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Myk Zeitlin


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Audio interview with Myk Zeitlin

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Zeitlin, Myk (Subject of)


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Collection Number: HHH - 003
Speaker: Myk Zeitlin
Recordist: Isabel Parrot
Length of Recording (s): 2:05:37
Purpose of recording: Hackney Housing History Project
Recording Dates: 21.03.2011
Recording location: Myk’s flat, Stepney, London
Access restrictions: None
Recording equipment: Zoom H4N, internal microphone
Recording notes:
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Transcribed by: Isabel Parrot
Subject: Personal housing history, suburbia, squatting, bedsits, council tenant, activism including against the Criminal Justice Bill, squatting housing for destitute refugees, on relationship to home and the importance of community and socialising as a part of home.
Time code -Summary
0:00:00 - Born. Brought up in suburban Harrow. Memories of first homes.

0:05:45 - Moved out. Experiences of squatting in Cricklewood with great expectations at first.
“I did gradually get to know more and more anarchist busker squatter troublemakers and... I, after four years I decided that I didn’t like work and I certainly didn’t like living at home still and so I gave up work and I moved into a squat in Cricklewood, thinking that um I was moving in with a load of other people who had all vaguely been interested and then none of them moved in um so it was me on my own and I had all these fantasies about the great things you could do when you are in a building where no-one can tell you what to do… about having you know different rooms representing different seasons so one room was going to be a summery room and I was going to put sand on the floor and paint the walls blue and have bright lights and this place, the water was cut off, the electricity was cut off, no water can’t have been, yeah there was no electricity, there was no gas”

Getting arrested taking curtains from an empty house. Moved to South London, to a GLC flat in a block with Italian squatters.
“I mean this was 1980, so in the late seventies, early eighties, there were a lot of young Italians who were fleeing political persecution um and, well a combination of persecution and old-fashioned Catholic morality, so London was, London was the place to come to.”
“Everyone seemed young in those days”.

Talks about tenant – squatter relations and how the neighbours reacted to them:
“I think it was quite rare to have any problems with neighbours… apart from that other time when we got arrested I don’t think neighbours ever even bothered calling the police.”

Social life was an important part of the squatting experience:
“And with the other squatters I think we tended to you know we would quite often go and have a cup of tea and have met the others, go out for drinks, I don’t remember proper parties, maybe that’s because I was too drunk, [Laughs] I’m not sure but yeah it was generally a good atmosphere, good relationships”

As he became more experienced he had more success with squatting: “We moved on to a really nice house again, it was amazing, I think it was the experience of regularly checking places out but we were walking down this road into Brixton one day and... There was a house we, me and Bob just looked at each other and looked at this house and there was nothing that you could... there was no actual sign that said it was empty, but somehow we just knew and we obviously kept an eye on it for a few weeks and made sure”

Talks about the Brixton riots.

0:24:23 - Move to Islington bedsit. Involvement in Islington Unwaged Centre, led to him joining the Islington Housing Action Group. Returned to squatting.
“I got involved in what was, what was it called Islington Housing Action Group which was meant to be about more than squatting but it never was because there was just so many existing struggles around housing that we weren’t connected with that all we did represent really were squatters… and then a couple of them were talking about opening up a new squat and I decided that there was no point in me living in a bedsit where I was not spending much time anyway and so I joined in with them”

Class War began, which the ‘hard core’ squatter movements ‘inclined towards’ and defined themselves against the trend of people joining the Labour Party. Talks about politics and squatting:
“Yes, there were a lot of squatters who weren’t political at all but the political culture that, of those who were active was that squatting was part of... us, whatever us meant, some idea of the people, maybe the working class, taking control of our lives and of the world”

0:44:09 - Life as lodger in Kentish Town, which was a nice place to live:
“It was somewhere between a family and communal so that was really good for a few years … people would sit around talking in the kitchen before and after dinner and out in the garden and in those days I smoked and I tended to stay up really late and yeah I’d be chatting to anybody out in the garden … and this now is the time of the anti-poll tax struggle and… I became very involved…. I actually, I still had a duplicator from the Unwaged Centre in my room and there was, Eve was a designer and Alan was a health and safety expert, he worked for the Hazards magazine so they had computers so I could come home from a meeting, design a leaflet and have it printed to be on the streets the next morning so yeah that was the way the house worked”

0:53:33 - Moved to Stoke Newington:
“After a couple of years in Kentish Town, the um, a lot, nearly all the people I knew from the area were growing up, their parents owned houses in Kentish Town, they were coming to the point of setting up their own homes and of course none of them could afford to buy in Kentish Town, Tufnell Park and all of them were buying places in Stoke Newington as part of the wave of gentrification and then one of the daughters of my landlady decided to buy a flat in Stoke Newington and I went along as her lodger”

Stoke Newington was:
“Certainly less poncey than it is now, there were a lot of, there were a lot of squatters around, I’d say there were probably more black people and less of a Turkish community um so there was a bit more of an edge to it and a lot of places were getting squatted um, and it was also a very good place for skips I suppose, having rich people around as well. So yeah it was, it was quite lively… pretty much all the people in the area I started meeting were squatting and had been involved in a squatting scene for a while, most of them had been involved in resisting the Stamford Hill eviction in 88.”

The Stamford Hill eviction was:
“Massive. It was set up as there was going to be resistance um and... there were barricades, I mean it wasn’t just the squatters, you know local kids came along, and started, well there were local kids who were nicking cars and bringing them to the estate and setting them up as barricades... so it was all quite lively. Um and yeah when it was finally evicted it was with riot police and a lot of bailiffs and quite a lot of force”

He wrote a magazine with some friends and describes an article saying that housing reproduces class relations:
“I think I was arguing that housing like the wage is open to struggle and that it’s necessary for the system to have some control because if workers receive too much, too much wages they become less inclined to work and similarly if you have enough control over your housing and enough space that um, you can, you can I suppose escape… so for example gentrification isn’t just something that happens, it’s needed to break up concentrations of, working class concentrations of resistance so its political as, as well as being a part of re-imposing economics on everybody.”

1:03:51 - Became homeless, found a place to squat in Glading Terrace:
“Yeah it was great because it was a whole block… with three or floor stairwells, each of which I suppose would have had eight flats um, so the stairwells could be quite autonomous, they were, so gradually we were taking over. My place was up the top and had a bedroom built in a sort of attic which was a lovely space and then we cleared out the garden, we started having parties in the garden”

Frustrated with local politics in Kentish Town;
“When I moved to Hackney I said I am never going to get involved in local politics again and I looked around for something to do and I was unemployed and some friends of mine had been working at ASS, Advisory Service for Squatters to get an extra ten pounds a week on top of their dole so I thought oh I can do that and I started going there with no intention of getting involved more than that… I realised, after six months of listening to Jim ranting at people at meetings who were getting things wrong and me keeping quiet, I learned how to do things, so I got more involved. And at the same time there was the Criminal Justice Bill which was quite similarly to today the Home Secretary announced at the Tory party conference “I am going to get rid of squatting, I am going to get rid of hunt saboteurs, blah blah blah” so they created a bill which obviously brought together all these people who were under attack and gave squatting a new lease of … and so with me then going back to squatting myself suddenly it was almost like my whole world revolved around squatting again so living, campaigning, friends… I got involved in, in the campaigning which um, there was a campaign called Squash which was Squatters Action for Secure Homes, not quite an acronym [laughs] but it works which had already been set up… I started doing stuff with them, doing um publicity occupations of places… a really nice big place down Knightsbridge just facing the park which we did once just squatted it for the day with lots of publicity… There was a big block squatted almost opposite um Scotland Yard, New Scotland Yard, called the Artillery Mansions and street homeless people were moved in, um some of whom weren’t very good at living indoors [exhales] and er it got quite messy at times but I wasn’t involved in that. I think it was probably a bit later we did a sort of we did a sit in of a platform at Liverpool Street on the... anniversary of the first people taking over platforms during the Blitz, sort of making the connection and pointing out that you know people did have to actually take action and take the places themselves despite, you know, propaganda makes out that the authorities decided that people ought to be able to go down there”.

1:13:48 - He describes hanging out with the activist community, making late night plans for demonstrations at Stoke Newington punk gigs. As part of a campaign to persuade Hackney Council not to enforce the Criminal Justice Bill when it came in:
“We called this demo and it was you know we tried to make it as wide as possible, how it could be used against tenants as well, you know an attack on civil liberties, um and we involved the Colin Roach Centre which was a local radical resource centre um, which is another story um but anyway we had, we had a big demo, it must have been the night of the Housing Committee… we had plans to try and hand in a petition, I think… then some of the people who hadn’t been involved in the organizing as soon as it seemed we weren’t going to get in, started kicking the door down um and got in, people were running around like headless chickens and not finding the committee room and the riot police turned up and quite a few people got arrested so we had to have a defense campaign um but still oh and two of the people arrested… worked for Hackney Council so that was rather awkward for them and one of them ended up having to pay quite a bit for the repair of the door so yeah that wasn’t so good.”

Describes how his home at Glading Terrace was due to be evicted at the same time as a week of action against the Criminal Justice Bill. They planned to organize resistance to the eviction, but miscalculated the eviction date and were caught by surprise when the bailiffs turned up. He describes how he felt:
“I went through one of those things of first being, we were given an hour to collect our stuff together and I sort of panicked at first and thought oh what am I going to take? And then suddenly it just it was like enlightenment that suddenly it really didn’t matter so I thought oh well I’ll take what I can, there’s some things that obviously I need to take but er and my friend had a car so I realised I could take what I managed to get into his car and that was it and that was a really nice feeling.”

Following the eviction he moved to Tower Hamlets:
“We took a house in a street and yeah with lovely neighbours, started being very sociable, it was summer so people would sit outside on the front doorstep doing the Guardian crossword together and then we converted three gardens into one dug a pond and put goldfish in and yeah that was a lovely time”

1:24:09 - Explains how with the short publicity stunt squats they were trying to highlight that buildings were empty while people were homeless and that they should be used. He got involved in squatting buildings to be used as social centres:
“Quite a lot of my friends were still in Hackney and quite a lot had stopped, had now stopped squatting because they had been re-housed, um or whatever and people were feeling isolated again and… so we decided that er what we need was to squat social space, social centres, so we um got together, first we found this pub on Green Lanes”

They fixed the place up and went on to squat other centres, which were used especially by people who had used to be squatters, some of whom now had young children, ‘People who needed a bit of space’ as a social space.

1:32:22 - In 1997 the government announced they would cut benefits and housing to refugees.
“We wanted to do something that would both help people in need and be a and get publicity and slag off the refugee industry that wasn’t doing anything so we decided to open up a squat for those made homeless by this new law and we found a place on Stoke Newington High Street or sort of on the border, one of the bits where it keeps changing its name, and it was an old court house so we thought oh that’s great, it’s really appropriate, really symbolic and its owned by the government… it had been people from local churches who’d pretty much put the word out to us that they wanted something to happen, they wanted to be involved and there was still the Colin Roach Centre and others as well, so we took this place and very quickly there was an attempted illegal eviction by these cow boy builders but of course this being Dalston, um rapidly to our defense came various Turkish, Kurdish Leftists of various descriptions who helped chase them off we were offered guns by some Kurdish Maoists, and we said no and we offered them English lessons and they said yes but it never quite came together… they turned up um to evict us, they got in, they got in the first floor window, up a ladder, with Alsatians, I have never actually, I still can’t really picture Alsatians going up a ladder but they did. So that was scary but at the same time really adrenaline rush because we knew they weren’t supposed to do this and they didn’t know the law and we had a massive stand off for a couple of hours, they um, our supporters were turning up outside, the police were outside um and eventually we called the Law Centre, Hackney Law Centre had also been a bit involved in the project and their housing lawyer turned up with law book under his arm and that’s what finally convinced the police to tell these people that they had to talk to their people and do things properly.”

They then squatted the building at 67a Stoke Newington Rd which is now Alexandra Court hostel. They only housed one asylum seeker there:
“My understanding was that he had probably been sent to Halkevi Centre which was next door to us but being, because he was from Turkey, but being a Turkish Roma he was not going to walk into a Turkish Centre so he was found standing outside having nowhere to go and he was brought in so that was almost by coincidence”

Following the eviction of the court house this initiative became ARCH: Autonomous Refugee Centre of Hackney. Legal means of finding people assistance were found by law centres and ARCH squatted a house in Clissold Park to house people who couldn’t be housed any other way. The 1946 National Assistance Act was the only legislation they could use to get people state support. He describes some of his learning from ARCH:
“We kept making mistakes around assuming that because people were in a common situation that they would act in common and it doesn’t, a. it doesn’t work and b. you know they weren’t they weren’t so much, I mean to us they were refugees and that is a common situation whereas to them they were all quite unique people from particular places with particular needs so what they had in common came second so there were lots of complexities that we weren’t prepared for.”

1:43:37 - The Criminal Justice Bill didn’t criminalise squatting, but did bring in speeded up processes for evicting squatters.

1:46:58 - Describes involvement in squatted social centres; an old library on Brownswood Rd, N16 and London Fields Lido:
“Which was very odd. It was well it was just in winter it was freezing, there was you know again no designed living space so people had to make, had to be imaginative in making little bits homely. There was a café that we turned into a kitchen so in summer it was fine. We never put water in the pool, we never actually turned it into a lido, I think our ideas of health and safety were a bit too strong for that um, but there was, quite a lot did go on, there were some parties… But there were, there were some events that were already, that had already been planned by the London Fields Users’ Group which carried on with us there and this actually protected us because there was one event which um, the deputy mayor turned up to so when we went to court and they said “they’re squatting, they’ve got no license to be there” we said well we must have a license, you know the deputy mayor came round and she didn’t say “you’ve got to go”

1:51:37 - “In the meantime I’m living down in Tower Hamlets in this street and the council decide that they want their street back and so we have some protests. We go along and say “you can’t evict us you’re mak[ing] us homeless” and they say “well, we’ll give you council flats if you want” and so we said “ah but no we want to live together, that’s what it’s really about” so they said “ah yes so there’s this really horrible block” [laughs] “you can all live together there” and some of us umm-ed and ahh-ed about it and enough people said “no we’re not living there” that that fell apart… until about this time a lot of councils were doing schemes for hard-to-let flats where you could apply, two individuals could apply. So yeah they said any two people, they will give a council flat to so that was very convenient and so I got this flat.”

As many squatters were housed in stable accommodation there was a down side; the collective living aspect was lost:
“I think for many people it’s a double edged sword… I think a lot of people do find it difficult and less, I mean some people moved into flats and became involved in their block, involved in their estate I guess partly because my political and social life was still mainly back in Hackney and those that were in this area got spread out really quickly so yeah I guess I feel isolated in that way. And also, I mean one of us who argued to be housed on her own and it was allowed, she then maybe after six months decided that she couldn’t take it and she actually moved into the squat that we had opened for refugees”

1:56:32 - On what home means to him:
“Well I guess there are two sides to it. I mean I know that there are, one side of it is it’s the place where you shut out the rest of the world and that’s something that I’ve, that I think I do now appreciate. I’ve got this place and I can now shut out the world and I guess there’s times when the world is not so friendly and you need that but also I think that’s what I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to escape from and I mean also growing up in suburbia I think a lot of my politics and my activity has been about that, trying to break down that weird split that’s this is the space where people live and this is the space where people work and everything is enclosed plus you know, I suppose some kind of critique of the family, or at least the nuclear family so yes I’m, that’s a side of home that I, I appreciate on one level and really find quite scary on another level and so I guess the other thing about home is yeah, that home is where you’re with other people and you’re creating something together and that’s the bit I miss.”

1:58:34 - In the past squatting had a big influence on housing policy:
“Certainly in the past it did massively… I think we have now gone back to how things were in the sixties where councils didn’t really want to house people, um, they were advising people to move to Hull because there was empty property up there … squatting… transformed the relationship, squatting was part of the struggle that forced councils to buy up properties, to allow them to be used by short-life coops so I think by the late seventies, early eighties, councils certainly progressive councils, inner city councils saw them, saw their role as providing housing for people even to the extent that rent arrears wasn’t really chased in the late seventies um and yeah it wasn’t, I guess it was partly that London was, was being depopulated in the sixties and seventies and I guess there was no reason why people shouldn’t live in places… the GLC didn’t particularly care about sub-tenants and in the… early eighties the GLC offered an amnesty to all squatters in GLC property, making people tenants if they wanted to be, in fact ASS nearly um, nearly folded because it was felt that there was no need for them anymore.”

These changes however came before a backlash:
“ ‘We’, whatever that means, were getting the things we wanted and using them to transform our lives rather than being used to transform things the way those with power want us to so I mean yes the squatting movement in the seventies was part of a massive flowering and questioning and opening up of space for, in most aspects of life, questioning empty homes, questioning paying rent, questioning there being landlords, questioning why people work and what for but um, you know it’s not purely in the sense of people dropping out, you know there were things like the alternative plan at I can’t remember at, the Lucas Alternative Plan that the um Lucas workers, well the union, employed consultants to work out how their factories could be converted to produce useful things instead of weaponry. I mean partly because there were threats of redundancies but you know that was part of a movement criticizing the way that everything was going on um and creating space for people to either drop out and do their own thing or to increase their practical criticism and I mean, in a way to me it almost seems logical that there had to be a backlash”

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