Penny Pepper's memoir First in The World Somewhere is a must-read book, written in impassioned fashion about all the awakenings lent to her from punk, London, sex. All notions of living a life defined or confined by a disability were vehemently rejected. She lived independently with her partner in crime, Tamsin, performed gigs, wrote erotica, went about everything on her own terms. As she pointed out, if punk was about breaking down barriers, it had to be inclusive of disabled people.
On this Rock n Roll Book Club evening at punks' favourite the Dublin Castle, she delighted us with anecdotes, confessions, poetry. Sat alongside a beloved, autographed image of Morrissey which is framed and sat atop a lacy tablecloth (as he'd wish), she tells us about their letter exchanges, and how she overcame her shyness by becoming the singer and writer Kata Kolbert.
We get the privilege of hearing some of her songs recorded in the early 90s, along with Smiths favourites and punk and new wave classics. Penny describes her own songs as "punky, folky pop."
Penny rips into a poem called Fucking Special, where she slams the idea of having "special" schools, and the rest of it, as a disabled person. It's an incredible, powerful moment.
She reads choice pickings from her autobiography, and chats with fellow author and Smiths devotee Julie Hamill about how letter writing transported her away from the misery of her home life as a teen. She admitted to building up a "tense obsession" with Morrissey, recognising herself in his lyrics: "If the people stare, then the people stare..." She was used to being stared at.
She said how everything he said made her feel understood, singing about being an outsider, and toeing the line against Thatcher in grim 80s Britain. He told her she wrote beautifully, sent her rare vinyl - perhaps aptly, it was Barbarism Begins at Home. And Moz even wrote her a happy birthday greeting in green crayon once! He once invited her to a Royal Albert Hall gig by the Smiths, offering her "every kindness and assistance" - which was all great, sitting in the special box seats, until she could not get out at the end...
Julie has some personal messages for Penny - including one from the once editor of Jamming! magazine. She'd written to him in the 80s, contesting that if the publication was really about "breaking down barriers," as its strapline claimed, that ought to include disabled people getting access to gigs. Tony Fletcher's message to Penny tonight read: "Jamming provided you with a soapbox - but you're the one who stood on it."
Her memoirs were based on her personal diaries of the time - influenced by Anais Nin! Great to hear that Penny's diaries have now been placed in the National Archives.
She writes in her book about feeling imprisoned, stuck at home with her parents, due to having still's disease from birth, which affects her joints and means she uses a wheelchair. In those days, she says, if you were disabled, you either lived with your parents or in a care home. She demanded independent living and got it, describing how she and her friend Tamsin - also disabled - had "fire in our bellies" and wanted to live just like others in their 20s, drinking vodka, partying, having boys over, cooking for themselves.
And, when it came to writing, she says it took her a long time to realise that she had as much right as anyone else to do so - and it's the same with her having a sexual identity. She hates media perceptions, how biased and damaging they are.
"How I am, how I was - I was loved. It took me a long time to get there," she says.
Hear snippets of Penny reading on Unbound publisher's website.