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This is a guest post by LuckyJimm

Cambridge graduate Katharine Hibbert spent a fortnight as a squatter in 2005 on an assignment for The Sunday Times. In the rather overheated article that followed, she described feeling anxious, wan, forlorn, lonely, despondent, listless, drained, scared, vulnerable, cold, tired, dirty, revolting, dishevelled, disgusting, ill-fed, hungry, and then extremely hungry.

In the summer of 2008 she lost her job as a journalist and decided to see if she could manage to live in that world for real, without a flat to go back to. The result is Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society. As well as an account a year spent as a London squatter, it’s an exposé of wasted food and forgotten properties and a defence of those who seek to make use of them.

I’m sure Hibbert’s political convictions are sincere. At times I was reminded of Cyril Connolly’s description of Orwell as a man who “would not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.” I found myself rushing through pages of argument, eager to return to the narrative.

The book is well-argued and competently written, with the occasional flourish. Empty houses are described as “like patches of bleached-out deadness in a coral reef.” She writes about experiences I hadn’t thought to write about in my own blog, such as having to change into her bed clothes in a freezing building.

Considering she says she took several car-loads of possessions to her mother’s house, she starts off almost unbelievably ill-prepared. At first she doesn’t have a bicycle so tramps around everywhere. She begins with just £20 to her name, though it’s unclear if that’s all she has or all she allows herself. She has no plans for where to stay, so hangs around the Advisory Service for Squatters until some random squatters agree to let her stay with them. To her credit, at times she lives with a rougher crowd than I’d have ever gone near.

Feeding herself proves to be no problem at all, since sandwich shops, supermarkets, and wholesale markets throw out tonnes of perfectly good packaged food every day. Finding she still needs money for phone credit and toiletries, she sells items like old TVs which she finds in the street. That’s her only income, and yet she lives all year on less than a pound a day. She even manages several hitchhiking and couch-surfing trips.

Insofar as they’re mentioned, her family seem to accept her lifestyle choice. She does find it hard to keep up with free-spending friends from her former life, and sips tap water on nights out. When she joins her boyfriend and his fellow architects for drinks, she gives them a lecture and a bag full of bin food. Yet somehow they stay together.

After a few months she finds herself lacking purpose, so returns to the Advisory Service for Squatters and becomes a volunteer. Founded in 1975 and funded entirely by donations, they operate from a room at the top of many flights of stairs in a building down a Whitechapel alleyway. The shelves are bursting with case files of previous squatting cases and history. Nearly all London squatters seek their help, particularly for preparing court papers.

She moves into a flat on the Ocean Estate, where a renovation programme had stalled, leaving many flats empty. The council sent in wrecking crews to rip out the plumbing and electrics. But squatters have time and tenacity on their side and, with the help of fellow squatters, she re-wires and re-plumbs a prematurely emptied flat. Though conceding that it only works because of its small scale, Hibbert applauds the sense of community and mutual aid she finds amongst squatters which had been absent from her atomised and fearful former life.

The best squatters Hibbert meets are hard-working, even-tempered, considerate, practical, and in control of their lives. I had worried she might deny there was any such thing as a bad squatter; but her incisive and perhaps unintended cattiness is one of this book’s chief pleasures. At various points she skewers every different type of squatter you might find. This is her description of a far-left group:

Most of the residents were political activists who were, usually, not very active. They occasionally went out to protest against weapons manufacturers, wars, poverty or the fur trade. Usually, though, they woke up in the afternoons then rolled out of bed to the living room, where they lounged on the sofas having endless political debates where ideas would be lobbed as slowly as shuttlecocks, since there was little else that needed doing all day except smoking joints and watching films.

Although rarer than she’d thought, she finds the rough side of squatting does exist, too. She finds herself at a warehouse a week after one squatter had killed another. At another place her purse is stolen by a heroin addict. She loses £60 and the presumption that squatters are always decent people. Without an income, such minor annoyances as the loss of your purse or bicycle can become incapacitating disasters.

The squat community has to police itself. Living this way you actually must be very judgmental, despite those who plead “but it’s a squat, man!” You have to be able to identify and deter anyone that might threaten your squat, whether through their violence, dishonesty, or drug addiction. Groups need to agree how they want to live. A lot of social negotiation takes place.

The poorest and most disadvantaged usually aren’t those who resort to squatting. It’s too inherently unstable to be a good environment for families, who find it easier to get a council house and benefits. And immigrants find it safer to stay in overcrowded rented accommodation. Street sleepers aren’t confident at dealing with authority, and don’t fit naturally into the groups needed to maintain a squat.

So squatting is often the reserve of the English middle classes (of varying degrees of responsibility) and European travellers, who do it to experience communal living, pursue artistic impulses, engage in political activism, or indulge their vices and party.

Hibbert came in for criticism when an extract from this book appeared in the Guardian last month. Articulate and educated, she was insufficiently incapable to deserve our sympathy. Young, mobile, and well-connected, in a rich city, she was a phone call away from safety. And so, some said, her experience said nothing about true poverty or real hardship.

But she never intended to document the lives of the urban poor. This book is about squatting culture and how it’s possible to live for free. I see it as redemption for the piece of poverty-porn she wrote for The Sunday Times earlier in her career. And, even though her book’s been published, she’s still living this way.