Paul Simonon on his London accent

Catholicism, communism and multiculturalism shaped the punk icon’s upbringing.

From raves to churches, accents to gestures, E8 to SE22, no Londoner’s story is the same. In our first series, Audio Stories: London, we asked individuals from all walks of life to share an account of their city.

Paul Simonon, 63 years young son of Croydon, co-founded The Clash in 1976. That’s him on the cover of the still-mighty London Calling (1979), smashing up his bass onstage. Uncompromising then, uncompromising now, these days he’s an acclaimed painter and also Damon Albarn’s wingman in The Good, The Bad and The Queen. See them on tour this spring/​summer, in support of their Brexit-inspired England-hymning second album, Merrie Land. Simonon is also a wonderful, evocative storyteller, as demonstrated by this exclusive audio of his London, his city…

Audio transcription:

Hello, my name is Paul Simonon and I’m from The Good, The Bad And The Queen. And I would like to tell you about accents.

I went to school in Ladbroke Grove just off the Golborne Road, a place called Isaac Newton, the class was predominately West Indian. We did have a Chinese fella in the class but nobody would pick on him because at the same time Bruce Lee films were coming out and they thought if they messed with him they might get Kung Fu’d, so he drifted through schooling with no bullying. But in terms of accents it’s, it’s funny how you fall in with your circle of friends and to the point that I left school I had quite a strong West Indian accent and I had adopted certain slang, West Indian terms so it was a bit strange when I went to art college with this West Indian accent because I wasn’t from Jamaica, I was from South London. Anyway, it took me a while to adjust back to my normal, whatever my normal accent was. But it was a combination I suppose is what developed in me. But I do remember when the film The Harder They Come was released and watching them at the cinema with my friends. They even had subtitles up, but I didn’t need the subtitles because I knew exactly what was being said. So that was sort of an education in itself.

I’d like to give you a little glimpse of a memory that I had growing up. I grew up in quite a few different places but what I distinctly remember is growing up in South London in the Brixton area and I suppose as a child you just accept everything how it is, in so far as there were bomb sites that we could play on that were near the railways and also at this period is of the first wave of the people that came over from the West Indies, the Windrush. So we had quite a mixed school of people from quite a lot of different cultures and backgrounds. And for me it was just fascinating going into somebody else’s house and seeing for example, like there’s one West Indian family that, their son was a good friend of mine at school and he invited me into his house, and it just threw me the fact that he had a picture of the Queen on the wall and we didn’t even have a picture of the Queen on our wall at our house. And I suppose I was invited to have some dinner and that was when I first had chicken, rice and peas and then the following week my friend came over to our house and he had shepherd’s pie and I don’t think he had had shepherd’s pie before. So it was just sort of a funny exposure to somebody else’s home, and likewise for them hanging out in our house.

But also we used to have Sunday school which was sort of interesting, I remember being in Sunday school and I was working on this crucifixion scene with papier mâché and I had one more week to go where I knew I could finish this piece and I got home and my dad said right well we’re not going to be Catholics anymore. He said we’re going to be communists, so suddenly I didn’t have a crucifix anymore but I was given a red star from my father and so I never ever got back to Sunday school to finish my crucifixion scene. So maybe it’s still there, I don’t know. So from that point on, I suppose I was given a political awareness and I was aware of the people used to have marches about ban the bomb. So that’s sort of part of the environment I grew up in which is sort of quite artistic in so far as my dad always had aspirations to be a painter. But this was difficult because he had to find work to support my mother and me and my brother and so we travelled a lot around the country but predominately started off with being in the South London area, Brixton, because it was quite cheap to live there in that time.

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