Folk Punk, Queer Escapes, and the Ocean

Collage of Martha’s album Courting Strong and Fresh’s album Withdraw
Album covers for Martha’s Courting Strong and Fresh’s Withdraw

“You lost your lucky purple lighter

On the Megabus to Brighton

But on the way you read a zine that made you think

You’d be a good Anarcho writer”

Present Tense, Martha (2014)

I feel a fire inside me

Trains passing overhead

I know you miss your friends in Brighton

But starting over is a sign of strength”

Going to Brighton, Fresh (2019)

2020 was the first year that I didn’t see either Martha or ONSIND* live in about a decade. When I was a 16-year old deeply depressed boy, I would get the train up into London and gaze at Nathan and Daniel screaming about Sylvia Plath, heterosexuality, and Hollywood films. I’m pretty sure the first out trans people I met were on the pavement outside an incredibly sweaty pub gig in Mile End, and in their music I have always found a wellspring of queer anger, tempered by the softness of Call Me Maybe and Starships covers with other queer punks.

Whilst I was off being this messy, anxious little emo kid, I had a girlfriend a year older than me, and in my last year of high school I’d spend my weekends getting the Megabus up to Norwich where she was in her first year at university. Now it’s rare that a lyric captures a moment in your life as much as the above refrain from ‘Present Tense’ by Martha: losing your lighter on a Megabus, reading anarchist zines and pining for a cohesive community to be queer in. The Megabus has always, for me, signalled an escape from suburbia — whilst I waited at Victoria coach station I would dream of just getting on the coach to Paris and never turning back. The need to escape, captured in all its complexity in Shola von Reinhold’s Lote, is a deeply queer affect. I escaped into myself a lot as a teenager, into drinking in the park with my emo friends, into planning a runaway attempt to the West Highland Way that my mum foiled, but most of all into folk punk. I’d sit up for hours each night smoking rollups listening to Radiator Hospital and Defiance, Ohio, and Ghost Mice, and AJJ, imagining myself rocking up to the Plan-It-X festival in Bloomington Indiana, instantly accepted by a circle of trans people that could teach me how to escape from my own body. And it wasn’t that I was anywhere dangerous or bad or unloving, I just didn’t feel that the all-boys state grammar school, the leafy suburban London commuter village, could hold all of my neurodivergence and transness. The promise of my hometown was that somewhere else there would be a world where all the queers could find something better. I’d always imagined that my escape would be a dramatic, camp, flourish like that of my initial coming out (“XXX is a faggot”, “Actually David I’m bisexual”, *class roars*); that in my leaving there would be a wake in which the queers I’d run away from could be energised enough to come out themselves.

In reality, of course, my escapes played out on a much smaller scale. The Megabus to Norwich took me to my girlfriend, who happily painted my nails and used they/them pronouns for me, introduced me to her feminist society friends, spoke to me about Virginia Woolf and feminism. The train into London took me to antifascist and anticuts and anti-police brutality demos where I’d throw myself into the crowd and somehow not get arrested, flag in hand. The tube would take me to basement shows and squats and anarchist bookfairs. My computer took me to Tumblr, and to the first circles of trans people I’d be in regular contact with. Smaller escapes, but escapes nonetheless.

The best part of a decade has passed since then, in which time I’ve come out as a trans woman, as a lesbian, been involved in all sorts of campaigns and academic work and advocacy, and finally got the Megabus to Brighton in 2018.

Brighton has always been a queer pilgrimage for me — I got my first denim jacket here when I was about 14, one that carried multiple ONSIND/Martha patches throughout its lifetime. I used to get the East Croydon train down here to see emo bands at the venues dotted around the city, and went to trans pride here when I first came out. I self-consciously moved here as a dramatic escape from Oxford where I’d burnt out to the point of barely finishing my Masters degree. I moved here to be with my then-boyfriend-now-best-friend who pretty much saved my life and helped get me back on my feet.

Pilgrimages never really take you where you think you’re going, and moving to Brighton, starting over, was less a renewed explosion onto a fully formed scene, and more a slow rebuilding of a home and a life that I could rest within. Over the almost three years I’ve been here, I’ve spent most of that time doing advocacy work for a medium-sized mental health charity and working up towards the PhD I’m now starting. As Fresh point out, it’s okay to start over, and learning why I’ve needed to plaster over so much of my time in Oxford, including a lot of the friends I made during that time, has been a long and difficult process. Which is to say, I know I have hurt people just as often as I’ve been able to build a better world with people. Escape doesn’t solve that, but it does give you the space to work out why that happened.

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past year of the pandemic to grow my circle of friends dramatically. This is the largest and most solid group of people I’ve ever had by me, and our first proper outing to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, the arrival of one of my closest friends (the now boyfriend of my ex-boyfriend) from the US, and getting to see my girlfriend in person for the first time in months has been an experience I haven’t had in half a decade. It took so many escapes, small and large, solitary and in community, to get to the ocean, to get on the Megabus to Brighton, and I’m here now, and I can watch the sun set over the ruins of the West Pier whilst starlings murmurate overhead.

* they are alter-egos of largely the same punks

Twitter: @gay4plants

Transsexuals! Gay Plants! Anti-capitalism!