In 1977, Freston Road, a squatted street in Notting Dale, West London, seceded from the United Kingdom, and appealed to the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to prevent evictions by the Greater London Council.
The new nation-state called itself Frestonia. Passports and postage stamps were issued, and 'foreign' visitors were issued with visas. Ministers of State were appointed. Whilst this was a clever publicity-stunt inspired by the old film "Passport to Pimlico", it was also an acclamation of different values.
Frestonia mostly comprised the 'island' of apartments, shops and houses just left of centre in this picture, all condemned as unfit in the 1950's. The original inhabitants had been decanted to the high-rise blocks in the 1960's and the housing left to rot whilst planners tried to decide what to do.
Frestonia was bordered by some of the most expensive property in London. The squatted houses had been cheaply built in the 1850's to accomodate artisan builders while they constructed the elegant Georgian terraces of Notting Hill Gate.
St. Annes Road shaded into immaculate millionaire homes toward the Royal Crescent, near the Kensington Hilton. But this was the Frestonian end.
By 1972 squatters had begun to occupy the derelict houses and make them liveable. At the time nobody realised that it would be more than 10 years before demolition. This ex-hairdressing salon in Mortimer Square was one of the last empty buildings to be squatted.
By the time Kathy arrived in Frestonia with her two children, all the better houses were taken. For a long time she was accomodated in a spare room of one of the "druggie" houses. Eventually a house became free. Unfortunately it had been wrecked by vagrants and was in an appalling state. Most of the windows and floorboards had been used as firewood, there was no electricity or water. With help from other people in the street she did her best to make it a home.
A quiet and stoic woman, Roseanna would have been houseproud in a coalbunker.
Omar arrived along with a caravan, one day. He parked it on land that had long been cleared of houses, and decided he had better tidy it up.
Nancy was what you would call a "character": very erratic, sometimes frightening. She was not averse to throwing bricks at you, or coming after you with a breadknife. Her house was probably the worst: no electricity, water, nor toilet. The floorboards had all been burned, so the ground floor was trodden earth. She lived on anything she could scavenge, including petfood.
Although accepted by Frestonians, many considered her crazy but she was worth listening to. She had had the most awful life. Back in the West Indies her children had been taken away from her. She had been raped, on the streets, and her existence was one of day-to-day fearfulness. Still, she was a survivor and remained a Frestonian for the rest of her life.
Nancy cleaning house
Danny made and repaired lutes in a spare bedroom. In fact he was so good at it that people brought their instruments to him from all over the UK. But there was not a colossal demand for lutes. He expected to someday return to New Zealand, where there is probably even less.
It is unwise to decorate like this unless you want frequent early-morning visits from Notting Hill Drugs Squad. Unfortunately the residents of this house were far too stoned to ever work that out.
Some Frestonians were less than model citizens, lazing around smoking dope, or worse. They weren't keen on gardening, either.
Dave and his radio.
Tom was a totter, who would trawl the local streets for useful throw-outs and scrap metal. He didn't live in Frestonia, but his horse was stabled in a lean-to in the communal gardens. For a while he had the bright idea of selling some of the better stuff he'd found to passing tourist trade on St Anne's Road, a national boundary. But there wasn't any.
Another instrument-maker, and undoubtedly talented, Rivers was too haunted by his own demons to ever actually make much. He was too poor anyway. But he loved his tools and was proud of them.
Rivers came from a middle-class family and had been educated at public school. During the 60's he had been a member of a successful band. The LSD he took then seems to have destroyed what mental equilibrium he had, and in Frestonia he was a sad and lost man. There seemed to be nowhere better for him.
Rivers and his home-made bass guitar.
Rivers shared his house and love of guitars with Gerry, who had as tenuous a grasp of reality, but was more outgoing and cheerful. Gerry was shattered when Rivers was found dead on a railway line some miles away. Nobody ever knew why he was there, and quite probably Rivers didn't either.
Des was, on the surface, the sort of archetypal squatter Daily Mail readers have nightmares about. He gave us plenty of problems too. We strung a wire from our meter to provide his house with electricity. We'd shiver on what we could afford, and he'd run electric fires day and night and argue that the bill was our problem. He'd fill up his house with drug-dealer friends and every few months the police would bust them all. Des was deeply dodgy, and usually off his head one way or another.
And then just when you'd decided he was a hopeless case, he'd offer to do something like fixing your rotten, leaking roof. How many Daily Mail readers would do the same?
When Des was going through his less-criminal phases, and the drug-dealers were all safely locked away, he had spare space in his house and was always happy to share it with anyone who needed somewhere to live. Helga was a German art student, as you can see.
Nancy, Sean and Hound-dog III.
Frestonians were, beneath the veneer of pragmatic anarchy, from different cultures. There were the hippies, idealists of a sort; and the punks, nihilists of a sort. And the itinerant street people, whose lack of youth and lost chances gave them a thread of bitterness to chew on together. For them, there was no dividend of satisfaction from how they lived. It was survival, plain and simple.
Ken's master bedroom.
Ken would never let me photograph him. He was a registered junkie, sensitive and affable, and he was ashamed. When the GLC abandoned their eviction plans and instead offered legitimate tenancies in hard-to-let properties, Ken was one of very few Frestonians who leapt at the chance of a better home. He had had enough of the filth, and fear of unwanted visitors who would try to steal his drugs. At night he barricaded himself in one room, with only one way in or out - a concealed hole through the wall, a refuge carpeted with physeptone bottles.
At Antonia's house, talking about how to get an electricity supply. Antonia and her two daughters were the next occupants of Ken's house - which had no services, no toilet, and few ceilings. Everybody thought they were mad to try, but within a few weeks they had transformed it into a reasonable home with the help of some conscription-dodging Italians.
Getting an electricity supply was a problem for most Frestonians. For one thing a lot of money was needed for a deposit. And second, the electricity board would only connect to a circuit that conformed to regulations, a near impossibility without even more money.
Inevitably this led to creative workarounds. One house with a legal supply would often extend its wiring to neighbours. For many years, there was a piece of mains wire strung across the road, just high enough to clear the double-decker buses passing underneath.
A friend of Antonia's rendered the outside wall to try and keep out the damp. It didn't work. The problem was rising damp.
Flowers - or rather weeds from the wasteland - for the house.
Antonia's daughter Marianne
Stoneleigh Street was the Bel-Air end of Frestonia. They had bigger, better houses, and obtained licences long before the rest of us. By and large, they were more skilled and civilised, with a large number of artists and artisans.
John made very nice decorative plaster pieces, and only had trouble selling them.
Stoneleigh Street breakfast. This was at well before 8am, and everybody was off to work.
Jade's vehicle repair workshop at Stoneleigh Street
Boy with trompe l'oeil, Stoneleigh Street
Whale, Stoneleigh Street.
Why? It was commissioned for Ken Campbell's production of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, at the Roundhouse.
Annie asked me to photograph her whilst she was pregnant.
Her baby suffered cot death, which is more prevalent in poor housing. She became severely depressed. In order for her to be able to return to her parents in France, to recover, Frestonians held a benefit to raise money for her fare.
Benefit for Annie
Nick hastily painted this sign for the benefit of press and foreign film crews who descended on Frestonia after the secession from the UK. Without it, the coachloads of councillors and media may have driven straight past.
Without the self-effacing and eccentric Nick, there would have been no Frestonia. It was his idea.
He gave the impression of being extremely laid back and easygoing, but was a formidable organiser and negotiator for Frestonian interests. He was the nearest Frestonia had to a leader, but he achieved this by persuasion and competence rather than arrogance. Few Frestonians gave him a hard time, as a result - and besides, nobody else wanted to do it. Later, he did much of the work to set up a housing co-op and much of the negotiation with Notting Hill Housing Trust, to ensure Frestonians had a say in redevelopment.
He stood as Ecology Party candidate for Kensington in the 1977 parliamentary election and got about 800 votes, 2.8% of the vote. This was slightly better than the National Front and the woman who was standing on a platform of 'trepanation on the National Health'.
Nick at a barbeque in the communal garden. Many Frestonians were vegetarians, often more out of poverty than conviction, but BBQ'd toast was usually available.
At Frestonia's first-birthday street party
David Rappaport, the Frestonian Foreign Minister, lived in Frestonia before becoming well-known, and he was in his element talking bullshit to the foreign film crews who flocked to Frestonia after the declaration of independence. He had the professional cheek to demand £50 for interviews, and was value for money.
Here, his biting wit was aimed at the GLC during this Frestonian first birthday revue. I remember his act featured a large chillum and was to include blindfold knife-throwing at one of the least popular Frestonians whom he "volunteered". Fortunately, he changed his mind and ended up in 'Time Bandits' rather than Wormwood Scrubs gaol.
Frestonian entertainments would always attract hordes of kids from the local estates. Mostly they despised the squatters, but they loved fire. Every few days some would set fire to dumped tyres or cars or rubbish just to watch the Fire Brigade turn up.
Miss Nazi were a local punk band who made the Sex Pistols seem sophisticated and restrained. They made little pretence of musical ability, but were cutting-edge when it came to upsetting people.
Most parties and events culminated with a bonfire in the garden
The Apocalypse Hotel. They had a thing about the movie here. Definitely far out along the punk axis, the inhabitants were compulsively creative, even though it usually meant wrecking things. The frontage of the hotel changed almost weekly - from camouflage to spattered blood-red, to detritus collage. Inside, staircases vanished overnight, walls were purely provisional, and it was a dangerous place for the careless.
Later they acquired a double-decker bus and turned it into a coupé. Mad Max was the influence there.
A week or two later...
One night the Apocalypse Hotel boys decided to play the "Ride of the Valkyries" very loud at 2am, having thoughtfully placed large PA speakers in the street so nobody would miss it. To add to the excitement they rigged some floodlights, took some LSD, and rode bicycles through pools of gloss paint dumped in the road.
In the middle of all this, the police arrived, took one look and decided they would rather be somewhere else.
Apocalypse kitchen. On the wall is an earlier picture of how it looked a few weeks earlier. Everything had changed but the dirty dishes.
Breakfast on the Apocalypse terrace
Sean and Charlie on their front step.
Originally there had been other houses backing onto Freston Road, but they had been knocked down before squatters arrived. This left several large areas of empty land, one of which was made into gardens. Jumble sales were a popular way of redistributing junk.
During the ten years that Frestonia lasted, quite a few Frestonians had children. The communal garden was their playground.
Altthough the garden started out as overgrown wasteland, parts of it were slowly transformed by those who cared to rearrange the rubble, like Brian.
Trevor, a keen gardener, decided to try out one of the novel ideas from Nick Albery's Institute of Social Invention. Human excrement is somewhat toxic to plants, but can be turned into useful compost by mixing with straw and allowing to decompose in a black plastic binliner. Trevor accordingly collected a mountain of poo from Frestonians and proceeded to grow tomatoes on the resulting mulch. It worked very well but hit an unforseen snag, that nobody had any interest in eating them.
Another jumble sale and a better class of junk, this time in Stoneleigh Street
The creche was run on a rota system by several Frestonian women to share daytime childcare and allow time off to work, study or just escape childcare for a while.
Brian set up Frestonia's first and only exhibition venue for local artists, the Car Breakers Art Gallery, in a freshly decorated squatted shop that had been his front room. Invites for the opening were sent out to eminent art critics and journalists, white wine was bought. The great and the good didn't show up, but the wine was drunk anyway.
Keeping warm was a problem for all Frestonians. Damp houses, broken windows, leaking roofs and no money for fuel or electricity led to constant scavenging for wood during the winter.
One house burned down. The residents had placed a 20' pole with one end in the grate, the other sticking out of the missing window. After a few bottles of cider they fell asleep. They survived, but the roof was not so lucky.
Warren gets ready for the kids Christmas party.
For most of its decade of existence, Frestonia seemed likely to be annihilated at any moment. Nobody knew if or when evictions would happen. There were constant rumours, and some of them were true as official bodies could neither bear to leave "illegal occupants" in situ, nor come up with any better ideas about how to use their derelict property. At the time of the declaration of independence, the GLC wanted to raze the site and leave a field of rubble indefinitely. The publicity that resulted did at least compel them to scrap that idea.
Living with this sort of uncertainty is corrosive. Even if you have it, you cannot spend money on a home that may be a pile of hardcore in a few weeks. So you put up with the damp and discomfort and wait in limbo. For years, as it turned out.
This insecurity produced a sense of community and interdependence that town planners can only dream about. The old pub was designated a community centre, and used for meetings, parties, gigs and benefits - and later a law centre run by a Frestonian who trained as a solicitor.
Kids Christmas party
Not all Frestonians lived there permanently. There were always people who visited, sometimes for a day, sometimes for weeks. Some were itinerant and lived in their vehicles, but in the early 80's this was less common than it later became, perhaps because there were then many more accessible derelict properties.
Found object, derelict factory Olaf Street.
Davy and Kim try to repair their front window after uninvited visitors broke in during the night to steal their drugs.
Drugs, alcohol and dissolution were an ever-present dark side of Frestonian life. It's probably fair to say that most Frestonians suffered from depression, and many had medical histories of mental illness and addiction. They had to live somewhere, so long before 'care in the community' became a political prescription, Frestonia road-tested the proposition on a micro scale.
The result was predictable : a degree of friction between the competent and the incompetent who to a large extent relied on their more able neighbours. Despite the difficulties it was better than nothing. Within a few years of the end of Frestonia, virtually all the 'problem' Frestonians were dead from drink, drugs, suicide or street violence.
Kim, OD'd again.
One of Nick's more perplexing ideas was that all Frestonians should adopt the name Bramley. He hoped this would make 'we are all one family' sufficiently true that the GLC would be legally obliged to rehouse us all together, if Frestonia was demolished. Bramley Road was half a mile beyond our national borders so nobody took any notice. But when we needed to form a formal body to negotiate redevelopment plans, nobody argued with his suggestion of Bramleys Housing Co-Op.
Nick and his son Merlyn with redevelopment ideas.
Frestonians were adamant that they wanted a mixture of work and living space. Many were artisans and needed workshops, which were unaffordable on the open market. There was also universal insistence that any redevelopment scheme should dispense with fenced plots and retain a single, enclosed communal garden.
The eventual redevelopment scheme did keep the communal garden, but built substantial light industrial workshop units which were too large and too expensive for Frestonians. They had really just wanted a dedicated workroom within their living space.
Putting the front door back after a police raid based on mistaken identity.
Frestonia struggled on throughout the early 80's. The Bramley's Housing Co-Op, formed in the aftermath of the showdown with the GLC, engaged in negotiations with the Notting Hill Housing Trust to secure acceptable redevelopment without evictions. It was a double-edged process : Frestonia had to trade its independence of spirit for security. Some Frestonians, unenamoured of the prospect, drifted away and were often replaced by people with too much affinity for hard drugs. Yuppie values were on the ascendant, and "me first" predation dissipated much of the "we are one family" Frestonian ideal.
By 1982 I had had enough. I had a small son, and was doing well enough to have other options. I had had my cameras stolen twice - not by Frestonians, but by outsiders who treated the place as a law-free opportunity. And there had been an attempted murder outside my front door, a dispute over a £10 drug deal - outsiders again. It had become a nasty place to be.
From time to time I went back. Quite a few Frestonians persevered and became tenants as the planned staged redevelopment slowly cleared away the filthy slums and created new, dry houses, a process that took nearly a decade. The druggies obligingly died or left for pastures worse. Now you wouldn't know it from any other tidy London street, except there is still a communal garden and a small place in history. Something of the spirit of Frestonia still endures.
In 2004 Bramley's Housing Co-Op threw a party to celebrate 20 years of life in the redeveloped Frestonia. Many of the original citizens, and their now grown-up children and grandchildren still live there today, or like me, returned to visit.
The communal garden remains a core of the community, only a great deal prettier. There is now a commemorative spiral walk beneath a willow tree, for Nick Albery who died in 2001 and whose crazy idea the Declaration of Independence was.
The event was recognisably a Frestonian cultural event : a really good band playing loud enough to cause an international incident, no food but plenty of booze (there's still no money), and disorganised to perfection in the traditional manner. Still, you could catch an occasional, faint, patchouli-scented whiff of idealistic freedom of spirit on the evening breeze, as out of time and place in London now as it ever was. In 1978 Sir Horace Cutler, then the exasperated head of the GLC, wrote to Frestonians 'if you did not exist, it would be necessary to invent you'. He was not wrong : the Frestonian constitutional principle 'We are all one family' certainly merits wider adoption. Globally would be a good place to start.