Tent City by Craille Maguire Gillies

 
“‘Twas grace that taught my heart to feel and grace my soul relieved,” sang a busker as people spilled out of the subway carriage. They walked by as if they didn’t hear a thing and rode the escalator out of the London Underground toward a grey winter’s day. I followed, and when I came out of the station I turned toward St. Paul’s Cathedral.

 

At first I couldn’t see it, crouching behind shops and office buildings, but I could hear it. Every day the cathedral bells ring at 3:15, crashing against their iron shells. I made my way down an alley toward the white façade of the cathedral, which stood in bas-relief against the ash-white sky.

 

I turned a corner and saw rows of tents hugging the perimeter of St. Paul’s. There was a suburb of tents, each bearing the personality of its owner, each fastened to a wooden shipping pallet. There were pup tents, tents stitched from blue and white tarps, a large A-frame tent with FREE GAZA painted in large letters on the side. Nearby sat a stylish black and white polka dot pup tent. A backpacker’s tent that looked large enough only for a child leaned to the east like a wayward hot air balloon. A sign on the side of it said, “Climate Camp” and “No fracking way.” This was a tent with a small carbon footprint.

 

The Occupy LSX protesters arrived that autumn and immediately became a carnival attraction. Before, tourists had come to see the cathedral, but now they came with cameras pointed at the weathered people with their tents and signs. A father stopped in front of the Porta Potty and held up his iPhone to get a shot of his son in front of the attraction. The son obliged but looked bored. An unmarked police van squatted in nearby Paternoster Square, which was strung with a maze of barriers to prevent the occupation from spreading to outlying areas. Christmas was approaching, but there was no sign of anyone leaving.

 

The Occupy London campers pitched their tents near the London Stock Exchange, in plain view of the one percent. The Occupiers claimed that drunken bankers kicked the tents as they passed by on their way from the pub. “My tent for your bonus” was a common sign.

 

In fact, there were signs everywhere: on tents and on walls and on tables, plastered on the pillars in front of Starbucks, where Occupiers hung out until management locked the bathrooms and turned off the free Internet access. Some were position statements (“Nukiller power a crime against God”), some were prosaic (“No smoking. No alcohol. No drugs”); others were more philosophical: “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us. Restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.” It was a non sequitur, a declaration, an abstraction.

 

On the steps of the cathedral, a small group of Quakers stood in silent prayer. A few metres away someone cobbled together a robot from assorted mechanical parts. Its head, made from a hand-sized Dustbuster, jerked and turned as the robot spoke. It was programmed with interviews with homeless Londoners about what it was like to sleep rough on the streets.

 

People huddled in the kitchen tent or played volleyball and stood around chatting to passersby. That first visit I was a silent observer, the same as the other Occupy tourists who swung by. There seemed to be an air of subsistence. No one knew how long the camp would last or what shape it would take or even, specifically, why they were there. I wondered this too.

 

By the time I headed back to the Underground on that first visit, the church bells were silent. The only sounds were the chatter of people and the thrum of traffic beside the cathedral. In the belly of the station I heard the busker still singing in his clear, strong voice: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.” We passed, uncharitably. I minded the gap and headed home.

 

***

 

The camp at St. Paul’s soon outgrew its modest lot and protesters took another site a few miles away in Finsbury Square, in the Square Mile—so named because all of London once fit into its parameters. Today it’s home to banks and investments firms and financial services. It was here that traders at the investment firm JP Morgan lost £4.8 billion, one of the largest losses in British history. Finsbury Square earned a reputation for attracting hooligans and troublemakers. Nearby, a group of squatters had commandeered a former bank building on Sun Street. I turned up the collar of my coat to shield against the wind and headed out.

 

Banners strung across the windows were the only sign of its occupation. A man who appeared to be an ad hoc security guard loomed in the doorway, not quite sure if he should ask me my business. He let me pass and I climbed the stairs up one floor, then another. Hallways led to other hallways.

 

The building was said to house gold during WWII but lately it housed the Bank of Ideas, a community centre run by squatters aligned with Occupy LSX. It attracted the homeless, the nearly homeless, the dedicated squatters, and the merely curious. The bank’s new occupants converted the tiny offices where nine-to-fivers once whiled away the day into sleeping quarters. Instead of nameplates on the doors, hand-written signs said “Dormitory.” I poked my head in one. It was a simple room, windowless and cave-like.

 

From a distance I heard the murmur of people and made my way down a dim hallway past the craft room. A clock hung upside down from a ceiling hook, as if strangled, and papers littered the floor. In another room, the carcass of a guitar, its neck snapped, lay on a windowsill. I finally arrived at an open room full of people. Once there were probably cubicles, slotted together like Lego. Now the place had the feeling of a large house party, but without the loud music or inebriation.

 

Someone in a green wig sat on the floor and typed quietly on a laptop. A woman with a Louis Vuitton handbag arrived late and slumped on the floor, slinging her arm around her girlfriend. I noticed, in one corner, a figure zipped up tight into a black sleeping bag. The sleeping bag did not move. It was four in the afternoon, and through the windows the afternoon sun slunk lower.

 

We’re getting quite busy here,” a man who went by the name of Phoenix Rainbow said to the group, which congregated like preschoolers around him for a workshop on squatting. “We could do with another residential squat to occupy. Put out the red alert to find places.” I imagined a small rogue army mentally mapping London’s grey spaces, abandoned and run-down buildings where landlords have not crossed the thresholds in months or years. While the rest of us stare at our shoes, trying not to make eye contact with strangers on the street, the squatter strolls streets and alleys, peers through windows, and watches, watches, watches. He is a kind of detective, noticing offices where the electricity hasn’t been on for weeks, piles of mail outside houses, the creep of decay the grows around abandoned buildings. He sees possibility in places the rest of us overlook.

 

Phoenix had dyed blonde dreadlocks, a long thin face and serious eyes, and stood at the front of the room beside an easel with a large pad of paper. He clutched a bottle of water and coughed, a nagging ach ach that never resolved itself. He’d squatted so long that he had memorized the steps, which he dispatched to the group quickly and confidently:

 

First of all, he said, don’t call it squatting. “We say we’re liberating or recycling or sheltering,” he said. There are close to a million empty buildings in England that need liberating and career squatters like Phoenix had finessed the craft of legally occupying them.

 

“To start you needed to identify your “Empty.” “Scout the neighborhood,” he said, “find buildings that have been deserted for a long time. You’ve got to do your research because the media are getting on our case. So look for lack of life. Tape a piece of hair over the door and check it in a week to see if it’s been moved.” He sipped water and coughed again. Ach, ach.

 

Step two: Look for ways to enter the building. You could gently apply pressure to weak points in a window with a crowbar or a hammer, though damaging a building is discouraged, as it’s “highly illegal.” Get a ladder, find a first-floor window. “Skylights are easy to get into,” Phoenix said. “They don’t think squatters can fly.” “They” are the owners and the police, who will inevitably come round—uninvited but not unexpected.

 

With that he took a folded piece of paper from his wallet and he held it up like a defense lawyer exhibiting a piece of evidence in court. In 1977, the U.K. introduced a new section to its Criminal Act giving squatters legal rights to occupy buildings. Every time a building is “liberated,” the occupants must paste a photocopy of the Section 6 bill on a window to claim possession. Section 6 detailed the finer points of the law in bullet-point form, but above all it was a plainspoken declaration, scrubbed of legalese. “TAKE NOTICE,” it shouted along the top of the page, “THAT we live in this property. It is our home and we intend to stay here. THAT at all times there is at least one person in this property. THAT any entry or attempt to enter into this property without our permission is a criminal offence as any one of us who is in physical possession is opposed to entry without our permission.” The notice challenged the owners and cops to take out a summons for possession from court. Like “damage,” violence and forced entry by police or owners, is highly illegal.

 

The legal concerns were only one part of setting up a squat. Once an “empty” is secured, squatters begin cleaning it up. Maybe they plant a garden or give the rooms a fresh coat of paint. Broken windows might be repaired or replaced. Sometimes a wish list appears outside, requesting tools and materials from passersby.

 

Some people at the Bank of Ideas took notes, giving the workshop the flavor of a rogue management seminar. Squatter advocacy groups regularly hold “networking” meetings.

 

Squatting was a communal life that suited an age of austerity. Seven was a good number for a squat, Phoenix told us. So was twelve. They were families of a sort, even if their new homes are temporary: Eviction notices arrive quickly and court dates follow. The lifespan of a squat, he said, is often only four weeks.

 

Modern squatting in London stretched back decades to the period after WWII when post-war housing was scarce and families moved to abandoned refugee camps and military bases. Some people took up residence in posh properties the British government had borrowed during the war. In 1946, the government issued a statement that said, “Unless steps are taken to check lawless measures of this sort, the rights of ordinary law-abiding citizens are endangered and anarchy may result.”

 

Time went by and anarchy did not seem to result. When squatting was legalized in the 1970s, politicians feared an infestation of squatters. They were considered layabouts and spoiled ne’er-do-wells. To stop squatters from taking over empty council houses, some local councils allegedly trashed their own buildings.

 

The American writer Calvin Trillin visited London in 1975 to investigate. “A lot of what has been written about squatters and discussed about squatters in London since July has as its premise the possibility that a respectable family might go off for a weekend in Brighton and return to find its house occupied by the cast of A Clockwork Orange,” he wrote. By the end of the 1970s, there were an estimated 50,000 squatters in England alone. Around 60 percent lived in London.

 

Squatting is, in fact, quite common. Roughly two billion people—one quarter of the world’s population—are squatters. Close to a million people live in the squatter city of Kibera, in Kenya. In Turkey, a law known as gecekondu (“built overnight”) protects those who construct houses under moonlight. When Turkish squatter communities reach a population of two thousand they can apply for municipal status, which brings in taxes and services. In the Brazilian favelas of Rio, people create de facto villages to house migrants from rural areas. Such squatters are scavengers and modern do-it-yourselfers. “Crickets,” or grilles string wires through the neighbourhood and hook up their homes to the electrical grid. They create sewage and garbage disposal systems and they pipe in water. But like the London squats, these self-made suburbs are not built to last. Every few years a storm sweeps through Rio and landslides destroy dozens of homes. The dislocated become migrants again.

 

By now the early winter night had fallen and the streetlights came through the tall, dirty windows at the Bank of Ideas. The figure in the black sleeping bag unzipped the top and slowly emerged, like a caterpillar in spring. He tugged a shirt over his head, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and pulled on socks. From somewhere in his pile of stuff he produced a large camera and began to snap photos of the group.

 

Phoenix and a few of the others at Bank of Ideas met after the workshop for a strategic planning session. They expected an eviction and were planning contingencies. Should they stay or go? There were always other empties—at least for now. In a few months, England and Wales would change squatting from a civil to a criminal offence and people like Phoenix would need to become ever more sly.

 

I left them that winter’s night to plan their future. On Sun Street I passed the pale stone Bloomberg building, two security guards standing sentinel outside. Through the windows I could see the news headlines running like ticker tape across the bottom of screens mounted in the lobby. The news was not good and had not been good for a while—this was an age of austerity.

 

I passed by Finsbury Square but didn’t stop. There were rumours of troublemakers and its patchwork village made the Bank of Ideas seem like The Ritz. As I turned the corner on Finsbury Square and crossed to the other, moneyed side of London, I passed a vendor who sold hand-tied bouquets from a kiosk. The winter sky had settled into its prolonged greyness and for a moment I wondered if flowers might lift my spirits. I glanced at the price and kept going.

 

***

 

On the three-month anniversary of the camp at St. Paul’s, several dozen protesters marched from Piccadilly Circus toward The Carlton Club, a private hangout for the ruling government, then through Green Park and toward Trafalgar Square. Dozens of police followed and police vans lined the side streets. That black and white polka dot tent was among the protesters. An anonymous woman marched down the streets with the tent atop her head, two anonymous arms poking out the side.

 

I saw that black and white tent again in the new year, back on its shipping pallet foundation at St. Paul’s. No one appeared to be home. I headed to the information tent, where a woman with grey curly hair was seated at a table. Her name was Liz. She was friendly but anxious for a fag and looked cold. Her hands warmed by fingerless gloves, she flipped through a binder that listed the forty-odd working groups at the camp. It was one-stop shopping for volunteer positions. I wanted to see what motivated people to spend their afternoons and evenings camping in mid-winter. “The Economics and Financial Management working group?” she asked. I told her I had failed high school math.

 

Spirituality?” No.

 

Participatory mapping?”

 

Bingo. The group mapped public spaces in London, possibly with the intent to find new sites to occupy.

 

As I wrote down the names and mobile numbers for the organizers, a short heavy woman in a knee-length T-shirt with an enormous picture of Jesus on the front came into the tent, pulling a pink shopping trolley. She sang “Amazing Grace” to no one in particular. Liz looked over. “Could you take that outside?”

 

I’m fed up,” Jesus Lady said. “Everyone here thinks they can tell you what to do. I’m the oldest.”

 

I’m not asking you to stop, I’m asking you to sing outside.” Jesus Lady wandered away with her pink trolley, cursing.

 

Posted outside the information tent was a whiteboard with a wish list of donations. Requests included blankets, warm clothes, sleeping bags, and Thermos flasks. “We can never have enough pens, marker-pens, whiteboard markers.” At the bottom someone added, “Smiles are graciously accepted.” Along with endless cups of tea from the kitchen tent, it seemed like companionship and the goodwill of visitors were all the occupants were living on. There was talk that the E word—eviction—might be a good thing. Whenever the subject came up someone inevitably said, “You can’t evict an idea,” a slogan that was meant to lift the spirits of fellow occupiers.

 

This sentiment became stronger in late February when the Bank of Ideas was booted out at midnight. The next day, two-dozen people gathered at St. Paul’s for a meeting. Jesus Lady was there, with her pink shopping trolley and her wooden crucifix. Tammy Samede, one of the first campers at St. Paul’s, had been outside the Bank of Ideas the night before. “Some of ’em are pigs, but they’re not all bad,” she said of the riot police, “and regardless, we have to be better.” People waved their hands in silent agreement.

 

Tammy had dyed red hair and messed up teeth and the slightly robotic look that comes from staying up all night. She volunteered to be the single named occupant that the City could try in their prosecution of the camp. She came to the camp from Sussex, a mother of four who had lost custody of her children and was out of work. At St. Paul’s she had the air of an exasperated den mother. She once set an alarm for 7 a.m., bought a newspaper and walked past all the tents of perennial troublemakers who kept the sober campers up at night. She pointed a bullhorn at the tents and invited them to, in her words, “join the tranquility of the night.”

 

When a few rowdy campers kicked around bottles outside the tent, Tammy wearily made her way out of the meeting. Ruth took command of the floor, while Liz took notes. The emotional tenor of the speeches rose. No longer were the Occupiers discussing the one percent or banker’s bonuses. In a few weeks the High Court would rule on their case and they were expected an eviction. Soon it would be time to move on.

 

Sure enough, when I returned a few days later people were dismantling the large white information tent. The owner who loaned it to the Occupy camp knew the eviction would come suddenly in the black of night, and he didn’t want to risk its confiscation. The marquee looked homey, if disheveled. Oriental carpets were still arranged on the floor but most of the mildewed chairs and couches were gone.

 

I looked for someone in charge. Brochures and papers were stuffed in containers marked “Info.” Dirty whiteboards—old messages faintly showing—rested against a table leg. A clear plastic bin on the ground held a dozen spray bottles of cleaner and several pristine rolls of toilet paper. A woman pulled a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer out of her bag and rub the gel between her hands, inoculating herself against the grime.

 

I unfastened thick elastic bands that held together the canvas tent panels and slung them over my wrist. A man with shoulder-length blond hair folded the panels and stacked them in a corner. He prodded the roof of the tent and a puddle of rainwater on the roof spilled over the side. This caught the attention of photographers, who buzzed around the marquee waiting for something to happen. At one point there were more photographers inside the tent than occupiers. Outside, someone asked a group of police officers what was going on. “They’re packing up,” an officer said casually, though he didn’t seem sure.

 

I joined a group of regulars. A man in green army fatigues and a black beret held a small black dog on a rope leash. The dog had the bulging eyes of a Chihuahua and the body of a miniature Labrador retriever. Beside him was a lumbering, somewhat disheveled man. His hair sprouted wildly from the folds of his hat and he wore at what first glance appeared to be layers of blankets arranged in creative ways across his large body. His teeth were crooked and stained and he had a two-day-old beard. I asked him how long he has been living at the camp. A quick look, which I took to be offense, flickered across his face. “I just visit,” he said.

 

But Disheveled Man didn’t hold a grudge, and soon he began to talk. As we spoke, four or five officers surrounded a small bearded man. It all looked very civil as the supervisor chatted with him and the cops took him quietly toward a police van, but as they rounded the information tent the man began to struggle. The officers stuffed him in the back of the van and drove off.

 

“Who was that?” someone asked.

 

I think it was Reg.”

 

Another person saw the commotion and came over. “Who was that?”

 

Reg. There was a warrant out for him.”

 

So he was a bad seed.

 

Was he English?” someone asked.

 

He was English as Yorkshire pudding,” Disheveled Man told us.

 

The chitchat petered out. By now the damp had seeped into my bones and no amount of hot tea from the kitchen tent would warm me up. I still had promise of a warm flat waiting for me, so I wandered toward the Underground and headed home.

 

***

 

A few days later, the Occupy camp was gone. The riot police who arrived in the middle of the night were not as amiable as the officers who took away Reg, but they let the remaining campers pack up their belongings. I made that familiar approach from the Underground station, down the dark alley, past tourists posing for photos in front of the cathedral. The tents were stripped away, the ground scrubbed, and the barriers at Paternoster Square removed. It was easy to believe that the Occupy movement in the city had been a curious phenomenon, something in the air.

 

© 2012 Craille Maguire Gillies

 

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