Paratrooper asleep in West Belfast, 1990. (All photos by Stuart Griffiths)
Our friend Stuart Griffiths just released a book called Pigs' Disco. It's about the time he spent serving in the Parachute Regiment during the Troubles in 80s and 90s Northern Ireland, touching upon such topics as drug use within his regiment, the pressures facing young men in the army and his experience of the nascent rave scene on Britain's south coast. It's fucking great and probably the only place where you'll read about soldiers dropping acid while on patrol and ex-paratroopers scoffing ecstasy and mescaline at Trafalgar Square basement parties.
I caught up with Stuart for a chat about the book and to find out what happened to the young men in his photographs.
Paratroopers on guard duty in East Tyrone, 1992.
VICE: Hey Stuart. So, Pigs' Disco paints a pretty vivid picture of life in the forces. What are your recollections of those days?
Stuart Griffiths: Although they were savage and terrible and wicked and brutal, there were some good times. What I was trying to get across in the book was going beyond the macho myth and giving the reality of what I saw. The reality of the job itself really intensified the true feelings I had because we were just walking targets for politicians, and I started to develop a mistrust for politicians from that.
How did you arrive at that point?
When I started work as a photographer in intelligence, I realised there was a lot going on that we didn’t know about. It was a very multi-layered thing, and I was only told so much. But I used to keep my ear to the ground and hear rumours, because I was always present in the operations room.
Okay. And you mention combining active duty and psychedelics at one point. That’s quite a mix.
I was initially really anti-drugs, so when I was offered this blotter to chew on I was a bit reluctant. But then the Parachute Regiment, airborne brotherhood, work hard, play hard ethic kicked in, so we went ahead and did it. I kind of looked up to this guy Jock, as he’s called in the book, because he was a senior guy, and I thought, 'Well, if it’s OK with him then I should be OK.' But obviously, 16 hours later it’s still going and you’re like, "Fucking hell, this is a bit weird."
A paratrooper after a patrol in West Belfast, 1991.
How many times do you think you dropped acid on active duty?
Well, that was probably the first time and I don’t think there was another time on that tour. But certainly when we were back in Aldershot, we’d go around the town centre and eat a tab of acid. I haven’t mentioned a lot of stuff in the book; tripping your nut off on an airborne forces day event in Aldershot during the time when the Big Issue was saying, "If you’re a female, avoid this town at all costs," was a very bizarre experience. Paratroopers knew how to drink, regardless of whether they could handle it, and the acid just intensified the scenario.
There’s a strong undercurrent of bullying in the book, with the likes of the "respirator squad" – the gang of soldiers who go round wearing respirator masks, burning people's hair off and ramming sticks into their arses. How did you deal with that?
It can be a really worrying experience for some. Some people really lost the plot, and I don’t blame them. I was fortunate to never really be singled out by the respirator squad, mainly because they thought I was a bit crazy. For them, it was like, "Do we want to give him the hardship? Because he might drop something on our heads while we sleep."
A paratrooper dressed up as Prince Harry at a barracks Halloween party, Belfast, 1991.
The stuff about the squad reminds me of a story I heard from a sergeant major once. He was handcuffed naked to a wheelie bin during his passing out drinks and pushed down a hill.
Exactly – that sort of shit. I was very wary of the platoon piss-up. By the time I got out, there was certainly a platoon's worth of druggie types. So we used to all congregate in certain "safe" pubs that were void of any airborne savages, where we could avoid the leaving-do scenario. I just had a pint of Jack Daniel's and sat in the corner.
When most people think of drugs and the army, they probably think of Vietnam. How prevalent was it?
Very much like those Vietnam films, there was a big divide between those very druggie people and the straight boozers. I could feel the tensions beginning to happen, especially in Kenya, which I didn’t talk about in the book. Even when I returned back to my old unit years later when I was an art student, you could see them whispering, "He’s one of them druggies."
A paratrooper with a couple of Page 3 models in East Tyrone, 1992.
Yeah. It was a bit like being homosexual; it wasn't something you were going to talk about with your sergeant, you know – "Hi, I’m off my tits on psychedelics." What we were taught with the covert operations stuff, we would apply in our daily lives inside the barracks with the drug taking. Like covering your tracks, for example. I used to burn cat brand incense all the time. I made out like I was into the occult and magic, but it was just to cover up the smell of marijuana.
When was drug testing introduced?
Drug testing came into force in 1995, beginning with the army then the navy and RAF. It was a moment in time before it all went weird. And I think what happened with the guys getting arrested and put in Colchester [the only remaining British army prison] had a lot to do with soldiers of the elite Parachute Regiment going to raves and getting off their heads on ecstasy. I mean, the commanding officer didn’t even drink, so he threw the book at them – Colchester, booted out of the army.
How did they take it?
Some of these guys' lives were completely fucked. I remember one of the guys in that group – in 2011, I think – knifed his girlfriend in front of his children. He’s now banged up for life. Another guy completely went off the rails and got sectioned. They always thought that maybe something went down in Colchester, where he was singled out because he was a young paratrooper and abused. I tried to find some more information on that but it’s a very difficult thing to get any truth about.
Paratroopers after an all-night rave in "some stranger's living room", Kent, 1992.
But you got away with a clean record?
Yeah, I feel a little bit guilty about what happened. The lads who came on my piss up went to Colchester and I managed to escape with an exemplary record, but that’s life, y'know. I wasn’t munching acid all the time. I think the last time I did a microdot I really regretted it and had a really bad trip. I had to go to my commanding officer's interview, like, "Fucking hell!" As I mention in the book, I’m not portraying drugs as a good thing – there’s a lot of anxiety there.
What do you think you learned from your experiences back then?
Although people thought I was crazy, I do think my mind was strong to deal with that. Looking at where I am now, I have to say that it's worked for me in a way. It’s also an area that needed to be talked about, because again, with a lot of things that happened in the past, people in official positions would rather brush these things under the carpet. Colchester prison is probably still jam-packed with soldiers who have been put there for failing compulsory drugs testing.
A drug dealer's kitchen, Brighton, 1993.
Yeah, somewhere like Afghanistan doesn't sound like the hardest place to get your hands on stuff.
I’ve spoken to soldiers recently who don’t want to be named, and yeah, when they’re in Afghanistan it’s not exactly difficult to get drugs. I’m not glorifying drugs, but how do you deal with pressure? How do you alleviate it? You’re never gonna hear about an officer banged up in Colchester – although it might happen – it’s usually the guys on the ground who are doing all the shit. They become the casualties. They’re the ones who come from deprived areas and are joining the army, very much like myself, as a way out – an escape.
When I used to go back home on leave, people I went to school with would call me a baby killer. The Parachute Regiment was very much anti-drugs, very much Queen and country and doing the right thing, and I left very much the opposite – very anti-establishment and anti-war.
An illegal rave at Black Rock, Brighton, 1994.
Do you think that getting into the rave scene after the army was a means of decompressing after war?
The guys I knocked about with from the same regiment all got put in prison, so I didn’t really have any friends after I left. One of the guy's girlfriends, whose brother had a darkroom in his workshop, let me go there and develop my films. They started saying that I should come along to their parties and I used to go to some of the clubs and events there. But it was really after I got mugged on the seafront in Brighton that things kicked off, and that weekend I photographed my first rave. I turned up with these fucking huge black eyes and they sort of took me in.
Stuart with his black eye after getting mugged on Brighton seafront.
You were back in a troop again.
Yeah. For me I think the rave scene was about that association of wanting to belong to something – the army was the airborne brotherhood and the rave scene had this real tribal feel to it. I had the camera and that was my function, so in a way I wasn’t a part of it, I was sort of on the fringes.
That’s what Pigs' Disco is trying to address: nothing lasts forever. It was a moment in time. It’s all about that journey from the darkness to the light. It couldn’t carry on the way it was and, as I mentioned, too many people started to know about it and it started to get ugly. Obviously people began to see how they could monopolise on it, bringing in all the other drugs – the heroin, etc. And guys were getting into it, because what goes up, must come down.
Pigs' Disco is available now through Ditto Press.
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