If you haven't stayed in a squat, you haven't been to real London.
By: Kai Teo
Photos: Linda Painter – The Gypsy Pixie
To all the lucky bastards who’re getting paid enough to have a roof over your heads, good for you. This one goes out to the urban fighters who struggle to keep up with the society, yet keep out of its radar.
Squatters are city adventurers who turn an abandoned building into a liveable home. They blur the lines between private and public property. They go about their lives everyday with the hope of not getting evicted from their shelter. They are adapters. They are hunters and gatherers. They are street warriors.
Forget London fucking Bridge, forget the Thames, forget Tate. Ok, maybe visit the Tate once. But the squat is probably Britain’s most charming and most realistic portrayal of its colourful characters.
The London hipsters don’t belong here. There’s no time, no place, and no money for a giant stack of vintage vinyls, or an impressive collection of limited edition Dr. Martins.
When Buddha Mag popped our nosey heads into London, we were not only welcomed by an impossibly amazing weather, we were received with incredibly open arms to stay with our friends at their squat.
Tucked away in a secret location behind a preschool parking lot, the building was an insignificant, ugly scar on the face of capitalistic London. Boards were nailed fast to all the windows, hiding any sign of life from the prying eyes of ordinary folks.
No one uses keys here. Your key to the door is your street cred, your open heartedness, and a few loud bangs on the wall.
After a few more loud bangs (I know, it’s not very tactical, but they’re still in the midst of coming up with a secret password), someone lifted the heavy metal bar behind the door and greeted us with a beer in his hand. And before we could step foot into their enclave, a ferocious looking pitbull sniffed us out, as if our entry depended on his canine approval.
Everything was in disarray. It must have been an old construction office or something. Desks, papers, shelves, chairs, lamps and shit were strewn all over. It was as if the previous inhabitants had left in a haste, leaving behind their work, leaving behind their building to make way for a new home.
We were ushered into someone’s room and the frenzy began. Polish beer, Polish speaking, and a Polish bear. Yes, there was a bear. He was at least 8-feet tall, weighed about the same as a London bus, and friendly as fuck. He didn’t give no handshake. He showed his love with a warm, suffocating hug, accompanied by a genuine smile and a hearty laugh. Somewhere in the corner, 2 of the boys were battling it out on a PS2, trying to kill each other in Winning Eleven.
It was all very ordinary. Very simple. Very homely.
Everyone was from everywhere. Everywhere in Poland, at least. But there was a Spanish dude whose OCD is gardening, and a stunningly hot Australian girl who absolutely sucked at speaking Polish. Everyone here was a unique character. There was a kind soul who couldn’t stop saying that I looked like the guitarist from DragonForce, then there was an interesting one that was obsessed with his wall collage, carefully pieced together with cutouts from punk magazines. And of course, there’s always the quiet guy who giggles at everything that was said, and the seriously pierced guy sporting a green Mohawk that has a performance-piercing fetish.
No one talked about histories here. Not that we weren’t interested. But everyone had a past that was best forgotten. It was all here and now. And this harmony was all that mattered, even though we didn’t speak the same languages. We communicated through a mix of hand gestures, candid expressions and smiles. Loads of smiles.
You see, we were supposed to be staying with a few other friends in London. But every night, somehow, after 200 pints in Camden, we’ll always find ourselves staggering back to the hideout. It was as if our autopilot was guiding us back to our new home and new family.
But when so many are living together on the edge of the society, everything hangs on a delicate balance. Frustration from unemployment and slight alcoholism sometimes fuel loud quarrels over the slightest of things. But these little fights are quickly forgotten with the sound of another beer opening echoing through the empty office.
These squatters were expert builders, plumbers, and electricians. During the few days we stayed there, we saw a Playstation controller being repaired, a complete piping system installed in the bathroom, and the erection of a new room wall.
My new friends were teachers. They taught me to enjoy the everyday. To embrace uncertainty. To cherish the simple joys. A croissant on a hungover morning is hailed as precious treasure, beer is appreciated like the nectar of gods flowing down our thirsty throats and thirsty hearts, and every hug is given and received like it was the last.
Because this is the squatters’ reality. They’ll never know what happens when the sun rises the next day. And they’ll never know if their home will still be around when they return from the corner off-license.
Today, Buddha Mag salutes you. And to those who still despise squatters after reading this. Fuck you.