February to May 1976 - Too young to sign on for benefits, I am lucky enough to have a room just off the Brixton Road, so dry, I am living from shop lifting, food canteen vouchers from further education college in Vauxhall and life modelling at the local art school, cash in hand. I am studying O level sociology, O level English literature and A level art. My intention was to get a place at the city and guilds school of art in Kennington for which I needed a portfolio of artwork and a couple of qualifications to show I can write essays.
My living squatting companions are schoolteachers, political activists, dropouts, and drug addicts. Mainly fresh from public school, rebelling against mater and pater. Even at the age of 17 I was amazed at their level of naivety, and realised they were living rough because they were, well cushioned and playing at it and. They would end up our teachers’ politicians and social workers. the genuine working-class associates were a lot keener to put their survival skills into action without political theory and rhetoric. They were much more grounded in the occupation of survival.
Occasionally I had my baby brothers staying with me, mum didn’t seem to mind, and I felt quite good to know they were not alone in Electric Avenue fending for themselves without a babysitter. I also had my lovely black and white cat who my friend Charles named Cat Squirrel, she was a faithful companion and reason for me to keep going.
To just set the scene, 1970`s London, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen on the radio being played for the first time in our squatter’s kitchen, stilled the room and us occupants in our tracks, as it blew us away. We just stared at each other in disbelief. Black is beautiful was everywhere and true. Red Rum keeps winning, Posters of Che and Mao’s little red book, I learned lentil cookery, and oat cookery as it was our main communal diet. And for a while I had a job in a fish and chip shop in Brixton Hill so would bring home bags of fish chips chicken and pies which we would all steam into.
Alas my squatted home was about to be taken away and the dilemma for us potential homeless was just too real, we stalked the streets looking for empty properties with our crowbar. In this instance I was accompanied by a technological wizard called Dweezle, I only knew him as Dweezle and to this day don’t know if it was his real name, he was a lanky quiet brooding man with black Richard the third haircut, straight hair to the shoulders and a straight across fringe, he had a three-legged dog and a wheel chair bound girlfriend , who had been shot in the spine as a baby in Vietnam war the same bullet killed her mother. Dweezle played with sound technology and tv screens. He created abstract markings on screens which danced to recorded sound. His smile had a feeling of cannibalism about it along with a feeling of eeriness and mystery.
We found a very ancient house off the Wandsworth Road. Dweezle broke in very easily and we found ourselves in a fully furnished home, dripping with mushrooms and fungus and rot. I had a room to myself which had a bed and a built-in cupboard with a fireplace. Cat squirrel found refuge up the chimney and refused to come down. And Dweezle lived on the floor above me. Everything in my room was dark brown and covered in mold, but it came with bedding along with the bed I counted myself as very lucky as homelessness was imminent, by this point all I possessed was my guitar my cat a woven jacket a green cardigan and a pair of jeans with a broken zip. No shoes, I wore slippers even in the snow, that was all I had. Food vouchers from college kept me fed I never used the kitchen in the house. All was well it seemed as I started my life in the world outside Electric Avenue, and the toffee apples and my baby brothers.
Apart from after dark - Regularly at night around 1 am I would get woken up by a smell that I can only describe as devilish and of dead rotting corpses. Such a smell that it inhibited breathing, and induced choking. I regularly dreamed I was lifting the brown damp carpet and tearing up the floorboards to uncover seething maggot infested rotting flesh and seething balls of hairless rats. Only to wake up in the putrid stench.
The only toilet in the house was in the basement down a steep flight of stairs. Which I avoided as much as possible. I used the college for washing and showers, and if I did have to go down to the loo my cat always came with me and always during the day. Except for that one time when she came down with me during the night.
The Animals in the house were affected by the mood of the house as Cat Squirrel lived mainly up the chimney and Dweezles dog had to be physically pushed through our front door and forced towards the stairs where she skedaddled up as fast as she could to get past my room she would leave the house in the same way . She didn’t like to be there and was returned to normal once she got past the spooky zone.
The spooky zone was my room, the landing from the front door and the stairs to the basement. It was within this zone that bad dreams were had, putrid smells and lumps of plaster fell always just missing someone’s head. Lumps of stuff would fall supposedly from the fireplace and land close to my feet. And one would get a sense of a dark figure standing and watching you. And occasionally in a state of sleeping and waking I saw him standing at the end of my bed. Dark haired with a dark beard, I would say an Edwardian.
With the regular nightly stenches, bad dreams, distressed animals, and flying mortar, I knew we had a problem. Which made me even more wary about going down into the basement on my own for a pee. I must have seemed like a complete loony and a nuisance to Dweezle needing him to be with me on rare occasions, but the feeling was more than toxic. It was positively menacing. the theory was that we had a poltergeist, and I was attracting it with my teenage neurosis. This didn’t take away from the reality of the situation or get my cat down from the chimney where she would dash to as soon as she entered my room.
The turning point for me was when I had no alternative but to go into the dreaded basement one night as always accompanied by cat squirrel. I did a pee ok, and I pulled the chain, that noise was disturbing and violent and as the build-up of fear went over my threshold and I knew I had to get through the ordeal and get from the toilet to the steep staircase, and then to a place of safety, so I decided to sing for self-protection. I remember distinctly it was ‘A bird on the wire’ by Leonard Cohen. Singing, I moved at a steady pace towards the staircase, and out on the corner of one eye I saw the bearded figure, then again out of the corner of my other eye then again in one corner, then in front of me then I felt him behind me, until I felt smothered. these moments must have been in a flash but to me it lasted forever, then Cat Squirrel arched her back and hissed with all her claws and teeth showing, and I lost it.
The song changed into a blood curdling scream, and my slow walk moved rapidly to me scrambling up the staircase on all fours and Dweezle rushing down to see what the hell was going on.
I have never screamed from such a deep place of fear so seriously and helplessly, my sound just emanated from the darkest place in my soul and my own personal hell. Dweezle then acknowledged we had a problem. The next day I decided to investigate one of the rooms in the basement, the feeling of menace had lifted, and the sun was shining. All seemed well. The room was strewn with papers and photographs like someone had been in there and tipped boxes out onto the floor, so I picked out photos all of one man, he was nothing like my bearded tormentor but a balding overweight fella, looked like he was some sort of official in the Lambeth council, there were birth certificates and death certificates, along with many other official documents belonging to one family. I gathered them up and put them into a wallet. In the corner of the room next door, I noticed a cupboard which had been sealed over with layers of gloss paint. So, I spent the afternoon chipping away the paint until I managed to open the cupboard, inside was a time capsule. A gas mask, a tin helmet more papers and ration books all belonging to one bloke... I can’t remember the name I put these into the wallet along with the other documents which I placed onto the shelves in my room. The next day I locked the door of my room and went out to visit my mum as my brother Richard was in the u k and we were going for a day at the races I think it was derby day and mum wanted to knock out a few toffee apples. I looked after Jack and James.
That evening I arrived home to the shock that all the contents of my shelves had been thrown down onto my floor. As though someone had not only knocked down the contents but had purposely thrown the contents around the room. Dweezle had heard nothing. I replaced the shelves and things only to realise the wallet with the documents I found in the sealed cupboard were missing. The dreams and the smells continued, and Dweezle's dog never got used to passing my room, and Cat Squirrel remained comfortable only up the chimney. And I made the decision to call into the local Catholic church at the end of our road for a chat with the priest about what was going on.
He was an older Gray-haired man and we sat in a very comfortable warm room filled with books, some of them about exorcism which surprised me. And I told him of the events that led me to him. He listened very carefully and wanted to know why I was living in such circumstances and begged me to go home. He didn’t realise that this was not possible, I can understand how it must have looked when later I see my own children at 17, I found it hard to imagine them being in a similar place at their age, but times were different, and I have been a survivor.
He made a date with me to visit the house and assess the situation. And he agreed that we needed some extra help. He kept his appointment and arrived in his gowns and hat and a swinging incense burner with coals in it and asked to be shown around the house. In each room he prayed allowed and talked about the rhythm of the world and time and place and the tides Sunrises and sunsets spring winter and the seasons and life and death. Along with blessings all the while swinging the incense burner which was hanging from chains and filling all the corners of the house with sweet pungent smoke. When we got to Dweezle room Dweezle just looked up from a piece of electronics and a tv screen and stared at his room getting blessed, quite funny, but this was a serious operation, and we were taking it very seriously.
The air lifted after the priest left, the smells stopped, things stopped falling across the room the Cat Squirrel moved onto a comfy part of my bed and the three-legged dog found peace and acted normally outside my room. It was a completely different place. Although I never found the wallet and documents. But I could go downstairs and have a pee when I wanted.
The summer of 1976 was so hot it drove me from the melting sticky London streets, the haunted houses and squatting to Hastings and the next chapter.