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Acid at the barracks

A photographer – and ex-squaddie – remembers when rave hit the army in a new novel

Stuart Griffiths joined the British army in 1988, aged 16. While serving in Northern Ireland armed with an instamatic camera he began to capture everyday moments in his fellow soldiers' lives.

His first prose book, Pigs Disco – named for the monthly party at the barracks where locals girls would be invited for drinks, dancing and sex – is a visceral journey into the heart of the British army during the maelstrom of acid, raves and violence that occupied the soldier's young lives against the backdrop of the Troubles.

Griffiths eventually left the army in 1993 and ended up in Brighton, where he began capturing the illegal rave scene. After years in the wilderness of post-army existence he began to establish himself as an award-winning social photographer. Following the recent success of his solo photographic show 'Closer', Dazed caught up with Griffiths to discuss his extraordinary book.

Dazed Digital: The world of art and the military seem like polar opposites. How did you choose between the two? 

Stuart Griffiths: The art thing and the army thing was much to do with my own personal psyche. There was always these two conflicting identities. Art-appreciating Stuart Griffiths and the gung-ho kind of hairy-arsed para-trooper Stuart Griffiths. I think with these split personalities of mine, one can become greater than the other. The art one took over.

DD: So the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde quote you start the novel with is apt?

Stuart Griffiths: We’ve all got a dark side and a nice side, two conflicting aspects. It’s how we manage that, and I think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a story I was fascinated by as a young boy. That conflict in me about wanting to be good but always falling in with the wrong people. It's that journey through darkness towards a light. So really it’s saying we’re all schizophrenic.

DD: Do your images from the army evoke a lot of strong memories?

Stuart Griffiths: Yeah, with my Closer exhibition, it’s portraits of injured veterans and homeless veterans. But it also incorporates the photographs I took when I first started using a camera as a soldier in the parachute regiment when I was 18 years old. There’s a lot of pain in those photographs, that’s what I wanted to highlight.

DD: You joined the army when you were sixteen; did you keep a diary from that time?

Stuart Griffiths: When I left the British Army, I remember showing the photos that I took, and nobody gave a shit about it. So I just put them away, I put a lot stuff in my mum’s attic, a lot of notebooks. So it was really basing it all on that, and relocating memories because it was such a savage time. A lot of those memories I kept with me for a long time and it was always something I wanted to rid myself of, to set me free. I was a very ignorant kid, education-wise, I was never really into any literary books, and then I started to get into reading stuff like Burroughs Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac.

DD: Rave culture plays a pivotal role in the book…

Stuart Griffiths: During my times going to these raves in Aldershot, some foxy brave chick came up to me and said ‘you should read this book here’, and gave me Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I never read it, I just put it away. It was only when I left the army and moved to Brighton; my father was dying. When I read that book, I was going through a very hard time, I had left a very proud regiment. People had been caught for raving, taking drugs, and I got out just in time. I wanted to be a photographer; so when I read that, it was a light bulb, like 'oh fuck me I don’t feel alone for once, someone was writing about this crazy stuff, before I was born.’ My first acid trip was in the pigs disco [monthly organized parties on the army barracks]. At the time I was very anti-drugs – it was very strong LSD and I’d thought I’d gone fucking mad, I was out of it for a couple of days and I started to get really worried. I was thinking fucked up thoughts; it could take anything to blow your fucking brains out, it really disturbed me. I remember one of the corporal’s noses growing. There were bodies like snakes and blood everywhere. It was horrific. The lights were like huge jellyfish, and I remember looking at this bird with really long hair, she had her back to the bar, but when she turned around her face was like the Exorcist. They were playing ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin. They used to play that all the time. Hilarious.

DD: There is a constant sense of paranoia in the book; was that associated with serving in that particular conflict, or the drugs, or a mixture of those two things?

Stuart Griffiths: In Northern Island, it was hyper-vigilance, paranoia and a constant threat. There’s always this feeling that, if we get through this day it’s a Brucie-bonus, so we’re always prepared for the worst possible scenario. Mix that with drugs as well, it’s going to be quite freaky; I think it intensified things, and it’s not something that you’re going to own up to: "I’m not feeling quite well, sergeant! I’m off my head on acid." You’d go straight to jail; I mean that would be a really bad trip!

DD: Are you still in contact with any of the characters in the book?

Stuart Griffiths: Yes, but many of the characters are mixtures of people for narrative purposes. I’ve got the photographs in there too; it’s fantastic to get those published after all this time.

DD: The book also has a sense of dark humour that permeates the whole story… 

Stuart Griffiths: It’s a dark enough subject matter as it is; you need to have a bit of a laugh on the journey there. I think it’s important to recognise the flip side. Once I joined the army I applied to do photography. I knew then whatever I was going to do was going to be something artistic, and I think it was just a case of getting disillusioned. The acid changed a lot of that; I started to question what was happening around me. That experience changed me. LSD stopped me being a soldier [laughter].

Pigs Disco is published by Ditto Press.