England’s Mean Unpleasant Land
“I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”
– William Blake
That’s the first and only word in Polish I’ve learned. It stood out for me, sounding like the Turkish word for “frog”, and hearing it used so frequently by the young Polish squatters I’ve been sharing premises with for the last few months since I met a couple at a London Crisis Centre for the Homeless at Christmas which was giving free hot meals over the period.
I was sleeping in a cardboard box in a street in Camden Town at the time, and they invited me to move into a squat they had just opened in nearby Kentish Town, a former Pizza Express, originally built in 1927 as a university assembly hall. A handsome spacious building, it had hot water and toilets, a kitchen and fridge, and life was comfortable there. I had my own space in a tiny locker room, to which I would retire and listen to the radio with a cup of tea after I returned from a day walking round London, usually laden with thrown-away food I’d picked up for the kitchen, and other useful or interesting stuff I’d found.
Unfortunately we were evicted from that place a couple of weeks ago and have moved lock stock and barrel to a squatted pub, the Rosslyn Arms, in Hampstead, a much more salubrious neighborhood. The premises, however, are far from luxurious. The walls of the building had been stripped inside, dirty dusty bare floorboards, no toilet but a hole in the floor in the cellar, no electricity but candles. Rather than pass the first night in the gloomy dankness I decided to spend it under the stars on Hampstead Heath. I took a sleeping bag and a big plastic mattress cover as a tent, wended my way through the dark park and pitched camp under the branches of a tree. The air was fresh and the silence, apart from the singing of birds, was very peaceful. It wasn’t cold, and I slept well.
At 8 am I was sitting up having a smoke before going for a walk when I saw a uniformed policeman and woman approaching me over the grass with an alsatian on a lead. The dog began barking. I said “Shush!”
“Don’t tell the dog to be quiet,” said the stern faced young policewoman.
“I merely said “shush”, I said.
“Don’t tell the dog to be quiet,” she repeated.
The policeman asked me what I was doing there.
I told him I’d been deported from Turkey, where I had been living in Istanbul for 27 years, had arrived back in England last year homeless and low on funds and was now living hand to mouth in a squat. I said I’d inquired about housing and benefits but been told that I was not qualified, having been out of the country so long, was not on the Priority List, and/or had to have proof of having lived in the area for 6 months.
“Did you sleep the night here?” he asked, getting out a pen and notebook.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You have committed a criminal act. I’m going to give you a warning.” He wrote. “Name?”
I told him, marvelling at his cold, officious manner.
“Date of birth.”
“Why do you need that? Checking to see if I’m a terrorist?”
I refused to give it. He got on his cellphone and talked to someone, mentioning my name. There was a pause, then he chuckled.
“I’ve got it,” he said.
“Don’t be too sure. I’m not the only Michael Dickinson on the planet,” I said as I got up and gathered my things together.
“It’s illegal to sleep out in this area. Don’t do it again. This is a warning,” said the P.C. handing me an orange piece of paper. I refused to take it, and walked off with the tough trio staring after me.
Regardless of their warning I did sleep out again the next night, in a more sheltered and secluded spot in the middle of the Heath, and woke to leafy sunrise and birdsong. Later I sat smoking on a bench and watched troops of dedicated serious-faced joggers panting past, and wealthy people taking their dogs for walks, or vice-versa in most cases.
On my third night sleeping out it rained and my plastic covering leaked and I got soaked. Luckily somebody was up to let me in when I staggered back to the squat at 4.30 am. Since then I’ve been sleeping indoors on one of the mattresses strewn on the first floor. I’ve built an igloo over mine with a clothes- horse draped with a big black and red silk anarchist flag I discovered in a street in Istanbul, and it’s cosy with the blankets and pillows I’ve found on my tramps through the streets of London, along with a Chinese carpet and Persian rug to cover the rough wooden board floor. The rest of the squat is squaring up too. There’s now electricity for music, TV, and computer games on big screens for devotees downstairs along with a created mini kitchen with fridge and cooker, and a proper toilet which you flush with a bucket in the back yard behind a rigged up screen. No more need to wait until the nearest public conveniences are open! Sad thing is, though, the owner of the pub recently took us to court and won his case to have us evicted, claiming the premises (empty for over a year) was ‘residential’ property. We’ve been given 3 to 4 days to vacate the premises, but I doubt if they would enforce an eviction over the Easter holidays.
I’m out most of the day walking, usually as far as the Houses of Parliament and back. The paving stones and even the road surfaces of London along the way are thickly freckled with dark and dirty grey marks. It’s astonishing when you know what they are. The other day as I descended from the relatively pristine pavement of Hampstead, and from Chalk Farm into working class Camden, I noticed their sudden profusion, splattered everywhere. I stopped an elderly lady pedestrian and asked if she knew their cause. She paused and pondered.
“The unique mosaic of London streets.. Old drips of cement?” she ventured. Then it suddenly dawned on her. “It’s… Chewing gum?”
“That’s right!” I said. You very rarely see it today, but there was a time when the streets were filled with people chewing gum and spitting it out. Then it was trodden on. This was going on day after day for years and it never got cleaned off, so now here it remains – the indelible traces of a former fad laid out before your feet!
My main way of making a living, runing, telling people’s fortunes with the rune stones, isn’t going as well as I might have predicted. The runes are stuck in a circle on a black drum cover. You think of an intention, choose a symbol and a number, then learn your answer. Whenever anyone asks the price I say “50p minimum.” I’d had quite a brisk business in the streets of Istanbul with the gregarious, inquisitive Turks, but in London (apart from occasionally being moved on by officials) I’m hardly noticed as I sit patiently plying my trade on my little campstool, sometimes wearing a wizard’s hat and sunglasses for effect, on the South Bank, in Trafalgar Square or even Piccadilly Circus! So many people bustle past without a glance, their minds preoccupied. Many are foreign tourists, and few people recognize the runes.
Actually, foreign tourist have been my best customers. A couple of weeks ago I walked across town to Portobello Road, having been told that the Friday Market there would be a good place for business, but by the time I got there it was closing down. After sitting for half an hour (my usual limit in a place) and getting one customer, who gave a pound, (another, who worked in a restaurant, treated me to a hamburger,) I started trudging home. I stopped for a rest on a bench in Hyde Park and put out the rune circle next to me in the vain hope. A quartet of strolling Arabs, two men and two women, stopped, interested, and the women had theirs done. Satisfied, they gave me ten pounds! And after sitting a sterile half hour in a doorway in Leicester Square a trio of Koreans suddenly appeared and gave another tenner for their results. “All for you!” Patience rewarded.
Some lucky finds have brought in needed cash. I sold two old etchings I found in a discarded suitcase to a dealer in Hampstead for 10 quid, and also a couple of beautiful framed pictures I’d found dumped under a tree to another dealer in the same area for the same price. I suppose I could have got more, but I don’t like bartering.
I keep my jacket zipped up while runing, but while I’m walking in the street it stays unzipped, very visibly revealing the words ‘ABOLISH MONEY’ in big white letters on a black T shirt I had especially made in Istanbul. That’s one of the reasons I walk across town to Parliament and back every day. I’m like a walking billboard that can’t be missed, seen by the thousands of motorist, commuters, workers and tourists I pass along the way. It’s amazing how much support the message gets. Many read the words aloud. Others say things like “I agree!”, “Good idea!” and “That’s what I think!” Sometimes people stop me, and we talk about the delightful concept of living in a money-free world and ways of bringing it about.
On Sunday afternoon I usually walk to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where I stand on an upturned metal bin and read my poem ‘Capitalism’ and discuss the idea of it’s overthrow with the audience who stop to listen. Hecklers don’t stand a chance. Last week one asked “Who do you think you are? The Messiah?” To his shock, I replied in the affirmative. And it is strange to think that I’m now squatting in exactly the same area of London where, in 1981, I declared myself to the world as the Second Coming.
On a sunny Sunday it was the London Marathon in the heart of London, sponsored by Virgin Money. I donned my ‘ABOLISH MONEY’ and marched into town, mingling with the thousands of runners and spectators and enthusiastic volunteers collecting for their various charities, playing a virtual skeleton at their feast. (I actually have lost a rather lot of weight recently.) At one point, walking along the Embankment I had a strange turn. A policeman stopped and asked “Are you all right, Sir?”
I said I was.
“Only somebody was concerned. They said you were walking backwards.”
“I WAS walking backwards.”
He left me, but I was a little disturbed. It had happened as I reached the Virgin Money arch of red and white balloons signalling the near completion of the race. I suddenly felt a kind of magnetic force that pulled me across the road and against some park railings on the other side, then I was pulled backwards, trying not to bump into anyone, until my progress was halted by a ballustrade nest to a statue of Samuel Plimsoll, the inventor of the plimsoll line for ships. This ‘magnetic’ movement sometimes happens to me after smoking the legal high I mix with tobacco. Another recent experience happened as I was walking in Hampstead when I suddenly felt myself pulled into a copse and found myself revolving like a whirling dervish, unable to stop myself until the force left me. It’s a weird feeling, and so far, touch wood, I haven’t come to any harm.
An old school friend who used to work for Social Security, hearing of my homeless plight, wrote and advised me to try again to get assistance in housing and benefits at a place in Camden Town. She advised me to exaggerate my depression as it can help to gain priority. I went there. In the waiting lounge I heard two men talking about their experiences. One had been left naked in a ward for 4 days by medical orderlies in a Home. Another had been beaten and dragged naked through hospital corridors by a sadistic official. I had an interview with a male nurse. He said he could get me an interview with a psychiatrist if I claimed depression and suicidal tendencies (I mentioned I had considered jumping off the Rock while I was in Gibraltar.). He said I’d go on a waiting list till I’d been in the area 6 months, but said he could go no further when I declined to give my date of birth.
He directed me to a nearby center for homeless people where I wanted to go to the toilet and brush my teeth. An aging Rastafarian receptionist in a red gold and green cap and hands covered with rings wouldn’t allow me in when I wouldn’t give my date of birth, and said I had to have been living in Camden 6 months.
“We don’t let just anybody use the facilities, ” he announced. I gave up. I want as little as possible to do with this mean unhelpful British social security system and “the insolence of office”. THEY make me ill.
Apart from the sandwiches and cakes I find everyday thrown out of cafes which I collect to feed myself and add to the squat kitchen, I come across so many other dumped things that I can’t resist. Sometimes they are so appropriate for my needs that they seem almost planted. For example, just recently, on totally different occasions I have found a big rucksack, a sleeping bag, and a one-man tent in a handy carrybag, all in the anarchist colors of red and black. This seems to suggest that I should be ready for the road, and if I don’t find another squat after we’re evicted from this one, I think I possibly might be.
Last night I found a long thickly quilted black overcoat with a hood, which, considering the fickle English weather, will be a very useful garment. If I do hit the road it will probably be in the direction of Scotland. In September they are voting on whether to break away from the United Kingdom. That sounds like a sensible idea. Let me out of this sad, Mammon-obssessed, God-forsaken country before they close the borders!
By the way, the meaning of the Polish word “Koorbah” that I mentioned earlier is “Fuck.”
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org