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London 2039


In 2009 East London had more artists per square mile than any other place in Europe. How’s that for a fun fact. Yeah. East London was a different place back in 2009, wasn’t it? Now it’s 2039 and East London has more stray cats per square mile than any other place in Europe. Different time different place. A world of stray cats and pond life. Ha! As far as dystopian futures go, it’s a half decent one. As long as you’re a cat. Which I am, as you can see. I am a calico with one eye and at least a million fleas. I could be worse off in the grand scheme of things. Could be pond life.

Fermentation, isn’t it great? That’s what happens when you keep the same shit in the same barrel for decades on end. East London is stagnant now. What’s it they say about stagnant water? The poisonous algae only flourishes because the water’s still. Yuppies have been holding this place still for the last fifteen years. Same shit, same barrel. They just loaf about, congealing in East London’s pedestrianised low traffic zones. Holding flat whites and esoteric pastries, wearing baggy trousers and artisanal alpaca wool garments. Birkenstock Bostons, Salomons, Wales Bonner Sambas, their carefully curated belongings stuffed into Top Cuvée tote bags. They are like plankton, algae, they merge into one undefinable mass. They’re the only ones flourishing because they’re the fucking poison. London’s stuck and fermenting because everyone that kept things moving couldn’t afford to stay. Ran out of space to expand outwards into. It was always going to happen wasn’t it. No new houses, no new space to put em neither. The commuter belt’s a brick wall, Greater London can’t get any Greater. Now it’s just stray cats, yuppies and city boys. I prefer the city boys. At least they know how to have a good time.

Nah. No one interesting lives in East London anymore. Certainly no artists. Just advertising professionals in various vague and general forms. Creatives who don’t actually Create anything. Yuppie scum, yapping on about fermented natural wine and splitting the G to anyone who’ll listen. Creatives. I’m not joking, but I can’t deny, it is quite funny. If you’re into gallows humour, that is. London 2039 is a place where poisonous pond life is propped up at the top of the food chain by property developers. Scavengers and carrion.

If I had it my way, there’d be a wall round the M25, iron clad border policy. Anyone from Fuckinghamshire or the blue counties would be on the no-fly list, deported back to whichever shithole southern town they came from. Yeah — yuppies out, I say. But nah, I’m not in charge. Who’d put me in charge? No one even wants to listen. I’m sure you didn’t stumble into this pub to drink room temperature stout and listen to a one eyed cat pine after the good old days with the good old boys. But sweetheart, I don’t fucking care what you came in here for. I am one of the good old boys. A humble cat who is older than he has any right to be. And I have an awful habit of never missing the action.

I was born here, within the sound of the Bow Bells. Back then it was all fields. You could hear those bells all the way up on Highgate Hill. Not much has happened that I’ve not seen with my one good eye and I remember it all. Wat Tyler and the crowds rising over London Bridge, on their horses down Temple way to burn the tax records and the prisons. I was there when Boy King Richard met them at Mile End, when Wat Tyler’s blood ran thick over the grass. I was only a boy myself. I saw the flames lick their way from Pudding Lane to St Pauls, back when Paternoster Square was Paternoster Row. I saw the justice of the peace read the riot act to a baying crowd on Gin Lane, all of them wearing ribbons the colour of juniper berries. It was me who held a paintbrush in my paw, I daubed the words HIS MAJESTY, KING MOB on the wall of Newgate prison. I saw the East End levelled flat by blitz bombs thrown by boys in killing machines. People huddled on tube platforms because the government thought public bomb shelters were a kind of communism.

Sometimes I dream of the city before it was a city. Before the Romans and Londinium, when Hackney was a woodland, nothing more than a bend in the River Lea. I dream of mammoths thundering across Paleolithic London Fields, wild horses and wild men chasing them down with spears. I think these dreams might be more than just dreams. I wake up with the smell of smoke on my fur, the jagged imprint of flint arrows pressed into the pink of my paws. Me and my one eye, we’ve seen some things.

This fella I know, he told me I was an artist. A dying breed, maybe one of the last ones left in London. Interesting case, he was a photographer and I think he wanted the company. Good photos are made by good access. That’s what he said. A good photo is not a technical accomplishment, but a social accomplishment. You’ve got to have the insane luck of never missing the action, the innate ability to put people at ease as you slide in and take up the space around them. Pointing a camera can be as aggressive as pointing a gun. Imagemaking can be a kind of affront. I had never thought of my one good eye as a camera, but maybe cameras and their lenses are just rudimentary eyes.

Anyway, this photographer fella. Back in the 80s and 90s Hackney Council were hard up for cash. They needed to bring some employment into the borough, so they took a look at a map and designated the bit east of London Fields as a Light Industrial Area. All the roads from Pub on the Park down to Mare Street. They started buying up the houses with compulsory purchases, the plan was to knock them down and turn it into warehouses or something. You’ve got to remember, no one wanted to live in Hackney back then. Houses on Broadway Market were going for two grand a go and they still couldn’t shift them. There were no lights on London Fields. No tube in Hackney, no cafes, no bookshops. This photographer fella, he used to complain about it. Ha! Look at it now.

It started with a group of maybe eight or so houses. These lovely Georgian ones opposite the railway arches. I guess one day someone heard they were just sitting empty, so they took the initiative and moved their stuff in. It’s not like they were stealing anything from anyone. The council owned them and couldn’t do anything with them. Couldn’t sell them because no one wanted them. Too expensive to do them up. They couldn’t knock them down until the rest of the block had been bought, and that was taking fucking ages. So people squatted them. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? It just takes one person walking in the front door, then other people follow.

The people who already lived there were glad to see the squatters move in. Can you believe it? I guess they were just glad the houses next door to them wouldn’t be derelict. Once the council boarded places up they’d send builders in to strip the tiles off the roof and take the windows out. Once that was gone the houses would be carcases, no going back. So when people finalised their sales to the council, they’d go round to the squatters on the Sunday night and drop them their keys. When the council came on Monday morning to weld the house up, it’d be too late. The house would be officially squatted and added to the little fortress that was ever so slowly growing.

Beautiful houses down that way. One side of the block is Ellingfort Road, London Lane runs parallel and those two are boxed off by Mentmore Terrace and Mare Street on either side. In the middle of the block there was a huge communal garden with no fences. They used to use it as a scaffolding yard but once the squatters came, all the houses in the fortress shared it. There was a big garage off to the side, they called it the Grey Area. Every night they used it for something; community kitchens, film screenings, talks and meetings and events. Bands would play there, mini raves that turned out to be not so mini after all. The squatters would ring up a friend of a friend who knew some guy who had a sound system and they’d drive over with speakers in the back of a box truck. The squatters would sell drinks and make a bit of money for the community purse.

Someone planted mint in the garden — that took over quick. You know mint is a type of weed? Yeah, once it lays roots it spreads like wildfire. Pops up everywhere and anywhere it can find space. What’s it called, a rhizome? Ominous portent, eh.

The council would try and take back the houses. It became a game of cat and mouse. The squatters would pop out for a bit and come back to find steel doors at the front, courtesy of Hackney council. Annoying, but not the end of the world. The council had to go through the courts to issue formal orders, they’d have to do it properly with bailiffs and paperwork and all that. So they only were only able to do evictions one house at a time. If the squatters came back to a welded door, they’d go through the house next door, hop over the fence in the garden and kick the steel doors down from the back. They’d put expanding foam in the alarms to stop them from ringing. The toilets were in the garden and there was no central heating. But they’d wire up the electric so it was on the fiddle. Dyou know any electricians? They all know how to do it. Hardly any of them pay full price for all their electrics. Clever that, isn’t it. Perk of the job.

It grew and it grew. There were 120 of them all living on that block eventually. One big community made up of lots of little groups. The houses all had different characters. One house was women only, men couldn’t even pop over for a cuppa. There was a Troskyite house, a Marxist house, a house for all the Anarchists. I guess they were all kind of Anarchists, in a way. A house full of doctors, one full of teachers, dancers, dispatch riders. Fucking loads of students. There were a whole bunch of them from the LSE — nowadays they’re all the sons and daughters of diplomats from somewhere or the other, but back then the LSE was full of fucking radicals, up for anything.

Yeah, it was an interesting time. The block was full of people with interesting ideas, radical notions about how to live a life. And they were all testing it out. They didn’t have to pay rent because — obviously, it was a fucking squat. No bills because of the fiddled wiring. There’d be a van that’d go off to a bakery down the road where someone knew someone. They’d pick up a haul of free bread every morning and drop a loaf on everyone’s doorsteps. Every week the same van would go up the Holloway Road to the supermarkets, they’d dive through the skips and bring back free food to give out if people wanted it. There’d be big cook outs in the yard. Plenty of them lived in a way that meant they never needed or even handled money. So they didn’t even need jobs then, did they? They could break away from the traditional way of doing things, supposedly total systems of power. There are loopholes everywhere if you know how to look.

Loopholes are great for artists. There were so many fucking artists. Back to this photographer fella though, because that’s where he lived. Right by the railway line east of London Fields, on 17 Ellingfort Road. I met him at his kitchen window. He was at the table drawing a centaur, the head was modelled on Lenin. I mewed until he let me in. Good access, that’s what it’s all about. He’d been there since 1990, maybe 1991 — he wasn’t sure. I guess the years all blur into one when you’re having a nice time. And he was. He loved it. Loopholes, remember?

I’d ask him about it and he’d say it was important to be bored. He found he often was, for days or weeks on end. Sounds quite luxurious, doesn’t it? Weeks of boredom. But boredom was a way into art and making. Boredom was the trigger for weird and interesting things. The creative process. Ridiculous projects that had no hope of ever making any money. But because of this money-less way of living, it wasn’t a problem. He could just spend a year on something with no plan or prospect of ever getting anything back from it.

Funny that, isn’t it. In this world of stray cats and pond life, creatives that never create anything. I reckon that’s what all those yuppies are missing. Desire and the void that calls desire into being. Yuppies take and take but never quite clock that making starts with feeling an absence. You need to want. Boredom, dead time, the void. Making art is a desirous act. You can’t really desire in a city that’s still. Same shit, same barrel.

The photographer, right, he found himself chasing all sorts of ideas down dead ends. He’d immerse himself for days, devoting entire circadian cycles to the dark room. There’s desire for you. The squatters were all at it. Dancers and musicians and sculptors and whoever. Doing whatever they wanted to do just because they wanted to do it. They could just pick up and go wherever they wanted. Get a van and drive off. Spend a month in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin. The squats east of London Fields were linked up with squats in other cities, so people could just turn up and get on with things.

I remember asking him, wasn’t it chaotic? The lack of permanence, security, the constant threat of the council and their bailiffs looming large over your shoulder. That must have an impact on you, or on your creative practice at the very least. Evictions are brutal. I remember in 2012, or was it 2013? They changed the squat laws and it became a criminal offence. You might’ve seen it, they send in the vans and the dogs. I’m a hard nut to crack, I ain’t scared of much but I can’t lie, dogs are the only thing that can put the fear of God in me. But this fella, he’s amazing. Dyou know what he said to me? He shrugs, goes it’s hard to say. Obviously it’s not nice coming back to find all your stuff on the street. Clothes, camera, negatives, all that work and the accumulated stuff that comes with living. Hard to feel like that could just go missing at a moment’s notice. But it’s hard to say what life’d be without that ebb and flow. And can you honestly tell me there’s a difference between that lack of permanence and a normal tenancy? Six or twelve month contracts, picking all your stuff up and putting it in a zipvan, moving from mouldy houseshare to mouldy flatshare. You know what they say about London, don’t you? You’re never more than six feet away from an estate agent. There’s always some idiot trying to make money out of you. We’re all precarious, none of us have stability. The squatters had a sharper view of it, but they also had a bit more control over their situation. That’s what it was. They had autonomy.

Hard to give up that autonomy once you’ve had a taste of it. It’s addictive. You get hooked. This photographer fella said he was offered the chance to buy places dirt cheap. You know, back when Hackney council couldn’t give away those Broadway Market houses, two grand a pop. Bet he kicks himself, you’d have a bargain if you found one for two million now. But why would he ever give up the autonomy? Why buy a place, no matter how cheap, when you could just squat it for free? Why bother being part of the system when you can have literally everything you want through other means. And you’ve got to! To make a creative life work, you’ve got to bend the rules a little bit. If you follow the rules, you’re doomed to repeat what came before you. You risk becoming a pastiche. No, artists have always had to destroy what came before them. They’ve got to rebel, got to stick two fingers up at the old boys and say FUCK IT, FUCK OFF. Otherwise it’s just rubbish. Otherwise you’ll never have the space and freedom to do it your way.

I guess you’re wondering what happened to those houses. It’s 2039 — 1991 was an awful long time ago. Well, towards the end of the 90s early 00s, Hackney Council got serious about evictions. Lots of those houses down Ellingfort Road and London Lane were coming up on twelve years of continuous occupation by the squatters, which would mean they could take it through the courts and get right to remain. Darling, that meant they could keep them. Every fourth house or so was like that, so the council had to kiss goodbye to the idea of knocking the block down. Kick up the arse for them, if nothing else. The squatters had to get organised, and nothing galvanises people like an adversary, eh.

All those artists, dancers, musicians, doctors and teachers pitched in in whatever way they knew how. This photographer fella, he was interested and invested in this way of life. It gave him a lot. He had a whole bunch of photos of people at home in the squat. Just in their living rooms and bedrooms, playing table tennis down in the yard, writing on a typewriter in front of a bay window. Sounds silly, but it was important to humanise the whole thing. Camera as gun, imagemaking as affront, eyes and lenses and access. The government and the council, they’d have you believe that evil squatters were on their way to steal your house in the middle of the night. The boogeyman lurking round every corner, yelling SQUATTERS RIGHTS as they crowbar their way in through the back window. They forget that these houses were derelict, that the neighbours were glad to see them, that these were people, Londoners just living their lives. Fundamentally they forget that everyone should have a place to call home, a space for their clothes their camera and all that accumulated stuff that comes with living. Every single fucking one of us.

What’s it that woman said? Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own. She put it politely. Maybe if we put it like that, in their terms. Called it French Situationism, called them flaneurs rather than squatters. Nah. Not all of us have the patience to ask nicely. Is it evil to tell people in power to fuck off? God help me. If that’s a crime, lock me up.

Anyway, these squatters. They worked with some campaigners who’d done the same with some squats up in Manchester — you know that crescent up in Hulme, round the corner from the Hacienda? No? It’s very famous. Birth of house music, very much tied to squat culture. The squatters east of London Fields had to form a housing co-op, because back then the council wouldn’t even talk to you if you were a squatter, let alone negotiate with you. They did end up saving the houses. They had to trade maybe ten of them on Ellingfort Road and give those back to the council. By that time Hackney council had a bit more cash. They got some nice architects in to turn those into live-work units, proper nice. They sold them recently, the listings were up on the Modern House. Wonder how many millions those went for, eh? Easy come, easy go. But it meant the squatters, now the housing association, could keep hold of the rest of the block. They didn’t have to have some corporate landlord or Hackney council telling them what to do. They still had their autonomy.

Hard to give that up once you’ve had a lick of it. I understand it. They’re still there. Good for them. The only artists left in London, the loneliest Lonely Londoners stranded on their island in a sea of chrome. Now it’s 2039 and everywhere east of Angel is part of Olympicopolis. The place is crawling with yuppies, pond life drifting in and out of luxury new build flats, factory floors converted into studios and lofts. I remember when the first one went up, I thought to myself who the fuck would want to live like that, still surrounded by all this fucking squalor? Don’t I feel like a prick. What’s it, someone sprayed up on that wall in Hackney Wick — from shithouse to penthouse. That was divine poetry.

We should’ve seen it coming in 2011, when Tottenham burned and they sent those kids down for life. Life — for smashing a window, for a pair of trainers. I guess it’s always been the same, Tyburn tree or Starmer’s all night courts. Wasteland and railway lines to this. The city’s had the industrial machine set loose on it. Vans and dogs chased the good old boys all the way down the river, out past Wapping way and the barrier, where the Thames meets saltwater and the tide. I hear rumours they’re in the tunnels. Whole city set up all over again down in the dark, living as they once did next to the plague pits and dead tube stations. People say you can catch a glimpse of them when you’re Underground. When the Southbound lines pass each other between Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters, or when the District line turns the corner into Aldgate East. You can see the last tribes of London dancing under string lights, hear them singing the old songs.

They’ll never run them out the city. It’s not in our nature. I reckon it was a Londoner that first told someone to fuck off, and we’ve not stopped. Been saying it ever since. William the Conqueror couldn’t hammer our walls down, so I don’t know what makes property developers think they’re anything special. You can keep your shit and your barrel. It’ll be your lot packing up the Top Cuvée tote bag and running back to Fuckinghamshire. I’ll wait till then. Cat like me, with my one good eye? I’ll see the artists return. I’ll welcome them with open paws.