PLANES, GRAINS, & GROWING INSANE
We started breaking the law as soon as we stepped out of the airport. You’re not allowed to walk out of Heathrow Terminals 1, 2 & 3. You have to take the free bus provided – through the tunnel. We didn’t know the bus was free. We wanted to walk. So we walked through the tunnel via the pedestrian service path. It felt like a zombie movie. We then walked past the car parks, over the motorway, and down to Sipson – one of the three villages earmarked for destruction with the construction of a third runway at Heathrow.
Sipson is home to the Berkley Nurseries, an abandoned network of greenhouses once used to grow plants commercially. The Berkley Nurseries are now home to the environmental activist squat, Grow Heathrow. If you want to read about how the residents of Grow Heathrow use the land and engage with the local community, read my story in The Land magazine here (Grow Heathrow – The Land). In this post I’m going to talk about the people who live there, and how they live together.
When my friend and I arrived the gate was locked. After a few knocks and shouts, a pale thin twenty-something creaked it open and led us inside. He felt like a peaceful stoner who liked nothing more than tend his crop and smoke it. He explained softly about the activities of Grow Heathrow, it’s boundaries and their relationship with the traveller community. He also explained vehemently how there was no hierarchy at the squat, how no one person could tell another what to do, and how no one had any power to control any other person’s time. It wasn’t until later that we found out why he was so desperately repetitive.
The tour ended in the kitchen, where some bushy-bearded hippies prepared salad and vegetable stew. We were met by a middle-aged man who looked a little out of place. He talked of how he’d discovered the Grow Heathrow community just a couple days before, how he loved the project and how he was fixing up his van so he could live in the back of it. He explained that he worked for O2 installing internet receivers in tall complicated structures, such as the towers of Heathrow airport. He was clearly very lonely, very keen to make friends, and despite good intentions, doing a very good job at making a total nuisance of himself. He was treated kindly and with patience, and greeted with smiles when he made his excuses and went back to his van.
After dinner, we sat on tatty sofas huddled around a wood-burning stove. Fifteen people, mostly British, all between the ages of twenty and forty. It was calm and the talk was interesting. Then I went outside and found another group of people: three men poking a bonfire and barely speaking. I opened with a joke to break the ice; I may as well have pissed on the fire. After a tense few flame-engrossed moments, the drama started. ‘Those fucking cunts ….’, he barked. And what came next was a tirade so spiteful you expected it to be followed with pitchforks and handguns. It turned out not everyone at Grow Heathrow was at peace with each other.
The firestarter was the most elderly (early 50s) and longest standing member of the community, one of the few who had stayed since its 2010 inception. He felt double-crossed, under-valued and disrespected by his cohabitants. His fireside companions seemed to have different reasons for their loyalty, but that’s a question for the psychoanalysts. Once amongst these outsiders it was hard not feel distrust for the larger group chortling away inside the greenhouse. How could they enjoy their contentment while these rejects suffered?
The next day the flames were out but the fire was burning. A group of Climate Camp volunteers had booked to use a space at Grow Heathrow for a meeting and workshop. While chopping wood with the underdogs, my friend and I watched the sparks fly. It turned out that the young pale man who introduced us to the site was no longer meant to be there. It had been decided by consensus that he should leave the community, for reasons that were not particularly clear to me. Now, this man was showing the Climate Camp volunteers to their workshop space, chaperoned by another man who had been allocated the hosting job in a earlier meeting. Politics ahoy.
Another twist to the tale is that the firestarter was known to suffer from mild autistic tendencies. Everyone agreed that although he was still aggressive, unreasonable and over-sensitive, he had been improving ever since he first helped set up the community. Later we sat with him as he complained about the loud music that was emanating from the metal-workshop. Apparently Grow Heathrow had a good relationship with its taxpaying neighbours, but the loud music often upset them. Just then, one of his fireside friends dashed through the greenhouse to turn down the music, minutes later, the metalworker nipped out and turned it back up.
Grow Heathrow was spearheaded by the anti-aviation activist group, Plane Stupid, and the Transition Towns network who create grassroots community projects that seek to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability. The purpose of the activist squat was to protect the local community from the destruction of their village, and to hinder the proliferation of the aviation industry. The purpose of most of the individuals now living at Grow Heathrow seems to be to find a very cheap place to live where they can experiment with their own environmentally-driven projects. The few who still hold the protection of the village as their main purpose seem to resent the others for not pulling their weight in the day-to-day running of the site. Some residents chop a lot of wood, cook a lot of meals, and kill a lot of rats – others design geodesic structures for sustainable living.
In mainstream society this kind of division of labour is totally systemised. Some people drive buses, other people take those buses to science labs where they test how to make buses more efficient. They each get paid, and ignoring the unequal opportunities that have led each to her profession, each has chosen a specific economic role to play. At Grow Heathrow, no such organisation exists. When I asked who cooks the shared evening meal – made up of out-of-date food donated by local vegetable markets – residents shrug their shoulders and say, ‘If you walk into the kitchen around seven p.m. and no-one’s cooking, you cook’. The system must work because they’re all still alive, but it doesn’t take a sociologist to conclude that there must be some arguments.
The beauty of the community’s social structure is also its greatest flaw. Anyone can come stay at the site, you need bring no money, you need bring no skill. If you hang around long enough, and show that you’re able to do something productive for at least one day a week, you’re probably get accepted into the group. What being ‘accepted’ means exactly is difficult to know. The man the who installed O2 networks at Heathrow was tolerated, but not accepted. The firestarter who chopped most of the wood is a valuable worker, but things would clearly be calmer if he didn’t live there. Without a communal reason for being, without an ‘intention’ for their community, Grow Heathrow is rife with petty politics and Shakespearean deceit. As an example of how to live with almost no money, it’s inspiring. As an experiment in ruleless communal living and an attempt to deny all hierarchy, it proves that hell need be nothing more than the company of others.
Grow Heathrow – http://www.transitionheathrow.com/grow–heathrow/
Transition Towns – http://www.transitionnetwork.org/ or
Plane Stupid – http://www.planestupid.com/