Eds note: this chapter concerns squatting in Campbell Buildings, Waterloo 1980
Doctor Death (not his real name) was about as bad an advertisement for five years worth of medical training as you could possibly imagine. It wasn’t so much the fact that he was a bad doctor . Whilst he was definitely crap in his chosen field, that was beside the point. It is just that you’d expect some kind of reward for that much work, wouldn’t you? Five years worth of sleepless nights on duty in a public hospital? Years of treating the great unwashed and washed alike? That has to worth something. You’d at least expect a receptionist and a car with the vaguest hope of passing its next MOT.
I don’t know who he’d pissed off in this (or some previous) life to earn his current lot but it must have been some unbelievably evil bastard. The judge’s gavel had fallen hard with a sentence that included a fleet of trucks worth of bad karma. Shit, we’ve all been there, done that and visited the souvenir shop.
Condemned by the local Health Authority to work a dingy basement surgery on a Waterloo council estate, he sailed ever closer to the day of his inevitable striking from the Medical Register. He had little to look forward to. There was the bottle of Sainsbury’s scotch in his bottom desk drawer but that was more of an everyday thing than a treat. Retirement looked good if he lived that long. In the meantime, from dawn to dusk, he received a steady stream of punk rock zombies craving Valium and Mogodon. At least, despite appearances, they didn’t want to feast upon his living brains.
I was not really interested in his problems because I had enough of my own. It was a quarter past eleven on a Friday night and I was wondering whether I dared put my penis in Doctor Death’s hand. I’m sorry but I had to give you a little heads up about his medical standing and the dangers such an act might involve before I got on with the details. Standing over the toilet, inspecting the tell tale signs of newly discovered venereal disease, it was a decision that I, myself, was not taking lightly. There was the clap clinic at St Thomas’ of course but last time I went there, the blood test had revealed a large and diverse range of pharmaceuticals. So large and diverse in fact that the attending nurse had loudly introduced me to all and sundry as the walking chemist shop. Such familiarity is rather inappropriate in such settings but she was cute as far as nurses go. The cutest nurses always work the clap clinic. It is the one place no-one seriously tries to pick you up.
The doctor confirmed the nurse’s diagnosis and assured me such variety of substance abuse represented something of a record in his experience. Not realising this was a bad thing, I was quietly pleased at such recognition . Don’t tell that to anyone. A good drug fiend has a reputation to uphold but it should be spread in whispers.
My main problem with the staff of that venerated institution was that they liked sticking that horrible umbrella thing up the eye of your cock and giving it the kind of good hard scraping that is difficult to forget. A quarter century on and the wince is still there. I still clench my teeth at the memory. If you thought the burning sensation you experienced due to the disease was bad, here was a procedure that would have you contemplating celibacy as a serious life option for at least several days. You have to admit that several days is a long time to consider celibacy.
The other disadvantage with the clinic was that it wouldn’t be open until Monday. The sooner I got onto those antibiotics, the sooner I’d be able to fuck again. The way my dick looked, I didn’t even want to touch it myself so a wank was out of the question.
I knew that I had to deal with the problem and I had a fair idea that I could just demand penicillin from the Death dude and he would oblige. His bedside manner was generally restricted to the phrase “What do you want?” His pen would already be quivering atop the prescription pad in bored anticipation. He positively groaned when presented with an ailment that you didn’t know how to treat yourself.
The trouble would come if he suddenly decided to take his hypocritical oath seriously. (I’m sick of writing sic.) Alcoholics can be so damn unpredictable. Doctor Death could suddenly become overwhelmed with quiet sentimentality towards his patients. Paternally, he would turn to you and tell you that he wouldn’t feed his dog the crap that he was scripting out. I doubted he had a dog or at least not one that hadn’t died of neglect. I figured that he sometimes just liked the company. He had once decided to stare into my inner ear for a good twelve minutes for no apparent reason other than my request for sleeping pills. Maybe he was just checking if I had any brain left in there to damage.
What if he reached into that tattered plastic holdall he carried in lieu of a black leather bag? God only knows what he kept in there. What if he pulled out some rusty hooked device of his own design? I imagined the good doctor downing another healthy swig of whisky whilst trying to work out which one of my dicks he should plunge one of his bent coat hangers into. It was not a thought to inspire confidence.
My course of action was clear. Tomorrow, I had to see the doctor but remember to keep one eye on the door in case he asked me to take my pants off. In the meantime, I had to take lots of downers and try to remember not to fuck anyone. Normally, that would be easier said than done but there was the whole question of how I’d managed to get myself into this situation again. That had not raised my stakes in any of the major popularity contests. The queue to my bedroom door was noticeably thin.
I had met Toni under rather unusual circumstances. Waking up on the toilet to find a strange girl pumping some unknown chemical into your blood stream cuts through all those usual social niceties one expects by way of introduction. Apparently, she thought I was cute but urgently needed some kind of a pick me up to awaken me from my drug induced stupor. A syringe full of what I can only assume was sulphate certainly caught my attention. My introduction to intravenous drug use thus came unexpectedly and unasked for. Don’t let me try and convince you that I was complaining. I was out of my fucking gourd. Besides, it was a good lesson about not falling asleep in the toilet with the door open. I mean to say… anything could happen and it probably did.
Things had taken a fairly predictable course from there. Within an hour, she had climbed over a fifth floor balcony and threatened to throw herself upon the cold hard courtyard below. In a voice that quivered with existential angst she proclaimed the world cruel and bemoaned the fact that nobody loved her. Well, that was a feeling I at least understood on some level and, not having had sex for a fortnight, my testicles felt swollen like watermelons with backed up sperm. It all made a quiet kind of sense at the time. Who says the age of romance is dead?
The next morning, she scarpered early because she thought her boyfriend would probably be worried, Toni, or Puke as she preferred to be known, strapped on her Docs and headed back to the wilds of Kennington. Unbeknownst to me, I had just secured another black mark against my name in the eyes of the Campbell Buildings sewing circle. It was bad enough that I had copulated outside of the group but no-one had pointed out to me that Toni was only fourteen.
With such a large group of reprobates gathered in such close quarters and with so little to do between ponced cigarettes, gossip was the order of the day. Cliques, sub cliques and secret societies blossomed. An anthropologist would have had a field day.
The sewing circle was a loose collective well known for its member’s skill at needle work of one sort and another. They were the princesses of the block, the in-crowd, the squats’ equivalent of a cheerleading squad. They would squeal with delight if you liberated stock from the local off-licence or illegally rigged their electricity supply. But they were fickle in their favours. They had the skills to cut enemies to ribbons with the sharpest claws south of the river and they weren’t afraid to use them. What good is power if you never use it?
It was easy to fall from grace in a shifting moral landscape. I had initially fallen foul of the sewing circle because I snogged Evelyn under the kitchen table one night. Cold shoulders, tongue lashings and cries of “unclean” taught me that it was one thing to have Crass records and go to Rock against Racism gigs but that didn’t give you the automatic right to kiss women of colour.
Such concerns had not occurred to me. I just liked the way Evelyn hid the most beautiful pair of eyes behind the nastiest pair of granny glasses that the National Health could supply. In her green plastic sandals worn over pink florescent socks, she was strange and other worldly and thus reminded me of me.
I thought racism was the preserve of skinheads and the mentally sub normal. Swastika shirts were ironic rather than iconic. Skin colour had as much significance as eye colour in a world of rainbow hued hair dyes. Of course, I lived in a world where bald headed boys with home made British Movement tattoos listened exclusively to Jamaican records. The nation’s morality reeked of insanity. If any proof were needed, the recent election of Margaret Thatcher underlined it. If I couldn’t follow the rules it was simply because the rules made no sense.
Once again, the news was out all over town. I had been a very bad boy.
This moral outrage did not stop the sewing circle adopting an under aged runaway of their own. This sweet young thing clearly idolised the shop lifting pink Trojan mini-skirt lifestyle and all those who walked it in sharp stiletto heels. She would have crawled across hot coals in a bid to fit in so that is exactly what they made her do. They named her Tea, not through rhyming slang acknowledgment of criminal skill but because it became her duty to make that beverage on request. That along with any other household duties required, demanded or merely dreamt up in a fit of casual sadism. I first met her on her knees as she attempted to scrub a bathroom floor with a nail brush. I suggested she rebel against this task but she feared the consequences. They might not take her thieving later. Lincoln had freed the slaves but not in beautiful downtown Waterloo.
Campbell Buildings was a sprawling between-the-wars estate that Lambeth council wanted demolished to make way for a bus terminal. Quietly, it was probably policy to turn a blind eye to the hundred or so punks who had squatted in the interim. There were a lot of hard core lefties in the Lambeth administration who believed all the homeless should be housed and took this as an ideological stance. It was, however, the pragmatists in the regime who finally reigned. For them, we were a way to save money. It was good we made such appalling neighbours. The existing tenants who had previously held out for the better deal to which they were entitled were suddenly none too fussed about which new hovel they were transferred into.
There was also the advantage that it was cheaper to leave us where we were rather than build a brand new state-of-the-art prison facility. That could wait until the new Tory Government provided funding to open up the internment camps. In the meantime, we were free to make our own Abaddon which is exactly what myself and the others did.
Despite my unkind words, the sewing circle was not wrong all of the time. Sleeping with fourteen year olds is never clever especially when they are fourteen going on fifty. Listen boys, you don’t need a degree in psychology to guess at the traumas you’re complicating when you go there. That said, the squatters of Campbell Building were all fucked up one way or another; literally, figuratively and most often both. We sought comfort not just in the arms of strangers but with anyone who would have us.
The sewing circle was also right about not sleeping with people outside the immediate vicinity. My newly festering penis was ample testimony to that. 1980 was a different world of course. Condoms were the weapons of choice for disgusting old people raised before the contraceptive pill. AIDS was not even a blip on yonder horizon. Disease was defeated and we all lived better through illicit chemistry. We could be the generation who lived fast, stayed beautiful, never died and never grew old; a veritable army of Peter and Petra Pans. It was a grand scheme until its inherent follies were exposed.
Scarecrow had been the first to die. Loaded up on sleeping pills, he went up to the roof for reasons unknown. He might have been bored, depressed or just needed a minute to himself to watch the moon come up over the buildings. Who knows why any of us do anything? He either overdosed or fell asleep and froze. We never found out which. By accident or design, it was a sad and lonely passing. In the morning, the police played a game where they threw tiny stones at his open mouth to see who could score the first point. Grief spilled out onto the courtyard below but the authorities had marked out their patch with strips of Metropolitan Police tape, He belonged to them now.
From that moment on, death watched over us with an icy gaze. It was capricious but it would not be denied. Parents came to reclaim bodies, cut hair, choose suits and re-brand with long abandoned names. Their control, thought long lost, won out in the end. These prodigal sons and daughters found repose in the leafy suburbs and towns from whence they thought they had finally escaped. They had found their little piece of England whether they liked it or not.
The ghosts of those we knew and loved were never laid to rest. No graves marked the names we spoke. Their stories were wiped clean and altered as if Jesus was a real person and he himself had washed and forgiven them of their sins. History is always written by the victor and the battles we waged looked all but lost.
The world was dark and that darkness was rising up against us. It was chucking out time on Friday night at locals across the land; the most dangerous hour of them all. The blackest of hearts were granted courage through alcohol but now found themselves ripped from the nurture of the publican’s breast. Angered by these severed ties, the well worn path between boozer and council flat were littered with half eaten curries, bad intentions and the bodies of unwary travellers.
We were held up in a ground floor flat. The council had boarded up the windows and we left these four ply sheets in place not merely through laziness but also for defensive purposes. Even sunlight was our enemy now. The only access was through the front door and, even there, precautions had been taken. Bolts, locks and chains merely offer psychological defence for those who believe their safe European homes to be their castles. In reality, these devices fail all too readily at the first hint of serious attack.
In all the flats, we removed the kitchen doors and propped them up at forty-five degree angles against the front doorways. This was the kind of defensive installation that allowed you to catch several winks of wary half-sleep if you kept one eye open. Well, it did if it was used in conjunction with a bucket load of downers and a strategically placed blunt instrument left under the mattress. The claw hammer was the Teddy Bear of our new generation.
Though we took many chances, in this we took few. Attacks were common and we didn’t take any chances by offending any deities. Charms and amulets began to proliferate along with spells, talismen and hexes. We weren’t fussy about Pantheons. We made a new voodoo from our superstitions. Certain pavement cracks were avoided whilst walking, matches were always snapped after third light and hats were kept far from beds. Various items of clothing were deemed to be lucky and were thus worn until they rotted from our skin. The line between mental illness and religion is a thin one. Once you convince another of the truth of your lunacy then all doubts are cast aside. Convince a few more and you can start picking up tax deductable donations.
It was a boy’s night in and pickings were scarce. We collected our dole on Thursday and the cash had gone the way of dreams. It had vanished with the dawning. We spent the night with prescription drugs, talking and smoking Benson and Hedges cigarettes. The floor was a gold field of abandoned packets.
There was Cory Spondendce and Quick Phil, Two Tone Steve and me. Fat Phil was off sulking in the kitchen or some other dank corner. He had been pretending he was in a time warp for the last few days and this attention seeking had become rather tiresome. Cory had suggested he go and fuck himself – but not anywhere that we could see him doing it. There were certain things you had to specify in Campbell Buildings. Self help books addressing boundary issues were at least a decade off.
Others came and went over the course of the evening. Ruthless and Jessica asked if we wanted to go to the Marquee and see Cowboys International. As if. There was a group who played no part in anybody’s top ten thousand must-see bands list. Pinki and Blowjob made a visit to inform us they were up to no good somewhere. It involved a group of the local estate lads and we thought it better not to know any more before the event. We’d certainly hear all about it in explicit detail later. That went without saying.
A portable record player spun an endlessly repeating loop of Siouxse and the Banshees singles. After they left the charts, top forty records tended to end up in the local newsagency at forty nine pence a pop. That put them within our price range unless, of course, the sales assistant wasn’t paying too much attention. The discount then grew to be five fingered.
I had been in better moods. Frequently. Life was going the way life tends to go the minute some fool claims that things couldn’t get any worse. Some people have so little imagination that it is scary.
I had only just got up to take a leak when I discovered my symptoms. You don’t need to know the foul details but, suffice to say, if you’re one of these people who believe in divine retribution then I had proof positive that yours is a vengeful God. If I needed any more proof then it came in the form of the commotion at the door. The alarm was raised. The Scousers were coming.
Hang on a second. Who the fuck were the Scousers? Much like primitives who choose to live under the shadows of volcanos, we had set up home at the nexus point between a Mod pub, a Rockabilly pub and a Greaser’s pub. In all fairness, the Greasers just sat around listening to Deep Purple albums but anyone who could do that had to be twisted in some kind of sick and evil way. One had to always quietly suspect the worst. To top that off, skinheads were free ranging ubiquitous troublemakers and Mad Dog’s Faginesque punk troop could also be counted upon to make unwanted intrusions. We couldn’t have planned it better if we tried.
Who were the Scousers? Even if you religiously read NME, in tribal London there were hip fashion trends that could rise and fall in an afternoon. A vague image formed of cleaver wielding Liverpuddlian mop tops serenading us with such ditties as “I want to hold your hand” whilst hacking away at various parts of our anatomy. Stranger things have happened in the big town.
Of course, it could have been a glue sniffing flashback too. Stranger things than that have also been known to happen.
There are a whole lot of theories about why people watch horror films. Some will tell you that horror films desensitise the viewer so that they may overcome their fears and learn to face the horrors life will inevitably throw their way. Others claim this desensitisation leads to sociopathic behaviour and the breakdown of society as we know it. Thus, these latter critics claim, that horror films should be banned accordingly. I think that is all a crock of shit. I repeatedly went to screening of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” because it provided me with a range of educational insights into the kind of situation I had just found myself in.
The main thing you learn from a horror film is that when you do something stupid then you tend to die fairly early on in the piece. If you do something unbelievably stupid you will be lucky just to see out the opening scene. As is so often the case, fact proceeded to follow fiction instinctively. Emerging from the toilet, I discovered that the front door was wide open and everyone was running to the back of the flat. The fact that there was nowhere to go back there didn’t seem to be occurring to anyone at the time. The messenger had been let through the barricades only to see them abandoned in the ensuing panic. This was turning into a frigging bloodbath without even trying.
I focussed my fear on the problem at hand. I was not in the mood for bashings, beatings murder or rape. These things would not bring a perfect end to a perfect evening. I got the door down just in time to hear the first bangs of fists on the wood outside. Sam Raimi couldn’t have timed it better even if he tried. Actually, he did try in the first Evil Dead film but he couldn’t cut his timing any closer to what I’d just pulled off. Now all we needed was a soundtrack by Goblin and we’d have something that would put bums on cinema seats.
An undecipherable blur of drunken accents began to howl something that probably amounted to assorted threats and abuse. Scousers my arse. Drunken Irish builder’s labourers more like with enough Poteen in their bellies to present a fire hazard. They lived over in the next block but I had no idea what their beef was. In life threatening situations, it is often better not to know as there is little time to ponder life’s little absurdities.
“Little pigs! Little Pigs! Let us come in!”
“Not by the hairs on our chinny chin chins.”
That’s about as good a translation as I can really give you. The words were all different but I think I captured the spirit of the piece. The huffing and puffing that followed seemed a little more forceful than simple exhalation. These guys were putting their shoulders into their work big time. I was putting all my weight down on the buttress and still I bounced up with every heave ho. I looked around for the nearest large heavy object.
“Phil! Get your fucking fat arse over here!” I demanded with the kind of voice Marine Drill Sergeants use in the movies.
Fat Phil preferred to be called Phil Free for obvious reasons. However, no-one really wanted to take him up on that particular implied offer. Being told to feel free does not, by definition, demand obligation.
There was, however, a duty to differentiate between him and Quick Phil. We called him Fat Phil because Slow Phil would have been even more insulting than our eventual choice. Besides, he was not merely big boned. He had, despite the most meagre of rations, still retained sufficient padding so as to cover up the fact he was big boned. In addition, he wore the kind of coat that Uncle Fester would only wear in the depths of a Siberian winter. With his thick black eye make-up he looked like a vaguely satanic panda. Satanic Panda Phil would have made an ideal rechristening if not for the fact that it was too much of a mouthful.
“No,” he replied. “I’m scared. They’ll hurt me.”
I felt like slapping him around myself at that moment. My fear had bought out a cruel streak from deep inside. I went with the feeling even though he was a friend who was already close to tears. I could tell you that I spoke for the good of the group but part of me meant every word that I said.
“Listen to me, you fat pile of shit. If you don’t get you’re arse over here right now, you won’t have to worry about them because I will personally come over there and beat you to death myself.”
I must have been fairly loud and fairly scary because even the banging on the front door stopped. The room took on a deathly silence as Phil assumed the position. I glared around the room.
“Now, will one of you useless fucks get me a bloody hammer so I can nail the first cunt who comes through the door.”
Outside, there was a half hearted volley of abuse and a few random kicks to the door. It was all over bar this shouting. What was planned as a simple massacre was turning into something more difficult. Someone other than us might end up getting hurt. The assaulting force vanished back into the night as if they never were there at all. The silence just swallowed them.
The next morning, when the buttress was raised, the front door was shattered and torn from its hinges. Locks and bolts hung off of bent and mangled screws but most of the damage was invisible. It lay deep within us in a place where no investigative surgery, electron microscope or endoscopy probe could find it. It was the kind of damage we all take on one hurt at a time. It’s just that some of us take it harder than others.
There are many who will tell you that the rock and roll dream is all about fast cars, loose women, money and the kind of shit that money buys. In Campbell Buildings, we lived a dream all right – but it was nothing like the one advertised on the box. One can only wonder at how much worse the straight world must have been for us to not just choose the life we did but also to revel in it. Is it better to rule in hell than serve in heaven? To us it seemed better to just live in hell.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Short claims he has not only heard the chimes at midnight, he has stayed up past dawn to hear them again the next time around. Before being old enough to drink, he haunted Sydney’s beer barns with proto punk band Filth. Later on, he gained some notoriety in the UK with the band Blood and Roses when he was described as everything from a “shambolic messiah” to a “long, tall streak of piss”. He has been a DJ and worked in a sex shop, the civil service and as Musical Director for a theatre company. He claims the only thing ever to surprise him was seeing his thirtieth birthday. Currently, he lives in exile in the penal colonies of New South Wales with his son, Billy. There he has makes low-budget films such as Makers of the Dead, Kings’ Cross Vampires, Lone Gunman Theory and Bad Animals. He is also working on a novel entitled “Red”.
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