By Simon Fellowes.
Let me tell you about The Demolition Decorators. They lived in a greengrocer’s warehouse in Covent Garden back when that dusty corner of London was in the first throes of redevelopment. How I found them I hardly know. Wandering around as a teenager, nose in the air, alert to any sharp sound or movement, something must have alerted me to their presence – a hand-printed flyer maybe, seen on the wall of a gig, or handed to me while waiting in line. All I know is that I found them. I was a suburban boy launching himself into places unknown, on his own, on a quest to self-educate (a profoundly important idea to me at the time). I must have walked up to the front door of their dilapidated building, now an office block and mainstream fashion emporium, and knocked. Or maybe not knocked. Maybe I simply pushed myself in.
The building was squatted, as so many were in those days and walking up the central wooden stairs, I noticed how each room had become an individual domain, personalised with a wall-hanging, a bedspread, or small column of books. Poking my head through doorways, I saw people smoking, reading, or crashed on their stomachs, oblivious to any intruder.
The chief of the premises was a man named Lester. He was tall and thickly-bearded with kindly brown eyes. He had a straightness about him that engendered both trust and fascination. I found him sat eating a bowl of lamb stew in the corner of a sparsely-furnished but sunlit room. ‘You eaten?’ he asked. I shook my head. Without a thought, Lester picked up another plate and scraped half his food onto it before passing it over. ‘Spoon’s over there,’ he gestured, adding, ‘Feels better than eating alone.’ This calmed my nerves and I took a seat on a single mattress beside a pile of International Times magazines.
It turned out The Demolition Decorators were a street theatre group, and over recent weeks had staged a number of impromptu ‘happenings’. Perhaps that’s where I had seen them, being that I was keen to investigate such things at the time. I was a 17 year old schoolboy with an interest in Drama, rejecting the world of British theatre, instead burying myself in Peter Brook, Stanislavski and Jerzy Grotowski. This in turn had led me towards more esoteric offerings in New York, but those New Yorkers felt far away at the time; I was forced to find my thrills closer to home. I told Lester of my interest in what he was doing and asked whether there was any way I could get involved. He seemed happy enough to find me something to do, telling me they were planning on running a series of free parties on the ground floor and basement of the squat. They would decorate the rooms, the themes changing with every show. They would then invite performers, poets and musicians to come by and do their thing. There’d be no charge to the public, but there’d be a bar, and any profit made from the alcohol would go towards the following fortnight’s show. ‘Fortnight?’ I asked. ‘We’ll need two weeks to redecorate,’ Lester explained. ‘Once a week, we’ll be knocking ourselves out. Any longer and people will start to drift away.’
It’s funny to think about the difference between London back then and the way it is now. There were plenty of things going on, but you would struggle to find more than two or three of any interest at one time. They would also be localised. The West End and Soho was the hub of most things, the occasional gig forcing you further afield – The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, The Nashville in West Ken, or Dingwalls in Camden Town. The number of pubs worth visiting could be counted on one hand, and while we all drank, there wasn’t the drinking culture that exists today. Warehouse parties were starting to take off, largely because of the lack of venues, but within months the police became wise to them, and more often than not, a night would be ruined by an unexpected raid. The club culture taking place in New York – Studio 54 and the like – seemed another planet away. In London there had been the smattering of Punk clubs – The Roxy the most well known – but they had quickly evolved into places like The Blitz, a marker for the aspirational nightlife that abounds today.
In some ways The Demolition Decorators and their ilk were the last hurrah of vanishing city. Their roots were fixed in the 60’s – the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 14-hour Technicolor Dream. It felt symbolic that the area of Covent Garden where they were based was also changing. Local citizens had successfully fought off a plan to prevent a concrete highway from running through their neighbourhood, but the market was still about to be transformed into an arts and crafts theme park whether anyone wanted it or not.
Not that The Demolition Decorators had an alternative plan. They simply wanted to make most of the space they were in – breathe one last breath into it before it went away.
The first party put on was a chaotic affair. The rooms of the squat were filled with people talking, getting stoned, dancing or making out. Music blared from various stereo systems, while down in the basement, bands played, ranging from free-form jazz to nose-bleeding thrash. Occasionally a room would be occupied by a guy reciting poetry from a battered notebook. None of it was of any quality, but it was delivered with passion, the spittle flying from the poet’s lips forcing onlookers to stay pressed against the walls.
If you were fortunate, you might run into a comedian delivering his routine (back then comedians were always men), but as this was a few years before alternative comedy became a known entity, the routine in question was often no more than a rant at the expense of Jim Callaghan’s then shambolic government. Boy, if we had only known.
The way the rooms were decorated at the first event was nothing too special. There were murals of sorts and a haphazard use of theatrical lighting. Props departments were raided to lend the rooms a theme – blue, red, gothic, or sci-fi. Yet while basic in approach, there still remained an air of mystery – people never knowing what they might find. Different rooms appealed to different personalities. Some might prefer an atmosphere that was claustrophobic and warm, others choosing something more sterile and cold. The mood also connected with the chemical state people were in. If they were speeding, they’d prefer a vibe that was slick and clean. If they were smoking dope, they wanted somewhere comforting and squishy. If anyone was lucky enough to find themselves a partner, they made sure to find somewhere dark.
The night was raucous, shambolic, and bursting with energy. I spent the evening running from room to room, as a teenager would, making sure everyone had whatever they needed, and that the frenetic pace of entertainment never waned. The moment a room became free, the next performer would be shoved forward. If no performers were to hand, members of the public were entreated to do something themselves. This could result in anything from improvisational dance (always dreadful), to some drunken loon yelling the words of his favourite song. If things ever got boring, there would usually be some art student ready to strip off.
By the time the third party took place, we were beginning to get a better handle on things. The success of the first two events had attracted more people to the group, which resulted in more performers and more props and equipment. The decoration became elaborate. My school’s summer term had now ended, and taking the train up from the suburbs, I would spend every weekend with Lester and his crew. Pretty much all of them were older than me, but they seemed happy enough to have me around. I felt as if I had entered a dangerous and anarchic world. I had no idea whether what we were doing fit into any scheme, neither had I thoughts of where it might lead. I was simply embedding myself in all that was going on, rolling with events, opening myself up to new and exciting things.
The third party was a big success. We’d built a maze on the ground floor, so in order to enter the building, guests were forced to crawl into a tunnel and continue through a series of corridors and doorways, all of them bathed in red light. It was an installation similar to many I have experienced in galleries since, its purpose to destabilise while at the same time exciting the participant, alerting and provoking them into feeling something outside the norm. What they found waiting for them on leaving the maze were a gaggle of freaks selling drink tickets, entreating the visitor to continue further into the house where all manner of extraordinary experiences were promised. The mood was kept playful, any notion of cynicism left on the street. Local drug dealers lent a hand to all those resistant.
Word of the parties soon got around.
In preparation for the next, Lester and I took a trip to the secondhand military hardware store on Laurence Corner. With the funds at our disposal, we were able to purchase a set of all-white forensic suits and a box of protective goggles. Then, taking rolls of discarded theatrical posters, over which we had scrawled the details of the next party, we spent the rest of the day running around central London, offering the posters to blank-eyed passers-by, inviting them to attend the next event. Hidden behind the goggles made it almost impossible to see, yet I was still aware that a number of people found our appearance alarming. This ability to disturb I found thrilling.
Exhilarated by our experience, Lester and I returned to the squat, famished but penniless, our cash spent on tube tickets, the goggles and suits. ‘No problem,’ Lester announced. ‘We just have to wait until the restaurants are closing.’ I was baffled. I couldn’t see how we could eat once the places had shut down. But shepherding me outside an hour later, Lester approached several venues by the back door, asking if there was any food left that they were about to throw out. 20 minutes later we returned to the squat, two carrier bags fully laden with food. It had been a perfect day, and had shown me how it was possible to engage with the world in a way I had never known.
That’s how I saw Lester. He was a teacher, without ever making a big deal about it. He simply did things and I watched, showed me a way of behaving. At the time I had no one else doing such a thing. No one else was plugged into a lifestyle that was interesting to me, who knew more about the world I was fascinated by and was prepared to take me along for the ride. I had no equivalent father-figure, no mentor. Lester, all six foot four of him, was Baloo to my Mowgli.
On the night of the fourth party I was both excited and concerned when I saw the long line of punters running down Floral Street. From a disorderly gathering spread only by word of mouth, the crazy goings on we had created at the squat had now been written up in Time Out. Our ramshackle productions were considered a hot ticket, and starved of cheap entertainment, a number of eager participants had arrived. Rather than making it a night to remember, their presence turned out to be a disappointment. The party was over-crowded, the rooms too cramped to be enjoyable. People found themselves crammed on staircases, making moving from one floor to the next a lengthy and tedious process. Tempers became frayed as the drink regularly ran out. Bands started arguing as to when they should go on, most of them wanting to perform as soon as possible before the place became overrun. The mood became aggressive, surly, and dark; a mini Altamont in the shadow of Drury Lane. I looked for Lester to see what might be done, finally finding him shut away in his room with a group of colleagues, all of them arguing as to whether they should shut the joint down. I found a place in the corner and sat listening as the conversation raged back and forth. Some were worried about safety, others convinced things would eventually calm down. For me it seemed as if everything was spinning out of control. We were a victim of our success and also our naivety. We wanted to be popular, but had never considered what popularity might bring. Many of the people who had turned up that night had come expecting to be entertained. They had seen the article in the magazine and had anticipated an evening’s performance. They had no idea that part of the show was to be part of the performance themselves. They weren’t geared up for such a thing, and thus found the proceedings both baffling and disappointing. In the end the evening collapsed with exhaustion. It was no longer fun, and everyone decided to call it a night.
Over the next few days a postmortem took place. It appeared we had reached a critical point; either we should call a halt to the parties, or become professional and treat them as one might a theatrical show, selling tickets in advance or on the door. It wasn’t something Lester or I were interested in. We felt the parties should feel free and spontaneous. They should be populated by like-minded people who felt the same sense of engagement as we did, rather than those who had turned up expecting a production.
Nevertheless, Lester wasn’t keen to rain on anyone’s parade. There were those in the group who saw things as an opportunity to further their ideas, whatever they might be. I didn’t much care for their way of thinking. I could understand what they were saying, but something about their attitude felt calculating and avaricious. I saw the light fading from Lester’s eyes. But being the driving force he supported his friends, but I felt only out of duty. I on the other hand had no such affiliations. By now my summer was coming to an end. Term time would start in a week and I had other responsibilities. I decided to leave the others to whatever they wanted to do.
It turned out they only had one more party in the squat. The atmosphere turned out to be all-too-predictable, the event lacking any spark or magic. It seemed, like me, to have run its course.
Looking back now, I remember those months fondly, and every time I have found myself in the midst of a similar event – New York’s Area, a Secret Garden festival, a Punch Drunk theatre show – my mind wanders back to that falling-down building opposite Covent Garden tube, and the small group of reprobates who, with no great ambition or singular design, managed to create, over one hot summer, a space full of madness and mystery that in its own way bade farewell to a London that none of us knew would never be seen again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon Fellowes is a writer living and working in London. Beginning his career as a freelance journalist for the NME, he went on to form the duo Intaferon (‘Get Out of London’) before enjoying a successful solo career in the USA as Simon F. Moving from NYC to LA, he spent the next decade directing music videos before returning to London to work as a screenwriter. More recently he has been working as a creative strategist for several major corporations while writing his Hollywood trilogy of novels, the first two of which – Don’t Breathe the Air and My Name is Ferdinand! – are now available via Strata Books.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 2nd, 2014.