Stokes Croft – Haight Ashbury North

For the Chris Brake Show –

For three unforgettable days in 1969 I found myself in San Francisco. No, I didn’t get to smoke hash and dance in the street, due to certain restraints on my fulsome embrace of the Suburb of Love. I had arrived as a stowaway on the SS Richwood, a broken-down tub that had been around the world delivering aid rice to Indonesia, where I boarded her. Because I was being deported in a couple of days I was assigned a security guard who got bored after the first day and took me around in his Mustang, complete with a radio-powered car phone. I’ll never forget crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge and seeing a dude with long black hair flying in the breeze as he zoomed by in a Cadillac convertible with the hood down. I’d never seen a guy with hair that long own anything more valuable than a guitar.
We fetched up in Haight Ashbury. Man, what a scene – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing, exactly what I expected. More than once I sneaked a look sideways, checking for a chance to do a runner. I probably could have, but the guy was such a decent skin I couldn’t land him in it like that.

Time has passed and so has the Haight. But the spirit lives on in Stokes Croft, that most virtuously wiggy part of Bristol heaving with, well, the same really – street art everywhere, all kinds of marginal freaks doing their thing. Welcome to Haight North – north in space, north in time (if in fact time moves up and forward, which I sometimes think …nah. Too deep. Forget it.)

Come with me. I rise and am inspired from 7.30 to 12.30. Having put in my morning’s work writing, I slip down the hill to Gloucester Rd, the longest row of independent stores left standing in Europe. The Glozzer and its myriad friends has beaten off attempts by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose (the big three supermarkets) to build a megastore and destroy the business base of all those hardware shops, fishmongers, organic food stores, pubs, greengrocers, hairdressers and off-licences (liquor stores, known as ‘offies’) and God-knows-what-else. Bring it on, ya corporate raiders. The city wouldn’t dare give you your permits. We’d burn their arses down.

I stroll towards the centre and arrive after an always entertaining walk at Stokes Croft, that crazy hotspot bordering on the immigrant areas of St Pauls and Easton. Every day – yes, every one, one of the walls will sport a new piece. Don’t ask who funds all those cans of spray paint. No idea. It just happens.

This is the land of the million-pound wall art. Literally. I’m talking about Banksy. Check the pics. He’s been around for a decade or more. He? They? No-one knows for sure because Banksy is a massive exercise in anti-celebrity. There are only two things known for sure about Banksy: he’s a Bristolian artist of huge wit and artistic talent, and anyone who can get there their mitts on one of his pieces are quids in for a cool million. Yep. Thats £££££££££, not $$$$$$$$$$.

A few months ago a cricket club whose door he had used as a canvas were going bust and decided to sell the door. Hold hard there, says the council, that’s public property. Banksy is a public asset and we’re claiming the door. Next morning there was another little Banksy on the wall stating unequivocally that the door belonged to the cricket club. Which got a whole new lease of life from  the piece.

I love this place!

My dear, mad friend Bob Crane was cooking his breakfast on candles in his council flat (apartment) because he’d had fights with the utilities and they’d cut off his power and gas. He died in the resulting fire. A crime for which the bastards will never be called to book. One of the funniest people I’ve ever known, even though he was mad as a meat-axe. And the most generous. Within days the tributes were appearing all over the walls. The picture of Bob depicted as a scarecrow with birds in his pockets, his tea-cup and plate is my favourite. We miss him. I was distraught but those pieces helped.

RIP Bob Crane
RIP Bob Crane

Then the Skipchen opened. Food wastage in the West is beyond obscene. At the Skipchen we take a little chip out of that. (Skip=dumpster.)  The numbers: 12 million tonnes a year wasted in production and retail in the UK alone. That’s 540 grams per person per head per day – enough to actually feed everyone. We could feed everyone on the food we throw away and send everything we actually buy to people who need it, and they are legion.

So at the Bristol Skipchen ( we rescue food and serve it up. Up to a hundred meals a day. If we’d been going when Bob needed to cook on candles I’d still be pissing myself laughing at his gags.

The wonderful, or terrible, thing is that we don’t even need to dumpster-dive any more. Restaurants and shops call us up and ask us to take their surplus away to feed people. Most of them hate throwing good food out – sane people who know how utterly bent out of shape that is. But the money system, competition, blah blah blah makes it necessary.

Something has to change. This thing is broken. As Mao said, a small spark can start a prairie fire. Open one near you. You’ll never do anything more rewarding.

Over and out Indianapolis, and anyone else reading.

Hokusai lives on Jamaica Street wall.
So does Breughel. A deft combining of Japanese print artist Hokusai’s (1760 – 1849) famous Great Wave with a detail from, I’m fairly sure, a painting by one of the Flemish Breughel family (late mediaeval – early Renaissance.)
Sniper & Son – Banksy
Banksy: Sniper & Boy with inflated paper bag. Listen for it …
Graffiti monster
Graffito – The Demon Drink – on the wall of the Bristol Bike Project, a cool Stokes Croft co-op which refurbs bikes and sells them cheaply to the needy, and lets people use their full bike workshop for £5 a session.
Incomprehensible (to me) graffito on the wall of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft gallery.
Palmer Ray Solicitor's graffiti frontage.
In Stokes Croft, even the lawyers are cool. Offices of Palmer Ray, solicitors.
George Carlin graffiti
Headquarters of the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft, an art and lots of other things co-op.