In a verdant corner of Islington, north London, my editor tells me there are 150 squatters, complete with dogs and cans of Stella Artois. They are making their beds in what used to be Ashmount Primary School.
This much we know: they’ve been hiding out since red October, when Islington Council cancelled the security contract on the derelict site. Last week’s paper says they did it to annoy Michael Gove.
I arrive at 5pm. It’s already dark and rain hammers down on the eaves. Volvos splash by on Hornsey Lane.
These people, I think to myself, are clearly in it for the long haul.
A window to the old dining room had been left open. A trap or an easy way in? The curtains are drawn. I skirt around outside trying all the doors, which have been nailed shut. What are they hiding? A laminated possession order from the council is taped to the gates, bleeding with rain.
I peer into the old school dining room through gaps in the curtains. These people, I think to myself, are clearly in it for the long haul. They’ve brought their own bloody pool table.
About four of them are playing pool, and I can see dreadlocks. They don’t give a toss what you or I think.
With all the other entrances locked, I weigh up my options. Is this story really where my attention should be, with 27 million immigrants about to pour in from Bulgaria and Romania? Won’t the editor have me strung up by the balls if he knows I’m pounding the streets of this niche subgenre?
The window to the canteen is my only option, but it looks hairy in there. I can see that two of them have dreadlocks. Appearing through the drapes, a dramatic appearance would be inevitable. It could result in some unwelcome attention from the people holding pool cues.
‘I’m a journalist – a friendly journalist,’ I reassure him. ‘I’m not from the Evening Standard.’
As I check my phone to see which Tube line to take home, a knocking shakes the windows. “Who’s there?”
A man pokes his head out from the second floor. He looks foreign. He wears a tracksuit. He introduces himself as “Jason”.
“I’m a journalist – a friendly journalist,” I reassure him. “I’m not from the Evening Standard.”
“OK, meet me round the side entrance,” he snarls. “I’ll come let you in.”
For a good thirty seconds I stand in the rain, tracing the steps of countless ITV camera men. I prepare for an ambush.
The door opens. A man with a upper-class accent – like one of those fraudulent Lords they keep banging up – holds out his hand for shaking.
“No photos,” says Lord Squat. I believe him – there are no photos on the Islington Gazette’s website.
I get out my tape recorder and Lord Squat (who calls himself ‘Marcus’) begins reading a statement.
“We are individuals who find themselves in a position of potential homelessness. We have individually come to the decision to inhabit the building out of individual necessity. It is not a lifestyle choice.”
Pool balls are clinking together in the next room. People laughing, jeering one another, on drugs.
“We have apparently arrived on the lowest rung of the economic scale for many reasons. The situation often occurs due to no fault of the individual. Many people seem to have fallen through any social safety net provided by our society.”
It must be the accent – it reminds me of my proprietor – because I’m beginning to fall in step with Marcus’s worldview. Marcus helps me to understand a few things, that’s for sure.
He says they would like to be treated as custodians of the building, like caretakers. Fat chance.
Marcus says they will happily vacate the building once a decision has been made regarding the future of the school. But not just any school: a state school.
“State school, say no to privatisation” yells a man from down the vast corridor.
We’re joined by another man, twenties, unwashed, who won’t give his name. He must have previous with journalists.
“A free school is just a rhetorical name,” says Mr X. “It’s a private company that makes money.”
Mr X says Labour-led Islington Council didn’t let squatters in to scupper plans for one of Michael Gove’s new free schools, a rumour I’d heard. That’s something I’ll have to ask Islington Council about, I thought, if they’re not already conspiring to cover up another planning scandal.
My mind flashes back to that possession order on the gates outside. It mentions a court date this week. . The good people of Hornsey Lane could be rid of these interlopers before we know it.
‘That would be a big problem for us, and there might be a situation of resistance.’
“We’ll appeal against that,” says Mr X. “And go to the high court. If they order the high court bailiffs there’s obviously not much we can do about it.
“That would be a big problem for us, and there might be a situation of resistance, even against high court bailiffs in that situation.”
As the four men kick around ideas for peace, love and understanding on a worldwide scale, a puppy snarls at me before licking my leg. I feel lucky to make it out of the vestibule alive.
To be continued…