Monday, April 30, 2012


Posted by Bethan Holt, Fashion Junior at Large

Prepare to feel like your life is very boring. Sorry, but that's how I felt when I went to a talk at the National Portrait Gallery last Thursday evening entitled "Word of Mouth from the Warren Street Squat". Given the setting in a rather proper sort of place, I sort of thought I'd be going along to a rather genteel retelling of the activities of a particularly creative, carefree community which sprung up in Central London nearly a decade before I was born. Indeed, the whole event came about as a result of the Lucian Freud retrospective- attended  by the very prim Duchess Kate when it opened- in which there are several portraits of Leigh Bowery, a key player in the clubbing scene which was a huge part of life for the Warren Street squatters.
The most polite one I could find....Leigh Bowery by Lucian Freud (image from
What actually ensued was an hour and a half long chat amongst many members of that community, including Boy George and milliner Stephen Jones, enlightening the comparatively few of us there who hadn't been around to experience it first hand. The Warren Street Squat was one of many which sprung up in the area around Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road in the late 70s. The squats were inhabited by art students, DJs, musicians and any other 'outcasts' who felt at home in what sounds like the complete, non-stop chaos of the place. Jeffrey Hinton, who did a lot of the talking, recalled a time of 'no rent, no internet and no mobile phones' which gave them the 'freedom of not dealing with real life'. In turn, this led to a 'falling apart culture' which was only exacerbated by the unstable minority Labour government and the highest unemployment figures since the war.

Boy George with Leigh Bowery (image from
The lovely Princess Julia, who was on stage talking with Jeffrey Hinton
When they broke into the disused townhouse on Warren St and wired up the electricity in 1978, there began the coming together of creative minds who would eventually become some of the biggest cultural influencers of the 80s- Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark,  Bodymap designers Stevie Stewart and David Holah, Princess Julia... I could go on. I loved that so many of these people and their friends were at the event on Thursday night so rather than being a bland history lesson, the room frequently roared with debate about what really happened in the stories being told. Boy George discovered for the first time that the house actually had a working phone that he could have used. Some were disgruntled to discover that others had been to Mark Le Bon's squat a few streets away for baths (it was the only place with hot water). What made me feel boring is that wherever I was living, the bath and phone would be my first priority. It's hard to imagine being so consumed with other preoccupations that I could possibly not hunt out these facilities as a matter of urgency. It seemed that visits to drink out of date beer at  Pink Panther or nipping to the roof to delve into the bucket of poppers they kept there were more pressing.

Kim Bowen, Jeremy Healy and Stephen Jones outside the Warren St squat (image from

Trojan and Leigh Bowery. An image from the insightful article which Princess Julia wrote about the NPG talk for iD
This scene is still inspiring creatives today.... During the talk a photo popped up of a clubber in full blue face paint. It looks to me like Meadham Kirchhoff almost certainly saw this picture and used it as make-up inspiration for their AW12 show.

Bodymap (image from

Meadham Kirchhoff make-up AW12 (image from

Jeffrey Hinton's scratch videos were big highlights of the night. A lot of the footage came from the time after the squat had been closed down and all its inhabitants rehoused in smaller flats on council estates. Nevertheless, I think they gave a pretty good taster of the hedonism, sexual freedom and creativity which pervaded the scene. Hinton had become obsessed by tapes at a young age, when he would record himself then edit the tape by cutting it up and sellotaping back together different segments. Princess Julia, who seems totally brilliant, remembered how he would do a new one each week to show at Taboo, Bowery's club night. The videos were grim and vile and hilarious and beautiful in equal measure- some segments show Hinton filming his friends as they dance and snog and masturbate and banter. Spliced in with these equivalents of family footage are Hinton's genius mixes of mainstream media, clips from TV shows, adverts and even a Tupperware (the plastic tubs which every good housewife/Mother/ practical person has stowed in a kitchen cupboard) party, with scenes from horror films and underground sources which lampoon the original material. It's a whole different way of looking at the world and sells the club scene as a complete, alternative lifestyle rather than something we do on a Friday or Saturday night. 
One of Hinton's videos.... Be warned, it's pretty gruesome!

The talk ended on kind of odd note when Hinton mentioned he would be reading out the names of some of those who had been big parts of the scene but who are no longer around, many of them succumbing to AIDS related illnesses or drug and alcohol problems. There was a shouting match between two audience members who had clearly both been some part of the culture- where one questioned whether their lifestyles had been overly childish and irresponsible, the other was fuming that that subject had to be brought up at all. While the deaths of people like Bowery do cast a shadow, the fact that Hinton, Princess Julia and many more are still alive, successful and just as creative today does show that it was an experience you could live through.

I just need one question answering, does anyone know who this fab furry animal bedecked audience member is? All anyone could tell me was his name was Thierry...

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