Carry on Cwtching

This article first appeared in the June/July 2012 issue Red Pepper magazine.

In January, a fledgling community group opened the first in a series of squatted social centres in Swansea. Naming themselves Cwtch, the Welsh word for cuddle, most of the group met during Swansea’s Occupy protests, but from day one they were a movement in their own right.

‘Not everyone in Occupy Swansea wanted to do a social centre,’ recalls 57-year-old activist D Murphy. ‘So we kind of split our meetings into two: we would have an Occupy meeting and then people would drift away and talk about the social centre.’

They began by squatting the abandoned Dolphin hotel in the city centre, after gaining access through an open window. Just one day later they’d transformed the 66-room hotel into the Cwtch Community Centre. There was a donations-optional café, a freeshop and room to relax and hold workshops.

Cwtch has found strength in the variety of people involved. ‘There’s one local businessman who was there from the beginning. There’s a university lecturer and I’m an office manager . . . I’ve made a wonderful new friend who’s 17; it’s cut across all kinds of boundaries,’ says D.

Cwtch has keenly promoted the centre via its own videos, on Facebook and in the mainstream media too. Its transparency has helped attract a diverse range of Swansea residents. At the Dolphin hotel many different people could be found enjoying a cup of tea, or browsing the library, including young families and homeless people.

Homelessness is a serious problem in Swansea. More than 15,000 people sought council help for homelessness in Wales during 2011, up 11 per cent on the previous year. The highest number of homeless as a percentage of the population is in Swansea.

Cwtch’s aim has been not just to provide shelter for the homeless but to highlight the lack of provision for homeless people. ‘Considering the wealth of finance we’re supposedly stopping by running a free arts café, you’d think they could provide more than a single emergency bed for the homeless of Swansea,’ comments Rev, another member of the organising group.

The hotel’s leaseholder, UBS, acted quickly and an interim possession order was obtained, bringing the group to court on Valentine’s Day. D says the courts were surprisingly sympathetic: ‘When he [the judge] was handing down [the verdict] he said if he had any discretion in the matter he might have come to a different decision’…

Read the rest at the Red Pepper website.

Profile: D Murphy

Amy Hall speaks to D Murphy about Swansea’s latest wave of squatted community centres, being arrested in the West Bank and years of campaigning for social justice.

D Murphy is part of the self described ‘motley crew’ in Swansea who launched the squatted Cwtch Community Centre in January and February this year. Named after the Welsh word for cuddle, the group took advantage of some of the empty buildings that pepper the city centre.

They started at the empty Dolphin Hotel in the city centre, gaining access through an open window, and running a refreshingly open and successful social centre. After being evicted from here they moved to the JT Morgan department store, were again evicted, then took up the old Earlsmoor Care Home which they renamed Serfsmor. After a third eviction they decided to regroup and take a break.

D, originally from Cork in Ireland, is now concentrating on her trip to Palestine in April with the Welcome to Palestine initiative. She has been a dedicated campaigner for Palestinian freedom since she first went there in 2005.

D started working for Undercurrents, an environmental and social justice video production company, ten years ago. She is their office manager. The charity was founded in 1994 out of a desire to film with people who were protesting instead of behind police lines.

Colleague Paul O’Connor describes her as a ‘mother to all’. “I think her heart rules over her head sometimes but her passion for a cause is admirable,” he says. “She is the glue, which bonds our organisation together.”

Before Undercurrents D worked in research. After doing a master’s degree in Research Methods she got a job doing research for housing and homelessness charity Shelter and later worked for Cardiff School of Medicine and trained someone with a learning disability to carry out peer research.

D has flu today, and is wrapped up in a dressing gown, intermittently coughing. She says she rarely gets ill but when she does it’s her body’s way of saying slow down but the 57 year old shows no signs of doing so.

Caradog Jones became good friends with D through the Cwtch group, despite the 39 year age gap. He says her energy was very valuable to the group. “She was brilliant at facilitating the consensus decision process at meetings, making sure nobody was left out and no one voice dominated,” he explains. “Everybody knows of her, from the local refugees to a homeless mate who knew her as ‘that Irish girl’.”

Is the Cwtch group planning long term?

Most of us work and there are a few students with some flexibility but do we want to do something full time? It’s a huge commitment, unfunded, voluntary and we absolutely do not want to go down the funded route at all; it changes the whole dynamic. I like the idea of just going into empty buildings, doing something creative. You could open up, do nice things, community picnics, barbecues, and whiz out again.

Is the squatting aspect important to Cwtch?

Not for all of us, I’d say it’s about half and half. I’m a mum and a gran and I haven’t done much squatting but I’ve been and stayed in squats and I think it’s a really fundamental right to people in this country, and more so now than ever. It’s not right just to leave buildings empty. If you’re going to, at least offer them to groups, do something positive don’t just let them to deteriorate.

Is there a particular philosophy behind the Cwtch group?

There’s one local businessman who was there from the beginning. There’s a university lecturer and I’m an office manager. There’s a real mix of backgrounds occupations and age, it’s cut across all kinds of boundaries. I suppose it’s the kind of philosophy you would find around the Occupy movement. If you speak to different individuals some would be firmly anti capitalist. It’s not something I broadcast but the principles my heart leads towards are anarchist. Anarchist philosophy to me is the most just of all ideologies.

What other projects are you involved with?

I suppose the biggest passion really in my life, the thing I’m most committed too, is Palestine. After the war Iraq went ahead I was very disillusioned with marching and protesting. I thought a lot about how I want to move forward in my life and I came across ISM (International Solidarity Movement) so I decided to go to Palestine with them. What I saw moved me in such a way that I could never forget Palestine now.

What happened when you were detained?

I went last July with a delegation and we decided to go via Tel Aviv and be open about why we were going. 127 of us were detained for six days. We decided to stay together as a group and went to the passport controls and they said ‘what’s the purpose of your visit?’ We said visiting our friends in Bethlehem and we had an invitation from the cultural centre and straight away we were stopped. By the end of the day we found ourselves in the detention centre. We were detained for no reason simply by wanting to openly visit our friends in Palestine.

People think it’s only around Gaza but there’s a different kind of siege around the West Bank. It’s day-to-day relentless humiliation, degradation and dispossession of land and homes. It’s relentless.

How does Undercurrents and Swansea Telly work?

Undercurrents support anything that’s related to social justice and we do a lot of training around giving people the skills to tell stories about their lives or their issues or their causes. I left a well paid job at the university to have the chance to work with Undercurrents, for half the money, but it’s so much more fun, I absolutely love it.

Swansea Telly is a giant project and we’re the lead partners in it. It’s internet telly for Swansea really. At the moment it’s a lot of community video, but we’re working on a music channel and were hoping to have more local bands on there and maybe more sports. It’s almost like a YouTube for Swansea.

When did you first become politically active?

When I was 16 I got very involved in the Irish language movement in Ireland. They were shutting down a very small school down in Dunquin, an Irish speaking area. I told my mum I was going to stay with my friend and her family, and we were going to study for the week. Instead I did a walk from Cork to Dublin and my mum only found out when I was being arrested in Dublin after an occupation. I had kids quite young: when I was 19 I was pregnant so really the poll tax was my next really active thing in this country; I moved here in 1980.

What do you like to do when you get any free time?

My idea of a dream holiday is to go with a few friends, put a backpack on and to walk for days. For me walking is the only time I slow down. But I think my family is my main hobby. My grandkids range from the age of a few months to 17. We just have a laugh together and I see them whenever I can. They keep me fresh and they challenge me.

What are your hopes for the future?

My biggest hope would be to see peace and freedom in Palestine before I die, it makes me sad me sad because I feel I probably won’t.

I just hope that the capitalist system crumbles. I’m very excited about living in these times because the edifice is crumbling that’s been in place for hundreds of years and I just hope I’m still around when it all comes down. It will be a fearful time but it will be a time that’s full of promise for ordinary people that we can have a better and more just world.