Thursday, August 25, 2005

London was ochre yesterday. Cycling through hot drizzle, on Waterloo Bridge, the clouds looked like gunpowder smoke, like bath bubble, from Parliament to Canary Wharf, condenscing heavily over the south bank. Just above the Colloseum there was a broken rainbow, almost vertical. I love such moments, when the Tourist Attraction city, the glossy postcard London Town, is destroyed and overcome, and a city of magic and mystery emerges, if only for a one brief moment. London in such moments is still a theatre set, perhaps; but what a play.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Off With Their Heads

Debunking is a favourite British pastime, especially when it comes to public figures. The humiliation of the famous and powerful is a national sport. Every few months a scandal breaks out, and someone is called to resign/apologise/etc. The press – tabloids and broadsheets alike – turn into hound dogs. It doesn’t really matter who it is, or why they have to go: Off with their Heads! Drag them down from the pedestal, kicking and screaming all the better, shamed and disgraced, if possible.
It compares only to the national obsession with celebrities. Actually, it’s very much the same thing: make people into gods only to throw them into the gutter later. Only to present them into a poor victim in the next round.
I sometimes wonder if it’s compensation for never having guillotines.

So now it’s Ian Blair, the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, who will have to go over the Stockwell shooting. Even I got carried away with it. The press is getting excited, drama is building up, they all see someone’s head is about to roll and they’re luving it.
So the Ee Menezes affair becomes an Ian Blair-will-he-get-the-sack thing.

Individuals are rarely the problem, and removing a person rarely solves much. Ian Blair has to go, but he’s not the problem with the Stockwell shooting. The problem, for me, is the blind willingness of the British public to accept draconic measures without questions, at a time of threat. The problem is 70 percent of the British public who supported ‘shoot-to-kill’ without understanding what it actually meant. The problem is comments such as:

Mr Menezes was a tragic mistake. But as far as I am concerned, the police can shoot as many Islamic terrorists as they like.
(comment in


I have previously supported most of the Stop the War Coalition actions but this [vigil for De Menezes] is quite revolting ... This was as unfortuate event but in light of our societies current postion it would appear inevitable that mistakes will happen.
(Post in London Indymedia)

Anyone with any idea about suicide bombing will tell you that implementing ‘shoot-to-kill’ on public transport is ludicrous. Whoever came up with this idea must have watched Blade Runner too many times. ‘Shoot-to-kill’ means shooting suspects without warning (because any warning and they’ll blow themselves up). On what basis? What is enough to get a man killed? Not much as we have seen in Stockwell. Any person who looks like some blurry CCTV picture or acts a bit strange can be shot in the head.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Surgery

Yes, the Surgery is still there, no word from the owners. We're not sure what will happen with it. P is thinking of squatting another house, with some more people. We're thinking also of turning it into a social centre; it'll be perfect for squat caffs. But we're not sure how long it will last. You can never know. A month? a year?
I wasn't going to live there anyway - I'm on holiday from squatting at least until the end of the year. My own private scheme was to make one of the rooms - a very small one, too small for a bedroom - into an office where I could come and work during the automn months. I would come there in the mornings, write my thesis all day, and on the way back home stop for a beer in the Portugese cafe.
Ah foolish daydreaming
Last night I was part of a reenactment of a Napoleonic battle scene. We were guarding an outpost - a building which, I now realize, looked not unlike the Surgery - but were outmanouvered; a squad of enemy soldiers, with beautiful velvet uniforms and holding bayonettes, surprised us from the back and were about to jump in through the window. Their gender kept changing, as did the side they were fighting for.

There was a lot of flirtatious camaraderie going on, though nothing actually happened.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

escaping the beast

"London is horrible" said the man with prophetic beard, and the biggest smelliest dreadlocks I've ever seen "everything about it was designed to frustrate civic life. To leave no room for human interaction. No squares, no piazzas, no place to stop and have a chat, just a constant uninterrupted flow of people."
"it's so... ugly" he concluded, his eyes grinning; he paid for his lentils and left.
He's been living here for 25 years.

London is so easy to hate. It's so hideously big polluted expensive dirty unfriendly ugly and grey... thinking about ten things i hate about it would take me 30 seconds. Thinking about 10 things i like would take much longer. I could never say I love it; it sounds too uncomplicated and straightforward. Can you love a monster? but I can't hate it either. But as P says: it has a throbbing heart. It's alive, you can't be indifferent to it. It will embrace you and take care of you, or it will kill you.

One of the strangest things about London is that it locks you in. Escaping seems impossible. Each summer we make resolutions to go to the countryside. to travel to Wales, or at least go bathing in Hampsted Heath, go cycling in Epping Forest.. it never happens. It's not just me: everyone I know find it very difficult to get out of here. Maybe it's the enormity of the low-rise city, sprawling for miles in all directions. Maybe it's the way it overwhelms your mind, fragments it, seduces it, terrifies it...

* * *

But if it all goes well, S and me are off to Cumbria and the Lake district next week.

"WSS, or Weepy Settler Syndrome"

"I’ve had it. I think I’ve seen one too many images of weepy settler theatrics (and weepy settler questions on radio interviews) for my own sanity."

A blog from Gaza, very cool

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The name is Blair, Ian Blair

The Guardian published yesterday new details from the inquiry on the Stockwell shooting, in which the innocent Brazlian Charles de Menezes was killed by the police. It now appears that…

He didn’t jump the ticket barriers.
He wasn’t wearing anything unusual.
He didn’t run away – he ran for the train.
He wasn’t aware he was being followed until his very last moments.
The police seized him a few seconds before he was shot; they even held his hands.
The whole thing started because one of the surveillance officers went to piss while de-Menezes was leaving the building.

According to a poll by the Economist from the end of July, 65% of the British public thought the police were justified to open fire at the time of the shooting, only 20% disagreed.
Two thirds of the public gave the State the benefit of the doubt when an innocent man was gunned down on the Underground.

70% of the British Public backed the ‘shoot to kill’ policy, never stopping to ask:
Who shoots? Who gets shot? Who makes the decision?

The Economist was the only – as far as I know – mainstream British newspaper to speak clearly against “shoot to kill” policy. Disgustingly Neo-liberal as this paper may be, I have all the respect for it for doing so. The ‘left wing’ Guardian, cowardly and double-faced as ever, called the shooting a ‘blunder’; it backed ‘shoot to kill’ while making the lame point that the public should have been ‘better prepared’. Yes: an informative campaign for State executions on the tube, that’s what’s we’re missing. And please provide it in translation, big print, and Braille.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Meantime in the West Bank

Banksy recently did some graffiti on the separation Wall which Israel is constructing in the Palestinian occupied territories. They are, as usual, brilliant. For those of you not familiar with his bitter-sweet take on the state of the world, check out
(the Wall ones are under 'news').

Gaza Pullout

Yes the Gaza pullout is making big news now. Yesterday it was even the opening item on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour - a long time favourite of mine (I’m addicted to that deep voice of Jenny Murey). Eviction of the settlers starts tomorrow.

I have some experience in getting evicted, but I have little sympathy for the 8000 Gaza settlers, the world most obnoxious gated community. I wrote about it when I was in Jerusalem, so I’m not going to say much. Yes, in some ways it is very important, it will relieve the people of Gaza from a daily nightmare, and – at last – the settlers are being taught a lesson that they can't do whatever they want. But in other ways it’s not much more than a big media show, an intra-Israeli drama. They talk of this as the biggest Israeli national trauma. This is what the Israeli general in charge told Haaretz newspaper yesterday:

... the majority of our soldiers will come out of it with a scratch. Everyone who knocks on a door... will remember the face of the person on whose door he knocked. The look in his eyes. The mother with the two children behind her.

Just to put this into context. In the last four years the Israeli Army evicted at least 16,000 people from their houses in Rafah and Khan Yunis, not far from the settlements, because they were living too close to the border patrol road. Thousands of civilians kicked out with a couple of hours notice, and their houses demolished. No compensation as far as I know. And certainly no talk of a mental 'scratch' then, no talk of mothers and children. Only someone with a blind spot big enough to cover the 1.5 million people of Gaza will have time to agonize over the eviction of the settlers. This is a completely ethnocentric self-absorbed discourse, in which Palestinian life and property mean almost nothing. Yesterday a 22 year old university student was held for hours in the sun in a West Bank check point until he died of dehydration. I couldn’t find it in Israeli newspapers.

And after all this the big general says:
I am very angry at the Palestinians ... I think the war they are waging is one that no civilized person ought to accept. I'm not getting into the question of whether they are fighting for their independence or not. The way they are doing it shows their inhumanity. They are not even letting us leave the Gaza Strip. They are not letting us free ourselves from their impossible embrace.

He was obviously expecting flowers and thankyou letters.
OK enough ranting.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Visit

On Thursday I went to the Surgery to visit P. He had spent there a couple of nights already, and he said it felt very safe. I started taking the boards off the windows of the Exanimation Room.

I find that taking the boards off is one of the most satisfying things when you open a squat. The boards are there to make the property uninhabitable. The boards say in a clear language that the owners have no intention to use the building, and they want no one else to use it. Taking the boards off floods the dark and stuffy rooms with air and light; it’s the first sign that life is returning there.

The board was screwed in with 20 long screws, which took a long time to unscrew. When I took a break, I heard someone calling from the outside.

“Hi, I’m the gasman, I’ve come to check the meter”.

“We don’t use the gas… and actually we’re on our way out”.

“It’ll only take a minute”.

We let him in. As he was taking a reading, he said “I thought Mrs Wilcox would be here”.

“Mrs Wilcox?”

“The landlady. She said she’d be here. Well you’re right, the gas hasn’t been used for at least a year.”

“Do you think he realized this is a squat?” said P, after the man left. “I mean it’s pretty obvious”.

I shrugged my shoulders.

Two minutes later, another car pulled up. A woman came up to the gate. From inside the Surgery, I could hear her asking P what he was doing there. I figured we were getting a visit.

When a fellow squatter asks you if you had had a visit yet, they’re not talking about your auntie on holiday to London or your best mate coming for tea. The visit, in squatter-talk, is the occasion when the owners – or, more often, their representatives – come round and discover that the empty property is not empty anymore. It’s a moment of confrontation. Quite naturally, the owners are surprised, unhappy and usually angry. No squatter I know enjoy these situations, but they are unavoidable. And it’s important to keep your nerve otherwise you may risk losing the house.

A big question is whether to open the door. Some people say you should never do that, so not to compromise your home; the owners might manage to force their way inside, and this seriously undermines your position, if the police is called. It’s important to remain in control of the entrance. The door protects you. But it’s a horrible feeling talking to people through the key hole. It doesn’t make you feel secure; quite the opposite. These situations reduce the two sides to angry voices: a faceless squatter vs. faceless landlord. Michael, on the other hand, thought you should open the door: it’s a sign of confidence, and it’s good for the owners to see you face to face. Unpleasant as these situations may be, only very rarely they become violent. It also depends on how many of you are in.

Luckily, the surgery has a front gate, which is locked with a padlock, so we didn’t face the dilemma. P opened with the standard squatters-gambit: he gave Mrs. Wilcox a copy of the Legal Warning quoting Section 6 of the Criminal Law.

On her side, Mrs Wilcox was living up to the script:

Who are you? What do you do here?

You have no right to be here.

Who gave you permission? How did you get in?

I’m going to call the police.

If you’re homeless, you can go to a hostel. It’s not my problem. You can’t live here. We’ll get you out.

It’s none of your bloody business what we plan to do with the building. We’ve bought it, we own it. It’s ours.

Why don’t you go to work like everybody else?

Are these your bicycles? Did you nick them too?

Are you on [unemployment] benefits? I’m sure you’re on benefits.

You want money, right? That’s what it’s all about.

To hear the patronising ‘why don’t you get a job’ preach from a property-speculator driving a posh car is amusing to some degree but it’s a bit clichéic and boring. I don’t want to go on my own preach, but for me, the basic question is why do you expect people to slave in shit-jobs to pay exuberant London rents, when so many buildings stand empty; why do you leave a building boarded up for a year and not get someone to live there; It’s better for the building, it’ll make the neighbours happier (from the rubbish in the front garden it seems that junkies have been using it as a shooting gallery). But the owners are not interested in all that: they’re in it for the money. We knew from the neighbours that they want to knock the Surgery down and build flats. The neighbours didn’t like the idea.

At the bottom of things are two conflicting ideas about houses.

A. Houses are human-made spaces created for social action / interaction / work / play / shelter. They are made first and foremost to be used.

B. Houses are commercial assets: their ultimate role is to be converted into capital. They are nothing more than opportunities for profit through rent/sale.

These two notions are irreconcilable on some level.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Camberwell, on the 16th floor

S: I've never lived so high in my life. It's amazing, to think that there are 15 floors beneath us... that's 60 flats, or some 120 people. Underneath our feet. How strange.
J: what i find strange is looking down from the balcony and seeing birds flying.

* * *

For years I had only a vague idea where Camberwell was. I thought it was just another name for Peckham. Like many of South London localities, it didn’t sound English at all to me: I first heard the name from my Spanish housemates S and G, so it always had a rolling r and an emphasis on the end: Camberr-WELL.
Since most of my friends here are not English, my psycho-map of London is full of names with a ‘foreign’ ring to them, according to the way I first heard them pronounced. Stretham will always sound Polish to me, with that heavy urgency characteristic of Polish punks. The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton is decidedly Italian. Stoke-Newington is often Swedish, because of J’s many squatting tales from that area in North London. Nunhead is American. And so on.

As years went by, I gradually discovered the English side of all these places. It is always interesting to hear the names pronounced with an English accent, and to hear the history behind them. But first impressions are the strongest, and the English side never overpowers the image of these places; it’s just one more layer, one more viewpoint on these nooks in the tower of Bablyondon. Brixton, I was amused to find out at some point, was a suburban neighbourhood for rich Victorians; but it is also – for me – the noodle bar on Coldharbour lane, the crack dealers outside the Mansions, the Christian nutters outside KFC; i will probably always remember it as Afro-Caribbean and slightly Polish: Brixton, with a very thin R.

* * *

Some more psychogeography…

This morning, cycling on Walworth Road, I saw a headline on one of the London local papers:
I find the idea that a postcode can mourn quite interesting.
But seriously, how many people define themselves in terms of their postcode? Can it define a community? E14, in which I lived for more than a year, is the most polarised in the UK, including the poorest and wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country. There the dividing line is quite clear – the DLR railway line.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

August: the busiest time of the year here. The British Library is packed with scores of students finishing their BA and MA dissertations. It’s very hard to find somewhere to lock the bike. Even harder to get a good seat. I’ve relocated to Science reading room; the Humanities one feels – more than ever – like a big factory.
Can’t really complain, being just another cog in academia myself.

* * *

Yesterday I helped P to open the clinic. It went well with no problems. It’s a sweet little place on a quiet street… seems promising. More details soon.

Found and Lost

To add to yesterday posting about things I lost during housemoves, here's a list of all the things we found in houses that we squatted. Again, an incomplete list (this time not according to houses):
20 sacks of sand
A beautiful 6-ring-gas stove and oven
A horse shoe
A washing machine
Chicken bones and other evidence witchcraft in social housing
A musical Christmas card which refused to die and played jingle bells in slow motion for three days
A poster for Breakfast at Tiffany
A commercial style fridge
A motorcycle in the basement

Monday, August 08, 2005

lost and found

An hour after we were kicked out of Vine Lodge, I started recalling all the things I left inside by mistake. And then I started to think of all things I left behind in 8 house moves in three years. Some items were left by mistake, while others were too much to carry. An incomplete and annotated list:

0. The Funeral Parlour:

The coffin in the front room. Served as a dress-up cabinet. Stuart tried to sell it before the eviction - without success.

1. Arlingford Road:

a leather belt. Purchased in 1993, with A. A told me you had to wear a belt if you want to wear nice shirts. This was the end of the Flannel years.

2. Vauxhall:

blue velvet jacket. Forgot it behind the kitchen door. Originally purchased in a Norfolk charity shop post-Christmas sale.

4. Poplar:

a rusty old ship key I found on the river bank.

Many words on the walls.

Some atmospheric lights

5. Limehouse:

a big BREAD pot, useful for winter soups.

Amy’s pockadots buttons, which I spread on the roof-balcony.

My moneytree plant . Origianlly skipped off Tottenham court road.

Shower curtain. Later retrieved by G who went back into the house.

6. Hallelujah Villas:

three wooden plains, which I used as coat hangers.

Many Ethernet cables, originally skipped by Michael.

A washing machine.

A pet-coconut

7. Vine Lodge:

two packs of phillo pastry, left in the freezer.

Frequent house moves require one to be organized and economical about one’s possessions. Theoretically, it should teach you the ephemarilty of objects, and the absurdity of the very notion of possession. All the more because many of these objects were found on the streets and in the skips of this great city of affluence. Squatting is a daily lesson teaching you how stupid it is to be greedy. If only it was so simple to learn…

When I first moved to the Villas, EdB told me he had no attachment to the many things he collected – clothes, books and furniture. “When the time comes, I will leave this house, and forsake all my belongings… I will shed my skin and start afresh” he declared in his melodramatic manner. Soon afterwards EdB (one of the more difficult people I ever lived with) moved out of the Villas, with little more than his clothes; he announced his plans “to spend the summer sleeping in London parks.” However, it was not long before EdB started sneaking into the house – in all hours of the day, with no warning – and was seen rummaging through cupboards full of junk and leaving piles of tat behind him. He came to take ‘his stuff’. On his last visit he even took out the light bulb from the lamp in the stairway.

Yes, shedding your skin is not so easy. To quote Madonna, this is a material world, and we are all material girls. But attachment to objects is not necessarily bad. In today’s disposable culture, we are constantly tempted to buy today and throw away tomorrow; pay little for crappy-plastic-thingies which break in three months, never repair and always buy new. I believe that it’s good to retain attachment to well-made useful objects. It’s important to appreciate beauty in fruits of human labour. It gives meaning to the world around us. I know I always find myself in the objects which I carry with me; even now, in this empty flat: my bicycle, my sleeping bag, three books, a small coffee-maker… these objects are my real home, they are my anchor in the rough London seas; when everything around me shifts and changes, these object are reassuring signs of continuity. Perhaps the best would be if this emotional attachment was not connected to a sense of possession. If I could give them up with no pain: not to throw away but to give away, when I am ready to let go.

No doubt, the hardest would be to let go of my books.

The Fun Fair is in full swing in the park just below the flat. It seems to follow me: three weeks ago it was in Vauxhall. There it was located next to fag-hill, where on Sundays hundreds of men –with pumped muscles, short hair and no shirts -– hang out on the grass. I liked the idea of intermingling between the two crowds.

The Fun Fair is an especially tasteless affair: forget what images you have of the circus, bearded ladies, lions and freaks. This is more like gambling machines. Lots of lights and noise and soulless plastic. Lots of signs saying how many coins for each machine. Not sure why, but every ten seconds there’s airport announcement sound – pa-pa-pa-pam! – but no flight details follow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Squatting victories are always temporary. It is a lesson which is learnt not without pain. Squatting is not about making something your own: it is about creating a challenge, however fragile, however temporary, however ridden with contradictions – a challenge to ways of thinking, and first of all to your own way of thinking.

Yesterday, at four o’clock, we were evicted from Vine Lodge. It was the most unpleasant eviction I had in London, and it involved drunken landlords trying to kick our front door down with a big hammer (they didn’t succeed). And then came the police. In a confrontation between landlords and occupiers, the system is decidedly tilted towards the landlords. This is no surprise. The cops themselves were actually nice and tried to be helpful. But their orders were to evict us. It is ironic that now – when I am about to take a break from squatting – I go through experiences which were saved from me in the last three years. I think it’s good for me. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

People have been amazingly generous with their help and support. Many friends have offered to put us up. The mutual support is the first thing that struck me about the squatting community, when I first moved to London. It’s in times of need that you really appreciate it. We stored all our stuff at V’s flat, across the road. It was the easiest house move in that respect. And we spent the night at Chris’s. Pudding didn’t approve. He didn’t like the sight of my sleeping bag. I threatened to evict him with a PIO; big mistake. He immediately started hissing and had a go at my feet.

Today I found myself in the 16th floor, in an empty flat, looking over south London. In front of me was a big housing estate in the process of demolition. It was a sunny, windy, August day. On the window sill I found a pamphlet about labour and capital in eastern Europe post –EU expansion. It was translated from the German, and it still had some ‘und’ instead of ‘and’.