squatsch

Seems the Cameron-Cleggers have moved to end the tradition of squatters’ rights that has long been such a feature of the British urban scene. The end of an era – with roots, I had always thought, way back in Common Law. You could probably sink a cruise ship with the number of creative and free-spirited people who have passed through the squats of London at one time or another. However:

Thirteen years ago, while still a graduate student, I stayed for some days in a squat in Hackney, near London Fields. Friends of a friend. The guy had dropped out of architecture school because he felt the hours were too long. He worked, when he wanted to, whitewashing exhibit spaces at the British Museum. His girlfriend was a primary school teacher. The squat was filthy and fetid. I slept in a room full of garbage. Others in the adjoining houses were photographers with expensive equipment, musicians, etc. They seemed to resent me for not buying them wine. All were white, young, middle-class, and able-bodied. They spent most of their time drinking, smoking dope, planning their next drive to the country, complaining about the “yuppies” who had bought the property behind them and, disgustingly, built a studio in the garden; and deciding which of the local restaurants run by thrifty busy non-white immigrants (Vietnamese, around there, mostly) they would patronize for their next dinner. The ex-architect student, who had one of the plummiest accents I ever heard, was petitioning Hackney council to deed the houses to the group, on the understanding that they would fix them up; for which, he further was petitioning, they should all be paid a “living wage.” With benefits and holiday, I guess.

In short: when I left that place, I also checked out of my own earlier sojourn in North London bohemia (1988-90) – finally, gratefully, and once and for all. I understand and applaud that people want to live their own lives. And there are people who have sunk so low they need a place to land. But that’s why we need sound and rational social programs — not crime. Which is what taking other people’s stuff, without permission and for nothing, is. I’m afraid I can’t shed much of a tear over the legal demise of the Squatter’s Raj.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

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