LAW took the short train journey from Brighton round the coastal corner to meet the photographer Stuart Griffiths at St. Leonards Warrior Square. It was his book ‘The Myth of The Airborne Warrior’ where we first became familiar with his documentary style of work. Inside the books beautiful orange cover, early black and white snap shots articulate the turbulent time he spent as a Paratrooper in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the 1990s.
Stuart was born in Manchester in 1972, where he remembers the arrival of the Happy Mondays and the alternative nights on a Thursday at The Hacienda when he was 16. When he was really young it was a choice between Adam and the Ants or Madness, so he chose the Madness route because he thought they were cooler with their dark glasses and Dr. Martens. At 13 he was hit by a Transit van, which landed him 5 months in hospital with a badly broken femur. He spent the rest of the year on crutches missing a whole year of school and when he came out of hospital, with anger in his eyes, he would adopt the look of his first ever-photographic book, Nick Knights ‘Skinhead’.
Stuart began hanging around with the wrong crowd and on his 16th birthday he had to remove his braces and bootlaces when he spent his first night in a cell for allegedly robbing a car. He realised he was getting influenced by the wrong people and at this rate he was going to end up with a career in prison, so he made the conscious decision to bottle his aggression and tunnel it elsewhere. “It was either art school or the army, everyone was into Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon and the macho dog at the time was the Alsatian. The 70’s was a time when men were men and so the want to join the army was an extension of that” Stuart wasn’t excelling at school after his year out so he signed up when he was 16 to join the army as a means of escape.
‘P Company’ is a grueling three-day test that separates the Parachute Regiment from the rest of the British Army. The vast majority would give up if they were unsuccessful after the first attempt let alone a second, but Stuart didn’t really have much to give up for and hearing the word fail after his name only made him more determined. On his third attempt Stuart earned his red beret, he loved the sense of brotherhood that gave him and in 1990 he went over for his first tour of Northern Ireland.
“I used to listen to Joy Division when I was running round the camp, it was good running music.”
Stuart had grown up seeing the threatening murals and news of the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland on television. When he arrived in Aldershot N.I, he was to feel the intensity of the hostility first hand. In Stuart’s book his pictures show young soldiers head to toe in camo patrolling the streets against red brick walls with rifles locked in their shoulders. Joy riders at home skirting round Manchester wouldn’t have been treated with such caution, but he was now in an extremely volatile area where the atmosphere could change very quickly. The tours were long and when the reality of the conflict was 95% boredom 5% mayhem, Stuart started using his camera to document what was going on because he saw it as the most artistic thing that the army could offer him. “The conflict I had was between the artist in me and the solider.” A big part of Stuarts identity in the army was his ability to draw cartoons and he would write poems for the girlfriends of soldiers who couldn’t read or write.
“Boredom started self-questioning, photography was becoming a strong influence and I would prefer to take a camera rather than a rifle.”
A lot of the soldiers began to feel trapped and started going to a rave club called Limelight in Aldershot where Grooverider used to play, because they were eager to experience part of the burgeoning rave culture that was influencing so many. “You have to put it into the social context at that time, they wanted to gurn their faces off to some foxy chick with pigtails, wearing a bikini and were frustrated, locked up in a male dominated environment.” This turned into partying every night and the drug scene began to escalate until the wheels eventually came off. Stuart left the army in 1993, the weekend before the police caught many soldiers in the act at a rave. They were booted out of the army and put in prison.
Stuart had a few friends living in Brighton and once they had invited him down for a visit, the south coast is where he would settle. It was the complete opposite of both Manchester and Aldershot and he reveled in the freedom without military constraints. He was introduced to an interesting group of people who were into ‘The church of the sub genius’ and would hang out in a workshop where there was a skateboard ramp, a decent supply of hash and a darkroom to do his printing. At first he was unsure what to photograph, until they started organising these illegal parties on the beach in Ovingdean and Stuart once again had the foresight to document what was going on around him. “I was the only person with a camera in the whole of all that because there were no mobile phones, if that was taken now it would be a completely different story.”
Stuart was nervous to begin with because people were paranoid that he was in the police. So as he started eating acid to put him in the right frame of mind and before long everyone recognised him as Tripping Griff who takes the pictures. “The raves would go on from 2am till 8:00 or 9:00 and these pictures were taken around 7:00 in the morning, before it started to go nasty. Word got round and people from London started coming down with guns and selling heroin.” There are those that are easily led and those that are ready to seize the opportunity, Stuart did well to come out the other side. The more of a good thing you can get away with the more you will want, and like Limelight back in Aldershot the Ovingdean beach raves started to escalate out of control. The police began to intervene and the parties got shut down.