The squatting movement that flourished in London from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, of which some vestige remains, threw up many wild and brilliant initiatives. In the 1970s, when tens of thousands of homes lay empty across the capital, thousands of these were squatted, providing homes for several generations, as well as multiple projects, cafes, gig spaces, gardens, dancehalls, bookshops, nurseries, and much more… most evicted, or turned into co-ops, legitimised, sold off…
Much of this went on completely ‘unorganised’, in the sense that people squatted autonomously, finding empties themselves, breaking in, doing the work of doing places up etc.
But acting as something of a backbone to the scene were a plethora of squatting groups, usually local organisation, often ad-hoc and shifting, who provide support, advice, lent tools, and often kept lists of empty potentially squattable buildings.
Of these, one of the earliest, operating from what for much of the decade was London’s Squat Central – West London, and especially the areas around Notting Hill and North Kensington – was the cutting edge, and sometimes notorious Ruff Tuff Creem Puff squatters estate agency. engineers, … The Ruff Tuff squatters got much information about empty properties from sympathetic telephone postal workers, council office workers as well as a British Gas official…
In their own words: an account of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff from 1978 (nicked from the anthology Squatting: The Real Story, published in 1969). Written by the agency’s own Heathcote Williams.
The inside story of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff, the only estate agency for squatters
By Heathcote Willliams
The Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency was founded in 1974 by ‘Mad Dog, Fluke and Flame’, Gods’ Groupies, stimulated by their squatting of the ‘Meat Roxy’, a former Bingo Hall in Lancaster Road, North Kensington, where every Saturday three or four hundred people gathered for a free ball. Electricity was re-routed from a squatted house at the back, a large double bed put in the middle of the auditorium for people to accompany the music in their lubricious fashion, and above the stage in letters four feet high there was written: CIVILISATION HATH TURNED HER BACK ON THEE. REJOICE, SHE HATH AN UGLY FACE.
At the end of the day, half the people seduced into coming had nowhere to go. It being winter, and our social consciences being intricately plucked, the Meat Roxy was established as a place to live as well, but gradually, perhaps through the loudness of the music, the roof fell in. Other accommodation had to be found for these errant space gipsies, Tuinal freaks, lushes and werewolves clamouring for shelter from the wind and the rain and the cold in the Ladbroke Archipelago.
A set of house-breaking equipment was purchased, and a small survey of the neighbourhood carried out. Empty properties sprang up like mushrooms and were cropped. The first bulletin advertising their availability was Gestetnered and published in an almost unreadable edition of 150 copies, and the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency (named after a Robert Crumb cartoon character) was registered as a working charity (Astral registration number 666).
Since then 23 bulletins have been published, ranging from one foolscap side to eight, and listing empty properties available in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia.’ A nucleus of seven or so people worked under the umbrella of the agency: whoever lived in our house became involved. The house was often watched and the possibility of prosecution for incitement or conspiracy to trespass frequently lurked on the back-burner. Office hours were round the clock.
People were sent to us from almost anywhere: social services departments, highly funded pressure groups such as Shelter or the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, occasionally Harrow Road Police Station, and BIT, the hip Vatican and self-help centre down the road. It was a house rule that anyone could stay for a night in the house until we found them somewhere permanent. On average, 15 to 20 people came round looking for somewhere to live each day.
We opened up places for people but often found that many of them regarded us as the landlord. They would come back half a dozen times complaining about roofs, drains and windows and it was a long time before it occurred to them that they could do anything about the place themselves. Fluke often fell back sardonically in these circumstances on the ancient Arab saying: ‘If you rescue a man from drowning, you have to look after him for the rest of your life.’ In most cases we told people where the house was, what its history was as far as we knew, explained the score in law and lent them any available equipment.
The surface problem was homelessness, and in many cases when that was solved everything was cool. We’d see the person we’d fixed up and find that their days were glowing again, and they would promise to keep us fed with any empty places that they had noticed. But in many other cases homelessness had created far worse problems. People who had no house built houses inside their heads; people who’d been chronically rejected over a long period lived in a shell and sat in the office without being able to speak. Getting fixed up with a place got transmuted into getting a fix. Being warm had changed into a whiskey-sodden rush.
One man sat in the dilapidated chair in the corner of the kitchen-cum-office for two days without saying a word and then suddenly leapt up and stuck a knife into Fluke.The knife fortunately was fairly blunt and came out without any brown rice on the end. Gently asked for some explanation, it transpired that he’d had nowhere to live for two years save a mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery. The spirits had apparently commanded this act: ‘Fluke is a good man being bad but I caught him when he was a bad man being good.’ And then there followed an indecipherable word salad based on his connections with the spirit world. It made us feel that handing out houses to people for nothing was all right but that it often wasn’t enough.
Another man, who’d just come out of Parkhurst where he’d been serving nine years for armed robbery involving £30,000 worth of platinum, crashed through the door in a feverish state and said: ‘You’re social workers, aren’t you?’ in an almost accusing manner.
The accusation was denied.
‘Hang on, hang on, look how ‘bout I get a wee bottle of something. What you drink? Wine? I’ll get some.’
He reappeared with six bottles of Mateus and a two foot square box of chocolates ‘fur the kiddie’. He said: ‘You wondering why I’m doing all this aren’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. I need your help. You have drugs here don’t you? You people have drugs?’
‘Only the look in our eyes, that’s all.’
‘No, seriously, you have drugs here? You’re hippies aren’t you? Hippies always have drugs. I’ll pay you for it . . .’
Not to let the chance of a deal go begging, Cocke Lorrell who’d just done a run of three weights, pulled out his scales and said: ‘How much do you want?’ fondling a large polythene bag filled with the stinking soul-smoke.
‘Best Buddha Grass.’
He was mystified. The theft of those nine years of his life had meant that he’d missed Weed Power.
‘Dope,’ said Cocke Lorrell, ‘it’s grass. Dope for ever, for ever loaded.’
‘Oh, no. I don’t want that. I want some cyanide.’
There was a deathly hush. It transpired that he couldn’t stand being outside. He just didn’t know where to put himself. He tried to ‘buy a few friends’, as he put it, but ‘no one wants to know’.
He went on raving about the cyanide, convinced that if the coast was cleared with a large backhander we’d supply it: ‘I’ll pay you for it. I’ll make it worth your while, believe me,’ and he spilt a wad of £20 notes onto the table.
Cocke took him to the window (which was on the third floor) and said: ‘Look you can have this window cheap.’ ‘What you mean?’ ‘You can throw yourself out of this window for 10p’ and gave him a giant cuddle. His face began to crease into a smile. Cocke hugged him so hard and rubbed him and insulted him: ‘Your life’s not yours to take, dummy’, and then settled him down to his wine, told him the cream of his police jokes and then got him so stoned that he was wandering around the house all night in his knickers reciting Gaelic sagas. His life was a little safer than before.
One visitor called Julia came looking for a place to live, scanned the bulletins along with a large map of London that had colour-coded pins stuck into it:
• Red: ‘Squatted, but might be room’
• Green: ‘Ripe for plucking’
• Blue: ‘Empty but needs a lot of love’
Julia said: ‘I think I’ll try Freston Road it’s near where I work.’
‘Where is that?’ said Fluke, passing the time of day.
‘Oh, Hammersmith Town Hall in the Housing Department.’
Fluke looked slightly stunned: ‘How would your colleagues feel about your squatting?’
‘Oh, I don’t think they’d mind. Except for the ones who’re members of the National Front.’
And despite the existence of five members of the National Front working in the Housing Department of a soi-disant socialist council, Julia was able to half-inch lists of empty properties from the council files. She became the Mata Hari of Ruff Tuff, forcing the size of the bulletins up from four pages to eight. Other useful informants included a telephone engineer, a postman and a Gas Board official.
Freston Road in fact, became almost entirely squatted through Ruff Tuff activity and was turned into an almost ideal version of Squat City, much beloved of gutter cartoonists.
The walled-in gardens were joined together into one large communal garden which almost fed the entire street. A squatted shop opened, selling wholefoods at knock-down prices, and there was a kind of synergy present where people bopped in and out of each other’s houses, doors left open to the street. If any problem arose, the load was immediately spread around.
On rare and extreme occasions the Cosmic Joker evicts the Social Worker in the tactics of the Agency. A German once entered the office, dressed in a gold lame suit, and followed by his family all in fresh sheepskins from Afghanistan, lavishly embroidered: ‘I would like please a place with bath, and garden for the kinder, and mit telefon. I am from Endless Music. We are biggest Rock and Roll band in Germany and we have many contracts with Island Records. You give a place to us now bitte?’
Mad Dog stood up and surveyed the little scene. ‘Well,’ he said, pretending to consult the latest bulletin, ‘Yeah, I think we got just the place.’
‘Ja? gut, gut.’
‘Yeah, you take the tube to Green Park. Turn right out of the entrance.’
‘And you’ll find a huge building on the right hand side. We’ll let them know you’re coming.’
‘How will I find it again please?’ (scribbling greedily).
‘It’s right on Piccadilly, near St James’ Street. It’s just been squatted. There’s a man from Ruff Tuff on the door, dressed in a huge black frock coat, with gold braid, just like your suit, and for a joke he’s got a badge on his cap with the words “Ritz Hotel”. Just tell him you’ve come from the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency and your rooms will be waiting for you.’
Through the good auspices of Patrick the postman, a partner in the agency, six houses were found and cracked for Chiswick Women’s Aid who seemed to need a house per week. One windy night Tony from Rough Theatre bopped in with a van, scored Gareth, Mary Jane, Mad Dog, and Jonathan Marconi, and they all tooled off to Richmond where Tony claimed there was a derelict hotel once used by the BBC in the thirties and forties to transmit the tea-time concerts of Max Jaffa and the Palm Court Orchestra.
They found a strange haunted place by the river, strongly barricaded with two-by-four joists nailed down to the floor inside. It took about two hours to crack as they had to wait for traffic noise to cover each snap of the jemmy. The Palm Court Hotel had been a giant pigeon loft for three years and was recycled as a little palace for 30 battered wives and their offspring.
The bulletins listed anything from a hovel to a palace and had a style of their own: ‘36 St Luke’s Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.’ Some houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family were squatted after featuring in the bulletins, Mick Jagger’s unused country house found some occupants, and the Cambodian Embassy was squatted when abandoned after the overthrow of the Buddhist oligarchy of Prince Sihanouk. Two Mercedes cars were found in the garage of this weird house-cum-temple and the only way that the squatters could be evicted was if the Khmer Rouge had decided to move into the London Property Market. They were still in occupation at the beginning of 1980. Buckingham Palace with its 614 rooms often featured.
All the time while bulletins were being pumped out and houses being cracked, the gutter press kept up a shrill and hate-filled descant. Squatters are vermin, proclaimed the Daily Express. They have lice, shrilled the Evening News which employed a spy to insinuate himself with squatters and obtain free board and lodging only to trash them later in his paper for an enormous fee. The squatters are an ‘Army of Vagabonds led by dangerous left-wing agitators’, squawked the Sunday People; and it ran a three-part series on squatting, leaving the gentle reader with the impression that they were all armed, dope-infested layabouts who should be garrotted.
One of the partners in Ruff Tuff was fried by the Sunday People on their front page: ‘ The old Etonian house grabber: he jemmies way in for squatters,’ presenting him as a near psychopath who would prefer to crack his way through a block of houses on his way to the shops rather than walk round the corner. The reporter had subtly gained an interview in the Ruff Tuff office by pretending to be from Cardiff Friends of the Earth who were, he claimed, doing a survey on squatting. He was duly given an extensive rundown on the homelessness situation in London – 100,000 houses empty, 30,000 people squatting, etc – together with a brief but poetic soliloquy about Wat Tyler, Gerrard Winstanley (‘The world is a common treasure house to all . . . there is no my thing, no your thing’), and Proudhon; all little gurus of this yippie cabal.
Mad Dog saw the paper the next week and while everyone else was having apoplexy, muttered ‘Revenge is a meal best eaten cold’. Four weeks later the reporter found that as a result of his own house being put on the bulletins and described therein as the Sunday People Rest Home (‘anyone on a bad trip, tuinal freaks etc, especially welcome’), he was daily invaded by lone dementoes of every description. The real Cardiff Friends of the Earth delivered a lorry load of cement to his front garden cash-on-delivery and he was forced to change his accommodation. Whether he had to squat or not was never revealed. ‘Teach the bitch to tamper with Aristocrats Lib,’ was Mad Dog’s comment.
The cosy liberal papers stayed fairly silent. The Guardian published a couple of moody pictures of a child in front of a corrugated iron fence. The Times reporter at the battle of Elgin Avenue disclosed that he’d been unable to file any of his stories about squatting for the last two weeks. ‘It’s editorial policy,’ he told us. At the same time, The Times was quite gaily publishing some extraordinary letters in its correspondence columns, one of which suggested that all squatters should be evicted from third-storey windows.
On another occasion the stencils for a new bulletin were hanging from a bulldog clip on the wall for all to survey the new mass of available houses before they went on to BIT’S Gestetner. A man came in claiming to be homeless and was left to study the stencils while people in the office went about their business in the next room. When they came back, he’d disappeared with the stencils which he sold to the Evening Standard.
The Evening Standard tried to confirm the story on the phone the next day but got very short shrift from Fluke since it was then that we knew where the stencils had gone – stencils which represented seven people’s careful research for about three weeks.
‘This is the Evening Standard. I have to tell you that Bulletin 17 has come into our hands. I can’t tell you how but we have a photo-copy of it and we think that it contains a great deal of highly contentious material . . .’
‘Do you now? Well, listen, baby blue, if you’re homeless I’ll speak to you, if you’re not you can rot off . . .’
‘Before you put the phone down, I should tell you that we’re going to publish this material.’
‘Great! The wider circulation it gets, the better. Join the Legion of Joy. Freedom is a fulltime career.’
‘Well, you can put it like that if you like. But can I ask you this . . er . . I’m looking through it now. You recommend a certain kind of implement for breaking into houses with mortise locks on . . . I think it’s a bolster, or a raker, yes, here it is, a four-inch raker. What do you have to say about that?’
‘Listen, there are about 10,000 people sleeping rough in London, in all weathers, and a lot of them are kitty-corner to you, Fat Cat, right on the Thames Embankment. That’s what I have to say about that. You think every house was opened up by the wind? People need to know how to do it. They’re not ghosts. They can’t walk through walls. Goodbye. Sleep well in your Beaverbrook Bed.’
Next day the Evening Standard appeared with a front-page headline large enough to bruise your retina: ‘SECRET SQUATTERS PLAN FOR A MASS TAKE-OVER IN LONDON’. The bulletin mysteriously returned later that night, rolled up in the front door handle and stained with whiskey. Conspiracy to trespass was mentioned in the article and the prospect of it began to cause some consternation.
‘Conspiracy to trespass . . . We could all get five years . . .’
‘Ah fuck it, what you keep muttering that for . . . Conspiracy to trespass, it’s just some legal shibboleth. To conspire, you know what that means? “To breathe together”. Con-spirare . . . I don’t mind doing that, do you? And trespass, you know what the origin of that word is? To “pass through, to transcend”. That’s the dictionary meaning. Straight up.’
‘They won’t pay much attention to that in court. I think discretion is the better part of valour.’
‘Sure.’ The doorbell rings. ‘There’s someone at the door. Life goes on.’
Two slinky and silky gentlemen file in, one kvetching about his landlady having stolen his mattress because it had ‘perverted liquids on it’, vetting his phone calls and opening his mail, all for the princely sum of £52 per month. He looks through the new list, glancing at the antics of Windsor the black tom from time to time commenting ‘Isn’t she butch?’, and then drapes our jemmy elegantly over his arm to go crack a recommended flat in nearby Powis Square.
A silent woman with a large scar on her head asks about some houses in Orsett Terrace, Paddington. She’s escaping the violent vagaries of her husband by staying with a friend in a council flat where she has to creep in and out because the couple on the ground floor suspect her friend of sub-letting and are in constant contact with the council’s Complaints Department. She’s never squatted before. She works as a night cleaner and seems desperate. ‘Can you fix me up in that street?’ she asks. ‘They got lights in the window at night. They seem nice people.’ She’s fixed up with an introduction and a little later, her own place.
A junkie seeps in: ‘I don’t want any place where the postal district is an odd number. I don’t want N19 or Wl for a start.’
‘No. God’s told me Paddington’s bad for me.’
After similar objections to almost every place on the lists he starts metronomically rubbing the track-marks on his left arm. ‘Why are you doing that?’ says Cocke Lorrell. ‘God has told me that my left arm is bad for me so I got to keep stabbing it … with stuff.’
He stays for several hours, alternately brutalising and then nursing his diabolic acupuncture points until he coincides with someone who’s just had a cure. He is enveigled away to Cold Turkey Towers in Cornwall Terrace, having been convinced that NW1 is not really an odd number and that anyway, ‘When you get really high on mathematics you realise that there’s no such thing as one’; and for the first time, this gutter St Sebastian smiles.
A family phone up. They’re paying £42 per week for bed and breakfast in St Albans. Mad Dog screams at them: ‘In St Albans? Forty-two pounds? pounds? Where the fuck is St Albans anyway? . . . Just south of Greenland ain’t it? Well put on your snow shoes and get your asses down here toute vite.’ And then they come a few hours later, bedraggled and burnt out from rent slavery and score themselves a whole house in Richmond.
Letters also pour in demanding the bulletins: ‘Dear Sir, Madam, Hippy or Freak. I am doing important mind work and need a quiet place . . .’
‘Dear Rough Tough Creamers, please send bulletins of everywhere in the world, we are tired of somewhere . . .’
‘Dear Agency, I am living in a furnished room with my two children and paying £10 a week. Please can you help me? Please answer soon.’
There have also been death threats on the phone. One was just a tape-loop endlessly repeating: ‘Hello, hello, hello. You’re a dead man. Don’t laugh.’ Well, to quote the Illuminatus, ‘If it doesn’t make you laugh, it isn’t true.’ It didn’t make us laugh and fortunately it wasn’t. But who was it? Enraged property speculator? A hit-man hired by Megalopolis? The National Grunt? Ah well, forget it, paranoia is the gout of acid-anointed youth.
Sometimes it has been very boring, sometimes very exciting. People would say: ‘How can you afford to do it? Is there any charge for these bulletins?’ Nope. It’s time for the Gospel of Free to lurch back to life. It’s time the visionaries got it on and the realists dreamt. All we want is a Garden of Eden where none of the fruit is forbidden. Communism never started – it’s private property that was the new idea.
In most cases we thought about as much of squatting a house as picking up a butt-end off the street. Why? Because, to wax philosophic for a moment, we live in square rooms and we’re treated as products instead of Beings, in rows and rows of square rooms where we’re all meant to be the same. In streets where there are 30,000 gas stoves, 30,000 TV sets, 30,000 baths, fridges and cars, when with a little co-operation (which Kropotkin showed in Mutual Aid was the strongest force in nature), maybe one or two of each would be enough.
Some squats have broken through – Freston Road, Bristol Gardens and Cornwall Terrace – with walls knocked down so that you could walk along the street inside the building. Imagine a huge refectory table on the ground floor of every street, and a huge refectory bed on the top floor. Whether you’re a yipped-up hipped-up communalist or no, the reduction in fire hazard is strong in its favour.
Jesus was born a squatter though the Church Commissioners (one of London’s largest slum owners and property speculators) would never acknowledge it. When squatters are presented as inhuman, someone’s trying to feed into the tapes: ‘You don’t exist. You don’t own anything, so who are you? How can we recognise you?’
When people are evicted someone is playing God and saying that their life in that place is worthless. When we were being evicted from one Ruff Tuff house we said to the landlord: ‘You want your house back? Then come here and live with us.’
Squatting is acupuncture for the death culture. Freedom is not yet quite free but the squatting community can give you a good wholesale price.
The Wise brothers, long time residents of the area, offered a slightly different take on Ruff Tuff, in their ‘Once Upon a Time there was a Place Called Nothing Hill Gate’:
“The escape clause offered by having charity status also applied to the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatter estate agency (the only ‘estate agency’ for squatters). Despite its ameliorative social function (Harrow Road police station would occasionally send homeless people there), it did nonetheless initiate some audacious squats. Among them, houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family, Mick Jagger’s unused country home and the Cambodian Embassy in Notting Hill Gate, which was squatted for several years after being abandoned when Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. Not to mention the brilliant cracking of the huge Palm Court Hotel near Richmond Bridge on the Thames. Ruff Tuffs ‘property magazine’ containing witty descriptions of potential squats is still a delight to read (e.g. “36, St. Lukes Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.”) Yet many people entering this squatting agency felt immediately ill at ease, overcome by feelings they were unable to put a name to. Was it because it was run by renegade aristos’ with hippy names like Mad Dog and Fluke? Was it Heathcote Williams old Etonian manner of barking rather than speaking? Or similarly his references to endless esoteric, occult mysteries which made you feel like a fool for not having a clue as to what he was talking about. The cat’s name was “Windsor” and that didn’t help either. In occupying Crown Property were they perhaps settling scores with their parents? They were friendly enough all right; never too stuck-up to say hello when they met you in the street. Yet deep down one felt set apart which palaeontologists of the English class system will instantly recognise.”