My semester was magical because of the accident of where I lived during those months. Ten other Oberlin students and I were crammed into an old Georgian row home in Bonnington Square, in Vauxhall — a London neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames. We were all English majors, and we were spending a semester taking a class on the history of the “masque” and going to as many plays as we could fit in.
It was an incredible semester, and Bonnington Square was at the heart of it. The old 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens — so notorious, so perfectly naughty, and now dwindled to nothing but a bare, dock-infested expanse of lawn — were 100 meters away. We used to walk across that scrubby green and wonder if the sex, the thrills, the theater of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens had soaked into the earth, or whether they were gone –dissipated into the sky.
A new garden – Bonnington Square Garden – was being crafted on our doorstep. It had been a bomb-site, and then a wasteland of stinging nettles — now neighbors were coming together to make it into something rich and wondrous. Our neighbors to the left were squatters with the most amazing sense of style — we watched as they transformed their house from a Georgian ruin into a grungy, post-industrial palace. An array of caravans painted with mysterious symbols turned up each month at the full moon, disgorging druids and witches – apparently a “ley line,” an ancient path that some said was a source of magical power, ran through Bonnington Square. Down the road the Bonnington Square Café, which had started as a squat café and which served up rib-sticking vegan treats by candlelight, drew us in at lunchtimes, and we would stay all day, wondering if there were anywhere like this, anywhere at all, in America.
We adored Bonnington Square. My friends and I, rolling out of bed late after a long night at the theater and then in the clubs, where we dressed like fallen angels and danced until we saw god, used to sit on the steps drinking our coffee and watching the square. There the squatters would come, heaving some talismanic metal object they had found in the defunct marble factory around the corner, or discarded on the street. There was the community coalition, digging in their patch of bomb-scarred earth. A druid leaned against his caravan, sucking on a cigarette and watching us through narrowed eyes. His girlfriend stuck an arm out a tiny open hatch, and he passed the cigarette through to her.