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  • Elliott Johnson

The Argyle Street tapes [ii: Eamonn]

Eamonn was a Labour councillor and chair of the city's planning committee for many years. Before that, he was among the first to move into the Argyle Street squat. He now works with a housing charity.

If you look on the Argyle Street Facebook page, one of the funny things about it is: When was the first night in Argyle Street?

We turned up on a Friday. It was the 6th December 1979, there was about twenty of us.

After I finished university in 1979, one of the people I was living with, Rod, set up Freewheel, an anarchist bookshop, on St Benedict’s Street. It’s now the bridal gown shop. It had a meeting room upstairs. Someone said, was there anyone else in housing need that wanted to discuss taking direct action to deal with it? So that turned into a meeting. We had three meetings where more and more of us basically turned up and said We haven’t got anywhere to live, we’re sofa-surfing—not street homeless, but it’s still pretty bad. Somebody else said that there was a street full of empty houses in the city centre. By the third meeting we were saying things like, Shall we make it next Friday? Shall we all meet up at the Ferryboat at 7 o’clock?

We chose a Friday evening, because City Hall would be shut for the weekend. That would give us a lot of time to make it look like the houses had been lived in, rather than being broken into. We could say We have the right to be here. Apart from anything else, you haven’t got anywhere else for us to live, and yet you’ve got all this property, which we we are now living in! We had a whole weekend to make the houses look homely, smell of cooked food and that sort of thing.

There are people on that Facebook page who will tell you that they’d been squatting there long before. I don’t remember them being there, and the fact that I saw them turn up after we’d all moved in… doesn’t mean they weren’t squatting before, but I quite like that kind of ‘my dick is longer than yours’, you know, ‘my stay at Argyle Street started earlier than yours…’ That kind of competitive posturing is still there, and it was kind of the poison that killed the squat. You can still see it in the Facebook page: people saying Come here and say that, you know! [Laughs] I believe when the Normans landed in East Anglia, there was a load of squatters in Argyle Street, already there, kind of going You weren’t the first to come here!

There was a band called Chumbawumba, and they released an album called Anarchy. I bought the Chumbawumba album, and I got the Chumbawumba T-shirt. And I can remember being told off by anarchists for wearing the anarchist T-shirt. As someone said: I tried to be an anarchist, but it turned out there were too many rules! Let’s argue, let’s argue, we shouldn’t really be agreeing about anything!

Something like half the houses were occupied by ‘difficult’ council tenants. There was a Sikh family, and I suspect that they were housed down there to protect them from racial harassment on council estates. I don’t know that, but what I do know is that they were some of the friendliest people that we suddenly imposed ourselves upon. I really liked that family. They were lovely to get on with. There were other people there who weren’t that different from us: they’d had substance misuse issues in their lives… So it was a kind of sink estate. It was a street full of badly maintained properties, because they didn’t know what to do with the buildings, and with those tenants.

So when we moved in, we got lots of ladders, and we cleaned all of the gutters, stopped the spread of damp. We did everyone’s, council tenants and squatters alike. As time went by, we shared each other’s tools, and we removed a lot of garden fences—and often turned them on their side into garden tables. What was dividing you was now helping you to eat together: it’s a lovely symbol.

Norwich City Council was chosen nationally by the Labour Party to take Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government to court over her legislation on the compulsory sale of council housing. Up to that point, nobody could buy a council property. The legislation that’s now on the books was challenged by Norwich City Council, because something like 50% of all of the rented accommodation in this city was a council tenancy. That’s an amazing figure! Along with that, you also had the lowest rate of repairs, the fastest turnover of empty properties—it was about [the Council] being a stable landlord, providing a stable community for people to live and work and play in. And so this [council] was the one that was chosen.

So us lot at Argyle Street, kind of blundering along, squatting, you can imagine… Pat Hollis, the leader of the council, was saying, How does it work nationally if we go in heavy [on the squatters] now? Just shut up, right wing of the Labour Party, we’re gonna try and be nice to these guys.

Dave Nealson had written this letter that said, We are a caring, sharing community, and we look forward to this enterprise, and collaborating with yourselves to make our street better. It was kind of, we’ve already taken ownership of this, we’ve already created an identity, I speak for all of us. And he did! Because the numbers were small and the housing need was large, the people who lived down there all knew when to turn up, where, how long to talk, and when to shut up and move on. He spoke for the collective. And the Council did negotiate a housing agreement, and we had to set up a housing co-op with the Register of Friendly Societies, cost about £120 in those days, which was a lot of money. We were asked to pay a weekly licence fee of £1, and what was then called the rates, which was the equivalent of the council tax.

It became evident that Norwich City Council no longer wanted to pursue a confrontation with us, but rather wanted to try and assimilate us. Once that happened we got, if you like, more ‘stable’ people coming down that fancied an experimental lifestyle, rather than ‘we’re in housing need’. And that’s quite an interesting distinction in the motivation of the organism that is a communal squat.

We didn’t just form a housing co-op, we formed a food co-op. We used to buy sacks of vegetables and put them in the community centre, I think Damien referred to it—number 52, if I remember rightly, was a community house. And people could sleep in it overnight and wait for another house to become free. It was used as accommodation upstairs, and sacks of food downstairs, because it was just cheaper to do things collectively. We did form a builders’ co-op, but it never quite got off the ground. We did get a million-pound grant from the Department of the Environment to buy the street off Norwich City Council, and spend a lot of money on insulation… But central government, in the person of Michael Heseltine, opposed that. He basically said, Anything that happens in Norwich, after what they did to me over the compulsory sale of council housing—anything that happens there, you put it on my desk. And when he heard that this great breakthrough had been forged, he said, Find a way to stop them.

And the way that was found was that no public money could be spent twice on any particular building, so that whole thing had its plug pulled on it. We, as a housing co-op, had applied for that grant, and they, as the Department of the Environment, had given it. Norwich City Council loved that idea, because it would have removed a lot of uncertainty. Those properties were still wobbly, they could’ve done with a lot of doing up. The money wasn’t coming from the taxpayers, it was coming from central funding. And if we did get jobs doing the building ourselves, then it was even more prosperity, skills learned… The Council wanted it, we wanted it, but [central government] wouldn’t let that happen. We got the million pounds, and then they took it away.

That sense of failure, and if you like, expectation being raised and being dashed, is a kind of disruptive moment to any collective culture. It was all too good to be true, taking over a whole street, sixty houses… that can’t happen without things being wrong, disappointment. So that was a really important moment. Damien moved in probably a year after that had happened. I’d been there for a lot longer than Damien, from the beginning, whenever that was… I think because I’d seen that transition, of a kind of soft, caring, nurturing family turn into a kind of hard, broken, dysfunctional collection of people, a random collection, almost—that sense of loyalty and community spirit, I couldn’t see that it was there. But perhaps it’s because I’m not making the same comparison as Damien, because he was coming in that much further down the line. Perhaps I had the better years to compare it with.

We were given a two- or three-year licence to occupy the street by the council, and by the end of it you could see that a lot of people weren’t paying their rates, and they kind of outnumbered those of us that were. By then, the Right to Buy legislation was on the statute books, so the Council hadn’t got to be this ‘best council in the country’ anymore, and we weren’t the best occupiers either by then.

So it becomes a vicious circle. Once you remove tenure and security, then the kind of people that want to be in an insecure environment have got more destructive tendencies, and the kind of people that want to raise their children somewhere safe—they go. You’ve still got some women and children, but the majority are young, single men, with criminal habits and addictions, and they fund those through dealing and other crimes. People would come and score drugs on the street, and they would get ripped off sometimes, and come back with packs of other men, and there would be pitched battles! Horrible place in that sense, but great fun to be talking about!

It happened all over the country, you could see it in Manchester and other places at the time. The Peace Convoy, a kind of Argyle Street on wheels—Peace Convoy my arse! If it turned up to your town, whatever wasn’t nailed down got picked up. And if it could be burned on a bonfire, it was. You know, it’s what we did. It’s what we all did. And we thought that if we could use the veneer of resistance, and it being some sort of radical political movement, then we would. But it wasn’t really, it was more selfish than that. If you’re on benefits of £25 a week, you’re not looking to the future.

The song ‘Anarchy in the UK,’ the way that its first lyric, the first word is ‘I’. That is it, that’s Margaret Thatcher, it’s ‘I’. It’s all about what I am, I don’t give a fuck what you are! I’m telling you what I am, what do you mean you don’t fucking like it? That’s Margaret Thatcher! It’s the Falklands! It’s Argyle Street! It’s Johnny Rotten! It’s… horrible!! [Laughs] It’s not about looking to your side and seeing who’s there, it’s not about putting your arms around people, and finding out how rich it is to hold each other, and to share with each other, and to love each other. It’s about I! Yeah, I’m so touuuugh!! Aren’t you, Margaret? [Laughs]

There were rumours that there were firearms, but again, people would use pickaxes and things like that. I had an axe, you know, domestic tools, you can use these things. Baseball bats, you can find it in anyone’s house. And people were more ready to take them out and brandish them. They were more trigger-happy without the trigger.

Squatting at the time was a civil, rather than a criminal offence. It’s since become criminal. And if you could demonstrate that you had lived somewhere for eight years, without being challenged—and that’s the important point—then you could say, No, I own this! And it is quite a lovely ancient Magna Carta-type thing, isn’t it? We used to talk about squatters’ rights—which there probably were, but they’d be civil law at best, common law more likely, very hard to prove, and kind of getting wiped off and written back in the statute books. So the Council, if they hadn’t challenged us, could have lost the whole street to us, if we’d occupied it and could prove we had done so for eight years. But by going into negotiation about that licence to occupy, that already stymies that. Mind you, individual houses on the street could say, I’ve paid nothing to the Council for rates on the street or for the licence agreement, I’ve never paid a penny, so I really am a squatter! I don’t think they’d have ended up getting away with it, but they could say that.

There was a guy who claimed that he wasn’t living in Argyle Street, he claimed that he was living over the road in what was then the scrapyard, that’s now luxury housing at the foot of the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge. He claimed that was where he parked his van, and that it was his for eight years. The land was worth half a million pounds. The owners of the land took him to court and they proved he’d been living in Argyle Street: You know those years you said you were in your truck living on our land? Then why were you signing on at Argyle Street? Case closed, case dismissed, whatever. The cheeky chappy didn’t get rich.

other. There was graffiti that said ‘Fight the council, not each other’! Again, the anarchists… Another slogan: ‘The co-ops are softies’! Which we were! So it was both: there was antagonism towards each other, and antagonism towards strangers, people in uniform. It was paranoid! [Laughs]

We used to steal barrels of beer from Norwich Brewery, which was on King Street. And that would involve getting fairly tanked up to begin with, and maybe three or four of us going up to the gates of Norwich Brewery late at night, and a couple of us standing outside the gate with our hands up like that, and maybe two of us running into the yard, grabbing a barrel, lifting it up over the gate and dropping it into the hands of the guys on the other side. We got good at this! And you’d roll the barrel down King Street towards Argyle Street. Someone would put on the record ‘Psycho Chicken’ by Weird Al Yankovic, which was a skit of ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, and wherever that record is playing, that’s where the barrel of beer is. So people would come with saucepans and take three or four pints home with them. And allegedly—I didn’t see this—but when the demolition contractors, when their ball and chain hit number 52, the community centre’s gable wall, all of these barrels that had been stored in the attic avalanched out. If it’s true, it would’ve been lovely, and if it isn’t true, it’s hilarious, isn’t it? The beer was fair game, it wasn’t nailed down. And who gets hurt? We do! Our livers get hurt. And wouldn’t you want your local brewery to lose a lot of beer to keep those guys pissed? Because when they’re sober, that’s when there’s trouble. And as far as it goes, free electricity—fair enough, but if you could give them all free television, wouldn’t that be great? Cos they can rip off the electricity, couldn’t they rip off the TV? These days, of course, they could. But we didn’t really have televisions in those days in the same way that we didn’t have cameras. Everyone carries a camera, now, don’t they? George Orwell got it wrong: the government doesn’t provide that, you go out and pay for it yourself! We’re all filming everyone. The fact that we didn’t have televisions, that probably made us stronger and last longer.

We had hi-fis and musical instruments. There was a song that was always playing amongst the guitarists called ‘Friend of the Devil’ by the Grateful Dead. You may have seen me singing it on YouTube. There was usually three or four guitarists, Paul Bandy, Boring Andy. They’d just be doing that song. And if you were to have an Argyle Street film, they’d be some kind of Greek Chorus in the background, sitting in somebody’s garden or on the play area at the end of the street knocking out that Grateful Dead tune. Live music was definitely a thing.

The Guru Maharaji [Mahesh Yogi] set up a sanyassin religion, that was quite popular all over East Anglia, and there was a contingent of people dressed in orange that were, you know, white middle-class Westerners, living in Argyle Street, dealing dope, and so on. They had a band, an electric rock band that used to play quite well, sort of Hawkwindy type music.

I think we had so much sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, it’s surprising so many of us lived as long as we have. We didn’t know what a condom was, nobody knew what AIDS was, and there was no Hepatitis C, as far as we knew. It’s amazing that more of that didn’t happen. There was an awful lot of sex, and therefore an awful lot of babies shortly after that. It was the natural thing to do. Of course it was an alternative, transient society—there were a million reasons for particularly dads to abandon women in a situation like that. But it didn’t matter in a way, because there were so many people looking out for each other and after each other. Childcare was a given!

We had our own pool team with the Maltsters! When the Maltsters were coming to play your team, at your pub… there were deals being done in the toilet, fights in the car park, girlfriends getting chatted up… Your pub got really hit when Argyle Street and the Maltsters came and played! We had lots of away matches in other people’s pubs, but not many other pub teams came to play at the Maltsters. So that tells you, there was an identity.

People did have jobs. There was a guy that used to weld, he had a mobile welding workshop in the back of his truck. He’d been on the street since ’79, so he wasn’t part of the Peace Convoy. People would bring him work down to Argyle Street. A lot of us did, I held down a job, I was a road sweeper for Norwich City Council. I squatted and started work for them on the same week! A lot of people went to the Skill Centre, which was next to the old Mile Cross rubbish dump. It was basically where you could learn carpentry, bricklaying, those kinds of skills. Those kind of people would get work and use the pay to move out of Argyle Street: it would be a stepping-stone. Not to turn their back on that community, but to let someone do what they wanted with what was no longer something that they needed.

I moved out in 1984. I moved into what was called a cluster unit in West Earlham, and that was kind of me showing that I did not need to live in Argyle Street any more. I did used to go down there a lot. Not just to score, but because I had friends down there that were always fun to see! You know, you’re always gonna have some fun down there! And certainly whenever the last night was, I invited myself to join in with things there.

They sent in a fleet of massive Pantechnicon vans… the amount of stuff that people had would’ve fit in the bloody drivers’ seat of one of those trucks, let alone the whole shebang… A lot of us turned up on the last night, not even in protest—more a kind of ritual, a cleansing, something like that. We sat round this bonfire all night, and again there was arguing, blaming, fighting…

I don’t know what the last track played was! [This is a reference to people in the Argyle Street Facebook group questioning whether Damien was actually there on the last night, and asking if he could name the last track played.] I do know there was a lot of ZZ Top. One idiot tried to throw a propane gas cylinder on the bonfire, and that turned into a fight, as did many other things. It was something about defiance, and wanting to be there.

As the dawn came up, and the press and the council and police arrived, from there it went fairly peacefully. Some guys did do some mockup violence for the media. When you Google ‘Argyle Street Squat’, you see a picture of a bloke in a German army helmet, clutching a cudgel and kicking in a car. You’ve probably been told, that’s John, it’s his own car he’s kicking! That’s why it’s so perfectly framed. It’s kind of, [Laughs] I’m ready for makeup, are you ready for me? Lights, camera, action, aaaand… KICK! Did you get that? Oh, I’ll do it again! [Laughs] When people try and say, Aren’t I naughty, look at me, they can’t see how embarrassing they are. And yet the most embarrassing image, is the defining image…

Image courtesy of Archant.

After I left I became a volunteer for a drug and alcohol project called Ferry Cross, and I did believe that the experience of living in Argyle Street for five years taught me an awful lot about addiction, the effect that it has on mental and physical health. To me, that was more education than my degree, and I did want to harness it. And working in a charity… that was the only drug and alcohol service in the county at the time! In those days, if you needed to get out of prison and avoid going straight back on the gear, then Marian would put you up in one of her houses, that’s what happened. Then in 1988, I became a full-time—I was called a ‘warden’, 1988, that was the language—for St Martin’s Housing Trust night shelter.

From 1995 to 2003, I became the chair of the city’s planning committee. I’m surprised we’ve been talking this long without me having mentioned that before [laughs]. And I stayed on that committee for the whole twelve years that I was on the council, as well. So if you’re ever caught in a traffic jam or you’re looking at an ugly building, it’s my fault. [Laughs] Or, indeed, if you get run over by a kid on a scooter—I did that.

I stood as an independent council candidate in the local elections of 1984, and I got sixty-six votes. [Laughs] [Labour] don’t like it when you stand against them politically. Their winner got something like a thousand votes, it wasn’t a close-run thing by any stretch of the imagination. But it was fun. I called myself an Independent Street Socialist, which is such an embarrassing title, but we were all young once.

I didn’t really want to live in that environment, and I think it was stubbornness that was keeping me there for as long as I was. So many of my friends that had lived and squatted there left before me, with or without children. And I could see that they were settling into a much more conventional lifestyle. I was bigging up what a great kind of outlaw I still was, not to be like that, not to live that 9–5, but I think I must have envied at least a part of what they hadn’t got, in the same way that they probably envied the stuff that I was still idealising. Because it was idyllic, to begin with, and if you could, as Damien might have put it, if you could preserve that idyll whilst living there for as long as you could, yeah, why wouldn’t you? Because, yeah, straight life is gonna be… boring. Put it off!

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