Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Peanut Factory: squatting in South London in the 1970s

I really enjoyed reading 'The Peanut Factory' by Deborah Price (Guts Publishing, 2022), her memoir of life in South London squats in the 1970s and early 80s - and specifically the scene in the Crystal Palace/Norwood area. Must admit that despite myself being a Brixton squatter later in the 80s I had no idea how much squatting there was around that nearby part of London. But this was in a period when there were plentiful empty private and council homes for people to live in if they could cope with disrepair and no hot water.

She particularly mentions a triangle of streets lower down Gypsy Hill where many of the houses were squatted and a warehouse known as the Peanut Factory became an informal community centre: 'There was big rockabilly scene down at the squats, with King Kurt and other fledgling bands, and a lot of quiffs and hair-gel. Parties happened every weekend. It was amazing how many people could cram into a small Victorian terrace'.

People living round Upper Norwood will appreciate some of the hyperlocal detail, including memories of working in local pubs, the zoo and Crystal Palace Adventure Playground. But there is a lot here for anyone interested in alternative scenes in London and their cultural history. 

Price really evokes this time through her relationships with a shifting cast of friends, lovers and flat mates. There is freedom and affordable living, but also addiction and sexual abuse.

Price moves through the sub cultures of the time, leaving aside her former hippy clothes and records to enthusiastically embrace punk and then moving on to clubbing at places like the Fridge in Brixton, the WAG and Le Beat Route: 'Getting dressed up and partying was a living protest against cuts and poverty. It was fingers up to the Government'. Sometimes cultural/music historians treat these scenes as a succession of completely distinct moments, when the fact is it was sometimes the same people involved just changing their clothes.

The Fridge is probably best remembered now for its long term location at the bottom of Brixton Hill, now home of Electric Brixton. But for a couple of years in the early 1980s it was above the Iceland store on Brixton Road. Price remembers it at that time as being 'glittering white, decorated with lots of fake ice stalagmites and stalactites... lit up with silver and blue lights to get a cold icy backdrop' (I went there once to see Rubella Ballet). She also recalls regularly getting her cut at one of the famous gay squats on Railton Road. 

The author is giving a talk at the Bookseller Crown bookshop in Crystal Palace on 26th May 2022, details here

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