Friday, 27 November 2009
Fitting, therefore, that I should spend my last evening in Keats’ old ward. Hampstead is truly old London; the Heath and the chimney stacks, the Victorian terraces and Georgian townhouses; nobody would bat an eyelid if a horse-drawn trap trotted passed HMV. I don’t think anyone would even begrudge a pickpocket or two plying their trade. Indeed, to return home empty pocketed from Hampstead would only feel real - an experience that money can’t buy. It can’t be long before the council start issuing licences.
Fitting, also, that Joe should live here. Much like his surroundings, Joe is from the old school; the very definition of charm, he has class to spare and lavishes it on his many friends. Tonight he was lavishing it on Nic and I in the form of much good food, much good wine and much good conversation. In fact, I believe this to be his very own holy trinity, the creed by which he lives his life.
We had met through work but had bonded through a shared love of music and bon homie, which ultimately manifested itself in The Big Sur. A labour of love, The Big Sur was a place for talent to shine and sparks to fly and it was, in turn, loved for that. I arrived home exhausted but elated after each and every one; it became a shared experience that entwined everyone who attended's lives together and remains one of my proudest achievements to date.
Towards the end of the evening Joe asked if we would like to go up on to the roof - not the roof terrace, you understand, the roof. A bit wobbly after much wine it was probably unwise but it would have been much less wise to pass up the opportunity. When I went to visit the VHS Video basement one of the first questions I asked was, ‘what’s the roof like?’, and, if you ever get invited on to one, even if pushed for time, even if worried about treacherous tiles, I suggest you accept that invitation in all instances.
A roof was designed with one function in mind, to keep you safe and dry. So it’s already your friend and protector. If you can find a way to pervert that function, to confound the designer's original intentions and create for it a new and unexpected purpose, then that can only bring you closer to it. Think of the skaters at the South Bank; unexpected outcomes are often the most joyful.
Furthermore, the roof has lessons to teach. Roofology 101 comes from a combination of height and the inherent danger involved in clambering across one. The heart rate is quickened and you’re on heightened alert; what a great time to be reminded that you, the individual, are incredibly small and insignificant. The great wide world is out there, you can see it all, the panorama, yet at any moment your little life could be dashed against the cobbles below; it takes off a good deal of anxiety.
The second lesson comes simply from seeing things from a different angle. A lesson that can be learnt over and over, as many times as there are angles - and in this world the angles are infinite - and remains as fresh and as relevant every single time. I have seen Hampstead high street many times, but never before from above. This new perspective is a good reminder that not everyone sees the world in the same way, that everyone has their own outlook. Empathy is increased as you try and see all the angles; be aware that you never, ever will but never stop trying.
Up there with the chimney stacks silently and steadily keeping watch over the good people of Hampstead I could see all of London. The shiny Emirates stadium, which I had never sat in and had only ever passed in taxis home to Turnpike Lane at 6am, each time catching me unawares and each time leaving me in awe as this modern monolith creeps out from behind the Victorian terraces of North London, illuminated at last by the very first rays of morning sun. The BT Tower, under which I had walked every working day for the passed two years; it would always make me draw comparisons with it’s sister structure back up in Birmingham, and make me think of home. Tomorrow I would be there but for now I was up on the roof with my friends – taking stock and surveying our kingdom for one last time.
I spent much of my last day packing and listening to Don’t Turn Around over and over, imagining instead that it was I who was the lover spurned. Don’t worry about this heart of mine, I’m letting you go. But, in truth, the city was blameless. It was I that was walking away and, like all beautiful creatures, she can’t help who falls in love with her - it’s not her fault.
I had one last London commitment to fulfil, working on the Children in Need appeal back at Radio 2. The shift had finished much earlier than anticipated which meant that I arrived at Euston with too much time to spare and really had no choice but to sit and wait. Nothing to do but reflect. I have a propensity to positivity but late night waiting in any transportation hub provides the potential for moments of melancholy to creep up unawares. They say you can never really go home again and I was about to test the theory.
The hour was upon me at last so I walked down the ramp and onto the platform with the rest of the crowd. In one sense I was in a world of my own, Speech Debelle’s Speech Therapy via headphones making mine a television set on mute, but in another I was very much a part of the world at large. I felt connected to my fellow commuters as for a brief moment, all funnelled in the same direction, we were as one in our hopes and ambitions. It’s nine-forty, or thereabouts, so every single one of these people is now going home and, hopefully, most of them will have someone waiting for them when they get there. Someone to be excited at the prospect of their return and relieved when they do walk through the door; someone to reconnect to. At very least the remainder will have a friendly place to lay their head, a little shelter - sometimes just having a destination is enough. Surrounded by all this humanity, it was in that instant that her wise words reached my ears, and a broad grin - the grin of a mad man who fancies he’s found salvation - flashed across my face: ‘life is learnt lived, and that’s all it is…’
Thursday, 19 November 2009
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Friday was a particularly debauched evening at the Black Cap in Camden for Adam TPL’s birthday. I had thought, for a while, that I was going to all the wrong gay bars, as all the one’s I’d ever been to were horribly tacky meat-markets . The Black Cap was no exception, but I’m assured this is largely the point. We drank a lot, we danced a lot; all of which made Saturday evening working even more tedious than usual.
It had only been a week since I had been in the building but the harsh strip lighting hurt my eyes and made me a bit squinty; put me simultaneously off balance and on guard, like someone was shining a torch in my eyes. Heckles up, when a co-worker greeted me with a casual, ‘alright?’, the response sounded uneasy in my own ears; was I overcompensating? How to say this; I am alright…but not by your standards, not by any means. I had been homeless, am now squat-less, on the verge of being broke and wandering, half blind, around middle England’s bastion of broadcasting. It’s safe to say my thoughts were elsewhere.
But then, perhaps this place, in which my thoughts were currently residing, was just a better place. I find myself being nice to almost everyone these days; maybe this is because I have less to lose and can afford to give more of myself away. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything, after all. Maybe I have more to lose now and this new friendliness is inherent to it. By merely exercising my gains, like a muscle, it grows stronger and I can hold on to them, shore them up; the more I give the more I get.
After work I walked through Mayfair, which I was now becoming adept at navigating on foot, down to the Puss in Boots Club. Two weeks ago I had ridden passed this place, looking for an address that seemed not to exist, and it fairly stopped me in my tracks. The notice in the window said it had been empty for three years. Somebody had clearly forgotten to flip the switch on the way out, which meant, for a full three years, it had been teasing potential punters with that hot pink neon Puss in Boots Club sign; punters who, on closer inspection, were to be barred by a boarded-up entrance. It looked like a palace and, if you could gain access, would make a perfect squat.
Sometimes it’s troubling to think that there may be no original ideas left – indeed, what would be the point? At others it is comforting to know that others have had the same thoughts as you; they say great minds think alike and if somebody turns the intangible tangible what does it matter who it is, so long as we can all touch it and enjoy it? So I took solace in that the VHS Video Basement - who had previously given shelter to members of The Oubliette and were, seemingly, close affiliates - had moved in this very week.
I was on the mailing list and they had sent round an email inviting members of the arts community to come and use their new pad, to showcase something altogether less seedy than had gone before. In particular, they were looking for young film makers, which many of their number were, to share their celluloid. I had no celluloid to share but maybe I could offer something else; with no other options, it was certainly worth a shot.
Work had made me late for the meeting though, and when I arrived they were, like the former patrons before them, ensconced in the belly of the beast, safe from the unswerving gaze of the world, and too far out of earshot to hear its call anyway. Or my knocks, so it was time to beat a tactical retreat to TPL, my current base and former home. I got back and emailed them to arrange to come round the next day and thrash out the prospect of my moving in.
When I arrived the following day a young man with a beard and the straggly hair of a squatter was outside washing the windows, showing the place more care than anyone had done in recent memory. He informed me that El, with whom I had made virtual contact, was out but would be back at 5pm for a squat meeting. So I tramped up to Soho, paid for a hot chocolate with silver and bronze in The Breakfast Club and sat slowly drinking it for a good chapter and a half.
I returned to the Puss in Boots Club at the allotted hour and was taken inside to meet the rest of the group. I wasn’t wrong about its palatial status – it gleamed and shimmered with swings, poles and disco balls all still in situ. It was a little shabby, slightly dishevelled after waking from a long and deep slumber, but squatters were scurrying all around, making it more presentable and preparing it to be shown to the world. My guide took me through the bowels and upstairs to the nerve centre. A penthouse apartment in the middle of Mayfair, it had clearly been someone else’s nerve centre previously and, although the remnants of cocaine and spunk were no longer visible, the walls seemed to almost silently scream of the things they had seen; history hung heavily in the air.
I caught them just before the meeting and they seemed a good bunch, a little younger than myself, bright and about 12 in number. I put my case forward and even showed them the blog, that which had caused my dilemma in the first place. They seemed to understand the situation but, even so, it didn’t look good. I had already been kicked out of one squat, and a squat they were friends with at that. I was also a perfect stranger; they didn’t recruit like the Oubliette, everyone was friends already and I, well, I wasn’t. To make things worse, the inn seemed to be fairly heaving. I told them they were my last chance and left them to have their meeting; they were to have a read of the blog, discuss my proposal and let me know. I already felt nervous about being judged by what I had written, and the fact that it had, so far, only brought me expulsion didn’t help the situation.
Even during my brief time with The Oubliette I had come across the phenomena of the squat groupie, those who like to hang around and dig the vibe but will ultimately return home to dig the duvet, and I was worried I was becoming the VHS Video Basement’s. But I was neither squatting nor living like a regular member of society, so I had to jump one way and the obvious choice was one last ditch attempt at destitution.
My opportunity came when they opened up the club to the wider world for their celluloid swop on Tuesday night. I’ll go down softly softly, watch a few films and, when the time is right, hit them full in the face with all my powers of persuasion. Perfect.
I don't know why I had not counted on The Oubliette being there also. The two groups were good friends and this was their big opening night, of course they’d be there. I saw Dan from where I was standing in the shadows of the main vestibule but it was so dark that, despite being stood just a few feet away, he had not seen me. I stepped into the light and offered a hand - I thought I detected a slight flinch but maybe that’s just paranoia; or human nature. It all seemed amicable enough but, for the rest of the night, my group sat at one end of the former lap dancing club and The Oubliette sat at the other.
In the end, although I had said hello, The Oubliette’s presence had thrown me off guard and made me feel too awkward to go any further than pleasantries with El. I felt caught between two worlds; the ghost of Vyvian Raoul, not totally real in either. And so it was time to make that move back to respectability, to be assimilated by society once more. But not completely; a wave has washed over me and left a high water mark which will never fade. The boundaries of consciousness and understanding have been pushed, and the territory claimed, that fertile land, can never be taken back; it is mine in perpetuity...
Thursday, 12 November 2009
As a consequence of this new squatlessness, and in an effort to get myself off various sofas, I spent a good portion of my day traipsing round Belgravia trying to find Mark Guard and his merry band. The press has dubbed them the 'Belgravia Squatters' and Mark is their spokesperson and legal advisor. Under his stewardship they've opened some headline grabbing properties, including one on the same street as Baroness Thatcher. They reportedly took her a cake to celebrate her birthday and it is their stated aim to liberate every one of the 319 empty properties in the district of Belgravia; socialists with a sense of humour, it seems.
My eyes were much more attuned to empty property and I saw plenty of it, but none containing the ones I was looking for. I actually found their old house, recognising it from the pictures in the Telegraph but, despite tramping around in the rain, I couldn't find them. I even asked Maggie's MP5 wielding Metropolitan Police guard if he knew of their whereabouts but, if he did, he wasn't telling me. So it was with slightly heavy heart that I walked to Victoria - to catch a tube to my first crack at itinerant working - and the drizzle, which seems to be becoming a dark-clouded constant, a metronome to my misery, didn't help.
Some might view collecting names and email addresses for the support band to be something of a climb down from working on the most listened to drivetime radio show in Europe, but beggars can't be choosers; I wasn't quite a beggar but I had no wish to become one either. It was certainly a good way to see another side, to sneak up on society; to begin to deconstruct.
It was coming down pretty heavily by now and about seventy percent of people were just plain rude, as if their scorn could somehow keep them dry. The other thirty percent were a delight. Nobody really wants to be on a mailing list - isn't it enough that I'm here? It's about making it an acceptable enough compromise by showing a little humanity; a little give, a little take. So those that stopped to chat and sign up were already those open to making connections (and, later, almost exclusively those that were open to connections and had umbrellas). I did milk the human kindness a little by telling some that, although my union was currently in discussions, I was only getting paid about ten pence per name collected - which lead to a lot of people putting down lots more; friends or foes, very efficient either way. One teenage lad gave me the rest of the can of cider he couldn't finish before the door, and one couple took a photo with me; a moment captured and shared. I was wet but fairly singing in the rain.
Interestingly, some people seemed to be more likely to sign up if it was for the main band, Biffy Clyro. What more could they have to learn of Biffy? It was their popularity which made them popular, the mailing list becomes less about learning and more about being a part - the marketing machine making it all ok, all ok. There were a few, a very few, that in every single case were the young, who signed up for the exact opposite reason. Manchester Orchestra? Never heard of them; sign me up! Those for whom music is about discovery; where others got quite enough spam thank you very much, these were they that had confidence in their ability to filter for themselves. Spam me, baby, spam me - let every email and experience wash over my head; I'll sort out the good from the bad.
I finished my shift and arrived outside the station with cigarette to burn so stood a while rather than waste it. A large dreadlocked man in a shabby olive green fatigue jacket came over to beg of some change. 'I'm sorry, I just don't have any'. It felt strange to utter that phrase and it be completely genuine. We can always spare something and I often gave, usually food, and would miss that warming of the spirit that comes with an act of charity. Equally I would be without the nagging guilt for those times I was less generous. He went on, uncomfortably, to tell me that he had seen the presenter of X-Factor, Dermot O'Leary, earlier - the implication being that the very man holding the reins of our counterfeit culture, that runaway colt, had been more forthcoming; a celebrity endorsed act of charity, huh? I still had no money but I wasn't above talking, seeing what he had to say. He asked me if I was a weed smoker and I told him that I was but I didn't need any; it was getting too 10CC for words. Listen, he said, I just need two quid and then I'll give you some weed, y'know? 'I don't have any cash mate, I live in a squat'.
Not technically true anymore but the flash of recognition was instant as he affirmed, 'is it?' and we touched fists. Instant acceptance, a different kind of endorsement but an endorsement he could support; one on his terms. It was truly remarkable, and took me totally by surprise, but I suppose the connections are everywhere just waiting to be made. If it is making these connections which lift the human spirit, and I believe it is, then the more we can make the more elevated will our situation be. And, I suppose, all anyone really needs to make a connection is a chance to explain their position, to give a fair account of themselves...
A couple of months ago I decided to join the Oubliette Arthouse Collective and, sometime between then and now, I decided to document the journey here. Dan knew that I wrote, although I hadn't actually told him it would take this form. For my part,I knew that Alex, who had introduced me to the group, had left following a disagreement with Dan over something he had written. I knew not the specifics and I didn't ask; I thought Alex's blogging was the precedent that meant I could too - as long as I watched my words.
Apparently not; I sent the blog to Dan, after just a few days of writing it, to a, see if there was anything I should avoid and b, see what he thought of it, y'know, get a little constructive criticism? It's safe to say he didn't like it one little bit. Not so much the content - although he didn't like that - but the fact that I hadn't told him about it.
The Oubliette is proud to oppose all forms of censorship; except, it seems, those inflicted by itself. The words had been overwhelmingly positive but, no matter, there had been words, and that was enough. I was admonished and dismissed - I felt like a child being smacked in the supermarket, completely unable to understand either crime or punishment.
In truth, it hurt; I felt dumped. I had grown attached to the group and to the project. Both \re highly ambitious and have the potential to change the way we view the arts, the importance to which we give creativity: perhaps even remind us that we were put on this planet to create. Although no longer a part of it, a part I shall always have been, and like all good alumni, I wish it well. I wrote earlier that if we are truly the sum of our experience then other people's experiences should be naught to us. This discounts a shared experience, of course, which leads, inevitably, to a shared life; a fact to which these words are a testement...
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Waking in a bed for the first time since Tuesday meant that becoming fully conscious, getting up, was a much more drawn out process that I had anticipated. After seeing some of my chums for Saturday night blood sports, the Big fight, I'd returned back to Turnpike Lane for the evening and, of course, the pull of my old life was strong. But The Oubliette was at a critical point, so I saddled up and rode out again.
When I returned there seemed to be a general air of despondency in the group. We were being evicted at midday, the Bailiff would be at our door at high noon, and we were yet to find another base to move to. We were on the verge of disbandment but before we could get too downhearted, Hubert was taking us all out for dinner.
I had heard of Hubert before I'd met him, and whenever people described him it was almost in a state of rapture. He's known Dan for at least five years, meaning he must have been squatting for at least that long, and probably longer. He had, therefore, the reputation of the ultimate squat-mate; highly practical, always the first to go foraging and ever-willing to share with you whatever he found. On my nervous first night he had said to me, fairly growled through his beard, 'you'll be fine, you look like trouble'. Rough living has not, it seems, dampened his human kindness, nor his humour, one bit.
Going out for dinner seemed strange to me; you mean, we're going to eat inside the restaurant? Indeed we were and this was to be funded by the recent sale of Hubert's rickshaw. It seems much of the rickshaw community (and almost all of the bike couriers in the capital) were also squatters; Dan had been and so had Hubert until the authorities had hijacked the means with which he earned his livelihood. He had lent his bike to a friend (it strikes me as I write this how apt it is that this story both begins and ends with an act of kindness) who had 'parked' it on double yellow lines whilst he went to relieve himself. When this friend returned, the Police were actually towing the vehicle away! This strikes me as a particularly vindictive and spiteful act, given that they could just as easily lifted it up and put it on the pavement. It should be obvious to anyone who cares to think about it that rickshaw drivers, a profession most normally associated with the Indian sub-continent, are amongst the poorest members of society so to punish them by taking away the tools with which he earns his living is at best counter-productive and costly, and, at worst, plain despicable. Give a man the means to catch his own fish and he'll feed himself for a lifetime; take away those means and he's fucked.
Apparently the courts - in not quite so many words, I'm sure - agreed, and returned the rickshaw to its rightful owner. Hubert is soon to depart for mainland Europe so, with the proceeds of the sale of his only real property - which, brand new, cost £3000 - he took us all out to dinner. We agreed not to talk shop and when I asked if this was something of a Last Supper, I was told it was more celebratory than that; more of a toast to bigger and better things - whenever and wherever they may come.
Over the course of the meal, he produced his old Polish ID card. The photo was probably at least five years old and showed a beaming but close-cropped, clean shaven Hubert which apparently had caused him trouble at the border as the authorities struggled to reconcile his old image with his new. It seemed to me that all he had to do was flash them that same broad grin, give a little of the glint, and he'd be instantly waved though; no denying the soul of the man, even in these nervous times.
We returned in high spirits and asked a passerby to take pictures of us in front of the temporary home which was about to be ours no longer. There was one more property to look at, a last ditch attempt to put a roof over our heads and avoid disbandment. Nate was staying behind to ‘keep’ the property (it’s quite reassuring to know that there will always be someone in, always someone burning the home fires) and I stayed with him for lack of transport. When they returned at 11pm I didn’t need to ask whether their - our - mission had been successful; their faces told of their frustration. Someone seemed to be watching and we couldn’t risk a call to the Police. Liberty is not something to take chances with, especially not when we had all paid a reasonably high price to attain it.
Compared with the previous night, it was an uneasy sleep, therefore. We were packed up and out a good thirty or forty minutes before the bailiffs were due to arrive. Thais and Talita had gone back to their flat in Hackney, Dan was to retreat to his long-term (four years in fact) squat in Balham which left Philip, Hubert, San and myself (Nate was at rehearsal) pulling a three wheeled cart from Leicester Square to a garage near Warren Street. Once we’d dropped the stuff, the boys headed to Aldgate and the hospitality of the VHS Basement Squat crew and I head back to TPL to unpack and re-pack; we didn’t know who would be there so we needed to take as little as possible and make the rest of it safe. Along the way, at a point when we’d stopped for a cigarette break, Hubert, true to form, had asked if I was ok. I was but I felt a little useless at not being able to help more, and more than a little sheepish at the prospect of having my tail between my legs in Turnpike Lane.
This was only compounded when, later that day, as I was preparing to rejoin the group I got a phone call from Dan asking if I was ok and where I was. Apparently, the Aldgate crew had been forcefully evicted by the police as they, less cautious than ourselves, had broken a board when they squatted their current abode. Strangely my second reaction to that news, my first being concern, was disappointment. I was disappointed not to have been there when it happened; history is made by those who turn up. I was currently physically comfortable but uncomfortable with being out of the loop. You decide your own level of involvement in this project so I had no-one to blame but myself, which compounded the feeling of regret.
As far as I know, Philip, Hubert and the American boys are currently camped out in Finchley Road. I’m about to leave TPL for Emma’s gig and the obvious place to go after this is Nic and Emma’s sofa but, after that, I’m going to attempt to rejoin the group. As Dan had said on the phone, it’s going to be a bumpy week but these bumps, I have no doubt, will make the destination all the more sweet when we finally arrive...
I awoke to Anna's cat, Heathcliff, purring on my lap. I'm sure that, when she was naming him, she could have had no idea of the heartbreak he would cause her, nor of the amount of time she would ultimately spend roaming the streets of Pimlico late at night with her hand cupped to her mouth begging her dark and detached feline to come home.
I had always considered myself more of a dog than a cat person and it's interesting that almost everyone has a leaning towards one or the other. Not many that love both equally and even fewer that say, actually, I'm more of a gerbil person. Maybe it's because they seem to represent a variety of human emotions that are seemingly disparate; the dog is loyal, unquestioning and sometimes makes a lot of noise for no apparent reason. It is also useful; a worker and protector. The cat is more aloof, thoughtful, independent - a lone hunter. It, too, has a staggering capacity for intimacy and affection, but always on its own terms. As Heathcliffe flirted across my lap, I sleepily thought that perhaps I'm becoming more of a cat person. But then, maybe not, maybe it's just a dodgy metaphor and, as both beasts have a capacity for love, we should love them equally and take the best lessons from both. Or get a gerbil.
After a brief stop off and freshen up at Leicester Square I was making my way down Parliament Hill to volunteer for War on Want at the Alternative G20 Conference in Westminster Central Hall. I was held up on the way by a rememberance parade and it struck me, as it always does on such occasions, that perhaps a military parade is not necessarily the best way to commemorate peace; that many people are, almost unconsciously, celebrating victory in war, rather than the end of war. Certainly, these ceremonies seemed to have more validity when we weren’t actually fighting a war (two wars? The same war?) and, as a child, I could believe that we never would again.
But it's most un-British to express such sentiment, so engrained on our collective psyche is this annual celebration. Every single November there's a story about some half-staved oik nicking money from a Poppy Appeal box and every single year we react to it in the same way we would someone pissing in a font or raping a grandma. Even the Weather was wearing a poppy this year - a special graphic had been commissioned so the map didn't look unpatriotic; it is a map of Great Britain after all. I found myself a white poppy with 'Peace' written in the middle so that no-one could mistake my intentions.
If the G20 conference was the hottest ticket of the year, the Alternative G20 seemed to still have seats available, and plenty of them. When I arrived outside it took me a while to find the hall because there was no signage, no-one handing out flyers, no nothing; if you didn't already know what was going on inside the Central Methodist Hall that afternoon you never would. One of the speakers, Deborah Doane of the World Development Movement, in the final session summed up pretty well why we need to do better than this lacklustre live show, this tame trumpeting, when she said we have to stop viewing the Left as an alternative. If we believe in it, it should be the only way.
So why isn't it? Well one reason could be that the Left is more considered and looks to include everyone in its solutions. This is, necessarily, a slower process. In my experience those of the left tend to be more intellectual and the more thought that has gone into a problem the more solutions there will be for it, which can cause divisions. In comparison the Right can be more dynamic because it has one handy answer for every question; sell it. Wash your hands of the problem, privatise it and let the Market sort it out. It's a simple solution but one which is fundamentally flawed; in the realm of global economics one size does not fit all. As John Maynard Keynes put it, 'Capitalism rests on the astounding assumption that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of deeds for the greatest good.'
This led to thoughts of collectivism and autonomy. The two are generally considered to be irreconcilable but I’ve been shown a third way which proves it needn’t be the case. Each one of us was born free and will fight harder than we realise to remain so; ultimately, no-one likes to feel bound. It is no surprise that independence is a highly prized commodity in our world. And yet, a chap could get pretty lonely as an individual; he needs people around him, family, friends, and yes, even society. He needs to feel connected and to be able to make connections.
The Oubliette seems to be a pretty good model for this. We are a group, a collective even, but we are, at the same time, a collection of individuals, all of who are able to express themselves, and all of whom treasure that freedom and exercise it constantly and with vigour. When I first moved in I naively asked if there were any rules and, I’m paraphrasing but, the answer was essentially, don’t be a dick. Do anything you want to do as long as it doesn’t impinge on other people’s pleasure or harm the over-arching aims of The Oubliette. Think for yourself, but be thoughtful. In the words of William Saroyan, ‘be the inferior to no-one, nor of any one be the superior. In the end, we have no choice but to be together, millennia of evolution wills it so, logic dictates that light work will be made by many hands; we’ve just got to get a bit more practice at it...
Have a look here for the best definition of Anarchism I’ve come across. It seems they’re cuddlier than we ever gave them credit for...
Monday, 9 November 2009
We had leads on more potential property so I spent around 6hours cycling all across London, peering through windows and lifting up letterboxes, in the pouring down rain. The total saturation of seemingly everything in the world by this downpour rendered the brakes on the bike almost totally worthless and an interesting quirk of all this extra moisture meant that the handlebars would now twist back and forth through the front set. High levels of concentration were required, with which a nagging hunger didn't help.
And yet, despite being completely soaked, and more than a little hungry by now, there was still a smile on my face as I rode around the richest areas of Central and West London. It occured to me that we squatters are essentially the same in our aims and ambitions as those that occupy these lavish palaces. Like the rich, all we want is to be surrounded by beauty - whether that be architecture, art or individuals - and a little bit of freedom; to be above the rules. Living in Leicester Square is sometimes a little like living in Never Never Land and it should come as no surprise that the uber-rich will often use their wealth to build theme parks and other bastions of fun which are childish in their conception. We're both looking for a return to innocence, to a time before it was corrupted by adulthood. The difference being that we can enjoy our freedom because we didn't trample over anyone to get it, and ours is open to everyone. Hard to have fun at a party when someone else is crying in the corner, no?
If I'd allowed myself a low point then it would have been trying to sate my hunger by staking out a Prêt a Manger. I still hadn't been skipping and as I cycled up Tottenham Court Road I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was 18.45 and the shop closed at 19.30 so I decided to go in and warm up with a hot chocolate, which also allowed me an opportunity to eye up the plentiful bounty inside. Racks and racks of fresh food, including lots of fruit salads - which induced a fairly Pavlovian response in my vitamin-C starved saliva glands - were lined up, ready to be thrown out. In my mind, they'd been carefully prepared earlier in the day especially for me.
I sat with my hands around a hot drink for as long as I thought vaguely reasonable. This meant I still had another twenty minutes til zero hour so I went outside to do my best Philip Marlowe impression; a dirty private dick, a greedy gumshoe. As I waited in the dark, leaning against a tree a few yards down the street, I caught an unfamiliar smell and it took me a while to realise this was the perfume of my impromptu leaning post; this being the closest I'd been to a tree in three years of living in the capital. These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as, slowly, the shop started to pack up for the day. Chairs were bought inside, rubbish was taken outside and lights were switched off; I was, by now, very excited. About to pounce and take my prey, all the more satisfying for all this stalking. And, just at the peak of my excitement, at the apex of my appetite, a van with 'Pret Charity Run' written on the side pulled up and snatched it all away from me.
But you can't complain about that can you? Charity begins at home after all. I'd asked Thais earlier in the week if there was such a thing as too much skipping. This thought had occurred to me and then I'd dismissed it; this stuff was waste, right? No one wants it so we can just fill our boots. Wrong. There are countless others out there who are also skipping, a whole skipping community, and an etiquette that goes along with that. You only take as much as you need and leave what's left behind in as decent a state as possible. So if the recipients of the Pret Charity Run need it more than I do, then so be it.
Later that night I went to my first social event of the week outside of the squat; a party in Earl's Court with Sam, a former resident of TPL, and his girlfriend Anna. I didn't arrive until gone midnight, by which time it was in full swing. There didn't seem to be any unattractive people at the party at all, and they had an a-board with the DJ rota for the night which went right through until 7am before inviting people to 'pony off'; everything had been thought of.
The hostess was one of Anna's friends so I knew some people, but not everyone. Sam had a horror of tact in any case and any shred that may have remained was by now completely obliterated by booze and drugs. This meant that every time he introduced me to someone, it was in this fashion; 'Craig, this is X, he/she works in finance/law. X, this is Craig, he lives in a squat.' In truth, this cut through a lot of the usual bullshit and people were either genuinely interested or else genuinely disgusted; a great way to trim the party people fat.
One guy I met, let's call him Josh (for that was his name), asked a lot of questions and, as the conversation was a little stunted, I asked him similar questions back. But he seemed utterly ashamed of all his responses, apologetic even. I made no judgement of his life per se but the way in which he described it deserves a little further analysis.
We seem to be a nation of apologisers. We were born innocent and then, almost straight away, we inherit the collective guilt of society and the more personal guilt of religion. It is thought that there are some amongst our number who feel so guilty that they submit false confessions to the authorities, or even go out and commit crimes, just to gain a little relief from the overwhelming feeling of having done something wrong. Perhaps, when we talk of freedom, it is merely liberation from this saturation of shame we seek, an allowance of innocence and a loosening of the noose which has, unbeknown to us, been around our necks from birth. Certainly, I had never noticed it was there but, once you do, you can start to untie it, to liberate yourself, and it's like breathing fresh air for the very first time...
Sunday, 8 November 2009
I was awoken during the night by the sound of violent retching coming from the bathroom next door. Although we’re pushing the boundaries of what should be considered edible, it seems there are limits; in this case, a chicken soup that was five days passed its best before date and was now making its way passed the u-bend. There’s an opulent looking platter of croissants, hot cross buns and various other fancy breads in the kitchen that would do more harm to your teeth than your stomach if you tried to eat them but no-one has yet had the heart to dispose of them. It just seems cruel to throw something away, once you’ve so nobly saved it from the streets, for a second time; imagine being re-orphaned.
I had one or two things to pick up from my old life and in the process of this I got a text from Nic asking if I’d like to come and help him choose an engagement ring for his intended. Would I ever; this may seem short notice to some, but this is part of Nic’s nature. He was asking the question in a little over 24hours time, but then, who needs a ring hanging around in their pockets for months and months; if you’ve decided, you’ve decided, right?
It seemed a little odd to be going straight from my new life of nothing to a jeweller but, in the end, it turned out to be more life affirming than I could possibly have imagined. First of all, the young Jewish gentleman, Max, who sold us the ring, had a fine understanding of human relationships, garnered from a lifetime in the family business. Having never properly considered the logistics of marriage, it had never occurred to me that a jeweller might have a returns policy; sometimes in life you don’t always get the answer you’re looking for, I guess. Even more interesting was the fact that, according to Max, hardly anyone brings back vintage rings; the ones he sees most of are flashy, single stone items bought from the high street.
He wouldn’t be drawn on the subject but the implication was clear. Those that chose vintage are generally the more considered; the ones that scratch the surface, the ones who look to the past for lessons for the future; the ones who look inside themselves. Those that went for something more obvious, who tried to conquer happiness with their wallet, were, it seemed, destined for divorce. Perhaps they were asking the wrong questions. With this and the image of the ring on Emma’s hand for the rest of her life in mind, I felt a well of joy spring forth from inside, manifested in a tiny diamond of my own, now forming in the corner of my eye.
That evening was turned over to more squat hunting with Dan and a mammoth cycle all over East London. We had some bad news when a place the group had in their sights for the next big project, after months and months of being devoid of any signs of life, had a light on inside. It’s hard enough being a squatter, living on the fringes of society, not knowing where you’ll next be laying your head; it’s even harder when you’re also trying to put together a project - trying to turn nothing into something - which you truly believe in. If I’d ever doubted the legitimacy of The Oubliette’s aims, it was only through ignorance. A seven year veteran of the squat wars, Dan sometimes has a thousand yard stare to go with it, but when he talks about The Oubliette he’s right here in the moment. As we sat sharing a cigarette on a bench outside a prospective property, we reflected on success and failure, and the fact that, almost by definition, you can’t have the former without first having the latter. It seems that something which started as a life experiment is slowly turning into something to believe in…
Friday, 6 November 2009
The Oubliette were due to be hoofed out on Thursday but managed to get an extension until Monday; backs had been mutually scratched previously, which bought us some time. Apparently, they were once served an eviction notice for the same day they'd planned to put on a play - highly inconvenient, clearly. So, a call was made and it was suggested to the bailiff that he take the four thousand pounds his empolyers had given him to fast track the eviction through the High Court, put it in his back pocket and come round on Monday when he would find the squatters gone and the property clean and empty. A profitable understanding for all involved.
My first full day of squatting consisted mainly of scouring London for new (old) properties. Most people had been suprised by my decision to move in so close to them moving out but life is short and I a, wanted to live in Leicester Square and b, wanted to be evicted from Leicester Square. Friends have since asked how exactly you go about looking for a new squat and the answer is as simple as, by looking. This was my first new experience; the second was cycling around London.
Cycling around London is like any new experience, indeed, it's like life itself; highly terrfying at first. In fact, wouldn't it just be easier to get the bus, or not bother and stay at home in the first place? But, once you've mastered it, it becomes easy - something you've always done - and, ultimately very rewarding; a tyranny conquered. Everyone's just vying for their place on the road and, if you don't clearly make a stake for yours, you'll get run down. You only need to assert yourself enough that you don't become road-kill - a bloodied curbside corpse - but not so much that you mow someone else down in the process.
A day full of novelty, a third new experience was a culinary one. What we put in our bodies, that which sustains us, is so important that some people can't quite get their heads, or their stomachs, around the idea of Freeganism. Indeed, on the face of it, it's quite galling. This stuff has been thrown away, discarded; it's lying in bags on the side of the streets, no one wants it and, if no-one else wants it, why would you? What are you, an animal? Where's your humanity, man? And yet, just a moment ago, before closing time, you would have eaten it and felt satisfied, and paid for the privellage too. But then it had the reassurance of a price tag; a value, a worth. For us, it was the green food waste bags which contained this so carefully packaged food, which marked it as untouchable, that gave it worth. Sure, it was passed its best, but it could still fulfil its destiny, still have a purpose. Don't we all deserve a second chance?
That night The Oubliette was busy fulfilling its purpose. A theatre group were on the fourth floor rehearsing a play and Philip was in the living room (no sofas nor telly here, truly this is a room for living) painting a model in pastels and oil. I was on the first floor, fixing the bike I had been using during the day (and gaining an insight into why the job title ‘fixer’ had always seemed so grimily glamorous. If you’re ever feeling despondent, I suggest fixing something; anything, in fact), when the theatre group arrived one by one, and so I helped them carry the chairs they had borrowed from All Bar One - the rowdiest of our neighbours - up to the fourth floor. Fairly bounding up those stairs with an arfull of chairs, it was somewhere around the second floor that I began to feel a new vitality, a new energy.
The life model stayed with us into the evening, drinking red wine from plastic cups and watching her image form on the canvas. It was hard to say whether the painting was finished, Philip kept changing parts that had seemed complete and, certainly, it would not dry for days. It was just in the room, living, felt by everyone who now shared a space with it; a work in progress. It was with this living entity as company that I realised this new vitality had, in fact, always been there, dormant for a while; now like a dried up river bed after a long awaited rain, crucial once more…
It took me several hours to actually leave my house. I had planned to arrive at the squat at around 2pm but there was always one last cup of tea and a spliff to be had with one of my housemates, Jake. He was also leaving, for his homeland, Australia, but not before a two week bender in Rome with his Italian chums; squeezing the very last out of Europe before the long haul. Jake can be best described as a funny little thing. It just so happened that on this, our last day together, the Birthday present he had ordered for me months ago finally arrived in the post. It turned out to be a burgundy skull cap embroidered in gold lettering with ‘To My Favourite Jew, Craig’; an interesting gift choice, particularly given that I have no Jewish heritage nor even the slightest connection with Judaism other than - as it must seem through his young, dumb, eyes – a beard and a slightly larger nose than most. The reason it had taken so long to arrive was because he’d ordered it especially from Israel.
The house in Turnpike Lane had something of a legendary status amongst those that knew it and everyone that had lived there, a rag tag band of brothers connected by bricks and mortar, was proud to call it home. Although the area, and indeed, the house itself, is nothing special, pretty shabby all round in fact, it had truly been a place to call our own. So it was something of a wrench to actually leave, with everything that I’d need for the coming months in a few flimsy bags; but you’ll never get to the next chapter if you don’t turn the page - and the page I was currently on was pretty well thumbed - so it was time to read on.
When I arrived in Leicester Square the pop culture proles were worshipping at the church of Hollyweird and had turned out in their droves for the premiere of A Christmas Carol; Dickens would be fucking livid. As was I when a shiny people carrier containing two young men - who together, almost as one entity, represent everything which is rotten with celebrity culture - nearly ran me down as I was crossing the street. When we released al-Meghari to the Libyans, it took Gordon Brown a full three weeks to say nothing about the situation, but even he, our inglorious leader, has been induced to condemn Jon and Edward as the feckless morons they so clearly are.
After this brief brush with fame, it was another encounter with the squat door, where I was asked whether I was here to see the play or the squat; both, actually, I’m moving in. The play was an exploration of hedonism that posed uncomfortable questions for everyone watching, not least because of the proximity to the actors performing; their stage was two rooms and a corridor on the third floor. The difference between this and the railings and guards protecting the performers outside from their loyal fanatics was tangible to everyone in the room.
Two groups of friends had been to both see the play and offer support and I showed them all around, showed off the roof and, hopefully, showed them something new. When the time came, it was completely unnecessary for me to walk my them to the tube station of one of the most famous squares in the world, a journey they had all made countless times, but I wanted to have a walk and settle my thoughts. A quick flit around Soho after midnight will definitely get you thinking but how settled those thoughts will be is another matter. On my way home I saw a young man, of around my age, settling down in a door way. I thought this was strange because he looked well dressed but on closer inspection his once trendy clothes were filthy from the dirt and grime of London streets and it was obvious that he was settling in for the night. I had a horror of recognition; how long before this was me? In this instant I was already homeless, reeling around the city with no place to go and no-one to care anyway; no connections at all, in fact. My reverie was broken less than five minutes later when I was asked if I had any change by another homeless person - who looked even worse off than the first - and my tenuous position, my flimsy social standing, was already reinstated.
When I returned I had an interesting chat with another member of the Oubliette (one of the young Canadian brothers, both of whom are actors) who told me of his contempt for everything that was represented by the monstrous freak show that was now, and would continue to be so for the next three days, being packed away outside. It annoyed him that some people view acting as a lesser art-form and he blamed those ensconced in shiny people carriers for this. For him, acting is a search for truth; the tragedy being that most people find this truth too uncomfortable to watch. We talked also of the similarities between acting and writing; the search for truth, the exploration of the soul and the hope for connection and betterment. The search, also, for an authentic voice.
As the fake snow whirled around outside in the Square, I thought about appearance and reality, of the two homeless people from earlier and of those protected from this harsh world by their fickle fame, and of how impossible it must be to ever see truth from behind tinted windows…
I had my leaving do with the Drivetime team this evening and, as I said to Chris the next day - a reflection of something he had previously said to me about our Christmas party - it was about as genuine as a leaving do gets. If, as I suspect, work is indeed an artificial construct, designed to keep us busy enough not to notice we're simply creating wealth for someone else (and scared enough not to do anything about the situation should we find time for a moment of reflection) then it's pretty unreasonable to expect people to form the same, genuine, emotional attachments to their work colleagues as they do generally in life. It happens, of course, but it's surely not to be expected? In any case, I must have formed some of these accidental attachments because Friday, my actual last day, was altogether pretty sketchy, due in no small part to quaffing espresso martinis at 2.30am with the people I had shared 10am - 7pm with for the last two years.It was thus that I nearly didn't attend the party at The Oubliette on Friday evening. Kilburn was the first place I lived in London, the bosom on which I first laid my head, and the scene of my oldest friend's birthday celebrations, so it was highly tempting to go, if not straight to bed, then straight there anyway. But I felt my place in the group might already be tenuous and I didn’t want to make it anymore so; nobody thinks kindly of people that don’t turn up to their party. And so, with some encouragement from my associates, Nic and Dan, we set off, from a pub in Soho, to the squat.
There were many questions on the way, only some of which I had the answers to; this is, after all, largely the point. When we arrived at the party we went straight to the communal room and bumped into Dan of the Squat. My Dan is as sharp as a tack and has an extremely inquisitive mind, which launched straight into a stream of questions - about squatting, squatters rights, the squat we were in and the Oubliette generally -for which I could have kissed it, because it meant mine didn’t have to. Keep that mind cool, baby, keep it cool. I did, however, still have to get back to my bosom, not to mention my beloved friend’s birthday, so we didn’t hang around too long. But we couldn’t leave without seeing the roof.
I was aware of the roof in more than a general sense because Dan had previously hinted at its existence in a way that suggested it might be more than just something to keep the rain off. We climbed the stairs passed the first four floors, which were lit up and full of revellers, before coming to a door that had blackness on the other side of it. We knew there was a roof and we knew there must be a way on to it but, other than that, we were, literally now, in the dark. After countless dead ends, and at least one smack in the face, we climbed through a small window and found the 30ft ladder that ultimately led to our lofty goal. How rarely in this google-mapped world of ours do we truly get to explore, how rarely do we really discover? Had there been a map to the roof, although the view was every bit as spectacular as we’d hoped, it would surely have been less so ours.
Before we left the party we bumped into Alex, the man who had initially indulged my artistic folly (a 24hr typewriting performance on the beautiful 1969 Olivetti Valentine, a machine made with love in mind, sustained on nothing but grapefruit and rum) with the Da Collective and, later, introduced me to The Oubliette; my squat father, if you will. At some stage, it seems, Alex and Dan had had a disagreement and, somewhere along the line, Alex had reassessed squatting generally, left The Oubliette and made moves back to what is generally considered respectability. During this period he sent me an email, motivated by the best and kindest intentions, of which I have no doubt, suggesting that there might be more to life than living like a hobo. When I told Dan this, he pointed out that so much of other people’s advice, especially the ‘I did that, I didn’t like it, don’t bother’ stuff, is coloured by their own experience. It has to be, for we are naught more than the sum of our experience, and other people’s experiences, therefore, should be naught to us. If nothing else, at the end of all this I shall be able to say, with real authority, that there is more to life than living like a hobo…
Thursday, 5 November 2009
, you have been awarded our top medal of honour. Amy Winehouse’s beehive set on fire? Sure, why not? Pixie Geldoff stuffs her bra with sweeties? Hey, I could believe that. Sarah Harding studies astro-physics? Hang on a minute...