Patchwork Community (a volunteers tale)

Back in 1971 (I think, I’m not too clear on the exact date) I travelled down to London to do some full time voluntary work. It was an interesting and growthful experience; although it didn’t always feel that way at the time.
I was to join an organisation called Patchwork Community. It was a short life housing project in the Westbourne Park area of London. Providing cheap, temporary accommodation for the many people who were struggling to pay the very high rents in central London. Squatting was a big problem for local authorities back then. So P.C. drew up an agreement with them. Put simply, the authority would provide an empty property that P.C. would tidy up with light repairs and decorating. The community would then accommodate people for a minimal rent. The authority, when the required the property was due for demolition, gave 6 months notice and another property; so the same tenants could be rehoused. Money from the minimal rents would be used for building materials and some other costs. The tenants and some other volunteers would provide the skills and labour. All very simple in theory. However, the reality turned out to be anything but simple.
The start of my journey down from the North West to London was reasonably uneventful. I decided to hitchhike down. I don’t think I waited too long before a lorry stopped and the driver said he was going all the way down to the outskirts of the city, but would I mind sitting on top of his bedding! It was all neatly folded on top of the passenger seat and the only way I could sit was cross legged, so I was more than a little stiff when we finally arrived at our destination. I thanked him for the lift and he directed me to a bus stop that would get me to the city centre. I think at that point I’d have been happy to walk into town, but as I still didn’t know how far it was I decided to wait for the bus.
I’d forgotten that London still had two man buses, so stepping on to the platform of the old Routemaster when it came was a pleasant bit of nostalgia. I took my seat on the lower deck and paid my fare to the conductor who then disappeared upstairs. We hadn’t gone far when there was a bit of a commotion on the top deck. The bell rang and the bus stopped at what appeared to be an unscheduled stop. Then two young men came downstairs with the conductor just behind them; it seemed they were being “escorted” off the bus. We had only just started to move off when the bus came to an emergency stop; throwing everyone out of their seats. The driver was out of his cab in what seemed like a split second and chasing the lads down the street. He had seen one of them (in his wing mirror) spit at the conductor as the bus was moving away. However, he didn’t run fast enough and, after checking that everyone was ok, we were back on our way.
The next part of my journey was by Tube, but even that short walk to the underground wasn’t to be uneventful. I heard a very loud bang behind me and on swinging round I caught a glimpse of a body flying through the air. By the time I’d got to where they had landed there was already a crowd of people tending to the Police Officer who was lying on the ground. However, this was no terror or criminal assault. A few meters away there was a small motorcycle lying on the road. It seems he was on his way home off duty when he was hit by a truck. To this day I don’t know what happened to him. I decided that there were plenty of people attending to him and continued my walk to the Tube.
It’s something of a cliche I know, but picture if you will a young man having his first experience of the big city. Simple everyday things that people who live in that environment simply take for granted can be quite unsettling. And such was the case with my first taste of the London Underground. I found my station, managed to work out my route and get the right ticket and then headed for my platform. All pretty straightforward. Then I got to the top of the escalator; one going down and the other coming up, with a wide staircase between the two. I stared down into an abyss! It was so deep and so steep that the roof of the first stretch almost obscured the next flight. I decided to walk down; big mistake. About halfway down I was hit by a rush of air that nearly knocked me off my feet. I quickly realised that this was just the pressure wave from the train that I now heard pulling into the platform below. However, this did little to prepare me for the Tsunami of humanity that began to pile up the staircase that I had foolishly decided to walk down. This was obviously rush hour.
I was heading for an address just round the corner from Westbourne Park station. I was signing up for full time voluntary work with a short life housing project call Patchwork Community Ltd. Their headquarters turned out to be in an Edwardian semi that had been converted to part office and part living accommodation for the office staff. Nobody seemed to have a clue who I was or that I was coming to join them, but they were very kind and fed and watered me before deciding to put me up for the night while they worked out where to put me the following day.
I was taken to a terrace house just a few streets away. I was to help refurbish this place to something like habitable. I was introduced to the current occupants; a young American woman and her partner. My first task was to clean the room I had been allocated, which proved no mean task as the local cat population had been letting themselves in through a broken window for some time and using it as a latrine; it stank! One small problem I had was that all of the plumbing had been ripped out of the house as lead and copper had high scrap value. I knocked on the door of the couple I was supposed to be sharing and working with to ask where I could get some water. They were an odd pair, to say the least. She was friendly enough, and looked a bit hippyish. He seemed completely the opposite; although he had shoulder length hair and a beard, that’s where the hippyness ended. He was always dressed in a three piece suit, collar, tie and highly polished shoes and in his manner rather brusque and businesslike. He managed to find me a mop and bucket and water from somewhere and I set to with these and liberal amounts of disinfectant. The room now smelling a little sweeter an old single mattress was produced and, digging out my sleeping bag, I crashed out for the night, trusting that my presence (plus the smell of disinfectant) would deter the local Tomcats.
The next day I was shown to my first job in the house. Yep, you guessed it, getting the water back on. I was led down to what used to be the coal cellar, a very cramped space only a couple of feet wide. Someone had at least rigged up a bare light bulb, so I wasn’t going to be working in the dark. There, right in the corner of this space, was a stub of lead pipe just a few centimetres long. What the hell was I supposed to do with that! Prior to this I had done very little plumbing, and all of that with copper pipe and modern fittings. I knew it was possible to join copper pipe to lead using something called a “wiped joint”. This involved, opening out the end of the lead pipe (a process called swaging) so that the copper pipe could be inserted into it. The copper pipe had to be “tinned” a process that coated it with solder. The whole assembly had then to be heated just to the point that the solder became elastic enough to be “wiped” with a damp cloth to push it into the joint. The trick was in the application of heat with a blowlamp, too little heat and nothing happened, too much and there was a risk of not only losing the solder but also melting the lead pipe and given that I only had a few centimetres of that, the reader can imagine how much I held my breath while I was working. After a little trial and, thankfully, not much error, I managed to get the water back on.
I’ve stated previously that I considered my housemates to be a little odd. My thinking changed a bit in that respect over the next week or so. I came to the conclusion that she was basically ok. Her partner however, I decided was more than a little dodgy.
They’d taken up residence in the front room of the house; which happened to be the door nearest to the front door. He made a point of always being the first person to answer this door, making sure that on the way he picked up a tool of some sort. Usually a spanner or hammer. These were always kept conveniently on a shelf near the front door. I guessed this may have been a security precaution, but I also suspected that it was to give the impression that he had just left some job he’d been doing. There was an expectation on tenants in these properties to keep the place in reasonable repair. However, in the short time I was there, I never once saw him lift a finger to do anything in the way of DIY.
Something else happened that just confirmed my suspicions about him. One morning I decided to check out what might need doing in the basement flat of the house. This just happened to be a separate residence with its own door just below the front door of the house. I’d assumed it was empty, but when I got in there I found obvious signs of occupancy. A sleeping bag and mattress on the floor and some bags with a few belongings in them. I left things as they were and went up to to check what was happening. As usual, it was himself that answered when I knocked on the lounge door. When I asked him who was in the basement, he rather hurriedly pulled the door closed behind him and insisted that there was no one in the basement. I was so nonplussed that I didn’t bother challenging him any further about it.
Later that day there was a knock at the front door. This time he was out, so I was able to get there first for a change. I was confronted by a young woman who asked me if she could help herself to some water as there didn’t seem to be any on in the basement. I reassured her that I would bring some down for her in a little while, but that I needed to check in with someone who I didn’t think knew she was down there. Sure enough, when I put the same question to the guys room mate that I’d put to him earlier, I got the same reply, but a lot less defensively.
I then took the water down to the basement and related the events of that morning to the woman that he’d moved in there. She didn’t need anyone to spell out, that if he hadn’t been straight with his partner or with her, then his intentions might not be entirely honourable. She immediately started to stuff her belongings into her bags and making to leave. I asked her what she planned to do and given that she wasn’t too clear about this, I offered to walk her down to the office which was just a few streets away. We told them our story and they were genuinely concerned. The decision was quickly made to rehouse her and, because I now also felt vulnerable, they decided to move me into one of the rooms above the office.
I had to return to the house to collect my own belongings. While I was there, I heard a commotion coming from the basement. I started down from my own room on the first floor only to have him brush past me, muttering something about a break in down in the basement. He then quickly disappeared into his own room. I went down to check it myself and indeed found a broken window. However, I thought it a little odd that all of the broken glass was outside of the building. I guessed that he had done this himself to try and cover his back. I decided to say nothing and discretely collected up my belongings and left.

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