‘Freeskool iz not a zoo’

Joanna Biggs

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.


  • 10 February 2011 at 2:26pm
    BlackMassMovies says:
    Hi Joanna,

    The solidarity actions at the British Museum happened because I was at home watching Al Jazeera, saw the human shield at the Cairo Museum being reported, and sent them a Tweet.

    People at the Really Free School decided to interrupt a film they were watching and walked round there. The photo of the action is here.

    We did another action last week in a similar, spontaneous, improvised way, because a lot of us wanted to show that we're still concerned about the Egyptian protesters and the safety of the antiquities.

    As well as Paul's blog post about the nature of protest, I'd recommend people read some thoughts my friend Tim Nunn - now a playwright in Scotland, but before this a big influence on me and many others as a campaigner - which he shared via Twitter, giving some historical perspective.

    For me, the Really Free School is an example of how the personal and political are reconnecting. This makes me very optimistic about the future. The nature of these kinds of actions, happenings, gatherings is improvised, intuitive.

    You can read more into the Museum actions, for example, if you want but the simple explanation it's that we felt strongly about something that's happening right now. We went and did something about it, in public space, and documented it. It's from the heart. The same way that supporters of the Really Free School are passionate about education and positive change for Universities. There aren't leaders, or spokespeople. I don't speak for the Free School because no one does.

    That makes some people uncomfortable or a bit confused. There aren't clear messages, branding, slogans, party lines. I've observed that the English often don't deal well with emotion, unless it's to do with them as individuals directly. Sometimes I'm not 100% comfortable with this mode of operation myself, being from quite a sober background in mainstream activism and politics. But I see the potential, for a reconnection between people's heads and hearts, between knowledge and action, and it's exciting.

    Great post and I warmly encourage people to pay the Really Free School a visit.

    - Tim

  • 11 February 2011 at 3:19pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Funny, as I first looked at the picture I thought this was 10 Downing Street.

    • 15 February 2011 at 2:44pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Me too, I liked the bikes.