“The desire to change the world remains merely an abstract ideal or a political program unless it becomes the will to transform one’s own existence.” ~Wolfi Landstreicher, Logic of Submission
Squatting is a necessity. Anyone who has unwillingly slept more than a night under a bridge or in a park will tell you about the dangers and gradual degradation of mind, body and spirit caused by exposure.
Each time I resorted to squatting, in 2009 and again in 2011 for a similar amount of time, it was when I had returned from South East Asia and was trying to establish myself in London, teaching English as many hours a week as I could. London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, where renting even a tiny room is a minimum of 350 pounds a month, and finding a place can often involve deposits of up to twice that, plus a fee to an estate agent, plus bank clearance fees, plus plus plus. Essentially it is unfeasibly expensive to anyone who doesn’t have a cheeky thousand pounds knocking around, and you can only sleep on friends’ floors for so long.
We were a small crew of newbies, learning the squatting ropes the only way we knew how – through trial and error, learning by doing, progress through fuck-ups – clutching the copy of the Squatter’s Handbook (13th Edition) that I’d picked up at the Anarchist Bookfair like a crusty bible.
To kick things off, I had been to the Practical Squatter’s evening at the Infoshop – a long-running former squat turned legal – in the Elephant and Castle in South London. There I recruited a lively and lairy Estonian partner, Vassily. He was nearly a year in country, working as a doorman at some West End hotel, and had been living outside the North Circular Road in squats filled with rats and blocked toilets. Like so many seeking homes in London, he was ex-military, goose-stepping like a Nazi clown and waxing lyrical with sparkling eyes and a thick Russian accent. Though he never mentioned it directly, he made extra money as a cheap thrill for boy-hunting bourgeoisie in the backrooms of the hotel. He connected us with a Lithuanian student, also called Vassily, who had been couch-surfing and sleeping on the ever-circling night bus route N24, perpetually clutching his camera and tripod. Lithuanian Vassily had a funky little hair-cut and jam-jar glasses and his surname translated as something akin to ‘gremlin’.
Together we had set off on a month of fruitless urban rambling around East London, exploring the abundance of abandoned properties to be found there like vultures picking over a battlefield. Of an estimated one million empty properties in the UK, perhaps a third are concentrated in the capital. Peering in through barricades and looking for the circle-slashed-with-lightning-arrow logo of the squat international daubed on windows and walls for hints of where to go, it was as if we were on some ill-defined treasure hunt. I’d take long lunch breaks from my job and – bikeless – trek through acres of dilapidated warehouses, disused court houses, and ramshackle estates looking for tell-tale sheet-metal sealed doors, mythical open windows and elusive easy-ins. In one visit, we’d walked for miles in the rain and ended up on the fourth floor of the Ocean Estate, where my companion had guilelessly approached a swarthy looking fellow who was leaning on the railing to ask timidly:
“So, is many squats here?”
The man nodded.
“So, would anyone in the community mind if we moved in?”
Without missing a beat the stocky man had stood up straight and revealed his security-guard jacket and walkie.
Shame-faced but howling with laughter at our idiocy we had beaten a retreat. As it grew dark that night we witnessed police patrols moving around the perimeters, hassling people drinking in the park and generally disturbing the peace – a timely reminder of who else was in the opposing team.
Eventually, after weeks of clueless searching, we attempted an abortive Halloween crack on a place Estonian Vassily had known about for a long time, driven by desperation to clamber up onto a roof in Old Street – an area now annexed by the achingly cool hipster ghetto of Shoreditch – at three in the morning to try to access a disused record store. Perhaps we were tempting fate, or perhaps we thought that on such a night the police and passersby would be too distracted by the macabre masquerade theatre of All Hallow’s Eve to notice two ghouls and a gremlin shopping for vinyl.
Meticulous in our planning, we pre-made the tape patch to put over the glass window to catch the shower of broken glass. We’d been shopping in little hardware stores to collect the necessary goodies for our trick-or-treat mission. Myself and Estonian Vassily scurried up through barb wire and tangled thorns to the little balcony by the back window. Behind us was a looming tower block, innumerable lights on and fully illuminating our actions, watching over us like the Panopticon. Ignoring our exposure as much as I could, I became ensnared in the barb wire, my glasses tumbling from my face to disappear in thorns. Taking deep, measured breaths, I unhooked myself, located my spectacles, and joined Vassily.
I had the hammer, and clutched it in one hand as we crouched on the roof together.
“On three. 1 … 2 …”
I smacked it against the pane.
It bounced off like it was a rubber mallet.
Instead of the glass, it was our nerves that broke and we scrambled down to join the Lithuanian look-out we had left at the front. We were wired, half-drunk from the Halloween party we had dropped into earlier, and railing between terror and exhilaration at what we were attempting. The streets remained free of police cars, the night air empty of klaxons and the war-cries of Babylon. In fact, all we could hear was the low-pulse of nearby trendybars and the occasionally whooping mating cry of distant hipsters. Rallying ourselves, we went back for the second attempt.
This time, Vassily shattered the glass covered in gaffer tape and with adrenaline pounding in my ears I surged through the access as the Estonian would later describe, ‘like a bear’.
Inside, we activated headtorches and began to try and find our way through the debris. There was shit, stuff and matter everywhere, a barbarian ravaged Aladdin’s cave of modern consumerism – stairs twisting up and down into infinity, secret passages within rooms that may have been cupboards, and a bewildering labyrinthine network of tiny rooms and cubicles filled with a perplexing amount of washing machines, boxes of mildewed magazines, peeling plaster, 1970s detergent adverts hanging off the walls. Upstairs, the roof was caving in and bare copper piping was exposed like old innards. Most disconcerting of all, from somewhere inside the building, the dolorous murmur of a television was ruminating like a judge rehearsing his verdict before court.
Hindsight dictates that it was probably left on by the warden to distract and deter would-be squatters just like us. Reason dictates that we could have stayed calm, found the TV, and taken the building. Simple common sense suggests that if we had persevered, we could have taken the building, despite its collapsing state. The hard part was surely over. But we were blessed with neither hindsight, reason or sense at that juncture, only images of irate owners and combatative security guards ready to leap out at us. It was the first experience of the shock that sets in with this kind of activity – a deactivation of basic logic functions to be replaced with animalistic instincts of survival – all intelligence flushed out by adrenaline and fear. We were as naïve as school kids.
Instead of keeping to the plan, we began fitting bolts in a fit of panic to interior doors, trying to lock out the TV noise and protect ourselves, the remnants of our scheme to secure the building diminishing to a frantic scurry to block out whatever was producing that haunting chatter. Suddenly a vicious whir and deafening musical bomb detonated in my pocket: the Lithuanian was calling from outside, carrying a tripod and camera to masquerade as a film student if anyone was to pass. On the phone, he reported:
“There’s woman looking in through the windows downstairs.”
We froze. Trapped. Rigid. The battery was running low on the phone. We’d dropped the screwdrivers all over the floor, screws scattering. For tense minutes we struggled to breath in the dust-choked air.
The phone blasted again, mingling with a warning signal of low battery.
“OK. She’s going away.”
Me and Vassily looked at each other. The wordless signal was given.
Abort. Abort. Abort.
We scrambled, packing up half of what we’d brought, leaving a bolt hanging off the inside of a door, and practically fell off the back-wall into the welcoming arms of the alleyway. Grabbing the Lithuanian, we fled deeper into the late night chaos of Old Street – goblins and Vikings and witches and warlocks whooping and wailing around Shoreditch. The woman was driving around the streets in a Volvo, stalking past us like a shark circling as we tried to saunter to safety.
Taking shelter in some back-road, we were sat slumped around the camera and tripod, blinking disbelief and trying to reset our pulses. A tart looking Spanish girl approached us, all Latin sass and unflinchingly flirtatious eyes, sitting for a moment on the curb so I could get a good look at her stocking tops beneath the microskirt that clung to her hips.
“So, you have a camera? Are you making a films?”
My heart rate had hardly calmed down. We struggled to make conversation with her. I looked from Estonian to Lithuanian, and realized with grim horror that I was the loquacious one of our trio, the frigging ringleader. Slipping into my teaching mode, having been working at an English language school in Waterloo only the Friday before, I tried the classics of intra-lingual communication: name, origin and intention. She was a student somewhere in the city, most recently of Zaragoza, Christina by name. As the small-talk petered out, bewildering trite after the misadventure we’d just embarked upon. She seemed to have something on her mind, which she eventually blurted out:
“Are you guys porn-stars?”
We’d laughed, still numb and stunned, but to this day I wonder what would have become of that evening if we’d had a little more guile, a little less naivete about us. Army Vassily had the build of a crack-addict porn star to be sure, a high side parting splitting prep-boy hair down the line of his skull. Perhaps we could have followed her home to her nearby studio and made an impromptu skin-flick – two on one whilst the Lithuanian earned extra credit for his course at St. Martin’s.
But we were just three homeless muggles trying to get a home-of-our-own, not suave-ass sexual adventurers on the make. Eventually, she tired of our lack of innovation in her evening’s entertainment, and abandoned us on our street corner to ponder our meek ineptitude. Instead of becoming squatters, or even porn stars, we remained just homeless bums on a Saturday night in London. Defeated, we went our separate ways to slip back into whatever couches, floor spaces or increasingly impatient friends’ places could keep us off the streets that night.