Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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.

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