The rooms were slowly colonised, though the interior walls- if you can call them that- only rose about 10ft off the ground, leaving a huge gap between the high vaulted ceiling, allowing sounds, lights and inanimate objects of all varieties to pass over them. it was a lesson in the meaning of 'privacy'. I set about building my room out of the wood and plastic sheeting lying around the house- possibly the only time in my life i will be able to build my own room. after christmas i nailed the branches of the christmas tree to one wall, and smelt the pine sap each night as i watched the leaves slowly turn brown over 6 months.
the 9 or so months in that place were wondrous in so many ways. our communal skipping missions yielded treasures- one night we dined at 2am on 2 roast ducks with all the trimmings, fresh from the bins of waitrose behind old street. the bottom floor filled itself with bikes (and, by the end, a motorbike and arcade game) and tuesday morning was bike workshop morning. the english teacher, who we used to engage the local immigrant community to learn english, stole one of them one day and was never seen again. 2 or 3 bands practiced there using max's drum kit. we began to hold benefit nights, stretching the borrowed PAs with all types of live music. the only gig of my unnamed dream band was played out there. local activist groups held workshops and meetings there.
and, oh, the people that passed through! from every place, for every reason, they were all given a bed, a rolly, and invited to outline their lives and loves in the many and various sofas that swallowed people, stories, days... there was italien lorenzo, who came with his girlfriend and brother and claimed he was writing a book, even though he couldn't have been more than 21 (the book, in italian, later arrived and featured a potted history of the space). A whole gang of australians slept on our floor, got arrested for graffiti and went to prison, came out and recolonised the floor. our friends and lovers popped in and stayed for weeks, sometimes months. another italiean, this time an old man, came to a party one night and then just kept being there, not saying much but passing round a little top quality hashish every night- apparently he was escaping the rainy season in some far off land. seed-banker mohit, chinese-medicine graeme, silent piotr, lizzie, sebilio, jah steve... pretty much everyone who needed to stay cut a pair of keys, found the lightswitch in the toilet and stayed.
And then, after maybe 9 months, inevitably, we got the eviction notice. from a Mr Lamb, who live in surrey and wanted us out not because he wanted to do anything with the property but because, allegedly, he couldn't insure the place against fire whilst we were in it. We sent him a letter with photos of how nice we had made them place. he ignored it. we went to court and lost, but the solicitor indicated there was a potential for us to pay a nominal rent in exchange for living there. the arguments for and against are clear- for: an amazing place to live for a nominal rent. against: buying into the system of owner/occupier and therefore implying that it is ok for someone to have a piece of paper saying he owns a house without actually living in it and thus make a profit. our camp was split, but the decision was made pretty swiftly- our morals held out and we did not contact lamby. whilst i would have contacted him and at least found out his offer, even at that time i could see that some of the belgrade magic was wearing off- the parties were becoming less benefit parties and more profit-driven raves full of coked up shoreditch twats who thought that squats were places to be disrespectful and chaotic, rather than other other way round. some of our core members had already left, and others were talking about finding somewhere quieter. on the day the baliffs were due to come around 30 of us stood outside the gates. the look on the baliff's face as he checked the address on his piece of paper and realised that the building he wanted to evict was the same building as the one with all the scruffy hippies outside was priceless. he left without talking to us.
but we knew that was only a temporary victory and a small crew of us found a beautiful new spot a few streets away and moved out shit out of there.
The place quickly refilled. The ground floor was dominated by a gang of australians and their friends, whose signature was the intense smell of spray paint as they (very unartistically) painted over all the beautiful graffiti on the bottom floor. The middle and top floor was a mix of some who had remained and a load of freshmen and women from SOAS, with great intentions but not necessarily the practical experience of maintaining a community. We heard vicariously that a gulf had opened between the residents, that there were no meetings (ours had been infrequent but had happened and had been democratic), that people were stealing each other's, and the neighbours' stuff. Greg took it upon himself one day to take the cooker out of the kitchen and give it to a friend, ripping the heart out of the house and pissing many of us off royally. A couple of people increased the frequency and mashed-upness of the parties there- they were raves by now- killing off any of the sympathy that our neighbours may have had for us (at the last party there one of the neighbours threw and egg at me as i walked in). Things were falling apart in a most unedifying manner.
And then the second eviction notice came, for 7am on a tuesday. some of the people who lived there at that time asked some of us old residents to be part of a meeting to strategise a resistance, but they came home frustrated that people just didn't seem that bothered about resisting.
But there was no way that we could let belgrade road be evicted without a fight. we sent a text around that said something like 'tomorrow 7am attempted eviction of belgrade road. tonight 7pm free dahl, live music and resistance building. bring a sleeping bag'. celeste and skye made a big old pot of food and i found musicians happy and willing to play... we gathered and played-(myspace.com/emilyfchurchill , myspace.com/louisajones myspace.com/theobard were some of them) drank, argued about the wording of the banners and ate until almost dawn. it was a magical night.
and at dawn we found the baliffs waiting for us at the gate. we streamed out bleary eyed, holding coffees and hangovers. i watched the baliff try not to look alarmed as more and more of us streamed out of the house, maybe 30 in total, and then the gates were abrutply slammed shut and locked.
it was a cold morning. a few police arrived, were briefed by the baliffs, shown the high court order and looked up at our banners. more police arrived. some of us were still in the building, hanging out of the window. 'how many of you are there in there?' the police asked '3000!' our friends replied from inside. more police vans arrived. those of us who didn't want to or couldn't be near the police stood on the other side of kingsland road and kept watch, agitatedly. we played some music. the police gave us their final warming/plea- if we didn't move now, the riot police would come. as a unit we laughed at them and they got on their walkie talkies. the road was blocked off. a stream of police vans and cars arrived- 14 in total. from round the corner came around 20 riot police, the ones with circular shields, forming a line directly in front of us (at this point dougal, the guy taking the photos, was taken away by the police.). more police took up positions on the adjacent roofs. our banners flapped in the wind. the police gave us one last ultimatum. we catcalled. the riot police moved in and we linked arms, some sat down, others braced themselves against the gate.
it was all over in a couple of minutes. they pulled us away, detained a couple, and used the biggest pair of lock cutters i have ever seen on the gate. we watched as they failed to break through our reinforced steel gate, and instead smashed a hole in the wall, just like at the arundale arms. we then watched as another group of riot pice, these ones with riot shields that streched from head to toe, went into the house, clearing the washing machines and fridges that lay on the stairs as they went.
the last and perhaps best scene of that day, perhaps the whole time at belgrade road, was photograped by mast. it shows several pairs of legs under duvets, cups of tea on the table, and 10 or so riot police, looking alien and ridiculous, lined up against our back wall with some of the life drawing photos- us naked in various poses- behind them. it is beautiful. apparently the first cop had run into the room but got his shield stuck in the door frame and had had to turn to the side and shuffle in... a few weeks later the last of the plastic flowers had disappeared from the gates.
so that is the story of belgrade road, which i don't think it would be overegging the pudding to say represented a great deal to a lot of people and helped the activist community in london in many ways (the shopping trolley pirate ship of the 2009 G8 protests was assembled and set sail from belgrade road). Ed told me i should write down a little of what happened in that place and that time, and so here it is.