Stamford Hill Diaries: Hassidic Jews & Vegan Anarcho Squatters

In north Hackney the ground rises slightly to Stamford Hill and the summit remains hipster free but is known as London’s Hasidic neighbourhood and back in the day it was the vegan class-war anarchist stronghold too...
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In north Hackney the ground rises slightly to Stamford Hill and the summit remains hipster free but is known as London’s Hasidic neighbourhood and back in the day it was the vegan class-war anarchist stronghold too...

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When I first moved to Hackney in the early 90s I was surprised by some of the advice I was given. “Say no & keep walking” is good advice everywhere, I wasn’t expecting ‘Watch out for Hassidim in Volvos’ to come up as often as it did. Given the fervent anti-fascism of my vegan Class War supporting hosts this wasn’t the kind of thing I expected to hear in squatland. But it did turn out to be good advice.  Standing on the pavement, where I’d bunny-hopped my bike to avoid being crushed by a careering Volvo, I started to believe that there may be a conflict of interest between, on one hand; being god’s chosen fur-hat wearers and on the other, sharing the public-shitting-highway or even vaguely following the tenets of its code. With an all-seeing imaginary friend to look after you, what can go wrong behind the wheel? And if anything untoward does happen you’re in a Volvo - the other guy is fucked. 

Within days I was giving the same advice myself.

The ‘certain’ live a life far simpler than the rest of us, for them where adherence ends evil begins. After putting in all that effort believing and following the rules that prove you’re a believer, it’s an unpleasant trait of human nature to look upon the uncommitted with a certain distain. Those on the borders might be ushered into the fold, but the majority will forever be beyond righteousness and beneath contempt. A friend explained: “I’m not good enough for them. You, you’re real scum, its not like you even CAN be saved from damnation. God hates you, dude”.

It must have been something in the water, a few streets away on a low-rise estate, the squatters had embraced a rigid certainty too, and enforced a strict dress and dietary code of their own. The sect had it’s own customs and prejudices, its own rules and traditions. Members would make weekend pilgrimages to the cold and unforgiving countryside to sabotage fox hunts, sell Ian Bone’s Class War newspaper outside gigs, collect lurid pictures of animal cruelty, and enforce veganism on their pets and children. Vegetarians were looked on as second-class citizens, and meat eaters the untermensch. I was put on a list of dangerous subversives for the crime of being seen drinking in Camden with a woman wearing lipstick and nail varnish. The righteous held regular pogroms: anyone returning from Crimbo with the folks was suspected, and could be interrogated. Would questioning reveal a backsliding turkey murderer? Some squats conducted room searches for porn, revealing its owner as a closet sexist who would then have to embark on a forced march of Maoist self-criticism, and apology around the estate. Just for the privilege of continuing to live in a rat infested shit-hole eating lentils.

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At both ends of the street black was the new black, while the Hassidim are still rocking a britches, stockings and shoes with big buckles look, yer anarchists preferred dyed back combat pants tucked into army surplice boots (strangely exempt from the leather goods ban), and the MA1 bomber jacket was militaristic enough for porn patrol, fuels the sense of an army in waiting, and scores irony points for being made for the military-industrial-complex. Only the squatters had adopted facial piercing, and the carrying of ‘rescued’ lab rats, but both clans favoured at least some hair being grown into locks. Another shared local trait was a certain humourlessness. Obviously vegans have got fuck all to laugh about but some Kosher food is excellent so you might think the chosen chappies might take a break from looking pompous to the point of constipation, and allow themselves at least a wry smile, knowing they were soon to see the hatless cast into a fiery pit and the roads cleared for Volvos to roam free from annoying scumsters like myself on bicycles.

How many Vegans does it take to change a light bulb? Only one and that’s not funny.

While the Hassidim weren’t out to make converts, the vegan-anarcho-squatters did make an effort of sorts, but their marketing wasn’t up to much. Before Facebook if you wanted to make a chunt of yourself with your (entirely justified) fear that the government is coming to take away your tin foil hat, and half-baked plans to reform the world in your own image. You would have used a ‘Gestetner’ to print off literally tens of copies of your fanzine or anarcho-vegan diatribe. They could then be shared with other members of the tribe on Saturday mornings. Standing in the street outside Sainsbury’s, pasty as only a vegan can be, reeking of patchouli oil, with a vegetarian dog too weak to make a break for freedom at their feet, they’d try to give out pamphlets urging the reader to ‘Smash The Ideal Home Exhibition’ and support other causes vital to the overthrow of global capitalism. Some weeks another pointless group would complete with them for ‘least public interest’. The Socialist Worker Party would send it’s most ardent time-wasters, the paper sales team. The SWP despite their many faults have always been pro bacon sandwich, so never really gained much traction in Stamford Hill.

Fast forward twenty years and I’m back in Hackney, post divorce and starting again. The anarcho-squatters bought up those Stoke Newington town houses when they were cheap, have started eating meat, and are raising kids with names like Gazpacho and Ashtanga. Their leafleting is now about Free Schools.