Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Now is a period of housing uncertainty, jumping between safe havens, spending six weeks here and three weeks there. This is not the first time for me; in five years in London I had many moments when I didn't know where my home will be in two weeks. The price of instability is often confusion and despair. During these periods I remember cycling through the streets and looking at people's houses, through the windows of the warmly-lit living rooms, where people seemed safe and happy. I kept asking myself: Why do I not have a home like this? How is it that some people manage to find a place to live?

My answer would usually be that I chose to abandon the "normal" way and live in squats, abandoned and often derelict houses where I had no legal right to stay, and therefore had subjected myself to constant dislocation. But I always knew that this was an illusion. Housing is this city's biggest problem, and precarious accommodation affects far more people than squatters. One doesn't need the official numbers of 70,000 'officially homeless households' in London: almost everyone I know spent weeks or months sleeping on friends' floor or on the living room sofa.

Renting promises an allure of stability, but the truth can be very different. I know enough nightmare stories: J paid a first month rent and deposit to crooks, only to find that the flat was not theirs; M was forced out of his tiny room in a luxury Hampstead flat by the collapse of the ceiling; S fled her noisy landlord who would embark on DIY projects in the middle of the night; P chose to leave when her housemate started sending her emails of spite and hatred. These stories may well be the exception, but they prove that paying extortionate sums of money to landlords doesn't necessarily give you a stable roof above your head, or a safe place to come to at the end of the day. Living in this eight-million-ant colony makes one vulnerable to random, unstable, and precarious circumstances. This cannot be avoided.

We always underestimate the power of our environment to determine our lives: London has taught me this lesson so many times. The advertising billboards tell you you can be anything you want, as long as you buy what they sell. They want you to believe that you control your future: it's all about your decisions, your choices. But again and again you find your life dictated by events and powers over which you have no control, and often little knowledge. Fighting this makes no sense: but dealing with these unchosen circumstances still leaves much room to find in myself calm, strength and hope.

Friday, July 20, 2007



(A sign in a shop in Newington Green. Outside the rain never stopped)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Just go for a drive

Last night I went to the cinema. After 16 years without television, I'm always excited to see the advertisements before the film. I can't resist the promise of spectacle, but like the desire for fast food when you're hungry, the excitement lasts for about two minutes, then comes nausea.

Three out of four ads are trying to sell cars. One of those screened last night had a man cruising some downtown at night alone in his car. Of course he seems alert, confident and strangely content as he drives through the slick cityscape. The allure of the edge: dark empty streets, drug dealer types, somewhere a burning vehicle in an empty parking lot. Thank god, it's a bus. Nobody likes public transport. And then the punchline: When was the last time you just went for a drive?

Well, never, in my case, but I know people do. Some years ago Time Out asked various celebrities what's best to do in London "for free", and the superstar architect David Adjaya said he likes to drive his car around the city aimlessly for hours. So much for "London for free" (what about car maintenance, petrol, congestion charge?)

Driving just for fun: burning petrol, pumping CO2 and pollutants to the air, and making your car a little older. As they say, doing your bit for the economy; the economy of overproduction, waste, and ecological destruction. In a few years, if we ever get to have the Fossil Fuel Museum, these citations can go on the wall. I imagine visitors' reaction: you had the cheapest energy ever available to humans, and you just burnt it for fun?

Five years ago a barrael of petroleum sold for $22. Today the price is $78 - almost four times more. Most rollercoasters return to the starting level at the end of the trip, but this one's going up the mountain the whole way, a spectacular takeoff straight into the sunset. In five or ten years "just going out for a ride" will be as likely as burning your house to get warm. But you wiil always be able to go out for a cycle. And there won't be all these annoying architects in their swanky cars on the roads.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


"London has a beating heart" said P two years ago. We were in Amsterdam sitting on a bench and watching the Amstel. He was opening grolsch bottles one after the other like pistachio nuts. "London is a living monster. It can crash you like an insect, throw you into the gutter, it can kill you if it wants, but it can also protect you, heal you and look after you".

Saturday London decided to be kind. It started with a slow and good visit to the market where we found asparagus, parsley plums, grapes and papayas. Later a five hours farewell-to-south-London party on the roof with a pink sunset on one side and a rainbow on the other. By 1am got hi-jacked to another party in a former psychiatric clinic, squatted by Polish kids. The building seemed in bad shape, and they have no water or electricity inside the house. So they use a generator and rebuilt their kitchen in the garden near the only working tap. The music was 1980s cheese, bad, bad, bad, you know it.

Someone looked at me and said:
Very good. Always make sure your shirt matches your drink.

I was holding vodka and cranberry, which should give you some idea about the shirt.

Slim bikes were overcrowding the dark corridor. The next room had a football table and a kitten. And their court papers for late July.

When I cycled back the day was starting. Walorth road was packed with cars and bagels were in much demand.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Life seems to go into a spiral just at the moment where I needed three months of stability to complete the project on which I've worked for four years. As I am moving from one temporary accommodation to another, my housing situation beyond August is uncertain; my computer has gone into a comma, giving me the blue screen of death; and worst, my body feels like it is disintegrating. Many months of hard work on the computer are taking their toll. The fact I had no hot water at home for most of this period didn't help.

Now I discover in practice what I always knew in principle: that my way of life, which enabled me to live on almost no money (at some points, as little as £5 a week) in one of the most expensive cities in the world, could be sustained only as long as I was healthy. With severe back aches I cannot cycle, so I have to pay for the bus; no cycling means no trips to the market to skip free vegetables and fruits, as I cannot carry heavy loads. And so I find myself in the hateful supermarkets - which I have generally succeeded in avoiding so far.

If I was still squatting with a large group of people, like I did for most of my London days, I could perhaps leave skipping for others and could help in the house in other ways. My housemates would have looked after me, as they did in the past, as I did for them. But in my last house there were only two of us. And as conditions deteriorated, we are both on our way out.

Instability, precariousness, challenging living conditions, and frequent housemoves: I've lived with all of these for five years now. If I feel that I cannot take it any longer, this is also because I have a choice now: with a more-or-less steady income I can contemplate alternatives to squatting. Maybe other people with less choices would love to have my cave. But I have no illusions: discomfort seems to be such an integral part of life here, - a thing of cultural differences; and precarity, a condition that is gradually swallowing more aspects of our lives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


For those who haven't seen Mario's Empties (a short film about squatting in London), here it is. Spot the mink!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


When you reach England, if you come to London, pass through it quickly, for I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No-one lives in it without falling into some sort of crime. Every quarter of it abounds in grave obscenities. The greater a rascal a man is, the better a man he is accounted. I know whom I am instructing. You have a warmth of character beyond your years, and a coolness of memory; and from these contrary qualities arises a temperateness of reasoning. I fear nothing for you, unless you live with evil companions, for manners are formed by association.

Well, be that as it may! You will arrive in London. Behold, I prophesy to you: whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find in that one city. Do not associate with the crowds of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evildoers, do not live in London. I do not speak against learned or religious men, or against Jews: however, because of their living amidst evil people, I believe they are less perfect there than elsewhere.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The end of a house is always very much like its beginning. As structures of ordinarity, banality, and daily schedule collapse, you find yourself eating take-aways; sleeping in your sleeping bag; using your mobile phone rather than the landline; living from your rucksack. Temporariness sneaks in and settles; still not the temporariness of the new place, but rather of your precarity laid bare. The illusion which was maintained so many months - in salvaged posters on the wall, in morning porridge, in music played in the early hours - in laughter round a crammed dinner table - has left your home to go elsewhere. These moments of beginning/end, like opening a telescope, are rich and dense and startling. A richness which perhaps no one can bear. The space where you spent many nights and days is stripped of traces of you: they are all in a pile of suitcases, boxes, bags. Suddenly this room can be anyone's: it's previous owner or its unknown next. But know this: your fleeting presence will remain long after you'll be gone, like the voice of an Opera singer lingering in the concert hall decades after that celebrated night.
Yesterday I went back to my old home to pack my things. Inside awaited me the silence of Sundays without electricity: the air was slightly damp. It's never easy to pack your life into boxes, but in darkness it is even harder. I filled the room with small candles and used a torch and a reading-light. In the twilight, I still find myself having to make hard choices, like if Goethe's Italian Journal should go to Fiction or Non-Fiction. Finally it was nearly over; I still haven't ventured into the kitchen. In the back of the house, two potatoes are spreading their roots, like huge arms searching for the switch. Small potato treas, from some Nordish fairy tale.