Met OJ on Eel Pie '69
First came across OJ in '69 on Eel Pie Island, which lies about half way between Richmond and Kingston, some 12 miles south-west of central London. An interesting place with a long history, it's rumoured to have once been the site of a monastery and much later to have been used as a courting ground (or more likely a scene of seduction) by Henry VIII. About 35 of us were living in the recently abandoned, somewhat derelict but still beautiful 3-storey hotel with it's extravagant balcony looking out across the river towards Ham House and Petersham Meadows. There were various outhouses, and a large adjacent building said to have been the first in England to have an interior sprung dance-floor when it opened around the turn of the century.
Living on what is the largest island in the Thames, with only a narrow gently arching foot-bridge connecting it to the Twickenham side of the river, it was easy to fall under its spell and imagine that this was indeed a place where magic and fantasy lingered. The island is perhaps 1/3 of a mile long and not more than 100 yards across with small wooded areas at either end which had been left as bird sanctuaries. A winding path ran from the simple yet elegant bridge between a few small cottages down to the hotel and there split in two, one part going left to a boatyard and the other twisting right, through the hotel grounds and down to the water's edge.
I'd been to Eel Pie before, a few years earlier when it was still a thriving commercial venue - the hotel was run as a public house by Jack Marr and sold "Newcastle Brown", an ale of fearsome repute. The dancehall, reopened as a trad jazz club in the 50s by Arthur Chisnell, had since become one of the main centres of British rhythm'n'blues, having played host to the likes of Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and The Rolling Stones. (Not that I went there often being more into acoustic folk-blues, hitching down from Leeds to spend my weekends at Les Cousins in Greek Street, attending the hallowed all-night sessions of such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davy Graham, Al Stewart, Mox, Jackson C Frank, Wizz Jones and others.)
Anyway time flowed, and the place closed down, being left empty for a couple of years until in 1969 a local arts group managed to persude the owner to rent out the now unused hotel and dance-hall, the former as a place for various local artisans to perform their crafts and the latter as a music and theatre rehearsal space.
I bumped into Neil one afternoon on the sunny outdoor terrace of the L'Auberge, that amazing cafe at the foot of Richmond Hill whose fame had spread throughout the country as a meeting place for those with nowhere to go. (Its reputation was already firmly established by the time Andy and Maria took it over. It continued to prosper, not only as a result of the long hours of hard work that were put in, but also because of a typically continental approach which combined firm control with great tolerance. It was said that the police had tried unsuccessfully on more than one occasion to close the place down. Fortunately Andy was a member of the local Watch Committee, or so the rumours went.) I was whiling away my time awaiting customers for whatever it was that I might have been selling, vaguely wondering where I was going to sleep that night. Several of us had been of no fixed abode since The China Tea Steam Navigation Company, which was moored further up the river, had caught fire. Though not too badly damaged, Captain Mike was now repelling all boarders. (The China Tea must have had more owners than any other boat on the river. It was bought by Queer Paul shortly afterwards, who'd borrowed the money from Canadian Chris, and a few months later it ended up being berthed and eventually grounded on the far side of the Hotel).
I'd been doing some work for the weird and wonderful cybernetics guru Gordon Pask (who not so long after became one of the few people in England to be connected to ARPAnet, and who, unknown to me at the time, had previously been involved with Arthur in Eel Pie jinks). Maybe this seemed sufficient reason for Neil to invite me to take on the role of secretary for the Richmond Arts Fellowship, the group negotiating the rental of the Eel Pie properties. So I asked about the chances of being able to stay there. He thought for a moment, as if the question were hypothetical, and said possibly, yes. So I said ok.
By this time the hotel was in the process of being moved into by a small group of unaffiliated anarchists who had returned to the area after an unsuccessful back to nature escapade the previous year. I'm not sure of the details, but it had been up towards the Scottish border - Cumberland, I think. Yes, Cliff mentions that period in his book The Education of Desire: "We were there for a year when we hit winter..." - I remember either him or Brennan talking about periods of great hunger, and how difficult it was to get a chicken to stay still when you're trying to decapitate it with an axe. Sounded grim, especially for the chickens.
Having now got the taste for communal living, but still battling against a phobia of the countryside, they decided on another attempt - it sort of goes against the grain to have an anarchist revolution without communes - but this time a bit closer to the dustbins of capitalism, from whence in an emergency sustenance might be salvaged. I think Cliff had an image of it being a centre of armed rebellion against the state - this was after all a period of activity by the Angry Brigade (England's answer to the Weathermen, or the Weather Underground as they later became). But support was lukewarm - in the end, the only guns seen were those produced 18 months later by some East End gangsters, brought in to ensure the dance-hall's peaceful transition of authority from the patronage of a nearby Hells Angels chapter to that of a slightly more professional management. Oh, and Polish Paul's water pistol, with which he attempted to hold up the local post-office. He was duly whisked off for 6 months under a section order... causing the older and wiser ones to nod their heads and mutter sagely "Could'afuckin'toldyerman, guns'r bad karma".
It would only have been a matter of time - minutes probably - before some of the locals turned up: "Hiya... heard you were moving in...", "Wow! this is really far out...", "Have you got any dope?", "Was this someone's room? aw sorry, man... is it all right if I just crash here for a while?". Within days the centre of Richmond and Twickenham's drug culture had moved from numerous minor scenes and recoalesced on Eel Pie Island, in the process collecting a wide variety of waifs and strays.
I'd set off myself, to visit Seamus who was already ensconsed there. We'd known each other a few months. He'd come up from St Ives at the end of the previous summer. I'd been in the back room of the L'Auberge one evening, waiting for somebody to put some money in the jukebox, and overheard him talking about going to visit his friend Tats in South London. The name was familiar, and we started chatting and it turned out it was the same Tats who'd been in a house I'd stayed at for a while in East Dulwich, so I was able to pass on the warning to take care if he did go, 'cause the place had just been busted. Out of such things friendships are made. Seamus had been sleeping under one of the nearby Railway Arches but decided it was more comfortable moving into this overcrowded rented room I'd inherited for a while - probably a close decision. Anyway we kept in touch - still do. But didn't succeed in seeing him that time. Got stopped, searched and arrrested for possession of drugs whilst crossing Richmond Bridge.
That was a comedy of errors! Sunny golden Autumn afternoon, clear blue sky, light breeze, me carrying my battered old guitar, and as always amazed at the gorgeous view of woods and meadows looking south along the river towards Petersham Fields, and generally feeling pretty good. "D'you want some acid?", said Roy, who was always very cool, swallowing a blotter. "Ok", said I. But it was not to be, for at this point the police interfered in the form of Dudley and his sidekick, the rather nasty members of the local drug squad. Not that I was too worried. As it all started happening, rather than throwing an incriminating matchbox into the river, I'd done my usual and pushed it into the torn lining of my jacket - it was only a couple of dex 10s. So they searched Roy and found nothing (cause he'd palmed it), and then they went through my pockets, and pulled out various stuff, and said: "What's this?".
Now generally I'm pretty lucky in these sort of situations, once being thoroughly shaken down while standing there with a large joint in my hand; another time throwing a bit of blow as the squad car skidded to a halt. They knew I'd just scored, they'd seen me drop it, so where was it? Or had I really just been trying to wind them up by pretending to throw something, and was still carrying? It wasn't 'till they drove off that I realised why they'd not found anything - one of the wheels had stopped directly on top of the dope, leaving it a bit squashed, but otherwise ok. (The very young Annabella, for whom it was destined, and on whom it was found when she was searched that evening on returning to Stanley Royds, the local mental hospital, never did admit who she'd got it from, though the police had been following her movements all day and knew practically everyone she'd had contact with. Fending off enquiries by angry psychiatrists able to threaten you with whatever they can rustle up from their store of mentally and physically disabling pharmaceuticals demands a rare courage. There are no awards for such heroinism.) And then there was the time they'd tried to plant me, and all my pockets had holes in them...
But this time I'd fucked up... "Matches" said I. Wrong. I'd pushed the other box into my lining and left the pills in my pocket. Great!
So they searched Roy again, this time with much more attention and found the hit of acid; what should have been my hit of acid. And the pair of us got hauled off to Richmond cop shop, there to be interrogated in greater depth, 'coz they'd been watching me, and were damn sure that there was more to be found - kept threatening to break my guitar open, but finally decided they weren't getting anywhere. Until one of them idly picked up my jacket and casually flung it over the back of a nearby chair. And wouldn't you know, as it landed, the bottom of the jacket swung up against the chair and there was the smallest of rattles - the two drug squad guys looked at each other and dived for the jacket, ripped open the lining, grabbed the other matchbox, and spent the next 5 minutes examining its contents - 40 matches... Only as an afterthought did one of them take the jacket and give it a final couple of rips, just to make sure. And that was when the tubes of Centramina (Spanish amphetamines) fell out, tumbling all over the floor.
It was a bit rough, but mainly bluff, only a couple of blows and kicks from Dudley, who had a bit of a reputation for beating people up once he'd got them alone in the cells. He put on something of a performance, producing a bit of cannabis he claimed to have found and threatening to use it to bust the house of a friend I'd stayed at, before clumsily pretending to flush it down the toilet as a show of reasonableness. Being NFA meant no bail for me, and on top of that I was feeling bad about causing all this hassle for Roy. I apologised later, told him I'd wondered if he'd been all right. He said he'd been ok - the trip hadn't started coming on until he was in the cells, and anyway, they'd let him out after 4 or 5 hours. Very cool.
But I digress. So I moved into the two small rooms above the stage at one end of the dance-hall together with a few others who were floating between realities. Once a week the Arts Group would meet and discuss how to make some money for the rent. They decided to have a dance to raise some cash, with Mark Newton, a friend of a friend being brought in to run it. Except he turned up wearing shades, holding on to the leads of a couple of large alsations and generally behaving like a slick promoter. By the time he'd taken over the dance-hall for himself, Cliff and Jonathon had also managed to come to a rent agreement of £20 a week on behalf of those in the hotel, and the Arts Group found itself squeezed out, returning no doubt sadder but wiser to their original meeting-space. But who knows, without them...
One wondered why Michael Snapper, the owner, was prepared to become embroiled with such potentially inconvenient people. Well it turned out he owned most of the island. He'd also recently been refused permission by the planning authority to knock down the Hotel in order to build potentially profitable flats and maisonettes. And maybe he assumed that it would just be a matter of time before the council realised that the only way to get rid of the unwashed hordes that had descended on the place was to have it demolished. I suspect that as well as being a successful local businessman, he was something of a bohemian and still retained more than a streak of libertarian humour.
I continued living above the stage for a while in return for performing occasional menial duties at the dances put on by Mark with the assistance of Scotch Doogie. Some good bands played there, the most memorable being Stray, The Edgar Broughton Band (they really got the audience going with their Out Demons Out anthem, nice guys - generous with their dope), and Hawkwind (though then they were called Hawkwind Zoo - the name change came about a month later... they performed in complete darkness with just the red LEDs of their amps shining - a part of the evening remains particularly clear to me, mainly because I was tripping quite heavily about three feet above their heads, and I can still remember the vibrating floorboards... saw them again a few months ago as it happens, meeting up with my son Sol and some friends at a techno allnighter, but this time on E and a few shrooms - plus ça change).
After a couple of months I drifted into the hotel, which had become an acceptably out of control international crash-pad, many people arriving there via BIT. A year later the numbers had risen to 130 and still not stabilised. Various attempts were made to give it at least a name, if not a constitution. The words "Arts Lab" and "Commune" were bandied about by some, but never really caught on within the place. The excesses of the social anarchy which flourished there attracted amongst other things a constant stream of visitors (mainly to buy drugs), occasional media attention (local and national), and several invasions from gangs of skinheads and other adolescent tribes that inhabited the area. All the things that happened there, the good, the bad, and the strange - well, they're ten thousand stories in their own right.
Oddjob, known to his non-biker friends as OJ, turned up pretty early on in all this. I think he'd been at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane and then been involved with the infamous squat at 144 Piccadilly when police stormed the building trying to retake it from the occupants. Hardly the Easter Rising, but it's still remembered in UK underground culture as one of the great battles of the '60s. Part of the diaspora and still wearing his colours, OJ homed in on the Island effortlessly and cheerfully started getting a room together, rebuilding the second floor of one of the out-houses.
- Weed (June 1996)