Tag Archives: squatting

The backward-walking man is dead. Long live the backward-walking man!

The late Michael Dickinson, circa 2014, as he appeared in the Camden New Journal this week…

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Camden New Journal and was sad to read about the death of Michael Dickinson.

You’ve never heard of him? Neither had I until May last year, when I was in Camden Town and saw a man walking backwards. Not just for a couple of seconds or a minute. He walked backwards the whole time.

I posted two videos of him on YouTube. This was the first:

Obviously, I looked him up online and found out he had been doing this for years and was former actor Michael Dickinson.

He had been born in either Durham or Yorkshire, depending on which legend you believe, and he studied at the Manchester School of Theatre from 1969 alongside future actors Julie Walters and Richard Griffiths.

Michael Dickinson (right) with Simon Callow in Passing By – Gay Sweatshop production at the Almost Free Theatre, 1975.

In the 1970s, he became an actor himself. In 1975, he kissed Simon Callow in Passing By, a ‘groundbreaking’ two-man show about a gay romance.

Rather miscast as Jesus in another play, he eventually mostly gave up acting and took up collage art.

In 1982, he held an exhibition in Primrose Hill and a review in esteemed local paper the Hampstead & Highgate Express (the Ham & High), said he was “wickedly adept at exposing the two-faced tendencies and follies of our leaders”.

In an interview in the Camden New Journal on 25th May 2017, he claimed that he could no longer walk forwards and had self-diagnosed his condition as ‘retropulsion’.

He said: “It could be psychological, or I heard somebody say it could be a disease, but I don’t feel unwell apart from that. If I didn’t feel this retropulsion I would much prefer to be walking forwards. When it first started happening it was bewildering, to say the least.

“Occasionally people in cars blow horns at me, which is dangerous because I turn to look at them rather than where I’m going. 

“I don’t really want to see a doctor, I feel they’ll just put me on some sort of medication and I would rather not be. I can deal with it and there is no law against it. I’m careful that I had never hurt anybody, although I did hurt myself the other day when I tripped over a branch as I walked through the woods.”

From the mid-1980s for almost three decades – before he started walking backwards – he had lived in Turkey, working as a teacher and artist, sometimes telling fortunes to pay his rent.

…with one of his less insulting Turkish collages in 2014… (Photograph by Polly Hancock for the Ham & High)

He somewhat annoyed the Turkish authorities in 2006 by creating a collage which depicted leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a dog receiving a rosette from American President George W. Bush in a pet show. The resultant court case stretched over four years.

In 2008, he was prosecuted for insulting Erdogan by creating the collage. He was initially cleared, but the verdict was overturned in 2010 and then, after shouting a political slogan at police in a separate incident in 2013, he was deported.

Back in London between the two incidents, in 2011, he was arrested in Parliament Square (where he was living in a tent) after shouting “No more war!” during a Remembrance Day silence. He was charged with a public order offence, but the case was eventually dropped.

Permanently in London after his deportation from Turkey, he slept in the streets around Camden Town. While living in a cardboard box next to the Sainsbury’s supermarket there, some people who were squatting in the former police station in Hampstead met him at a soup kitchen and invited him to join their squat.

While there, he ate food discarded by shops and cafés and chucked-away in recycling bins. He made some money by telling fortunes on the street.

It was possibly not too rough an existence as it was a Grade II listed building and they had a wide-screen television set.

He was very grateful to the squatters.

He told the Ham & High: “I would still be in that box were it not for them.”

Squatters are evicted from the former Hampstead police station in 2014 with their belongings, including wide screen TV

Eventually, on the afternoon of 2nd May 2014, the police evicted the squatters in the former Hampstead police station and he took to sleeping in a tent in a Hampstead cementery, though he eventually ended up in a legitimate Highgate flat by 2017.

When and why exactly did he start to walk backwards? 

Leonie Scott-Matthews of Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead told the Camden New Journal this week: “I remember when he started walking backwards. He was in a play here; he got off the stage and just started walking back­wards. It was just after he had got back from Turkey.”

His friend Charles Thomson says: “It was clearly symbolic I felt. He enjoyed be­ing in Turkey and he couldn’t go back. He was walking back­wards when I last saw him.”

His friend Kay Bayliss added: “He emailed me around Christmas saying he was having phlegm problems that persisted. He was still suffering this when he emailed me on April 11 and now had serious-sounding gut problems… Michael had a very interesting life. At school all the girls loved him. He was so good looking and very complimentary even in more recent times.”

Michael Dickinson died “from peritonitis resulting from a gut obstruction”, in his Highgate bedsit, aged 70, on 2nd July 2020. 

So it goes.

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Malcolm Hardee, the squatters and the upcoming Cunning Stunt in Edinburgh

The Wibbley Wobbley in its original berth at Greenland Dock in February 2014

The Wibbley Wobbley in its original berth at Greenland Dock

In November and December last year, I posted a series of blogs about the late comic Malcolm Hardee’s former floating pub/comedy club The Wibbley Wobbley.

There were squatters living on board in November.

In December, the boat was towed away from Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe to nearby South Dock Marina and, a few days later, towed away to be scrapped.

This week, I had a chat with Darryl, one of the squatters.

“So you got ousted from the Wibbley Wobbley,” I said. “Where are you squatting now?”

“In a building. An ex-restaurant.”

“Any leftovers?”

“No. Only mice.”

“You could eat the mice,” I suggested.

“We could, but we have standards.”

“So,” I said, “The Wibbley Wobbley got moved from Greenland Dock to South Dock Marina. Were the squatters still on board at the time?”

The Wibbley Wobbley was temporarily berthed in South Dock Marina, Rotherhithe(Photograph by Jody VandenBurg)

The Wibbley Wobbley was temporarily berthed in South Dock Marina, Rotherhithe (Photograph by Jody VandenBurg)

“I wasn’t on board,” replied Darryl, “but other people were. There was no notice and it was a dawn raid. They just cut off the supports, attached a boat with a power motor and towed the Wibbley Wobbley around the corner.”

“What happened,” I asked, “when it got taken away from South Dock Marina?”

“No idea. It’s a mystery. We had all got off by then.”

“Because you had decided it was not a good place to stay?”

“No, the people were quite aggressive. They booted us off.”

“Physically?”

“Pretty much, yeah. We couldn’t put up a resistance, so…”

“There was some verbal aggression and you left?”

“Well,” said Darryl, “there was some physical violence to one of our crew. But we realised the boat was going to be sailed away and dismantled or whatever, so we…”

“What sort of physical violence?” I asked.

“A punch to the head,” said Darryl. “It was not very nice.”

“How had you originally started squatting there?” I asked.

“We went on board in late May last year – Pirata Mala Pata…”

“What?” I asked.

“Pirata Mala Pata,” Darryl repeated.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The name of the man who went on board to start off with. He’s my friend. Pirata Mala Pata. It’s Spanish.”

“What does it mean?”

Darryl the Squatter talked to me at the Soho Theatre Bar

Darryl the Saintly Squatter talked to me at the Soho Theatre

“No idea. We have pirate names. Pirata Mala Pata. He went on board first, with Back from the Dead Red.”

“What?”

“Back from the Dead Red – That’s his name.

“Then I went on – Darryl Kia Kaha – and then Conrad the Cut-Throat Lipstick Killer. Then, after that, quickly, there were Bristima Long Wave, Diabolito, Deptford Drake, Slayer Crow, Belly Bones Beerhead and Bluebeard Barbarossa. They are all very interesting characters.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “When you started squatting on the Wibbley Wobbley, you told me no-one was clear who owned it.”

“When we went on board,” Darryl explained, “the power was still all activated, the fridge had been running for I don’t know how many years and there was a lot of alcohol left on board which was good for about a week.”

“What was in the fridge?” I asked.

“Nothing, but there was lots of electrical equipment still on board. The water supply was still on. It was a great environment.

“We contacted the Harbour Master to find out who the owner was so we could maybe make a deal with him and say we would look after the boat. The person we met at that time – we could not confirm if he actually was the owner – said we would have about three weeks.

“So we said: OK. That’s fine. Three weeks is great. And those three weeks came and went and we were there for about six months. But the Harbour Master didn’t want us on board. He turned off the power pretty quickly, so we got a generator and a lot of battery stuff. After another couple of months, he removed the water supply, which was a bit contentious. You’re not supposed to remove a water supply. But there was not much recourse for us, so we just bought big bottles. And then there was the sewerage problem.

“That was part of why the whole boat closed down in the first place. There is a big sewage tank at the back of the boat and, when it gets filled up, it starts to sink the boat.”

Malcolm Hardee, man of the River Thames, had contacts (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

“Malcolm would have approved of what you are doing.” (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

“Ah yes,” I said. “I was at Malcolm’s birthday party in 2002 when the boat started to sink with the weight of its own shit.”

“We actually sorted it out,” said Darryl. “The Harbour Master disconnected the sewerage. We didn’t like that. So we re-connected it, got a pump and our generator and managed to send the shit back up the pipe and around the harbour to his tank. He didn’t know. But it worked and we were pretty much self-sufficient.”

“Did he ever find out?” I asked.

“No… In the squatting network, people are very resourceful. A lot of people have a lot of knowledge. As you can imagine, with a disparate group of people, everyone has their own agendas. My agenda was to run creative events. My background is film-making and music. We made little films on the boat, which was cool. And we had events, which was really cool.”

“When did you find out about Malcolm Hardee?” I asked.

“As soon as we got on, we started researching. We found lots of articles inside the boat and really quickly found out about him. We thought: Wow! This is exciting! This is obviously a kindred spirit. And, amongst many people who came by the boat, were a couple of people who said: Malcolm would have approved of what you guys are doing.”

“I think they are probably right,” I told Darryl.

“But,” he continued, “along with that, we also endured quite a lot of hostility.”

“From…?” I asked.

The interior of the Wibbley Wobbley during the occupation by squatters

Interior of Wibbley Wobbley during the squatter occupation.

“Oh, as soon as we got on the boat, word spread around. It had been the pub for some of the old locals, so it was understandable they would feel jilted that we had taken over what used to be their bar. So we suffered quite a lot of verbal abuse, threats of violence. We recorded a lot of it on camera to protect ourselves. Also there were drunk people trying to come on board. There was also a mad woman who would throw huge rocks at us. We had to get the police around to her.”

“She lived in a nearby flat?”

“Yeah.”

“And threw rocks?”

“Yeah. Big rocks. She was mentally not well. Also, towards the end of summer, we had a gang of marauding 10-year-olds on bicycles throwing rocks at us.”

“What,” I asked, “did the police say?”

“They came round in the early days and said: You guys are fine. You’ve got occupancy, so you have the right to be here.

“Once, we had an open painting day and put large canvasses up on the pier and invited people to come and paint. We had lots of kids come along. The Harbour Master came along and said: You can’t do this! You’re trespassing! He called the police. He told them: Look! These guys are trespassing and disturbing the peace!

“And,” I asked, “the police reaction was…?”

“They said: No, no. They’re not. Sorry. There’s nothing you can do about it. Bugger off.” 

“Not in those exact words?”

“No, not in those exact words, but it was a bit humiliating for the poor guy.”

“And the future…?” I asked.

“We have been inspired by Malcolm and an anonymous group has decided to take on the concept of the Cunning Stunt at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.”

“Ooh,” I said. “Are they actually staging a show at the Fringe?”

“Yes. the group intends to put on a comedy piece.”

Christian Talbot’s increasingly prestigious Cunning Stunt Award

One of the increasingly prestigious Cunning Stunt Awards

“And the stunt is…?” I asked.

“Something is going to happen,” said Darryl.

“Always good,” I said. “Is it legal or illegal?”

“Legal, I think.”

“How disappointing,” I said.

“Well,” said Darryl, “the hologram might infringe some boundaries. You’ve got maritime law, terrestrial law and then you have aerospace. They are going to attempt a hologram between the dimensions.”

“Between time and space?” I asked.

“Yes. Totally shred the space-time continuum,” said Darryl.

“What,” I asked, “is the stage show they might be putting on at the Edinburgh Fringe?”

“Apparently it’s going to be inside a four-walled venue for one day only – because, once you have burnt down a building, you can’t do it again…”

“Malcolm did,” I told him. “And when might this show happen in Edinburgh?”

“No idea,” said Darryl. “But they have said they will release information. They have got birds: pigeons. They will be sending them out to various addresses at the right time.”

“Including my address?” I asked. “I hope so.”

“Maybe…” said Darryl. “Maybe leave some crumbs outside the front door to your house so the pigeons will know where to land.”

“Except,” I said, “I suppose I should not tell you my address in case I wake up tomorrow and find you are squatting in my back bedroom.”

“Absolutely,” said Darryl.

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“Anonymous group has decided to take on the concept of the Cunning Stunt at the Edinburgh Fringe”

 

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