Penny Rimbauld

Penny Rimbaud talks to Youth

Y: Have you enjoyed lockdown?

P: Yeah, I enjoy solitude. All the people I know who are creatively involved really loved lockdown. All the people who need to go out – “need this”, “need that” – it really sort of shows the needy from the unneedy. We just need our own space. And that is good enough.

Y: I think it was nice just softening everyone’s footprint a bit, living on a lot less.

P: There is some really beautiful stuff going on where people have got together and they’re working to create new ways of doing things, and that’s all beautiful, but equally there’s a sort of mass which still seems to be determined to return to all the same sort of tragic ignorance that existed beforehand. They are going to be in for a big shock, because half of it is not going to be operating.

Y: I would say that you have been a pioneer of something like this happening for a long time. A free thinker, who’s kind of a prophet of doom, who’s warned us of the impending consequences of our collective social behaviour and used a lot of shock tactics to wake us up to living in a lot more sustainable, gentle way. How do you see all that panning out now?

P: I have had to move back into the very thing that I’ve been most of my life away from, which is the material world. I’ve become involved in a sort of material view because I realised the entire globe is suffering common pain and anguish. My job as an artist or creative person has always been to combat what my father used to call – the real world. I knew that from the age of four really, and I’ve actively engaged in not belonging throughout my life, to the extent now where I feel completely removed from it, unless I choose to move back into it.

Within this sort of material structure, it’s over, basically, it’s clinging on by its fingernails. The age of enlightenment is over, and we are now moving into the age of abandonment, where we have to abandon all our old values, all our own standards. Now talking from materials point of view, all of those material values have to be abandoned – I think, therefore I am – that’s already a nonsense within the new framework and there’s nowhere to look and actually understanding that there never ever was anywhere to look, is the beginning of the new freedom.

I’m not interested in the new normal, because the new normal has never particularly changed. The normal has always been defined by an elite, whether it be a sort of capitalist elite, or militarist or religious elite, or any other form of elite. That is all over. We have to learn to stand on our own feet, and our own feet are not the feet we think they are.

Actually, our own feet are the very soil that we stand in. That is our own being, sort of returned to the profound depth of nature. I mean, you cease to belong within the landscape because you are the landscape. It’s that whole redefinition, which I tend to feel, is the only saviour. Anyone who is looking for any sort of liberation within the old narrative, they’re already dead.

There were thousands of people today gathering at Trafalgar Square, saying that they don’t accept overall vaccination, which of course I don’t, and that they don’t accept mask wearing which, well, I take it or leave it, etc’. But who are they talking to? They are trying to persuade a government, and by trying to persuade a government, they are empowering that government. By saying no to something, you might just as well say yes, because yes and no mean the same thing within the materialist framework. It is a completely impotent statement.

Y: I was reading a quote of yours where you were talking about anarchy. And you said – “anarchy as a label has been thrust upon you and you decided to run with it”. This must have been around 45 years ago. What you are saying now is very much still in philosophical mode of anarchy as I perceive it. Well, how has that changed and how does that fit with you today?

As a label, well, it never fits comfortably with me because no label fits comfortably with me. I’ve run with all sorts of things throughout my life. Running with things is a bit like – I’m not particularly worried about what I put on in the morning. I put on things because it’s bloody cold here. I mean, I can put on less things if I’m sitting on a mountain in Spain, etc. The running with it is just saying ‘Okay, so this is the current thing, I need a sweater. Today I’m an anarchist, tomorrow might be a bit warmer so I don’t need a sweater – so tomorrow I might be an any other “ist” I want to’. That’s bollocks! It’s all just the clothing we’ve put on in the morning. Yet I’m happy to do that because I’m moving around largely amongst people who operate within the material framework, or materialist framework.

Penny Rimbauld

Y: Can you see a time where everybody will be able to live socially harmoniously without government?

P: [Long pause] Well, I do.

Y: The government’s becoming increasingly irrelevant now, isn’t it?

P: Yes, it’s over. It actually became “over” when it started. Governments are simply an extension of capitalist intrigue, increasingly so since the Thatcher and Reagan days. Global economics was the end of governance because actually, it’s just handing it to the capitalist overlords.

Y: About 4-5 years ago you said that the most radical thing you can do today is be a romantic. Now, I love the optimism of positive idealism. That really has helped me find a sense of direction over the last few years. I’ve quoted you on that many times. Do you still feel that?

P: Oh, of course. I mean, the romanticists were pretty much equal to a man and woman. They were realists, really, they were transcendentalists in one form or another. I don’t like the term transcendental because it seems to imply some sort of bigger value or bigger sort-of godlike figures, or something you’re transcending to, but I like the essence of what it means actually, there’s something else.

Y: Going beyond, yeah…

P: Yeah, I remember talking with you about futures and progress and all those things I don’t accept. Those are very much part of that sort of materialist narrative. I can only accept that we are of it, and we’re not even of it, we ARE it. If we want to be constantly refusing the very earth that we are, then that’s a choice within the materialist framework. I don’t make that choice. I have to carry out a dialogue, I have to accept – ‘Okay, so this is me being introduced here to a part of the narrative. How do I…?’. I’m not in opposition to it. It’s of no concern to me, what people think or do, that’s their business not mine. Because I’m not there to care in that way.

Y: How’s your connection with nature at the moment?

Well, whatever is happening is a symbiotic absolute. It can only be the way it is at the moment, because this is the way it is, it could be no other way, and we are a part of it. The pandemic isn’t something that’s over there and we’re over here, going ‘nynynynyh!’.If it’s raining, you put on a raincoat or you strip off, you’ve got a choice in a complete embrace or protective clothing if you like. And we have that choice all the time.

One of the things I’ve found difficult with the pandemic is this sort of mixture: on the one hand taking on a mildly defensive position – which I really don’t like to do; on the other hand, exposing myself naked to it and saying ‘All right, then. What have you got to offer?’. I accept that, I don’t feel any fear about it. I do have one fear, and that is passing it to someone else. For myself, I have no fear because I’m not here to be fearful of it. That’s the materialist structure.

The whole fabric of it has been sort of incorporated, or materialised, and that’s the threat of it. It’s totally natural for things like that to happen, even if they’re man made, which I happen to believe this pandemic was. The results of this, I don’t think were designed, but I certainly think the actual virus was designed. I think it’s a GM virus. Either way, it’s part of what’s happening, and that’s all in nature. Do we want to step back from that and sort of demand explanations for why? Am I going to demand explanations for why a magpie just flew past the room? Well, that’s as much a reality as a pandemic creeping into my bed is part of what’s going on, and an unavoidable part.

Y: The theme of this edition of the magazine is new visionaries. You’re certainly still a new visionary for most people I think, you’re still under a lot of people’s radar. It doesn’t necessarily mean young visionaries, but are there any other artists, writers that you’ve discovered recently that are talking about a vision that you can share that you would endorse even?

P: There’s none I’d endorse, I mean, there are people that I’ve gained huge inspiration from within the material world. People who are firmly on the other side of the fence, like John Coltrane or Jackson Pollock, or, well, Whitman, were people who were profoundly on the other side, shouting instructions over the fence. There’s a little foothold to the right, or there’s a little brick out to the left, or whatever, and I guess that’s the role I’d like to see myself in.

I’m on the other side of the fence shouting over it ‘well come on, stop fucking about, get on with it. There’s a brick loose there, pull it out and crawl through the whole’ sort of thing.

What I’ve been given by lockdown is sort of a greater freedom, because freedom is lack of need. I think there’s no other, better explanation. I realised in the lockdown that I need nothing because I am… You don’t need air because air’s there, and if there isn’t air there, you still don’t need it, that just isn’t air there.

Of course, I understand that I live in a very safe and a very beautiful environment, it’s a sort of Garden of Eden, but that’s not through fortune, it’s through prediction. As you said at the beginning of the conversation, I set up a sustainable domain for anyone who wanted to share. It’s only small because that’s all I could afford, or that’s what I could get, or whatever. Basically, it has always been a sort of microcosm of what I think is a possibility, and that’s much more of a sort of positive demonstration than I can ever make through word.

I can tell the moment someone walks through the gate, whether they are here, or whether they’re carrying a load of expectations or requirements, or self-interest into the environment. Freedom is lack of self-interest, as that’s a need.

I don’t believe in prophets and visionaries and all that sort of stuff, and I don’t belong in that framework at all. I’m a sort of activist doing nothing. My activism – ‘nothingism’ – is allowing it to happen and responding appropriately. Which is precisely the martial arts or things that are not about anything except appropriate action and having the confidence to not be there to assert it. Tai Chi, for example, is deeply rooted in sort of animal movement and animal response, which is what we lose, or what we’re instructed not to operate with within the materialist framework. So, it’s all there, it’s all present. There’s a tree just outside the window there waiting to grow. There’s a sun lounger, waiting to be lounged on. It’s all there.

Y: I love the nothingism! In doing nothing or just being able to respond to whatever is appropriate, how’s your routine been? Have you been writing every day? Have you been creative every day? Or do some days, do you just go with the weather?

P: I always go with the weather in the sense that first, I’ve got nothing to do. Yeah, in my diary I have 3pm chat with Youth – you put forward that as an idea, and I’m happy, I love doing that, but otherwise I’m silent.

I might be silent writing, or I might be silent making bread, or I might be silent digging the lawn or the vegetable patch, or whatever, but because that silence is the nobody that I am, or is the someone I’m not, which is the same person, which is no person at all – I don’t consider anything unless I’m asked.

Y: You seemed to have unravelled the riddle of existential existence almost. You’ve found a balance…

P: Well, I think you slightly hit the nail on the head because, until probably about 10 or 12 years ago, I was much more engaged in sort of existential thinking and the idea of nothingness, but I think existentialism falls on its face because it actually doesn’t see that nothingness is everything. That’s an absolute. If nothing is nothing, it must also include everything. It can’t exclude everything, and that was the big leap for me. I took the existential leap when I was in my early 20s into the void, and I became actually quite angst ridden, and I lived an angst-ridden life.

It was this breakthrough about 10-12 years ago, when I first met you, and I was just ‘wow!’ when I realised that nothingness was actually everything. That there are two absolutes: there’s absolutely everything and there’s absolutely nothing, so they must be the same thing, and that was the biggest, second only to Sartre’s mind-blower of the egos is every bit as much a construct as anything else within the material world, which was maybe 20-25 years ago. But really realising that while there is nothing here, and there is also everything here, that’s a huge thing. That is freedom in itself, because it’s absolute acceptance of all of everything that could be, or everything that could not be, and it’s not some sort of an emotional or psychological position, it’s a reality because it’s an absolutely unquestionable truth. It can only be as it is.

Y: Yeah, reminds me of the idea that, for many poets, the ideal is to become a shepherd, or goat herder. There is a great documentary on a guy in the 60s from England, who was a poet and decided to do it, and he lives just up the road from here in the Alpujarra and he’s got 300 sheep. I suppose it’s the sort of draw of that for a poet is exactly what you’re saying. It’s that nothingness and everything that’s everything, with the sheep on the side of a mountain, 

to be really rich is to have the least needs.

P: I think you could almost say it’s belongingness. ‘The home is where the heart is’ – an expression one often hears. Well actually, the heart is where the home is. That’s the truth. One is always at home within oneself with one’s heart. And I do feel that wherever I am, it makes no difference whether I’m sitting up in Bron’s house in Stoke Newington, or on the top of your mountain or whatever. I’m always at home, and I feel at home, because that’s where I am. Where else can you be but home?

Basically, it’s a belongingness that we don’t really need to express. We are who we are. And that’s that, and what we want to orchestrate that into, or delude ourselves with, or magnify ourselves, is irrelevant. We simply are, and equally we’re simply all or nothing. We can’t escape that. The whole materialist line therefore is a complete separation from that reality.

Y: Have you ever gone through a phase where you’ve not used money? Been a renunciate?

P: You mean deliberately chosen not to use money?

Y: Yes.

P: No, I haven’t. I have met a couple of people who have done that. Talking to you reminded me of them. It’s a bit of a hassle because if you want to visit them or them to visit you, you have to go and pick them up and get their train fare because they can’t use money.

All the rest of the band of Crass renounced tax. I happened to have a bank account, and I was the only member of a band back in the day with a bank, so I’ve lived my entire life dealing with their fucking tax problems.

Y: [Laugh] You had to pay all their tax?

P: To this day!

Y: It reminds me of when someone says they stopped smoking and they ask if they can…

P: …just have a little one, yeah!

It’s a bit like vegetarians who enjoy a steak once every so often because they need to, you know… I don’t mind what people eat, but I’ve got a bit of a sort of ‘Oh come on’. I’m a vegetarian but I eat chicken when ‘Oh right, okay… I forgot about them’ sort of stuff. It’s just bollocks isn’t it?

Actually, I’m not into any sort renunciation. If I don’t feel like sex for 10 years, well I don’t feel like sex. I’m not renouncing it. Let’s be realistic about ourselves, we’re all massively self-indulgent in that sense, aren’t we? And renunciation is as much an indulgence as absolute engagement. It’s the same thing.

Y: A psychologist reminded me the other day that if you’re an introvert, you have to be an extrovert as well, you can’t be one without the other.

P: Absolutely. In that sense we are all things, and if we choose to be a sort of stupidly individuated, isolated, little thing , then (a) we’re defying all known physics, and (b) we’re being bloody stupid because we’re not making the decisions. I’m not deciding what the weather is going to be, or I don’t even think my own thoughts. Thoughts thinks thoughts. Not the thinker. Thought thinks the thinker. That was a good one I came up with recently

Y: Yeah, that’s very good.

P: I don’t know what I’m going to think, and I don’t suppose you know what you’re going to think, it’s just thought thinks the thing, not me. Quite a lot of time me doesn’t like the thought that thought thinks. I can very much do without it. I don’t need that sort of intrusion. It’s been like people ringing you up all day, isn’t it? Who needs it? I mean, not really.

Penny Rimbauld

Y: Do you meditate? Have you found a way of stopping thinking? Apart from busying yourself with making bread.

P: You can’t stop thinking. It’s a matter of whether you are attached to the thinking or not.

Y: Right, yes.

P: I mean, I allow thought to go on. I can’t do anything about what the weather’s doing out there, it’s just weathering. Well, thought thinks. It’s ‘thinkering’, and it’s got very little to do with me. As I say, a lot of the time it’s nothing I want to be thinking about. Especially when I start getting trouble. Do I want to be worrying about bank balance or worrying about whether my underpants are clean? No, I don’t! But we just deal with that sort of thing.

Y: Sometimes thoughts can be nice. And you can have other reveries and by your imagination wander somewhere.

P: Yes. But then if you’re controlling it, it’s not going to wander. That’s how I write basically, I just let thought do the writing. I don’t get engaged with it and think ‘oh, that’s a good thought’ or something other, because it’s nothing to do with me.

In the Pagan tradition a good metaphor of creativity and life is cup and sword. The sword is where you’d use your will and you’re an active, and the cup is where you’re being receptive, and yielding and letting go. It’s the balance between those two dynamics that creates everything or something.

I can see that it tallies with my concept of appropriate action. There’s no action to be made except appropriate action. Animals do it all the time; an animal never makes an inappropriate action because it hasn’t got the psychology to fuck itself up with. If anything, the psychology is an extension of the ego which as Sartre said, and I entirely agree, is a pure construct.

It’s like my bookcase over there, that’s the ego. It’s over there and it’s got predictable books in it. Things that mirror thought thinking its own thoughts. The ego gets a thought because it confirms something about it, not about me because there’s nothing to confirm about me.

Y: That reminded me a Hillman quote about Lorca, he says ‘originality is a construct and a construct is never original’.

P: Yeah, absolutely, that’s totally right, and it is all that ‘just get it out your own way’, and just relaxing, really. We don’t get involved in all that consideration when we are of the earth, because we are the earth. We don’t need to argue with it. We don’t need to argue with each other, we are doing the same thing, we’re just using different knowledges.

Photos by Maryann Morris