Place Waste Dissent, by Paul Hawkins, presents the reader with a monochrome kaleidoscope of imagery overlaid with the bleak poetry of personal experience and anarchy. Using a scrapbook of cut up photographs, legal notices and rough typed words it documents the events of the Claremont Road protests against the proposed M11 link road in east London in the early 1990s.
In the wake of compulsory purchase orders, the derelict properties were inhabited by squatters and other protesters against the government imposed demolition of homes to make way for roads. The lengthy dispute brought to the public attention how radical dissent could not be easily subjugated. If law and order are to be maintained there must be a willingness to comply or a fear of the consequences. Those who have nothing to lose are difficult to control.
The book opens with the story of Dolly Watson who had lived at 32 Claremont Road for her entire life. She had survived the blitz, although the experience had left her fearful of fire. At the time of the protests she was all but housebound, unable to climb her stairs. She got by on a morning sherry, porridge, tea and a 40 a day smoking habit, neighbours doing the little shopping she required. After all that Dolly had seen and experienced throughout her long life she saw no reason to leave her home. The arrival of the squatters and protesters added colour, the grandchildren she had never had.
Interspersed with the personal stories of a few of the Claremont Road occupiers, many of whom spend their days high on drink and drugs, are snippets from the summons, threats and surveillance operations that were enacted in an attempt to drive the troublesome individuals out. None of it worked. When the police stepped up the measures they were willing to use to force evictions, so too did the residents. They chained themselves to pipes, walls and each other. By the end the houses were being demolished around them, great chunks being removed with protesters still attached.
Fascinating though these details are, it is the strength of the presentation that gives this book its edge. It is performance art on the page, an installation with time as the third dimension rather than space.
The work is full of static and flux. Although the stories of Dolly, and a young girl they call Flea, are poignant, many of the protesters are far from admirable in the way they live their lives. This is presented raw. What comes across is that these are people who have fallen through the cracks created by a society which values corporate success over caring for those who are less able to cope, or who are unwilling to become cogs in the mechanisms that keep the privileged in power.
Dolly remembers the unemployed of 1907, those left homeless by the war, the endless fighting in far away places throughout her lifetime. The arrival of the squatters did not surprise her:
“they did that everywhere in London after the war, they had to live somewhere and it’s the same today…”
Running roughshod over the needy, blaming them for their predicament, will not make them go away. The poor have always been amongst us, they have nowhere else to go. This book is a timely reminder that it only takes a few determined individuals to tear down the facade of order. Injustice breeds discontent. This powerful work documents how damaging that can be for all.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.