My first term at university was the Winter of 2010, the height of the tuition fees crisis, and naturally I went on all the protest marches, sang all the protest songs, and slept on the floor of the Physics department building, about forty metres from where I was paying £80 per week for the cheapest university accommodation – at once convenient and frustrating. The protest failed, but the Lefty Network we had been kept in contact, and I made such good friends with some of them that we decided to live together in second year.
Our house would be a centre of activism. We would have a hook by the door with a loud-hailer hanging from it in case we needed to pop out to an impromptu protest. We would have a chalk board with a tally chart of our karma – plus one for doing a shift at the food cooperative, minus one for stamping on a snail or ignoring a homeless person, or visa versa. We could grow veg in the garden and make our own humus. One housemate, “Southpaw,” would become the most successful vegan boxer at the university. We’d seen students complain about the Way Things Were without having the courage to follow through with action, saying things like, “I agree that there should be no tuition fees but there’s nothing we can do,” “I’d join you on that protest but it’s during my exam,” “I need this study space to work on my Physics project you smelly arts students.” For us, existence preceded essence, and action was all that was needed. One housemate known as “You Don’t Have To Put On The Red Light” convinced all but one of us to convert to vegetarianism. The renegade in question, “Kiwi,” refused to convert, even when I forced him to watch a self-made PowerPoint featuring pictures of sad animals with REM’s “Everybody Hurts” in the background. We didn’t force the issue, as “Kiwi” had been the most dedicated person in the occupation, barely ever leaving his sleeping bag during the sit-in.
The most explicitly illicit activity we engaged in was skipping, going to Waitrose’s bins at night and rummaging for sealed bags of food. It was stealing, but ultimately victimless, and, so we thought, doing a service to the environment by reducing landfill, whilst vaguely sticking a finger up to bourgeois consumerism. Some of the food was still weeks within “display until” date; much of it was vacuum-packed; most of it was within “use by” date; and almost all of it was of a much better quality than any food we normally consumed. I had never paid more than pound for a loaf of bread before, but here was highly quality food at zero price. Whole wheels of Stilton. Tomatoes on the vine. Twenty boxes of Jaffa cakes. Loaves of Mediterranean tiger bread with sun dried tomatoes and olives made fresh in-store that day. All sealed in plastic. It was as if Waitrose wanted us to eat it. Neither the bins nor the gate were locked; there was no security, the police were never called, chemicals were never put on the bin bags despite the fear-mongers. We would return at night triumphantly with huge bags of food that would last us a week, until some of it genuinely needed to be thrown out.
Like the bin food, the dream couldn’t last. “Kiwi” attracted the ire of the house by never doing his share of the washing up, and claimed he was doing a “dirty protest.” What we had taken for dedicated sitting was in fact, of course, laziness. “Southpaw” graduated and hasn’t boxed since. The marches dried up, or moved to cities that were inconvenient to reach, and our Union stopped organizing them. “Red Light” took up eating meat, arguing, “Have you ever eaten meat? It’s delicious.” Yesterday, the Co-op had run out of own-brand wholemeal bread for 75p. I had to get an alternative. The Mediterranean loaf cost £1.10. I realized that while skipping I had made a “valve decision” – once through, there was no going back. With my NUS card 10% discount it cost 99p. I told myself that that still counted. I bought it, and spent the rest of the afternoon singing the Communist version of the Tetris song between sobbing mouthfuls of Mediterranean loaf smothered in hummus.