If you’re turning 30, like my friend Angie did recently, you ought to accept the fact that you’re an adult and have a party involving cheese, wine and chats about insurance. Or….hire a hall and hold a fancy dress competition in the style of Alice in Wonderland/Victorian, and top if off with a visit to a shisha cafe the next day:
What comes to mind when you think of squats and squatters? Hardcore people with dreads and mohicans, nostrils full of ketamine and all night parties, or me…sitting in my room reading Harry Potter?
OK, the Harry Potter book belonged to someone else, but you get the idea. A friend of mine who did actually have a nostril full of ketamine and a head full of dreads had left the room empty apart from a few things and I had found myself at a loose end. Clubs and parties in Brighton were starting to bore me and so was sitting on the phone listening to people moan about the service of American Express. I wanted to be doing something creative in London. I just didn’t know how.
So I arrived in Stratford in 2005 eager and terrified. The squat was enormous; previously an old pub there were several floors and large bar rooms. I’d been naive – I had no plans and no need to find a job to pay rent, therefore I began a new routine of waking at 4pm, scratching myself for an hour or two and spending the rest of the night watching tv with a few of my housemates.
One of the people living there was a dealer. He was a nice bloke. Everyone else did actually go to work regularly and only a couple had what I would call a coke habit. One man was reaching his late thirties and beginning to realise the majority of his life had been spent outside the system, and he was starting to panic. Most of my time there, though, was spent on my own, not knowing anyone or how to begin my new creative adventures, reading this Harry Potter book left by my friend, and I was bored…bored…bored.
Some good memories did come of it. One day as winter hit hard I realised I would have to collect firewood or freeze. Myself and a hippie girl went out into the courtyard, searched amongst the tires and tiles and found enough branches and logs to take up with us. Once back in my room the frozen streets were hidden behind the pink sarong I’d hammered in place above the window (I’ve still got it with me today) and we stacked the wood and twisted newspaper in the fireplace grate just outside the door. Once I’d got it crackling we turned on the tv from its place on the makeshift stand ( a wooden box) and warmed ourselves. I fed the fire all night, smiling like a proud mother as it leapt up the chimney.
Another night the dealer had arrived back after one of his times away. I was always pleased to see him and his dog as they were the ones I was closest to. Hours of film watching and rubbish tv would take place in his room as the fire in his own grate roared more substantially than any I lit. He’d brought a smoke machine back from Brighton and everyone was standing excitedly round it in the empty bar. “We should set it off,” he suggested, and we agreed.
After several hisses large clouds obscured our vision. We giggled like children until the novelty passed and we went our seperate ways. I moved the sarong curtain in my room aside to check the streets…only to find a small crowd had gathered. They were shouting to each other and waving to me. Confused, I waved back. A lady formed a loudspeaker with her hands and called: “Don’t worry, we’ve rung for help.” Oh dear.
In the next minute a fire engine pulled up outside to rescue us from the building with smoke pouring from the roof. I ran to find one of the others. At the time it seemed like a disaster but only hours later we were laughing about it, and in my retellings I left out the bit where I panicked and begged my friend to go outside and speak to everyone.