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31 July 2015

In this plutocrat’s playground of a city, it’s good to know there’s still a commune to call home

I asked my new friends if I could stay for a few days whilst my landlords dealt with a rat problem. I ended up staying forever.

By Laurie Penny

After a year of minor troublemaking in America, my bags are packed, and I’m on my way home. I’m preparing, practically and psychologically, to return to London and to my work writing for this estimable magazine. Unfortunately, it seems a lot has happened in twelve months. 

From what I’ve been reading in the centre-left press, in the past year the city has been reduced to a yawning wasteland scattered with novelty cereal cafes and unemployed liberal democrats ranting on the steps of the fairground ghost train where the Houses of Parliament used to be.

London has not so much gone to the dogs as been minced up into bite-sized chunks of real estate, resold as organic kibble and fed to the miniature poodles of the super-rich. Soho, they tell me, has been levelled and replaced with a high-end brushed concrete dispensary for regimented naughtiness, where the few remaining drag queens and reprobates, now as rare and exotic as white rhino, supervise the children of the one percent as they drink almond-milk flat whites out of a communal trough. Tottenham is completely gone, and in its place is simply a smoking crater and a giant hologram of Ian Duncan Smith’s head, cackling in an endless loop. No wonder all the liberals are leaving if they can.

Thank goodness, then, that I have a houseful of hippies to come home to. 

No matter what horrors the stiff-collared plutocracy enact on the city that I love, I know that somewhere in this neoliberal theme-park there is at least one bolthole for freaks, perverts, bohemians, migrants, angry feminists and revolutionaries to camp out and drink tea while the rest of the capital circles the plughole of socio-economic insanity.  Which is curious, because according to society at large, we are the crazy ones.

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I live with nine other people in the gutted remains of a music storage warehouse in Brent. None of us are from the area, and many of us aren’t even from the country, but we are conclusively failing at the whole gentrification thing, given that most of us earn significantly less than our neighbours, none of whom would want to live in the warehouse given the perennially harrowing state of the plumbing. 

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a filthy commune-dwelling leftist and spend my evenings plotting to bring down the nuclear family and destroy the legitimacy of the state whilst eating lentil and arguing about whose turn it is to wash up. Some people spend their early twenties searching for the right man to marry; I spent mine searching for the right commune, and I kissed a number of frogs in the process, trying out various living projects and houseshares as well as experimenting with more conventional arrangements. The first time I arrived in the warehouse, I knew I’d found my people.

I arrived on a wet Friday night two years ago. There was a party on. The makeshift housing structures had been shoved aside, and someone was handing out supermarket cookies and vodka. A nice young man wearing a pink tutu and nothing else made me an excellent cup of tea and, when I said admitted to being a radical feminist, excitedly showed me the house’s small library of gender theory, women’s liberation text and fair-trade pornography. “Where did you all come from?” I asked. “I thought they rounded you all up in the nineties and sold you to Vice magazine.”  

I stayed for breakfast, which was cooked out of the communal food store by another young man in a kimono, at which point I noticed that the women were not leaping up to do the household chores, as is the case in other communes I’ve known. Then everyone snuggled up in a pyjama pile to eat toast and watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

It was at about this point that I started reconsidering my own living situation. I’d been trying my best to do the standard young professional thing and live alone, even though I couldn’t afford it and it made me feel like something huge and nameless was slowly eating my soul with a teaspoon. However, my mold-infested basement flat, the entrance to which was through somebody else’s kitchen at a cost of only three-quarters of my salary, had just developed a rat problem. You’ve not had the real millennial London experience until a rat the size of a Jack Russell has run across you while you’re naked in bed. 

I asked my new friends if I could stay for a few days whilst my landlords dealt with the problem. I ended up staying forever.

There are ten of us here in the warehouse, plus friends, partners and a rotating cast of waifs and strays. We’re a mixed bunch, from  different nationalities, backgrounds, gender identities and sexual preferences – we even have token straight, white, monogamous man, and we love him very much even though we don’t quite understand his lifestyle and experiences. 

Said straight white man and I bond over video games. When I am feeling extremely stressed about politics and deadlines, I go to his room and ask him to explain to me what’s happening in his Civilisation 5 game while I lie on the floor with my eyes shut. In return I try to make sure he occasionally eats something that isn’t vegetarian pizza. 

We support each other according to our abilities. I’m the house hairdresser, and I can also construct a variety of cheap meals from wishful thinking and a couple of onions as long as you don’t mind that they all have the consistency of porridge. Then there’s the Australian goth with green hair down to her waist who can bake anyone’s seasonal depression into submission, the engineering graduate who builds the furniture and housing structures, the butch programmer who fixes the wiring whilst lecturing us on the history of menstrual activism, and the 6ft-tall blonde Swede who seems to genuinely enjoy doing endless household cleaning tasks in just his underwear. Nobody has yet complained.

Space is tight. A former storage cupboard has been repurposed as a crash-pad for young LGBT people in need of emergency housing. It’s always occupied. The bedrooms, which used to be offices, sometimes have to be split to fit extra bodies, but everyone gets their own door to close and a shelf in the bathroom, which, I found to my surprise, is really all I need.  

We do not have a house manifesto, as such. Instead, there’s a chart in the box-sized kitchen upstairs, just above the kettle, slightly wrinkled with steam. It’s a list of names, and beside that list is written, very simply, what pronouns residents and regular visitors prefer to use – he, she, they, ze, xe – and how they take their tea. The Tea And Pronouns chart made me aware of my own prejudices in a new way. I do not judge people who prefer to be known as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’  I judge people who prefer blueberry tea over the proper sort with the squinty eyes of unreconstructed bias. Proper tea has caffeine in it, and is brown or very occasionally muddy green. Anything else is just smelly water. But don’t ask me, I’m not a hippy, I just live with them.

Most of my housemates did not arrive intending to be part of any sort of political project. We came here out of necessity. Some of us were homeless or jobless in London, some of us were escaping bad relationships or simply looking for somewhere affordable to live. It is no secret that London, even more than most major world cities, has become all but uninhabitable for young professionals, young unprofessionals, artists, writers, entrepreneurs – all the people, in short, who make a city more than just a coincidence of twelve million people breathing the same sooty air. 

The only way my friends and I could find to buck the trend was to improvise a whole new way of living, where we pool resources and share our labour, from carpentry to cake-baking.  Imagine our surprise when we found created a post-capitalist anarcho-syndicalist utopia entirely by accident.

Somewhere in between the bathroom-cleaning rota and the decision to host queer dance parties as a community service, politics happened. It’s easy to see how it happened. When all of the things that are supposed to make up a normal life – education, a steady job, marriage, a mortgage, a pension plan – are snatched out of reach, you start to question whether you wanted those things in the first place. There are downsides to temporary urban post-capitalist living, and the bathroom queue is not the least of them. But somehow, we’ve found a way to take care of one another in an otherwise unremittingly bleak social situation. Which is the best definition of family I’ve ever found.

So I suppose I should thank the Tories for making it impossible for me to live a life I never wanted in the first place. I can’t, though, and I won’t, because the second Cameron government looks set to finish the job of hammering the city and the nation flat enough to be torn up, repackaged and sold to their friends in the financial district, and there are going to be a lot of refugees. I wish everyone could move into a fluffy commune where the kettle is always on, but there’s not enough room in the downstairs, so the solutions are going to have to be structural. It’s going to be a long, rough half-decade, and the biggest fight of all will be the fight against despair. Against meanness, and shame, and the sort of venal acquiescence the British people do especially well, including those of us in the press, which is half the reason I needed to take a break in the first place. 

The plural of anecdote is not data. But I know from experience that there are spaces where hope is still possible. Where the Bullingdon Boys in the head remain unelectable. Where the young, the weird and the poor are still allowed to dream of another way of life. Mine is a warehouse full of weirdoes in Brent, at least until the inevitable day when our landlord gets offered eighty billion dollars to gut the place and replace it with a McMansion for Sepp Blatter’s cat. As long as these places exist, I’m going to keep writing, and keep fighting, and I’m not giving up. Not yet. 

It’s good to be back.