Tuesday 1 October 2013

Bohemia: the occupied pub holds its first meeting

"Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds. 

This use of the word bohemian first appeared in the English language in the nineteenth century to describe the non-traditional lifestyles of marginalized and impoverished artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and actors in major European cities. 

Bohemians were associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which often were expressed through free love, frugality, and—in some cases—voluntary poverty. A wealthy and privileged, even aristocratic, bohemian circle is sometimes referred to as the haute bohème 

The term Bohemianism emerged in France in the early nineteenth century when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower class, gypsy neighborhoods. Bohémien was a common term for the Romani people of France, who had reached Western Europe via Bohemia."

Wanderers, adventurers, artists, journalists, vagabonds and gypsies - free love ... Sounds good to me. Will opt for the haute Bohème version, rather than the frugal one, probably. Bit like easycouncil for artist-vagabonds, with an option for a higher charge standard of service, see. The blessings of 'choice', as commended by libertarian Tories, except of course only for themselves, and no one else.

So, anyway: after last Friday's occupation of the Bohemia Pub in North Finchley, a meeting was called, last night, for local residents and all interested parties to attend in order to discuss the future of the pub, and to try to save it for the community.

Risking further opprobrium from the retired and absent right wing blogosphere of Broken Barnet, and accompanied with a rather cutting suggestion from Miss Angry that she would not bother standing bail for her mother in the case of arrest, Mrs Angry went off to the now darkened pub. 

By the entrance stood our new landlords, in hi-vi tabards, greeting guests with a grin, and helping them over the step into the cavernous space of the stripped out pub. Hollowed out council, stripped out pub: it's all part of the same picture, isn't it?

Mrs Angry had expected to find only a handful of Bohemia supporters, and was frankly staggered to find an enormous circle of people, sitting expectantly in the candlelight, some old friends, many new.

Facilitated by occupier Phoenix, who tactfully explained the traditional rules of etiquette that prevail in his world, whereby people respect the needs of others in debate - a novel concept in Broken Barnet -  the circle of guests proceeded to introducethemselves.  Around forty gave their names, and others arrived as the evening continued, standing around at the back.

Almost all of them were habitues of the Bohemia who are deeply unhappy at the preremptory closure of what had become a central meeting place for the community. 

There is an emptiness in my heart, said one woman, in the shadows at the back of the room.

 Others murmured their agreement. Another woman explained how she had arrived in the area and felt lonely, so came to the Bohemia to start a group - now she felt the loss of the venue very keenly. Members of other local groups who had used the Bohemia as their base spoke up.

Their reason for coming was to express their feelings of loss, and fury, and, as many said, because they were curious about the occupation. That was a word that was used over and over again: in the leafy suburbs of Barnet, being occupy-curious is an increasingly popular tendency amongst the formerly well behaved and politically unadventurous classes. 

The people sitting in the circle were of all ages and backgrounds, in fact, including a lovely elderly lady called Betty, who was rather perplexed by being asked to use direct point hand signals - what's that for, she demanded, loudly, in the gloom, seated cosily, deep in the sofa with another elderly friend. But Betty declared herself to be there, again, out of curiousity.

The occupiers also introduced themselves, and told the circle about their own backgrounds. Daniel and Mordechai both come from theatrical backgrounds, cabaret and stand-up, and Petra is a poet.

Phoenix, as we know, has spent twenty years as a 'community activist', occupying all sorts of empty venues, from churches to pubs - and libraries, and believes passionately in defending the right to do so, in order to end the shameful incongruity of so many homeless people without shelter, and so many communities without a place to come together, and engage with each other, rather than succuumb to a broken down society where interaction is virtual, and engagement in any meaningful process of democratic decision making stifled in favour of a coalition of business interests and accommodating friends in government, national or local.

Who would have predicted such anarchic developments here, in the cradle of Thatcherism? Or perhaps more likely, it should have been predicted as the only conclusion to a process of rejection of her values, and the values of her heirs in government.

The meeting was filmed by someone from the Discovery Channel, and also present was a journalist who writes for the Guardian, and has followed the story of the library occupation and re-opening. Once again the people of Barnet are doing things their own way, and the story continues. 

There is a great deal of confusion as to who owns the Bohemia, and why the venue was closed. Mrs Angry has established that first of all, the history of the building is unclear: this is a work in progress, but according to her copy of Kellys Directory in 1939, there was a furniture shop there, run by a Mr William Jelks. Next door was a Home and Colonial store, which may or may not have become Liptons, and may or may not have featured in the first Monty Python film. Wouldn't be at all surprised, would you? But we digress. According to Land Registry records, in 1993, Ind Coope took over a 25 year lease - Ind Coope was swallowed up by a larger company, hence the association with Mitchell and Butlers. 

It was claimed at the meeting by someone with apparently reliable sources that at the point of closure in fact the Bohemia  was making a very good turnover - £16,000 a week, with a lease of £75,000  a year. Clearly there are other costs such as business rates, staff etc, but the business appears to have failed not on commercial grounds so much as an alleged attempt to demand that the tenants cover debts from another company, which if true seems rather unfair.

No representative of the local press came to the meeting last night, but this has, miraculously,  not prevented the local Times producing a story about it, in which it is claimed - please sit down before you read on - that the occupiers and supporters have been using social media to promote their cause. Blogging, Facebook, AND tweeting. Disgraceful, and Mrs Angry for one condemns the use of such vacuous forms of communication.

More interestingly, the article claims that Mitchell and Butler have stated: 

"The Bohemia is in the hands of the administrators and therefore they are responsible for the security of the property.  They have been made aware squatters have gained access to the building."

In fact the occupiers have written politely to Mitchell and Butlers, explaining that they are staying on the premises, and would like a meeting to discuss the possible options for the future of the pub.  As occupier Leon stated, they are not going to stand in the way of what the community wants, and Phoenix emphasised that they would as usual, agree to leave on a certain date should such arrangements transpire. And that includes any suitable proposal from a commericial enterprise to return the Bohemia to what it formerly was: a great community pub.

The intention is to help residents preserve what was already there, and a company with any imagination, as well as business acumen might consider the substantial goodwill, affection and support from residents for the Bohemia to be the real asset, rather than an empty building.

Local traders and Town Team members were present last night, and Helen Michael pointed out that some landlords were deliberately leaving vacated shops empty on a long term basis rather than accept a lower paying tenant, and lower the value of their property's rental potential. Such speculative cynicism can only harm the already distressed state of our high streets, and if town centres are to survive, such strategies must be opposed.

In the meanwhile, at the meeting residents and occupiers discussed a number of activities they would like to see taking place in the Bohemia, from cinema nights, and board game nights - oh, one for Mrs Angry, to occupy her wandering mind - a knitting group -  to live music. 

One of the endearing, if surprising characteristics of this group of occupiers is their curiously disciplined approach to what they do: they go to enormous lengths to be polite, courteous and discreet, and are markedly sober and respectful in their behaviour. Residents were reminded, therefore, that in the event of holding musical evenings, noise must be kept to a minimum, so as not to upset the neighbours - and they will provide the decibel counter in order to do so. The use of alcohol should be sensible, and healthy drinks available too. Mary Poppins, see?

Equally high on the list of concerns is health and safety, and an associate who is a qualified health and safety/environmental health advisor will be visiting the premises this week to ensure that they are compliant with regulations: something which has been causing concern to Councillor Brian Coleman, bless him. 

So:  La Vie Bohème, in North Finchley - what next? Where next? 

More later ...


Hellraker said...


Fascinating read. Mirrored on this site. Hope it's okay.



Ree said...

Good work fellow bohemians!! Big love Xx