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  • Elliott Johnson

The Argyle Street tapes [i: Damien]

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

From 1979 to 1985, Norwich was home to the largest squat in Europe: the Argyle Street Alternative Republic, situated just off King Street. Around 60 terraced council houses were occupied by hippies, bikers, Bolsheviks, and wanderers of every stripe. In this series of interviews, we trace the histories of those who lived there. This time it's Damien, who moved into a house on Argyle Street about a year before the squat was broken up—literally—by the council and local police.

Everybody’s got their own take of how they got there, why they were there. I kind of got there by accident. I was living in a hippie commune out in the sticks. And I started going to art school. I was running backwards and forwards about 50 miles a day, through the winter, on this little 100cc motorbike, freezing my arse off, getting back to this place which did not have any heating apart from a fire when someone could be bothered to light one, which most of them couldn’t. And one of the other lads at the art school said, Well, I’ve got a space in my house, do you wanna come and live there? And he said, It’s on Argyle Street. I went, Oh, God!

The funny thing was, once I went to move in there, people were saying, You’ve managed to get a place in Argyle Street, how did you manage that? It was very much a desirable place to live for a certain bunch of people, because it was so different. I said to my mate, What’s the rent, and he said, There isn’t any!

I wouldn’t put myself down as an idealist, or a political activist of any sort. I really just ended up there because I needed somewhere to live in the city, and it just happened to be there. Having said that, it suited me down to the ground. It was quite intimidating at first, because there obviously weren’t too many rules, there were some quite scary-looking people, and everybody knew each other. So if you were an outsider coming in … it was a quite big community of people. Very different characters as well. They were naturally suspicious of new people. It was quite a shock to the system, culture shock.

I was only there for a year, the last year it was there, and it was all degenerating anyway. It had originally been set up with more… idealism involved, communal this, communal that, hippie utopia. A lovely thing in its own way. When I moved in, there was the real hippie brigade, and then the Convoy, who lived on buses. And then the bikers, who kind of occupied one end of the street. They mixed with other people, but they were their own clan, if you like. They were definitely the Wild Bunch, they were the guys you’d go and buy speed from. Often causing mayhem.

One time, they went over the local pub, the Ferryboat, and they were asked to leave. They threw a few things about, threw beer all over the place, soda siphons, just made a nuisance of themselves. All they had to do was just serve them, and they would’ve been fine—cos they were actually quite a nice bunch of people. Some of them were great characters.

At three in the morning, the chief of police was having a lock-in with the landlord, saying What can I do about these thugs that live over the road. Some of the bikers came back, put all the windows out, and threw paint all up the front of the pub! The very next day… you know in those cowboy movies, where it’s one Indian appearing on the horizon, and then two, and then two hundred? Well that’s what it was like. There were all these police.

As much as the police didn’t like to admit it, Argyle Street was pretty much a no-go area, they didn’t like to come there, because it caused aggro. In fact, I’ve got to say the local police were pretty good, they left us alone. We sorted our own stuff out. But they were not having this sort of behaviour—and the chief superintendent was in the pub when all this kicked off. So the minute something like that happened, of course, they came in with a show of force, basically giving everybody a hard time. They were very interested in my bike and my girlfriend’s bike. My only form of heating in this little terraced house was an old wood burner, I’d done it up and plugged it in at the chimney, I had a felling axe there to chop up wood for it. It was lovely. But they said, We’re taking that. Why? Because it might be used as a weapon. I said, Well, no, it’s for chopping up wood. You could use a radiator as a weapon. You’re taking my central heating away. Anyway, they weren’t listening, they took it, said In two weeks time you can come and get it back.

Another time the police came down there to arrest somebody. Argyle Street people being Argyle Street people, they sat in the road, wouldn’t let the cars down. One of the policemen says to someone, Get out the fucking road. He won’t, so he just hits him, fractures his cheekbone. This was back in the days when policemen would just punch you. Eamonn [Burgess, one of the original organisers of the squat, and later a local councillor] went up to the police station, he took his axe with him from his Argyle Street central heating system, and smashed every single police car windscreen in Bethel Street. Walked into the police station, put his axe on the counter, and said That’s for attacking people in Argyle Street. The Sun got hold of it: Mad axeman councillor!

You had these little odd incidents like that. It was mostly very tolerant—but let’s say for example heroin, that was very much not tolerated over there. The bikers wouldn’t tolerate it, anybody bringing smack in would get booted out. I have to say, there was the odd smackhead I knew… there was a guy selling off his record collection, and I went in there and there were needles lying all over the place.

It was a mixture of all sorts. There were great characters like Jerry, who’s passed now; he was from Dominica originally and his wife Liz was from Derbyshire. He was a larger than life, very loud West Indian character. I’ve seen him chase people up the road with his baseball bat!

That was the other thing: it was self-policing. One guy had beaten up his girlfriend, he’d broke her arm, and she was friendly with the bikers, so they went straight back down there, trying to kick his door in. He barricaded himself in there. They said, we’re coming back at midnight and you’d better be gone. Later on, they came back, and put a petrol bomb through the living room window. Which he managed to put out. He’d got a CB radio, so he was trying to get hold of the police to come and rescue him. He got out that night in one piece. Self-policing can be a good thing, but it can get a bit… vigilante kind of behaviour. That was the most extreme example I saw down there of the self-policing state. Most of the time, it was people talking to each other, and it worked really well.

The Convoy at Argyle Street. Note the 'SLOW' sign on the left. Photo by Janet Thompson.

One of the rules was, if you were driving a car or motorbike down there, it was always at walking pace. There were always children playing in the road. A mate of mine came down the road a bit quick. Jerry said to me, Have a word with your mate, it’s gonna end badly. So I had a word with him, it was fine. Some guy came racing down there once, he was gonna score some weed off this guy at the other end of the road, and he got yelled at: Oi, slow down! And he went like that [sticks a middle finger up] out the window. Silly boy… So while he’s in there getting his weed, two guys are smashing his car up! And when he came out, they gave him a kicking, threw him in his car and told him not to come back. So, self-policing? There were ways and ways of doing it, but it could get a little bit Wild West.

But you also had a very gentle side to it. I’m making it sound awful, now. It was very much a live and let live place, without too much judgement, really. Everybody used to tell me, Oh, it was much better before you moved in. I didn’t really care! I enjoyed what was there, I enjoyed the anarchy. Because in the last days it did descend into pure anarchy. When everybody knew they were gonna get kicked out, that was it: selling the roof tiles, burning bits of house for fun on a bonfire outside.

There were some lovely people, truly clever artists and musicians. I’ve been painting a bit of a picture like Armageddon, but that’s the bits that tend to stand out.

Two punks, Marcus and Anne Mathews, at Argyle Street. Photo taken from Punk In The East. Date and photographer unknown.

Where do you live? I never said Norwich, I said Argyle Street. Because you did. You didn’t come from Norwich, you came from Argyle Street. It was seen as its own little enclave. You felt that passionately about it because it had such a strong identity of its own. Community spirit. For example, there was a community house, nobody was allowed to live in it. That was there in case anybody needed somewhere to stay until they found somewhere permanent. So they could go and doss in it, but there was nothing in it: no lighting or heating. And I think originally, people wanted to be a bit more organised, the community house would have offices and that, stuff to work things out and be grownups. Unfortunately, I think that fell by the wayside somewhat: they’d got all these great plans for community gardens… To my mind, I didn’t find that kind of thing attractive. I think I enjoyed the wildness of the place. People descending into anarchy. Which was fun! You never knew what was going to happen.

The other thing was the difference of ages. You had families there, you had young people like me, my girlfriend was 19, I was 21. There were people up to the age of about 50 or so. People just passed their house onto other people. You gave someone the key, if you had a key. I mean, I never had a key to my place. You could leave your door open, which is a weird thing to say, but you could.

The gas board arrive to disconnect someone's supply, followed by a police car. Note the elaborately painted streetlamp. Photographer and date unknown.

Photo taken from UK Rock Festivals.

The house was never empty, there were always a few people there. We had running water, but we didn’t have a gas regulator. The house was connected to gas, but without getting the gas board round to put a regulator in, and charging you, you couldn’t really do it. I had electricity in there, but I never paid for it. Or did I? I can’t remember now. I might have run a wire from somewhere else. People were bypassing circuitboards and stuff, it could get quite dodgy. It’s amazing how little you need. For me it was a light, TV, hi-fi, and that was it. The hi-fi was the most important thing. I had my wood burner in the front room, and that was the only heating in the house, so I had a really quite popular living room. The rest of the house was like an ice box. Especially at that age, you just kind of survive. You’d sleep upstairs, the bathroom was downstairs, and in the winter there’s no bloody way you’re going down there, it’s freezing. You just went a bit Dickensian on it, kept a pot behind the bed.

In my street at the moment, I know my next door neighbours on both sides, I know my neighbours opposite, and that’s pretty much it. The difference between that and Argyle Street was huge. You’d know people from all over. People actually behaved like they were in a community, rather than living in separate houses on a street. You were part of the same thing. You left your doors unlocked. Theft happened, but people from the outside weren’t going to come and try and burgle your house. It was seen as somewhere you didn’t go.

This friend of mine, Paddy, he had the build of a wrestler, proper Norwich boy, but he said I wouldn’t go down there. He was too scared. People were! They were intimidated for the wrong reasons because it was so different. I certainly found it a bit intimidating at first.

A party at Argyle Street, 1982. Photographer unknown. Photo taken from UK Rock Festivals.

Even where I used to live, at the commune… I thought, these guys are fairly alternative, had their own weed patch with forty big plants growing, jars of grass, stoned all the time, but when I went to move into Argyle Street, they said Don’t bring any people from there back here! They were genuinely quite concerned. Even they thought Argyle Street was a bit too out there for them. I think they were thinking more hard drugs, which were definitely there.

The last year—and this is what probably killed it off the most—people were literally selling drugs openly. There were Hash 4 Cash signs in windows. Hash 4 Cash! One comedian, one of the biker lot—Groover, I think he was called, great guy—he had a ‘Closing Down Sale’ sign: Speed, LSD, Hash. And he wasn’t joking, you could just walk in and buy it all. I don’t think signs saying buy drugs outside your door is gonna endear you to the local constabulary, or the council. At the end of the day, I think they probably thought enough is enough.

If you squatted a place for six years, I think, you then owned it. So that was going to kill it off anyway. Because there’s no way they’re gonna start handing out a whole street to people. I think it would’ve been a good thing if they had, because it was such a great community. There was a lot of people you could ask about almost anything. There were engineers down there, there was one teacher, there was a guy who used to make jewellery, artists, professional people. People who knew how to do stuff.

I’d actually moved out the week before it ended. I’d found somewhere, moved my stuff out over the week. But I was there on the last day. There were people whose hearts were broken by this. I was a bit more pragmatic about it. You could see it was gonna go. If maybe the place had been an idealistic hippie utopia, maybe they would’ve let people stay. I don’t know. But the fact of the matter was, people were being a bit naughty, Hash 4 Cash signs up in the windows. You can only get so much past The Man, he’ll stomp on it and say You can’t do that!

They actually had bulldozers and diggers in, knocking walls down, at one end, as people moved out the t’other! They were making damn sure that you were getting evicted, and there was not gonna be a house left for you to come back to. Which I thought was very cruel. I’ve always been fairly pragmatic about it, but you could see some people’s hearts were broken. Poor old Phil who lived next door to me was on TV pouring his heart out—they had cameras there because it was local news. Well, world news if you ask me, because it was the biggest squat in Europe.

The last day of the squat, 1985. Photographer unknown.

Everybody kind of kept in touch, so there was a rolling kind of community spirit going. Everybody had nowhere to live. They moved some of them out of Argyle Street and put them all down into a warehouse on Oak Street. They gave everybody a hospital bed with partitions and stuff, men and women all in one huge room, quite disgusting. They had the bikers in there as well. Gary got woken up one morning by one of the bikers riding a motorbike past the end of his bed, being chased by a dog. I went down there to see everybody, and they were all in the street. They’d been booted out.

Scottish Bob, Gary and Lawrence were moved from the warehouse into a tiny little house on Dereham Road. This house was a room wide. It didn’t have any heating. It had one source of running water, a tap inches off the bloody floor. Rotten floorboards, you just put your foot through them. They’d evicted people from a perfectly good, structurally sound house, knocked it down, and put them in a shithole that’s dangerous! They took it to the council, said, We’ve taken these pictures of the house, if you don’t give us a council flat, we’re going to the papers. And they gave them a council flat, which is what they should’ve done in the first place.

Evicted squatters take out their frustration on the last day, 1985.

Image credit: Archant

Argyle Street just gave people room to be humans. There’s no way, obviously, that a whole street would get squatted in this day and age, because you can no longer squat a residential dwelling. You can only squat commercial premises, apparently, now.

It was a much more innocent time, as well, because property wasn’t seen as a business opportunity for people. A house was to live in. That’s all it is. Of course landlords existed. But the phrase ‘buy-to-let’ didn’t exist. When I moved into Argyle Street, I kept my place at the Old Rectory commune for a while. We all used to put five pounds a week in the pot to run the place. So I had two homes for five pounds a week! I used to say, I’m going off to my country cottage this weekend! But I thought, I can’t keep doing that, because somebody else needs it. And that was the attitude.

I’ve been a landlord before, by accident, but I was never comfortable with it. I thought, I’m taking far too much money off people for doing far too little. Which I was. And this is what landlords do. I was really kind of relieved when my tenants said they were gonna move out. I never put the rent up. The old New York rule: never put the rent up, because you’re gonna make money as it goes up in value anyway. Don’t be fucking greedy. So I’ve always taken a view of property that it should be homes, and not for profit. It’s easy as a boomer for me. We’ve shat all over your generation.

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