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I wore black for years, but life was always full of colour.
Steve Ignorant

Given the unique nature of Crass, it’s hardly any great surprise to discover that Steve Ignorant’s autobiography travels a path significantly removed from the tour-record-snort-fuck orthodoxy delineated by many punk memoirs. As befits the man who was viewed by much of the band’s following as the accessible face of Crass, The Rest Is Propaganda is a book about a life, and the different ways in which that life can be lived. Like the songs written by the band he fronted, and the messages that they attempted to get across, Ignorant’s book is suffused with humanist honesty. There is no attempt at artifice here; as with the rest of us, there have been times where Steve has been wrong, made a bad decision, or acted like an arse. What makes Propaganda special is that there is no retrospective self-justification, hagiographic re-writing of events, or score settling. We are simply told what happened, why it happened and how it felt. It is a book that rings the bell of truth.

Much credit for this must go to Steve Pottinger, who – like the most adept of ghost writers – maintains an unobtrusive presence throughout, organising his subject’s memories into a linear stream of recollection that mirrors life itself. I’ve spoken to Steve Ignorant, and the words on these 300 pages sound exactly as if they were transcribed verbatim – which, of course, they weren’t – nobody’s recountments are that well structured. ‘The way we did it was that he would basically interview me, and he would ask me questions about childhood and stuff which would then make me go off on a memory,’ explains Ignorant. ‘He’d just transcribe it all, email it to me, I’d go through it, he’d pick out the bits that he thought were best – and he was really good, because there were bits that I wanted to put in that would have been too boring – and he’s done a fantastic job on it.’ Indeed, the only points at which Pottinger’s hand becomes noticeable is due to his odd habit of using italics to indicate speech – a quibble that would bother only the most pedantic of readers.

In terms of style and structure, the book is faultless – no one is trying to be clever with the prose and the trio of sections (before, during, and after Crass) serve as a concrete metaphor illustrative of the way that the group changed lives; not only of those who followed them, but particularly for the active participants. There is an enduring clarity of tone here that moves the narrative along in an easy, agreeable manner. However, this does not mean that Propaganda is a simplistic, superficial recountment of events. Ignorant is self-evidently a sensitive and thoughtful man, and the courage with which he lays his feelings bare – regardless of how this may portray him – is admirable. Similarly, his evocations of childhood and adolescence will prove particularly affecting for anyone with similar fractured family histories, or who grew up in the first thirty years of post war Britain.    

Ignorant’s reminiscences of his childhood in Dagenham, experiences at school, discovery of rock’n’roll and introduction into the adult realms of work and pubs are detailed with the kind of stark realism and poignancy that permeates the works of his foremost literary influences, Alan Sillitoe and Barry Hines – to whom he dedicates the book. The sense of time and place is enhanced by the inclusion of several personal photographs, the details and faces within which should strike clanging chords of recognition for most of us who remember the era. Steve observes, ‘What’s really odd about it is that, obviously I was signing books at the gigs, and every so often the pages would flip open and there’d be a photograph of my Mum, and I was suddenly like, “Bloody hell! Everybody’s going to know everything there is to know about me, including those personal family photographs.”’ Intensely personal reminiscences are laid bare for our inspection, as strangers we are taken directly to the heart of a family by a man who spent much of his life welcoming people he’d never met before. As Ignorant recalls his unhappy adolescence in the wake of his mother’s remarriage, or the way in which his relationship with his paternal grandfather gradually grew, the pictures of these people seem match the descriptions perfectly.

It could perhaps be argued that the secret of a good biographical subject is for them to be an essentially ordinary person, who subsequently goes on to do extraordinary things. This way, there is a normalcy that much of the readership can connect with and sufficient excitement to enable interest to be maintained. This certainly holds true with Propaganda, and although Steve’s punk epiphany will resonate with those of a certain age, his subsequent tenure with Crass is a story unlike any other. The sense of Dial House being, in some way, a special place is effectively realised and the development of the band recounted with a refreshing lack of after-the-event theorising. Which isn’t to say that the group’s political ideas are glossed over – Crass stood for the idea of questioning what one is told above all else, exposing their own ideas to rigorous examination as much as any other beliefs – and suitably, Ignorant questions the ideological straitjacket that Crass’ commitment to their ideals often left them in.

The final section of the book, which deals with Ignorant’s struggle to come to terms with life in the wake of Crass’ dissolution in 1984 and his life up to the present day, brings the reader back to the vérité of the opening portion. There’s a case to be made that the opening and closing sections of Propaganda are the most interesting, as they deal with real people attempting to survive in a real world that is at best indifferent to them. However, this does the ‘Crass’ segment a disservice, as the two Steve’s text ensures that the personalities of most of the individuals within the group are fully realised. Beneath the black rags, ‘shock tactics and mindless token tantrums’ were real, living people. Which is how it should be, for if nothing else, Crass were all about people.             

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Reviewed by Dick Porter 13/11/10

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