Sunday, 19 December 2010

Christmas Shopping...

When I awoke on Saturday morning it was after a Christmas party, three hours sleep and to the prospect of snow, and standing around in it for a lengthy period of time. No matter, I was on my way to shut down Oxford Street on their busiest, most profitable day of the year; a clear window of opportunity, our Death Star moment.

My target in particular was the Vodafone shop at 374 where, to protest their recent let off of a £6billion tax bill, we were staging a read-in. The idea was that protesters would infiltrate the shop and, at the allotted time, whip out a decent book, sit down and read it. What’s less violent than that universal good, reading? This was to highlight the fact that, if Vodafone paid what they owe – not any extra because they’re super rich, have broad shoulders and can afford it, simply what they owe – it would not only cover the cuts to libraries but actually cover all of the cuts to local councils that were made in the Crazy Spending Review. If all of the high street banditos – Arcadia Group, Boots, Marks and Spencers et al – paid up, we’d probably all find a nice little banker style tax-rebate bonus in our stockings this Christmas.

In the end, Vodafone had seen us coming and closed the shop for us. Apart from the cold, it didn’t really matter that they’d sent the Imperial Fleet to intervene: it was closed and that was the point.

Some highlights:

• An American man - entirely missing the point - shouting ‘get a job and pay some tax’. I assume he pays his, somewhere, but given the rage in his voice, perhaps not.

• The perma-tanned business man who has just paid a £200,000 tax bill and was outraged to learn Vodafone have been avoiding theirs. ‘…What? …How? ….I mean, I’m really angry about this.’ Imagine his reaction when I told him the extent to which the high street was at it:’…WHAT?!’ This was a pretty universal reaction.

• The heartening news, from the lady from the Librarians magazine who was stood next to me, that every council must provide libraries by law (the Libraries and Museums Act). They must also be ‘comprehensive’ but this is open to interpretation, and the loophole that will allow the government to make cuts. Still, at least someone has recognised their value at some point and thought to enshrine that in law.

Actually, the most heartening thing was the level of support, and not just the usual protestor solidarity either. We had to do a little explaining but once you pointed out to people that they pay their taxes fair and square, and the super rich companies do not, even those who had no idea previously were on our side. I’d echo what others have said: walking away from the protest, it did feel like a difference had been made, that people were watching and that, above all, there was momentum. It also seems to me that the word ‘protestor’ is becoming more and more a part of common usage, and the lines between student protestor, tax avoidance protester, anti-war protester, are being blurred - the movement forming into one Rebel Alliance against the both the cuts and the status quo. It's not that it's becoming any more us and them, just that perhaps people are beginning to realise quite how us and them it's always been.

In the end our numbers dwindled until there were just five of us left holding the banner outside Vodafone, which meant we each had our own personal police guard. At 17.37 the Chief Inspector came over to negotiate; they’d been quite reasonable in ‘allowing’ us our democratic right to freedom of assembly but now their reasonableness had gone on for long enough. They told us that either we leave now or get issued with a Section 14 and be arrested. A section 14 is normally used when there is potential for violent disorder or damage to property; we argued that five protesters reading in the cold could hardly amount to that. The other incidence in which a Section 14 can be applied is if our actions impinged on the rights of others, and it was explained to us that our right to protest had now become less important than other people’s right to shop. Freedom of association has its limits, and they are dictated by Vodafone’s opening hours, it seems. They were the legal equivalent of a bent mechanic: determined to find something to charge us for. The inspector further threatened us that his chief had a limit to her patience and has arrested people for less (than reading?). He tried all manner of warmth related pleading: I told him that it would not be the cold that sent us home, but his dodgy threats.

Earlier on I had seen riot vans outside of Top Shop, and scores of police inside. These agents of the state were more into property than your average estate agent, determined to protect people’s right to buy, even if that tramples over people’s right to protest. We discussed whether it was worth getting arrested to make a point but decided that the negative press would harm the cause more than help it. So we left, cold but ultimately content. The Death Star was not destroyed, but it was dented, and the Rebel Alliance will be having another crack at it very soon indeed…

Ps. Apologies for any incoherence in this post: the combination of three hours sleep on Friday night and five and a half hours stood in the snowy slush in my converse on Saturday afternoon has left me in a state of head pounding delirium. I feel like I’m in Crime and Punishment; did I murder someone? I certainly murdered that Star Wars analogy…

Monday, 13 December 2010

Fat city...





Fat city

There’s no such thing as a free meal.

Sounds cynical doesn’t it? It’s a sad indictment of our society that one of its axioms tends to suggest no-one would ever be willing to feed you unless they were getting something in return – that you’d starve before anyone intervened through empathy. Well, the same instinct that produced that proverb has also produced a society of enormous excess that, ironically, means there very definitely are free meals to be had. You’ve just got to know where to look.

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. Skipping meals is something models do. Indeed, on the face of it, skipping (definition: foraging for food that has been discarded) is quite galling. This stuff has been thrown away, discarded; it’s lying in bins or bags on the side of the street; 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, felt satisfied and paid for the privilege. But then it had the reassurance of a price tag: a value, a worth. For the freegan it’s the green food waste bags that contain this so carefully packaged food, marking it as untouchable, that gives it worth. Sure, it’s passed its best, but it can still fulfil its destiny, still have a purpose. Don’t we all deserve a second chance?

In my naivety I’d initially asked my squat mates if there was such a thing as too much skipping. This stuff is 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 your residue in as decent a state as possible. Do unto others remains the rule of thumb.

Earlier this year I lived with an odd Frenchman in an odd apartment in Cairo. Neither myself nor the two English girls I lived with could quite understand his odd habit of peeling mushrooms before he cooked with them. It took a Spanish squat mate doing the same thing with a load of grey-brown fungus – that I’d dismissed as a pointless pick-up – for me to realise that, much like the onion, the mushroom has layers. Peel back the dead stuff on the outside and underneath is pristine and sparkling white. Alive. When did we, my generation at least, forget about this?

Globally, we waste a third of all the food that is produced. Your childish instincts were quite right: it would be highly impractical to send your scraps to sub-Saharan Africa by air mail. But we all operate as part of a free market where banks and bomb makers are endlessly propped up by your tax dollar; but the vagaries of supply and demand mean that widespread waste on the tables of the west pushes the price of food up in the third world, and makes it unaffordable. Think about that next time you’re about to chuck a browning mushroom.

Of course, all this hippy bullshit is deeply uncool; are you really going to go ferreting around in bins in your best sneaks, anyway? But there’s nothing cool about being taken for a sucker. There’s certainly nothing cool about Sir Terry Leahy et al getting fat off your hard-earned. They may not be laughing out loud, but somewhere inside their soul lurks a self-satisfied smirk.

“It’s fat city, brother… how do we work it?”

Ps. If anyone’s interested in setting up a skipping date, do get in touch. Only wolves and lions dine alone, said Epicurus; the same surely goes for grubbing around in bins.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Our radio rocks...


History doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. So it was when I found myself doing some radio again recently. Last year it was the evil BBC, drivetime (driving straight down the middle of the road) and a Sony award. This year it's London Fields Radio in a coffee shop in Hackney and a man and his wing.

Listen to our little radio show here.

Art for art's sake...


Art for art's sake...

I haven’t met all of the squatters in London, but those that I have met have been almost exclusively cycle couriers or artists – or cycle couriering artists. Squatting gives the artist the opportunity to practice their craft unfettered and free; not having to worry about whether what’s produced will fetch a price can only help the creative process. Otherwise the whole effort has been bought way before any money has changed hands; the only art that has real value has no value.

Trying to test the theory, I’ve also been seeking various avenues to view the arts for free, which this weekend led me to the Wellcome Centre and the High Society exhibition. The Wellcome is part medical, part art centre and its exhibitions always have an educational bent. Looking and learning and liberation from a ticket price? If you tried to complain, they’d laugh you out the door.

High Society asks the perennial question: are drugs a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease? But it seems to have forgotten about fun. I don’t mean to negate any of the negatives with that three letter f-word, but surely this is the main spur? It also seemed a slightly mixed message: half the exhibition is a warning, the other half is cool stuff to look at when you’ve taken drugs. I certainly wasn’t the only glassy-eyed hipster walking around its halls late Saturday afternoon. There was even the ubiquitous uncontrollable giggling fit, from a couple of girls in a darkened projection room that was designed to enhance the experience of an acid trip.


Lots of galleries aren’t really galleries at all, they’re art shops. It’s towards the acceptable end of the scale, but Marks and Stencils is one. The aesthetic is meticulous, and cool fairly drips from the ceiling: but you’re going to have to stump up if you want to take anything home with you. It’s best summed up by Ian Stevenson’s ‘Street art: now in a gallery near you’ in the window, and the fact that someone was scrubbing off a giant tag from the outside of that window as I left. Expression has its place, it seems.

I also made a Sunday stop off at the Stolen Space gallery (art shop) to see the Penguin ‘Never Judge…?’ show. I’d held high hopes but got the distinct impression that the space was not, in fact, stolen, unlike the Beaconsfield gallery, which I visited recently for an exhibition launch. It was also free to see, but nothing was for sale. I was with Simon Tyszko who knew one of the exhibitors, and in the course of conversation it transpired that the old Victorian ragged-school had been squatted in the seventies and turned into a gallery. Ownership rights had long since passed to the current occupiers. Why fork out for a ticket to the Tate when you can just steal a building and start your own?

The best free art happening I’ve been to recently, however, was November’s exhibition opening at Flaxon Ptootch. It was my first one, although the monthly nights have apparently been going for nine years and 11months now. Billing itself as ‘less a hair dressers, more of a fruit salad’, it’s mainly a hair dressers but it also doubles up as a gallery space with month long exhibitions filling its white walls. And sometimes, when those exhibitions officially open, it becomes a sort of wonderfully weird speak easy party. The best art inspires joy, and the air was thick with it – all are welcome and there is no price of admission…

“They came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission…”

Never judge?

Never judge a book by its cover is fine advice in principle, and indispensable when you apply the metaphor to people: but for books, I think it’s somewhat lacking. Of course, what’s on the cover bears no relation to the worth of what’s contained within but, hey, you’re going to put that little tome on your shelf once you’re done reading it; so, much like the album cover, it ought to look lovely hadn’t it? We’re dealing with art, after all, so let’s not abandon the aesthetic entirely. Taking that idea to the next level is Penguin’s Never Judge exhibition at the Stolen Space gallery, in which literally lots of artists have reinvented the covers of some well-loved literary classics. Go once round before you ask the guy behind the desk for the list and figure out exactly which story that contemporary cover has to tell…

www.lecool.com/london

Feeling the benefit...


Feeling the benefit…

This past weekend has definitely been colder than the week that preceded it, but somehow I felt it less. I’ve always wondered how, with no prospect of respite, the snow-bound peoples of the planet cope. I once saw a film about a Norwegian choir, who went out into the tundra to sing Nordic hymns, their voices howling around with the frozen wind. How could they think, let alone sing, in that climate? Since their winter is a permanent one, why not just fly south and stay there? Now I realise it’s a question of adaptability, and context.

It’s hardly an original idea – the concept of getting things for free being probably only marginally older than that of paying for them – but this week I had my first experiences with Freecycle. I’ve been aware of it for a while but only ever renting furnished flats has meant I’ve never needed it. Now my room is a cold and empty 8x5m space that needs to be filled; I’ve been sleeping on an air bed for the past three weeks and my clothes are still in the bag which I brought them in, or else strewn around the floor.

Freecycling turns out to be one of those things where if you know, you know. From the outside I could appreciate that it is a jolly good idea, but it’s only once you’ve made the connection and walked away from someone’s home with an item saved from an early grave that you really feel it. Altruistically inclined anyway, the people I’ve met have been utterly delighted when I turned up to dispose of their detritus, to rescue their rubbish; cups of tea have been offered, and no small amount of lyrical waxing has taken place.

I thought that the best approach was to join the freecycle groups of the good and the great: Hampstead, Kensington and Chelsea, Notting Hill. The rich just have the best stuff, and they’re always replacing it with bigger and better stuff. This tactic paid dividends on Monday when I picked up a beautiful brass standard lamp from Maida Vale. My housemates were a bit shocked that I’d lugged it all the way back, that the time invested wasn’t more valuable to me. But a month ago a Monday evening might have been spent watching some shit or other on the television. I felt I’d made a net-gain: I could return the lamp I’d borrowed from Eva, and have my own source of illumination.

Every up has its down. Some time after the revolution, Castro and the new Cuban government made public transport free; shortly after this they introduced a very small charge, because people were using it frivolously. This is the danger with free stuff. My former place of residence was the flat above the five-years disused Tabby Cat Lounge in Hampstead, and the owners had allowed me to take some of the sofas and tables which were still inside. I promptly hired a Streetvan, drove north and filled it with old club-furnishings.

I say promptly, but it actually took me about 6hours in all. Stuck in traffic in the Saturday-night-sparkling West End (every time a traffic light turned red costing me 20p), I began to feel a bit silly and a lot greedy. My room is much fuller now, but it also looks like a pretentious Hampstead nightspot. No cash has changed hands but I seem to be buying-in none the less.

Lesson learned: temperance in all things applies regardless of the price tag, or lack of. And, despite feeling a bit finkish, the initial joy of nesting for nothing has, in fact, removed some of winter’s sting. I also have a mattress, on which I now lay curled up; luxuriating, blowing out breath like smoke rings and letting the cold wash over me…

Choices, choices...


Choices, choices...

Life is all about choices. It has been pointed out to me that talking about needing to move into a squat as being ‘good fortune’ may not, in fact, be very sensitive to those for whom it is not. In fact, one of my housemates found my first post to be so offensive that he posted it on Urban 75, to see what others would make of my Nathan Barley-esque nonsense. Within minutes he was reading, through peals of wicked laughter, uber-violent death threats from the capital’s homeless. Lack of stable shelter, it seems, has not dimmed their imagination one bit.

I’m stuck between a squat and a posh place. If you’ll forgive the enormous generalisation, the middle classes hate squatters and squatters hate the middle classes. I’m now perceived as straddling both these worlds, so there’s potential to feel the wrath of both groups. I don’t like being subject to a powerful, ruling elite but I do like humus: what is a boy to do? Ideally, I’d live in a world without these pretty useless definitions: a classless society, and fuck their food preferences, anyway.

One of the most vehement threats came from someone who questioned the choosing of this way. Certainly, to move into a squat simply to say you have moved into a squat (, man) is completely cuntish. Moving into one simply to have had the experience should be a different proposition entirely. Is not life all about new experience; wouldn’t we get bored pretty quickly without it? You’ll never get to the next chapter without turning the page, and the page I was on was getting pretty dog-eared. For me, it was time to read on.

Of course, that smacks of what my housemate describes – brilliantly – as poverty porn. Mere masturbation, not proper fucking: ultimately fruitless. Of having a diamond and testing it between hammer and anvil merely to prove its worth – and losing it in the process. This assumes that I had a diamond in the first place; and even if I did, that that standard represents anything more than 24 carat comfort. It’s not comfort per se that I’m turning away from: it’s the easy option. And I understand that this makes me as pathetic as the drunk, the gambler and the serial shagger: why not simply say no?

Well, it’s not that simple: as the junky stands no chance so long as he’s still hanging out with his drug-friends, so I have no chance of curing myself of consumerism when being bombarded by messages to buy, buy, buy. The cheeky fuckers even came into my home at night – in glorious Technicolor - just to make sure I got the message that I might be fat, ugly or otherwise inadequate, and I’d better buy myself better. How can I attempt to wean myself of wastefulness when there are those out there who clothe their children, take care of their education, by encouraging me to waste? The pound is a powerful incentive, and only the best is good enough for their kids.

But in my new place of residence the speaker-box has been firmly and finally shut off. One of my housemates, Eva, returned home this week and told me of an afternoon spent shopping with her sister; she went on to explain that she sometimes seeks sanctuary in shops and stores. Wandering around the aisles, even trying things on, has a profoundly calming influence upon her. When I go shopping I feel anxious: compelled: judged by my choices. Eva’s calm comes from knowing that she doesn’t need any of this stuff. She walks out of the shop empty handed, soul intact, her choices made…

Ps. I promise to be more practical next week: to have done so this week would have been dishonest…

Police and thieves…


15.11.10

Police and Thieves...

The age of austerity is upon us. Maggie may be scraping at death’s door but her bum-cheeked boys are alive and well and wreaking havoc. They take with one hand and they take with the other, shame-facedly looting the nation; the ground is dry tinder, just waiting for a spark to ignite the flame. It was against this backdrop - and with Conservative HQ burning behind me - that I was detained, along with hundreds more, by the police on Wednesday night. I felt no shame: disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue, said Oscar Wilde once. And, when asked for my address, the answer allowed me to take back a little bit of control: ’no fixed abode, officer’. ‘Really?’ Really.

For this week I moved into a squat in south South London. It’s not what you think: I have a job and I have a salary; like you, I am a wage-slave. A year away from capital - spent slumming around Egypt, Palestine and Wolverhampton - has left me rather short though and, on moving back, there were creditors to be taken care of before I could start to consider taking care of myself. The landlords of London will have to wait for their rent cheque. This is the need that made possible the want: I wanted to move into a dilapidated house and do things differently for a while: that I need to is simply good fortune.

Need and want taken care of, the opportunity was provided by the man who had first introduced me to the squat scene (by indulging a quasi-artistic folly of mine). And so it was that on Sunday I spent my first night under this strange new shelter. An experiment in living free – or cheap, at least – I aim to prove the age old hypothesis that the best things in life definitely do not cost an arm and a leg. Life is learnt lived and, hopefully, in the process of learning these lessons, I will be able to impart a few of my own. That, then, will be the intent of this blog: lessons in living free. Whether that means rescuing the rich’s residue, liberating the posh cakes of Paul’s commercial waste sacks; finding freebies from freecycle; or getting into the nation’s art emporiums gratis.

The first lesson came before I’d even moved in. Packing for a squat is a pretty interesting proposition; it felt like I was preparing for a trip: there’s a limited amount of space, and you want to travel light. Should I pack the first-aid kit? I’m pretty sure I won’t need a mosquito net. But this is no life holiday, this is life now, and choosing what to take from the old one to the new could be pretty tough. I got through the cull by telling myself, ‘it’s just stuff’: if you can properly internalise that notion - forget about the fact that it’s your stuff - then what goes into the box ceases to matter.

And already a little bit of freedom is found. The wolves have eaten the door: it’s what I do with that freedom that’s important now…

“You have talked so often of going to the dogs and, well, here are the dogs, and you can stand it – it takes off a great deal of anxiety…”

Belch...

30.11.10

‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,’ said Mark Twain, once upon a time in history. The Cradle Will Rock is more like history repeating on itself, and bringing up a beautiful, echo-y belch; a release. I have to admit that, being an extra-macho, manly man, I was already sceptical about the genre; that musical theatre should try and tackle the serious subject of union busting in 1920’s America - workers’ solidarity in the face of uncaring and unrelenting greed - seemed absurd. And, to a certain extent, it is: but it works. Something like Bugsy Malone meets Noam Chomsky (or maybe Michael Moore), the humour only adds to the pathos, and never takes away. It’s camp as Christmas – there’s even a piano in the corner, tinkling out the pace with a ragtime, blues-jazz backdrop – but it’s very solidly acted and very self-aware. Above all it’s highly enjoyable; you’ll walk out with a big smile on your face, your still-tapping feet carrying you along in search of your nearest union organiser. I guess it’s all just a little bit of history repeating…

www.lecool.com/london

Sancho Panza...

Some people can be a bit neg where Carnival’s concerned: some people can take their boring, no fun asses elsewhere and stop bringing everyone down. I for one lap the whole thing up like it’s free Redstripe served betwixt a carnival queen’s sequined bosom. Sure, there’s the oft talked of and supposedly ever-present threat of it all becoming a bit stabby, but even fake danger makes things a smidgen sexier, no? Certain sour-pusses may even opine it’s all a bit unoriginal: but you wouldn’t stop doing Christmas just because it’s been around for 2000 something years. Upholding some of the finest traditions of Carnival are Notting Hill legends Sancho Panza, your very best bet for a first class boogie down. And when you’re done with daytime, their Carnival Top Up Party is get-getting down until three in the morning; so there’ll be nuff love for Notting Hill all night long…

www.lecool.com/london

Splurge...

Ah, the ubiquitous apology for neglecting the blog that nobody reads, that nobody will read. I've been away, mentally if not physically. What follows is a splurge of some of the stuff I've written during that time...