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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Mothership lands in Barnet

Watch the Barnet Mothership video here

At the weekend twenty community campaigners, who had occupied what could have been one of London's largest community centres, were woken up to the building's front door being smashed in. They were swiftly ejected with their few belongings, onto the streets of Camden.

"It was some of the same bailiffs who evicted us from Sweets Way estate in Barnet," says Daniel, a Human Rights activist. "It was kind of funny when we recognised each other, we were both like, "Oh, hi!" The group behind the controversial squatted Camden Mothership were evicted on Saturday morning at 8.30am, despite Jeremy Corbyn's brother, Piers negotiating with the Labour Camden council and denouncing their treatment of the squatters.

The Mothership was an ex-Housing Advice Office which stood empty for three years, costing Camden council approximately £5000 a week in security and building rates. A local estate agent estimated that, had the 25,000 square feet been hired out as office space, it could have generated £1.5 million in revenue for Camden instead. The group behind the project requested a meanwhile lease - which allows the temporary use of a building - and proposed that they be allowed to use the space for community purposes until the building is ready to be redeveloped. This suggestion was popular with local residents and several councillors, but the fact that they occupied the building without asking appears to have got some Labour councillors' backs up.

Camden Finance Chief, Theo Blackwell took to Twitter to condemn the activists as "self-indulgent freeloaders" claiming that the council had been willing to consider a meanwhile lease before learning that the group had already occupied the building. Conversely, the Neighbourhood Development Forum state that they and other local groups have long been trying to obtain access to the building at 156 West End Lane for office and community use, for nearly two years, but have been "repeatedly rejected and stonewalled". Blackwell claims that by occupying the building, the squatters cost Camden residents money to have them taken to court and removed. However, as Piers Corbyn points out, "the occupiers offered to give the keys back and leave on an agreed date - it would have cost Camden nothing to negotiate with us."

According to Community Organiser, Pete Phoenix, who represented the Mothership in court in front of Judge Lightman on Friday, this is only the second time in twenty-three years that he has experienced an eviction the day immediately after the court case, "it just goes to show how desperate the council were to get us out and stop the debate about the use of empty buildings."

The Green party's mayoral candidate, Si├ón Berry, went to the Royal Courts of Justice to support the squatters, saying she thinks "the council were wrong to take this to court in the first place." She went on to point out that "the council should be acting in the interests of the community and not act as if they have been personally offended.”

Phoenix relates that the bailiffs were more reasonable with the group than they had been at previous evictions, noting that "they smashed their way through the front door but gave us two hours to get our stuff out. Sometimes they give you ten minutes." With more efficiency than some councils can muster, the Mothership campaigners then set about finding the next space to continue their community work and by 3pm the same day it was mission accomplished. Their new building, just over the border in Barnet, has also been empty for three years and has fifty rooms and several communal spaces.

Earlier this year Barnet Council suffered reprisals from protesters when they evicted a whole housing estate in order to sell off the houses for £400 each to a private property company; an area known as Sweets Way was occupied by campaigners to highlight this mismanagement in the face of increasing homelessness in the UK. Tom Copley, Chair of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly, recently spoke at the Respacing Conference and observed that when it comes to selling off public assets, "Barnet council are one of the worst offenders". He states that their actions over Sweets Way amounted to "blatantly doing the wrong thing" and said that the council was "extraordinarily bad in terms of value for money for tax payers".

Whilst the Mothership group are well aware of Barnet's questionable stance on matters relating to housing and empty buildings, they are diligently making preparations to put in a proposal to the owners of their latest property. They will again request a meanwhile lease, which would enable them to put the space to good use for the local community and provide themselves with some accommodation for the interim period, prior to the building being developed.

At the Camden Mothership, the group had planned to offer Christmas dinner, across two floors, to those locals who may be vulnerable or alone at Christmas, such as the elderly and homeless people. Camden council declined to comment about these plans and their decision to leave the building empty has so enraged residents that an online petition was created asking for the immediate resignation of both Theo Blackwell and Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden council. Blackwell insists that the site will shortly be developed into flats, 50% of which will be 'affordable', but he has so far been unavailable for comment as to how long the building will remain empty. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, commented that 'affordable' is an example of the "increasingly Orwellian language" surrounding the housing debate, it simply means that a property is rented at 80% of the market value - still a far cry from social housing.

Community campaigner, Phoenix remains optimistic about the ongoing project to help relieve homelessness and bring practical community solutions to wasted spaces. He points out, "you stand out in the street shouting about homelessness and a few people will take a leaflet. You occupy a building and talk about the same things and the media circus descends."

Watch the video of Mothership activists settling in to their latest squatted building

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Runnymede evictions

On Thursday 10th September Runnymede lost its legal right to exist. The eco-village has housed hundreds of people over three years since the land was occupied by forty people who walked out of London and set up home on historical land, adjacent to a National Trust site.

The village is off-grid and the houses, which range from octagonal log cabins, hazel benders and yurts to the village longhouse made of wattle and daube, were created using recycled and natural materials, as well as building techniques and forestry knowledge which are fast being forgotten.

Six days after the appeal, bailiffs took advantage of adverse weather conditions to move in and destroy the village. At about 6am, amid torrential rain, bailiffs began to tear down houses with chain saws and sledge hammers. There were eight arrests in total, as villagers tried to remain in their homes or gain access to their possessions.

Since then some of the displaced eco-villagers have occupied an adult learning centre to draw attention to the issue of empty buildings in nearby Staines. The building dates from 1911 and was empty for eight years previously. The Four Seasons activists who currently live in the building have been touched by the level of support for their action from locals. They aim to carefully re-open the building to the community - as some parts are damaged - with an exhibition, gallery and performance space. Rumour has it that Ali G wants to help save the community centre in Staines, so ...

The future of the significant site on which the eco-village was built seems doomed to be littered with houses worth £5-10 million each, as developers, Royalton deem the land 'exclusive' enough for their business. Needless to say, public access will not be encouraged and the knowledge of forest-living will be further threatened.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Sweets Way Wall.

On Saturday I found myself at the ghost town that is the Sweets Way estate in North London's Barnet. Driving through streets of empty houses we reached the first sign of life; a shed painted with the words 'We will not lose our shed'.

On reaching a communal patio area, I met the dedicated team living in the reclaimed area, 'Sweetstopia'. The houses, only 45 years old, were apparently sold for £400 each to Annington Homes who plan to build 300 luxury flats, but make no provision for social housing. Tenants have been evicted and many have been re-housed in sub-standard buildings, often out of the borough. Social-cleansing breaks up communities and has disrupted and brought chaos to the lives of 153 families at the estate.

In contrast to the barren boarded-up houses surrounding Sweetstopia, activity is everywhere. Art and music springs up quickly and the energy is infectious. There are a variety of flowers and vegetables growing and a greenhouse has been erected in the centre - quite a commitment considering they may be evicted at any moment. The majority of the buildings were in a habitable condition - before contracted workers smashed many of them up inside. It is difficult for repairs to become a priority when the future of the estate is so uncertain. In order to gain a sense of security - and as a recognised symbol of resistance - Sweetstopia residents have erected their very own wall. The wall flourished as paint and music appeared, joyful and determined.

The activists have drawn attention to the immoral evictions, but the future of the estate is still very uncertain and bailiffs are expected imminently. Resistance can make all the difference and it is inspiring to feel the gradual raising of vibrations, as a hum of discord becomes a progressive and catchy beat.

Watch a clip of Sweetstopia in action ...

Monday, 15 June 2015


I'm getting steadily angry at men. I don't want to - some of my best friends are men - but really they're starting to plummet in my estimation. As a tom boy, I've hung about with groups of guys all my life, but it wasn't until more recently that I became more aware of quite how simple, base and pathetic men can be.

A brief stint at the Playboy Club furnished me with a few fantastic females, but my best mate was still a boy. Now the boy and I have gone our separate ways I have started to realise that men and women really are fundamentally different in the brain department.

Different is not a bad thing in itself, obviously, but my experiences of the last week have left me seriously contemplating lesbianism. Thing number one: sunbathing in the garden with my flatmate only to notice our upstairs neighbour touching himself. I now wish I'd simply shouted "Jim I can see you", but sadly at the time I was mortified and simply discussed the options with Rose. The options were - stay here and essentially allow him to use us for sexual gratification, or go inside. We went inside. No-one wants to see a 70 year old penis on a sunny day, it can never be un-seen. Thanks Jim.

Thing number two: Having recently become obsessed with skateboarding, I've been spending all free time at the skatepark. Yes, I've basically been hanging out with 14 year old boys. That said, one of the unexpected benefits about the park has been the sense of community. It started with a shy smile, followed by the odd technical pointer or motivational speech,"have it!", but now there are friendships springing up. Some of the boys have commented that it's nice to see girls skating and overall it's been a great experience. That said, one 12 year old tried to manoeuvre me into a situation where he would be able to push me as I went to drop in (essentially throw myself down a concrete ramp). I also overheard his group of friends lamenting the fact there were girls in a skatepark. If I was a 12 year old girl that would have put me off skating entirely. As a 29 year old woman it made me feel uncomfortable and uneasy. I rectified the situation (judge me as you will) by informing the boy that if he ever pushed me or my friend down a ramp I would hurt him. I didn't specify how, but I'd like to think this vagueness just fuelled his imagination.

Thing number three: I wore a crop top the other day. Whilst my (male) friends commented on this, I took it in the good humour they were intended, as harmless flirting or general compliments. Too many compliments make me feel shy, but I've learnt my lesson from wearing said crop top. Comments from people I know and like are not the issue. The problem was on meeting Giles Coren for the second time. The first had been at a gin launch and we chatted and drank cocktails. The second time he looked me up and down and said "you were wearing something different last time we met. I had to imagine what you looked like underneath. Turns out I imagined right". This was laughed off by my friends (guys) as just another compliment. However, it was enough to make me say my goodbyes. I'm also learning that no matter how happily married, doting-on-the-kids a man is, sans femmes he apparently has no qualms about returning to the single state in his head.

On discussing men with my flatmate Lucy, I came to the conclusion that men are frightened of women and rightly so; we're a strong and capable bunch. I realised that women only need men for sex and lifting heavy things, although vibrators and artificial insemination have reduced the reliance so that left only the lifting of heavy things. Lucy made the excellent point that we could simply create things to be much lighter. Genius. Gentlemen, you have been warned.

Our attempts to inform Jim he'd been spotted. Needless to say we didn't post it ...

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

My thoughts on sex.

This is 2015 and we are still fighting for equality. Sadly I'm not even talking about non-human animals, but the basic rights of women.

There is something about women that captures people's imagination. We are both celebrated and vilified, sexual and sexualised. A woman will receive criticism for seeming too empowered, criticism for the reverse. These are not just playground jibes or the throwaway remarks of colleagues. Like swallows seeming to swoop on a whim, the collective reaction of the media is difficult to predict in terms of how a particular woman will be judged for whichever story du jour.

Yesterday alone saw my radar bombarded with mixed messages. The despicable narrative concerning the rapists of murdered Indian girl, Jyoti Singh, is sickening. The attempt to justify extreme sexual violence being used against someone based solely on their sex is frankly terrifying. However, far more frightening is the fact that India's Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, is trying to suppress the film, India's Daughter, from being aired either in India or elsewhere. Why? The immature and dangerous assertions that women are more responsible for rape than men, is sadly not held by just a few cognitively challenged individuals. This attitude bubbles barely beneath the surface of the country's collective conscience. In the time I spent there I was flashed, groped, spied on, sexually assaulted by teenagers and had a man try to buy me. This is whilst I had the *gritted teeth* 'protection' of a boyfriend. I wonder if the director, Leslee Udwin, were a man the Home Minister would be less worried? Do I sound paranoid?

A colleague today discussed her difficulty in finding any joy with editors to pitch a story concerning Nellie Bly, a journalist who in 1890 beat the world record and travelled around the globe in 72 days with just the clothes on her back and a handbag. This year marks the 125 anniversary of that feat and yet there seems to be no interest. Apparently there was no real interest at the 100th year anniversary either. My colleague was apologetic but wondered whether it is because Nellie was a woman and people are intimidated by women.

People ARE intimidated by women. I don't know why. In Afghanistan people are so threatened by the notion of female police that the job role should come with a health warning. One would assume that of all jobs this would be considered respectable and that there would be an element of protection for those who sign up. Not so. Women find themselves subject to sexual harassment on a day to day basis from their male counterparts. There is the pressure for sex from those higher up the ladder, with all manner of threats to keep the little woman submissive. In spite of constant vigilance and total secrecy about the role for all but the immediate family, police women in Afghanistan are in danger simply because they are female. In 2013 six policewomen were murdered, one of whom was shot point blank whilst walking her children home from a visit to their grandparents. Allegedly this was carried out by the Taliban after someone in her family dobbed her in, but then as her father stated, "everyone is pulling a shawl on their face and calling themselves Taliban". (NYTimes 1st March 2015)

Recently two friends visited Tangiers. They are both what I would consider to be culturally sensitive and sensible. However they suffered from the unfortunate plight of being female. This meant incessant name calling, hissing, requests for sex and even a bit of groping from a 12 year old boy. I appreciate that this is simply the way of life, no real harm came of it and perhaps there was little genuine malice intended. I imagine that had one of the girls responded with a "yes sure, you whistled at me so let's go back to your place", the men in question would not know what to do with themselves. That said it is this sort of ingrained disrespect for women that can lead to dangerous situations. Another friend is an air hostess. The company for whom she works flies from Tangiers to Amsterdam - a route she dreads. It isn't so much the skirt tugging that she finds challenging. Worst of all is when men from Tangiers refuse to speak with her - it seems that the all important matter of inflight refreshments can only be dealt with by men. If someone refused to speak to me during the course of my job simply because I am anatomically designed to give birth I would lose my shit.

Last night I was approached by a very pleasant gentleman who informed me that women should run the world. We had just met and I agreed with him. In Banker To The Poor, Bangladeshi economist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus states that matriarchal societies tend to fair better because any income is spent on feeding the family, home improvements and education. In patriarchal societies a good portion of the income may well go on booze and gambling. His words, not mine. My new friend, Jonas, had written a book to illustrate precisely this point. I'm half way through and cannot yet comment on its content save to say it raises some good points but there really is quite a surprising focus on sex. Sex sex, not gender sex.

On that topic we're also accosted at every tube station by posters in several shades of grey advertising a film that celebrates women being sexually submissive. I'm no prude and I don't care where people get their kicks if no-one gets hurt - or rather, as long as adults mutually consent to be hurt - but it does feel like as a global society we are confused about the very concept of 'women'. Are they to be protected and sheltered, to remain clean and pure? Or can they be glamorised, sexualised, prominent? Can they take control as a mother, or a lover, or both? Quite frankly they should be able to do what the hell they like, as men have done pretty much the world over for pretty much time immemorial.

Clearly some parts of the world are more progressive than others. Luckily this teachers' contract is nearly 100 years old so I can sort of excuse it. Look carefully and you'll see the same fear of women's sexuality -

Basically it's all, 'stop encouraging those poor men to misbehave'. After all, why should they be forced to exercise restraint? Number 11 is particularly telling. I suppose one petticoat is just plain slutty. Luckily for olden day school teachers, the contract only forbids beer, wine and whiskey. Vodka was fine. I'm not an advocate of political correctness for the sake of it, sometimes I find it a nuisance. If a man buys me a drink I appreciate it and honestly I even prefer a man to be stronger than me. I shouldn't have to state these thing as they're frankly irrelevant to this post, but I'd hate to give the likes of Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, the chance to write me off as a man hater. After all, some of my best friends are men ...

Inequality between the sexes is not just a matter of a pay gap - which obviously, is still is not cool. The fact that every day, women everywhere are exploited, beaten, raped, forced to marry, sold into slavery and denied the basic right to live a life free from terror and torture is insane. It takes brave people like the film-maker Leslee Udwin to stand up for those without a voice: To spread awareness that treating women in this manner is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the global community. The film India's Daughter will have little impact on the lives of women in small rural villages, living in fear of their own families, working as slaves with no free will of their own. However it will have some impact, no matter how slight. The fight to show the film in India is an important strategic battle for equality and one which the rest of the world can support by spreading the word and encouraging Mr Singh to man the fuck up, take responsibility for his nation's future and help to liberate the other 50% of his country.

International Women's Day is this Sunday 8th March

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The art of squatting

Last year I became a vociferous supporter of a certain type of squatting. I don't practice what I preach - at the mere suggestion of it my Mum burst into tears and I figured the arguments just weren't worth it. However, there's a lot to be said for this type of community living.

Squatting isn't all the Daily Mail would have us believe, i.e. urine soaked walls, dirty needles and a faintly hungry air. The squatting I advocate is more at the community-living end of the scale, although admittedly it often starts with an illicit break in. Then follows a period of making a venue habitable - hard and dirty work - before squatters can settle down to the relative discomfort of just living there, usually with the intention to focus on more artistic pursuits. The alternative of working all hours, to scrape together the monthly rent for a central box with peeling paint, certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

My interest in squatters began with a long philosophical chat on the roof of a squat one sunny day in Camden; I was chasing up a story about graffiti and had never been in a squat in my life. One seasoned squatter, Gee, convinced me squatting is less about cheap housing and more of a social movement. There are numerous derelict buildings in London - often the reason they are left empty is shady, money driven and has poor social consequences in the long run. The squatters I met consider themselves more as ethical property guardians. Yes they break in to a place but they are quick to establish a good rapport with the landlord and they even pay bills where necessary. In the meantime it serves as a location for artists of all kinds to engage in their passion without the hugely detrimental stress of paying exorbitant rent.

During a twelve year 'tenancy' at a previous squat, the 419 Gallery in Leytonstone, Gee et al were contacted by MP Mike Weatherley's people - the same MP who vehemently opposed squatting. He wanted to look around the place, and he'd be joined by Richard Madeley (of course) for the purpose of making a documentary about squatting. Gee showed them around the squat, from the recording studios to the art-filled exhibition room; "I told him, 'almost every band you like has played in a squat at some time or other'". The squatters had just been given notice by their 'landlords' and they asked Weatherley for help.

Richard Madeley's journalistic instincts took over; "Hold on hold on, can I get this clear? As an investigative journalist, are you, Mike Weatherley, the MP who banned squatting saying that you'll help this man - a squatter - get a new building?". It was a slightly sheepish yes. Considering that there are an estimated 700,000 empty properties in the UK, it does seem short-sighted at best not to consider the benefits of working with willing communities (i.e. squatters) in an effort to make use of the resources we have available to us.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

What Do You Know About Shaun The Sheep? A review.

Before Sunday's Leicester Square premier I knew very little about Shaun the Sheep, save that it was a spin off from the popular Wallace and Gromit animation. Most Sundays I meet a group of friends for what we high-mindedly call 'Film Club', however this week one of them was walking Aardman Animation's grass green carpet to celebrate Rizzle Kicks performing the movie's final song, What Do You Know About Shaun The Sheep? We figured it was time for an official Film Club Outing and so, donning our freebie sheep headbands, we sat back anticipating a viewing peppered with screaming children.

In terms of a sophisticated plot, there is there is only so much scope for an animated children's film about sheep, however the value of the film lies elsewhere. That said the simple 'sheep-want-a-holiday-so-trick-farmer-who-ends-up-as-a-celebrity-hairdresser-in-the-city' is a fairly solid set-up for any comedy. However the most obvious point to address is the fantastic stop-motion that takes animators roughly a day to produce three seconds worth of footage. As to be expected it's kids' comedy at its is well-timed, occasionally slap stick and joyful finest, but as with all the best cartoons there's also something for the grown ups - including a multitude of in-jokes referring to the likes of Taxi Driver, Terminator and even Breaking Bad.

If the last Aardman animation you saw was Wallace and Gromit you'll be charmed to notice how observant and up-to-date Shaun The Sheep is; from the shabby shuttered dry cleaners to the torn John Cooper Clark poster, there is a pervasive thoughtfulness that reflects the laid-back alternative attitude native to Bristol, home of the Aardman animation house. Even the bus station is from the pigeons' point of view. There's also a subtle but poignant moral to the story – to be grateful for what you have, which is something we could all do with remembering now and then.

I can't profess to know an awful lot even after watching eighty-five minutes of Shaun inspired antics, but what I do know about Shaun the Sheep is that he's a plucky little character with sound morals. I'd go so far as to say he's a lateral thinker, but he is a right sucker for advertising. The reliance on physical humour rather than dialogue gives the film universal appeal; the exuberant soundtrack features Eliza Doolittle and Rizzle Kicks and it was the buoyant punch-line foley that punctuated the film, rather than the tantrums of bored children. Perhaps the most telling sign that Shaun The Sheep is a winner is that directors, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, kept an entire cinema of children – not to mention Film Club - thoroughly absorbed.

In cinemas 6th February