Dear reader - I write this blog as an ex-londoner. Despite regular visits to the capital to see friends and family, I haven't lived in the capital for more than two months straight since I left in 1999. My description of Camden culture in this blog is based upon my regular visits to the neighbourhood over the years. There is a strong possibility that Camden has a vibrant, hidden cultural scene that has passed me by. I sincerely hope this is the case and I invite anyone who can counter the assertions made in this blog to get in touch. I will publish your comments in full, or you can simply leave a comment below.
Early in 2014 a group of circus artists, performers and other creative types squatted an abandoned leisure centre in Camden Town. Le Squat Sportif was open for about 6 months, providing cultural and community activities, sports events and workshops for the local people. I first heard about this space from other UK squatters who excitedly told me about the warmth and friendliness of their events and I eventually got round to visiting them with my camera in June.
In July I got an email saying that they were about to be evicted and inviting me down to their closing party.
When I got to the party they had already had a couple of unfriendly visits from the police and had agreed there would be no bar on site. I walked into the sports hall to see 400 people sitting quietly on the floor watching a girl reciting witty, political poetry (including an ode to the woman in the job centre, and a squatters adaptation of Blake's 'Garden of Love'). Over the course of the cabaret we were treated to contortion acts, juggling, theatrical pieces, acrobatics, incomprehensible performance art and fire dancing. A number of the people onstage were performing for the first time and it was wonderful to see the talent that was being nurtured, supported and presented by the squatting community.
At around 11pm or midnight the performance on the ground floor finished and the party moved into the basement (for sound control purposes, to avoid upsetting the neighbours). Two DJs got the energy flowing and the dancefloor filled with hula hoopers and poi acrobats filling the space with spinning glowing colours and flashes in the dark.
Word came down that the police were outside again and wanted to shut the party down. An agreement was made that the DJs would stop and the police went away.
So the compere who had been keeping the cabaret flowing upstairs, stepped up to the mic accompanied by a violinist and started beat-boxing and singing, building up complex tunes with a loop-station. The party continued. People danced and sang and clapped along. There was a cheerful dedication to keep the energy and togetherness alive and to meet whatever difficulty arose with creativity and positivity (words that are often misused, but were embodied in that beautiful evening in Camden Town). I got he impression that if the police had cut the power that night, the party goers would have pulled out some candles and guitars and carried on acoustically.
For me this evening was especially moving and inspiring as it seemed to symbolise everything that was missing from Camden Town, the place I grew up.
In the past 30 years I have watched the creeping cultural death of this neighbourhood as creativity and independence slowly got squeezed out of the way by money. All those generic 'camden' shops becoming more and more interchangeable every year and clinging on to a concept of cool that was defined by outcasts in the 1970s and early '80s. The appearance and gradual dominance of the big brands, and the living costs ever rising, until the punks, artists and students that made Camden Town a world famous cultural attraction were priced out of the area. Their genuine creativity being replaced by a commercial pastiche that can be mass produced, packaged and sold like any other commodity.
The event at Le Squat Sportif had to be smuggled in to Camden Town. There is no place for it in this shiny plastic world. In the basement of a squatted building, up a little alleyway, by the bins, behind the supermarket, constantly threatened by the police, there existed an evening of playful creativity and cultural expression. The most genuinely cultural evening I've seen in the neighbourhood in years. There was no puking, fighting, posing or dress codes. No-one tried to sell me anything. Everyone was welcome because we were people, not just transportation devices for wallets. This blatant integrity was an anathema to the way things are done round here.
The squatters have now been removed to make way for a property developer who intends to build some flats.
A lot has been written about the human cost of the London housing crisis with low-income families driven from the capital, away from their roots, their support networks, their homes. Rising homelessness and housing insecurity hitting more people every day. London workers finding themselves pushed further and further out of the city centre as rents move ever further from their reach. As London property is treated as an investment opportunity by the internationally wealthy looking for a safe place to store and grow their money, the buildings themselves are often left empty, bricked up, their functions as places for people lost, while newcomers to the city sleep 15 to a room.
A city is not just bricks and mortar. The city is it's people. It is the people and their unique lives and identities that define the different urban neighbourhoods and invest them with their own distinct characters. London is in danger of losing it's soul as it drives away the artists, musicians, dreamers, performers, families and small communities that make it such an interesting place to live. The buildings are turning into empty mausoleums attractive only to investors. The city sucks in the wealthy and the ambitious and spits out the rest.
At least those exiled can comfort themselves that they take the living character and the beating heart of the city with them.
A small sample of Images I shot at various European squats this Spring / Summer.
Celebrating the beautiful colours of squat life.