The Freeman Family – Interview

“I don’t care what Cameron has to say about the ‘Big Society’, we’ve been living the big society for 35 years here”

Rod Freeman: In 1976 I was a refugee from a relationship abroad and came to London principally to join up with musicians that I knew. I met up with Johnny Clayden, Anna and Rosa’s father, whom I had known before, and we used to play together. I was living in Leamington Road Villas in a five pound a week bedsit. He came round one night and said ‘there’s some people down the road who are thinking of starting a Housing Co-op, are you interested?’ I didn’t really know what a Housing Co-op was and I thought ‘well, I’ll give it a go’. I went to a meeting and there was Anna Malcolm, Jason Copeland, Milena Tadini there. Johnny and I used to go to these meetings and people like Anna, Jason and Milena had already had meetings with Notting Hill Housing Trust. The Trust had put out an initiative in 1975 or 76 saying that there are a lot of single people living in bedsits, there are lots of one parent families living in difficult accommodation, and we want to develop an initiative looking at Co-operative Housing where the Trust would provide the houses and allow the tenants to manage them. So after going to all these meetings and not understanding the housing speak, like ‘HMO’ (House in Multiple Occupation), eventually this bunch of people managed to form a Housing Co-op under the aegis of the Housing Trust. We wrote a constitution with Geof Branch and others and the Housing Trust approved it. We got our first house, which was number 30 Lancaster Road. I was with Marie at the time and our son, Brynley, who has just reappeared again last year age 33. That relationship unfortunately ended because of Marie’s mental state. It frightened the shit out of me and I decided to move out. I moved to Twickenham.

I still kept contact because of the musicians I knew in the Co-op and eventually in 1979 I got a phone call from Ninon to say ‘we have a flat at number 16 and you’re one of the people who could be eligible, are you interested?’ It was a bit of a tug for me as I was living in a house with other musicians and it was probably a bit more expensive than social housing, but it was great. I would also have loved to have my own place and to be close to Brynley who lived down the street, so I reluctantly left and moved into 16c Lancaster Road with two tea chests of books, a guitar and an amplifier. I didn’t even have a bed. I found some bits of foam and slept on them for about three months till Ninon gave me a mattress. She was upgrading her bedding and gave me her old one; beats sleeping on two bits of foam and waking up sweating. So I was back in the area and I used to see Brynley occasionally.

There has always been the ethos of Co-op members managing their own houses by collecting rent and conducting our own maintenance and those were the two most important things, which we did through a general meeting. And in those days, the early ‘80’s, a lot of us were part time workers or artists, photographers, writers and musicians and didn’t earn a lot and it was erratic anyway so we all had problems paying our rent, as a consequence of which we were rather lax in the collection of rent. If someone were having problems we’d say ‘Yea, I know mate!’

Steve Mepsted: So there was almost too much familiarity to actually conduct the business of the co-op?

RF: Well you might know that some one’s last gig was six weeks ago, and you’d wonder what they were living on.

Nilla Freeman: The flip side of this was that one could get in touch with the rent committee and say well ‘I have a gig coming up and I know I am in arrears but I have a well-paid gig coming up’. We could then say ‘OK don’t worry’ because we knew that at least with a couple of people the money would eventually come through.

RF: The day to day management was a bit ‘Old Hippy’, in respect of ‘pay when you can, we know, we trust you…’ But the maintenance programme, from the outset we were good at. People like Johnny Clayden who was also a plumber and had worked for the Trust when the Trust offices were in All Saints Road; he was on the maintenance team there, having been in the area for years. We had plenty of skilled people, carpenters, plumbers and painters. So that has always been good. I heard years ago, unofficially, that the Housing Trust was rather envious of our standard of maintenance.

SM: Was part of the forming of the Co-op and its constitution to provide a well-skilled set of people within the Co-op. Was that a requirement for the Trust or did that happen by luck?

RF: There were no formal criteria set by the Trust regarding skills. I can’t remember if there was even a requirement of proof of your difficulty in housing. If I had said’ well I’m a single male and I live in a tiny bedsit’, I think they just accepted it.

NF: You know I think those records still exist. We sorted out the filing cabinet in Lancaster Road and I think Geoff Mole had taken care of all the archives. They weren’t looked after before and I think he’s done a good job.

SM: So if there was certain luck with some skills in the Co-op already existing, were there still skills to be learned?

RF: Oh yes, there were a few. Anna, Milena, Geof and Jason who had been involved in housing to one degree or other and knew the ‘housing speak’, showed us what we had to learn. I remember sitting in an early meeting, thinking ‘what am I doing here? I don’t understand any of this’ But you learn. We had the general meeting which had to approve any spend and any policy and gradually members joined a number of different committees. There was a rent committee, maintenance, finance, and a number of others. At one point we felt ready to apply to the Trust for more houses.  Gradually we developed into ten houses. The people that moved into the houses we knew from the area, people that had been in relationships or particular social groups, somehow we all seemed to know each other because this area is composed of a lot of creative people or people who worked in the building trade or down the market. There was a point system which still exists now – one of housing need which was the most important and the second criteria was a commitment to co-operative living and the third was what skills can you offer.

SM: That’s interesting because the emphasis now is slightly different. At the last allocation the criteria was ‘housing need’ still at the top of the list but ‘commitment to Co-operative living’ is no longer there and also ‘skills offered’ is also not stated anymore. Now there appears: ‘work done for the Co-op (while you were on the waiting list) ‘number of meetings attended’ and ‘length of time as a member’. They seem to be more quantifiable criteria now whereas before they were a little looser and reflected the ‘Hippy’ notions of commitment and values which were less quantifiable and more about principles.

RF: That’s developed, I think, because we all grew from those early experiences and times changed and also there is more pressure from the Housing Trust regarding allocation of flats; they in turn have the Auditors breathing down their necks over the last few years meaning that the criteria have had to be more formalised and bullet pointed. Our relationship with the Trust has had to change and funnily enough, in recent years, it has changed almost to the point that there has been hardly any contact between us; they seem to have forgotten about us. But that means that they are not concerned about the way that we run the Co-op, in the way that they have been concerned about at least two other Co-ops in the area that I know about. We developed our skills and there has been talk in the last ten years, of the Trust running training courses for our members and I think some members may have taken them up on the offer. In the mid ‘80’s if you wanted any advice you counted on a very good relationship with the Trust when they had their offices in All Saints Road; we could go round anytime and talk with them, they were much more approachable.

SM: So you were living at 16c from 1979 and you had been there ten years when you managed to make an appeal to move down a floor, to 16b.

RF: There was no carpet on the floor and I was working at ‘Elgin Music ‘and Chris Webb lent me the money to fit some. Because I was having music rehearsals there I also needed to fit acoustic underlay so I didn’t disturb Ninon who was living underneath me. I moved in February of 1989 and in August I met this loudmouthed, opinionated Swedish Woman!

SM: I’m sure you wouldn’t love her if she weren’t! Now’s a good time to pass over to Nilla!

NF: Yes, we had mutual friends and in rather a round about fashion I met Rod sitting on his amp and with his guitar at a friends place and I was flirting madly with him. I was very young and it was bizarre but it worked! I more or less challenged him to date me! So we did; he had a market stall and I went down and asked him for a date. He said OK I’ll meet you at The Windsor Castle on Ledbury Road and I had gone off with some friends and a friend of mine took me to the Pub and waited outside in the car because I didn’t think Rod was going to be there and he didn’t think I was going to turn up! But there we were. I went out of the pub and waved my friend off and the rest is history – that was twenty-two years ago.  I basically stayed, I was here as an au pair and had met Rod in August – he came out to see me for a long weekend in Sweden and I came back in October of ’89.

RF: I was 46 and she was 18! Only numbers!

NF: I was going to be finding my own place and he phoned me up and said ‘well you know we want to be together so we may as well be together so jump in at the deep end and move in with me’. So I said ‘yea, alright!’ Even when I came back in October neither of us knew if it was going to last: Rod had doubters over here, more than I did at home funnily enough, because the age difference is huge. But it was so irrelevant and it worked.

SM: And did you become a member of the Co-op soon after?

NF: Yes I did.

SM: So you moved in with Rod and moved into the Co-op and became very much a part of the Co-op

NF: Yes, I think I became a member after Christmas. I did go along to meetings quite early on and that was very interesting because there was only really Brian (Nicholls) who could see beyond my age and my sex. A lot of them only accepted me because I was Rod’s girlfriend. Bu they couldn’t see past the fact that I was only 19, blond and Swedish and a girl. Brian fought my corner quite a lot for the first couple of years so that people would listen to me. I come from a tradition of voluntary work, I grew up with a strong mother who had always done this kind of work so I grew up knowing how to conduct meetings and how you are supposed to do things. At every Co-op meeting the questions pops up, ‘who’s taking the chair today’ and sometimes I said ‘well, I’ll do it’ and people would talk over me, ‘til I banged the table and brought the meeting to order. I didn’t always know the terminology but I knew how to run a meeting. Rod would sit back and smile, as if to say ‘see, she’s not stupid!’ But I made friends very quickly and got involved because I love the idea of it; it goes along very well with my convictions.

SM: And then you had your first daughter Susanna?

NF: Yes, very quickly. We had Susanna in 1990 and Ella in ’94 and we were overcrowded very quickly in a one bedroom flat. We had to move at some point and we worked to get allocated this flat (14 McGregor Road) and I have to say we thought, what if our marriage doesn’t improve with moving, what are we going to do then? We had been blaming every single thing on the fact that we were overcrowded and I can say that 95% of the problems were due to the fact that we were overcrowded. So when we moved in here it was a great relief. It proved to be true. It is amazing to have this space, for us and for the girls.

RF: This is a Housing Trust place. The Housing Co-op couldn’t rehouse us and I was going around trying to sort out mutual exchange or something through the council and we were very close to taking anything just to get more space. We weren’t even shown this one – there was an old boy who lived here, who we could see from our kitchen window at number 16. The old man as we called him was digging his vegetable garden and shouting at his Grandchildren and we used to say ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great to have a flat with a garden’, then unfortunately old Kenny who was living here, well, someone did for him; he was murdered. He was involved in prostitution, he was selling drugs and we didn’t know this till we moved in. He was a sweet old man as far as we knew from our kitchen window.

NF: When we had our housewarming here the people from the road told us about it. The flat had to be gutted and we were quite aware of the history then.

RF: We even thought about getting a priest in!

NF: We’re completely non-religious but we thought that we should get it ‘cleansed’. Also he (Kenny) hadn’t looked after his plumbing and hadn’t reported it to the Trust so there was sewage under the floor and they had to tear the floors up and put new ones down; they rearranged the entrance because our upstairs neighbour had so much trouble from Kenny’s way of life that she asked for separate entrances; it was a problem for us, we had to enter the flat through the basement, but I can understand why she did it.

RF: Apropos of the worries about the ‘vibe’ in the house: the first time we brought the kids over to see it was when it was completely empty, the girls, both of them ran around screaming with delight and I figured that cleared the air!

SM: So you got this place and have been here ever since. But even though you had officially left the Co-op you now hold the position of rent workers for the Co-op.

NF: Well, Rod was always involved in committees and I got involved in the Rent Committee while we were still in 16b for a good few years. Rod was Finance and Rent Convener for the last few years we were there. There were a lot of problems at that time and changes of policy; we had a few tenants who were just impossible to deal with. But, I enjoyed it and because both of us think like that, if we have the privilege of living like we do we need to give something back. Because we had those roles, both of us for quite a long time, and we were doing it just before we left the Co-op, we were almost formally approached by the Co-op who needed to have someone who knew the ins and outs of it and could take on the drudgery of the role, also we weren’t inside this slightly incestuous situation. I was glad to be out of it but Rod wasn’t. He was such a long  time in the Co-op and missed it. I never really missed it because we had stayed in the area and still saw people and being a Trust tenant was a lot more impersonal and made life a lot easier. When the Co-op formally approved it, it was the first time that the Co-op had created a paid job. There had been remuneration for some jobs within the Co-op but that got abused. The formal arrangement with us worked and I did it with Rod for two or three years and now it’s only really Rod who does it. I stuff envelopes! It’s now down to Rod and the rent collection is infinitely better than it was, and infinitely better than the Trust’s records. When we were running the rent committee back in the day we got the rent arrears down to 14% and the Trust congratulated us then; now it’s down to 1.6%. Sometimes it’s a real headache but Rod’s done an amazing job.

SM: The Co-operative is getting older and so are its members. Where do you think the future of the Co-op is?

NF: I don’t know, my thinking changes from time to time. Sometimes I think we should just convert to the Trust; we are slowed down by our meeting system, which is good but takes time. If you’ve been in the Co-op since 1978 you may feel that you’ve done your bit, should you carry on? But on the other hand I think you can’t give it up, how can you? We had the ‘Sesame Shortlife Group’ and those people were so committed (and were eventually housed). We used to get phone calls at least three times a week from people wishing to join. We’d say ‘of course, join the list. You must attend three meetings before we even consider you and then you must keep coming to meetings and you may not be housed. We can’t just promise you housing’. We’d tell them it could be between 5-10 years before they may be housed.

RF: And of course we have the ‘Children of the Co-op’. Corann was two or three years old when I met her. There are a number of these ‘Children’

NF: There is a policy of succession in the Co-op. I think if we had stayed in the Co-op and not moved out the girls would be members already, but it wasn’t a consideration at the time. But if we stayed we would have still been going to meetings and there would have come a time where we would have said to the girls well ‘you come along too’.

SM: So the Co-op is 35 years old and managing its business pretty well; it has some problems but it’s got another 35 years potentially. Is there any reason you can think of that could jeopardise that?

RF: The only slight bit of paranoia on my part is that I can see that at some point in the future Notting Hill Housing Trust could sell out or hand over management of the Trust to a private company. It’s just the way that the current political situation is going in the last few years. The Housing Trust could hand over the day-to-day management of their organisation to a company who would have shareholders who would demand a profit so rents may go up. They might start focusing on the Co-operatives. Questions like ‘what are these Housing Co-operatives that you’ve supported for years, we’ll have a look at those – the rents are rather low aren’t they?’

NF: At the moment I think it’s easier for the Trust to take a step back and acknowledge that were doing very well. That’s not wholly positive though. In some cases the Co-op could have done with more support from the Trust, but on the whole it’s good. We know now from living in a Trust house that the maintenance of the properties is not as good as the Co-op’s.

RF: I think the Co-op will continue because despite those of us who are approaching three score and ten, there is still a feeling amongst members, albeit begrudgingly sometimes, that it’s a good thing. I love the fact that I can walk down to Tesco and say hello to 5 or so people on the way. It’s a big plus. I don’t care what Cameron has to say about the big society, we’ve been living the big society for 35 years in this area. It will continue even though were getting older and some people are begrudging some of the work now. We talk of the younger generation and there are two sides to this; some of the older people who have been doing the work for the Co-op don’t want to let it go because they don’t trust the younger people to take it over and do it in such a thorough manner as they would do it. However that’s what you start thinking when you get over 50! But younger members are going to have to take on these bigger jobs. There is enough positivity there and they are getting the experience, not really what we had, having to learn from the ground up, but there’s good stuff there amongst the younger members. The Rent and Finance and Maintenance Jobs in particular are serious jobs, you don’t want to go into those blind, and it takes some experience.

NF: Well I really hope there is a future for it because it is such a unique way of living, and it’s important to present it, to say it can be done. We had a discussion with (daughter) Ella last night about it and she said ‘well why does it have to be so political?’ Well, because it is I’m afraid. It’s something I really believe in, why would I want to buy? I don’t want a mortgage, I love renting actually. I was born in a tiny little place in Sweden and there was the same spirit in this tiny place that there is in this area of London and in the Co-op. We have some people in the Co-op with health problems, mental and physical and people are allowed to ‘be’. They’ve been included and accepted and looked after and they drive you crazy sometimes but that’s really a major thing for me to be able to live in the middle of massive London and have that still happen. It’s a great area, I’ve never felt unsafe here. When I came in 1989 I had friends from Streatham and Brixton telling me ‘you must be crazy moving to All Saints Road’. I came just after the raids and after they had cleaned up the Frontline but it was still dodgy – not as gentrified as it is now. The biggest thing in the late ‘80’s was the youth,   selling off small pieces of plastic dustbin lids as hash! Then in the 90’s there was crack on the street –that’s a different game. Now I have friends in Sweden saying’ wow you are so lucky to live in Notting Hill’, because they have seen the film! Lucky I walked into that place all those years ago and saw Rod, and that he turned up at The Windsor Castle.