SHOOKIt’s not exactly new news, but the story of the audacious squatter collective currently occupying 39 Clarges Mews must be seen to be believed. Five minutes from Green Park station, the Ritz Hotel and all that goes with it, the Mayfair property is worth a reported £22.5 million.

After stooping low to enter a dusty back-garage-type-area with a makeshift information desk, various bikes and a welding station, I soon realise this is not one, but two connected houses. The first is mostly used as sleeping quarters, while the second serves as nerve centre for the ‘Temporary School of Thought’ – a freewheeling educational project with all kinds of workshops and sessions on offer.

A quick snoop around is anything but that. It spans four or five floors, with most rooms in reasonable condition but showing obvious signs of disuse. Gutted, gaping concrete cavities glare forlornly up from where majestic fireplaces used to recline, and the occasional window shutter hangs limply from its fittings. Floorboards creak. An aged lift stands dead behind criss-cross gates in a spooky stairwell. As evening approaches and darkness closes in, exploring becomes a game of shadowy surprises – who or what lies behind the next door? A dilapidated bathroom? Another cavernous palatial living space with red fleur-de-lis wallpaper? An improvised cinema? This could be the setting of any B-list horror movie, or, with a little imagination, the most typical British costume drama.

‘Starting a post-capitalist enterprise’ – how’s that for an oxymoronically intriguing workshop title? A shy middle-aged fellow named Mike claims to have done exactly this, but, over the course of nearly two hours, doesn’t actually get round to explaining even vaguely how. According to him, people who created the first companies didn’t have profit in mind: it was the corrupting influence of shareholders which catalysed today’s viciously money-driven market angle and, hence, the onset of capitalism. A colourful dramatis personae including fellow wannabeatniks, one silent note-taking bookish type, a couple of voluble old timers and a Lebanese film producer nevertheless yields a spirited discussion, although by the end we are no closer to formulating an alternative ideology to solve all the world’s problems. Disappointing.

As dusk settles, the house is buzzing. An eager crowd is all ears for a lecture on Palestine; a representative of the amusingly-titled A.S.S. (Association of Squatters Something) presents a step-by-step guide to the art of squatting, from scoping out potential “empties” to prolonging residence by fending bailiffs away; upstairs, in a room with gold trim, ornate hand-painted panelling and ceiling-to-floor mirrors, two enthusiasts play Indian classical music and talk about traditions of the genre. No one pays, no one makes money, knowledge is here for all to enjoy – maybe this is the quintessential post-capitalist enterprise our friend Mike was struggling to define.

Dinner is served: downstairs, everyone is welcomed to the communal eating area. Random artwork adorns the walls. Familiar, unknown and overwhelmingly friendly faces gather round one large table, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to be sharing scavenged food in a stately mansion with 30 people you’ve never met before. For many of them, it is. Others are mere visitors, passers-by or voyeurs of the lifestyle; those (like me) who fully appreciate the remarkable situation’s cheeky impudence, but probably wouldn’t have the guts or bottle to do something like it. Musicians, artists, climate change activists, nomads, travellers, Swedes, Australians and squat veterans all mix freely – the air is thick with conversation. In the cold, hard, business-powered parallel universe that is central London, this is a refreshing oasis of creativity, freedom and open-minded dialogue.

Someone wake me up already?

Published @ (now defunct), 20/1/09.