Penny Pepper: a life in 10 Rhymes


Richard Downes reviews Together 2012, Writer in Residence Penny Pepper’s poetry performance at NewVic on 7th March as part of Newham Word Festival.

Yellow book cover with a illustration of Penny Pepper

Cover of Come Home Alive

10 Rhymes divided by 5 years since I last saw Penny Pepper perform, equals two lives coming together on the eve of International Women’s Day – hers and mine.

Penny takes us back to 1969’s Moon Landing. I was about to leave special school to orbit the mainstream. Penny was in hospital. We watched that first giant step together separated by miles coming together decades later through our common ground of poetry and activism. It seems she always got there first, leading from the front. We follow in her jet stream.

Rhyme 2. More joint interests in the shape of books. Me on a haphazard trajectory. Penny finding inspiration in the words of women showing the way, “the girls would be stars”, “the girls who saved the world. Wonder Woman. Wonder Women.”

We now learn of Linda – a good friend, the rocker, a real-life inspiration, a touch stone, the one with the take on fashion and fornification. She then segues into a dedication to the recently lost Katherine Araniello – one of “the greatest girls we’ve ever seen”.

In the midst of Penny’s early punk years she moves on to Endlessly Leytonstone cribbed from the bare bones of Cooper Clarkes’s Chicken Town – hundreds of ‘bloodys’ raining down on anything and everything that gets in the way, drowning that which needs to be experienced. This shared era finds us developing social consciousness, thirsting for social justice and achieving because we dared, “dared to fight back” and roared and rode: “together we rode”.

Rhyme 6 is no rhyme. It’s a change of pace. Penny reads from her memoir about the time she was an Ugly Pygmy. Why? Because that is what we are. The punk, in your face stance remains, but now there is a vulnerability, a need for support and the importance of having friends you can trust. Thatcher straddles the air waves and an effort is made to reclaim language for ourselves. Cripple becomes crip. We seek to meet the world on level terms and yet again we move forward.

Another time, another cameo. Penny the naked punk modelling in life drawing classes. Not objectified but staring out, full of pride, self-love for her body. Penny the feminist is in charge, speaking primarily to other women. She actively promotes the importance of self-love for women who are constantly denied air space, cast aside in the hunt for perfection. The call is to celebrate all women, women power and appreciation of all bodies.

Talking tits as Penny does, the penultimate bow is dedicated to mothers and in particular those who have survived breast cancer. Mammogram is the rhyme. More love is spread out. Survival scores, surviving scar attacks.

So, we arrive at the denouement. A final challenge. Penny laying into the word ‘special’, scattering it unsparingly into all the shapes it can take. Yes, it has its place in crip culture. We know where it has been and what it has done and yet like nice: nice cake, nice biscuit, you can put it anywhere. Put it anywhere in an attempt to cast off the legacy the word gave us before accepting, as Penny does for us all, that she and we are ‘fucking special’.

It seems to me to end this piece that Penny is to me as I am to she, as we are to people, time and place in history. We took this trip together and we are still moving forward.

Penny Pepper is an acclaimed author, performer and activist. Her debut poetry collection Come Home Alive, was published by Burning Eye Books in September 2018.

The Naked Punk: Writer * Poet * Activist

Come Home Alive
Debut poetry collection, Burning Eye Books

First in the World Somewhere,
Memoir, Unbound

The Guardian
Profile and articles.