I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels : Chapter 7 : Bookselling; The Thetford Pain; Bookselling, the Lack of; Tales of the Housing Acts; The New Left; Squatting; International Spy
(1920 - 1996) ~ British Anarcho-Syndicalist and CNT-FAI Activist during the Spanish Civil War : A lifelong trade unionist he fought Mosley's blackshirts; actively supported the Spanish revolution's anarchist communes and militias and the German anti-Nazi resistance and was a key player in the second world war Cairo mutiny. (From : AInfos.ca Bio.)
• "Nobody is fit to rule anybody else. It is not alleged that Mankind is perfect, or that merely through his/her natural goodness (or lack of same) he/she should (or should not) be permitted to rule. Rule as such causes abuse." (From : "Anarchism: Arguments for and against," by Albert ....)
• "If Government is the maintenance of privilege and exploitation and inefficiency of distribution, then Anarchy is order." (From : "Anarchism: Arguments for and against," by Albert ....)
• "If we accept the principle of a socialized society, and abolish hereditary privilege and dominant classes, the State becomes unnecessary. If the State is retained, unnecessary Government becomes tyranny since the governing body has no other way to maintain its hold." (From : "Anarchism: Arguments for and against," by Albert ....)
In the course of eighteen months the premises on the upper floors of 374 Grays Inn Road had become increasingly grottier. It had needed total re-wiring when the finance company moved out. The next sub-lessees, Levene and his original partner Bush, who had since disappeared, had not a shilling's worth of capital between them. Even the structure of the building was unsound, which was one of the reasons commercial firms were not interested in the vacant offices available for sub-letting. The council was, not unreasonably, pressing for something to be done by the next lessee in line, whoever he might be, and to my surprise it was supposed to be myself.
During the period of trade paper publication, Levene had passed over worthless shares in the company to me in lieu of wages, and I discovered I was presumed to be the new lessee in place of Bush. I did not know how to disembarrass myself of the situation, and alterations made to the lease at the time of signing were so great only the solicitor who drew it up, Mr Harraway, could understand it. Just at the weekend he decided to go to court he went on legal business to a Guy Fawkes party at film star Diana Dors' Thames-side bungalow and a drunken reveler threw a lighted match at the glamorous film star's stack of fireworks, burning the house down and the only sedate and sober partygoer to death.
I was asked by his firm to produce the lease which he had taken to study with papers relating to her divorce pending court hearings, as all had gone up in flames, including himself. I gave them my version of the original draft, with a remarkably lenient transfer clause, declining to part with the lease which I never had.
I knew casually Ted Grant, the aging Young Socialist organizer, one of the Trotskyists who had come over from South Africa before the war to replace the Anglo-Catholic priests who made up the original Trots. They called themselves railway clerks, the nearest they could reasonably get to sky pilots, and Trotskyist histories omit the prefix 'Father' to their names. Meeting him by chance in a cafe, he asked if I could help his Militant Group to get premises. It was an ideal chance for me so I transferred the lease for nothing and got myself the name of a wooly-minded philanthropist which, I reflected, might be an insurance against some Siberia one of these not-so-fine days, more unlikely than ever now. I read years later in one of those academic know-all books that they got the lease through 'a sympathizer'.
Later the 374 Monster overwhelmed them too, when the landlords insisted that repairs be carried out and that I had left the premises in impeccable condition. I could have testified otherwise but the notion of county court action was too much for them. As they now had subsidies from their wealthy Ceylonese supporters, they took over premises round the corner from the defunct London ILP, and finally moved into Hackney, in a derelict Labor Party hall more suitable of reconstruction.
Ultimately Time Out, at first a radical chic magazine but with substantial capital, took over the monster and spent the necessary sums to make it habitable. Gomez was no longer able to stay in England, and I was free of the 374 Monster, but I had horrendous debts which made me a regular visitor to the county court. I obstinately refused the easy option of bankruptcy and countered with a series of maneuvers, which experience enabled me to write a Debtors Guide. There were many handy guides advising the creditor, but none advising the debtor. Notwithstanding the debtor being asked to swear his testimony on a book which states that debtors should be forgiven and recommends the practice of dishonest debt or long-firm fraud (the parable of the unjust steward), non-fraudulent debtors got harassed and treated like criminals for want of lack of money and knowledge. Most people I met in the courts thought the 'Dickensian' laws still in existence (they weren't when Dickens wrote about them). My booklet went like wildfire locally, though duplicated -- much later I could have afforded to print an up-to-date version, but the laws had changed and I was no longer learning the laws of debt by experience.
I decided to return to industry, but could not understand why I found so many jobs blocked. I eventually uncovered the source of the industrial discrimination. One prospective employer told me of my 'prison record', and said he had been given it over dinner with a police inspector. It is possible, but with what motive? Now I know the Economic League was responsible.
I couldn't settle for a badly paid job, with so many debts to pay off and having an expensive flat which I had moved into with Evie. However difficult houses were, it was still easy to get a shop without having to pay anything until next quarter, and I found one just around the corner in Gray's Inn Road. At the same time, the stock of Simpkin Marshall was being liquidated. Shareholders of the old-established book wholesalers had made Captain Robert Maxwell managing director in what they thought a rescue bid. The main asset, the building passed into the hands of one of his other companies, the only multi-national which happened to see it advertised in the pages of an obscure local paper. The company was wound up and the firm left stranded, while the book stock was sold to an auctioneer. The latter had already sold everything of value when I walked in but he persuasively managed to sell me everything else, which made up in quantity what it lacked in discriminate choice, but had the inducement of very delayed payment.
Being a bit carried away by events, I entered into an agreement and was able to open a bookshop, indeed, several bookshops at different times in the next five years, on a net capital of zilch.
The bookshop in Grays Inn Road lumbered on for some years with debts being paid off by incurring others. It took years to settle the auctioneer and removed any conceivable possible profit for him or me however well I did. His son is now a multi-millionaire playboy though I don't think I contributed to the family fortunes.
What is ironic is that as a result of being obliged to take the bookshop, I incurred gradually increasing debts to some of the very people who probably subscribed to the Economic League, something which one sees more often in the building trade, where people regarded as agitators are blacklisted, start cowboy outfits and eventually have to walk away from large debts to those who could have employed them for a fraction of what them cost in the long run.
One of the minor curiosities I found when bookselling was that one was constantly asked for tarot cards. For years these had been illegal -- the 'devil's bible' -- and imports were banned. Any pretext that it was 'only a game' was dismissed by Customs. Tarot readers lined up at Bow Street every Monday, to be fined with the prostitutes, palm readers and graphologists (the latter have since blossomed out as forensic scientists). Then the postwar Labor Government abolished the Witchcraft Act in 1946. It was a favor to the journalist Hannen Swaffer who had campaigned in the mainstream press for the Labor Party for years but refused an offer of the Lords. He merely asked for political relief to be given to the spiritualists. They were banned under the Witchcraft Act, and it was such medieval nonsense one could not amend it so it was abolished and so incidentally dream interpreters, psychics, tarot readers and soothsayers were legalized. Thus Britain emerged officially from the Dark Ages.
They kept the Blasphemy Act, though, which thirty years later caused a problem when Muslims felt it unfair racial discrimination that people could be fined for blaspheming against Christianity yet not executed for blaspheming against the Koran.
It was in order, therefore, to import Tarot cards but they were taxed 'as a game'. For years it had been insisted they were not a game. If they were religious appurtenances even of witchcraft, now legal, or at least not illegal, they could not incur tax. I tried fighting the Customs on this, but with no success. I could never afford to sue them, but tried to persuade the main importers, John Waddington, to do so. They, however, preferred paying tax and having it kept as a 'game'. It is curious how this nonsense upset the police. The bookshop was actually raided to see if I had imported Tarot cards and not paid tax on them. The police were quite apologetic. When I explained about the Witchcraft Act they were not sure if I was being sarcastic or not. Neither was I.
Blasphemy and treason, somewhat belated, beset my official invitation from the Mayor of Thetford, Councilor Richard Easten to attend the unveiling of the statue of Thomas Paine, in the presence of the French and American ambassadors. I am sure Cllr Easten didn't realize what it was about. The grandly-sounding Thomas Paine Foundation had decided to start putting into effect the words of Ralph Ingersoll that a statue of gold should be erected to Thomas Paine in every city where freedom was cherished, or something like that.
A slick Brooklyn go-getter, Joseph Lewis, had started the Foundation and raised cash for building statues of Paine, already succeeded in getting one in America, and had got another erected in Paine's birthplace, Thetford. He had invited all Freethinkers of any prominence plus the local US troops, the Deputy Mayor, Cllr the Lord Fisher and any local dignitaries who cared to come, as well as the two unsuspecting ambassadors and the local MP. But the plans had encountered a snag.
The statue had been due to face Paine's birthplace but it was now occupied by the British Legion, who protested indignantly that Paine had fought for the Americans and French against the British, which made him a traitor, and they weren't having him looking at them even in gold (it turned out to be brass). This was in accord with aristocratic Tory tradition. English gentlemen like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton were not 'traitors' but historically justified rebels and in retrospect gallant opponents. Cart construction worker still plain 'Tom', however, who subverted the folks at home, they could not forgive after 200 years.
The statue had therefore been built outside the parish church and I went along with some stalwarts of the National Secular Society invited as an old friend of their prophet F. A. Ridley. The NSS was still in its proletarian god-bashing period, as the days of the new Humanism, when new academic became old cleric writ large, had come but not yet conquered. The American gentleman was determined to cash in on the academic boom and had prepared a lengthy address, to be published "as read at the Thetford unveiling". It rained bucketfuls in heavenly disapproval of the event, as it was seriously stated locally, while he droned on in a Brooklyn Jewish accent remarking "I guess if you folks can take this weather, I can". Their excellencies the ambassadors were drenched, as they sat in the places of honor while the small crowd took refuge in doorways. Finally the local Tory MP came to speak and said no more than "Rain stops play" and pulled the strings that unveiled the statue, to the gasps of horror of all bar the atheists as it was decorated with decidedly anti-Christian quotations from The Age of Reason. None was more astounded than the good Lord Fisher unless perhaps it was another and more distinguished good Lord.
Soon after of this fantastic event, at which I am sure Thomas Paine would have laughed his head off, Mr Lewis found an even more profitable field for his endeavors and converted to Christianity. If he's still going, I am sure he is doing well as the radio gospeler I'm told he became. Anyway, there were no more statues of gold to Thomas Paine in any more cities.
When I and a couple of friends finally escaped from the rain that day, we encountered an American Air Force colonel who showed us his archaeological collections from Mexico and Egypt, made during his service, using "his men" to a more useful purpose, but hardly the one intended. He had also discovered a settlement of Ancient Britons with local diggings, and was crating boxes for both the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institute. Colonel Kelly remains the only serving American officer with whom I had a long conversation. He was absolutely unlike the caricature or the prototype demon of popular imagination and, while he knew more about Egyptology than I could have imagined existed, quietly and courteously listened to my explanation of Immanuel Velikovsky's theory of Egyptian chronology without summarily dismissing it, as some American scientists were then vehemently doing. We never got round to politics.
One of those I met at the Paine memorial meeting was Ella Twynan, She had for years been associated with Ambrose Barker, one of the most remarkable figures in the British anarchist movement, an active propagandist for anarchism and atheism from 1880 to 1953. Ella also took joy in the philosophical research into the origins of religion. When Barker founded the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club in 1880, which introduced Socialism to East London, she had helped in the organizing of the horse transport workers (draymen in particular) who for some years, until the disappearance of their trade, grouped in the first anarcho-syndicalist organization in the country.
I invited Ella came to one of my parties. We discussed her memories of the various East London strikes, and the past activists who are never read of in labor histories. Though for years she had been mixing with old-fashioned atheists, whom she referred to as "godbashing parsons", when she came to talk about the anarchist past she lit up. Barker had been much older than she, and died in his nineties a few years before, and when she was in her eighties her memories went back a long way. She insisted the first anarchist in Britain had been Ambrose Cuddon, who in his Cosmopolitan Review (1861) had brought Chartism, Luddism and Radicalism to its final conclusion. Cuddon had welcomed Bakunin to London after he had sent a letter to his paper. While "firsts" are hard to prove and her memory may have been wrong, she expounded the idea brilliantly.
After her death I read that during the First World War she had been to the famous Socialist peace conference in Stockholm and met Rosa Luxembourg on the boat. It was said Ella asked her "Is Bebel a good man?" Rosa's comment afterwards was "How stupid can that woman be?" On the other hand, as Ella did not speak German other than a word or two and Rosa did not speak English at all, any inquiry Ella made of a German delegate was bound to be in simple words, and August Bebel had been heralded as leader of the Social Democracy. If that remark be true, I am inclined to wonder how intelligent Rosa Luxembourg was.
Keeping a bookshop, especially dealing with a mixture of new, second hand and antiquarian, can be pleasant when one starts with sufficient capital. It is even more pleasant when it keeps you and one can chat with customers discussing the various topics of their interest. It tends to be frustrating when you have to keep it and scrape the barrel daily to keep it going. The old type of bookshop was doomed anyway: I used to exchange remainders with a dear old bookseller named Steele, whose secondhand bookshop just opposite St. Paul's Cathedral delighted hundreds of City workers daily.
The precinct was to be pulled down and a pedestrian walkway made of mock piazzas with boutiques which, the architects assured everyone, would be ideal for secondhand bookshops, traditional in St. Paul's Churchyard, of whom Mr Steele was the last and who was held up as typical. Needless to say when the project was finished and the old shops pulled down, the new boutiques opened but Steele couldn't even have afforded to buy his lunch on one of the smart touristy snack bars, let alone trade there. His business vanished and with all respect to the smart Japanese import-export agency that now flourishes on the site, I doubt it affords the same interest to City workers and visitors.
I didn't face rebuilding but I did face the problem of rents being raised exorbitantly. It made it impossible to carry on at Gray's Inn Road though it didn't do the landlord much good -- he went on a winter cruise and the ship sank. Coincidentally a former employer of mine was aboard too but was one of the survivors.
I had accumulated so many books, which on face value could have paid off all the outstanding debts and set me free, that it seemed a pity to dump them all and go, so I tried my luck in another shop I'd got before the boom in rents, in Coptic Street. I fear I had to move swiftly from Grays Inn Road, indeed overnight, which left browsers and bookbuyers who had picked up bargains, bewildered. They thought the lunch-time crowds indicated success -- "I could stay in your bookshop for hours", said many a well-meaning soul who never spent any money but wanted to be encouraging.
There were no lunch-time crowds in Coptic Street, nor very many customers at all, but it was another year or so before I finally managed to get out of it and be available for work again.
Around this time the rent legislation was revised. A tale of two friends and an acquaintance will illustrate what happened. The competition between the parties to see "which could build" the most houses was over. No longer did boroughs proudly proclaim that concrete blocks were built by the mayor and corporation. Landlords had once been desperate to get rid of properties in Hampstead which was how first artists, then "bohemians" and finally refugees had been able to settle there. It was now busy getting rid of the lowly paid and reverting to its former status as queen of the boroughs.
Patrick Monks had moved into a large house near the Heath, built a couple of hundred years earlier. All over Hampstead people had been dividing these properties into one room bedsitters, but he was lucky in getting the whole house in which to put his large family. It happened he was not as lucky as all that, as the family tended to expand to fill the rooms, and two adults and five kids were living seven different lives, making their own meals at their own times. Still, it was the way they chose to live, and what with one or two lodgers and various freeloaders who tended to cancel each other out, plus his earnings as a cabinet maker, stagehand, carpenter and lamplighter on the way home, they were all kept happy.
In contrast my friend and fellow worker at the bookshop, Joe Newby, lived for years in a house in an Islington backstreet. He was now a grandfather, his family long since away from home.
Then came the Rent Act. Pat Monks had an old-established firm of builders as a landlord, who had built properties all over Hampstead and found after the war that there was a boom and the neighborhood highly desirable. Joe Newby had a foreign-born crook as a landlord.
At first Pat Monks' landlord wanted to increase the rent fivefold, but that was only for two years. After that, it was out. They had nowhere to go but the landlord was not to be moved. "Look at the money we've been losing all these years," he said, conveniently forgetting the place probably cost £100 at most to build 200 years before and they must have had it back a thousandfold. He was thinking of the dreadful war years when his houses were empty or his rents regulated. No compromise was possible. Pat sent his family to Spain, finding it cheaper than the way they had been living, while he added full-time signwriting to his itinerary of jobs, When the family grew up and returned, they were unable to live together as one family again.
Joe Newby was paying a pound or so rent. The landlord decided he needed collateral to launch his building society. The sitting tenants weren't interested in buying. He offered them a choice. Stay on as tenants and face the possibility of increased rents when new Rent Acts might affect them. Or buy their homes, with no deposit as nobody would have been able to have afforded one anyway, and make monthly repayments costing the same as four weeks rent. Some actually thought the fiddle lay in the odd shilling difference between paying weekly and per calendar month! The total purchase price was a few hundred pounds, but exaggerated in the accounts to several thousand so as to attract investments in the building society. In a few years the fraud was discovered, the State Building Society was investigated and the principal went to jail.
The tenants kept their houses and paid off their mortgages, eventually many, like Joe, selling them not for the "grossly inflated" valuation on the books, but many thousand of pounds more. Any who stayed ten or twenty years longer in a neglected slum would have made a fortune. The shareholders, temporarily deprived of the profits of their gamble, found their investment extremely profitable.
If this were a short story I would say the first landlord finished in the Honors List when the second went to prison. I don't know what happened to the first, but I am sure he or his heirs still live easy. The second's affairs were so complicated they had to release him from prison each day to help the auditors sort out the accounts. His former tenants, happily re-settled in nicer houses, would possibly have gladly seen him in the Honors List which twice yearly sees plenty of worse crooks.
Contrast this story with that of Dan, an acquaintance who used to be an active Communist Party organizer but whose wife had pulled him out of politics to make good. She wanted to get out of the East End, where they lived in an insalubrious block of housing where the outside balcony on which the toilet was situated was literally falling down, making lavatory-going a hazardous experience. He was later able to move to a new estate but at that time he could not move from the Brick Lane area, try as he might. His wife protested that it was due to his communist inclinations that he gave up the Party and went into business. However, he frequented the new student and middle-class meetings that were beginning to spring up, usually to speak nostalgically of the old days.
He was at one of the first meetings to protest at the Rent Act. They were all well off respectable academic types who had never done more than shout "Ban the Bomb", and all brightened up when he came into the room and gave his address. They were as pleased to hear it as he would have been to get one of theirs.
"We're planning a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. How many do you think will come from the East End?" they asked him immediately, thinking of pre-war rallies with the CP masses from the East End streaming in.
"None, I'm afraid," he said. "People don't see it as a threat. The Act so far only applies to houses above a certain value. It doesn't affect the East End".
Gloom settled over the meeting as the chair said, "Oh, dear, we thought there would be an enormous crowd from the East End. The police have laid on reinforcements for a monster meeting and now it doesn't look as if we will get a turnout at all."
"Nonsense!" boomed a hearty-looking woman in country tweeds, bouncing up indignantly. "Our friend is quite wrong, utterly defeatist. The committee have letters pouring in from all over the East End. I'll read a few addresses . . . Whipps Cross, Ilford, Chingford, Wanstead Flats, Woodford Common. . . ." "That's hardly the East End," the chair said mildly.
"It's east of London," she insisted, surprised at the quibble, but the chair said sadly and more realistically, "I'm afraid the chief of police could hardly justify paying overtime to control the masses from Woodford Green". It was hard to detect what he was concerned with most -- their lost overtime or the rent rises
In the few years between my leaving Reuters and finally packing in bookselling there had been a sea change in the anarchist scene. Though nothing like what was to come, it depressed me. Apart from the occasional article or letter, usually a protest, I concentrated on the local private-sector tenants and I did not pay much heed to the sudden rise of the New Left. I was urged to stand for the council by the tenants committee, but declined, regarding myself at that time as the Last of the Mohicans so far as anarchism was concerned and not wishing to go into the orthodox political arena. I never had any illusions on that score.
Inside London the Syndicalist Workers Federation, which was heir to the old Anarchist Federation, had become a small grouping dominated by Ken Hawkes, who was sycophantic to the ossified bureaucracy that had come to dominate the Spanish Libertarian Movement. Just when I thought I ought really to overlook this since the SWF was trying to be industrially active, in cooperation with other groupings, they invited Federica Montseny to speak in London, the main figure of the compromises in Spain with an antipathy to the then current active struggle. The Spanish Resistance groupings were so disgusted with what she had to say that I disowned the whole thing.
The Freedom Press Group had dropped the word 'group' to justify the fact that they were moribund, not merely in activity which would at least be understandable, but in whatever they had to say. Only pacifists found it possible to work with Richards, presumably because they were not prepared to resist his monopoly. It came to idealize a Non-Violent Resistance with lots of nonviolence but no resistance.
The repression of Hungary, more particularly the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, triggered off an entirely new ball game. I dismissed CND as a pacifist gimmick akin to the peace movement of the Thirties which had aroused my contempt, not that I was alone in that. As a result I wasn't in on the beginnings of CND, like almost everyone on the ultra-left and extra-parliamentary scene and I don't suppose was missed. Every grouping increased its membership among the thousands that amassed and an entirely new 'youth movement', in which libertarians were involved with authoritarians, was born. It was not just a new 'movement' far beyond the anarchist one, but new conceptions.
As a result of the drug culture coming from America, combined as it eventually was with the hippie-style anti-Vietnam War movement, and a new commercial pop scene, plus the acceptance into orthodox economics teaching of Marxism-Leninism as imagined by professors, the New Left was to most workers foolishness and to conscious militants a stumbling block. It was dominated by students, and ultimately by their professors, it accepted middle class standards and identified them with peace and progress. It finally smashed the working class movements by stealing their ideas to cover a different outlook, and in the spirit of the pre-WWI Russian intelligentsia regarded 'progressive' synonymously with 'educated'.
However, there was another side to it. Some of those who started off in CND and the later Committee of 100 were impatient for action, and when the police busted demonstrations there were always a few street fighters who wanted to be with the action. Some were strictly weekend fighters and there are many ex-students going around now who have since established their careers, but were originally rebels. There was a core of real anarchists among them, if a bare handful as compared with press exaggerations.
As I kept in touch with some old friends who took a more hopeful view of the new trends, and was regarded as a sort of Achilles sulking in his tent in protest against the distortions of the original idea by a self-created and unelected bureaucracy responsible to nobody, not even market forces, I was sought out in my 'tent'. My old schoolfriend, George Plume, who audited my books during the Grays Inn Road days but who also worked for St. Pancras council, was one of those who was mainly instrumental in persuading them that they needed me. I'm not sure if he did me a favor or not: it meant another 'term of hard labor', this time a lifer. It started with my being asked to speak to a meeting where Ted Kavanagh, one of the new activists, was present, and finding him amazed to hear anarchism described, for the first time so far as he was concerned, in terms of class struggle rather than liberal negativism and pacifism.
With some others, we formed a caucus within the newly-formed London based groupings, then called London Anarchist Groups 1 and 2 roughly based on the divisions between the supporters of FP and the SWF. These divisions had been gradually dispersed to the extent that despite Richards's obsessive hatred of the SWF, he turned a blind eye to SWF members Pete Turner, and later Bill Christopher, becoming editors of Freedom. Bill Christopher was a printer, Imperial FOC at the Daily Mail; Pete Turner involved in building work trade unionism. Both tried to push Freedom into some interest in practical anarchism and class struggle, but the association with the Freedom crowd overcame them instead. They drifted into pure pacifism, as a result of which Bill Christopher gave up his job and went as a mature student into a teachers college and also the ILP, then about at its last gasp.
There was one positive side to this activity, which was the birth of the squatting movement. Though it later attracted left politicos when, like any reforming wave, it became capable of institutionalization. Though never able wholly to control it they sometimes did, though they had nothing to do with its origins and growth.
While there had previously been some occupation of empty houses immediately at the end of the war, an unofficial extension of the official policy of assigning abandoned houses to the blitzed and homeless, this was first supplemented and finally supplanted by Governmental offers of prefabricated housing, and then a boom in building municipal housing. Prefabs ceased to be built, though some, intended for a couple of years standing, were still being used fifteen to twenty-five years after. Rising house prices, the virtual disappearance of private sector housing and the growing independence of youth not prepared to live with their parents until marriage and long after, had started something that was in the coming thirty odd years was to magnify out of all proportion. Squatting was the only short-term solution in the face of official unconcern.
The squatting phenomenon of the Sixties that has lasted despite all harassment started with a meeting in the East End about the dockers strike, in the course of which it transpired the majority of the audience were ex-dockers and their wives, old people more concerned with rats on their decaying estates and getting re-housed than with current strikes against redundancy. One old-age pensioner mentioned the hundreds of unoccupied houses, and it is to her that the credit for the original modern squatting idea is due, though the unknown genius who said it was perfectly legal under a law of 1381 certainly contributed by overcoming any qualms felt about taking over derelict properties. The first really organized squatting took place in Brighton.
The resort had some dark slums around the back of the fashionable residential areas, never far away from the boarding-houses that catered for London's teeming holiday invasion. Many of the families from these areas had been made homeless by rebuilding, but there was a well-maintained terrace of houses for Army families that had been left empty for some fifteen years. An anarchist group occupied them and invited a dozen or so homeless families in, together with single parents and indeed anyone who came along. I did not take part in this occupation but was called down to act as prospective bailee if anyone got arrested so I witnessed the historic scene.
The police called but went away when told the magic words 'The Act of 1381' and said it was for the courts to decide. The Army decided to sort it out themselves but they couldn't very well open fire to get back a terrace they didn't really want. Some very casually dressed anarchs were outside leaning against the wall when an Army jeep turned up. A young officer jumped out, paced up and down and then came to a halt, turning on his heels and pointing to one of the loungers. "You. I'm giving you a direct order," he said. "Get these people out of here"' The last time I'd heard this particular magic formula was in the Cairo Mutiny, but if it hadn't worked then, it could hardly be expected to work with civilians, especially such civilians as these. Without taking his cigarette out his mouth he said incredulously, "Fuck off," which left the officer somewhat perplexed. He went, no doubt to consult Queen's Regulations as to what to do in such a case. Some months later the Army applied to the courts and the families were evicted in the snow at Christmas which was not too good for the Army's image since Press photographers were there.
Press imaginations die hard. Years later a local stringer was telephoning a story to Fleet Street, when squatting had taken off in a big way. She brought into her story the notorious occasion when, she claimed, families were held there under duress in a place used for manufacturing bombs. According to her, the police had known but could not raid the place as they would have had it been anyone else, as it was on squatted property and the law of 1381 applied! I was the copytaker to which she was giving this startling information, but felt sorry for the good lady and explained to her kindly that the police were not quite as powerless as all that.
It was many years, though, before a Tory MP asked the Lord Chancellor to have the 1381 law repealed, and Lord Hailsham regretfully had to decline, bewildered, as no such law had ever existed. Belief in it served to encourage homeless families. As councils began to settle them in flats and houses, a new second wave of squatting grew up much more part of the youth scene, beginning with the occupation of Park Lane premises, and then the former Arethusa children's home in Holborn -- empty since before the war but which naturally the Government insisted was just about to be re-opened, though it never was.
Squatting then spread like wildfire until the horrendous housing and re-housing crises made it an essential and not just alternative way of life. Without it London could not have continued to exist without descending to the standards of Bombay. Even with it there were insuperable problems for young people wanting to set up home in their native city. With the drive to suppress it we have found sleeping rough in London a growing problem, to which there is seemingly no answer under capitalism, and a Cabinet Minister has complained bitterly that he has to step over the homeless on his way to the opera.
I helped squatters through the years with transport but was never more involved than that. During the St. Pancras years I shared a flat with Evie, a fashion designer who designed clothes for the lower end of the rag trade. At that time teenagers had just been 'invented' or at least, discovered as an exploitable market. There was a dress revolution comparable to the early twenties when skirts were shortened and women's dress, and in a way status, changed almost overnight.
As teenagers now had as much or even more money to flash around than their elders, manufacturers were saying, 'If you miss teenagers you miss business", than which they could think of no worse fate. Evie became sought after as one of the few who could copy the fashions of the sophisticated Paris and West End market and convey them to the mass market end of the trade. The insalubrious sweatshops of the East End would then churn out copies of what wealthy debutantes were wearing last, this or even next season, according to the science or prescience of the designer. Evie became a fashion spy rather than a designer, looking to see what young rich women would be wearing next.
Posing as a fashion journalist, she would go to international haute-couture showings and take notes and drawings for quick copying. In those days epicene young men in Paris and London dictated what Society women would wear and, it being before the jeans revolution, the upper-classes in turn dictated what every other woman would ultimately wear.
The so-called West End "manufacturer" of mass clothing, trading under a suitably elegant woman's name, needed to know the fashion trends in advance so that he could place his orders with the East End "outworker", as they called the clothing manufacturers, and jump the fashion. The "spy" added to their profits and detracted from the couturiers' exclusivity. Once Evie was spotted and smacked on the wrist by an elegant designer who called her the "wickedest woman he had ever met" though he may not have had a wide or intimate acquaintance. It wasn't how the manufacturers for whom she worked regarded her.
But it was a short-lived boom for her corner of the jungle. Just as the music makers discovered the potentialities of contained teenage rebellion the fashion-makers discovered the advantages of casual clothes and the lowers orders of society began dictating fashion to the upper orders. It became fashionable to be unfashionable. The tables were turned and the couturiers began stealing ideas from the mass market. Evie was among the first to think of specially tailored jeans, blouses and tee-shirts to go with them, which led to the introduction of workshops all over Camden Town employing Cypriot women at the customary sweated wages.
We lived in a flat owned by an elderly lady who appeared to be the stereotype 'gentlewoman in reduced circumstances'. Evie felt sorry for her, saying she had seen her late at night in King's Cross selling papers. We used to give her leftovers for the many cats she owned, which she seemed to accepted gratefully as, she explained, she never ate meat and regretted her cats would insist on it. I always wondered how she could be poor when she owned a large house with four flats, the rents of which were quite high, though she always assured us she never saw a penny of what we paid to the agents.
Then one day we all had notice to quit. Our landlady told Evie kindly she was sorry but she was going to turn the place into offices for a peace organization. It seemed she sold pacifist papers, lived frugally because of a Quaker conscience, was a vegetarian and devoted all her income to famine relief. Though facing the street, we fell about laughing when it dawned on us for the first time that Miss Rowntree was a millionaire and one of the great cocoa dynasty.
© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
From : Hack.org
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