In Arms Reach was a collective that started in the early summer of 2004 with the intention of squatting a central London building to act as a social centre to have gigs, workshops, films and other events. We ended up squatting 8 Portman Street, a building 30 seconds off Oxford Street, and having an awesome time. This article is a personal reflection on what happened by one individual who was involved.“Just try the door with the crowbar.”
“Look Greg I promise you that won’t open.”
This is the third building that we’ve tried to break tonight. The first one of the evening was a supposedly derelict pub on Pentoville Road. I popped the padlocks, only to be confronted with a fully functional bar. Fuck. Next up was the building I’d pretty much put all my eggs into, which turned out to be burned to a crisp inside. Not very useful. This was the fifth night in a row that we’d been out looking for a building to move into. If it didn’t happen tonight then that was it, I was quitting. To top it off the last resort was the most unlikely of all the buildings that we’d scouted. Surely there’s no way that Westminster council is going to allow a social centre, and gig venue to operate just off Oxford Street. Surely this building couldn’t be empty, and squattable. And how the fuck am I getting away with taking a crowbar out and snapping off a padlock in the heart of London and not getting nicked? Oh well it was our last chance, and I wasn’t prepared to let us fail for want of trying.
“Seriously Greg this door is not shifting.” I whispered up to my friend.
“What about the window?”
“What do you mean, ‘what about the window’? It’s got iron fucking bars in front of it.”
“Just fucking try it Eric.”
If there is a god she clearly likes me. Squeezing through the window took me into a new world. ‘Fuck this place is massive’ I thought to myself as I bounded up the stairs to let Greg in.
For the next ten or so minutes we hastily explored the building. After ten minutes we were both agreed that it was too big for just two of us to occupy. We agreed we’d get as many of the collective as was possible to get together to come down to occupy the next night. We – stupidly – ignored the locked door on the second floor, and rationalised the bike in the entrance hallway as being something the builders left behind. I replaced the metal grate over the window, and went home to have a long sleep.
The next night we returned.
“Yo Greg the locked doors open. Oh shit…”
“What is it?”
“There’s a light on inside. We’ve broken into someone else’s fucking squat. Fuck!”
Well that was that then. At this point we were only a week away from the first gig. Where the fuck were we gonna find a place in Zone 1 of London big enough to put on this thing in that short of time.
“Why don’t we just wait to see if the guy comes back?” offered Olive.
What a fucking awesome idea. Four hours later, having been accosted by a series of drunks I wasn’t holding such warm fuzzy feelings for Olive.
“Can we just leave him a note.”
I was awoken the next morning at the ungodly hour of 10am by Lance.
“Hi, I umm got the note that you left on my door.”
He rang us back! The man is a walking talking legend. Without Lance none of this shit would have happened. He offered us his home, and said that we could do whatever we wanted with it, he was wanting to move out anyway. The place was just too big for one person.
The first meeting that happened in the building occurred the next morning. It was – to put it politely – a bit of a farce. Though ultimately they turned out to be useful to the project we suddenly had a periphery member of the collective bringing in three American kids, none of whom any of us had met before. Likewise somehow an invitation was extended to another American kid to move in. Ultimately it all turned out OK with all four of them, but there was a serious lack of communication of ideas and ideals. This led to some serious conflict during the week which could have quite easily been got around if there’d be a bit more of exchange at this first meeting about issues such as being a vegetarian/ vegan squat and other such nonsense like that. If I could change one thing about the whole event it would have been this, since I think Clare, Tim, Natasha and myself would have felt much less marginalised and less burnt out had we just shared our ideals at the start, and it may have been that 8 Portman Street didn’t turn into just a ‘hit and run’ and could have been turned into a fully fledged social centre.
For the most part differences were kept in check and the hard work of getting the place into a condition to have gigs in started. The first job though was to get mattresses so we could actually get some sleep at night. To the hotel.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Tim and me looked at each other and kind of shrugged our shoulders.
“We’re taking this mattress out of your skip. It seems to be stuck on something though” said Tim, “Would you like to give us a hand?”
“Get out of the skip before I ring the cops.” Oh well. I suppose its not like he minced his words.
An hour later with four more sets of hands we finally liberated not one, but three mattresses from that skip. Success! Distinctly unsuccessful though was the hunt for furniture. Normally sofas, chairs, and the like abound across the whole of London. For some reason though the first two weeks of August saw a complete drought on all forms of furniture, except for an uncomfortable leather ‘thing’, and two rickety office chairs. We did manage to “find” (I think we actually stole it, but who can tell in situations such as these) a nice table for the distros to set up on.
Electricity proved to be easy. The builders had desecrated the company’s heads (the bit where the mains feeds into most buildings) in both buildings, but they’d rigged up their own fuse box running off the mains in the room we were going to have the gig in. Perfect. The lights were equally as simple with metres and metres of industrial electrical cable, with light sockets which just ‘clipped’ in. It only took us two hours to run the thing around the house.
Soundproofing too wasn’t as hard as I had assumed it might be. 100 estroyed Madball posters later [at least the band’s useful for something hey!) and we had pretty sound proofed windows. With a wood panel on top, and carpet above that no sound was gonna get out. Nor for that matter was any heat. Even if you were just two people chatting in the room you started to break into a sweat.
“So what exactly do we do if we have 300 people show up wanting to see Five Knuckle?”
It was a fair question – but I’m still not sure any of us know what the answer is. We only had space for – at the very most – 150 in the main gig space, and that’s if somehow no-one started collapsing because of heat exhaustion.
“Maybe we could just lie and say we don’t know anything about a gig.” Clare proposed. I think this was the best idea any of us came up with.
“What about the floors? Are they actually going to hold 150 people?”
“Well we’re not gonna know until we try are we Natasha.” Put in Bob.
Thankfully the floor didn’t collapse, and 300 hundred people didn’t show up. Five bands managed to – eventually – show up (though one band needed to be shouted at to get them out of the pub and down to the building). 150 punters appeared. And it was 42 degrees Celsius in the room when Fireapple Red played. It was so hot and sweaty that my camera lens lasted 15 seconds before it fogged up. And somehow we managed to get the best sounding PA system that I’ve ever come across in London, whilst also having all the kit we needed and not getting hassled by the cops (well at least not until after the gig had finished). It’s the best show I’ve ever seen Five Knuckle play.
Having the main event on the first day was a bit of a mistake though. Everyone who had spent the past few weeks of their life doing little other than IAR stuff kinda let out a huge sigh of relief and had a long lie in the next day.
“Look we need to get the place tidy, cook food, and get the new PA sorted in just over five hours.” Clare tersely pointed out.
Four of us – everyone else had conveniently disappeared – got the place tidy just in time for other problems to start.
“So where’s the snare stand?” Asked Linds from the Dakinis.
“The snare uhh umm… I’ll be back in two minutes.” ‘Fuck. Where is everybody anyway’ I thought as I ran around desperately looking for something that I had no idea of what it looked like. “Umm Linds I’m not sure we uhh have one. Is that gonna be a problem?”
“Don’t worry I’ll ring my friend and he’ll bring mine from home.” Man, I fucking love DIY punks.
Just when I think I can relax, and go ring people to shout at them to get to the building to help out, to man the doors, and get food, Tim ex-Soon The Darkness approaches me with that look on his face.
“Umm, Eric we seem to have lost our bassist.”
“Oh…Do you have any idea where you’ve lost him?”
“Well he’s on the tube somewhere.”
“Oh, ok. You know you’re on in like twenty minutes?”
A quick re-jig of the line up thankfully made it possible for Among The Missing to get at least a twenty minute set when their bassist finally appeared. And equally good was the fact that a couple of others finally did show up so that I didn’t end up with a nervous breakdown.
The next night was slightly less eventful, with all the bands appearing on time, and playing amazing sets. It’s again the best that I’ve seen Jets Vs Sharks play, and at least Tim ex-STD got to play a full set with his other band Fucking Big Monster.
The rest of the week was not as amazing as most of us had hoped. All our attention and energy had gone on making the gigs happen, so when it came to Monday and we suddenly realised we had to do five days worth of workshops, vegan cafes, and film nights we all collectively realised how little we’d organised. Rav took charge of the café and somehow managed to make sure that food appeared each evening. The workshops were less impressive. Our zine workshop went well largely I think because a lot of self-motivated people showed up, and somehow we managed to bash out a 20 page zine by the end of the day. The screen printing workshop went less well the next day when El, Natasha, and myself realised that we hadn’t really thought at all about the logistics of teaching ten people how to screen print all at once, and that we didn’t even have the photo emulsion we’d need to develop the screens. Despite looking like complete fools we did manage – I think – to teach a couple of people how to screen print. Though I did comically manage to fuck up my friend’s screen by advising him to leave it in the direct sunlight for twenty minutes, not noticing that all the emulsion had hardened I took it down with him to the shower to wash it out, and was perplexed at why the water wasn’t washing through. Never one to give up easily – largely because I’m not smart enough – I took the screen back upstairs to try and print something, only umm the ink wouldn’t go through the screen. Whoops. Wednesday, which was supposed to be the ‘Punk picnic’ day didn’t really happen, though quite a few people showed up for the evening’s zombie horror movies, where we made the mistake of showing the Italian movie ‘Nights of Horror’ rather than the (so bad it’s good) 80’s ‘Dead Heat’. Thursday – the stencilling/ grafitti day – also didn’t really happen, though the skate movies in the evening were once again well attended. Friday – the day to discuss direct action – led to a good conversation between people who believe that direct action is the only way to make change, and those who think it’s just violence. Direct action won out, and a small group of us went out stencilling Oxford Street that night.