A few days ago, I stumbled across photographer Tony Sleep’s amazing black & white documentation of “Frestonia,” the 1.8 acre “free state” of London’s Notting Hill area, that attempted to (or did, depending on how you look at it) secede from the UK in 1977. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen on the Internet in some time.
Since the early 70s, Freston Road, a run down street with several condemned and empty buildings, had become the one of the city’s epicenters of the squatters movement. Many of the buildings housed artists who needed a place to work. In October of 1977, the Greater London Council made plans to raze the derelict buildings of Freston Road but met with rioting from the hippies and the punks who lived there.
Led by Nicholas Albery, approximately 120 squatters living on the street declared themselves the “Free And Independent State Of Frestonia” (the similarity to the kingdom of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers’s Duck Soup was not coincidental). The residents of the squatted buildings took on the adopted surname “Bramley” so that the GLC would be obliged to accommodate them, in the event of a successful eviction, en masse, as one family. It was simultaneously a PR stunt inspired by the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, a crafty legal maneuver and poetically-inspired anarchism in action.
Poet, actor, playwright and graffiti polemicist, Heathcote Williams (who later appeared in an episode of Friends) served as Frestonia’s ambassador to the UK and dwarf actor David Rappaport-Bramley (who played Randall, the leader of the dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and “Markoff Chaney” in Ken Campbell’s stage play of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s lluminatus! trilogy) was made Foreign Minister. The Frestonian postage stamps had no price and bore the face of “Guy the Gorilla.” The Minister of Education was a two-year-old, Francesco Bogina-Bramley. A major part of Frestonian communal life took place at The People’s Hall, where films were shown and plays staged. It later became a recording studio. The Clash famously recorded their Combat Rock album there in 1982, perhaps looking to soak up some revolutionary, and authentically countercultural, inspiration.
The Frestonians annoyed the GLC for a few years before many of the original squatters simply moved away, replaced by folks who were less committed to the poetic ideals of an Albionic anarchist collective and more committed to shooting smack and having someplace free to live. Some of the original squatters and their offspring still live in the area, but the buildings (which had been condemned since the 1950s) are mostly gone now, except for the People’s Hall building, which still stands.
Squatting is a subject I know something about. From early 1983 until the end of 1984, I lived in several different squatted buildings in the Brixton area of London, and in the infamous (and huge) Wyers squat of Amsterdam. I’ve never seen better documentation of what it’s like to live in a squat than in these amazing photographs by Tony Sleep, who was himself a resident of Frestonia. It’s a glimpse at what now appears to be a lost world. With the last vestiges of squatting are being stamped out all over Europe (Holland’s strict anti-squatting laws passed in the Summer of 2010, effectively ending what was at one time the most vibrant squatters movement on the continent) this way of life will no longer be there to inspire, and to assist and help others who want to drop out of the rat race as much as possible, or who simply need a safe place to sleep at night.
If there are empty buildings, it should be legal for people without homes to live in them. Figure it out later, but find the poor and the indigent somewhere to stay first, that’s what I say. Self help housing should be legalized everywhere.
Below, a Hugh Laurie-hosted documentary on the post-apocalyptic performance art troupe, Mutoid Waste Company, who came out of Frestonia’s “Car Breaker Gallery.”