I am in a damp dark corridor, lit only with a handful of LED camping lights. It stinks of bleach. In the murkiness, I can’t see either end of the long narrow space. What I can see is the odd doorway leading here and there with luminescent scrawl on the white walls, optimistically marking out bathrooms and a bar. Whilst I stand in the gloom alone I can hear the roars and sing-alongs of a joyous stadium full of Foo Fighters’ fans in the near distance. I knew this night was going to be ‘an experience’ but the surreal has already started.
Filming an illegal rave for a documentary about party drugs is why I’m here, in these railway arches in East London. I haven’t ever been to an illegal rave. As it’s only 10pm, I can’t yet say I’m at one. This is just the pre-amble, which basically means that all the film crew of two and I have been doing until now is hanging out in a grimy dank space more habitually inhabited by pigeons with a bunch of teenagers – and a French woman called Sophie.
Somewhere in her thirties, Sophie, a softly spoken and relaxed presence, is the only grown up involved in this venture. She is incongruous amongst the largely ineloquent teenagers styling themselves as a rave crew, supposedly running the operation. What I’ve garnered this evening about rave organising is that, if you can’t find an appropriate urban space (read large abandoned remote warehouse) in the lead up to the intended event, you find someone else who already has. Enter Sophie.
I am told Sophie is the resident squatter. My preconceptions immediately struggle with this: the most relatable person for me there, there is no way I can see myself living in this miserable place by myself. What makes someone like her capable and willing – or with no other option but – to live here? I soon find out, however, that, although she ‘squats’ the space, she doesn’t actually occupy it. Huh? She just organises her own ‘parties’ here or, like tonight, rents it to other ravers and then goes home – to her other squat or luxury rented accommodation?? Who the fuck knows – I’m being bombarded by new concepts on a minute by minute basis!
Our way in to this whole venture is via J; a skinny genial kid with large 80s-inspired glasses and little dreadlocks. Literally letting us in is Lewis; square-jawed, good-looking, he talks without really moving his mouth. He un-padlocks the chain and wedges open the hoarding boards that make up the gate for us to squeeze through behind a thick, waist-high slab of concrete.
Once inside, there’s access to three arches. Two still show signs of their previous lives as roads, complete with pavements, signposts and pigeon shit. The middle arch was converted at some point into construction workers’ temporary living accommodation – now the uninhabitable (by mine and squatter Sophie’s standards!) stinking spooky space I’m standing in guarding the filming kit. The film crew, rave crew and a handful of girlfriends and hangers-on are a hive of action elsewhere. Sophie’s gone to get a generator.
A Foo Fighters song I recognise well finishes to the immense roars of the crowd, feeling full of life. Where I am right now I feel… on edge. Jumpy. Finally, Lewis arrives with a padlock so we can secure the kit in a little room. I’m relieved as hell to get away from the perfect horror movie corridor I’ve been stuck in.
* * *
“How the fuck do you not know how to send a location pin? Fuck man! Ok, when you look at your phone, in the top right there’s a little cross….”. I don’t overhear the rest of the conversation but the apparent technophobe on the other end of the phone is the guy bringing the ‘rig’, or sound-system. He’s lost. The closed off roads thanks to the nearby concert are not helping. Neither is the fact that he’s rumoured to have prematurely started his night off with ‘too much’ ketamine. He needs to get here soon, though – the Snapchat invites have just gone out to a couple of thousand people who will be starting to make their way…
The rig eventually arrives, along with a handful of ravers required to remain patient for the time being. As the speakers and decks are manoeuvred into place, the levels of tension visibly reduce – anxious argumentative teenagers have given way to a well-versed cool. It is at this precise moment that a voice and some flashlights interrupt proceedings through the metal grills blocking up the arch we’re currently under. “You’re trespassing. All your activities are on CCTV. We can see you’ve got a sound system. The police have been called – they’re on the way.”. Oh.
I have a decent amount of sympathy for someone who’s just trying to do their job and I see the sense, for the most part, in many of the laws of our land. It’s also against my nature to be deliberately antagonistic. It is, therefore, uncommon to find myself on the side of the fence that I’m quite literally on tonight. But have we broken any laws? The security guard flashing his light keeps informing us that we have, thanks to a ‘Section 19’ notice that’s been served, apparently stuck to one of the outside walls. With our non-resident squatter, Sophie, absent from the scene we’ve no idea if he’s bluffing or not. Our solution for now? Apparently to keep completely shtum, move the rig under the hidden middle arch and wait to see if the police really are going to arrive and break up our party before it’s even started.
The security guards have left for now but in another arch another problem is unfolding. Sophie’s arrived back with a generator, cycled over on a trailer attached to a Boris Bike. Having left it to he boys, though, it looks like they’ve completely effed it up: the pull chord is stuck and the generator Just. Won’t. Turn. On…
Oblivious to the problems, ravers are starting to turn up in droves, able to slip in less conspicuously now that Foo Fighters fans are streaming past our arches, singing and exuberant. Music, dancing, fun… their evening; certainly not ours.
* * *
It’s gone midnight and our illegal drum’n’bass rave looks thus: in one archway, Sophie and a handful of ravers exchange words through or over the fencing with the police who have indeed turned up. In another archway, J and his girlfriend Lola are trying to fix the generator with the help of our director and his handy multi-tool. In the middle archway the remaining ravers are gathered. They sit in little circles, with phones playing out tinny music between them. Some of the girls are sucking on dummies (a practical trend designed to give their jaw something to do when the incessant ecstasy induced chewing starts). Along with braces on their teeth, hair in pigtails and asexuality in sports gear and trainers, it’s impossible to get away from how frighteningly young most of them are.
Their activities to relieve their boredom are far from innocent, however – smoking weed and cigarettes, snorting lines of various powders, setting light to things and starting to tag on the walls with paint pens. Despite their evident disregard for the law when it comes to their Saturday night activities, the idea of ‘grown ups in charge’ seems ingrained – one chubby, pigtailed teenage girl calls out to me from her circle as I’m walking past “’Scuse me, when’s it gonna get started?”. I chuckle inwardly in disbelief. Proving myself even more to be one of the only organised and responsible adults present, I’ve also become the unofficial snack and water point, which gets me chatting to one particularly interesting individual.
Tsar is 19 and has recently got out from a spell in jail. Complaining of his hunger, I’d given him a banana earlier in the night. Now he needs water to wash something sticky off his hands (Seriously, hours of raving with no food or drink?!). “Codeine.” he explains, gingerly holding out what looks like a medicine bottle, “Or that’s what it’s supposed to be. I was gonna sell it but someone opened it and spilt it so now it’s all sticky.”
He’s a tall good-looking mixed race kid with a small but thick afro. He tells me about how easy it is to make money selling drugs in prison and how much you learn in there. He asks me questions about work, what we’re doing here and whether or not we want any weed. He’s obviously pretty bright, as well as quite charming – later on I’ll see him dangling over the fence chatting to the police officers about football. I can’t help but think he could be doing a lot with himself. But before that thought goes any further, and before I find out what he was in jail for, I’m pulled away to witness the latest blunder the night has to offer.
Back in archway one, the final attempt at getting this rave going is underway. Someone has managed to get hold of a cannister of diesel which they are now pouring into a creaky-looking old generator heaved out from god knows where. Does this generator start? No, of course it doesn’t.
It’s Tsar that vocalises what everyone’s thinking: this night is a flop. Evidently ‘over’ their sit-down gathering in a crappy venue, the would-be law-breaking revellers start obediently queuing up at the gate to be let out. The supremely patient and pragmatic police officers who’ve been milling around outside for the past couple of hours are letting it be known that no-one will be in trouble and no sound kit will be confiscated should everyone leave now.
As I go to retrieve the filming gear from its room off the dank corridor in which I started my night, I walk into a thick fug of noxious fumes. The pen tagging that had begun earlier on in the night has metamorphosed into full aerosol graffiti. Not an area of white wall remains.
I trundle out with my suitcase of production kit, past the police. I’m not quite sure how or whether to greet them.
It’s nearly 3am by the time we’ve packed everything into the car. The train station by which we’re parked hasn’t opened yet, so the bored teenage scenes from inside the railway arches have merely been transposed to outside of them. I find Sophie there too and give the padlock key back. I wonder what her night will now consist of.
As we drive off to do yet more filming, I wonder what I’ve just been part of. It has been equal parts surreal, eye-opening, bemusing and troubling… I’d never been to an illegal rave before and, really, I still haven’t!