Friday, 18 January 2013

Waste of Space @ The 491

Richard Branson: scumbag

Joe Strummer, Damon Albarn, Annie Lennox, Vivienne Westwood, Robert Louis Stevenson and Richard Branson – all of them scumbag squatters at one time or another. And had the government's plans to criminalise squatting come in a little earlier, the world of music, fashion, poetry and, er, railways, may have been consequently bereft of their talent. Adrian Nettleship and Lisa Furness have seen this same dilemma played out with their local squatted art gallery, the 491 in Leytonstone. A community centre run by volunteers, with open access and regular classes for local people, that receives no government funding, its occupants are facing eviction. Waste of Space is an apt wedge behind the door, and one of the last opportunities for the public to experience arts at 491 - one last chance to visit this vibrant place...

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Choose life

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home... 

Dimbleby and Capper at our leaving party. Tim was invited, but he couldn't get a babysitter.

But I chose not to choose life: I chose to squat. And recently a website designed by Adrian Nettleship that documented some of that experience was featured in Wired online.

It is a very strange experience indeed to have people you've never met comment on your choices; me and my former housemates were described variously as thieves, scum, young, pretty and drug addicts (I can definitely say that we were neither young nor pretty). It's not the whole picture, so I'm going to elaborate on some of the choices that were made in this story - fill in some of the blanks

Not being able to afford to put a roof over your head is not a choice anyone makes lightly - most don't have the choice at all, of course. But I could have chosen to work in sales, or for a PR company, could have got myself a Good Job, I suppose. Then I could have chosen to give a third of my rent to a landlord, or one of those banks that are always in the news for all the Good Work they do (around this time, mine chose to secretly launder money for Mexican drug cartels).

Many people do make those choices, and presumably most see it as The Right Thing To Do; I chose to work a 40hr week for a charity and come home to wash my clothes in the bath.

This was my choice, and I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me - but don't feel too sorry for the owner, Sophie, either. Actually, we were on good terms: we paid all our bills and we took care of the property. She had lots and lots of other properties in her portfolio; this one she had left empty for four years. That was her choice. And it was a good one for her: when she eventually sold the property she made nearly £400, 000 on the deal.

Tim, the young accountant who eventually bought it (the asking price was over three quarters of a million pound), had another home to live in while he paid for this one to be developed. I don't know whether he was going to live in it or whether it was an investment - those were his choices to make. When he wanted us to leave, though, he gave us notice and we left. Before we did we cleaned the house from top to bottom, left him a house warming gift, and moved to another disused property - a former technical college that had been empty for 6 years.

Tim seemed pretty happy as well. He wrote us a reference, in fact, when we found ourselves up against less understanding owners - the technical college was owned by the same government that has been presiding over the current housing crisis. Their choices have seen homelessness rise every year since they took power.

It's a more nuanced story than you'll read in the Daily Mail - not so black and white. And I'm not ashamed of my choices, because they haven't caused any harm to anyone. Not everyone can say that...