Book Review: Total Shambles


Total Shambles, by George F., is described by the author as creative non-fiction. It is a memoir of his years spent squatting in London with certain details changed to protect those he met along the way. The stories told are an indictment of a society which protects the sanctity of property ownership over the well-being of its people. By dehumanising the homeless, labelling them scroungers and scumbags, viewing them as vermin to be driven away, the causes of their problems are ignored. Basic survival requires shelter. If priced out of the housing market then shelter must be found in another way.

The book opens with a short history of squatting. It is not a new phenomena but the vilification of squatters has increased in recent years. Over periods of time, as land has been taken from commoners and given over to those seeking to use it to make money, the poor have been expected to accept and comply. Those who will not are portrayed as contemptible troublemakers, the laws made by the property owners used to punish them.

The author became a squatter through need when he felt he could no longer ask friends to allow him to sleep on their sofas. He had a job but could not afford London rents. In winter, in need of shelter, he joined the large number of others in similar situations looking to take up residence in one of the many empty buildings in the city for free.

Many of these properties had been empty for years as their owners waited for areas to become desirable, thereby enabling them to create high rent business units or homes for the wealthy. They became incensed when their investments were occupied by those who would not pay to be there.

Time and again the author details the means by which the owners sought to keep the squatters out. Expensive security, cameras and guards were employed. Bailiffs and police processed endless evictions in order to leave the buildings empty again. The legal rights of squatters were ignored, the law favouring those who submit to state control.

This is a fascinating account of people living on the margins of society. The squatters find their food in skips, their furniture dumped on streets by consumers who have no further need of a stained mattress or sofa. There is rampant drug taking, loud music and messy parties. Many of these renegades see paid work as a capitulation, their lifestyle a political statement.

I was disturbed by certain details which the author described: keying a car regarded as youthful exuberance; advice as to how to bring down a police horse; a recollection of throwing missiles at those doing their jobs. I could not condone the way the homeless were treated, but cruelty to animals pains me and the police are people too.

The author’s experiences were shocking and exhausting leading to a personal descent into anarchy. It is not a life that I could imagine anyone choosing to live, although I understand that for too many, choices are limited. The older people who berate the young for not doing as they did, getting a job and making their way in life through hard work, appear to have no concept of the difficulties of modern zero hours contracts, low pay and high rents. When there is no safety net of parents, privilege or state there will always be those who fall through the cracks.

The author is educated so could perhaps have conformed had he made that choice, but judging him for his lifestyle is not what this book is about. It is a portrait of a section of society that is kept hidden, ignored by the media, an unpalatable result of rampant capitalism and xenophobia.

There were short sections on similar problems abroad where shanty towns are cleared and the homeless driven out for fear of turning away potential investors or tourists. The making of money trumps looking after the poor, the money made benefiting those who already own.

This book may present a one sided view but it is a side that is rarely exposed to scrutiny. The problem is well argued and illustrated. The solution is harder to elucidate.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.