The black-brick Georgian terrace house at 5 Bloomsbury Square had been empty for years. Two weeks ago the Really Free School moved in. Now there is bunting hanging between the first floor windows and lessons to attend in the afternoons and evenings: Arabic, Alexander Technique, Art for Children but also talks about Palestine, radical feminism, wi-fi hacking, the financial crisis; they’ve even had Newsnight’s economics editor, Paul Mason, come to talk on the Paris Commune – perhaps he was learning from them as much as they from him – and after he had finished you could join in a game of ‘Werewolf’.
As with the university occupations last year, setting up the Really Free School involved creating a website, a Twitter feed and an online events calendar but also making benches and tables out of plywood, rewiring the place, making kitchen shelves from ply and Argos catalogues, and stacking them with a job lot of old bread. But here there’s an owner. People said he was an earl, or a presenter of Antiques Roadshow; he’d arrived at the house to let builders in and had been angry to find it being squatted. But the squatters managed to talk him round and he agreed that as long as they let the window man in they could stay until the renovations were due to start – the end of this week.
When I went there in late January, I was shown round by a medical student from UCL who had missed out on their occupation but come to the Really Free School as soon as she’d heard about it. The walls had that shabby chic mottle seen in Lionel Logue’s treatment room in The King’s Speech; there were chandeliers and velvety carpet on the staircase, but it was lit with the flashing orange lights you sometimes see on traffic cones. On the top floor the window man had taken the panes out of the frame and we could see into Swedenborg House opposite, where it still seemed to be 1897, all shiny dark wood and soft yellow light. The medical student seemed happy to talk to me, as did one of the squatters – inviting me to propose workshops – but the next day the Really Free School issued a communiqué criticising the media for portraying ‘a distorted reality according to editorial guidelines dictated by commercial and political interests of an undeserved elite’ making all conversations off the record and unrepresentative: ‘Freeskool iz not a zoo.’
Even if you don’t know about the Free University in Shoreditch in 1968 or John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett, you’d expect something counter-cultural from the new Freeskool. Is it ‘really free’ in the way Gove’s new schools are only ‘free’? The squat wasn’t actively against the coalition cuts, but they have the movement’s new poster in the window – ‘We will fight we will kiss London Cairo Rome Tunis’ – and the human ring around the British Museum, a gesture of solidarity with the ring of Egyptians who protected their National Museum, seemed to have been orchestrated from there. One of the squatters told me that the students were welcome to use the space to have meetings – early on the UCL occupation did – but I heard a couple of days ago that they’re not allowed to meet there any more.
When I dropped in to hear a talk from someone who’d temped as a debt-collector for a big bank, the 25 or so of us huddled in coats around the plywood bench, now covered in graffiti (the walls, unlike at the UCL occupation, were surprisingly, respectfully bare) were still and quiet. Some took notes on a pad or a computer, others ate crisps or sipped water. We listened intently, we asked sensible questions. The room was lit by a single naked eco lightbulb; a torch occasionally moved over the dark staircase as people moved around the building; someone wasn’t able to resist trying a few keys of the freshly acquired baby grand.