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Where the Buffalo Roam

Jane Penton

Jane Penton was born a Kiwi, but having an English grandfather allowed her to move to the UK during the eighties. Over the ten years that Jane was in London, she spent time living and squatting around Somers Town, an area of King’s Cross behind The British Library. I spoke with Jane via e-mail last year, after which she sent through her recollections of her time in Somers Town and a selection of photos. The following is a transcript from that e-mail exchange.

I have so many memories of this area, but lived in Somerstown, 1983 – 86, rather than the actual Kings Cross. Most of my photos are of squats and squatters in that neighbourhood – just beyond the now British Library which was a building site in those days.

We rather grandly mythologised that the Library was taking so long to build (true) due to them creating book bunkers in case of a nuclear catastrophe (probably true). Unusually, the building-site guards were extended to our squats as the powers-that-be of the time felt that the riff-raff could be a problem. This meant that any time there was a mass eviction of a block of flats we were squatting, the guards would try to stop us breaking into other flats in adjacent buildings. The Council were systematically moving out the tenants in Chamberlain and Levita Houses and renovating them for their social housing. The security firm hired heavy dudes – ex Nigerian army and so forth – quite intimidating. Sometimes the police actually allowed us to stay and kept them at bay if we had gone by the squatter’s law of the day – i.e. had chattels inside and could prove we had key access. I think we only knew one legal tenant the whole time we were there and she, ironically, was French.

When I visited there last year, it had slightly deteriorated again, so looked much like when we were living in that neighbourhood.

We mobilised as a political homeless group and solicited Camden Council to allow us to form co-ops and renovate other less desirable empty buildings in the borough. Our friends in Islington had these arrangements, and had much better housing security. One of the younger Camden councillors was in that situation and we were frustrated that he had no apparent sympathy for us.

Chamberlain House

The burnt out car was due to a mass-eviction of Chamberlain House, almost completely occupied by squatters. There were several abandoned cars in the courtyard which were set on fire. We had stairwells and balconies facing the courtyard so could merrily (and safely) offer torpedos of unwanted furniture, TV’s etc to the burning mayhem. The fire-brigade came and doused things at regular intervals without any missiles being fired…but as soon as they left to general cheers and applaud, the burning would begin again. It was an all-nighter and I now have an excuse to offer my seminal psychedelically enhanced memory of Jim Morrison’s voice blasting out over the charred remains “This is the End…..”

Squatters and police at Chamberlain House

The next day tired and jaded squatters moved the rest of our belongings to newly-broken-into dwellings. This was a highly unusual situation due to the scale of the eviction and the police had prepared for trouble, but alas, they came a day too late as we were all moved out on the actual day. 

Aftermath

Immigration

Meanwhile a constant influx of homeless immigrants arrived at Kings Cross Station from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India etc via Heathrow. Camden council was literally their first port of call, and there were issues with overcrowding, bad landlords, unsafe buildings….has nothing changed?

Sadly there was a fire in an apartment building and a family were killed, so the Bangladeshi community stormed the council and set up camp in their rooms, cooking their meals and refusing to leave until they were housed appropriately. It was a long stand-off and I recall much prejudiced commentary in the local papers on the smells of the cooking and the scruffiness of their clothes. Some of these families were our neighbours at times, so we were aware of their issues.

Thatcher’s Britain was in full swing so we had the miner’s wives arriving from the north – to Euston station I think. They would hold buckets along that busy thoroughfare to collect donations for their striking families up north.

Nightlife

It was a lively time regarding all the club life and alternative music collectives such as the Mutoid Waste – who held amazing parties behind Kings Cross. They would have several levels of entertainment, like a dystopian alternative reality; bands using found objects would set up huge stacks of grinding rhythmic noise, upstairs acid house with all the lights and effects, out in the courtyard the local travellers would sell sausages and chips and all the Mutoid car and other sculptures would be displayed in the yards. The first party we went to was in Camden in an underground disused car park – or similar building with half-cars emerging from concrete walls – very cool. The only criteria for joining the Mutoid Waste collective was that you could use a welding torch – so there were women and men involved. They grew really big and would divide into different groups over the summer to attend European and British festivals. I saw them at Glastonbury doing freaky haircuts for a pound on top of their infamous shark car. They were incredibly resourceful and always found ways to survive financially.

On a note about the travellers. They did seem to winter over in our squat courtyards with children shoved outside into the cold most of the day and no sign of them going to school. It was something we all lived with – even the inconvenience of experiencing floods below empty squats where they had taken out all the copper piping, allowing the water to flow to us in the flats below. They were not exactly friendly, but there seemed to be a bit of mutual understanding. We left each other alone and ignored any brawling or other negative behaviour. Maybe we were constantly stoned on hash and just getting on with things.

We lived very close of course, and once stole a life-sized fibreglass but furry buffalo to use in our home movie productions. I still have the newspaper clipping about the ‘motiveless bison heist’ – we left Eric in a local park to be reclaimed by his owners and after that he was chained up under the King’s Cross railway arches outside the business whose mascot he was. 

Eric the buffalo

I remember there was a strange anarchist march along the road to Kings Cross station which we all joined for a laugh.”Eat the Rich!” we chanted and had banners… a bit like an early precursor of “Stop the City”? After a half hour of stamping and shouting we all went to the pub.

Our favourite place for R&R was the St Pancras church and graveyard and the newly created wetland park, Camley St Natural Park, which I also revisited last year. It is great that this was preserved when the Chunnel development went through.

Right as I was leaving London there were protests about the planned destruction of the wetland – now a thriving educational environment right behind the huge corporate developments, and the Google and YouTube offices by Kings Cross Station.

We spent a lot of time by the canal. I was fascinated to see that opposite Camley St, an enormous derelict warehouse that curves around with the waterway is being restored. Also, parks created inside the disused gas tanks – there is amazing reconstruction going on. That was unimaginable when we lived there. Camden and Kings Cross were seriously depressed areas in the 80’s.

Scala

Our other favourite haunt was the Scala Theatre where we would attend B-grade horror movie all-nighters – fantastic fun! The theatre was transformed into a club for a time, hosting amazing house parties – we would go and drink cheap beer, just a little before the E scene, and dance all night. Once again – wonderful that it is retained today – a real icon of that neighbourhood. The hotel part of St Pancras was disused and locked up, but we did sneak inside once to have a good look around – that was a lot of fun.

Our home-made super-8 movie was called “Satanic Dollies on Wheels” and was based on “Kitten with a Whip” and other classy but B-Grade sexploitation films seen on our frequent Scala theatre days and nights.

Moving to South London changed a lot of this lifestyle. Brixton was the go-to place for most of our night life. Plus, Yorick and I saved to travel and kept our heads down a bit. But you could bike around the city at night – attend things anywhere and easily get home at all hours. Or you could catch a night bus to and from Trafalgar Square, where the 24/7 free Nelson Mandela protest was to be found outside the South African embassy.  So although we left the Euston area we were still connected.

Zak, former bookseller Charing Cross Rd, who lived in London at the same time as Jane, shared some of his recollections of King’s Cross with Jane in the following snippets of e-mail conversation between them:

 

Zak – I remember you led us in the old St Pancras hotel  building – avoiding the patrolling security security guard –  and which was full of empty offices (but still had desks in & bits of paper) … This was before the Spice Girls video let just anyone see in there.

Jane –I remember the tower on the west side with great views over the neighbourhood – probably dwarfed now by the British Library.

Zak – There was the man who made doughnuts (hot & round) in the Kings Cross underground entrance shop nook … 

Jane – yes these were cheap and delicious, especially in winter.

Zak – The Hardy Tree gravestones you showed me were ‘free-range’ in those days, not behind barrier and explanatory sign, so were more poetic.

Jane – Despite the railway, this is one of those places that is still a magical old London sanctuary, with its renovated church now open to the public and the magnificent eerie graveyard.

Zak – The Diamond Café in Chalton St? (which had a market)…that pub there was rather odd.

Jane – We used this street as a location for our “Satanic Dollies on Wheels” super 8 movie with gratuitous buffalo scene. The plot involves the Devil arriving in Somerstown and transforming 3 ordinary women into ‘satanic dollies’ with destructive super powers. Eleanor was one of the dollies and there is a copy in Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. There was a café, probably still is, and the pub is The Cock Tavern – ok for a round of drinks amidst the locals and for abusing the then ‘80’s juke box. The band, Ten Pole Tudor were regulars – not playing, just drinking. This pub was just the same on my last visit minus the punks.

Zak – There was CopyArt on the canal by the Gasometers which let us make photocopy art by changing the colour ink rolls.

Jane – this really was a significant part of our lives. A group of enthusiasts began a co-op with cheap photocopying for making fliers, cards, posters, any kind of creative self-publishing – the perfect escape place when you were semi-employed and surviving a London winter. For instance, we made wallpaper by endlessly enlarging passport photos which distorted wonderfully. Pre personal computers, this drop-in photocopy art centre, which later moved to Camden, was visionary! I am still in contact with two of the founders.

Hawaiian party with CopyArt wallpaper in the background

Zak – Was there a nice penguin sign on St Pancras way for the dry cleaners? …

Jane currently lives in Taupo, Aotearoa New Zealand where she works as a self-employed gardener, massage therapist and does administration work for a local water quality advocacy group. She also creates multi-media artworks and organised a joint exhibition called “Playing in Paradise” at The Taupo Museum in 2017.

Location

somerstown