Thursday, April 23, 2015

Passport to Pimlico

In 1977, squatters in Freston Road, Notting Hill declared independence from the British state. Facing eviction by the Greater London Council (GLC), the community figured the best way to evade the constraints imposed on them was to just free themselves of those constraints altogether. So they lobbied the UN and established a 1.8-acre microstate - "The Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia" - complete with its own postage stamps, visas and passports.

If the same thing happened today (which it probably wouldn't, because squatting residential buildings is now something you can go to jail for), police would likely move in with eviction papers and battering rams. But back then, living in abandoned buildings apparently wasn't seen as the abhorrent transgression we now know it to be.

This story about the Notting Hill squatters in London in the 70s, coincides precisely with the story of a good friend of mine who became a famous journalist in Canada after a life of many adventures, wandering about the world. He dropped out of high school in Ontario and worked his way across the Atlantic in some grubby capacity on a commercial vessel. Then, more or less penniless, he fetched up in London where he occupied a squat, an unoccupied council house with no electricity. There he lived happily for four years surrounded by fellow societal misfits of various political and philosophical stripes.

He earned what money he had by buying and selling antique books, which he knew a little about, and spent a couple of quid a month purchasing a monthly subscription to the British Library where, he said, he had a crush on the beautiful librarian in the classics section. So beautiful and charming was she, that he followed her reading advice assiduously and thereby gained a thorough education in Classical literature, including picking up a little Greek and Latin.

He said the only contact he ever had with the forces of officialdom was when he was signed up against his will for the NHS. To correct this potentially disastrous infiltration of The Man into his idyllic life, he went to see his assigned "worker" and finally convinced him to burn his file, rendering him once again safely anonymous.

Alas, it was not to last. Britain has since become an almost parodic police state wherein the law-abiding, corduroy and flat-cap-wearing citizens live in terror of saying or thinking the wrong thing out loud on the underground, and violent psychotics wander the streets assaulting and murdering with impunity. But the late 1970s was only the start of all that.

My friend knew that the time of freedom was coming to an end when the city decided that everyone living free in the squats had to be "regularized" and made officially resident in their council houses, given numbers and assigned social workers, entered into the NHS rolls and forcibly inserted into the shiny new socialist system.

He sighed with sadness at the sight of all his hippie friends being herded into the workers' paradise. But he left, knowing that the forces of history were sweeping everyone into this sticky net and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

After a circuitous route that included a brief stint washing dishes and sleeping on the beach in an African nation that is now a seething mass of violence, he ended up in Thailand, where those forces would take a while to create their baleful results. He took a job as the ladies social columnist for the Bangkok times, and lived happily for some years in the little colony of ex-pat Anglos who had been left in the Far East, like debris on a beach at low tide, after the demise of the British Empire.

Freedom is getting harder and harder to achieve. Few are they who still even remember what it was.


1 comment:

Mary Anne said...

A wonderful read,would make a great film script!