Tony Allen – Interview

“The way they dealt with all the homeless people who were squatting, was to evict most of them and make them homeless!”

Tony Allen: The history of the W11 co-op for me started with housing activism. I came to Ladbroke Grove for the Free Love and squatting; I settled for sexual politics and a licensed deri! (That’s from my stand-up act in 1979).
By the mid 1970’s the number of people squatting in London in properties hit by recession and development blight had reached tens of thousands. I was on the dole and hanging out with a larky group of anarchists called the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency for Squatters under the loose directorship of Heathcote Williams. I was spotting empty property by day and breaking and entering by night; then our ‘office’ would inform homeless people as to the whereabouts. Cos’ the law said they could enter but could not break in. “Your honour!” There was a time when Landlords, often local authorities would wreck properties by severing services, pouring concrete down the toilets and smashing down staircases, to keep people like us out. But gradually when it became clear that much of it was staying empty for yonks, they were shamed into doing deals and they started licensing squats on a three monthly basis at a peppercorn rent. The so-called short-life lets. A group of us had a tatty 3 story terraced house in Bravington road for £10 quid a week – it lasted 6 years. Short-life! Hah! In that same period I had occasional rooms in squats in Lancaster road.

Eventually the authorities said they would knock it all down and build their tower blocks, car parks and shopping malls; but mostly it turned out they couldn’t afford that shit so they had to tart up all the old stock to and make it look fairly decent.

We didn’t see it at the time but on reflection the way they dealt with all the homeless people who were squatting, was to evict most of them and make them homeless! But they offered all us activists the option of managing our own property through co-ops – shrewd move – it kept us potential troublemakers very busy and self-absorbed. West11 was one of the first co-ops but it wasn’t long before every squatting area had its local housing co-op. There were various options on offer. I’m not so sure we got it right. Some of the groups that formed after us ended up owning their own places or having a considerable say in the design of their flats, for instance several groups of Frestonia residents under the guidance of Nick Albery managed to get rehoused together and had a large say in the design their new homes.

I think it was Anna Malcolm who urged me to join the co-op. They weren’t my immediate comrades – more the bureaucrats of the revolution, bless them, who I don’t always get on with that well. So I spent a bit of energy as I usually do in such situations encouraging my more anarchic, bohemian and artistic mates to join, just to give it some balance, cos’ we di’nt want the co-op run from Moscow or where ever it was that Trotskyites call home did we?

Steve Mepsted: Just to paint a picture of how these houses were in ‘78. They were considered hard to let?

TA: Not just hard to let – they were hard to Squat!! (Laughs) Yes, they were hard to squat, these ones! I’m not sure of the history of individual houses but I should imagine they’d been voided because this ‘ere was the frontline and the site of regular pitched battles between the police and the kids running drugs on the streets. They would hardly have left property ‘available’. Even for a hardened squatter, this little corner of the Grove wouldn’t have been a first choice. After we’d moved in, there was always a dodgy little crew sitting on the doorstep dealing. More often as not they were selling pieces of our plastic dustbin as prime Afghani black.

SM: So the Notting Hill Housing Trust saw fit to release a property to the co-op?

TA: Well, the people that moved into 26 Lancaster road in 1979 – Tom Dunhill, Mary Jane Anderton, Linda Saunders and myself. Were part of a larger group of friends and comrades who’d previously squatted together in various places and, with others, had worked on various local campaigns together; we’d published ‘Corrugated Times’ which was ‘the local newspaper of the Ladbroke Archipelago’; and we were also in the same anti-nuke group – in fact we’d only just returned from the Torness occupation.

SM: You were single at the time – single – with connections?

TA: Yeah I was single! But I was multi-connected.

SM: Was it a relief to be housed?

TA: No, not really – I’d already been housed; I’d shared a long-term licensed squat. In fact moving into a one-person flat (let), after years of communal living was a bit of a shock. In fact for a lot of the time after I moved in I had various friends sleeping on my sofa.

SM: Its interesting that despite the reputation that this area had with the pitched battles between police and kids and taxi–drivers not coming into the area; dropping you off up the hill, that the people who joined the co-op were immune to all this.

TA: Well, this was the epicentre of the ‘Frontline’. Once a group of us were busted having a drink in the Apollo Pub on All Saints Road, – all co-op members – busted for just being in there and being white! Dealers would be sat at tables with big lumps of dope, cutting it up into pieces for the runners coming in and out. I was once arrested at 11am in the morning for the same reason. Me and Mikey from up the road, I was white, he was black and we were in the area together, he’d gone out for a paper and I’d gone out for milk – (laughs) we were just walking down the shops together! They found a bit of lavender in my top pocket! That delayed things at Notting Hill nick.

SM: So the dynamics of the area and the activists who were already living in it – however they lived in it – were in place, but what about the skills that had to be learned?

TA: Well, the only skills that are really required are the ones that involve organizing things – running meetings, sitting on committees and sub-committees, dealing with authority, pressure group stuff and those sort of skills we had in spades because we were politicos and already members of groups, and particularly housing and law centre groups. That had been an inevitable part of our political life for the previous five years. As I said earlier, I din’t like the particular way the housing co-op was set up. I would have preferred it more hands on. More rough n ready. It seemed that we’d opted to be bureaucrats with the co-op.

SM: You mentioned earlier that you feel there may be a rise in legalized and licensed squatting in the face of a prolonged recession. The one thing the Co-op hasn’t been able to do is expand, offering more people the chance of being housed. Maybe this will change things?

TA: Well, what’s happening now in parts of London is ad hoc collectives of people are approaching landlords directly, as soon as they’ve occupied a squat. There’s one group of Artists who need Galleries and living space who are more or less quoting the Short life riff – saying to landlords “Let us look after the property and we’ll review the situation mutually every three months. We’ll pay all the rates and bills and make sure no one wrecks the place”. Now for some would-be tycoon who considers property as collateral that’s a very useful arrangement. It’s either that or employ a security firm – a couple of guys in uniforms with an Alsatian dog.

SM: You’ve been a member of the co-op since 1978, what are your main frustrations about the co-op, and where can it change?

TA: Yes, well apart from the bureaucratisaton of everyday life – giving people jobs that don’t need doing. Which is what the wider society does. I do believe there are certain things we can do to enrich the co-op, its members and the community.

1) We should encourage unhoused members to set up a short-life group under the co-op’s wing and get themselves housed. It would be clear who to prioritise when a flat came up.

2) We should investigate all the options open to people like myself who might want to move out of the co-op in the near future and find out ways for the co-op not to lose the property – that would be a very good coup to pull off.

3) The ‘Greening’ of co-op property, including money saving things like solar panels, water collection and gardens on rooftops etc etc. That would take a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of energy to organise but it would worth – I can’t understand why we haven’t done it.

SM: What about the succession rights of children in the Co-op – I know that that has brought up a few issues around the meeting table?

TA: It’s not a difficult thing really; I think making them members at an earlier age might be a good idea. Then the kids could have the right or the possibility to take over the place when the time comes. I’ve recently been researching the life of Joseph Grimaldi. When his father died in 1788 Grimaldi was ten years old and his little brother John was eight. They went to the reading of the will and learned that the Lawyers had absconded to the West Indies with all the takings. The eight-year-old John resolved to chase the thieves to the Caribbean. The manager of the theatre where they both worked bought him a warm suit for the journey. Someone else gave him some money to alleviate the cost of working his passage. They didn’t deter him from going! They encouraged him. So, an eight year old went charging off around the world in pursuit of his stolen legacy. Well, if a kid can do that at eight years old, I think he should be capable of joining the fucking co-op and put solar panels up on my roof! Are we that different now from how we were then? No, we’re just more molly-coddled.

At the moment I am considering my options for moving, at some stage I will make a decision about it. More likely at some point my legs and my respiratory system will make the decision for me! It wasn’t until two years ago that I realised that I lived at the top of a hill. And another thing that I’m decidedly aware of is that I live at the top of three flights of stairs. I didn’t know that either. Also I’d like a garden, I did have one on the roof but Jim Welby (bless) made me take it down in case the roof collapsed. (Health and Safety gone mentally challenged). But I don’t want a garden in Ladbroke Grove any more; I want one in the country.

The Co-op is not an important part of what I do. It’s my housing, and it’s part of my immediate community, but then there’s also my life and my art, all which I deal with in much the same way I suppose. All of it equally ‘burdened with democracy’.

So, what do you think?

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