Permission to reproduce this interview was given to IARA by Chris, and by the editors of the Ryland Road newsletter, which was produced daily for many weeks during the Covid 19 crisis.
Chris has been living under the bridge outside Kentish Town West station for several months now. He will be 61 next month. He spoke to Trisha about how he got here, and what it is like to live on the streets in the present crisis.
“I feel part of the neighbourhood because of the way I have been treated by people locally. It is really helping me through the coronavirus crisis. There are very few people on the streets, relatively speaking. Because people are scared of handling change, I rely more on the generosity of local people who help me out. Most local people know my face. I feel safer here in this situation than I would if I was put in a hotel. There is a lot of social responsibility and respect, I don’t feel at risk here at all. And the winter has been mild, apart from a few windy nights. I have always considered this a good area. It has changed over the years, but it has always had a good cross section of people. Everybody gets on.
-What’s a typical day like for you?
“I am really fortunate: with the coronavirus, I don’t have access to the toilets that I had before, like at the surgery or the sports centre – I was welcome to use those before, but they are closed now. A friend down the street has given me his house keys, so if needs be, I can use his toilet and shower, which is lovely: it’s a blessing. It turns out we have friends in common going back to 1976. It’s a small world. We became reacquainted a few months ago, it was quite amazing. I also watch a bit of television there, and have cups of tea. I go there in the evenings. And I have an open invitation if there is particularly rough weather -as yet I have not needed to, but it puts your mind at rest.
– You have enough to eat?
I have never gone short of food here. People have been lovely, bringing me bits and bobs, bringing out warm meals as well. I’m blessed.
– What made you choose this area?
Funnily enough, the first place I ever squatted in London was on Prince of Wales road, back in 1976 or 1977. Maybe that is what drew me back here. It’s proved to be a sensible choice; I haven’t had any problems – besides the council snatching all my stuff on one occasion.
– What happened in between?
I’ve lived an itinerant lifestyle. Squatting in London, travelling doing festivals in the summer. We had a fleet of lorries, a public address (PA) systems, travelling stage, and a 40 KW generator. So we used to do up to 13 festivals a summer in
the early years.
-What was your role?
I used to drive a lorry and army trailer and we used to carry the PA system, and sometimes it was used as a part of a small stage. I was driving a 9 3/4 ton lorry with
two 4 wheel trailers behind. On a Sunday I could tow three trailers, as long as you don’t go over 28 mph!
– How long did the free festivals go on for?
Acid house put the kibosh on free festivals. We were just a travelling stage, putting on bands. But the acid house thing brought about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act [an act aimed at stopping raves]. It made it impossible for us to even attempt to do it…We kept getting our PA system impounded. We were never charged with anything. It was impounded on the grounds that we may be about to cause a breach of the peace. How you can cause a breach of the peace in the middle of Salisbury Plain, which is surrounded by artillery practice grounds. A bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
– When did that finish?
It culminated in an incident called the Battle of Beanfield [on 1 June 1985, when Wiltshire Police prevented The Peace Convoy, a convoy of several hundred New Age travellers, from setting up the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival – Wikipedia]. The Stonehenge Festival had been going on for 11 years. The police steered the convoy off into a field – a bean field. They arrested everybody, impounded the vehicles. It was all very heavy. A friend who was pregnant was driving a coach, she had a small child in the bus as well, they smashed a side window, smashed the windscreen, dragged her out through the windscreen.
– What else has coronavirus changed for you?
With fewer people in the streets, fewer trains, I tend to look at my phone more for the time than judge the time by trains, or by people bustling in and out of the station, or the time the workmen open the gates at the Camden Brewery. Certain people come by with their dogs at the same time of day. Routine is part of a comfortable life.
-An important part of you daily routine is reading…[Chris gets books from the book swap at the station. When we meet him, he is engrossed in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes]
Of course. It keeps my mind occupied. I read educational stuff, historical stuff. I love fiction. If I have a good book, it can be any subject. If it’s well written, it’s worth a read. I did not have a great interest in history at school. But since – especially blending history with fiction, that makes great reading. It’s a more educational way of getting history into someone’s noggin’ that learning a list of Kings and Queens. I love local history as well.
– Do you want to share anything about your life before coming here?
I come from the North of England; I grew up in Cheshire. I was adopted. I left home, I’ve been moving around since I was about 16 or 17 years old. When I was at school, I was only interested in being out of doors, really. I did seasonal farm work. I loved travelling, moving. I met people, as a result I ended up in a group of us travelling together, got more proactive, got the PA system and actually did something with it.
I first squatted in London in 1976, I came down at 16, 17. It was a bit of an adventure to start with. I used to come down for the boat show a couple of times a year. I
suppose it piqued my interest in London, there were more opportunities to try and make a living. Back then it was easier, I was doing a bit of busking to start with, not totally successfully, but getting enough to feed myself. Don’t know why they changed the squatting laws. If you see that they intend to use the building, you would move out, wouldn’t you, if it’s no longer an unused building.
-Do you have a message for people in our area?
I’d really like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the people in this area, who have been above and beyond nice to me, and shown consideration. It makes me feel blessed!”