Taking the Rise

(Published in ROOF, the Shelter Magazine, July/August 2009)

In July 1975 I returned to London from a month of hitchhiking in Ireland. I was full of hippy dreams. Someone I met in Galway suggested I should live at Hornsey Rise, North London, which was reputed to be the largest squat in Europe. It was difficult to find accommodation in London and the political protest of squatting – doing something with the thousands of empty properties – was something I believed in. 

taking-the-riseOn a balmy evening the 14 bus dropped me at the foot of the Rise. Aromas of kebabs and peppers from the Greek restaurants tempted me but I headed up the hill to three blocks of flats – Welby House, Ritchie House and Goldie House.

At Welby House, two Alsatians, tethered to a post, barked and spat. Rubbish, washing machines, old clothes and abandoned cars were scattered around the yard. Banners hung over balconies. The slogans stuck in my mind: ‘Don’t Dump Rubbish!'; ‘Meeting about the Future in the Square Tomorrow'; ‘Stay Cosmic, Meditate’ and ‘Hornsey Rising. Yippee!’

I went up the litter-strewn stairs to my contact address. The flat had been boarded up. A man walked towards me. I’m Graham,’ he said in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘I’m like the local estate agent.’ It was getting dark and I told him I needed somewhere to live. He showed me a flat on that landing. I handed over £5 for the key. In the bedroom I put in the 100 watt bulb Graham had given me and unfolded the sleeping bag from my rucksack.

I went to buy a takeaway kebab and sat by the window enjoying the food. There were sounds of drums and laughter, of The Moody Blues and The Doors, of children playing in the square and people chatting through open windows. I hated the straight world. I drifted into sleep believing that something good was happening.

The next day I collected my Mini van from my mother’s house in Surrey. The following week was filled with preparations for the second year of a philosophy degree. In a nearby squatters’ cafe I picked up a lot of information as we drank coffee, ate wholesome cakes and played chess.

In the three blocks of flats there were about 400 people. Each block had its own loose structure. For example, Welby House had a ‘stash fund’, organised by Ernie, which was to help people out if they were having trouble with social security, or if they needed money for an emergency. People who came looking for a squat were informally vetted, so that anyone who appeared too unhinged would be discouraged. I joined an organic food group and each month we would buy in bulk and sell cheaply. There was a committee, of representatives from each house, who tried to liaise with the council, generate publicity, and make contact with other big squats in Europe.

The flats had been built in 1927 by the GLC on the site of a former orphanage. By the 1970s the flats had few council tenants left. They were squatted en masse in 1974. By the late 1970s, after the squatters had been evicted, the flats were again let. They are now owned by Islington Council and in 2008 planning permission was granted to upgrade all three blocks.

But in the 1970s there was a surprising mix of people living there: students, intellectuals, a group of Italians who, it strikes me now, may have been part of the Red Brigades, ex-soldiers, junkies, anarchists from Paris, acid heads, families, rent boys, a few professional people, older teenagers who were past the age of foster care, a former professional boxer. Of course, there were conflicts but I have never known another place where spontaneous events, friendships and romance occurred so naturally.

One evening I went for dinner at Graham’s where we ate Moroccan stew from a tagine. Another guest, Will, with bushy red hair and a Glaswegian accent, spoke passionately about the London demonstrations in 1968, the Isle of White festival and a commune he was joining in Wales. I believed at that moment that my hippy dream could still happen. It was like a huge, unmade jigsaw – and once complete the world would be magic.

By Christmas 1975 things began to change. Rumours spread of the council’s plans for a mass eviction. Some of the best people left, burglaries and vandalism increased. Someone we all knew as the candyman, who sold cannabis at a fair price, was murdered. I had seen him as a talisman. Ernie ran off with the stash fund.

I held on until mid-January. The place had become frightening. The mass eviction, supported by a small army of policemen, took place a few weeks later. I retreated to live with my mother. I decided not to go back to college for my third year at college. In autumn 1976 I squatted again in Stoke Newington, London. I went to a Squatters Union meeting in Church Street and bought a copy of The Squatters Handbook. But the battle felt too big and the councils were refusing to license short-life property, even though there was a huge amount of empty council dwellings all over London. I moved with a friend to a rented house in Reading.

In September 1978 I returned to London with my new girlfriend, Nicola, and completed my philosophy degree. We lived at Madame Lillie, a sculptor’s house in Stoke Newington. I still yearned for a collective way of living. Towards the end of 1978 we began to attend meetings of Hackney Community Housing, a short life housing organisation. From this a group of us formed Hackney Community Housing (October).

There were negotiations with the council, which wanted to change the policy of trashing properties to deter squatters and use them instead for short-term housing. After six months, five of us were given a substandard house in Shakespeare Walk, N16, at a peppercorn rent.

We received funds to restore the property. Our work was overseen by a down-to-earth architect from a community group. We learnt a lot about repairing houses. Many other people were given similar properties. Our organisation appointed a rent collector, we bought a Transit van for removals, and the council trusted us. Nicola and I stayed for two years.

And, looking back from the comfort of the Victorian house I live in now, I still yearn for the life we had then. It came closest to achieving the revolutionary’s dream of alternative living.

Hackney Community Housing was successful but it was undermined by the lack of a coherent vision. With so many fragmented perspectives – Marxist, feminist, socialist, vegan, pacifist, anarchist – we spent more time squabbling among ourselves than on remaking the world.

Politicians speak glibly of ‘Community’ without any sense of its emotional or social reality. At its best Hornsey Rise embraced differences without fuss or ideological prescription. There was a feeling of conviviality and compassion that I have not found in any other situation since.