Stokey airport wakes up the neighbours


Greg McLaren, one of the minds behind  Stoke Newington International Airport, talks to Lottie Young about turning a former sweatshop into a venue worthy of superstars.

It’s difficult running an underground ‘performance space’ for exclusive London parties and avant-garde performers and musicians, especially when you’ve got neighbours.

Hip-hop royalty Gil Scott-Heron has played the 150-capacity venue off Leswin Road. Photo: Dave Blume.

They’re a concern for the four-man collective that run the Stoke Newington International Airport,  a group of mossy concrete sheds consisting of four studios and a larger building used for the collective’s monthly theatrical extravaganza.

The airport is nestled amongst Stokey’s characteristic Victorian terrace just off Leswin Road. If you look up you can almost see into the neighbours’ bedrooms.

“We pissed them off at first and then we agreed we’d only do one thing a month and not go on too late into the night,” says Greg McLaren, the collective’s founding member and a full-time performer himself.

Apart from the odd complaint, they’re well established in the community now. “That’s one of the reasons we haven’t done anything bigger; we are limited by our respect for our neighbours – everyone needs to have a peaceful life,” he says.

McLaren, too, lives next door and acquired the buildings from his landlord three years ago when he threatened to move out of his home.

“The buildings were being used by this guy, Tony, who ran a sweatshop. I said I didn’t want to live next door to a sweatshop any more, so my landlord asked me if I wanted to rent the space as Tony was moving out.”

Greg pulled together four additional investors to secure the space.

Soon they had artists interested in the studios; Ted Barnes, a guitarist who has worked with the singer-songwriter Beth Orton, paid for his before it was ready.   Acclaimed comedian, Josie Long, also works from the Airport now.

Although McLaren has no idea how popular the Airport is – they can only fit 150 people in at any one time – they are certainly booking bigger gigs.

Gil Scott-Heron and The Chemical Brothers have performed there and Matt Smith, who plays BBC’s Doctor Who, turned up for a party they hosted with a girlfriend.

Channel 4 has just finished filming a music show at the Airport which will tide them over for a while.   But threats to their existence remain.

“We don’t have a massively long lease on the building and it could be knocked down any minute.  It’s been like that for three years – it’s a bit exhausting really.  Our landlord has planning permission.”

But Greg believes this is key to the aura of the “underground” that surrounds the airport.

“We’re not sanctioned by anybody, we don’t get any funding and we do it virtually for free and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

McLaren’s next plan is to refurbish the buildings so performers can “roll about on the floor”.

I wonder what the neighbours would think?