Thirty Thousand Streets

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Raft City

You’ll remember the Council Tax Riots the following year. Angry men and women took to the streets, burning their standing orders and waving their fists at the first floor windows of office blocks. Lots of these people - short-haired, reactionary types - had never been on a march before. They weren’t very good at it. They became abruptly self-conscious halfway through a chant, covered their mouths with their hands. They peeled off unexpectedly into winebars. They held their placards upside down, or left them in the boots of their Vauxhall Cavaliers. Early in the marching season, a copper fell off his horse at the edge of the crowd and broke his neck. It was no-one’s fault, but the police blamed the demonstrators, and somehow the whole thing got out of hand. Five hundred men in Burton suits and their wives in ersatz Laura Ashley were never going to burn down Whitehall. But the cops kept looking for reasons to be heavy-handed. The Evening Standard caught a few of them at it, posted footage on their website. A constable “accidentally” whacking a woman around the chops with his tonfa as he dismounted. Another cantering his horse into a bunch of middle managers. The marchers struck back with fireworks, rolled up copies of the Mail on Sunday.

Meanwhile,I was running into accomodation problems. The university had arranged an 18 month lease on the Your Food City flat, and it expired after Easter my second year. That was the deal for grant students back then. I had a student loan coming later in the year, but I’d need to look after myself for three or four months in the interim, and I couldn’t afford rent, let alone council tax.

I wasn’t the only one. There was a rush of creative squatting towards the beginning of April, and a lot of my friends - including Zoe - arranged new digs for themselves out on Raft City, a flotilla of barges, upturned crates, winch platforms, hulk dredgers, abandoned theatrical scenery, bouncy councils, houseboats, dinghys and surfboards that sprawled along the water from Vauxhall to Waterloo Bridge, virtually closing the river to traffic. The squatters had connected their motley fleet with ladders, ropes and planks of wood. For three or four months that year you could actually walk across the surface of the river from Embankment to the Hayward Gallery without getting your feet wet. The police tried to break it up a few times, and there’d even been talk of the Navy’s involvement, but Raft City’s self-appointed spokesperson, a law student called Malcolm Chum, had dug up some crusty statute dating back to the days of the great Frost Fairs of the 19th century which said that anyone living on the stretch of the river within a mile of Westminster Cathedral was entitled to do so “grace of the Crown”.

By early May I was sleeping on a tent pitched on the sloping, rusty hull of an old fishing trawler anchored mid-stream. If I opened the door flap an inch or two I could see the London Eye slowly revolving above me.

Zoe and another friend from the course called Charlie Tipness lived a couple of rafts upstream. It took a while to get used to the rocking motion, but it was rent-free, and judging by the speed with which the “Emergency Waterways Bill” was going through Parliament, I knew it would be the last time in London’s history anything like this would happen, so I was glad to be part of it.

There were other downsides though. You could hear the rats paddling from raft to raft after the sun went down. And the smell was narcotic, especially at low tide when the sandbanks steamed in the sun. Fish, garbage and effluent from the five thousand unplumbed settlements on the water. It wasn’t pleasant.

Towards the end of the summer, there was something else. People began vanishing, mostly people living on the fringes of RC, nearest the beaches, whose moorings were left dry when the tide went out. Half a dozen of them, maybe more. There were stories about something that crawled along the stanchions of Lambeth Bridge – something with long spatulate fingers and skin the colour of river mud. All bullshit of course. The kids who “disappeared” had probably just had enough of the smell. But Chum and his “senate” introduced a bylaw requiring that every vessel of more than 20 square feet kept a lamp lit from dusk until dawn. The effect was beautiful. I can still see that tangle of lights threaded double across the river, once each in air and water.

All the same, I was glad when my loan came through and I could strike my tent and hop north on the tube to Kilburn, my jeans still stiff with salt. I watched coverage of the Navy breaking up Raft City on the flatscreen TV in the bedroom of my newbuild flat at the bottom of Shoot-Up Hill.

They never found those missing kids. But they did find their clothes, all balled up and stuffed behind a loose slab of rock in the river wall just below the National Film Theatre. Clothes and a handful of teeth - nothing else. Molars, incisors.

Ah well. The exam season rolled around again, and I had other things to think about.