'Auto-destruction' in a train shed: how the Roundhouse made Camden cool

The Roundhouse and Di Clay

The Roundhouse and Di Clay - Credit: Andrew Whitehead/Di Clay

It was built as an engine shed - later became a liquor warehouse - and bounced back from dereliction to become the epitome of London cool.

The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm has had a much livelier history that most railway buildings, and more than 170 years on it's still going strong.

The Roundhouse dates from the 1840s, when rail lines started carving their way across north London. It was a hugely impressive piece of architecture incorporating a locomotive turntable which gave the building its shape and name.

But within little more than a decade, the engines became too big for the turntable. By the end of the 1860s, Gilbey's was using the place to store its gin.

The renaissance of the Roundhouse started a full century later when, in 1964, the playwright Arnold Wesker launched Centre 42, seeking trade union support for the creation of an arts and cultural centre.

And it became truly hip two years later, on October 15 1966 to be precise, when Pink Floyd and Soft Machine - neither then signed to a record label -  performed at the launch party for the biggest of the countercultural papers of the Sixties, the International Times (quickly obliged by the other Times to rename itself as IT). 

"It was great," recalls top record producer Joe Boyd. "Very raw, dirt on the floor, unheated - but strangely spectacular."

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2,000 people crammed in, including a roll-call of the counterculture's opinion formers.

Barry Miles describes in his book London Calling how the venue had "no proper floor, and great jagged pieces of metal stuck up through layers of grime. There were only two toilets, and the electricity supply was about the same as that of a small house, powerful enough only to light the building". 

The fuses finally blew just as Pink Floyd finished 'Interstellar Overdrive'. 

A motorcycle weaved in and out of the audience, revving in sync to the music. And the "shortest/barest contest" - a reminder of just how uncool some aspects of the Sixties were! - was won, says Miles, by Marianne Faithfull "for an extremely abbreviated nun's outfit".

Dianne Lifton, then a 21-year old fashion designer living in Camden Town, thinks she was at the Roundhouse that night - she's sure she was there a few weeks later for a New Year's Eve event of "psychokinetic destruction". It was all in the spirit of the Auto-Destructive Art pioneered by Gustav Metzger, with The Who - "pioneers of destructive art" according to the press release - topping the bill.

On this occasion auto-destructive art was meant entirely literally. By arrangement, Dianne and a friend drove a silver-sprayed Cadillac, an icon of America's auto-obsession, into the auditorium. Not onto the stage but among the audience.

Di's Silver Culottes

Di's Silver Culottes - Credit: Di Clay

"We were both dressed from head to foot in silver - soft helmets, in vogue at the time, silver mini culottes," says Di says she still has these "and silver tights".

"Bringing the car to a standstill at the foot of the stage,"  recalls Di Clay (as she's now known), "we both got out carrying large axes and began to smash the car. Friends standing round us were unable to hold back the crowd, some of whom wanted to stop us while other wanted to help and grabbed the axes from us." 

"I was getting involved in all that sort of thing. I never thought of it as performing art at all. It was an action. But I had to stop when I found I had blood on my dress."

She remains an admirer of Metzger, though that was her last public wielding of an axe.

For several years, she supplied her own designs to boutiques in Hampstead and Chelsea - the only photos she has from that time are a contact sheet showing her wearing one of her own pieces - and  also experimented with garments made from aluminium fabric, magnetised rubber and other unconventional materials.

Di in a suit she designed

Di in a suit she designed - Credit: Di Clay

Every bit as revolutionary was the two-week Dialectics of Liberation Congress held at the Roundhouse the following July. The speakers included the black power activist Stokely Carmichael, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and alternative psychiatrist RD Laing. 

The posters proclaimed this to be "a unique gathering to demystify human violence in all its form, the social systems from which it emanates, and to explore new forms of action".

The sessions helped to ensure that innovative forms of thinking, criticism and activism evident in America and Europe shaped the British New Left too, preparing the ground for the student rebellions and street protests of 1968.

And it all happened in a train shed!

Andrew Whitehead writes about 'Revolution at the Roundhouse' in Curious Camden Town, co-authored with Martin Plaut.

The Roundhouse

The Roundhouse - Credit: Andrew Whitehead