Written by one. Edited by all. (Kind of!).
‘Working Men!! Do you belong to the Walworth Reading Rooms? All the best of the periodicals! Lectures and discussions! Books lent from the Library. Never heard of it? Why it is just the place to go after work is over!’
Leaflet early 20th Century, South London
‘Want to read about any of the following for free? From Anarchism to Zines! Visit our archive and reading space at 56a Infoshop, Walworth’.
Leaflet late 20th Century, South London
The story of 80’s and 90’s squatting and its sociability in South London has yet to be written. That’s a shame as it’s a fascinatingly dense and dynamic story of the formation of micro-communities in search of a wider network. You could really read that last line as being the search for the possibility to live in a more authentic fashion than the one capitalism offers us. So in as much as squatting has been described as a ‘survival tactic’, it still remains a tactic that offers much more than merely getting by. The trajectory of 56a Infoshop, of why and where it came to be, is intimately linked to this almost forgotten history of the desire to occupy space and your environment as autonomously as possible within the obvious limitations of the wider social relations. This history needless to say also contains the desire to transcend these social relations and make the world our own.
Looking ahead at the past
56a Infoshop was brought into being in June 1991 by a bunch of local anarchists who were all squatting in the London Borough of Southwark. It’s location is in the back room in Fareshares Food Co-op, a squatted ex-grocers shop on the Pullens Estate in Walworth, South London. The co-op had been occupied in 1988 by squatters to serve as a craft workshop. When the nearby Domville Grove squatted terraces were finally evicted the displaced Rabbit Food co-op moved into the front part of the ex-grocers and Fareshares was born. Strictly not-for profit, volunteer run it remains in operation today selling cheap organic wholefoods to local (and not so local) people.
The Infoshop came into being spurred on by two main inspirations. Firstly, friendly connections to the large radical autonomist scenes in Germany and Holland with a bit of late 80’s early riot tourism thrown in. Here we discovered what were called ‘Infoshops’, basically squatted or rented social spaces that functioned as meeting points for information about what was going on but more importantly as a place to meet people, make alliances and do stuff. There was also the regular Euro-wide International
Infoshop meetings which we attended (and hilariously hosted in London in 1994 probably killing it off). The second energy behind 56a was our activities in the local squatting scenes in London. Our main experience came from involvement with the then famous 121 Centre in Railton Rd, Brixton. Squatted in 1981 (and finally evicted in 1999), this anarchist hothouse of subversion went through numerous identities in its time but always kept the local scene alive via its gigs, cafes, print room, bookshop, meeting space, squatters aid etc.
Further experience for some of us came via the Squatters Network of Walworth, an amazing organization that represented what can be done when thousands of empty council properties meet a determined locally organized and highly practical squatting group. Result was 3000+ squats, a fortnightly squatters paper ‘The Wire’ and tons of victories in court against useless Council legal officers. From the 80’s onwards this area saw many prototype social centres in operation: (1980’s) Ambulance Station, Walworth; Dickie Dirts, Camberwell; (1990’s) The Dole House, Peckham; Labour Club, Camberwell; (2000’s) Use Yr Loaf, Deptford; Button Factory, Brixton; as well as dozens of squatted gig and rave spaces.
To demonstrate some more of the local trajectories, it worth looking at the Pullens Estate where the Infoshop is located. By 1986, the estate had a reasonably strong tenants and squatters alliance with a squatted café on one block, an annual free festival on vacant land nearby and numerous bands and activities in operation. In June 1986, the Council tried to hold a mass eviction but the police were outnumbered by local people and after a day long struggle in the streets and stairwells all the evicted flats were re-squatted that very night. It’s against this back drop that both Fareshares and 56a are a continuation of both a counter culture tradition on this (must be said fairly unique) council estate and also the determination and vision of a few locals to keep both of these spaces open, despite the pressures of these times – privitisation of council housing, gentrification and speculation, community atomisation etc.
You Are Here But Why?
But what is the Infoshop and what does it do? Really, it does the same as it’s always done. We sell books. Cds, t-shirts, papers cheap. We run a book exchange, a free bike workshop, host a regular practical squatters meeting, offer meeting space and have a massive open-access archive. We also hold useful information – useful for thought, research/publishing and activity to change things. With all of these things in operation we still primarily happily continue the tradition of radical spaces where people can meet each other. That seems the most radical thing possible. For people to meet and talk and to argue and to agree or not. After the talking, activity might happen. That’s what we want, That’s we encourage here.
We have managed to be neither terribly dogmatic about the space and what goes on there. We feel the success and longevity of the centre is due in part to this insistence of what we want the place to be (and hence what we don’t want it to be). This means primarily to feel welcoming, open and inclusive for anyone who arrives at the door who seems curious, excited or nervous. We try to get people to see that it is as much their space as ‘ours’ and thus we are open to new ideas and projects. However we also want the Infoshop to active without being a purely activist hang-out or a place that’s dominated by liberals, middle-class academics or pseudo-radicals. In this sense, we are less excitied about abstract and possibly alienated activism and more into doing stuff that’s inherently community focused. For example, in 2005 we had a choice to go to the G8 protests in Gleneagles and close the shop for a week. We stayed home and kept the Infoshop open. It seemed better for us to do what we like to do here. Support the anti-G8 struggles locally by just keeping an alternative London space going. Act local, think global, as they used to say. Nowadays they probably just say Be Glocal! Exactly!
If we use the word ‘community’, we really mean a series of communities that use the space – punks, anarchists, communists, fellow (international) travellers, radical historians, queer folks, self-defined mad people, hippies, etc. Mostly these are local South London people. We get asked all the time by activists if ‘normal people’ come in as if this odd yardstick would somehow legitimise politically what we do. Well, here we are none of us normal but we are all of us people.
Frogspawn: A biological model for squatted social centres?
The collective work we do at 56a recently inspired some of us (alongside others) to squat a new centre to do stuff that we just don’t have space to do in the small and cramped Infoshop. This became known as the Black Frog squat but was formally called the Camberwell Squatted Centre. From March to September 2007 we ran a weekly café, a weekly film night and hosted dozens of other meetings, talks, discos, gigs, seed swaps etc. We also met every Monday night for the duration of the squat for collective discussion of running the place. It was a brilliant time for all of us.
It was here that we discussed the question ‘Are we a social centre or are we a squatted centre?’. Showing our age and/or showing our politics, we had deliberately avoided using ‘social centre’ in our publicity. This was down to two things.
1) We liked the continuation of the local tradition of squatted centres (such as the 121 Centre and 56a Infoshop, as was). It was important we decided to be a ‘squatted’ centre rather than a ‘squat’ centre. Important that the outward focus is more on the ‘centre’ project than the ‘squat’ tag even though the act of occupying the space is initially important. This is what we attempted. Sometimes it went well with an Open Day and open door policy at all times. Sometimes, it went less well with no time or energy to keep publicizing locally everything that was going on at the space.
2) A few individuals in the Black Frog and at 56a had some criticisms of some very particular aspects of the more recent London social centre model. These aspects are well represented in the article ‘The Spring of Social Centres’ (in Occupied London, Issue 1, 2007) although we bear in mind that it was written by one very active participant in those centres from 2002 onwards.
The article, although it gives a nod to ‘a long history of occupied political spaces’, tends to stereotype pre-2002 centres as ‘squatter’ spaces characterised by subcultural disrepair and dogma (‘pissed up punks drinking Special Brew’, ‘dreadlocked brethren’). There are many examples of places that were like this but maybe as many places consciously tried to not be like this: Mutual Aid Centre in Liverpool, A.C.E in Edinburgh, Use Yr Loaf in South London to name a few only. Maybe it’s useful to say that just as pissed punks and trustafarians may be alienating to others, the anarchist militant, the anti-capitalist activist, the social centre type etc can be just as off-putting. We had fun at one recent social centre when we got told off for putting leaflets down on the leaflet table. ‘Sorry’, we mumbled. ‘Can we leave some flyers here?’, we asked. ‘What is it?’, he said with a tone. ‘It’s about 56a Infoshop, a social centre’, we said. ‘Never heard of it!’, he grunted. What can you do?
When the anarchist collective The Wombles began to initiate the recent London spaces, it was consciously modeled on the Italian social centre experience. We have always felt that although that Euro inspiration is often good (local political work around work, racism, gentrification etc but also the willingness to debate theory useful for activity), the politics of many Italian centres remain tied to an outdated Leftist project that often seeks alliances with reformist unions or local municipal power and is comfortable with social centre movement ‘leaders’ and hierarchies.
It seems important then that instead of dismissing earlier U.K centres for faults, it would be better to recognize commonalities between them and the European social centre model and work with that. Those old enough to have been active in and around the 80’s and 90’s centres could tell of very useful, creative and strong work in and around dole struggles, Poll Tax, Miner’s Strike, anti-fascism, elections, housing and squatting struggles etc. It was then that these centres seemed to come into their own (albeit often only temporarily and that’s a lesson worth living through for some kind of perspective of how political movement seems to be). It’s also good to remember that many of us were regular visitors to in/famous centres in Holland, Germany, Spain and Italy and were just as inspired then as The Wombles would later be. It doesn’t seem to us like the ‘new’ social centre model is so much different from the old squatted centre one. The problems we focus on are the same: work, not-working, housing, policing, racism, war etc.
What seems a bit skewed to us is the imagined effects of these newer centres on what’s described as ‘political activation’: ‘Thousands of people have passed through’ these new centres. Acting as ‘political and cultural hubs’ and as a ‘first port of call’ for ‘ordinary people’, magically ‘interaction with anarchists becomes normalized and barriers fall’. Later in the article there is some attempt to ‘quantify the scope of this embryonic movement’ with some guestimation about numbers passing through the post-2005 nationwide social centres. Although a figure of 4000 – 6000 people attending U.K centres over a period of time is great, there is no real sense of what this means for the people running centres, the people that come to the spaces or wider political resistance itself. In London, a vast city space with a whole different range of local and territorial communities that rarely overlap, it’s really difficult these days to see what goes on, what sustains and grows and what is a waste of time. (Of course we aren’t saying that a networked mass of social centers in loads of parts of London wouldn’t be great if they could bring into effect something dynamic, angry and useful and with this in mind we were often inspired by meetings and events at the recent London centres).
Back and Forth, Round and Round
At 56a (and this was true for the Black Frog) we see again and again different people come by, be excited but never return. At the same time we have a regular small coterie of annoying people who are draining. Happily we also have a small steady band of regulars who came by at least once every week. With this in mind we aren’t interested in numbers, in ‘quantity’. We are interested in working together, at all stages of our common experience and knowledge, be that 100 people or only 20, or only 5 people. In the end, just before the eviction of the Black Frog, we felt that we had moved to a new stage in the centre’s existence, that of being a growing local hang-out for self-defined rebels, disgruntled local people and interested people who had not come across anything like this before. This state of affairs did not come about through ‘ordinary people’ meeting some anarchists who happened to have all the cool and great ideas. It just flowed from spending time around each other and seeing what we had in common. Listening, learning, laughing, being pissed off about things together etc. It was shame we got kicked out at that point when it seemed like there was a possibility to open out the centre even further and to begin to initiate other projects outside of the space (The better part of ‘The Spring of Social Centres’ article talks about this seemingly inevitable process).
On being evicted, something crucial is always lost in the unavoidable move from one area to another and that is the sense of locality, of neighbours, of immediacy and the draining effect and burn out this cycle can produce on those who establish new places. It’s interesting that of the three original squatters of the Black Frog, none of them felt like opening up a new space. What was desired was time to recover from the experience, from tiredness and to actually get back to a former life that had been neglected despite this 6 month adventure that had been a positive ‘rejuvenation’ (as one said). It remains to be seen if a rump of later Black Frog people will spawn a new place. So far, six months later, there has been one failed attempt to open up a new place but this was unfortunately neither very well thought out nor long-lasting. Rumours abound of emerging crews up for opening up a new space, so things are bubbling up. Whatever happens, the tradition continues here in South London from 19th Century Walworth Reading Rooms, free thought institutes and radical clubs to the 56a Infoshop to Black Frog to whatever is next. Sometimes it dies down. Sometimes it flares up. You have to live with that. Social centres are not the next big thing. They’re better than that. They are always the next old thing. Wherever there are people there is the desire for the social. Long may the tradition continue…
Some Notes, Init!
We give up! This piece is a bit all over the place. Sorry! Despite hours and hours of tinkering and trying to edit it, we still couldn’t make it as succinct and focused as we wanted it. It tries to deal with too much in a short space. Maybe this messyness gives the arguments some space to breath and opens up possibility for debate. Politics gives rise to and reflects personal and collective feelings. We aren’t interested in representing the ‘truth’ as we see it, give or take a few actual facts. We are more interested in a wider process of communal working out what might be true for all of us and what might be useful to be said towards our collective resistance to capitalism.
So, it’s also impossible for us to represent in so short a piece something as complicated as a history of 56a, let alone the untold story of squatting in South London. Over 100 people have been ‘workers’ at the Infoshop since 1991. Most of them were different, engaged and (how do you measure this?) radical. What would any of them say about the place? We have undergone miserable periods here as well as more dynamic and exciting times. If we seem to blow our own trumpet, it’s done with a genuine pride and love for the project and all the people we’ve met. If we seem critical, it’s because we try to speak with open hearts and minds towards changing the world. Seventeen years is a long time to observe the changes and nuances of London’s political culture. Surprisingly, we think it’s possible to argue that it is better now, more openminded, than when we started! (Ahem! Mail us for proof, ok!!)
There’s criticism to be made of 56a for sure and we welcome it. Our own rigorous self-criticism did not make it into this article, comrades, but we do reflect and try to process what goes well and what goes wrong here. Similarly there’s loads more to say about the experience of running the Black Frog centre. There were often many conflicts and disagreements, contradictions and political battles. Yet in the end, it all worked amazingly. I hope someone writes something substantial about this place.
Fareshares and 56a Infoshop squatted their building from 1988 to 2003. Then we were forced to negotiate a tenancy with the Council or face eviction. We now pay reduced rent and rates and pretty much do what have done all along. In 2008, we will have to re-negotiate the terms of the tenancy. Where we were once on a local backstreet next to an industrial estate, that has now been demolished and expensive flats have been built there. The area is changing fast. We hope things go okay for us. The struggle continues. Sounds good? Get involved!!