Stuart Griffiths: On patrol under the watchful eye of acid house
Paratroopers off duty, after a rave somewhere in the South of east England, in someones living room smoking copious amounts of weed and hashish. 1992, from Pigs’ Disco
From bombings to steroid addiction to emotional family reunions on Surprise Surprise, the media loves a military story. It’s as though we wouldn’t take the news seriously without the presence of footage that some viewers may find disturbing. But considering how fundamental the armed forces are to our society, we tend to leave them to their own devices. Stuart Griffiths‘ Pigs’ Disco goes some way in revealing what soldiers get up to off duty, although it’s far from a tell-all expose. Tracking Stuart from his teenage years as a paratrooper to his twenties in Brighton amid the acid rave scene, it’s more a lesson in psychedelics than politics. The book came out in 2013 but rather than pander to the cultural hype machine, I’m speaking to Stuart about it now.
It’s a fitting wait for a project that was six years in the making and twenty in shoeboxes, brought together by Ben Freeman at Ditto Press. Ben met Stuart in the mid 00s when he was working at Vice, back before it became the behemoth it is now and joined the Murdoch empire. Stuart had come in to show editor Andy Capper his project on Liverpool gangs. Seeing Ben’s enthusiasm, Andy encouraged him to ask Stuart about his photographs from Northern Ireland. Two years before founding Ditto, Ben and Stuart started piecing together a story. At first glance, it seems an unlikely option for an art press specialising in books on subculture. But there aren’t many institutions which not only legitimise immorality but also command employees to kill, steal and smash stuff up for a living. The armed forces are about as subcultural as it gets.
Stuart enrolled at the height of the Troubles in the late 80s when he was just sixteen. “The first place I’d ever went was Belfast,” he tells me. “The first plane I ever flew in, I jumped out of. My formative years were sucked up by the military combine.” By the sounds of it, his platoon had a pretty rough time. The rest of the army referred to the paratroopers as ‘bird shit’ and they didn’t fare much better on the beat. In part, that was down to incidents like the wrongful killing of two young joyriders who sped past an army checkpoint. ‘Gunned down in cold blood’ was the headline. Stuart recalls a dripping potty being lobbed at their vehicle after that news was made public, its contents emptying onto his head.
British Paratroopers on patrol in West Belfast, 1990, from Pigs’ Disco
5.56 bullets that every soldier carries whilst on patrol in West Belfast, 1990, from Stuart Griffiths archive
Respite came by way of the Pigs’ Disco, a monthly event in which girls would be invited to the NAAFI bar (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). “They used to get so drunk and messed up,” Stuart says. Keen to avoid the mash-up contingent and “soldiers banging each other”, he started experimenting with drugs – acid, speed, ecstasy. This was before drug-testing was made compulsory in the late 90s. “Those nights were macabre scenes of smashed glass and bodily fluids, not a good thing to see on LSD,” he says. The drug connection is one that irked members of the British Airborne Forces Club forum. “Just another jazzed up memoire for sales purposes,” says Pat Harley. “We were normally too drunk to take drugs,” says Taff Loxton, presumably anxious to point out that he’s not Taff the caner and inadvertent arsonist from the book. “I’ve had abuse hurled at me over the social networks,” Stuart tells me. “It got people whipped up into a frenzy. An old friend who’d been at Sandhurst called me and said, ‘We’re all discussing your book in the House of Lords’.” When I ask whether the book is at all fabricated, Stuart replies, “It’s not a history book. It had to be humorous and entertaining.” Still, I get the impression that it’s anecdotes and identities that have merged and been exaggerated rather than the drug-taking being a figment of his imagination. “In the army you’re taught to be covert,” he says, “especially if you’re doing something illegal.”
If he feels any remorse in outing his former Toms, he doesn’t show it. He talks about his army experience as if it were an accident, a blip, and could just as easily be discussing time spent in a youth offenders’ institute. “To be honest, I don’t think I ever fitted in. I wasn’t a tough guy. I was bluffing the whole way. My tactic was to become known as the crazy guy. It helped with fending off unwanted advances. I think they thought, ‘This guy might drop something on my head while I’m sleeping.’
Even as a child, Stuart was a bit of an outsider. He grew up with his mum and siblings on the outskirts of Manchester, in a house known locally as The Haunted House. His dad was in prison and absent throughout most of his life. “It was a weird house. The rent was free because we looked after a retarded gardener who was quite a spooky character, banging his head against the wall in the middle of the night. We were quite ashamed. My mum wouldn’t let us have people over. I used to go in the back door so the kids in the neighbourhood wouldn’t see me.” The family later moved to Warrington, a bog-standard British town sandwiched between Manchester and Liverpool, but Stuart still struggled to find his feet. Leaving school at fifteen, the decision to join the army was almost made for him. “I was just an angry kid. I’d already been arrested and I was quite perturbed by the idea of following in my father’s footsteps.”
Despite its failure to indoctrinate Stuart, it was the army that provided him with the foundations for his nascent photography career. A camera received as a present from his stepfather gave Stuart the role he was looking for within the platoon, allowing him to retreat unquestioned when military life was getting him down. When the position for battalion photographer came up, Stuart was given the job. “Most paratroopers regard the photographer position as the ‘puff’s job’,” he says in the book, “but for me, it’s the most artistic job I can possibly get.”
Illegal Rave, Brighton 1994, around 7am. “When I took this photograph, I had a head full of acid and had been eating speed most of the night. I’d occasionally calm down when smoking on some weed and had to deal with being called a pig in disguise. It was a strange time, but I could rest assure that I was in good company, I was the unofficial photographer of the Church of the Sub-Genius whom organised the illegal rave in the first place, we were the ones that motivated the scene”, from Pigs’ Disco.
Stuart was 21 when he left the army and whether through desire or habit, he has continued to walk the periphery of society. At times he’s been homeless, for a long time he worked as a paparazzo, and he’s dedicated his later career to photographing “what can’t be seen”. Fresh out of service, he turned his camera on the acid house scene in Brighton, something that Ben pushed him to include in the book. “To go from something as tightly organised as the army to these lawless squat raves, I find really interesting. I used to go to a lot of the same illegal raves. If you got a camera out, you’d get your head kicked in, so there are hardly any photographs from that time.” Aside from being Ben and Stuart’s common ground, the Brighton period has real relevance to the story. Reading about Stuart’s endless trips in those early years, his search for love, his loathed job cleaning aeroplanes at Gatwick… it becomes apparent that while he had freed himself from the paternal grip of the military, he was still somewhat lost.
Throughout his career, there’s been an undeniable connection between his own identity and the projects he has undertaken, from the Scouse gangs to the homeless veterans to the injured soldiers spat out by the army. As a body of work, they seem to illustrate the dichotomy between his thirst for visceral experience and craving for stability, a sentiment that Pigs’ Disco puts into context. “When I met my wife, I didn’t think I’d live long,” Stuart says. “I didn’t think I’d live past 35. I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s the bottom line.” At this point he was spending a lot of time on the road in places like Albania, the Congo, Iraq and Siberia, usually in war zones. He’s put himself in some hairy situations – “I saw his blonde eyes through his hoodie as he made ready his MAC-11 with a silencer. I said, ‘Is that loaded?’” – and as his life has progressed, the significance of these moments has clearly started to dwindle. “When you hear a voice over the radio saying, ‘Miss you Daddy. Hope you build a big sandcastle,’ you realise there’s no place like home.”
In the past few years, he’s curtailed his adventurous spirit – although not without a tinge of resignation. “Nowadays I spend a lot of time hunkered by the laptop,” he says. He’s talking from his home in Hastings and sounds genuinely settled. His award-winning show, Closer, recently arrived back in the town after a tour of the UK. He’s writing a novel, shooting an LP cover and working on an ongoing project about the the occult community in the south of England. Pigs’ Disco is in the process of being made into film by a young film team. “They came all the way from London to Hastings on an 8:10am train, which is as good a sign that they’re serious as any.”
He’s now intent on being known as an artist, reiterating the label throughout our chat. Well, who can blame him? They say you can lose your identity when you join the army; art, conversely, is the ultimate vindication of individualism. But it’s not just that. I get the sense Stuart feels as though he’s earned the title, partly because he believes in his own talent and partly because he’s offered enough of his life up to necessity rather than choice. “As my tutor said, there’s what you want to do and what you end up doing,” says Stuart of his chequered photography career. Living as he does, making art and eating fish pies – it makes sense. A lot more sense than patrolling the streets as a paparazzo or a paratrooper, at least. Ben agrees: “He’s too much of a sensitive, thoughtful cunt for that.”
For someone with such a blasé attitude towards his years in the army, Stuart has spent a large portion of his career photographing war zones and veterans. He’s dedicated six years to collating pictures and stories of his military experiences. Maybe there’s a little more ‘I may have left the army but the army hasn’t left me’ in Stuart than he thinks. “That’s a load of bollocks,” he says. “It left me at the first sentence of Pigs’ Disco, as the acid began to take hold.”
Paratroopers gather at a bedsit in Brighton on my leaving party in Brighton. They have been up all night on ecstasy, speed and smoking weed and hashish, before going onto another rave at 8am in east London, from Pigs’ Disco.
In August 1998, civil war had begun in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stuart Griffiths managed to get into the country moments before it closed its borders with western journalists. Griffiths was supposed to be working with the International Red Cross, but on arrival, all telephone lines had been cut. The diary entry’s are from Griffiths personal journals and the photographs taken are from the window of Hotel Diplomat, from Congo Diary
British paratroopers acting strange after a four hour instense patrol of West Belfast, 1991, from Pigs’ Disco
A resident in one of the tiny rooms at the ex forces hostel in east London, November 2001, from Stuart Griffiths archive
Closer is a body of work looking at the consequences of the post conflict condition. Griffiths photographed British soldiers, injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and documented veterans hotels, care centers and squats.
Off duty Paratrooper still tripping on LSD whilst in someones kitchen after all night rave; Brighton 1992, from Pigs’ Disco
Photographs of British Veterans, Care-homes & Serious Injury 2003-2008 “When the Iraq War began in 2003, Stuart Griffiths embarked on a project on British Veterans. He travelled all over the country for five years documenting homeless hostels, squats, care-homes & serious injury, inflicted on individuals all in the name sacrifice”, from Closer
A Paratrooper returns back to the Security Forces Base in West Belfast, 1991, from Pigs’ Disco
From the series Closer
Interview by Amelia Phillips / Published 11 February 2015