Lord of the manor

Lord of the Manor

A hidden side to London

Feast your eyes here on another side of London, one not normally portrayed in books, TV, or ’90s rom coms with Hugh Grant. Ethical storyteller David Labi tells a story of love, death, and belonging in the Manor House warehouse community – a cultural enclave struggling to survive as gentrified London blows up

For the first time in London, his birth city, Joss feels at home. Previously he’d never found his place or his people. As a teenager he’d daydreamed groups of free-spirited, free-loving, philosophical yet clownish weirdos… And now – in Manor House – has he finally found them?

It was hard to come back after living abroad. He’d changed, or rather, become more himself. Only problem was, nobody knew. His old circles saw the same flickering dreamer from the leaving party in Old Street who’d thrown up in the bartender’s handbag. Old associations are hard to shake. But for his new phase in London, Joss was determined to find a better fit.

London is many towns crammed together. Some Ealing locals have never heard of Hornsey. Some North Londoners have never been south of the Tate Modern. The city is vast, and each hood springs to its own rhythm. Take one square mile and find evidence of old money moved away, grand houses turned squalid, a new immigrant incoming with bars, restaurants, vigour – and then, because it’s cheap, the artists. They’re followed by creatives, then bankers, and suddenly everyone’s pushing three-wheeled prams and drinking cold nitro coffee.

The trick is to find that in-between place, before it turns. And Joss is convinced he has. Northeast, off the corner of Finsbury Park. In the Manor House warehouse district he feels something like freedom. Encapsulated in the figure of his wraith-like, constantly dancing roommate, Artemis. She’s a shimmering vision. He wants to claim his share of paradise, before it all goes up in smoke.

This summer evening he’s coming back from the agency to a party in their unit. He emerges out of the tube, shaking off the day’s materialism. As he passes noisy tables outside the pub, the population around relaxes him. Turkish families, persons of indeterminate gender, unkempt artists, Middle Eastern intellectuals. The smaller streets yield more tattoos. Languages diversify, French, Spanish, Italian – was that Esperanto? He walks under swaying branches while remembering the first time he discovered this zone.

He’d heard of the warehouses before; his imagination piqued by the names – Omega, Overbury, Hermitage. When someone added him to a secret group online, he saw a post for a room. At the end of a leafy street a metal arc – the name “Fountayne Road” cut out of it – loomed overhead like a Tim Burton set. Inside, industrial buildings bulked, dressed by floating fabric, leaning artistic creations. Beautiful freaks lolled about, spewing laughter and mania into the air. He crawled through a flap into a giant industrial space, where impossibly cool visual artists sipped herbal tea. Above and around, clapboard rooms hung off every surface. He poked his head up through a hatch into one, a tiny universe. Rolls of fabric concealed a small Italian girl and a sewing machine. The return of the sweatshop, voluntary style.

He wound up inhabiting a room in one of many units at Arena Design Centre, its industrial ghosts long exorcised by burned sage. Subletting the room of Caspian, de facto leader of this six-person community-within-community. A man with a beard longer and more ancient than the shrubs on Angkor Wat and clothing entirely of alpaca wool. Caspian is still sleeping on the couch, making this less like a sublet than getting someone else to pay your rent. But Joss doesn’t care. He’s in a place that’s him, with his people. At last he can breathe, which can be hard in London.

Manor House: the zen art of living in London | Photos courtesy of Nathan Maingard

And he’s living with Artemis. A redhead Spanish dancer, she bobs around walls like a daddy long legs, constantly shimmying, flashing feet, shins to shoulders, bobbing head. Living on a diet of algae and mint tea. They get on. Talk nonsense like it’s a language. Which bus should one kill oneself in front of. How to open coconuts with your head. Rewriting the phonetic alphabet using names of recreational drugs. Joss is building to make a move, to kiss her feathery lips. Suck on her giant, glossy blue eyes. But there’s a problem.

He’s a writer. Kind of. A theatre maker. Except he hasn’t made much. And to make ends meet – soothing some internal hangups he can’t shake – he goes to an ad agency in Soho to write words for brands. Nasty brands. He doesn’t shout about this among these free-spirited artistic souls. He does wonder how everyone earns their keep – but you don’t need much to live here. Rents are frozen in time and people live on spirulina. Still, the city in its ruthless way is seeping in at the cracks, as gentrification happens from within.

“The warehouses are filling with bankers,” says Giorgios, a Greek painter from down the hall, “and ad creatives.” Joss bites his lip, sweat prickling his forehead. Can they read it on him? “That’s why prices are going crazy.” Joss wafts into the flow of the party. Folks from other warehouses have migrated here like colourful avians. Many are just high on dancing, tea, and incense, while others have gone for a more risqué menu of mushrooms and ketamine. Guiltily, scoping the mostly teetotal crowd, Joss sips a beer. Artemis sways between the dancefloor and a Spanish clown balancing a basil plant on his nose.

“Can’t they all just stay in London Fields with their chai lattes?” says Petunia in her Austrian drawl.

“In Henning block I saw room going for 1500 a month,” says Caspian, to yelps of outrage.

Artemis seems to scale a giant begonia plant. Joss hears her voice tinkle through the noise.

“We have to do something about it. But what?”

Joss jerks as his arm is grabbed. The white-shirted man is out of place. His face is like that potato pot plant with watercress hair that teaches kids gardening.

“Can you believe these wasters?” he scoffs in faux Cockney. “Everyone blames finance, but how the fuck do you grow anything without bankers?” He lets out a meaty burp and flaps an arm upward. The ceiling once rebounded the clatter of sewing machines. Now it’s shrouded in weed smoke and vibrating with world music beats. What comes next?

“Fuck, I need a line,” blurts Whiteshirt and whirls to the corner. A piggy snuffle, and he’s back, cress hair straighter, and beady eyes a little more spaced out. Joss stares at him in fascination.

“That one though,” cackles the guest, gesturing at Artemis, busy in a twerk competition with a girl in a banana suit. “When she’s bored of hippies, she’ll want someone to buy her a real life.”

Enchanted creatures frolic in hidden corners

Joss slinks away and is soon among a banjo jam howling like a wolf. Time passes. Balkan music plays and people thunder in circuits, elbows up, sweat flying, teeth flashing in coloured light. He looks around. Artemis appears to have gone… And Whiteshirt too. Joss advances to the corridor and listens. A rodent-like scuffling. Mice again? He pushes open the door.

It’s dark and humid. Joss squints to make out a sweaty white-shirted back. Struggling on the futon mattress. Spindly legs wave from underneath like fronds. Joss recognises a pointy slipper. He’s had a fair dose of horse tranquiliser and his circuit board is hazy. But ancient emotions well up from deep. A sketchy internal command takes Joss forward in a liquid trail. Feels his arm out and touches a solid stick. A didgeridoo. Swings it back. Thump, thump, thump goes the music outside. Thump goes something else. A vision of glossy blue eyes, wide in gratitude, then fog.

Lights and sounds clashing. Murmurings. Music lowered and muffled. The intoxicants are draining out of his body. The shuffle of people filing out through the corridor. People come and people go. That’s cities, thinks Joss, back of head on dusty wooden floor. How do you regenerate without destruction? But preservation is destruction too. Of alternatives. Creation is destruction.

Thoughts swirl like a radio changing channel and somehow he’s now in the chintzy armchair holding a big mug of herbal tea. Artemis sits on the arm, close for comfort. How long has he been here? The roommates are around. Caspian is talking – their unofficial leader, or at least the leaseholder since this arrangement’s misty dawn – in his melodic, imperfect English. “…A prick but don’t mean he has to die. We have to call police. I’m sorry but Joss must take consequence for us all sake.”

Artemis’ giant eyes blink at Joss. Her lips motion to speak, but something inside yanks Joss to his feet. The group turn to him, lips parted. He hears the hum of the fridge. Feels a strange destiny.

“You all stand around complaining about gentrification and rent prices. While our lives are fucked on. While capital eats everything we love. All this…” Joss jerks his arms violently, “…can’t go the way of everything else in this fucking city, sold to the highest bidder, and pulped when the next thing comes along.” A massive tear gums up his eye. “I always dreamed of a community like this. Art and humanity…”

“Humanity?” Caspian cuts through the haze. The giant begonia quivers. “You just killed a man.”

Joss stares at him, icy cold now. “Go ahead and call the police. They’re waiting to shut this whole thing down. Give them the excuse they’re waiting for. Property developers are rubbing their hands. You want everyone in this community, all the warehouses, turfed out?”

Caspian looks downward, lips pursed. Joss grows in stature. His chest fills like the ballast tank of a submarine. This is the surfacing point. A life of skulking around underwater, not anything, not anywhere. Now he’s up top. Artemis by his side. She prepares to speak. He braces himself for a declaration of gratitude, and love.

“I asked the guy to my room. It was consensual, as much as you care.”

An abrupt change in frequency. Nobody breathes. Joss is caught in a slow turn. His didgeridoo arm twitches. His brain gears are stuck. She wanted… That guy?

“But Joss is right,” she continues. Time jerks and starts moving. Everyone looks at each other, and back to her. “How many lives have been lost in capitalism’s conquest of the world? How many are dying in mines right now? Isn’t it better to sacrifice one life than lose this battle?”

“Artemis,” murmurs Joss. She doesn’t turn. He notices, for the first time, that she’s not dancing.

At the darkest hour, 3:30am, the leaden bundle is carried outside into an air that’s cooler now. The occasional party squeal still soars over the rooftops. The body is hauled to the vegetable garden, where the courgettes, fennel, and aubergine are doing well this year. It flomps down. Some shovelling and poking and he’s down deep. No dogs or cats are nibbling on Whiteshirt tonight.

The compost is soft as silk. Sanctified by a shaman in Kentish Town. Joss runs it through his fingers with a sizzle. The group wander off in different directions, silently.

Joss wakes from cavernous slumber to sunlight and a dream of red hair pooling on his chest. Sounds of hubbub from outside. He stumbles onto the balcony to see a crowd milling around the veggie patch. The air is fresh and wet. Clutches the didgeridoo, somehow beside his bed.

Glazed over, he moves down the external stairs. He feels the coldness of consequence. Squints up at the endless blue. This is bigger than him. Expects flashing lights, uniforms, men waiting with handcuffs. But nobody pays him attention. He approaches the mass.

Backs in dressing gowns, sports kits, flowing tunics. Clicks and beeps of 50 smartphones. A jubilant atmosphere, carnivalesque. Joss nudges his head in front – to be poked in the eye by a courgette tip. Arcing over the garden, over green lush fronds that are… carrot tops? The giant courgettes seem pumped with laughing gas. One space-hopper size cabbage seems to grow in real time. So deep and shiny, the aubergines could be fitted with wheels and sold as classic cars. Joss rubs his eyes like in cartoons, but the miraculous crop remains there. And no body.

Caspian stands opposite, swaying, eyes wide and unsure. Joss bends and dips his hand in the soil. Smooth, very black. He thinks of cress growing on a class window ledge, and hears Whiteshirt’s voice in his head. “How the fuck do you grow anything without bankers?”

At Stoke Newington farmers market in the St. Paul’s churchyard, journalists from local and even national papers are snapping. A painted sign says “Save the Warehouses”. The gigantic freak veggies glow. Laughing shoppers queue to hack off chunks and pay by weight. Joss and Artemis are taking in the money, filling the bucket. He observes the pouring cash. Sees potential for good. Could organic vegetables – symbol of gentrification – protect them from its worst ravages?

Caspian sits on a marrow looking spent. Joss feels strong, purposeful. With these funds he can ditch the agency job, focus on the play he’s been trying to write. But he’ll have to keep the business going. Keep adding more “fertiliser” to the veggie garden – and purifying the district at the same time. Now that’s regeneration. He touches Artemis’ arm. Whispers. “Take you to lunch after?” Artemis bites her lip, stock still.

What’s she so scared about?

What’s so good about this?

We need more insights into bubbles of creativity, originality and vibes, peopled by brave, beautiful weirdos weathering the oncoming sledgehammer of generic gentrification.

For TOPIA Season 01, we asked you to interpret our first theme: The Big Bang. Atom to atom, dust to dust, story to story. We left the format up to you but just asked that – whether it’s a fiery fiction, an intimate personal essay, bone-cutting poem, genre-busting animation or autofiction that blends reality and the imaginary – it taps into the thrill of being alive. Read more FRICTION FICTION.

Meet the writer

David Labi is a London-born and world-seasoned writer, facilitator, producer and performer. He set up a city magazine and made films in Buenos Aires, wrote scripts for TV news in Tokyo, curated an arts collective in Berlin, and now lives in Brussels, where he runs his creative agency for good causes called Good Point. David is currently developing a one-man show about his father, a Libyan Jewish Holocaust survivor – an epic tragicomic rollercoaster through identity, trauma, and rebirth. Follow the ethical storyteller on @david_labi.

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