London, August 1994: the revolution is imminent. The odds seem stacked against it: the police, the law, the education system, the media — the whole damn capitalist superstructure, but all it takes is one spark, one flame. Believe me. It is going to happen.
This, at least was my mindset as I hauled my dog-tired body across Leytonstone in search of a bed for the night. A connection in the SWP had offered to put us up for a long weekend whilst we attended the party’s annual ‘Marxism’ conference. We were heading for Claremont Road- a whole street of squats that had appeared sporadically in the media as the focal point of the growing ‘Anti-Road’ movement. None of us were really sure what to expect.
I don’t remember much about ‘Marxism 94’. To be honest, the creeping cynicism that would see me leave the party a year or so later was beginning to take hold of me even then. At one point, a mob of us stormed into the London School of Economics and drove Chancellor Kenneth Clarke off a podium. My friend J. got a little emotional and burnt Clarke’s speech; I took the remains home and stuck them up in my loo. For the most part, however, it was your typical Trotskyite bash- there’d be discussions, someone would get angry in front of us and shake their fist a lot, we’d all nod sagely and agree that Rosa Luxemburg was right. Claremont Road, however, stayed with me for a long time.
Picture Sesame Street as reimagined by Guy Debord and the set designers for Apocalypse Now and you’ll have something of an approximation of what the site was like. The street itself was cluttered with furniture (an outside living room), a zebra crossing that extended over a bifurcated car wreck and into the sidings of the Central Line railway; a giant chess set with tyres and hubcaps for pieces. In amongst this children wandered like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, dub bass throbbed, threaded with the thick odour of skunk. In one of the houses we stayed in, every inch of the place had been daubed with slogans and outsider art.
The area had been a focal point for squatters and artists since the 1980s, but by the 1990s, as the powers-that-be claimed the land for the projected M11 link road extension, and all but one of the original residents had been pushed out by purchase orders, Claremont Road had evolved into a place where the very fact of residence was intensely political. It may have looked like an all day party, but what these people were doing wasn’t in any sense easy. The Criminal Justice Act of 1994, with its infamous ‘repetitive beats’ clause, had largely been presented in the media as a crack down on the illegal rave scene in Britain. In fact, the act also represented a wholesale attack on dissenting culture, making squatting well nigh impossible, bullying travellers, limiting the right of protestors to assemble and granting heightened stop and search powers to the police. In this sense, Claremont Road was a defiant, two fingered salute to the ascendant forces of conservatism.
In retrospect, the M11 protestors seem to me to be part of a long line of English dissenters, going back to the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers of the English Revolution in the 17th century. All of these groups were Millenarian in nature: they believed that a perfected state of mankind was achievable on earth. Much as us socialists like to pretend otherwise, we’re really no different. If you subscribe to the dialectic then you must believe that history inevitably will lead to worldwide proletarian revolution. The link road protestors were ideologically diverse: anarcho-punks, green hippies, Trots, sometimes just mainstream, middle-class types who’d decided that this was a cause worth fighting for. However, it seemed obvious that Claremont Road was a paradise in continual construction, underpinned by the principles of collectivism and shared responsibility. This was the real world. Everything else outside was just insane. Given half a chance, they’d have made the promised land.
However, just as Millenarianism implies a messianic belief in a promised utopia, it also comes with its own eschatology, the knowledge that somehow these are the ‘end times’- annihilation is just around the corner. All of this was graphically apparent in the architecture of Claremont Road- beneath the Situationist playfulness, this place was a fortress: rope netting stretched across from the roof tops to the tree line opposite; a look-out tower had been extended, impossibly high, on a house at the end of the street. Inside the houses, the protestors had devised multiple ‘lock-on’ points that would allow them to attach themselves physically across the chimney breasts, forcing their evictors to pull the whole place down, brick by brick, before removing them. If you wanted confirmation that the end was nigh, one rooftop featured a makeshift gallows: we were informed in no mean terms that someone intended to hang them self when the goon squad arrived.
Similarly, much as the protestors used an argot riddled with gently ironic hippy code (sabotaging the road-builders’ machinery was known as ‘pixieing’, non-violent resistance was ‘keeping it fluffy’), the air was charged with a well-justified paranoia. This was heightened by the fact that the Road protest also functioned as a sanctuary for the damaged and the fugitive. Amidst the smiles and the jollying on, you couldn’t miss the odd character who wouldn’t meet your gaze and who rarely seemed without a can or bottle in their hands.
They did their best. On one day, we took part in one of their actions, gleefully running rings around construction site security guards until the cranes and diggers were brought to a stop. On the next, we stood powerless as a pensioner was carted out of her house of over half a century and into an ambulance, a faintly embarrassed line of riot police protecting her evictors.
All of this tension, this paradox and contradiction, runs deep through Paul Hawkins’ bleakly beautiful book for Influx Press: Place Waste Dissent. Hawkins was a resident of the road from 1990-1993, and on one level at least, the book functions as a narrative-verse memoir of his time there, though this hardly does justice to its creative verve and invention.
Given his history, he can hardly be blamed for pinning his colours to the counter-cultural mast in his introduction, defining his book as a ‘cross-disciplinary collaboration of avant-garde poetry / collage’ against what he sees as ‘conservative mainstream poetry traditions’. Virtually every page of the book is stamped with left-field credentials: Gee Vaucheresque monochrome montages of photos, police documents, agitprop fliers and eviction notices circumscribe and blend into the verse itself. Oddly enough, this is a book with damn fine production values, even down to the high gloss paper it’s printed on.
Many of the images are deeply affecting of themselves, not least because the faces staring out of them have been caught in a brutally ephemeral slice of history. Everywhere is the sense of something intimate, squashed up to the lens and faintly scary; excised or buried beneath the weight of modern memory.
As I hinted above, dissent has its own traditions, as does the poetic avant-garde. The jaded half of me sees a lot of the techniques Hawkins employs as part of a rather croaky underground lingua franca. People who read this sort of stuff (and I do) will find themselves on familiar territory. Expect Bob Cobbing palimpsests, cut-ups, MacSweeney diatribes, huge chunks of unpunctuated text and cataracts of noun phrases that virtually collapse on your head like falling rubble:
“peeling wallpaper damp walls scummy carpet kids clothes scattered all over the hallway and bannisters over the front-room”
However, Hawkins never seems to use formal experimentation for its own sake. This, after all, is a work dealing with fragmentation in many senses- physical, political, personal — and the ends in this case perfectly justify the means. He’s also got a flair for punkish kennings (‘skip-junkie’) and that puts him in good company with Caedmon and the Beowulf poet.
Towards the end of the book, there is a palpable sense of language burying and consuming itself until only an undifferentiated aggregate remains:
“also funded the smartening / up of a clock tower in / Lea / Bridge Rd funding is lost on retail theatre”
I’m reminded of a snap shot from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch: ‘They are rebuilding the city… yes… always”, except here the apocalypse has a dreadful social immediacy. Hawkins never lets you forget that what was destroyed in this little London reinvention wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but human lives and human memories.
In fact, the two most affecting sections of the book are expressed mostly in a relatively conventional manner. In one section, Hawkins takes on the voice of Dorothy Watson, the pensioner who steadfastly refused to leave. It’s a defiantly unadorned monologue, recounting her history back to London’s blitz years, the isolation of her winter years (‘the days / pass / like Russian dolls / folding into each other’) and the new community that coalesced around her and who made the street a perpetual ‘Coronation’ day street party.
Elsewhere, Hawkins charts his own breakdown due to alcoholism, a terrifying episode in which he and his partner are savagely repaid for their kindnesses to a stray teenager and the descent into paranoia as the evictions begin and police infiltrators slip into the street.
It’s a book that deserves to be read, and certainly beyond the counter-cultural audience that it will immediately attract. As Alice Nutter (she of Chumbawumba fame) intimates in her foreword to the book, much as the M11 link-road protestors faced an inevitable end and an inevitable failure, they changed the world for the better. Exponential road building ceased to be a major part of Governmental policy.
As I write this review, the House of Commons has just passed a bill to begin a bombing campaign in Syria. The protestors have been out in force Parliament Square. More end times. More new beginnings.
Paul Hawkins is a Bristol based poet who has been a musician, squatter, tour manager, freelance journalist, gardener, improviser, collaborator and manager of an Elvis Presley impersonator. He studied the art of sleeping standing up and drinking lying down with nearly disastrous consequences; last count he’s moved on average every eleven months but only ever owned one tent. He co-runs Hesterglock Press and has had two books published, Claremont Road & Contumacy (Erbacce) and you’ll find his work in Maintenant, Quincunx, The Morning Star, M58, Rising, Stride, The CUT UP! Anthology as well as other magazines, sites, walls and ‘zines. He currently collaborates with Portuguese text artist Bruno Neiva under the guise of Servant Drone.
Peter Boughton lives in the East Midlands. His work featured in two anthologies in the 1990s (both entitled Five) with Chris Jones, Matthew Clegg, Andrew Hirst, Tom Roder, and Adrian Head. Currently blogs @ pboughton45.wordpress.com