:: Article

Escape from the Straight World

By Max Dunbar.


Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society, Katharine Hibbert, Ebury 2010

There’s a perception that economics is zero sum. In this country you are either working and contributing to the system or not working and taking from it. Few can escape the miserable equation of rights and responsibilities. The common perception is that all non-workers are freeloading parasites except for the very old and the very ill. There is a general suspicion that the system lets down those who do contribute, and this makes for an ugly, bitter and curdled public discourse.

What happens when the system lets you down? When the British soldiers returned to their country after the Second World War, they found a nation that couldn’t shelter the people who had fought and killed for it. Bombing had destroyed many homes, but the state’s callous housing policies spat salt into the war wound. As Hibbert writes: ‘Demobbed veterans got home to find themselves expected to cram their families into a single room in a squalid slum house while other buildings stood empty.’

We think of the British as a people who will put up with anything. The soldiers did not. They moved into unoccupied holiday homes and officers’ camps. ‘By October 1946,’ Hibbert writes, ‘the House of Commons was told that 46,335 people were occupying 1,181 camps.’ A serviceman’s group called the Vigilantes demanded that the government requisition the use of empty private properties for civilian purposes, and Churchill introduced a power for local authorities to requisition such buildings. The squatters had support from the public and the press, including even the Daily Mail. The Economist ran an approving leader: ‘In a country so law-abiding as Great Britain, it is always refreshing when the people take the law into their own hands on an issue in which the spirit of justice, if not its letter, is so evidently on their side.’  

Today’s media attitudes to squatters are different, but the national situation is similar. Unwise market speculation and half-arsed regeneration projects have left a shocking amount of unused liveable homes – as high as five per cent of buildings in some cities. Meanwhile, families wait for years on lists in overcrowded, unpleasant accommodation. The recession hasn’t extinguished our bizarre obsession with home ownership. But almost 75% of people cannot afford to get on the property ladder, and many hard-working professionals see half their paycheques swallowed up by rent. And some people have no home at all. Official surveys put the number of rough sleepers at 464. Homelessness professionals consider this a conservative estimate – to put it kindly.

The pattern of waste and suffering also extends to food. I was astonished by the amount of edible food thrown out by stores. During her time as a squatter, Hibbert raided the bins of M & S, Pret a Manger and Waitrose and found stuff she would never have been able to afford while she was working: tuna steak, smoked salmon blinis, goose eggs, vegetable lasagne, butternut squash soup, roast chickens. Although some stores post security near the bins and contaminate their waste with anti-theft dye, risk of reprisals is low, not least because many minimum-wage store workers will sympathise with the squatters. Indeed, much of the process of squatting is legal; it’s surprising what loopholes there are, if you’re prepared to look for them.

Hibbert walked away from a job in journalism and a secure home to live without paycheques and benefits. In this riveting book she finds herself breaking into abandoned yuppie developments, living in former bail hostels and hitching from London to Edinburgh in ten hours. Most of the people she meets are pleasant and reliable; they offer help without condescension and retain sensible boundaries. A mechanic will not repair Hibbert’s bike but will teach her how to fix it herself. The squatters who don’t have jobs spend their days on voluntary or creative projects. Yet the middle-class dilettantes who constitute the stereotype of squatters are rare. There are few bad moments in Hibbert’s story; just a general feeling of adventure and unpredictability. No leftish thinktank or Guardian columnist can create the palpable sense, as Hibbert does, that another world is possible.

Hibbert is not naive, she doesn’t pretend that squatting can lay the groundwork of a radical new society. As a squatter Hibbert encounters puts it: ‘If anyone thinks that they can bring on the anarchist or communist revolution just by soaking up some of society’s waste, they’re fooling themselves’. However, Hibbert regrets that in the straight world, ‘relationships based on trust and generosity rarely extend beyond the small circle of our close friends and family.’ There’s a sense that this trust and generosity could form the basis for a more humane and ultimately healthier version of capitalism, one based on compassion and common sense. It would not be anything like perfect, but in such a system would live the spirit of justice as well as its letter.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 20th, 2010.