” community of labouring philosophers living the simple life.

The later 19th century is peppered with attempts to create utopian set-ups. John Ruskin established the St George’s Guild, and Edward Carpenter, inspired by Tolstoy, set up a shared house at Millthorpe. Charles Kingsley worked on plans for an ideal community. In the 20th century, Eric Gill and others lived in a creative commune at Ditchling where art, craft and working the land were combined. There was a movement called Guild Socialism where Catholic writers resurrected the old idea of the medieval craftsmen’s guild as a way of organising work and reuniting art and life. More recently, we have the example of Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury set. In fact, Penny believes that Dial House’s recent court case, where the house was nearly lost to property developers, went their way partly because the judge could see that here was a Bloomsbury Group sort of set-up, a comparison which perhaps justified the venture in his mind.

Many of these rather self-conscious experiments in living were short-lived, but the remarkable thing is that Penny and Gee have actually achieved success. It is perhaps the lack of rules and the free nature of the place that has ensured its longevity. It is perhaps also the commitment of the various residents, as life there is not exactly easy. Apart from the hardships of living on little money, there are the inevitable conflicts of living with other people.

Although Crass were famous for their denunciation of the patriarchal nature of Christianity, there is undoubtedly something of the monastery about Dial House. The latest building project is a wooden chapel at the bottom of the garden. It’s a place that offers spiritual sustenance. I’ve been a visitor for some years now and conversation there is always of the highest quality. Yet Dial House can be a challenging place to visit and a challenging place to live. Penny and Gee love debate to the point of aggression, and you have to be made of pretty stern stuff to cope with the constant piss-taking.

In an era when creative production has become for many simply a career option, it is fantastically inspiring to have in our midst proper artists, who in life and work constantly and continually demonstrate that there is another way of living and working.

And the work goes on to this day. There are now four full-time residents at Dial House, and it is run as an arts centre, hosting weekend workshops and debates. Gee has a major show of her work opening soon in New York. Penny and Bronwen Jones – Crass’s Eve Libertine – perform poetry with avant-gade jazz under the name Last Amendment. A recent arrival at the house is the writer Jay Griffiths.

George Berger’s book is an engaging, useful and well-researched if somewhat scrappily finished account of the Crass years and Dial House before and after. It is largely an oral history and there are some very fine photos. It shows brilliantly the intellectual and artistic conditions that led to the creation of Crass and also the events that have folllowed since Crass finished in 1985.

Back to George Berger’s Author Page