OUR HOUSE

Romantics call them Donga tribespeople, Earthfirsters! or eco- warriors. But, to the developers of Britain's new motorways, squatters are just a bloody expensive nuisance. AMANDA MITCHISON spends time with a group of motorway protesters in east London, in the last, anarchic days befor e the bulldozers move in. Photographs by ANDREW TESTA
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The Independent Culture
Once, number 135 Fillebrook Road, the last house standing in the way of the M11 link road that cuts through east London, must have been a rather grand affair. It had four storeys, imposing proportions, patterned brick work and iron porthole windows. But not now. Today, walls are covered in slogans, it has lost most of its roof, and a 20-foot tower with streamers totters on what remains. Yet it still has its dignity. It stands there among the rubble, defiant and crumbling, the last slice of cake on the plate; and, like any last slice, it has an inexorable pull.

There are three approaches to number 135. One is from the north, past the half-dozen reclining white men from Reliance Security Services, across a hundred yards of wasteland covered in old floorboards, bits of tiling, empty cement bags and wildflowers. Then you reach the side of the house with a three-foot painted cat and a gnomic message in enormous lettering: it's no good. i will become more than you can possibly imagine.

Another approach is from the south, past the half-dozen reclining black men from Reliance Security, across 20 yards of wasteland, and up to another side of the house decorated with the huge banner: no compromise in defence of mother earth.

Otherwise, you can try what was once the front gate. The steel sheeting lifts back easily, but, when you walk up to the front door, watch out for loose tools, open paint pots, used cooking pots, crockery and the remains of a fire. The cymbal on the door says "door gong", but nobody answers. I push the door and go in. There is no electricity, no gas; plaster dust and piping lie everywhere. But some basic decencies live on: two mirrors and a Pizza Hut mayonnaise container, which serves as a sort of umbrella stand containing torches, brushes, a mountaineering clip and one rubber glove. There is no welcome mat - in fact, there is no floor - but someone has had the good manners to paint welcome! and we meet again! across the wall.

Nor are there any stairs. Just a makeshift ladder, leading to a small hole. Hello? Hello? Nobody home. So much for the forces of occupation.

The squatting of 135 Fillebrook Road, or "Monstonia", as it has been nicknamed after its slightly creepy appearance, is only the latest in a series of protests over the M11 road extension. The motorway, which was originally due to take four years to build and cost pounds 230 million, will stretch three-and- a-half miles through Wanstead, Leytonstone, Leyton and Hackney Wick, where it will connect with the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. The Department of Transport claims that it will knock seven minutes off the average journey into London, and improve traffic circulation through northeast London. But the opposition - which ranges from east Londoners to the eco-warriors who have also obstructed developers at Twyford Down in Hampshire and the M65 extension in Lancashire - argues that the road will simply increase the total volume of traffic.

Since the work began in 1993, protests have already caused two to three months delay and added more than pounds 20 million to the cost of the project. First, campaigners tried to stop an old sweet chestnut tree from being uprooted. Then came "Wanstonia", when protesters declared an independent state based upon a group of houses due for demolition. The biggest and longest protest was in Claremont Road, Leyton, where hundreds of police and scores of bailiffs laid siege to a street of terraced houses emblazoned with zany art works.

But, by the beginning of April this year, there remained the single, unoccupied house in Fillebrook Road, which was still standing because the Department of Transport had granted the tenant extra time to find new accommodation. On 11 April, the DoT sent in a demolition squad. They ruined the water pipes, pulled most of the tiles off the roof, and cut down the two big trees in the back garden. In the evening, they left some men from Essential Security Services on nightwatch. According to the protesters - Abdul Bangura, Essential's operations manager, will neither confirm nor deny this - when the guards retired to their cars to sleep, one left a notice on the door: "Guard 9 gone to make a phone call." That night, protesters moved in, erected barricades, and boarded up windows. Another occupation had begun.

Essential Security Services were not seen again by the protesters, who proceeded to use the perimeter fence to build a roof tower. Then a new fence appeared, and, in May, Reliance Security Services, the company there today, was sent in. By an inexplicable quirk - "pure chance", insists Reliance - white guards were stationed to the north of the house, black guards to the south.

It was not until two weeks ago that the DoT won an eviction order. The protesters quickly began building up forti-fications, adding fresh paint, getting ready for the Big Day. And a Big Day it will surely be - for the forces of law and order seem to prefer the drama and vast expense of an early-morning raid, with cordons, cranes, cherrypickers, loudspeakers, and, if they play their cards sufficiently badly, hundreds of hours of overtime.

To get inside Fillebrook Road, you climb a makeshift ladder, crouch through a hole, pull back an old blanket pinned to the wall, and find yourself in a room with sleeping bags, blankets, patches of carpet, musical instruments, rolling tobacco, spreadeagled packets of crisps, candle ends, dog-eared paperbacks about the ego and the id, and gruesome still lifes of withered vegetables - everything that gives the look, feel and smell of a Sixties squat, down to the long hair and jeans; only now there are more dreadlocks, better teeth and, perhaps because this is not a student- led movement, less intensity.

The young squatters, called eco-activists, or Earthfirsters!, or Donga tribespeople, or eco-warriors, are a wide assortment, from a young woman who has taken a week off from her job in a children's home to a long-haired anarchist in a leather jacket who sees the protest as another agreeably anti-authoritarian gesture: "It's not just roads, it's them taking fucking liberties." In general, they're nomadic, live in squats, attend summer festivals, are anti-materialist, and also under 30.

Take Christopher and James the Cook, the two most regular residents of number 135. Christopher, keeper of the household's moribund cellular telephone (subsidised by a local residents' support group), is the de facto leader of the occupation, although he may wince at the suggestion. In his early twenties, soft-spoken, a vegan with a long, mouse-coloured ponytail, he spends his time moving from one anti-road protest to another. James the Cook - tiny, with freckles, glasses and a thin, whiplash pigtail ending in a purple bead - has spent the past two years leading an itinerant lifestyle. When asked what he would do in the winter, he looked astonished. "The winter? Oh, that's far away. I could be anywhere. Fifty things could happen between then. Fifty life changes."

The two men spend much of the day up on the roof. Here stands the tower decked out with streamers, balloons, banners, plastic lilies and, at the very top, a pirates' flag. On one of the bottom rungs hangs a typical piece of anti-road art - a mobile made out of the broken parts of a baby-walker, a gas mask, a policeman's helmet, a Santa Claus hat, a small, empty box of Honey Nut Cheerios, and a plastic flowerpot. "It's a comment on children, asthma and roads," begins James, then pauses: "Actually, I just stuck it all on together."

When the eviction begins, the protesters will go up on to the roof, where they will be visible from the street and, therefore, they believe, less likely to be manhandled by the police and bailiffs. Some will attach themselves to the "lock-ons", tubes of metal or ceramic piping with metal bars across one end. The tubes are set in reinforced concrete - either fixed to the roof or inside an oil drum. The protesters put their arms down the pipes and tie themselves on to the metal bars at the end using karabiners, a coupling device used by mountaineers. To free the protesters, the bailiffs must get cutters down the sides of the piping, or drill straight through the concrete.

Across the roof lies another work-in-progress - a pair of black gym shoes, one shoe held together with string, the other with a giant nappy pin, and, nearby, a pair of old, mouldy trainers with the tongues hanging out pitifully. On closer examination, the shoes turn out to be inhabited by Edith, a young German with blonde dreadlocks, and the trainers by Jason, very young and with a nose ring, who borrowed them off his brother, who in turn bought them four years ago in a car boot sale. Execrable footwear is a hallmark of the anti-road protesters - the result of poverty, a vegetarian distaste for leather, and the fact that building rubble does horrible things to canvas shoes.

Now, as the days pass and the eviction seems more imminent, more barricading appears around doors and windows, and the number of people quadruples. Only a handful used to stay the night. But now, as the tension rises, there are 20 people filling the room. For supper there is a treat - potato curry brought by a purple-haired woman. Usually, the household eat vast amounts of junk food (they call it "gak") and a vegetable stew, shop rejects, cooked on an open fire outside. But tonight there is orange potato gloop, scooped up with brown bread.

Quiet satisfaction settles upon the room, broken eventually by Martin, a curly-haired youth with a Pink Floyd T- shirt and trousers several sizes too big. No self-respecting barman would ever serve him, not only because he looks underage, but because, after half a bottle of cider, a white heat seems to take him over, and he stands there, gesticulating wildly, exhorting the others to pull down the new security fence. "Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible. Shagging the Queen is possible," he rants.

One of the dangers of an egalitarian set-up like Fillebrook Road is that nobody wants entirely to disappoint Martin, and there is a motivating zing to his words. So a few of the group are soon spreading out in the garden. The fence will be ideal for roof barricades. Martin makes no attempt at stealth. He and a friend (a smaller, darker version of himself) bounce sections of ply sheeting against the ground. Bang. Bang. Bang. Enough to waken the dead. Enough to waken even Reliance Security Services.

Three of the white security guards wander over from the northern site. They tell Martin and his friend that, if there's more trouble, they'll have to "radio out the old Bill".

"We're just Rent-a-lump," explains a tall, skinny-limbed guard.

"Got any cigarettes?" asks Martin.

"Only roll-ups," apologises Skinny Limbs.

"My hands were ripped to fuck pulling that fence down," complains Martin. The guard rolls him a cigarette. Then Martin asks to try out the guard's torch. Skinny Limbs is reluctant, but, after a little coaxing, he hands it over. Martin waves it around, shining it over onto the gap that he has made in the fence. Then, slightly to everyone's surprise, he gives it back.

The guards return to their site, and Martin and his friend retire upstairs, where one of the protesters is lighting up joss sticks to extinguish the lingering smell of gloop. But soon Martin is ranting again, and the other protesters agree to a second raid, as long as it's "mellow". Now it's the turn of the black security guards - nice West African boys, say the protesters, over here doing business studies and hopelessly fresh to the job. Which is true, for when the protesters start to pull down the fence beside their Portaloo, the guards just stand there saying, "Don't", until a thickset young guard takes out a mobile phone, furrows his brows in concentration, and fingers out a number.

"Can you give me the number of the police, please?" he asks.

The protesters roar with laughter. The guard looks offended.

Meanwhile, a woman grabs a coil of barbed wire. "Leave it! Leave it!" cries the thickset guard, and one of his colleagues grabs the other end of the coil. He pulls, she pulls. The coil stretches out like a Slinky. They don't seem to hear the terrific banging further along the fence, where Martin and his friend - joined by Skinny Limbs - are wrenching off panels with crowbars. Only when the police cars approach does Martin head back into the house.

That night, the protesters sleep in their clothes, some with their karabiners attached to their wrists. The women roll a powerful joint. The technique, they explain, is to position yourself in a part of the room where there are still tiles on the roof (in case it rains) and to then knock yourself out with hashish before the "walrus orgy" of male snoring begins.

Our room has nine, maybe ten, sleepers. The fire risks - unstable candles, drugs, no stairs, a barricaded ground floor, angry security men - just aren't worth thinking about. The sleeper next to me breathes as if he were ripping Velcro. A small group in the corner reminisces about old lock-ons, memorable banter with bailiffs; they nurse their pipe dreams - why not take some of those red roadwork lamps and make a big, red heart on the roof? or how about levitating a Portaloo on to the top of the tower?

Dawn light comes through the holes in the ceiling. Downstairs, the toilet, a bucket of wood chips, stands brimming. Outside, the security guards sit dead-eyed with lack of sleep. There's no sign of the cherrypicker, the police cordon, or the bailiffs. The eviction has been put off for another day. Time for the security guards tos pay for their summer holidays, and for the protesters to nick a bit more fencing.

Every day that passes means that, when the time comes, the eviction will take longer and be even more expensive. Look at the sturdy walls of number 135, look at the protesters who have nothing to lose, look at the security guards and their Faustian pact over the fence. Easy to see how the millions build.

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