Olden Life: What was Fre­sto­nia?

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Jane O’grady

The Free and In­de­pen­dent Repub­lic of Fre­sto­nia was a short-lived at­tempt to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent na­tion in west Lon­don in 1977.

In 1974, two streets of tum­ble­down ter­raced Vic­to­rian cot­tages – Fre­ston Road and Bram­ley Road – were bro­ken into by squat­ters who rigged up elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and makeshift roofs.

In Oc­to­ber 1977, one of them, Ni­cholas Al­bery, the au­thor and early mem­ber of the al­ter­na­tive so­ci­ety, held a ref­er­en­dum in the Peo­ple’s Hall on Fre­ston Road to de­ter­mine whether they should be­come the Free and In­de­pen­dent Repub­lic of Fre­sto­nia.

The poet Heathcote Williams was ap­pointed the Fre­sto­nian Am­bas­sador to the UK. The newly ap­pointed Min­is­ter of State for For­eign Af­fairs, David Rap­pa­port (later a suc­cess­ful ac­tor) in­formed the United Na­tions of the fact. This was Al­bery’s ploy to pre­vent them be­ing evicted. There was a na­tional motto – ‘ Nos sumus una fa­milia’ (‘We are one fam­ily’).

Res­i­dents dou­ble-bar­relled their sur­names with the suf­fix ‘Bram­ley’ – Rap­pa­port be­came David Rap­pa­port-Bram­ley. This was to en­sure that, if they were evicted, Fre­sto­ni­ans would all be re­housed to­gether; as in fact they even­tu­ally were – in new houses built over the bull­dozed ru­ins of the old ones.

Thanks to the me­dia at­ten­tion, the Al­ter­na­tive vi­sion: Ni­cholas Al­bery, 1975

Greater Lon­don Coun­cil and the sup­port­ive Shadow Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer, Ge­of­frey Howe, be­came in­volved, and de­mo­li­tion was de­layed for seven years.

In the sum­mer of 1978, my bi­cy­cle was stolen from out­side my par­ents’ house in Hol­land Park, and I set out into what seemed un­charted ter­ri­tory to find it. That evening, my hap­haz­ard quest ended not just in find­ing my stolen bike (I grabbed it back from a youth in the Shep­herd’s Bush un­der­pass) but also dis­cov­er­ing Fre­sto­nia.

Fre­sto­nia may sound like a light­hearted romp for hip­pies who had dropped out but could al­ways drop back in again. In fact, many of the hun­dredodd Fre­sto­ni­ans had no such op­tion. They were home­less, in­di­gent, mad, druggy or al­co­holic. There were sk­il­ful ren­o­va­tions, con­stantly chang­ing mu­rals and a ‘com­mu­nal gar­den’ – made by de­mol­ish­ing gar­den walls – where adults sat around naked and chil­dren swung on hang­ing tyres. Also there was squalor, ran­cour, theft and a re­liance on ‘over­seas aid’ (the dole).

It’s easy to mock the priv­i­lege, naivety and the ab­surd be­lief that Fre­sto­ni­ans could marry Marx­ism with he­donism. Al­bery’s How to Save the World and In­sti­tute for So­cial In­ven­tions seem pre­pos­ter­ous. But by su­ing BP and Esso in 1977, he alerted ev­ery­one to the dan­gers of leaded petrol. And how ex­tra­or­di­nary that such a di­verse com­mu­nity could live cheek by jowl, if only for less than a decade. There were adults and chil­dren of mul­ti­ple na­tion­al­i­ties and classes, pot­ters, jewellers, mu­si­cians, so­cial work­ers, drug ad­dicts, a pen­ni­less lute-maker, long­haired rid­ers of mo­tor­bikes and les­bian fem­i­nists be­rat­ing the pa­tri­archy.

Al­bery died in 2001. On Ama­zon, only one copy of his Xeroxed Re­hearsal for the Year 2000 (1976) is for sale, priced £357. In a pho­to­graph on its back cover, naked hip­pies are drag­ging goats down Pic­cadilly.

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