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Stuart Griffiths

Writer and photographer, Stuart Griffiths

Closer: one man’s military campaign

HOT’s Zelly Restorick felt drawn to interview photographer and writer, Stuart Griffiths, whose exhibition Closer will be showing at Sussex Coast College later this month. What had happened between his ‘squaddie at sixteen’ past and his current membership of the Veterans for Peace movement, she wondered? Meeting Stuart at his local, The North Star in Bohemia, she asked him why he had chosen to reveal aspects of the army, very different to those marketed by the Ministry of Defence?

When we said goodbye an hour or so later, I was left with the impression of a man who had been trained as a teenager to obey without question and yet, as an adult, had decided to take the non-conformist route in life, often experiencing the solitary loner’s path. Describing certain phases of his life, Stuart used the words ‘alone’ or ‘being on my own’ on a number of occasions, and at the end of our interview, he talked about feeling ‘not so alone’, now that he was a member of Veterans for Peace. He also talked sincerely about how everything had changed for him after he met Amanda, now his wife, when, as a paparazzi photographer, he used to spend his nights in the car, waiting for celebrities to appear. A settler in Hastings for the past six years, he now seems happy to have put down some roots.

Pigs’ Disco

Pigs Disco

Pigs' Disco

You may have heard about Stuart’s book, Pigs’ Disco. It caused quite a stir in some quarters, as the book’s title refers to a once a month gathering of soldiers and civilian women getting together for a bit of R&R, via raves, drugs, drink and sex. This was back in the time of the Troubles of Northern Ireland in Belfast, when the paratrooper regiment he was in didn’t exactly have the best reputation.

The Pigs’ Discos and other drug and drink induced trips happened off duty, but clearly the effects reverberated into the on-duty lives of the soldiers. Stuart made it clear that he personally had never experienced any problems being caught drunk, drugged and disorderly in charge of a gun. It was, he said, he and his fellow soldiers simply letting off steam, set against the savage background of the Troubles.

I’m imagining that the girls were local and therefore Irish. Back in the early 90’s,  one of my jobs was working in an Irish Pub in Germany and I remember how one of the young Irish barmaids embarked on a relationship with an English bloke. Having been brought up to hate the English, she was ‘surprised to find them not so bad after all’. Love and lust – brilliant breakers of barriers and boundaries.

In 1995, the military introduced compulsory drug testing, so, although Stuart’s book caused waves, the MoD could at least console themselves that the matter had subsequently been dealt with and was now not an issue. (Cocaine aside – a possible contemporary drug of choice, it is rumoured – due to the amount of time it stays in the blood stream.)

Squaddie at sixteen

Cartoon by Stuart Griffiths 1994

Cartoon by Stuart Griffiths 1994

Stuart’s military career began when he was a sixteen year old teenager. Living in Warrington, a young man with no qualifications, he was, he told me, like so many other young men, ideal malleable, pliable, teachable, impressionable material for the army. Stuart’s army career lasted for five years, during which time, he became known as the squadron’s photographer and cartoonist, documenting his military experiences and capturing the reality behind the official spin of the military publicists.

A member of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, he told me he’d been influenced into signing up by The Paras, a BBC TV programme in the early 80’s, which gave a different perspective of a paratroopers’ experience than the one he discovered, once on active duty in Belfast, post Bloody Sunday, the hit and run incident and various other interactions between the men of one side and those on the other.

For members of the army, the enemies are always changing, just like in 1984, when the chanting populace are enflamed into screaming hate messages at an ever-changing adversary.

Sex and drugs and R&R

Anti-drug when he first enlisted, Stuart became involved in the drug and rave scene, along with many of his comrades in arms. Why did this change? I asked? Peer pressure, he replied – and the fact that it was more senior men who had offered him the drugs.

Drugs can offer one kind of trip, (both the street and the prescription kind, may I add), but Stuart discovered that he preferred another kind of travel, deciding to explore life through the lens of his camera rather than out of his head at a rave.

Foot patrol, Lenadoon Estate, West Belfast, 1990

Foot patrol, Lenadoon Estate, West Belfast, 1990

Having a reputation as a bit of a joker in his regiment, a senior officer had a word in Stuart’s shell-like about how his life might turn out if he continued on this path. Offered the chance to study, he chose photography. This led to a tour of duty in Kenya, which, he told me, opened up his mind to the world of travel and exploration, especially for a young man who had “lived quite a sheltered life and only applied for a passport in order to go to Northern Ireland”.

I imagined photos of elephants and lions hanging in the trees, until I remembered that Stuart had been working for the army – and what were they doing, wanting to photograph Kenya? What was on their mind for that project, I wondered!

Having experienced life as a photographer, Griffiths knew in his heart that he wasn’t destined for a career in the army. However, he was clearly someone who enjoyed a little adventure and an element of high risk in his life. He described taking some time out in Portugal to work on the book and enjoy some R&R, following a harrowing civilian experience in The Democratic Republic of Congo, where he had arrived ready to work with the Red Cross and found himself alone, everyone else having withdrawn. Subsequently, he experienced a mock-execution and arrest, all in the course of a normal day’s work as a photo-journalist.

Life in a veterans’ homeless hostel

Later, working in Knightsbridge, for a disreputable, slow-to-pay, paparazzi agency, he spent some time living in a hostel for homeless veterans – and began photographing the residents, against the specific instructions of the colonel in charge, who told him: ‘The answer is no, because in the heart of every journalist, there is deceit’.

British soldier (blinded in Iraq) Liverpool 2007

British soldier (blinded in Iraq) Liverpool 2007

Stuart had already taken lots of photographs of the injured and maimed soldiers living at the hostel, leading to links with veterans living in squats or in treatment centres, who had been involved in military campaigns, including Iraq and Afghanistan. His goal is to show people what it is really like to be a soldier; to educate people about the reality of being in a war and how you are treated on your return, offered as an alternative to the military propaganda message of glamour and heroism.

“Lots of squaddies are scared to speak out about their experiences”, Stuart explained, “as we’re told that ‘someone will come knocking on the door if we do’, but that’s just bollocks.” 

Unique perspective on military life

British soldier (injured in Iraq) Bristol 2008

British soldier (injured in Iraq) Bristol 2008

Stuart’s exhibition, Closer, is set in Sussex Coast College Hastings, where he wants young people to see and understand his unique perspective of military life. At the private view on Friday 19 September, he’ll be reading excerpts from Pigs’ DiscoWhy would people want to go and see Closer?, I asked. “It will give you an insight into a veteran’s perspective on war and conflict. A unique perspective as a photographer in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles – and my personal road journey.”

This exhibition represents one man’s journey from soldier to peace campaigner; it is not The Journey of All Servicemen, but it offers an alternative experience to that propagated by the military’s marketing team.

Ponderings on peace…

One cannot fight for peace. Even the word ‘campaign’ has, to me, military connotations. The language of peace surely cannot be the same as the one for war?

Does ‘peace’ need ‘war’ in order to exist? Maybe we have to move beyond the concepts of these two alternatives – and quantum leap to another sphere, where neither exists?Because ‘peace’ in this context seems to mean ‘absence of war’. If we are not ‘at war’, we are ‘at peace’.

Even though we live in a time of no war on our home ground, many of us as individuals aren’t at all ‘at peace’. I wonder if we all considered working on the major and minor conflicts happening inside ourselves, whether there would be repercussions on all other levels? I believe so.

Does humanity need a constant state of war and peace in order to survive? To progress? Is this the only way to learn and to teach ourselves and one another a lesson? There must be other ways.

Closer is Griffiths’ first solo exhibition and was selected by Charlotte Cotton, Val Williams and Martin Parr as the winner of the Brighton Photo Fringe OPEN 2010. The exhibition has been touring nationally in its complete form, notably at Birmingham MAC and London College of Communication and is curated by Val Williams.

Private view and book reading: Friday 19 September
The exhibition runs 19 September–7 October
At: Sussex Coast College Hastings, Station Approach,
Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 1BA

Tel: 01424 442222

Closer is open to the public: Monday–Friday 10am-7pm
22 September–26 September, 29 September–3 October, plus 
Mon 6 and Tues 7 October]
Saturdays 10am–2pm [
20 September, 27 September & 4 October]

Pigs’ Disco (2013) is published by Ditto Press and will be on sale for £20. 

You can check out Stuart Griffiths’ website here.

Posted 17:57 Tuesday, Sep 2, 2014 In: Hastings People

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Paul Murphy

    Both Stuart Griffith’s photography and his writing are sharp, vivid and utterly truthful. He is a remarkable talent – don’t miss this opportunity to see the work, and the man himself!

    Comment by Paul Murphy — Thursday, Sep 4, 2014 @ 10:51

  2. Miranda Gavin

    Can’t wait for the show and to hear Stuart reading from his book accompanied by his unflinching and sensitive portrayal of war veterans.

    Comment by Miranda Gavin — Wednesday, Sep 3, 2014 @ 17:59

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