London Street Commune
For the previous couple of years a group of young hippies (and that is the last time I shall use that naff, tabloid generated term... we were Freaks!) had made Piccadilly Circus their home. There were around 20 or so of us who would be considered hardcore. We were always there, always around, we knew all the good hustles that could be had in Soho and it's environs and in those days it was easy to live on the streets.
Covent Garden was still a fruit n veg market and the produce was there for the picking up; no one minded once it had fallen off a trolley, a sort of unwritten rule, if it was on the floor it was fair game. The Wardour St bakery was thriving and always produced a supply of bread and cakes for the asking. Busking pitches were uncrowded. Freaks were a new phenomenon and many curious people wanted to engage us in conversation which was usually good for a touch. The Sally Ally were down on the Embankment and if you got really stuck there was always the Crypt under St Martins but few of us ever resorted to those last two mentioned.
I was a busker but to be honest a good beggar with a decent pitch could make almost as much as my tuneless Dylan meanderings could attract.
We reckoned the West End was ours and tried to get away with as much as we could... no one was truly dishonest in a damaging sort of way but we did enjoy with revolutionary zeal the liberating of many a choice item from the clutches of the grey establishment types that ran the Oxford St emporiums. We obstructed the pavement around the Pronto coffee bar on the east side of Piccadilly Circus as we tried to flog the precursor of The Big Issue, IT Magazine to suited and bowler hatted clerks on their way to and from the office, and acted up a bit for the tourists in that great old tradition known as 'freaking out the straights'. We were a friendly and colourful bunch but also a trifle loud and smelly and the powers that be took an increasing dislike to our presence in the tourist centre of the British Empire (foundered).
Although there were some junkie types on the fringes of the 'Dilly dossers', as we were known, the majority of us only used dope and acid, and surprisingly enough in hindsight I don't remember much alcohol consumption past a couple of beers and those infrequently. We were a pretty harmless lot really but that's not quite how the authorities viewed us. Stop and search by the Police was for us a daily occurrence and it was generally conducted in reasonable politeness by the officers concerned once it had been established that we were not about to scream 'Off the Pigs' in their faces or try to slash them with a rusty hypodermic. Actually we used to call them Fuzz...the term Pigs came over from the States in the early 70's.
Gradually though we came under increased pressure to vacate our beloved Dilly. The tabloid press suddenly decided that we were fair game with The News of the World publishing a centre spread of us sitting on the Dilly steps under the headline: 'Everyone in this picture is a degenerate or a junkie'. This was accompanied by a damning article that ran for several more pages detailing the horrors perpetrated by these 'evil hippies' in our clean living, God fearing society.
The next weekend The People followed suite with a similar picture article, and surprise surprise there was me sitting in Trafalgar Sq with the caption reading: 'A degenerate basks in the sun oblivious to the litter around him'. Ah fame at last..... lol.
However, those articles attracted other attention of a rather more unwelcome sort. The Tottenham football fans thought it would be fun to come into the West End after the Saturday match and give these degenerates a good hammering. They were our traditional enemies anyway, and these articles told them just where lots of us would be sitting patiently and peacefully waiting to get our heads kicked in, or so they thought.
For the first couple of weekends we put up with the chanting mob who used to disembark at Leicester Sq and come marching belligerently towards us along Coventry St and we would quietly skedaddle into the hideouts of Soho, the Rink Club, Take 4 or Bunjies but after our second trouncing we had had enough and planned our revenge.
All that week we collected umbrellas. Some were stolen from stores, some were detached from their owners in moments of distraction, and some old broken ones were even retrieved from waste bins. It wasn't rainproof qualities we were interested in.
That Saturday evening all the chicks (sorry, I know it's not PC these days) hid themselves away in the Irish pub below the Pronto bar whilst us determined guys sat upon our umbrellas on the Dilly steps facing towards the source of the impending attack.
'Skulls' it appeared, were creatures of habit. The mob tramped towards us, cursing and stomping only to be brought up in confusion as the soft young degenerates refused to vanish into the back alleys but sat silent and watchful on the steps of the Dilly.
They stood in front of us jeering and spitting but we had come to a sudden and surprising realisation about these thugs. They seemed actually wary once they saw that we were not to be moved so easily and our confidence grew, perhaps they might even be a little scared of us. We had no real plan of action but as the mob increased in numbers and verbosity Tex suddenly stood up. He shouted to the largest looking skinhead and offered him a one on one to resolve the conflict. The skinhead readily agreed and his mates quickly moved aside to form a ring. The protagonists stepped forward and all hell broke loose.......................... but the HELL was rather one sided!
Every summer our nucleus of 20 or so was swollen by the influx of those we used to term weekend ravers. Those were kids still living with their parents who would escape and come and live on the Dilly with us over the weekends. We were their heroes and we shamelessly took advantage of that fact by selling them bum deals, borrowing money and stealing their girlfriends.... sorry guys.
In addition to these folks there were also visitors to Britain who found our lifestyle attractive and hung around with us, often for weeks or even months at a time. Tex was one of those.
His story was that he had served as a Sergeant in the US Army and had recently completed active service in Vietnam. Disillusioned with what he had witnessed he was wandering the world trying to make sense of it all, and had wound up for a while with us on the Dilly.
I don't know how true his story was but I had no reason to doubt it... we had heard similar stories several times and I know two people today who served in Vietnam and have never returned home, so he could well have been telling the truth. What was obvious was that he had certainly had a military training of some sort and was a big ol' boy and I do mean BIG...the American BIG!!
Now this skull was a big lad too but it was the big that comes from too many chip butties and that doesn't really work when up against the real deal. Tex crunched him to the ground with two swings and we took that as our cue. With a huge roar we poured down the steps, our now visible umbrellas aimed spike first as if they were bayonets and pointing straight at the now worried looking mob and I have to say that we utterly vanquished those skinheads.
I don't mean we saw them off, we annihilated them!
We were outnumbered around four to one, but we were very angry and had seen the fear suddenly loom in their eyes. We stabbed and gouged at anything bald in braces before us and the opposition vanished completely. We weren't slow at putting the 'boot' in either, after all this was payback time and the bill went back many years.
The police had, as police tend to do, got wind that something was going to kick off and we had noticed the meatwagons parked along the alley beside the Regent Palace Hotel and also the dog handlers standing watching from the doorways of Lillywhites and Boots but the police waited and watched and then, choosing their moment carefully they descended upon the Dilly, but instead of marching us all off under arrest for affray or something they proceeded to pick up the battered skinheads and throw them into the meatwagons leaving us all completely alone. Not one single freak got busted.
Back at the derry that night I remember Clayt cursing as he recalled how he had a skull pinned to the floor and was trying to extract the wallet from his back pocket when he was lifted bodily to one side as the poor skull found himself arrested!
The rest fled but the night was not over by a long shot because as victory became ours a loud rumbling was to be heard coming from the direction of Piccadilly.
We didn't live in squats in those days, we lived in derrys. Slang for derelict house of which there were thousands in the 60's. They had a certain short life and when the bulldozers moved in we moved on.
For a lot of early 69 we had been living in a derry down on the Queenstown Rd just over Chelsea Bridge and had become close friends with the bikers that hung out around the all night cafe by there. I can't remember her name but one of the chicks saw how hopeless our situation initially appeared to be and quite unknown to us decided to call the phone box on the bridge knowing that one of the bikers would pick up and as luck would have it, who should answer the phone but Curly from the Windsor Angels. Within the time it takes to call to action stations over 50 bikers were heading towards us and if anyone hated skinheads more than us it was Curly and his mates.
They started to pull the bikes onto the Dilly and leap at the remnants we had left to die peacefully but after shouts and points down Coventry St and Shaftesbury Av they roared off in search of the rest of their scattered victims.
The police dispersed and left us all to it and the party went on well into the night. When we finally climbed off the bikes and laid back with a spliff in the derry we felt a real power inside us and if asked I would say that that night was a bit of a catalyst for us Dilly dossers... suddenly we had achieved something and we felt the strength of a coherent group. Previously we had gone to the offices of the News of the World and the People to complain about the articles and of course had been rebuffed but this time we had confronted and overcome, albeit on a basic physical level. But I think it was probably the very first real kickstart of the idea that shortly became the LSC.
A small group tried an infiltration the next weekend but a few of us kept them arguing in Trafalgar Sq till the reinforcements Maggie had run for poured over the parapet wall and we chased them up through Soho and away, and we never had trouble from skinheads again in the West End.
We got very cocky over this victory and the authorities took due note and responded. They started sending council workers to regularly wash down the steps of the Dilly with firehoses. This always happened in the late evening when the steps would be most crowded and the workmen had obviously received instructions to have a bit of fun. They would happily bowl over anyone who didn't move smartly out of the way or amuse themselves by directing the hoses at any unattended baggage or guitar.
We got our own back but it cost us dearly in the end. On the top step of the Dilly there is a large manhole. It leads deep into the depths of the fountain to where the pumps are located. The ceiling is only the thickness of the slab of york stone and anyone descending through the manhole finds himself immediately in a void. Quite nasty if you happen to fall in. So one night we watched for their arrival and took the manhole cover off. I don't think the workman was seriously injured, his hose stopped him falling all the way to the floor but it sure did piss a whole lot of people off.
After that the pace hotted up. The workmen would now arrive with a police escort who cleared us from the Dilly and surrounds, chivvying us into sidestreets or arresting us for obstruction. The daily stop and searchs became even more frequent and we were violently removed from the derry in Battersea and ended up down the Worlds End with a very long walk each day to Sloane Sq tube. The tubes were our travel lines... there were still loads of stations where entry or exit went unnoticed if you knew the back stair routes and we certainly knew them all, and some more :-))
It must have been around the time of the big skinhead fight, or just after, when Phil arrived on the Dilly. I don't know who gave him the Doctor John title or why but he didn't have it when he arrived... he was Phil. I think I only remember his last name because of the subsequent publicity but he was in some ways a little different to us, he didn't dress in freaks clothing for example, scruffy as anything but with a worn suit jacket and mismatched trousers. When we were all sporting loons and cheesecloth with beads he always looked the wild bearded student bit. He was certainly into Agitprop, Tariq Ali, Che and all that stuff, whereas we were more inclined to skinup and see if we could get the Dilly record shop to play the new Jefferson Airplane on its outdoor speakers.
He was around and part of the first group of us who mooted the idea of the LSC and it was certainly him that became our spokesperson and our face. Just as well really. We would have been more inclined to tell the media to piss off rather than see that there was a certain way to manipulate these things. I'm not saying Phil was successful in his handling of the media but he had more of a clue than the rest of us.
As I said, the pressure was growing on us and we felt we had to make some kind of stance. One night someone, I can't remember who, came up with the LSC idea. If we could create a sensible group maybe we could get help against what we saw as police harassment and public approbation, not to mention getting fed up with being moved around from stinking derry to stinking derry whenever the police got bored enough to conduct a dawn raid. Phil was on the idea at once and came up with the idea of approaching Jimmy Saville for assistance. Bad move. Jimmy tore us off a strip for appearing in dishevelled condition and with no sensible plan and sent us away with several more fleas to join the fleas already probably resident in our ears.
All might have faded into a stoned miasma once again if it hadn't been for the Pronto bar.
That poor business had suffered from us blocking its door, taking hours over one cup of coffee, general hanging out without spending a penny and occupying valuable seating space that should have been reserved for paying customers.
As well as that our appearance was keeping the customers who might have been tempted well away from the door, so when the owner in exasperation sold what should have been a goldmine the new owners took immediate and drastic action. They banned us.!
I don't blame them.... In retrospect I would have banned us but there ya go.
We were furious but we were better organised than before because we had BADGES... we all had these naff red cardboard badges with LSC and a black stripe... very anarchist... lol. But seriously, this was the time of the big sit-ins, and Phil was the one who said, 'OK lets have a Pronto bar sit-in'. So we did... for hours, and we ate all the food and thought we were jolly brave and revolutionary and all that guff but really it was a joke and those poor owners didn't deserve or even expect a reaction like that. But for us it was another bit of direct action that placed the power in our hands... we even had a slogan for the LSC which started going up as grafitti... The London Street Commune Fights Back The Fuzz NOW... We started getting know around the alternative scene as well and I remember being commissioned to do a half page article for IT on the LSC but for the life of me I can't remember a bloody word of it.
It's been a long time and dates are out of the loop but it was shortly after the Pronto bar that we heard about the squats out at Redbridge, and that seemed like the answer to our housing problems. But instead of squatting in the leafy suburbs we remembered that we were kids of the Dilly and took for our first squat Broad Court slap bang next to Bow St Magistrates Court, in fact so close that on several occasions messengers arrived from number 1 court asking us if we minded keeping the noise down... Oh this was kicking authority back in the face all right.
Broad court was a curious corner building, not very high but made up of a warren of small rooms, silly ground floor sash windows that yielded instantly to Coventry Johnny's thin blade and we were in with no damage... I think it had once been a hostel, or did it turn into one after we left?... I can't remember but this was more like it... warm, dry, with glass in the windows? Man this was living for us who had been used to rude awakenings as thieves stripped the piping and lead from over our very heads or hacked through a watermain to flood us out.
Then everything changed again.
Jude and I had been together for three years by that time and were probably seen as an inseparable couple, but we both had our flings when it suited us and in Broad Court I met Jenny. She and I decided to hitch to somewhere together and found ourselves on the beach in Aberystwyth for a few days. On our return we found things being run on a slightly different footing. Mad Mick had moved in.
Mick was a really nasty piece of work. The story went that he had fled Manchester after dousing his girlfriends lover in petrol and setting him on fire, and Mike was doing nothing to dispel that rumour. He and his henchmen were never part of our scene but they were always around our haunts and of course were party to all the news on the street. They had bludgeoned their way into Broad Ct, evicted people from the best rooms and set up their headquarters. They were thieves of a very Victorian sense in a way. Pickpocketing, mugging and general extortion and well used to violence.
And why didn't we unite under the LSC banner and collectively evict those bastards? Because we were scared of them. They were a united, motivated, unit with very little brainpower between them but nasty enough to do us a lot of damage on an individual level and we knew that if we directly attacked these guys they wouldn't simply melt away like the skinheads. No freak would be safe walking alone in Soho again. So we tried sidestepping them.
Since our first success with Broad Court, scouting parties had been out and about. Endel St was just around the corner, and right opposite the Oasis public baths was a gigantic rambling old church school completely enclosed, with a side alley entrance that was easy to defend. We moved a token group in to secure the premises and printed up the relevant legal documents that explained that squatting was not a criminal offence and that the police had no powers to evict us and had to leave a Civil Court application for eviction to the owners of the property. This was a new area for the police and few understood the laws. We made sure that they were aware of what they could or could not do to us.
At the same time as our holding force was established in Endel St we sent another much smaller force to 144 Piccadilly and secured that property as well... we then sat back to await results.
By the time Endel St started our usual summer numbers had been almost doubled as word of mouth got around the weekend ravers, who realised that with a secure base they had no real need to go back to Mum and Dad on Sunday night. We started to hear the oft repeated story of 'Hey Man, I've given up everything just to be with you guys' and we were getting concerned. This wasn't a joke and we seemed to be becoming the excuse for the year's runaways which wasn't going to go down too well with the tabloids. But for the meantime we'd moved all the more together freaks out of Broad Court and quietly in to Endel St. When Mike's posse turned up at the side door we apologised profusely but there was simply no room. 'Not to worry though...you've got the whole of Broad Court now'.
As I said before they were none too bright and fell for it at first. That situation didn't last 2 weeks however before they realised that without our brains and Phils legal oratory skills they were being thrown to the lions and we awoke one morning to find that some plonker on guard duty had let a bunch of them in and they were now established amongst us again.
It was at that point that we disclosed our occupancy of 144 and reasoned rightly as it turned out that Mad Mike would be content with the two West End squats and wouldn't bother moving off his patch and out to the end of Piccadilly on Hyde Park Corner.
Endel St had been big, with it's halls and upstairs chapel but 144 was vast!
We had the main doors facing Hyde Park Corner nailed shut and severely barricaded. The entire property was surrounded by a deep dry moat with sheer sides, so we established a reception room with drawbridge to the right of the main doors and made sure that whoever was on guard duty was well aware of who was undesirable. Drawbridge sounds pretty posh but in fact it was a sheet of plywood that stretched from the window sill to the top of the moat parapet, around 5 ft high. It was an easy scramble up the parapet and on to the bridge, if it was extended across the void that is.
By now we had given countless newspaper interviews. We had all done some, but Phil was our real spokesman. He was able to talk that student debate talk, emphasising his points with a stabbing finger and sincerity in the eyes behind his thick glasses. This is not a denigration because Phil was a good mate, but the strongest memory I have of him is of sitting around in the mornings in fierce planning get-togethers over breakfast. The breakfast inevitably ended up in Phil's beard, which he never noticed and we never mentioned because we just didn't care, even when we strolled out with him to another rabble of reporters who were kept strictly beyond the iron railings by Curly and his Angel mates. Oh yes we had good security but the next time you see an old cutting of Phil, let me tell ya, that's not spots on the negative, it's probably egg and spliff ash!
We refused all interviews with the tabloids and granted them to only one paper and one film company. I can't remember the name of the film company but every day a van load of milk, bread and other essentials arrived with their compliments and we distributed these as fairly as possible.
Our antics around Broad Court and Endel St had gained national coverage but it was nothing to the furore created by what was seen as our audacity in taking over 144. This was no back street in WC1, this was a huge ex-embassy in the heart of the establishment, and film crews and reporters were on 24 hour duty outside. The stream of youngsters joining us became a flood even by the first weekend in, and we did voice our concerns to each other and wonder about the sustainability of the whole show, but it was past the point of stopping. We could only have walked away and we were on far too much of a buzz to contemplate that. But I will say we were certainly aware of the potential problems being created although there wasn't much we could do about it... What? Ask freaks to demand proof of age ID off other freaks?... lmfao.
We didn't do very well when we came up against a proper interviewer either. We were asked by, hhhmm I think it was Thames TV, to appear on the Today programme which was hosted live from a studio at the bottom of Kingsway by Eamon Andrews. Phil and around seven or eight of us tromped around and had a very nice cup of coffee and pre-interview chat with good ol Eamon.... You remember him, he used to host the kids show CrackerJack, that nice uncley sort of geezer.
Over the coffee and studio bikkies Eamon asked us lots of questions about our aims and aspirations for a new society. The usual drivel came up about free love and flower power but asked with feeling and apparent understanding. The bastard stitched us right up!
We should have realised it. The sod could do what he liked with us. The show was genuinely live with no delay so whatever he chose to say to us we had to respond too and that was that.
It was awful, I remember at one stage he shrugged his shoulders and said 'Well you have no real cause, your just a bunch of lazy scroungers aren't you'?
We cringed then, and if I saw it now I'd cringe again, but probably laugh the second after. Afterwards we crawled out knowing full well what dumb idiots we had appeared. It was bloody embarrassing, especially when months later I finally contacted my adoptive parents only to be shouted at for embarrassing my mother in church which is where she first heard of her son's adventures into Media Personality of the Year competitions through a friend who had recognised both myself and Jude.
Of course the main problem was that Eamon was basically right and we all, including Phil knew that.
Some people may choose to remember the LSC as a motivated alternative group committed to the cause of freedom but honestly folks... we were a bunch of Dilly dossers who were having a whole load of fun. For us the revolution had landed right on our doorsteps and we were loving every minute of it. Phil was certainly the politico of us but he was as much of a space cadet as Goliath, Franco or anyone else. He had a great way with words about him though. And he certainly went on to some serious altruistic work. The last time we saw each other was around 71 when he was living at the bottom of Parliament Hill Fields and was engaged in some bona fide social projects whose nature escapes me.
OK, Then came the great skinhead trouncing #2. As I said, they never returned to the Dilly but one Saturday afternoon they decided to all come and picnic in the park and pay us a little visit.
Oh what fun we had. 144 Piccadilly was completely empty when we moved in to it except for one room, a smallish room tucked behind the lift well which was full top to bottom with sets of multi coloured boules for some weird reason. There were hundreds of sets, so thousands of heavy, solid, perfect handsize bowls.
The fun started with the skinheads making surges towards our railings, but these were substantial and stretched right across the front of the courtyard except for a vehicular exit at each end which were protected to a lesser degree by a spiked iron chain. Our Angels retreated inside, the drawbridge came up and we were impregnable.
A balcony ran the length of the building on the first floor with several access points along its run and the entire population of 144 assembled on the battlements for a bit of fun at the coconut shy. Here's where I think some people got confused with the water because the only thing we did have in addition to the boules was a huge metal tin of ink... someone produced balloons and several people started throwing ink filled projectiles. This happened only in the immediate centre of the balcony so could have been mistaken for water, I dunno... I don't remember any water stuff but hey...it would have been fun too :-))
The really fun bit was that as skulls were genuinely a bit dumb they charged the railings, swung around into the yard through the exit, got hit with a hail of boules from above (which were much more effective when thrown at the cobbled courtyard directly in front of the skulls... the ricochet was unpredictable, heh heh heh), spun around to retreat only to find they were now inside the 8ft high railings and had to present an exciting sideways moving target as they struggled for the exits again. After a few goes at this even they began to realise they were onto a no brainer and our aim had to be higher and further and that's when I think cars may have been hit by accident. But to be honest, who, in their right mind would continue to drive towards a full blown riot spilling across the north east segment of Hyde Park Corner... I would have gone round again I think.
It didn't happen that night...a few days into the week it was...maybe Tuesday? I can't remember but I wasn't there that night, I was at Kennys over at the Angel. I got the story as I walked down Piccadilly in the morning and met some survivors.
I met up with the crew on the Dilly and this is what happened as everyone I knew confirmed. Remember the run away kids? Well whatever night it was was quiet, the Angels weren't around, someone got lazy and asked a couple of them to mount guard. I bet they were honoured to be asked. But anyway, after a while they were approached by two uniformed cops who told them that they had received a report that a pregnant woman was giving birth inside. They begged that just the one of them should be allowed to come in and help her and these plonkers agreed. As soon as the drawbridge came down it was seized by these two whilst the dozens that had been crouched out of sight below the moat parapet swarmed across and 144 was all over.
The police trashed as much as they could...I don't believe one guitar left that building intact, mine certainly didn't. Everyone was thrown onto the streets as they were. Property that survived the trashing was collected and taken to West End Central police station where we glumly queued and gave our names and described and etc etc till we were reunited with in my case the razor slashed remains of mine and Jude's doss bag and a caved in guitar that would never play again.
That was it, it was all over and that was the end of the LSC.
Shortly after that Jude and I saved a weeks busking money and put it down on a room in Belsize Pk.
Goliath, Sunny, Sean and Maggie also left the Dilly and came to live with us for a while. We gradually drifted apart and I never saw them again apart from Goliath... or G as he was also known. That was in 77 at the banned Glastonbury that ended up on the horns of Taurus. He was happy and well and living back in his hometown.
Jude and I got married in 71. Nobody from the Dilly was there but my mate Kev was my best man.
Kev had been on the receiving end of those boules as he and his mates tried to storm us.
Funny how life turns ain't it. :-))