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Paul Simonon - Caught By the River

It's all the tube strike's fault. The double-deckers are crammed, and a black cab is impossible. In the autumn sunshine, bodies ebb and flow outwards from King's Cross's dilapidated, ever so slightly edgy exterior. Dickensian waifs flake out on red brick and sawdust street corners. An emaciated girl slaps felt-tipped ''business'' cards on telephone box walls. London may be a blur of constant motion, progress personified, but these images, along with a good old-fashioned British strike, only serve to heighten the fact that, however swanky its minimalist facade, London life is still as charmingly grotty as ever.


Somewhere between Swinging London and Cool Britannia, there was the 1970s. Forever grey, leftover rubble from the Blitz seemed to exist in images of high-rise flats, power cuts, three-day weeks, squat rock, bad weed, and race riots. ''The world,'' as Simonon jokes in an accent we now call estuary, ''was flare shaped''.

There might be more of a splash of colour in Simonon's guise as a painter of some distinction, but not much. Forget the tiny smudge of dried-in tangerine on his shirt pocket, which may or may not allude to sunnier climes. From Hammersmith To Greenwich the 47-year-old's latest one-man exhibition, charts the course of the Thames with a palette that's more dreich than dazzling. Not exactly Waterloo sunsets, their surprising serenity nevertheless stays very close to home.

''It's always on Londoners' doorsteps,'' Simonon says of the river, ''but they don't always realise it's there. It's my turf, my manor. Without wanting to get too clever about it, the river's a good metaphor as well for coming and going, possibilities of going to other lands.''

He recalls over a globalised cappuccino: ''I was always changing schools, always the new boy in class, which gave me a sort of independence. Probably out of that I've never really felt the need to keep close ties with people, you know. You don't give yourself time to get sentimental. You just move on to the next thing and get on with it.''

Which is probably as good a reason as any why there won't be a Clash reunion tour. Even so, From Hammersmith to Greenwich does suggest that Simonon finds some kind of security in his immediate roots. Especially as his return home, following a period of wanderlust in his post-Clash years, to a stone's throw from his old stomping ground, was precipitated by something so endearingly old-fashioned as the love of a good woman. That he followed his dad's example by picking up a brush, beginning with representational studies of dirty dishes, again suggests an emotional security blanket as domestic as it is creative.
The works in From Hammersmith To Greenwich are culled from the last five years, during which Simonon worked on location, braving the weather's moods with 5ft by 7ft canvasses. Working on his instincts, he'd react to a glimpse of sunlight through dark grey clouds or vapour trails left by aeroplanes in flight.


This philosophy took Simonon to art school, a very traditional English rock'n'roll pursuit, where he fell out with the the school's then vogue for the American avant-garde and dropped out. He then fell in with Mick Jones, who'd ''only signed up in the first place so's he could start a band, whereas I'd gone there specifically to be a painter."

The correlation between rock and visual art, one produced by a gang mentality, the other in private, has always possessed an umbilical pull. Something, perhaps, to do with understanding the power of image: like the cover of London Calling, The Clash's third album released in 1979. Here was Simonon, caught in glorious monochrome smashing his guitar onstage by snapper Penny Smith, accidentally defining a moment in motion, squaring the circle as one artwork effectively gift-wrapped another.

The Clash's west London urban guerrilla chic hadn't so much run its course by then, but been superseded by the trappings of rock star wealth. Platitudes about ''career opportunities''didn't quite ring true anymore when you're almost a millionaire. As for being so bored with the USA, nothing could be further from the truth. Even so, The Clash only fully imploded in the mid-eighties, and by the time Simonon returned, London was a yuppified Thatcherite hell. But then, where else could you sit beside the Thames all day, and paint your little prodigal's heart out.

''It was like coming home with a pair of fresh eyes,'' according to Simonon. Simonon is working on an ''egg and bacon'' series of paintings, elevating yet another English institution, that of the greasy fry-up from a long-distance roadside caff, to iconic status. He's been offered a show in Japan, and might take a batch of egg and bacon works with him.

''That'll get their tastebuds going,'' he says, puckishly. Still a far cry, however, from the 1990s Britpack of conceptualists one might have expected Simonon, with his impeccable punk credentials, to align himself with. Especially as they shook the art establishment in much the same way as punk had been a bomb hurled at the rotten heart of the music industry.

Yet, despite a sole collaboration on canvas with self-styled enfant terrible Damian Hirst - ''We'd had an awful lot to drink. You could get away with anything after that. Glad I wasn't paying for it, mind'' - Simonon feels more at home ploughing his own trad furrow.

''It's irrelevant what the fashions are,'' he maintains. ''I'm an oil and canvas merchant, and that's that. I've got my own things to do that are mine. It'll be interesting to see where I am in 30 years, and whether I've moved on or not, or whether I've got bored, stopped painting, and got another job. I'd hate that,'' Simonon says, sounding mildly, but only mildly, punk, ''being bored.''


From Hammersmith to Greenwich, Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, 38 Bury Street, London, until October 18.

The Herald, October 3rd 2002.


ends

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