I Fear it’s a Little Camp
Friday Ephemera

Answers On a Postcard, Please

The Guardian’s Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – she of the ill-fitting hair - asks, 

Are we too selfish to live like hippies?

Herself a child of what she generously terms “communal living” – specifically, an “Islington house furnished from skips” – Ms Cosslett allows her mind to drift back, way back, to the heady days of the late Twentieth Century:  

My memories are faded but what remains is a picture of a happy, lively household whose ethos was not so far removed from times when children were raised by communities, not individuals.

A faded memory from childhood, when people are generally much less discerning, is perhaps not the soundest footing for an approach to housing policy. And hey, what parent wouldn’t want their child raised collectively by a shifting pile of misfits, losers and unemployable hippies? Or as Ms Cosslett puts it, rather romantically, “art students from Berlin, Portuguese musicians” and, naturally, “miners during the strike.” Yes, all this, and in an environment where six layers of wallpaper – a historical record of sorts - gradually detached themselves from damp plaster walls:

Though the conditions weren’t great, they paid £11 a week rent... Low rents (or if you were squatting, no rents) enabled people to work in the arts, to create music (I was sampled on a Madchester dance record, aged three), write literature and paint. 

And working in the arts – I suspect the term “working” is used here loosely – is more than reason enough to squat and not bother with humdrum details like permission or paying rent. That such freewheeling sentiment is less fashionable than it was saddens Ms Cosslett. And so boilerplate ensues:

Our political apathy, our materialistic obsession with property ownership, our disinclination to pursue alternative lifestyles all explain why communes and squats are in decline... Walking through Park Crescent the other day, past impossibly grand houses with their dark interiors… I felt an incredible sadness. It is the disappointment at the abandonment of an experiment… Imagine what you and your friends could do with a crowbar, a guitar, a few sacks of lentils…

And someone else’s property.

I’m convinced that witnessing how resources, material and intellectual, could be pooled at such a young age has shaped me as an adult… Communes represented a different way of being – sharing the cooking, the cleaning and the childcare was not only practical but also beneficial to the wellbeing of the members.

Readers who as students shared a house and cleaning duties, in theory at least, will no doubt testify to the practicality of this approach and the lofty hygiene standards that invariably resulted. Now imagine those high standards applied to parenting and childcare.

Readers may recall Ms Cosslett’s Guardian colleague Owen Hatherley, a former contributor to the Socialist Worker and self-described Marxist, who shared with us his belief that making vaguely alternative pop music is all but impossible without an Arts Council grant, a subsidised spell at art school and a suitably bohemian squat. The same Mr Hatherley who wants us to share a toilet and kitchen with people we may not like, and thereby “look beyond our obsession with private space.” And we mustn’t forget another Guardian contributor, Alexander Vasudevan, a lecturer in “cultural and historical geography” and “cartographies of protest,” who wishes for people schooled in “radical politics” to “seize and reclaim” your property as a “potent symbol of protest.” That’s reclaim as in forcibly transfer from you to them.  

Update, via the comments:

It’s perhaps worth pondering Ms Cosslett’s conceit that squatting and “communal living” are somehow the opposite of selfishness. Rather than being - as illustrated repeatedly in the comments - a license for freeloading, theft and irresponsibility. Which is to say, selfishness writ large. It’s also interesting that Ms Cosslett’s professed hippie ideal – the thing that prompts yearning for the use of a crowbar - is an “impossibly grand house” on Park Crescent in London. Such romantic gushing is less often directed at the possibility of squatting a rundown terraced house in the less glamorous parts of, say, Burnley, which could be bought outright for five grand or less. Hardly a stretch for half a dozen people who want to pool their resources and pursue “alternative living.” But then a squat just isn’t rah unless it’s in a rather expensive part of town, preferably in London, where the squatters can feel superior to the suckers paying mortgages.