Squatting for real

I have a confession to make. Despite the veneer of environmental concern and despite the affected counterculture pose I have cultivated over the last few years of Co-op shopping, free-range quail egg relishing, and organic salmon-mousse-blini nibbling Epicureanism, I’m not actually all that green.

As things fall out, viz. expire, it transpires that there are people out there who regularly and viscerally undermine my self-righteous foodsourcing primacy. There are but few reading this esteemed publication who will ever delve into the transgressively moral realm of skipping, but, for the sake of journalism, I herewith present the fruits of my recent dumpster-hopping  gourmandise.

I have another confession to make. I myself have never eaten from a skip. Proceeding with less art and more substance, I will begin by recounting my first contact with a skipper, whereupon I will digress into some interesting thoughts on the political and social implications of this lifestyle.

Last September, I arrived in London hungry and alone, with nothing but the promise of crashing at my mate Nick’s in SE1. A shower and a shave later, we hit the street with the intention of hurting people. Or fighting injustice at the very least. We were joined by a friend of Nick’s, Marco Ferducci, who spelled his name “F for freedom”.

A free-spirited third year at the South Bank University, Marco identifies as “broadly Leninist”, and has never lived in student accommodation. Arriving from Milan in 2007, Marco was instantly attracted to the adventurous life of squatting and joined a commune of likeminded individuals that occupied an abandoned house which “no one could be bothered renovating”. From the sight of it, neither could its new ‘tenants’. Marco was quick to explain that his comrades tended to come and go in six-month stints, making him feel “a bit like the institution itself”.

But institution is something the gang had little time for—except where covertly destabilizing it was concerned. Nocturnally navigating the dangerous back alleys of the metropolis on a rickety DIY contraption Marco had assembled out of scrap pieces at the stolen bicycle market off Brick Lane, I began to contemplate the nexus of commodity, frisson, and political insurrection at the heart of much nonconformist activity.

Might not such thrill-seeking conduct be conceptualized as merely another facet of the selfish capitalist ethos it allegedly deflates? How was this any better than the parade of boho chic yuppies one might find in the tapas bars of my native Kreuzberg, or the kaffir scarves and Che Guevara tees one unfailingly encounters at a Magdalen summer barbeque, quietly proclaiming the victory of capitalism over counterculture iconism? [Future employers: I’m massively into capitalism.]

Abruptly torn out of my pedestrian reverie by a near collision with the Clapham omnibus, I discovered that we had reached the evening’s destination: the skips behind an M&S petrol station. Destroying any notions of romance I might have had about bin-probing, Marco rolled up his sleeves and dove in, unceremoniously lobbing sundry plastic-wrapped food items at his new accomplices.

With a wary eye for tramps, rats, and the police, I nevertheless found time to interrogate Marco on his methodology and motivation. Adventure, he sternly declared, had long since been relegated to the proverbial trashcan of his soul—this was war, and bloody, routine trench warfare at that. Paying £1 for an individually wrapped aubergine at Morrisons, he observed, “is shit … although if it was really nice I would pay for it.” His preference, incidentally, lay with Waitrose, although for vegetables and fruit there was no place like the New Covent Garden Market between 1 and 6 am.

From folksy pixie actions, via the suffragette movement of the early 1900s to present day guerrilla gardening, what social theorists call ‘direct action’ has always played an acceptable and shaping role in British culture. PMs have been quick to realize and misappropriate this Guy Fawkesian streak. Most recently, David Cameron has found himself in the paradoxical position of advocating compulsory grassroots involvement in his Big Society, and, for several days in the beginning of May, Gordon Brown tried his hand at squatting.

One more confession. For all my cynicism about the attention-seeking nature and hidden hierarchies of activist organizations and about the ease corporate identities have at exploiting politically correct messages for commercial gain—consider Cadbury Dairy Milk’s condescending claim that “we love Ghanaian farmers”—there is something inherently heartening about proactive individuals like Marco.

There are certain moral reservations to be had about the antidemocratic side of direct action, and I have aesthetic misgivings about some small-scale insurrections. I will frown at tasteless graffiti but buy the collector’s edition of Banksy’s latest. You won’t find me eating from a bin, but I will certainly hold your coat for you while you do it.

Call it revolution redux, but I’m sticking with quail eggs.