By Gail Thibert
Nineteen years old with freshly dyed blue hair, punk rocker Gail places an advert in a music paper for ‘likeminded friends and weirdos’. Soap the Stamps, Jump the Tube follows her autobiographical journey through the 80s underground music and squatting scene in London
Having worked at the sandwich bar for a couple of years, and feeling like I really knew and understood the art of the sandwich, I decided it was time to find myself a full-time job that didn’t involve slicing things. To start with, I worked briefly as a bike courier. My calf muscles were already like those of a rugby player having cycled from Morden to Blackfriars – a round trip of thirty miles – every day to the sandwich bar. I rapidly learned the names of the main London streets and areas, after being trapped in a sandwich bar for two years, I enjoyed the job. I was outside all day with the wind in my vivid purple hair. And all the poisonous chemicals in my lungs. The cycling was getting me super-fit meanwhile the pollution felt like it was killing me. I may as well have smoked 40 B&H a day.
The stripy tights I wore beneath my knee-length leggings earned me the affectionate nickname of Pippi Longstocking with the controllers in the dispatch room, although it’s a nickname that only lasted six weeks as my courier days came to a grinding halt one day when I collided with a car turning left in to Wilmington Square off Roseberry Ave in Islington. Little did I know then that I would be living there, less than a year later. I decided to look for a safer occupation instead.
Scouring the newspapers looking for something that would involve less potential death but no sandwiches I noticed an advertisement for a toy tester in Wembley. I had visions of myself playing with teddy bears and Star Wars figures, so I naturally applied and was offered the job.
On my first day I was taken to the toxicity-testing department, and placed in a laboratory where I was issued with a white lab coat and some plastic safety specs. It was like being in Joe 90 but without the strings and jittering limbs. My job was to scrape the paint off toys such as die-cast metal cars or teddy bears’ eyes with a sharp scalpel blade (this is probably against the law now, but at the time teddies still had no rights). I then had to sift the paint scrapings into a small metal sieve then weigh the resulting powder into a test tube ready for the chemists to test with artificial stomach and saliva solutions, to gauge their levels of heavy metals that could be ingested, such as barium, arsenic and mercury. We were imaginatively known as ‘scrapers’ and seemed to be at the very bottom in the jobs hierarchy. The sieve was cleaned with neat acetone in between each paint sifting, so once again I was working with harmful solvents. If any toys failed the tests they would go for retests. Which can be very stressful for a teddy bear, especially the younger ones. The company was part of trading standards and they issued certificates authorising the use of the CE mark and other international safety standard stuff.
One perk of the job was that we could take the tested toys home if they weren’t too mutilated. Sometimes it was just kinder to put them to sleep. I would often arrive home with a disabled teddy who had lost the use of an eye or in more extreme cases, had had an eye completely removed (without anaesthetic). I would give many toys and teddies to Bill the witch’s little nieces who thought I was clearly the best adult in the world as I was an endless source of expensive but physically impaired toys.
My friends soon found out what I was doing for a living and threatened to report me to the teddy bear liberation front for the practice of soft toy vivisection. I couldn’t blame them. I was maiming teddies for money and what’s more, I enjoyed it.
I soon made other friends in the job as I would get bored with sieving metal filings and wander off into other departments for a cup of tea and a bit of a chat. From making friends elsewhere I began to be offered other goods to take home that had survived the testing: a free bicycle, a skateboard, an iron, a hairdryer. It was like the Generation Game but with conveyer belt prizes that had slipped through quality control. And with a lot of cuddly toys.
I often found myself at the back of the building, where the mechanical engineers tested furniture and other heavy goods. It was interesting how they devised machines to simulate a bum constantly sitting on a sofa and gauging the resulting wear and tear. If they’d needed a bum to sit on a sofa for extended periods of time, they only had to ask. I had one that was very fit for purpose.
The people that worked there were a good laugh and the men in the mechanical department took a shine to my bike. They would help me fix things on it when it went wrong and one guy showed me how to fill a dent in my petrol tank and respray it, whilst another tried to teach me the guitar but it turned out my fingers weren’t ‘stretchy’ enough. Which in some ways was a relief.
The ladies in the textiles section gave me fabric offcuts so that I could make baby clothes, as the fabric samples weren’t big enough for adult clothes, which I then sold on a stall in Greenwich Market. I was so bored of scraping eyes (already desensitised to the cruelty) and sieving metal filings that I tie-dyed a t-shirt under my desk. I must have been a nightmare employee. When people left their jobs, they were told they could return to the company if things didn’t work out for them elsewhere. The same was said to me, but I really got the impression that they didn’t actually mean it. I’d been toying (see what I did there?) with leaving in order to focus on making and selling clothes, so that’s what I did.
By now I’d become skilled at reading Tarot cards and so I decided to go along to a spiritual centre in Wood Green in North London where they advertised they were looking for new readers. I had only ever read for family and friends and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was good enough and confident enough to be able to charge strangers for readings.
When I arrived, it became instantly obvious that I was the youngest card reader there, by about thirty years. The man that ran the centre showed me to a table and said he would send over a couple of people for me to give sample readings to, and if I was any good, I could stay.
The first reading I gave was to the organiser’s wife and seemed to go ok but the second was to an elderly man with a head of white hair and a matching moustache. I asked him to shuffle the cards and then I nervously laid them out. I was surprised as many of the gentleman’s cards were love cards. Surely this man was too old to have a love life, I thought. However, I dutifully read the cards and tuned into one particular card – the queen of pentacles. I began describing a lady approximately seven years younger than him with short, red, wavy hair and pale skin. The man nodded. Suddenly a woman’s name popped into my head. “I’m hearing the name Rene or Irene,” I said to the man. He sat back in disbelief and suddenly produced a wide smile. “Her name is Renee, it’s a French name, but I wouldn’t expect you to have got that. Yes, Rene or Irene are the English equivalents,” he told me.
I was chuffed to smithereens. I’d not ‘heard’ names before or experienced anything outside of the traditional meaning of the cards. Based on the gentleman’s feedback I was invited to stay and in fact to come along every Saturday if I wished. The rent for the table was £5 for the day and each reading was £5 for as long as it took. I was soon busy doing readings for the general public, building up my confidence, and making a little extra pocket money.
For my twenty-fourth birthday I decided to throw a party. I had seen an old mate at a gig the week before and told him about the party and word had soon spread. One person, Smoky, showed up with ten Swedish guys he’d just met in the pub. Thankfully they were all a good laugh and in the morning, I woke to find various Swedish bodies strewn around the house. It was like waking up in Ikea after the apocalypse. One was even managing to sleep on the stairs. I mean, how the hell does one sleep on stairs?
It was at this party that I met Steve (a new Steve). A tall guy with dark hair that was cropped short and spikey hair. He was wearing a t-shirt that sported a punk band logo (but I don’t recall which band). I was instantly attracted to him. His chat-up line was that he had two pet rats and they wanted to meet me. How the hell could I refuse?
Our first date took place at the iconic Marine Ices Italian ice-cream parlour in Chalk Farm (which opened in 1931), not far from the old Oddities Market, which had since closed down. I took him on the back of my Suzuki. He was nervous to start with but soon realised that I wasn’t a complete maniac and could actually ride a bike.
Steve lived in Hackney with a couple of other mates, in a flat above a kebab shop. The two guys he lived with were involved in an organisation called Class War and one of them was arrested and subsequently sent to prison during the infamous poll-tax riots.
Steve worked as a gardener for Hackney council. He introduced me to the joys of Tangle Twisters ice lollies. Ice cream was definitely a theme for us.
One day we were walking back to my place in Tottenham when we saw someone’s possessions in our front garden. As we approached, I saw that there was a cheque book flapping about in the wind. I went to investigate and quickly realised that it was actually mine. And so were the rest of the possessions. Steve and I gathered up as many of my belongings as we could carry.
Inside the house, the landlady was going absolutely berserk. She had given us notice of eviction but three of us hadn’t found anywhere else to move to so we had appealed for another couple of weeks. Mary advised me to call the police as she was conducting an illegal eviction.
I walked into the kitchen, to discover Saucy John sitting with his latest female conquest, acoustic guitar slung around his neck. In between strumming chords, he was scoffing chips as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. He looked up as I entered the room and stopped playing guitar for a second.
“Hello Gail,” he said cheerily. “Want a chip?”
I was incredulous that he had sat calmly eating chips and drooling over this unknown girl whilst the landlady had thrown all of my belongings out of the house and into the front garden where anyone could help themselves to what they wanted. No, I did not want a fucking chip. Part of the reason the landlady was so furious was because Saucy was living in the house without actually paying rent.
I took Mary’s advice and called the police who arrived swiftly. The landlady quickly transmogrified in front of the law from a howling dervish into a perfectly reasonable polite and smiling woman. She lied to the police, saying that she was moving back into the house and that’s why we had to leave. The police said that I could legally stay and that if she wanted me out, she would have to take me to court.
After the police left, the landlady went into the bathroom and pulled all the wallpaper off the walls as she tried to make the place as uncomfortable and as unwelcoming as she could for us. There was no way I wanted to stay in the house with such a nutter. I’d lived with enough of those already.
Steve gave me a big hug and said I could move in with him. His room was barely big enough for him and his pet rats, but he was happy to have me there and his flatmates were agreeable too. There wasn’t enough room for my possessions, so I ended up dividing my stuff up between three different friends in separate locations. It was several years before I was reunited with all my stuff in one place again. In which time I learned that it is horrible not having control over your own things or a secure permanent roof over your head.
Two months after meeting Steve, he told me he was going on holiday and of all the places in the world he could be visiting, he was going to Greece. Not just to Greece but Paros – my island. I told him all about it and I must have seemed very enthusiastic as he invited me to go with him. Next thing I knew, I was on the ferry back to Paros!
This time, we stayed in the harbour town of Parakea, which was a different kettle of Greek fish to Naoussa altogether – a tourist party town where you can find English food and cheap shots, and sadly many English tourists to go with them. Although, at least I didn’t have to live on feta cheese alone or order a meat dish with no meat.
But the holiday was huge fun and I realised that I was developing very strong feelings for Steve, which will make you wonder why one day whilst we were playing a game of chess outside a tavern in the hot sun with a couple of beers, did I answer no when Steve asked me if I would marry him.
The reason I said no was because I didn't really consider his words to a serious marriage proposal. as we had barely known each other two months. And anyway, I thought it was a hypothetical question, as he had asked would I marry him rather than will I marry him.
So we didn’t get married but we did treat each other to new tattoos. Steve had the logo of Alternative Tentacles record label tattooed on his arm, and I had a merman across my shoulder and back. It was a design I’d fallen in love with in a tattoo magazine. The tattooist had a massive octopus tattoo across her back that she had designed herself (the tattoo, not her back). I imagine she didn’t do the tattoo herself. That would have been impressive. Or disastrous. She gave my merman a brilliant body and fish tail, adding muscles and sexy long hair. I also had a smaller merboy tattooed above the merman, called a sea squirt, from a design by the artist Patrick Woodruft.
Steve never asked me to marry him again. *Sad face*