Musician Griffiths’ reign in Spain that came at a real cost

RICHARD PACITTI reviews an anecdotal autobiography about life in Punk and New Wave-era Croydon and an artist’s mental health crisis

Rock ‘n roll lifestyle: Griff Griffiths has put it all down in a book

It’s been a bit of a busy year for Griff Griffiths.

In September, there was the launch of Are They Hostile?, the documentary about Croydon’s Punk, New Wave and indie scene that was his and Mark Williams’ brainchild (not to mention the CD and vinyl record that accompanied the film).

Griffiths has followed this up with I Was The King of Spain, a book about his life.

Not an autobiography in the conventional sense, but a series of anecdotes – some longish, some short – about his rock ‘n roll life.

Griffiths has been a market trader, tyre fitter, musician, artist, entrepreneur, furniture dealer, gilder, comedian, model, sports therapist, songwriter, producer, freemason and father. But his book has anecdotes about his childhood and growing up in Croydon, too. Some are funny, some quirky. “I was banned from my youth club for eating a tadpole”; and “I saw a UFO over Wandsworth gas works.”

“John Sullivan wrote Only Fools and Horses in the office above my shop,” is interesting enough. But some are more poignant and dignified. Like his admiration and support for armed forces veterans: “I have made almost a yearly pilgrimage to visit the Normandy invasion sites for the last 20 years.”

The anecdotes aren’t compiled chronologically but are like “a beautiful swimming pool in the sun, you can dive into whenever you want”.

Griff was brought up in Croydon and in his teenage years he was part of the Croydon Punk and New Wave scene. In the 1980s he was a pop star in the band Strength (he had his own fan club) and led the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, complete with all its excesses.

When this came to an end, he set up a series of successful businesses, which meant at the age of 38 he could sell these and take a “gap decade and a half”, during which time he learnt to sail and fly and became a professional stand-up comedian.

As someone who has got to know Griff over the past year or so, I would say the book captures well the energy, enthusiasm and good humour that drives him along and gets projects like Are They Hostile? conceived and completed.

The title derives from a time when “a massive breakdown left me suicidal, in an institution believing I was the King of Spain”. Some of the anecdotes refer to this period in his life, but he says that he “doesn’t want to dwell on his ‘mental issues’.”

One of the more moving passages relates to when he became unwell. He describes sitting on a “throne” in his shop. “As customers came in, anything they liked I gave them for free. Didn’t take long till shop keepers on my parade became aware of what I was doing. These were local businesses who I’d known for seven or eight years. Rather than coming in and trying to help, nearly all of them contacted friends telling them I was giving stuff away… To this day, 20 years later, can’t believe those local shopkeepers behaved that way.”

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between mental health problems and creativity and wonder to what extent the energy and restless creativity that he describes was associated with his mental health problems. “I possess a certain amount of artistic ability and creative flare that pops its head up with no warning. During a two-week period, I can make stuff with very little effort, painting maybe 10 images in an evening. Once the ‘need to create’ fades, I have absolutely no interest to paint at all.”

There’s a long list of musicians, comedians, artists, writers and thinkers who have been diagnosed with mental health problems, often manic depression or bi-polar disorder as it’s called nowadays. Clearly, the world would be a much poorer place without the work of Spike Milligan, Vincent van Gogh, Brian Wilson, Stephen Fry and many others.

Get a copy of Griff’s book, enjoy a good read, and perhaps ponder the lives of creative people and where that creativity comes from.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Art, Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply