Wednesday, June 29, 2005

i think I'm going to Edinburgh, for the G8

There’s a small garden hidden behind the British Museum, opposite the School for Tropical Diseases. I like to have lunch there when I’m in college. It’s got huge beautiful plain trees and not too many people come there. It’s open only in summer, and only during lunch time.

Today, as I was cycling through the gate, an old lady coming out of the garden told me in a prim and proper English accent: NO BICYCLES!

I thought she meant I shouldn’t cycle inside the garden, which is understandable. I got off the bike and walked it in. She turned round to me and said in a headmistress’s voice:

I said NO BICYCLES! Put your bicycle outside the park.

I’m not sure why I didn’t ignore her. I guess it was the authority of her voice, but also the fact that she was old. “There’s no sign saying no bicycles”.

“Yes there is. See here: Ball games and radios not permitted. This includes bicycles”.

Maybe she felt her argument was slightly weak, because she promptly added.

“And anyway, this is a private garden, for use of University of London members only.”

“But I am a member of the University of London.”

“No You’re NOT. You’re a postman, your bag says so.”

She pointed to my Royal Mail shoulder bag, the one I inherited from Michael .

“ahh…” at this point I decided this conversation is too stupid so I just continued straight to the garden with my bicycle, to have my lunch.

These times must be difficult for this lady. The world used to be so simple: you had postmen and you had university students. The postmen had Royal Mail bags and they delivered letters, and the students had lunch in lovely gardens in Bloomsbury. But today anyone can be anybody. It’s so confusing.

MI6 building, Vauxhall

The day after the auction was a bit like coming down from drugs. I felt a bit helpless and lost. I decided to take a walk on the river. It was low tide so I could go down to the river bank, using the path next to the MI6 (the secret service) building. I walked on the mud and pebbles shore, looking for curious objects. I found a bone – which was polished as marble from the water – and an old long nail.

Above me were the copper-green lions, huge rings in the mouth, and the black fishes of the Thames promenade lampposts. The tide was out and I went until I could go no further. A boat cruising on the river made the water splash on my shoes.

Coming back, I found a tree log on the pebbles. How did it get there? And from where? I couldn’t tell. But I decided to take it home. At first I rolled it on the ground, but then I decided to carry it on my arms. It was very heavy.

I walked slowly next to the Secret Service building, hoping they wouldn’t think the log was a bomb. I managed to get it across the road to the train station. It was becoming too heavy to carry. I stopped to rest next to a skip, underneath the railway bridge.

In the skip I saw two wheelbarrows. I waited for one the workers to come out.

“Are you throwing these? Can I take one?”

“Yeah, sure”.

He looked at the tree log.

“What do you need it for?”

“For the garden, a bench. I live very close to here. I found it on the river”.

He looked at me a bit strangely. I noticed my shirt was covered with mud.

With the wheelbarrow it was very easy to get the log home. I put it in the yard. I felt much better – useful physical labour always puts me in a better mood. I thought again how London is so plentiful and generous: you need a wheelbarrow, London will provide you one. Ask and you shall be given.

Vine Lodge. My room is the small window on the left side of the picture.

On Sunday afternoon, as we approached the house, we saw two people waiting at the door, looking up at the first floor windows. “God… this will never end”. We had been hassled by potential buyers for the two weeks: showing up in posh cars, taking pictures in digital cameras, asking lots of nosy questions, and of course, wanting to see the house from the inside. One obnoxious guy – dressed as a bicycle courier – banged on the door for two hours, and when we refused to let him in, he said he’ll be “waiting for us outside.”

“Hi there” we nodded to the couple as we arrived at the door, and tried to pass them quickly. “Hi” said the man “you know what, I think I’ll buy this place, and build 50 storeys on top of it and a helicopter landing.” He winked at me. “Do you remember me? I’m Mat, I came here a few days ago”. Now of course I remembered. He was one of the old squatters of the square, and was shocked to see that the house is going for auction. He told me some stories about the square in the 1980s. Back then, the square was then a wasteland, with houses falling apart and waiting for demolition. Squatters moved into it and gradually took over – at one point there were 300 squatters living then. They made it into a lively and colourful place, with a squat-café on the corner, and a social centre. They managed to take over the empty field that was in the centre of the square and turn it into an amazing subtropical community garden. “We had to rebuild some of the houses, they were falling apart. This is where I learnt my trade – I’m a builder now” said Mat, putting on a middle-class accent “today I’m a respectable member of society”.

As the years went by, things took their usual course: gentrification. The council gave up plans to demolish the houses. The square became a fashionable property location, with yuppies and families moving in. Some of the squatters managed to win ownership over the houses; others formed housing co-ops and bought them; others were evicted. Renting a room here in a flat now costs 140 pounds a week or so. The old school was converted to a gated community of luxury flats. But the old spirit was not all lost - some of the old squatters still live here, and they’re involved with the community garden, the Co-operative café and the Bonnington Centre.

Vine Lodge – the house we live in at the moment - was the first house to be squatted in the square, and it is also the last to go.

“I hope this place doesn’t go to a developer” Said Mat. “They’ll divide it into three tiny flats, and probably try to cramp two houses on the yard. The local community will not this happen, it’ll be war”.

“But it will go to a developer, and there will be a war” said his friend “that’s how these things go”.

Monday morning: the hotel where the auction was taking place was in Grovesnor Square, 50 meters from the heavily guarded Stalinist building of the US embassy,. I locked my bike and made my way through the lobby to the Ball Room. It was packed with people. “Number 12… nice house… I like Bethnal Green” the auctioneer was making a few inane comments. “Where shall we start? 200,000? It’s worth at least that… if not, you tell me.” For a few seconds nobody raised their hands. It felt a bit like a classroom falling quiet after a difficult question from the teacher. I soon found out that it always starts like this. Is there some superstition about being the first bidder? Maybe people don’t want to seem too eager.

In the room I saw the people who came to see the house in the last two weeks. Some of them were developers, but also couples and families, some of them from the square. At the back was Sacha , the Italian guy, who fell in love with the house and came with his friends at least four times. We liked him – he had warm, dreamy eyes, and he wasn’t a developer. We really wanted him to buy the house. I raised my hand to wave to him. “Careful, don’t do that.” said S. “They’ll think you’re bidding.”

Vine Lodge was 31 on the list, so we had some time. The sale of each house took 2-3 minutes on average. A couple of minutes in which a house became no more than a race of figures, sums of money, thrown into the air. A couple of minutes and dreams made or shattered. A couple of minutes in which little histories ended and others begun, for houses, streets and people. “How is it that people don’t bring surveyors with them to see the house?” S asked the auctioneer, when he came round to show the house to people on the viewing date. “Some people buy houses without bothering to see them” He said “it’s just houses, you know.”

The auctioneer, in his affected half-apologizing and humble manner, tried his best to keep a convivial mood, to hide the crudeness of this game, in which money is all that matters. He was, I had to admit, very good at it. It was as if he was a sports reporter, juggling between different bidders “and I see he’s back at the game, 237,000 on the left”. One of his techniques to create drama and to raise the price as quickly as possible was to set a dual between two bidders. He would ignore all the other people trying to bid, and make it into a tennis match. Only when one of the two lost, and the mini-dual decided, he would let others bid. These duals were so exciting sometimes that I forgot this game is actually about houses, about London, and the way people live.

C – who we know from the square – stood next to us. She was going to try and buy the house. “The other couple from the square told me they’s go up to 510. I’ve got a bit more” she said “but not much more”. She looked nervous.

Numbers 28 and 29 weren’t sold: the bidders didn’t reach the reserve price. Could this happen to our house as well? Suddenly it was number 31. “This is 85 Bonnington Square, an extraordinary house, in a unique and beautiful square.” The auctioneer cleared his throat. “Before we get to the bidding I have to announce that this property is squatted. Whether the squatters will move out or not before completion of the sale is unclear, so this property is sold subject to squatters being in the property”. For a second I thought he might point to us and say “and as a special surprise for you tonight, here in this room, Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s give a warm welcome to the squatters of Vine Lodge!”

He didn’t. Instead, we suddenly heard a strong voice from the back. “What is the legal situation of plot no. 84? You are selling it with the house by the land is not registered on your name…”. I turned back and saw Sacha , the Italian guy who came to see the house about four times in the last week. Sacha fell in love with the house

“I don’t care” the Auctioneer cut Sacha ’s question in the halfway. Suddenly the convivial manner made way to a rude and aggressive attitude. “I don’t care what you have to say. Either you bid or you leave” Sacha tried to say something but the auctioneer didn’t let him: “Get out! You’re not going to bid so get out of here! Go home! I know you, you’re from the square! Get out! I’ve seen you in the square!” He must have thought that Scasha was one of our friends, an activist who came to sabotage the sale. A minute ago he was talking about “unique and beautiful square” and now it seemed like being from the square meant being a dodgy troublemaker. For a brief moment, the disobedient and anarchist history of the square came to haunt this temple of speculation.

The auction started at 400,000. In a breathtaking speed it climbed up to 500,000. C, next to us, didn’t even have a chance to raise her hand once. Now it became a war between a developer on the third row to a melancholic man standing to our left. “Have you checked the legalities?” the auctioneer asked the developer. The developer made a contemptuous hand gesture. “You’ve not even seen the house, right?” the developer nodded, “of course not. What for?” “that’s the bidders I like” said the auctioneer and continued calling the numbers.

It was 541,000 and the man on the left gave up. “Sure?” said the auctioneer “you might be lucky, maybe just one thousand more”. The sad looking, pale and grey man, hesitated for a second then shook his head. We were left with the developer. What happened to Sacha , I wondered. And what about N and L, the family from the square that wanted to buy it? L even told us that we could stay for a good while if they buy the house, and that they’re in no hurry to move in. But maybe the price has gone up to high for her.

It was then that L raised her hand. She was standing at the back the whole time, with someone that looked like her brother. They both looked nonchalant. All was not lost. “And the gentleman on the back, I see you decided to bid after all”. Sacha was also bidding. The price was still going up and up. Around 580,000 the developer gave up. He consulted with his friend and then shook his head. Now the war was between Sacha and L. It took me a few more minutes to realize that the developers were out of the game. It was L who won: the closing price was 650,000 pounds.

We went up to the winners to congratulate them.

“Don’t worry” they said. “We’ll sort our plans and come to talk with you in the next few days”.

They told us two separate guys approached them after the auction and offered their services in “getting the squatters out of the property”. They found this really funny. We were a bit freaked out: imagine the house had gone to developers. Would they have turned the offer down? We tried to imagine how they would get us out. Yes the reality is that violence towards squatters – or even threats of violence – are quite rare. It almost always ends up in a civilised court case.

As we left the ball room, we saw the developer with the cycle-courier outfit that harassed us last week leaving with a grumpy face.

Friday, June 24, 2005

London is very hot at the moment. We sepnd a lot of time outside, in the community garden or the yard. When cycling along the Thames, you can smell the sea. The tide of the river brings the salty air in, along with the sea gulls. It's summer.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Vine Lodge is the name of the house we moved into. It's going for auction next Monday. Moving into a house which is about to be sold is not the best idea, as any squatter knows. It just doesn't make much sense, because there's a good chance we'll have to move again very soon. Why we did this is a long story. But part of it was the house. It's a magical house. Like the house of the Witch from Grim Brothers' stories. I'm not sure if we're the witch or the two little kids who wandered into it.
This is how the auctioneers describe it:
Of interest to owner/occupiers and builders/developers
A very appealing freehold detached house requiring upgrading located in a unique residential square – Vacant possession
The property comprises an attractive three storey detached house, the only detached one in this unique square.

Vacant possession. Ahmmm, that's not quite, hmmm, accurate. Maybe they think we're just ghosts. for sure the house is haunted.

see you at the auction.
It's solstice tonight. We're celebrating it with a bonfire in our yard. Actually it's my yard - not that i want to be possessive or anything, but it has its own entrance, and I have a room there. The tree house. The rest of us are living in the house.

I love the tree house. It's like living in a fairy tale or an adventure story. But Vauxhall is a fairy tale. La-La-Land, that's how pete calls it. He's right. sometimes i think i'd rather live in a big industrial post-apocalyptic warehouse. With concrete walls and huge open spaces. something like Africa house in Amsterdam. Something like Takovsky's Zone. There are places like this in London, but not Vauxhall. This area - or rather the square - is an island, a shipwreck in the heart of babylondon. A crazy tropical garden, with its own very secret entrance.

22nd of June. Midsummer. Eviction time: tomorrow the bailiffs will be knocking on the door in Hallelujah Villas. We won't be there, left long ago, we jumped ship, or maybe we scuttled it. I'm not sure. A year in Suburban south east london is over. Strange year it was. Not very good. Quite bad in some respects. But not all bad.
A year ago, I wrote to my friend in Jerusalem:

the downside of this sweet and tranquil suburban squat is that the toilets don't work. We're building a compost toilet this week, and, if we stay there long enough - that is, a year - we will be able to eat our pooh, in the form of vegetables nourished by human compost. alas, not likely. pissing is done in lovely flower decorated chamber pot and thrown to the garden; you might not believe me but i find it all quite interesting, a chance to investigate the nature of the modern revulsion towards our own discarded body matters. no, i'm not talking shit: pooh is toxic, but pipi no problem, apart from the smell.

Many things didn't work in Halleuluja Villas: socially, I mean. once again my ideas of communal living were put to test, and didn't stand it very well. We were too many people and our ideas about what it means to live in a squat were too different.

But the toilets worked. We recycled our waste. We didn't flush it down with water and sent it to the sea. We didn't have much choice because we wanted to live in this house and we couldn't use the toilets. But we made something good with it. We made it into compost. And when it was ready, we spread it in the garden, and planted spinach and broad beans and many other things. The vegetables loved it: they went crazy. It was heartwarming. I'm no fucking hippie, but seeing something like this work, really changes the way i see the world. Cars, water waste, blind comsumption, enviroenmental havoc - it doesn't make sense. and it's not the only way. I'm getting didactic.

In all my squats we had compost, and we had to abandon it, we never stayed long enough for it to be ready, let alone use it. But this time we made it: just about. Last Sunday, after we finished packing, S and me harvested the broad beans. Tonight we'll eat them: I'll make them into a salad cook them and then add olive oil, lemon juice, corriander. Simple. Happy Solstice.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Yesterday, as I was talking my bag out of locker in the British Library, I found myself staring at a woman – probably 50 or 55 years old. Her hair was covered with a red scarf and a beads necklace. She suddenly looked back, and made a grimace. It was clear she didn’t like the way I looked at her. I lowered my head. When she passed behind me on her way out, I drew my body to the locker, so I would be out of her way. But then I felt her finger drawing a line over my back in a forceful, unpleasant way. I shivered. I looked back and saw her leaving the room quickly. Did I imagine this? I tried to convince myself that it must have been the tip of her leather hand bag, not a finger. But something felt ominous: she’s a voodoo queen, I thought, and you made her angry. You’re going to have trouble on the way home. You must cycle carefully and not do anything stupid.

But on the cycle home I forgot all about it. We skipped some sushi from the place in Southampton Row, then continued the usual way: the British Museum, Seven-dial roundabout, Trafalgar square, St. James Park, Westminster, Pimlico. When we reached Vauxhall Bridge road, I cycled on the left side, and tried to reach the lights before they turn green. There’s a stretch of the road which is painted green and kept for cyclists, but the cars ignored the marking and were blocking the way as usual. It’s a busy road, the least nice part of the way home. Sometime I take Lembeth Bridge just to avoid it.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I decided I have enough room and tried to cycle pass the cars. But there was no room to overtake them: I bumped into the side of the car that was blocking the cycle way. The driver was looking at me, angrily. I made gestures with my hands that he should not be on this part of the road. Then the lights changed. He drove straight at me, with his window open. “Ya fucking…” is all I could hear. I could see the rage in his eyes, his mouth open and shouting. Cars were using their horns. A moment later he was gone. I was all shaken, and continued cycling on the bridge. Only when I was in the middle of it I noticed S stayed behind. I waited for S on the other side, near Vauxhall station.
“I hope I left a scratch on his car” I said.
“You left a scratch on my brain. That was really stupid, why did you this? He really was driving into you”.
I didn’t know what to say.

Friday, June 10, 2005

I am supervising an exam. I've been doing this for three weeks now, and I have one more to go. Today it's in Psychology: Compare and contrast two models of word recognition. Sometimes it's a full of 65 students, but this time I'm in the computer room, and only 3 students are here. They will finish in ten minutes.

Earlier this week I had a dream I was taking an exam. The questions were in statistics, but they referred in a strange way to English 17th century history, a subject I know very little about. My Statistics are also quite rusty. None the less, I had a look at the paper and figured I can manage it. I thought I could find at least two questions I can handle. But as time went by, I realized I can't answer any of the questions. I was going through my papers frantically, trying to find the form, and my draft answer, when the time was up. I knew I failed.

Immediately afterwards I had a meeting with my supervisor, who strangely resembled my MA tutor. He didn't understand why I insisted on taking the exam. "PhD students rarely take seminars like this". I then realized it was my stuborn stupidity that made me do it. Next thing I was cycling up the hill with a trailer full of vegetables; it was hard going. I woke up; the time was half past eight. I had a morning exam to supervise in one hour.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

One of my back-in-London resolutions was to re-design the blog and make it nice. In the UK they like the word revamp for such occasions, as in revamp your flat, revamp your life, etc. It's an especially distastefull word, i think, to me it sounds like a belch of with odours of ale mixed with cheese and onion crisps. Vomit your previous life and get a new one, that's how it goes here.

But it's been 4 years since I touched html, and I always hated web-design. The indentation of html is crap it doesn't have that beautiful order of c++ code snipettes), java-scrpit is annoying, it's unreadable (full of criptic code) and the whole thing is especially mind-numbing, as far as programming goes.
Maybe things changed in the past four years.
Anyway this is the temporary makeover. I will improve it soon.
I am back in London. Horse chestnut flowers were here, but now gone. it's mid june afterall.