Tales and Reminiscences by Gayatri Thanki, B.L + Swati Patel

Tales and reminiscences, by Gayatri Thanki, Swati and B.L. Part of the department of Unruly histories by Meera Shakti Osborne.

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Audio Transcription:

** the sound of rain falling**

Meera: Tales and reminiscences, by Gayatri Thanki, Swati and B.L This work is part of the department of unruly histories which is ideated by me, Meera Shakti Osborne. The audio explores memories of three very different Asian women who were all involved in the squatting scene in the 1980’s in London. You will also hear me throughout the piece. 

Creating this audio with my mum Gayatri and her friends has felt exposing. The process shifts when recording a story that feels so close to my life. What am I revealing and what I choose to omit, carries a new weight, which I hope makes me into a more thoughtful and considered editor in general. 

** birds chirping **

Gayatri: You did something that was really really different to what would be expected from, you know, your background and you know, where, who our families were, but in a way you were continuing something of them, by your jobs and by how you chose to live.

Swati: Yeah, and what about you? How did you find a sort of belonging to the community into, into your parent’s community?

Gayatri: They didn’t.. similarly to you, they didn’t ever, ever ask me about it. 

I, I think I felt like I was so good at having this double life, yeah I don’t think I could ever have spoken to them openly about that, you know, that you lived in a squat or that I lived in a squat, or that I had squatted. I couldn’t have openly,  but I kind of implied it and they kind of accepted it, but neither was really very, it wasn’t very comfortable. It was very uncomfortable, and there was a lot of guilt from, in me, that I was doing something that didn’t quite make any sense to them but they had no choice, because they weren’t the sort of parents who would say ‘no you are not or you know what are you doing, you can’t do this’. So I was just continuing to kind of separate my life.

** Reggae music **

Gayatri: In these conversations three friends, Gayatri, Swati and B.L, talk about some of our memories of squatting and living in London in the 1980s and 90s. Two of us have known one another since we were nineteen, and two of us have recently met up again after losing touch for many years.

We are Asian women in our 60s, looking back at our younger selves, talking about our lives, what was intentional, what just happened, did we think about the future? Was there only now? 

We recall with some fuzziness a past which is so far away from our present lives and meet our twenty-something year-old selves with humour and compassion. 

**’Sound of Reggae music**

Swati: Okay I’m Swati and I’m here at Gayu’s house, we’ve had a really delicious lunch and it’s been a nice afternoon so far. I’m in Finsbury Park, so yeah. 

*Sound of chuckling*

B.L: So we met in Brighton, both had mutual friends and at some point I think we lived in the same house in Moulsecoomb.

Gayatri: So yeah, I’m Gayu, I’m Meera’s mum and me and you, Swati, we’ve known each other since nineteen eighty…

Swati and Gayatri : One 

Swati: Yeah

Gayatri, Yeah, September or October of 1981

Swati : Yeah, I don’t think I’ve known anyone that long, well except my parents obviously.

B.L: The year after I graduated which was ‘83, I think we kind of lost touch, that year and then we didn’t see each other again till we both happened to be living in the same area of North London, round here, just by fluke literally just around the corner from each other, and then we ran into each other on the street and then you invited me for tea and I think you were pregnant or just about to have Maya?

Gayatri: I think she had just been born.  

B.L: Oh, just been born, and then, quite soon after that you moved away from the area, so, then we didn’t see each other for years and years and then, again we started running into each other. It was the first year of the pandemic wasn’t it 2020? And you’d moved up here, that’s how we know each other. 

Swati: I have a really vivid memory of standing in this queue at Sussex University and you came up and introduced yourself and I introduced myself to you and I was so glad to have met you that day, because there were hardly any other Asian people and I was thinking ‘Ah! there is one person like me!’ 

Swati: And it’s been what, God, forty plus years and we still know each other. 

Gayatri: Was that the first week of University? 

Swati: Yeah

’’’’The sound of rain pattering in the background ”””

Gayatri: I can sort of remember seeing you in the house in Moulsecoomb from afar and being introduced to you. 

B.L: Yeah

Gayatri : You were Chinese and I was Indian and it felt like, wow! But we never spoke about that. 

B.L: No 

Swati: It was after we left University and I really didn’t want to move back to my parents because - I don’t know - we never ever talked about anything in my family as to what was going to happen and in the back of my head I was thinking ‘aah, are they going to ask me to have an arranged marriage? or, how is it all going to pan out?’ because it wasn’t something that we ever discussed, so I basically just decided, I mean, in fact, when we first moved back to London I shared with Hal above the Barber’s shop in Old Street. 


Gayatri : In Hoxton! 

Swati: In Hoxton, what a prime location!

Gayatri : What was the address? Hoxton Street or something wasn’t it? 

Swati: Except I found it the most terrifying place to live in, because, if I went out at night I would make sure that I would not be coming back in the evening to this place because it was just so rough. And what did you do when you, when we moved back from university? 

Gayatri : When we moved back from university…so even before we moved, even before I finished university, I would come back to London in my second year, and when I came back in my second year, Hal, who I was sort of, had been in a relationship with from the start of university, He’d already left university so he was in London, squatting, and so I would sometimes stay at these squats in Islington, so my experience, my very first experiences of not living at my parents was living, not full time but some of the time at these squats, and then when I left university, came back to live at home, with my my parents and it didn’t really feel like I had a plan, I didn’t really feel like I had a plan after university 

*Both chuckling* 

Gayatri : I’d thought that far, that’s what I was going to do but beyond that, I had no, you know, no idea at all, so I think from about ‘84 I would live at home some of the time and some of the time in different, in different, different places. Once or twice I think I even had a little squat of my own, where I squatted with, I don’t know if you remember the two people, Toby and David and it was at King’s Cross, and it was like a tower block at King’s Cross and it was like my, like an ‘I’m going to do this by myself’ kind of phase, so I didn’t actually enter the flat myself, but we kind of, did it ourselves, the three of us kind of found a way in and, it was a block, a tower block which had many other people squatting in it, and, it was quite easy to, in those days to occupy a building. 

Swati: Yeah 

Gayatri : Um, and I didn’t really have tools or anything to kind of you know, I didn’t feel very able in that way, but I think I had a phase when I wanted to feel quite independent and strong and the ‘I am doing this’, for a very brief while I think only two or three months I was there. 

Gayatri: What was your first, what was your first experience of squatting? 

Swati: Oh well, because I knew Ruth who was at university with us and then I used to go and see her quite a lot because she was living at the Oval Mansions [S.E London] at the time. Ruth found another squat - 

Gayatri: Yeah

Swati: …with this guy called Ziggy and basically he had a big poster saying ‘squat don’t let houses rot!’ So, and that was like a whole house basically a bit like this, you know, which had been left by the council so I lived there for a while, and we moved, she said to me ‘oh there is a spare flat’ on the other side of where she was staying. It must have been about five or six years, that there were already people living there. 

Then I was living in that squat which was like quite grim in that it didn’t really have any facilities and none of them had showers, so I used to live there and then go at weekends to kind of bathe and to do all the things at my parents, and then I met Jay and he had a flat at 38, and he had really done up the flat, so you know, I kind of lived with him for a couple of years and then we split up and he moved out so then I just kept the flat and um, by then I think just about all the flats in Oval Mansions had been occupied. Strangely enough it was mainly middle class white people in that whole building, so I did feel quite an alien, I didn't quite belong - I didn’t feel like I really belonged and also at that time I was working in housing so I knew a lot about housing legislation and things which they kind of… We used to have meetings once a month to try and see if we could actually make it legal. I tried to kind of, keep that place as good as it, is in that I found a bath and got a bath installed in my kitchen and we were also quite active in that we built a little garden in the back and it felt like a community except I never felt a hundred percent part of that community, it felt very cliquey in that, sort of you know, I’d get called upon when there was issues to be resolved around housing as such, but not as part of a social fabric. 

And then as time went on, and I think it must have been over fourteen years, the council clocked on that these buildings which they had forgotten and left for so long, and by that time we had actually got in contact with a co-op, and we tried to get the co-op to take us as a legal entity so that we could start paying rent and they would manage the building but by then Lambeth Council was in debt and so I think they just thought they could make quite a lot of money by just selling the building to developers. We basically went to court to see if we could fight and keep our houses but unfortunately in the case, a couple of us actually won the right to stay but then it went to the court of appeal and the solicitors said that ‘the court of appeal is very conservative with a small ‘c’ and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to keep your places’ so you won in the first stage, and that’s exactly what happened you know, so we all got - but because myself and a couple of other people who had been very vocal the council straightaway offered us places to move, into housing association flats housing, so that there wouldn't be a big kind of hoo ha about that what they were doing. 

Meera: When did you leave the mansions? 

Swati: God it must have been 1999? Yeah, it was 1999 that I moved from there to this flat that they’d offered me in Brixton, obviously everyone who was in Oval Mansions got evicted slowly and then the private developers moved in and built it all up.

*Soul Music* 

Gayatri: When we met again in the late ‘80’s and we were living near one another, that was when I think I first heard you, when we first talked about where you’d been living before which was Brixton. And I think maybe one, that's one of the things I’m curious about is… Ao you left Brighton, or you know you were living in Brighton, and, what was your journey to London? 

B.L: Yes so um, I left Brighton about a year after I graduated, having had the most amazing year there, coming out as a lesbian and doing loads of creative things and just enjoying my life and then I moved to London thinking I was just passing through, and then I - through Spare Rib 

which was a feminist magazine in the 70’s and 80’s - I met the Chinese lesbian group who was the only one of it’s kind that I knew of and I thought I was the only Chinese lesbian in the world at the time so this was like ‘wow! I’ve got this amazing gang of friends that look like me and you know got things in common.’ So then I ended up just staying in London and eventually, well I was living with my mum for a while, a few months, but wasn’t happy there and eventually I got offered this place in a squat in Brixton Road and that was my first women’s household and it was just incredible. It was like coming into this really welcoming community and you know there were at the time two English, one Spanish, and me, and then later on there was another Chinese woman from Malaysia and another Spanish woman and it was just like, I can’t really even describe how amazing it felt to be part of this group where I just felt like we all got on and blended in.

Meera: Was everyone lesbian?

B.L: Yeah, and then you know, got involved in the black women’s movement which, in those days a lot of people called themselves black who probably wouldn’t now - Greek people and you know, just anybody who wasn’t, you know, WASP-ish, white so that caused a lot of controversy and there were lots of arguments but it was exciting as well, you know I met people like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker through this conference called Zami, a Black womens’ conference and at the time, you know, Chinese people, we would say “Oh, we’re part of this, you know and I remember going to a black women’s writing workshop where Audre Lorde, it was, it was supposed to be for all women but there was so many black women that turned up, she had to turn all the white women away in the end, but I remember her saying at the time -    

“Even if you write just one word on the back of shopping or bus ticket, a day, or a shopping list,

You are all writers. I want you to write something everyday and just remember that you’re writers.” So, they were very formative times for me, in the early 80’s, mid 80’s.

Meera: I was saying to Ba (Gayatri), we were talking about this recording, and she was like “What are we going to talk about?’ ‘What are the connections?' Like everything feels so disparate, and I was saying how you're all Asian and in fact you are all from East Africa or from the east side including South Africa.

Everyone : Yeah! mmhmm

Gayatri : And we’d never / I’d never really kind of thought of it like that before, you know it was only like our experiences of growing up here, and, really shared experiences, like there were so many things in common in terms of how it felt to grow and to know and to have a sense of our parents weren’t that happy, being here, and how life was a real struggle for them. 

B.L: Yeah, definitely 

Gayatri : And not really knowing where home was but they wanted to possibly go back. Maybe not so much your mum, it sounded like she had made a life here and was determined to do so.

B.L: Yeah and she had two sisters already here which made it easier for her but other than that we left our whole community in South Africa so it was hard for my dad definitely.


Meera: Did you have grandparents that you?

B.L: Yes, well I didn't know them because they didn’t speak English. The one that I kind of met, my dad’s mum came over when I was eight and I remember I just loved her so much even though we couldn’t speak the same language and she used to hold my hand and walk me up and down the garden path and she taught me how to make pancakes in Chinese. I had this dream in 1983 that she was very very ill and I had to go and learn Chinese and go and visit her and then three days later I heard that she died, at the age of 83. 

**Faint sounds of birds chirping in the background**

Meera: You never went back to Kenya, did you Gayatri

Gayatri : I never went back to Kenya, I was just thinking that you know like, I probably thought that going back to India would be my way of going back to a home place or somewhere where I thought I came from -  I’m still a little bit confused you know, because we have this shared thing of parents settling and spending their kind of youth there. 

Gayatri : Your parents were born in South Africa and my mother was born in Kenya and yet that feels not really present in terms of a place that I can go back to. 

B.L: Yes, did you feel India could have been home when you went there?  

Gayatri: It was a home in the sense of the language, familiarity, food and people and not feeling like I stood out, my name, or these kinds of really basic things, but still probably felt like somewhat of an outsider.

B.L: Yes well language is so important at least you did speak the language whereas my Cantonese is very very sketchy and when I went to China I remember the uncles saying to me 

“What’s wrong with you, you look like us but you can't speak to us” you know and I felt terrible, but it wasn’t my fault because my parents wanted us all to integrate and do really well at school so they focused on us learning English really well, but they didn’t force us to learn chinese or encourage us you know and so it really was just very basic Chinese that we learned at home. 

I always felt very much an outsider within the Chinese community, even at Sussex University, there was a Chinese association that I wasn’t part of because I couldn't speak the language and I did feel very judged, I still do actually, by a lot of the Chinese community of my mum’s generation.

*Sound of Rain *

Meera: How aware were your family of you squatting?

B.L: I’m not sure if my mum knew it was a squat actually, I wasn’t really close to my mum then and we didn't really talk very much, she did come to visit and it was a nice enough house.

Gayatri: Did she come and visit you then? 

B.L: Yes they came to visit, I wonder if they might have even come for Christmas one year, when everyone else was away -  it was homely, it was cosy and there was nothing to be ashamed of I mean, it was always a bit eclectic there because I had a mattress on the floor and I had political posters all over the walls and I remember visitors coming to my house in Brighton before I moved and they had to sit on the floor because we have no seats and they were like “Is this weird? for a Chinese girl to be living like this but I think my mum just got used to it really.

Meera: For you, was there a decision to say ‘I’m going to squat’ or was it more about ‘I want to live with a group of lesbians’?

B.L: Not at all, I never thought I wanted to squat I just needed somewhere to live and didn’t want to be sharing with my mum and then this place just came up and it was actually through the Chinese-Lesbian group who knew one of the women in this squat, who said: ‘Oh there is  a room in their house, do you want to go and meet them?” and we clicked instantly.

Meera: Was there an application process that you had to go through?

B.L: Well I had to do an interview, with three of them and me, it was just an informal chat really but I remember thinking, I’ve got to say ‘I’m a lesbian feminist socialist’ even though I didn’t really know what that all meant. I was just like ‘I’m going to try and say the right things’, and of course the first thing I said was ‘I’m a lesbian socialist feminist’ and they were like, ‘Okay yes, tick!’

Meera + Gayatri *laughing*

B.L: But then, it was enough.

B.L: There was a women there whose profession was bricklayer as a profession and she was part of the women in manual trades movement and her girlfriend who didn't live in the house, who lived nearby, who was a carpenter, so I knew a lot of women, tradeswomen, and then later I lived with two carpenters as well, in my house in North London as well. So I knew a lot of very competent, very skilled women.

Meera: These squats that you were in, were people politicised In these squats? Was there like a feeling of a movement happening? And also, when I think of the 80’s in London, I think of the groups like National Front being present, how did that work, being in these predominantly white squats? 

Swati: I think for me, this mixture of people at the Oval Mansion squat, there probably were some right wingers but most of them were quite anarchists sorts, they were there pretty much for the same reason that I was there because they were all on the council housing waiting list but unlikely to ever be able to get a council flat and also they weren’t earning X amount of money to be able to afford private rented accommodation. 

Basically it was out of necessity that these people were there, and the squat that Gayu is describing was politicised in a way in that, this person Ziggy was a total anarchist and as I explained, he had that poster about squat houses don't let them rot this was part of a whole movement and it was through him that I ended up in that squat. 

Nevertheless I wouldn't say that the Oval Mansions per se was that politicised, I think it was more out of necessity. But I think of the National Front, because Lambeth had such a strong black community in the area, you didn’t have the impact of the National Front there so much. I mean the National Front was there when we first came to the country in 1975 and I remember we got our rented accommodation about ‘76 or ‘77. 

We didn't know because in Kenya for example over Christmas you just go out because it’s sunny and warm and so my parents thought, ‘Oh let’s just go out’ and we were like upstairs and when they went out I suddenly heard this yell and so my brother looked out and this national front member had chucked a bottle at my parents and so my brother went out and then they went to the tube station and realised that it's all closed because they didn't know at the time that everything here closes over Christmas. 

But also when I was studying at the Harrow College of Higher Education, I went with a few friends from there to see a concert by Toya and we all got totally hammered by The National Front because they were all at the concert and we got bottles chucked and I’ve never run so fast in my life to kind of to escape that, but I think because Harrow is kind of is a predominantly white and conservative area that racism and fascism felt a lot more alive in that part, whereas I never felt that in Lambeth, Oval, and Brixton.

Gayatri: I can remember the squats in Islington where I would go to see how, some of those shared squats, they were, the people who moved in and out they were, like you described people who really had nothing, really little or people who were struggling with mental health problems, life was really really hard for them and sometimes when I stayed in those squats and they weren't my primary place where I lived but, sometimes it did feel like at moment the door could barge through - you tried to secure the front doors and the windows but I can remember being in houses, where it just felt like very much on the edge, like everything can change instantly, either the police can come, they could be raided.

So some squats felt like it was made up of individuals, who were there for just a while, but other places there was a sense of a politicised people, and housing is obviously not being talked about in that way, but white.  But my experience was that squats of the politicised squatting community was white and then the other people that I knew who were living in other kinds of housing, short life housing were not white. 

So it was a funny old kind of dynamic there because I had lots of discomfort as well in being in those places and sometimes you know i would be sharing a house with people who were skinheads and you don’t know whether they were a fascist or a left wing skinhead, you just don't know.

And I was also sharing with a white man, you know with Hal, so it was I wasn't quite sure of where I fitted into all of this or if I did fit into all of this but I think generally, my experience was that the politics were outside, people were involved in things outside but not in the buildings or the houses or the squats, I don't remember there being a community.

Swati: No me neither, as I said that Oval Mansions was predominantly white but I think because of where it is and I think Lambeth attracted certain types of people, I mean I think there was only me and for a short while there was an Asian girl who was there but there were a couple of black people who were there as well, but we were fairly kind of invisible as a whole group, it wasn’t as though there was any kind of black politics as such happening.

Gayatri: In fact, there was nothing in terms of that level of awareness was there? 

Swati: No 


Song lyrics: 

Art of roots music

Music which recalls history, 

Because without the knowledge of your history 

You cannot determine your destiny.

Swati: It’s interesting what you were saying about, being split between your parent’s and the outside world, I felt exactly the same because I’d go there on weekends and in some ways I think that was my core hub and that anchored me and I was able to do all these other things with the feeling that I had an actually base somewhere - not that I got on with people they knew or anything but just them as my parents and as two individuals I felt like they were my anchors. I could experiment with this world out there and I suppose I wouldn't have had to experiment and I don't think you would if the whole economic and social structures were such that you could get a job easily and you could afford to pay rent easily but that wasn't the case neither is it now.

Gayatri: Also because both of us came from comprehensive schools where my ambition was that I was going to go to university but that was it. I didn't really have any ideas around what was going to happen after that and that was on the way to doing other things, I think I probably never even really imagined that I could actually live my life and actually be out in the world and do this and do that. It’s as if I never felt like there were all these choices; it just felt quite restricted. 

But at least there was a lot of joy for me, these kinds of experiments or these housing things that happened. I remember coming to see you in Brixton and I loved spending the night there, it just felt really cosy and welcoming and I remember you had central heating in that house? 

Swati: Yes, that house was really good.


Gayatri: Yeah! Whoa! And there was hot water! I can remember you and Ruth would make all these potions like oils and things, and she would run a bath and I remember going in a bath in that squat and I would just feel so comforted and comfortable. I reflect on it with mixed feelings however there was a lot of really happy and joyful aspects within that. 

“” Sound of music, slowly getting louder and remaining in the background as B.L speaks”””

B.L: Living in the same house with a lesbian, my first lesbian friend, who you might remember - she introduced me to loads of lesbians and I then remember one particular women’s disco.. We had discos in those days, it was a women’s cabaret I think and the first song that came on was ‘We Are Family’ and everybody just jumped up and started dancing manically, it was so exciting and this beautiful cuddly Scottish woman whom I knew just came up to me and gave me this enormous snog and I thought right that’s it now I’m a lesbian. 


I was just like to myself ‘this is what I want to be’ and then I got my first girlfriend quite soon after that so it wasn’t anything particularly political. If that makes sense and then I met all these women and the rest is history. Then moving to Brixton and moving to my first women’s house just deepened that whole thing of belonging and that this is where I wanted to be and that’s where I was for the next 20 years.

*Intro to song “We Are Family”*

Swati: There were communal baths quite near The Imperial War Museum and because in those… I think the Oval Mansions were originally built for nurses guys in St Thomas’s hospital but in those days they all had to go to the public baths to have their showers, so we used to go there sometimes.

Meera: What were their public baths like? 

Swati: A bit like being in…. I don't know if you remember, when you first moved to Frankleigh House, there were like cubicles. It’s a bit like that you know just a whole row of them, pretty grim to be honest, you wouldn't want to go there if you had the choice, but, they were just showers, they weren't baths, they’re called public baths but…

Gayatri: I have quite nice memories of public baths, somewhere near here, sort of Islington, where would they be? Maybe they still exist, maybe by Ironmonger Row or something and you would go there and you would get a bar of soap, a little bar of soap or something and you’d go and have a bath. You’d do that like once a week - just like a regular thing because so many houses and flats didn’t have baths or showers even inside loos or anything. Especially when you didn't have hot water it was like quite a saving thing.

I do remember going there, but I also remember, when we first came to London in 1970, I would hear community people talking about how when they first came here people didn’t have baths every day, you had to go to the council bath. 

Swati: Right

Gayatri: So you know that was how it was in this country and I remember the first place where we rented, when we first came to London and our landlord said to us, a whole family of seven of us, living in a shared house with them and there was just one bathroom, maybe two, one toilet downstairs but for like, fourteen/fifteen of us, and I remember the landlord saying to us: “Well you know now you’re in England so now, you have to remember that it’s very expensive, you know, the hot water and, so suggest that you just have a bath once a week” 

And that kind of shock we felt like ‘oh! but this is our Gujarati landlord who is telling us this!

So maybe this what we should do! I can't remember if we did that or not, but there was certainly this sense of, now we are in England, it’s cold, you can't have baths everyday! You’ve got to save, save the pennies, it was all quite grim. 


Swati: Right

Gayatri: But I kind of remember it with a lot of mirth, because I think we found it funny, it wasn’t like ‘oh my God this is so grim’. I think there was a lot of mirth, because, we were here and certainly for lots of us it was, the only way we could be here was by thinking ‘oh well, ok we will do this but we will do other things as well’, we will kind of do what we want

Swati: Yes 

Gayatri: You know, people were quite mischievous and did break these kinds of traditions

Swati: And we had a bath both in the rented accommodation we were staying and the house that my parents bought, but they never had a bath as such, they had a little dol and they put the dol in the bath, and they would have a dol bath they wouldn't have like a proper bath, it was only in the later years when they got really old and my sister suggested getting rid of the dol and the bath that they started having showers but right up to that point they just carried on having the-

Gayatri: The dol bath!

Swati: The dol bath! 

Meera: Your Ba and Bapaji have the same trajectory as my Nanima and Nanabapu 


 We had many dol baths!

Gayatri : Yeah I can even remember the colour of the yellow dol the yellow bucket and the plastic, the red, plastic cup 


Swati: Yeah and the plastic cup next to it, or sort of hanging on the side of it 

Gayatri: Hmmmhmm

Swati : But when we first came as well, obviously when we first moved into the house my parents bought, I’m just gobsmacked as to how my mum actually had so much energy because she, for the first time in her life, after coming to this country she started working and then she used to come home and cook and then cause we didn't have a washing machine she used to actually wash all our clothes including the bedding and wash it in the bath, so she’d like be bending over and washing and I was just thinking about that the other day and thinking wow! How did she manage?

Gayatri : And ringing everything by hand! Where did she work, your mum? 

Swati: She worked… So first she used to work in a clothes factory up in Oxford Circus, making clothes and then she worked in a launderette for a while, which she really didn't like but she got all the women to join a union, I don’t know which union…

Gayatri: In the launderette? 

Swati:  Yes because the conditions were so bad… And I think she knew Jayaben Desai, the lady who started the Grunwicks strikes. Because in Patels, they are all from Khergam so you know people - so she knew this Jeyaben Desai  and she had referred quite a few people to Grunwicks to work, a lot of her friends who had come over. But then I think they were giving her quite a hard time in this launderette so then she started working for the - for a carpet factory which I think she was quite happy there, but then she finished when she was 60.

Gayatri: Wow, she worked till she was 60 

Swati: Yeah, but I think my dad wasn’t very happy to begin with, that she was having to work, but I suppose it was a bit like you know “you’re a woman, you shouldn't have to work,” because that was the mentality back in Kenya. 

Swati: So I suppose it must have been quite a shock coming here at the age of 45 with three kids into a new country and not being fluent in the language and then suddenly working as well as looking after the house and at the same time my dad is like going on about how he wanted to go back to India all the time, to begin with.

B.L: Yes, so I was in that squat from ‘84 to ‘88, but it felt a lot longer actually.

Meera: How old were you? 

B.L: I was 25 I guess when I moved in and yeah, and…28 when I moved out. 

Meera: Formative years, actually.

B.L: Yeah!! very important.

Gayatri: And four years! I mean I don’t know, I don't think I lived anywhere for that long, at that time.

B.L: Really

Gayatri: Certainly in my mid twenties. How was it to squat? How was it to live in a house? Did you have a whole house? 

B.L: It was a huge house, it was one of those Georgian terraces, very tall houses with five stories but it was very damp. I mean we had water gushing down the inside walls and mushrooms growing inside the walls but we didn't really care in those days. But it was very well kept, apart from the water issue. The house was very loved and it had been a squat for several years before I moved in, and what we hadn't realised at the time was that if it had been a licensed squat for twelve years we would have legally been entitled to stay there long term but it was too late by the time the council wanted to take it back we hadn't been there, we hadn’t had a licence so by about ‘86, ‘87, the council started saying ‘You need to get out because we are going to turn it into a residence for Burses’

So then the initial group all moved out one by one and I was the last of that group to stay but then I got another group of younger women who were not so respectful so I eventually moved out to North London.

**The sound of wind, the sound of rain pattering, birds chirping** 

** Sound of guitar strumming **

B.L: Things like birthdays, I’ve never been made a fuss of on my birthday you know I’d get a card and presents from my mum maybe but there, they really made you feel special, they’d put on a big party, we would all get dressed up in our party frocks and have loads of music and one would play the fiddle, one would play the guitar and we’d all be singing until the early hours and dancing, they’d be this massive cake and it just fade you feel wanted. 

I did, and that was probably the first time in my life I’d really felt like that, and the fact that we were all lesbian feminist socialists, it was like I had found my tribe so I didn't want that to end in fact when the first people started moving out I was really really devastated because I just thought we would be living here forever you know when you’re in your twenties you think, This is it! You know, well that’s what I thought,  this is my gang now for life and I'm still friends with most of them, we don't see each other very often but, you know one in particular I’ve stayed very close to. 

**Sound of birds chirping**

B.L: So I was actually born in South Africa but when we came here we lived in South East London so we lived in Stratham and Tooting and then my dad bought a shop in Teddington which is where my brother still lives and where my mum lived.

** sounds of a guitar strumming** 

We lived above the shop till ‘73 and then we bought a house just around the corner from the shop in Teddington and that’s where my brother still lives in my mum’s house and sadly my dad died really young, just after we moved into the house, but we were the first Chinese family in Teddington, and definitely my dad was the first ever Chinese butcher probably in the UK, definitely in London. So it wasn't easy being Chinese in that environment because we did get a lot of racism but then gradually more Chinese families moved into the area and my mum helped them all with the language and getting them all into schools and things, so she was quite a pillar of the Chinese community. 

Meera: When did you move to the UK? 

B.L: So 1962, when I was only two and a half at the time and it was one of the last years of the great smog **sound of rain pattering** so I just remember everything being really grey and cold and you know it was a big shock to the system and I was really miserable. My dad hated it and wanted to take me back , it was me, my parents and two brothers then, then I had a third brother who was born here, but eventually my dad sort of settled down once he got the shop but I could have ended up going and living back in South Africa if he’d had his way initially.

Meera: Under apartheid.

B.L: Yes so I’m very glad that didn't happen.

Gayatri: It was just this time of like, the 80s, mid 80s and then, that decade, covered so much in a way about, where we were and who we were like at that age trying to find out who we were and trying to work, you know work out, and it’s good to focus on something like squatting or the experience of precarious housing of that time. But then so many decades have passed and I hadn't thought about it, and we’ve carried on knowing each other and looking at what our lives have become, you know I’m 60 now, you’re going to be 60 this month, looking back to the time when were in our early twenties it’s just--

Swati: Yeah 


Gayatri: Incredible, because I am now older than my parents were when they used to see me going off to do all these things that they didn’t talk about but obviously didn't approve of completely, and in a way I feel like this a nice way to wrap something up for me, looking at this cycle of understanding, bringing more of a compassionate understanding to who I was then as well as to how my parents were then as well as to how I am now.

*** Sound of a saxophone solo playing **

Meera: One thing that I keep thinking about as we’re sat here in Finsbury Park is how you, Swati moved around - you went from Northwest London to Southeast London, almost going as far as you can go, within the city limits.

Swati : Yeah 


Meera: And you didn’t, Gayatri, you've pretty much stayed in Northeast London.

Gayatri: Mmm

Meera: I feel like leaving is often quite a conscious decision to make. I have friends who are from east London and left east London as quickly as they could, but I wonder whether staying is conscious too.

Gayatri: For me it definitely is - I hadn't thought of it initially quite like that but when you explained it I realised yes, it is a conscious decision. When I walk these streets I walk them and I’m just like "Oh yeah this was the street when we first came to when we came to London, this was the street where we first rented when we first lived here, this was where my uncles lived, this was..” I keep going over and over this, this area and I keep walking this area and I keep seeing it like I guess I’m still looking for that community, and in a way I haven't left because I’m still looking for it here and it is kind of here for me! It is here! I think it’s here in the streets and in the park and there’s things that don’t change even though people have gone or moved or… 

Swati: The house that I’m living in right now is the house that my parents bought in 1978 so in a way I haven't actually moved, I did physically and mentally move around South East London but as I said I was always getting back to Harrow and then in 2014 I made the conscious decision to go back and stay with my parents to look after them in their old age, so I feel like I had moved and I haven’t actually moved - if you know what I’m saying. It’s a contradiction and quite like what you were saying, kind of, I never really found that community, because my mum actually told quite a few of her friends that I was squatting.

**sound of a long gasp in the background, which turns into a surprised laugh**

Swati : And so some of them were like ‘oh what’s it like living in a squat?’ and my sister-in-law was absolutely aghast that I was living in one and she would ring up my mum and say to her that she should tell me to stop doing it and move back. 


Swati: But my mum didn't really care about all that.

Gayatri: It sounds like your mum was quite supportive of you and quite proud of you in a way like - you represented certain things that she valued. 

Swati : Well I think she cared about people and she didn’t really mind what people did but yes it’s funny because now - they had such a strong community wherever they went, moving from India to Kenya to here but in that journey they always had her whole community with her, but I don't know how they kept in touch but they did somehow. Like they knew all these people who would ring them from out of the blue and say ‘Oh, we know you and then they kept in touch’ 

Swati : I don't feel like I ever had that community, that sort of belonging which they seemed to have had I’m still looking for that community like you.

** Sound of birds chirping in the background** 

B.L : I never even thought about what it’d be like getting to 62, you know and what I might be doing. I always had this idea that, ‘ok when I'm 40 I’m going to be really sorted and I’m going to know what I’m doin’. Then it was 50, then it was 60 and then now it’s like, ‘Oh, it might never happen” you know. There is always a sense of, I still don't know what I'm doing with my life but I know what my values are.

**sound of reggae music** 

**faint sounds of birds chirping**

Meera: My name is Meera Shakti Osborne, I am the editor and curator of this work. I am responsible for the shape this piece has taken. Part of the process of creating this work has been exploring ways to tell stories, make an archive that feels generative and inclusive. Everything you have heard is what the participant and myself have chosen to share with you.

We welcome feedback and encourage you to visit duh.world, to see the rest of the archive and to get in touch with us. 

This work has been funded by Arts Council England Project Grant. 

Thanks for listening.

** sound of birds chirping** 

Transcription by Hania Mariam Luthufi

Audio Mixing and Mastering by Alex Sushon