Monday 5 October 2015

Reflections on the recent eviction of Runnymede Eco Village

Runnymede Eco Village, which evolved peacefully on a few acres of steep, muddy, dilapidated woodland for more than three years, achieving an initially positive legal ruling in the High Court in June 2015, before losing a subsequent appeal in early September, was finally evicted, seemingly without notice and with a quite shocking but regrettably common degree of force, on the morning of Wednesday 16th September 2015.
 The alternative community had its roots in a land rights campaign called Diggers2012 which sought to highlight the deeply unequal nature of land ownership in the UK. They did this by reviving the spirit and tactics of the historical Diggers of 1649, also known as the True Levellers, a millenarian group created primarily by a former cloth merchant named Gerrard Winstanley. Along with a small group of like-minded people, Winstanley had sought to “make the earth a common treasury for all” by occupying wasteland at St George's Hill in Surrey, building rudimentary structures and sowing vegetables, and inviting all to come and join them. We know about their ideas because, living as he was in the early days of the free press, Winstanley was also a very active pamphleteer.
 As is so often the case, the eviction of Runnymede Eco Village demonstrated the disregard that some bailiffs seem to show towards persons and personal possessions. No attempt was made to spare even the beautiful 16th century-style longhouse that had served as the main communal area for the community for example. Part of me always felt that, even if the residents were one day evicted, the longhouse could still have provided an interesting curiousity, either for visitors to the woods or for future residents at the top of the hill, but perhaps this was a naively hopeful expectation.
 The reality of what actually takes place during evictions of this nature is a disturbing reminder of what is required to create the “blank slate” necessary for more profit-oriented forms of development to take place.
 This may lead some to wonder if the surplus time and energy required (to destroy organic communities and protect private profits) is really worthwhile. Whilst property owners, or aspiring property owners, may think it is, and their attitudes may be shared consciously or unconsciously by those who accept the norms of the dominant culture without question (as being somehow "the best of all possible worlds" or simply "our way of life"), those with different desires may beg to differ, as the poet and former Runnymede resident Ben Cheal explains on his blog.

While there have been some attempts recently to address the issue of land rights north of the border in Scotland, given the increasingly authoritarian nature of the current Conservative administration, it remains a challenge to put forward issues of land redistribution on a national level in the rest of the country. This is not to say that there aren't people active in those struggles however, merely that such activity so far remains very grassroots.
 Prior to the creation of Diggers2012, for example, some of the chief protagonists had staged a one week occupation on part of Clapham Common in September 2011. Land and Freedom Camp, as it was called, was an attempt to highlight many of the same issues later raised by Diggers2012.
 The temporary nature of the Land and Freedom Camp may offer a more endurable model for future land rights campaigns, one that would perhaps circumvent the trauma commonly associated with evictions. Of course, for those more interested in pursuing an alternative lifestyle than campaigning exclusively for land reform such a shift in tactics may require a larger adjustment as they are forced to adopt a more nomadic life. However this may turn out to be not without its own appeal. It is worth remembering that nomadic, hunter gatherer societies have often demonstrated a remarkable longevity and environmental sustainability compared with more settled civilisations.
 One thing that becomes apparent with many fixed communities which come together in a spirit of protest is that the longer they persist the more the focus tends to shift over time, as different people come and go. This is less so in the case of occupied spaces like Faslane Peace Camp or Grow Heathrow, which have both maintained very clear campaign goals (against nuclear weapons and airport expansion respectively) over many years. In the case of more anarchic communities like Runnymede Eco Village its three year existence saw the focus of the community shift, as older members of Diggers2012 left and younger campaigners from the Love Activists group moved in.
 The Love Activists have been specifically focused on the related issues of housing and homelessness, which has been exacerbated by PSPO's (Public Space Protection Orders, which are used by local councils to criminalise homelessness and begging) and increasing gentrification, both symptomatic of the short-sighted focus of many politicians who remain intent on catering to the disengaged prejudices of the middle and upper classes.
 The Love Activists group first drew media attention for their short-lived occupation of an £80 million, grade 2 listed, offshore owned, former HSBC building in Charing Cross on 20th December 2014. This was part of their 'Homes Not Banks' campaign, a form of creative direct action intended to open the empty building up to the homeless of London for unconditional food and shelter. Undeterred by an eviction on Christmas Eve, they maintained a street kitchen on the pavement opposite the former bank well into the following January.
 The “hippies” who are focused more on stepping out of mainstream society often remain a persistent presence throughout such long-running protest camps, based as they are around maintaining an alternative community, a model of the kind of egalitarian world many of us might rather build for ourselves given sufficient time and space. The same could be said for many of the artists and poets seeking the freedom to create in a space where the pressure of money no longer holds sway.
 When the Runnymede Diggers were eventually evicted they carried the distinction of having maintained their peaceful occupation for twice as long as the historical Diggers of 1649. The group's community page on facebook had attracted over 1,800 likes and the community had a distinct culture of its own. While some evicted residents apparently held out in a disputed patch of woodland between the now enclosed, derelict campus site to the south and the National Trust-owned Runnymede Park to the north, other former residents have already hit the ground running.

The Four Seasons Community Cooperative, whose new community page attracted 136 likes in its first two days, held its first open meeting on Sunday 20th September 2015 at the newly occupied Oast House Adult Learning Centre in Staines, a council-owned property just along the River Thames which has apparently been empty for more than eight years. The current intention is to “pave the way toward a transition network” in the Staines area, and they have already launched a 38 Degrees community petition to Staines County Council, in an attempt to have the building they are presently occupying designated an Asset of Community Value.
 Those keen on campaigning on the front lines for a fairer system of land rights and more affordable housing, as well as those simply seeking an alternative, more liberated and ecologically sustainable life, will most likely roll on, come what may, learning skills at each new occupation. What I find most inspiring is the practical DIY approach and respect for individual freedom and autonomy at work in these spaces, together with the awareness that despite the violence of the eviction, the spirit of Runnymede will very likely be carried far and wide, the seeds needing only a little bit of fertile ground to grow. 
Anyone interested in learning more about the full spectrum of campaigns for a fairer and more sustainable distribution of land in the British Isles (or WISE Isles, if you will) may be interested in following the work of campaign groups like The Land Is Ours or the magazine The Land. 

Amended: June 3 2016

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Zine Making Workshop in West London - Sunday 9th August

Anyone who likes the zine reviews I post sometimes, I just found out about this upcoming event from Transition Heathrow:

A zine drop-in workshop with OOMK. Participants will be invited to use various templates and collage materials to create their own future city zines to take away. There will be zines on display for participants to draw inspiration from.

Suggested donation – £2

Grow Heathrow, Vineries Close, Sipson, West Drayton UB7 0JG

Sunday 9th August, 13:00


OOMK is a highly visual, handcrafted small-press publication. Printed biannually its content pivots upon the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women. Each issue centres around different creative theme, with more general content exploring topics of faith, activism and identity. Studio OOMK is a design studio that specialises in bespoke booklet design, project documentation, exhibition design and live illustration. The studio is run by Sofia Niazi (illustrator and educator), Heiba Lamara (researcher) and Rose Nordin (graphic designer). Previous clients include the Museum of London, Southbank Centre, 3FF and the Migration Museum.
Other Asias challenges preconceived notions of Asia opening up new configurations of space, thought and discussion. We provide alternatives to corporate/NGO representations of Asia with cross-community and inter-continental discourse enhancing local and international knowledge distribution. Projects include exhibitions, plays, film screenings, talks, zines and performance work. Hamja Ahsan is an artist, activist, curator and Director of Other Asias. Helena Wee is an artist and curator. Fuad Ali is a researcher and creative producer.

Monday 22 June 2015

Commoning and Commons Rising

"Gentrification" is a term used to describe the process whereby a previously low rent neighbourhood sees a shift in the core demographics of its population, usually driven by a combination of factors, including increasing numbers of affluent, middle class professionals moving to the area, pushing up rents and providing the economic basis for a more consumer-driven local economy. Other factors usually play a part as well however, not least among them may be decisions made by local councils to make planning decisions which deliberately allocate more land for the construction of luxury flats and none for genuinely affordable, social housing. The result of this process is what many people have described as a kind of 'social cleansing' in which indigenous members of the community find that they can no longer afford to live in the area and are eventually forced to move away.
This process is simply the end result of what happens when individuals, businesses, and government, simply accept the individualistic, acquisitive nature of capitalism as a given. It isn't, of course, and the predominance of this way of life hasn't stopped committed groups of people coming together to build alternatives. It simply makes it a bit harder.

There's always alternatives, often difficult but always worthwhile
What are the alternatives though? I have always been keen on searching out practical examples of living alternatives, in the hope that I may find a kind of reverse process, a "de-gentrification," an attempt (to borrow an old legalistic term) to un-enclose the enclosures of an increasingly privatised world, a world of individuals and nuclear families, competing against each other in increasingly gated off communities filled with surveillance cameras and private security guards.
Sometimes groups of people band together to live communally, not so much like a student residence, but like an extended family, sharing meals and resources, and offering practical and emotional support to one another. But if you are still paying rent to a private landlord you remain subject to rent rises and lack control over how you maintain your own property, so some people form housing cooperatives, becoming their own landlords. The Sanford Housing Co-op in New Cross, south east London is a good example of a large project which has been around since the 1970s. Of course, unless you have a large sum of capital to begin with, you will likely still have to deal with banks and building societies though.
Other approaches are more radical still. Squatting dis-used land is an old practice which challenges one of the very fundamental assumptions of capitalist life - the nature of private property. It is a   practice that has made possible community centres like the Bonnington Cafe in London's Vauxhall, played a significant role in protest movements, and led to the creation of entirely off-grid communities like the threatened Runnymede Eco Village in Surrey.
Of course, living together in a shared house with shared resources, whether by forming a housing cooperative or by squatting it, is really only one manifestation of a broader trend which has had many different names over the years, but which increasing numbers of people now choose to call "commoning" - a handy term which describes the process of either reclaiming the old commons, or creating new forms. 

The most effective approach seems to be to build stronger, more resilient communities, capable of protecting their own interests. A good example may be the way residents of the villages to the north of Heathrow airport have worked together to oppose a third runway, which would have meant the destruction of their homes and communities. The key to their success lay in the very broad-based nature of the campaign. While the locals fought for their homes, environmental activists set up community protection camps in the area to create hubs for the local community whilst highlighting the negative consequences for the climate of expanding the airport. The first of these was the Camp for Climate Action, soon followed by Grow Heathrow, which remains to this day. Even the inhabitants of neighbouring wealthier boroughs opposed the expansion on the grounds of increased noise pollution.

During May, following the general election result which returned the Tories to power with a slim majority (a party seemingly committed to destroying all alternatives), I found it quite rejuvenating to be able to pay a visit to the community of my colleague Earthian in the east end of London, just prior to his setting out on the latest leg of his peace pilgrimage, advocating for world peace and a world without borders. Three months into their latest occupation of a surprisingly clean and modern former primary school, the community were having an open day with talks and music, including one given by a speaker from the group Commons Rising, which has helped clarify and give structure to a wide range of different projects I had discovered over the last few years, and many I had not.

So what is the commons and commoning?
Put briefly, the commons (or 'commoning') is a term we can apply to anything that involves ordinary people coming together to create something which serves a communal need, rather than someone's personal profit. In the commons, the only rules are those that ensure everyone profits. But rather than being a form of charity (where the 'haves' give to the 'have-nots' and thereby uphold an essentially unequal relationship) in order to build a true commons, our basis must ideally come from a feeling of equality and solidarity, of shared struggle and shared interests.
Manifestations of commoning does not even need to exist in physical space, like a housing co-op or community cafe. Online projects like Wikipedia and the Internet itself are good examples of the commons taking other forms.
For more information, check out: 

Amended: June 28th 2015

Friday 19 June 2015

Two Zine Reviews for the Price of None

In this post I will be offering you a brief summary of not one but two zines.

Why two zines?

Primarily because both deal with the same subject - veganism (or vegan tourism) - in the same way, by creating what are both witty and informative little guides for vegans trying to find places to eat in two very different UK cities. Also because I'm quite lazy and its easier than writing two different posts.

The first of them, A Vegan Guide to Newcastle, which has been put out by, I found in the great, zine-friendly, independent comic shop Travelling Man (its actually an expanding chain, but still a very small one at the present time), during a recent trip to that city in the north-east of England. The zine is comprised of mostly descriptive passages of text, but is greatly helped by the many simple yet realistic pen drawings of the places featured. Sadly, I only had time to check out two of the places mentioned in the zine, but I was not disappointed. Both the Settle Down Cafe and Tea Sutra had great service and a chilled out vibe, while the food in the first was amazing, the choice of herbal teas in the second was quite frankly overwhelming. You would need to live in Newcastle to be able to sample everything!

I am going to overlook the terrible pun in the title of the second vegan guide: TimeSprout: A Vegan Tourist's Guide to London, because while the artwork is not as polished, it is written in a far more entertaining style, is attempting to cover a far larger city (except the west end, which the authors admit they don't know as much about), is lovingly bound with beautiful soft string which gives it a handmade quality which reminds me of my wife's aesthetic tastes, and if that weren't enough is being produced with the help of the folks at Footprinters and Active Distro as a benefit comic for the Green and Black Cross. GBC is a 100% volunteer grassroots group who have been around for five years, and who provide legal support to activists working on liberatory social change (the combination of factors is so right-on it hurts!)

If you are looking to connect with a more ethical life through the prism of a lively, grassroots DIY culture what more could you ask for than these two amusing and informative little zines?

Thursday 18 June 2015

Book review: Wonderful Copenhagen

I would recommend anyone reading this to find a copy of this graphic novel by Danish creator Adam O for the stunning full colour artwork alone. However, I am conscious that to do so might be doing a dis-service to the powerful themes the book explores.

The story is SF/Fantasy, but more in the tradition of authors like John (Day of the Triffids) Wyndham than Aldous (Brave New World) Huxley or George (1984) Orwell. For this reason I am not sure if it is right to call Wonderful Copenhagen 'dystopian'. I think 'post-apocalyptic' may be a more useful term, because in the time period when the story is set the dystopia (our own ecologically fragile, surveillance-ridden world) has already passed. We only see this world through the flashbacks of the principal (in fact, the sole) character. Without wanting to give too much away, I will say that Adam O proves quite masterful in the way he explores the potential dangers of increased repression by a technocratic state with beautiful, and in some aspects disturbingly believable, attention to detail.

An added plus side to spending hard cash on buying a copy is that the proceeds from the English translation (available in the UK from Active Distribution) all go to Haven Books to Prisoners, a shoestring charity which buys books for people who are studying in prison.   

Thursday 14 May 2015

Zine review: Morgenmuffel

I cannot believe I have not mentioned Morgenmuffel, which for more than a decade between the 1990s and very recently, has chronicled the life of its creator Isy, a German-born anarchist, and her experience of life, love, friendship, political activism and DIY culture in the UK.

There is a humanity to Isy's work which is as beautifully honest as it is by turns angry, impassioned, funny and, at times, heartbreaking. In 2009 many of the main stories from Isy's early zines were collected in book form by Last Hours as Diary of a Miscreant. The collection runs the gamut from anti-G8 protests and climate camps to mini-rants about things that annoy her (everything from periods to the gentrification of Brighton, England, a place which long-term followers will know I'm very familiar with). I found the most personal identification in shorter pieces of hers like "My First Big Demo" and "Bovine Encounter," as well as the title itself, which is apparently derived from a German word for a person who do does not like waking up early.

If you're lucky you might find a few copies via Active Distribution of London. Age, life events and a downshift to a rural co-op means that Isy will be producing Morgenmuffel far less than previously, but I hope more will follow soon, together with a fresh print-run of Diary of a Miscreant.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Zine Review: animalus

I recently discovered a copy of another zine by Carrie MacKinnon, which was lucky because her website appears to be down, and Active Distribution appear to have sold out of copies (I can only hope there will be more soon as this is a brilliant little zine).

Unlike the heart-rending tales of migrants in Aminullah, another zine by MacKinnon that I reviewed here last year, the focus of animalus is animal rights, and the end result is a zine packed with stories that use the logic of science fiction to make us think about things in a completely fresh way.

The zine is also packed with useful information for veggies, vegans, raw foodists or anyone concerned about the sources of our food or the ingrained assumptions that often go with it. It is angry, impassioned and thoughtful.

From a creative perspective, by far the strongest story in animalus is the title story "when we were cows."

It is my hope that by creating a record online through this review I will in some small way help to foster demand and a new print-run will be out soon. For the time being, if you want to find a copy yourself you could get in touch with Freedom Bookshop in London (where I found my copy), Active Distribution or Footprint Worker's Co-operative who printed it.

Update: Her website's new URL is

Friday 10 April 2015

Positive outcome for Runnymede Eco Village in court

Activist-blogger Phoenix reported a "major victory" for the folks down at Runnymede Eco Village yesterday, as court has been adjourned until a hearing which will now most likely take place in early May. It seems the Judge recognised some aspects of European human rights law, but I do not know the details as yet.

Having visited the eco-village myself, met some of the residents and seen their beautiful and very unique dwellings for myself, I remain inspired by what can be achieved by ordinary people working together with little more than scrap, an area of dis-used wasteland and some basic construction and horticultural knowledge at their disposal.

As with some recent successful examples of eviction resistance at Yorkley Court Community Farm and Grow Heathrow, news of the adjournment also leaves me optimistic as it demonstrates the efficacy of keeping squatting a civil offence, where it can remain subject to negotiation between land owner(s) and occupier(s) rather than criminalisation and the rule of force.

With spring now fully in bloom, what better time is there to visit a truly unique community while you still can? Come and meet, connect with and support the endangered species of hippius rainbowfamilias. Come to Runnymede Eco Village.

One love x


Thursday 26 March 2015

There is hope for the homeless of London...just not in Parliament

A brief overview of some of the positive things happening in London recently.

It has been an inspiring sight to see such an upsurge of activity around the issues of housing and homelessness in the UK over the last few months. For the time being, most of this work has been happening entirely at a grassroots level, and (so far) only in London. This makes sense, as London is by far the most expensive place to live in the country, and is rapidly undergoing a process of being transformed into little more than a playground for the super rich, a process our elected representatives seem all too happy to facilitate. It is worth noting that even high ranking members of the Labour party have spoken repeatedly, not about achieving meaningful and sustainable economic justice, but about being “intensely relaxed” about the idea of people becoming filthy rich. No wonder voter turnout is so low!).
To a certain extent this is an inevitable by-product of leaving basic human needs like shelter to the whim of unregulated market forces, something that all of the mainstream parties still accept without question. Naturally most people who own even the smallest bit of property in London don't mind anything that contributes to the hyper-inflation of the property market as long as it makes them “feel richer”, but for a growing number of people on medium-to-low incomes (those who do most of the real jobs) or on little to no income at all (the unemployed, sick, under-employed, especially those trapped in zero hours contracts) this evolution is turning London into a city increasingly difficult for ordinary people to live in.
It was a pleasing surprise therefore when the residents of estates like the New Era Estate in London's east end fought back (and won) against the council's decision to sell off their homes to a private developer. These examples of self-organised working class action have lit a fuse which has sent sparks flying through other communities in the city, inspiring others to get organised and preserve working class homes against the threat of creeping gentrification of poor, ethnically-diverse, working and lower middle class areas.
As I touched upon above, local councils in London, no doubt driven by the prospect of being able to charge higher rates of council tax, have been entirely complicit in this process, happily arranging the sell-off of publicly-owned land to private developers whilst completely ignoring the thousands who languish on council waiting lists. They make small, token concessions to what remains an urgent and growing need by merely requiring that developers provide a handful of 'affordable' homes in any new development of over-priced luxury flats.
We can see how this approach tends to work out in practice if we consider the case of 1 Commercial Street in Aldgate. In a throwback to the old, two-tiered Victorian 'Poor Doors', the developers have created a separate entrance for social housing tenants to an alley around the side of the building near the bins. The wealthier, private tenants and owner occupiers get to use the more luxurious front entrance, complete with chandeliers and a concierge service, without having to suffer the indignity of rubbing shoulders with the proles.
The Aldgate/Whitechapel area has always been a predominantly working class area, with a large, ever-shifting immigrant community and has always had a very vocal and well organised community of libertarian socialists who have formed the backbone of resistance to this particular luxury housing development, organising weekly protests every Thursday night since last summer, in which they block the posh doors with their banners. Sometimes the police turn up to protect the wealthy inhabitants and find themselves forced into the position of having to form a cordone which serves to block the doors anyway.
The problem with pricing ordinary people out of the market is that if you can't afford to pay private rents or to commute from the outskirts of town everyday there is a very real risk, with benefits cuts, that you will simply be forced onto the streets. This is why the parallel upsurge of activity by and for the homeless, which occurred around the holiday season, is so desperately needed. This activity was mostly centred around the actions of grassroots groups formed of primarily homeless people (and some Occupy people too) like the Love Activists, who occupied the empty, former HSBC building in Charing Cross to highlight how many buildings there are in the city sitting empty while homeless people freeze on the streets, subject to increasingly harsh measures like the notorious anti-homeless spikes, designed to discourage rough sleepers (and fortunately removed after a large public outcry).
Following their eviction from the former HSBC building some members of the Love Activists created the Homeless Kitchen London, a form of DIY self help/political action which operated throughout much of January, culminating in the March for the Homeless, and an ongoing occupation of the derelict Aylesbury Estate in south London. Another March for the homeless will be taking place in London on April 15th, whilst occupations by threatened residents like the one at Sweets Way estate in Barnet continue.
With related campaigns to protect the musical culture of Soho from a kind of cultural cleansing, there is clearly a great deal of popular energy among Londoners to fight for our immediate housing needs and protect the unique cultural heritage that has made this city so much more interesting and vibrant a place to live in than deserts of steel and glass like Dubai.
Unfortunately, it remains a depressing fact that, despite there being so much grassroots activity going on against the transformation of London into a vapid and soul-less yuppie playground, and even with a General Election on the horizon, the pressing issues of housing and homelessness in London are nowhere on the party political agenda. This clearly demonstrates how divorced the majority of politicians are from the needs of the people they are supposed to represent, but perhaps also how desperately we need to build new, more genuinely democratic and representative institutions that can protect the interests of ordinary Londoners more than the old trade unions and political parties ever did.
When it comes, it will come from those very people who are beginning to prove that when we organise together we can win important victories for ourselves and our communities, with or without political representation.