Tom Palmer was found dead in a bedsit at the age of 28. The coroner, who gets his name wrong three times in the course of the hearing, has no doubts as to the cause of death. She says: “acute heroin toxicity in the context of alcohol use.”
Later that night, a spray-painted bedsheet beats in the wind over a squatted mansion in deepest Belgravia. Dripping in the rain, the slogan is scarcely visible: “MI5 killed Tom Palmer”. Inside the squat, a homeless woman grips my arm and spills my drink and mutters in my ear: “Tom was like my Jesus Christ. I refuse to believe he’s dead. I think he’s escaped and living deep undercover as a spy somewhere.”
The coroner says: “his likeminded peers became entwined in his delusional belief system.”
Tom was a “shaman”, I am told by his likeminded peers. He was “a genius,” he was “a major political activist,” he was “the funniest person I ever met in my life.” He was “the last real journalist”, he was “the only real revolutionary in the whole world… smoking crack under a bridge.” He was “a myth”, he was “hellbent on turning himself into a myth”, his life was “fantasy,” it was “gonzo”, it was “hyper-real.”
The coroner says: “Tom was loved by friends and family. Sadly, he decided to self-medicate.”
His friends follow the verdict intently, vulpine, sallow, gaunt. I have seen them otherwise, carousing to ragga through the Underground, distressing commuters and paying no fares, the only germ of life in the wipe-clean city. Here, a ceramic sign in the toilets warns of a 40-shilling fine for spitting, and they are cowed by the austere oaken weight of the courtroom, by the hiss of paper over paper, by the death of their self-medicating friend, whom they loved.
The slight benches around the perimeter of the court were built to support emaciated Victorian frames. Shifting his weight uncomfortably and smoothing his salmon-pink shirt, the rotund country doctor called to give evidence about Tom’s childhood psychoses appears grossly over-sized: but conversely these people who seem so enormous stomping through the scumbag belly of London are diminished in form and force by the cool, clinical phrases with which the coroner sums up Tom’s life. They pleat at the sleeves of their big black hoodies and they embrace one another and are embraced. A boy scratches at the livid scars which crosshatch his bare arms. Several weep.
The coroner says: “there were no abnormal findings.”
Tom Palmer, alias Agent Kingfisher, alias Johnny Teatent, died in August last year. Officially, he was a troubled young man with paranoid schizophrenia who believed spies had infiltrated London’s activist underworld and were watching him at every step. Unofficially, there are those who claim he was assassinated by the state. His name is still scrawled across the walls of London’s squats, chanted at demos, screamed at police. But his friends, family and lovers tell me that neither account will suffice.
When I first began chasing the memory of Agent Kingfisher through the netherworld of London, I was seeking answers to two questions: how did the carceral mental health system fail Tom? and What would a society look like which would enable people like Tom Palmer to live? But these questions left much unsaid. Though Tom’s life was hard and his death tragic and he was mentally ill and he abused drugs, he was no passive victim or melancholy outcast. The man I meet through the words of his friends is the semi-mythologised icon of a ramshackle counter-culture, a crack-smoking Don Quixote, a Messiah with athlete’s foot.
I thought I pitied Tom, but he viewed the workaday world with a pity bordering on contempt. I thought people like Tom needed help, but Tom gave up his mental and physical health in solidarity with others like him. I thought a more civilised world could have saved Tom’s life, but his life and death were defined by an absolute refusal of society on any terms. So perhaps a better starting point would be the questions his ex-girlfriend Ellie puts to me in a South London Wetherspoons: “Did he mean nothing? Was he just having a joke, was he just trying to wind us up? Or did he mean something real?”
The answer to all of these, I believe, is ‘yes’.
PC Mark Palin, armed officer 2387SO, was patrolling Westminster on a motorbike late at night on 4 July 2016 when he was “called to attend THAMES HOUSE, 12 MILLBANK, SW1, to reports of a known male urinating on the building.” The known male was “TOM PALMER, also known as agent KINGFISHER, a regular on our daily intelligence briefings”.
At the time of his death, Tom was out on bail and awaiting trial. “Without lawful excuse,” the Crown Prosecution Service charge sheet intones, Tom “damaged the foyer of the MI5 building by urinating… intending to damage or destroy such property or being reckless as to whether such property would be damaged or destroyed”. In the box where Tom was supposed to put his signature, an officer has printed: “INCAPABLE.”
Tom, an incapable drunk of no fixed abode, made himself a regular matter of national security. “He was totally fearless,” says another girlfriend, Sylvia. “He didn’t have any inhibitions about anything. He didn’t give a fuck. He would always be the one who got arrested.” Tom was once handcuffed on the red carpet of a James Bond premiere, and his friend Danny recounts a tale which culminates in their arrest outside Scotland Yard, Danny stark naked and Tom in drag as another alter-ego of his, Jenny Rimjob. He would carry three books with him everywhere he went in a shoulder-bag, in case he had to spend the night in a cell – spy thrillers and conspiracy theories, mostly.
I could have been there, also “smelling strongly of alcohol” as the police report recounts, pissing onto the steely neoclassical arch, being placed into an entangled armlock by PC 2387SO. Tom and I went to the same school, a grammar in the West Midlands, and we both despised it in our separate ways. In 2014, I published an article accusing the school of institutionalising racism, sexism and homophobia in its smug, blazered students. Tom messaged me on Twitter to say he approved of the piece, and we struck up a small correspondence online. Soon he was inviting me down to MI5, to “protest about surveillance and infiltration and extrajudicial murder and shit, and have some drinks and that.” I declined, as I did a subsequent invitation to join him on hunger strike. And that was the last I heard of him, until I opened the paper and saw that he was dead.
Like Tom, I felt restless and ill at ease through all my school years: like Tom, I moved down to London and swept into the world of radical politics and protest I had ogled for years from my market hometown. Like Tom, I have swerved close to death while abusing drink and drugs. Though I am perhaps ‘healthier’ and more ‘stable’ than Agent Kingfisher, news of his death rattled me. Tom wasn’t pictured on his Twitter account, and I’d always imagined him as a craggy wino somewhere north of fifty, but I now realised he was only a little older than I was. Though I had no memory of him, we’d been at school together for a year. Grubby, translucent, his Daily Mail mugshot stared back at me like my own unwashed ghost.
When I meet Tom’s friends for the first time at a drunken vigil outside Thames House, it does not seem appropriate to intrude, or even speak. Members of his squatting crew ANAL, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, mill around drinking and playing guitar and obstructing the police in their inquiries. A tearful girl with a bawling baby on her hip seals tea-lights to the doorstep with their own liquid wax, and a sole can of Polish beer in the centre of the shrine catches and reflects their light. Urine runs down the walls. I continue to pad quietly around the fringes of Tom’s life.
The pigs are trying to place the shrine in an evidence bag. They seem uncertain, on edge, and retreat several times to confer before demanding ANAL clean up and clear out. Wild-eyed, an anarchist named Tank swallow-dives into the litter of shoplifted beer-cans. “I’m tidying up, officer!” he cries. Rain squalls in across the blackened river, and breakbeat resounds from a boombox lashed to a pushchair. ANAL dragged the same sound system up to Tom’s funeral in Staffordshire, and very nearly brought into his inquest. Certain noises are best drowned out.
As ANAL shamble into retreat, Tank catches the condescending eye of a community liaison officer. “MI5 killed Tom Palmer!” he howls. Then he drops his head and mutters, sotto voce: “actually, it was drugs.” This is the playfulness which the coroner failed to grasp, and which was totally effaced by the reprehensible Daily Mail article, which uses every sordid trick in the hack’s toolbox to imply there was something suspicious about Tom’s simple overdose. (Tom’s friends say he would have found the article hilarious, with its coy references to an “unexplained death” and “run-ins with real and fictional spooks”.) Death is a black sun which blinds the direct gaze, and in part the MI5 patter is a way for Tom’s friends to sublimate their rage and grief into a steaming jet of urine.
But there are deeper concerns at play here. In a communiqué published after Tom’s death, ANAL assert: “The state effectively kills democracy by killing the opposition. We don’t know how he died, but we do know who killed him… The STATE/ aka M15.” These words are not a mere mechanism of psychological defence. Without taking the “delusional belief system” of Agent Kingfisher seriously, you cannot understand the importance of that shoplifted bacchanal as the rain pissed down on slate-grey Millbank, and you cannot really understand why Tom Palmer died.
Tom was first referred to the mental health services aged 10, for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and was prescribed lithium soon after. His home-spun midlands mother, Judy, tells the coroner her son was “always very chaotic and very active,” that he was “extremely intelligent” but “struggled to get his thoughts in order”, that his handwriting was terrible.
Though he made a couple of tilts at university, Tom dropped out both times, and by 2011 he had moved into the Occupy encampment outside St. Pauls’ cathedral. “He was a leading light,” Judy says in court, pulling her lilac shrug around herself and smiling a little. “He took responsibility with the food. He always enjoyed feeding people…” her voice tails off. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m a little nervous.”
Isobel Williams, who was there with Tom at Occupy, wrote in her diary: “[Tom] has built a barricade out of inner-city detritus, aspiring to a glorious last stand against the bailiffs. I think of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys without a Wendy.” Former girlfriend Ellie recalls seeing Tom rampage through this “giant fort” at Finsbury Square, which she says grew so unruly it was the only site disowned by the wider Occupy movement in the UK. “Establishing rules within a fucking revolt,” she says with a grimace. “What the fuck. So British.”
But the fort could not withstand the sweeping tides of global capital, and Occupy was swept aside in a tumult of acrimony, arrests and missed opportunities. “Tom went and lived in a tent for months, and actually expected the revolution to happen,” Sylvia tells me as we drink in another squat elsewhere in the city. Formerly a high-fashion model, she has now hacked her hair down close to her pallid skin, and wears a billowing Sea Shepherd hoodie emblazoned with a peeling skull-and-crossbones. “In his analysis, which was actually a pretty accurate analysis… it didn’t happen because of the spies.” It was here that the seeds of Tom’s madness and death were sown, as his paranoia intersected with reality. Before there could be any revolution, he realised, the undercover cops – who really were present at Occupy – had to be weeded out.Tom saw spies everywhere: in Wetherspoons, in the street, in the squats. He accused his sister, his girlfriends and virtually all of his fellow squatters
Tom and his baby brother look much alike, though Chris is milder in manner and tone, and a septum piercing sits oddly against the soft lines of his face. He says: “Tom’s belief… was that there are spies everywhere trying to support the system and keep people like this down.” He gestures around the squat we sit in, at the punks and freaks and insurrectionaries and shivering spice addicts and grim-faced veterans of a thousand bailiff wars, at its walls daubed with the slogans “I <3 Tom Palmer” and “all your allies are spies”. The 2012 eviction of Finsbury Square, which was the last Occupy site left standing, felt to Tom like a victory of “the system” over “people like this”. As he searched for reasons to explain this crushing failure, his gaze turned on the activist movement itself.
Occupy’s collapse came as issues of privacy, security and espionage were being driven to the forefront of the liberal consciousness by Wikileaks. In a statement Tom prepared to deliver to a mental health tribunal following an arrest several years ago, and still available to read in full on his blog Anarchesque Boilerplate, he writes: “As for the prevalence of spies I think this has been taken to being a negative persecutory belief, when it is just an expression of the increased securitisation of all facets of life.” He cites Edward Snowden, the detention of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, the ‘blue chip’ hacking scandal in which FTSE100 companies hired corrupt private investigators. Such concerns could be found in any Guardian column.
But things changed. Another friend, Anthony Timmins, says dealing with Tom towards the end of his life was like handling a newborn rabbit: “It’s closing its eyes and it’s terrified but it also wants to be petted. They love you, but their whole instinct is ‘Oh my god, this person is going to kill me.’” Tom saw spies everywhere: in Wetherspoons, in the street, in the squats. He accused his sister, his girlfriends and virtually all of his fellow squatters of being undercover agents sent to frustrate his attempts to build world revolution, in a narcissistic delusion typical of paranoid schizophrenia. In this video he gets arrested for spitting at an activist he identifies as an undercover cop, while these court documents were served after he smashed another Occupy protester’s phone, believing him to be a pig or a Blackwater employee. When he first met Sylvia, he reasoned she must also be a spy, because she always got away unscathed when shoplifting wine.
In later years, Sylvia says, Tom thought “everyone else was working for the government in some way or another. He reckoned it was just me and him and [a friend named] Vinny who were the only real revolutionaries. So I was like OK, the whole of the resistance is smoking crack under a bridge… this is going to work.” He dropped out of the squats where he had made a transient home, at one point broke up with Sylvia after she cautiously questioned his beliefs, and rejected his friends.
“When we got really close, I was always in and out of psychotic episodes,” says Ellie, the ex-girlfriend. Her manner is still scatty and distracted. She swats at her dangling earrings and does not quite look me in the eye. “And Tom was really embracing [his delusions] which is great but also terrifying… he wasn’t scared of being arrested and sectioned anymore.” She observes that one function of espionage is to breed paranoia and mistrust among allies – and Tom’s activism was compromised to the point of uselessness by the fear of the spies he thought were ruining activism. Ellie broke up with Tom as well, as part of a general retreat from the front line of activist life to live with her parents and attend to her own fragile mental health. By the end, Ellie says, she was unsure whether she herself was a spy or not.
For several months prior to Tom’s death, he and Danny lived with a remarkable man known as ‘Sir Christopher’, a degenerate old queen who spends his days sitting in state like some decadent fin-de-siècle aristocrat drinking cheap white wine, consorting with rent boys, and crank-calling the police to complain about the coterie of drop-outs who pass daily through his Pimlico flat.
“I’m an old queer, but I love my sons,” Sir Christopher tells me, in gravelly tones which slur between camp and cockney. “Danny, Tom, and [another friend named] Benjamin. They’re highly educated, they’re all bums, and they want the clouds to open so someone gives them money.” We drink five bottles of wine between us in two hours, yet he is derisory about the attitude of his “his sons” to drink and drugs. “They just don’t care,” he barks. “They’re silly boys and they’ll take anything free that’s going. They don’t know what they’re bloody taking.”
He recalls watching Tom drink an entire bottle of benylin – an over-the-counter cough syrup laced with codeine – mixed with a little tonic water, and vomit his guts up. By all accounts Tom was a heavy drinker, though the figure he reported to his GP of 80 units a week does not seem severely excessive – six cans of lager a night, or a couple of big binges and some tinnies here and there along the way. “No revolution without street drinking,” he used to say.“It’s horrible that he’s gone, but I don’t think he’d be dissatisfied with his story. He’d say ‘I’m pleased with that, that’s a really rock and roll kind of ending.’”
When I first meet Ellie, she does not know the full details of Tom’s death. Sweetly hesitant, almost plaintive, she asks: “how much of… that… did he take? Was it too much?” Though Tom rarely touched hard drugs, on the night of his death he and Danny had been drinking all day at a street party and Tom had just come into some money. He disappeared off and rematerialized with baggies of crack cocaine and heroin. Danny had not seen Tom use either drug before, and believes he had only taken heroin once or twice. He was smoking crack but snorting the harder drug – an inadvisable method, which makes it hard to control the dosage. In oddly stagey, pantomimed tones, the coroner reads a statement from the man whose flat Tom died in: “I said to him, that’s not a good idea. He replied, ‘I am a big man’.”
As the eyewitness to his final hours Danny is the only one of Tom’s friends granted permission to address the court, and as he takes the stand he seems cowed by the weight of responsibility. “I was literally there, so I know what happened,” he says, defiant and gently Scouse. “We always used to sleep top and tail, and when I woke up I just thought he was asleep.” Danny went for a shower, but when he came back Tom was still immobile: “I said Tom wake up, wake up. I slapped him twice round the face. I opened his eyelids but his eyes weren’t there. And he was gone after that.” The paramedics arrived, pronounced him dead, and carted him out into the street – naked apart from a blanket, and a pair of women’s knickers.
At my lowest points, I enter a mindset which is not precisely suicidal. It is more that I am wilfully unconcerned with living or taking care of myself – a kind of terminal recklessness. As he drifted from squats onto the streets of Camden, I imagine Tom may have experienced something similar, a hastening resignation to oblivion. Ellie says she “watched him do a lot of sketchy-arse things that could have got him killed and he always bounced back… but you can’t keep playing Russian Roulette forever.” Danny says Tom was increasingly self-mythologizing in his final months, scrawling his ‘Agent Kingfisher’ pseudonym on walls everywhere he went: “He used to say strange things to me, like ‘are you ready to die? I am.’ I don’t think he was suicidal but I think he had a vision of what was going to happen.”
That said, Tom’s friends all make it clear that he loved life, and that his death was nothing but inevitable chance, the law of averages reaching a cold hand down from on high to stop his heart. “If he wasn’t schizophrenic… he could have done anything,” Sylvia says. “He was confident and smart and had the spirit and the will. It’s easy to be completely destroyed by it all, but he never was. He was still up for the fight, every day. He didn’t ever seem depressed, he had lots of energy. His ideology didn’t discourage him at all.” Far from preparing for the end, he was planning a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe, and frenetically preparing for his court case over the pissing-on-MI5 incident, where he planned to lay out his critique of state espionage in full.
“It’s horrible that he’s gone, but I don’t think he’d be dissatisfied with his story,” Ellie muses. “He’d say ‘I’m pleased with that, that’s a really rock and roll kind of ending.’” Danny tells me that Tom was desperate to join Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Hendrix and Amy Winehouse in the ‘27 club’ of celebrities who overdosed at that age and laughs blackly at the irony of friend’s death occurring just six months too late. He also mocks the idea that MI5 crept into the filthy shooting den where Tom racked up drugs for the final time and slipped poison into his narcotics – as does Sir Christopher. “He fucking died,” the hoary old lush growls. “He took too many drugs and he fucking died.”
Admitting that generalised structural critiques are “beyond the scope of this enquiry”, the coroner limits herself to criticising the way the mental health services handled Tom’s specific case, citing missed appointments and opportunities to intervene. Sylvia acknowledges that the mental health services “were starting to wash their hands of Tom”, while his brother blames government cuts to research and support funding. But in their communiqué about Tom’s death, ANAL sharply reject the idea that the mental health system could ever have saved their comrade: “We do not believe the mental health system failed him. We believe the mental health system is a failure. He did not slip through the net. He ripped a hole in it and tried to escape.”
Shivering before the court, Tom’s mother is asked when and why the police referred him on to the mental health services. I think of Jacques Rancière, the French critical theorist who sees the literal police force as the ‘petit’ police, part of a broader system of social control and consensus, which he describes as ‘police’ in its entirety – voting booths, mental hospitals, “the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved.” To Rancière, the only real politics is the ‘dissensus’ of people disrupting the social order he terms ‘the police’.
Tom admittedly found the mental health services a softer touch than the police, and sought referral as an alternative to jail time. But fundamentally, as Sylvia says, “he really was mad.” He was sectioned three times, and increasingly came to view the mental health services as the weak arm of the law. In the plea he prepared while incarcerated in a mental institution, he cites an undergraduate politics textbook making a point as much Hobbesian as anarchistic: “an essential feature of a sovereign state is that it monopolizes the use of legitimate force – it controls the military and the police. A state requires a coercive capability to maintain law and order.” He links this comment to the Mental Health Act 1983, “used… to keep political prisoners”. The mental health services do not collude with the police: they are the police.
Among the various mechanisms of restraint employed by the mental health service, the two bluntest are sedation and incarceration. Tom’s mother says the antipsychotic drugs he was prescribed “dulled his senses, took his spark”; he claimed they sometimes made him impotent. As we pass red wine and a drooping spliff around the squat and talk about meds, it seems virtually all of Tom’s friends have been prescribed the drugs Sylvia describes as “eugenic”.
Sylvia and I discuss RD Laing, the so-called acid Marxist and High Priest of anti-psychiatry, who considered schizophrenia “as a way of moving the family’s and society’s problems onto one person who is scapegoated.” (Her words, not Laing’s). What she takes from this is not a refusal of paranoid schizophrenia’s biological basis, but a sense that “people do not exist in a vacuum”, that “mental health is really political.” Capital atomises our suffering, blames us and the so-called chemical imbalances in our brain, then flogs us SSRIs to recalibrate them. To Mark Fisher, the cultural theorist who committed suicide earlier this year, “the task of repoliticising mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism”.
This does not mean mental illness is simply something done to people by society: it is the product of the dialectic relationship between self and society, the dissensus between the two. Discussing those traumatised into madness by the brutal violence of colonialism, Frantz Fanon writes: “The doctor intervenes in order to liberate the patient from this ‘foreign body’… In fact, it is not ‘foreign’ at all. A conflict is only the result of the dynamic evolution of the personality, and here there can be no ‘foreign body’. We ought rather to say that the problem is one of a ‘badly integrated body’.”
The most valuable insight here is Ellie’s. “The way my parents say I’m out of psychosis is ‘oh, you’re back in the real world now,” she says. “You have to go through this indoctrination of what is normal and what isn’t normal.” Our mental health system, which seeks to “integrate” bodies into a system of production and reproduction and make them healthy subjects of capitalism, could never have cured someone like Tom.
In a perverse way, the same can be said of the anti-capitalist movements which were Tom’s safe haven for so long. Ellie remembers him storming into squats with “no sexism, no homophobia, no racism” scrawled across the wall, and daubing “NO ABLEISM” below the familiar shibboleths. Safer spaces structured to accommodate mental health problems like anxiety or depression struggled to make room for a loud-mouthed paranoid schizophrenic, and Tom was often thrown out of meetings. Being a ‘good activist’, after all, often simply means being a good worker. Resistance replicates the forms it struggles vainly to overthrow.
Ellie was able to step outside of her own psychoses in a way that Tom was not, and seems to be managing her recovery well. But hearing her talk about months spent with Tom “running round central London” cracking open squats and pretending to be spies, and the days she now spends hawking trinkets on a market stall for minimum wage, it is hard not to feel she is wistful for her former life. It is not just the healthcare system which is corrupted. Health itself is a capitalist concept, measured by ability to work, by days off sick, by the strength of one’s arm.
“I was waiting till I was adequately better to go and talk to him,” she recalls, as she shows me texts – about spies – from the week Tom died. “But I was waiting waiting waiting for the right moment, and now it’s too late. I really fucking regret it.” People talk about ‘health and happiness’, as though the two are not constantly opposed.
“What the mental health system didn’t allow for was that some of his delusions weren’t delusions,” says his brother Chris. The typical schizophrenic obsessed with gods or aliens can simply be told that these things aren’t real, Chris observes. “But spies are a different story, because there are undercover police, there are plainclothes officers… When he thought the old lady on the bus was a spy, when he thought my sister was a spy, that’s really hurtful, and kind of obviously not true. But people at protests in London might well be spies.”
This is why the concept of the ‘spy’ has such cultural heft, and why the GCHQ revelations so caught the liberal imagination. Espionage offers a rare model of invisible powers beyond our control – of our lack of agency under capitalism – which does not need recourse to spirits, extraterrestrials, or the otherwise numinous. It is also why Tom was so consumed by the idea. Chris says his family and the mental health services shared a responsibility to “tell Tom, ‘these are delusions.’ But we didn’t know they were delusions… and so I think he could never recover.”
The ANAL communiqué is unambivalent. As well as “financial and psychological coercion,” the state employs literal spies who have “entrapped, preyed upon, and fucked activists, leaving some with fatherless children.” Sylvia moves in the same circles as the ex-girlfriend of an infamous undercover cop named Mark Kennedy, who seduced multiple women while undercover in green activist circles. Sex was a widely-used “tool” for these agents provocateurs, while some Special Branch agents used their identities to ensnare and impregnate women with no prior history of activism. As Tom’s friends are eager to point out, these ‘spy-cops’ are the stuff of BBC documentary fact: many more stories are documented by the campaign “Police Spies Out of Lives”. Tom simply saw them everywhere.
Ellie adds that Tom was badly beaten by cops at a demo, knocking out his front tooth, and that despite his braggadocio he found being arrested and sectioned traumatic. His focus slowly shifted from the Secret Service as an obstruction to revolution and the overthrow of the government to the Secret Service as controlling the government itself. “I don’t really believe in the Illuminati,” Ellie says, drawing an analogy with her own political views and the human need for a tangible enemy as a focus for righteous anger, “but it’s good to use for want of a better word.”
Discussing the 9/11 truth movement, Sylvia says: “was it that [the American authorities] fucked up the region enough that this would happen? Or did their agents know about it and not do anything? Or did they fly the planes themselves? Somewhere along the way, it was definitely their culpability.” Corresponding tiers of analysis can be applied to Tom’s death. Conspiracy theorists claim MI5 assassinated him directly, while others see his death as collateral of the state infiltration and espionage riddling the radical left. But in the broadest sense, everyone from his mother to ANAL to the coroner agrees the carceral police state “fucked up” Tom and left him for dead.
It is hard to imagine Tom ever trusting his corpulent country squire of a GP, who tells the inquest: “he was impossible to challenge… he had no insight that some of his beliefs were delusional.” This testimony flies in the face of evidence from Tom’s friends. They say his madness was less Lear raging at the storm than it was Edgar in disguise as poor Tom O’Bedlam, a performance which became increasingly real until he lost the ability to tell kin from foe.
Tom once told Sylvia that smoking weed helped him to identify spies. Sylvia pointed out that marijuana is known to heighten paranoia, particularly among schizophrenics, and Tom “said ‘well, that’s one thing..’ and left it hanging with a smile.” He often described himself as a “character comedian”, and a couple of years before his death published a wickedly funny satire of his own attempts to clear police spies out of the radical left, mocking the idea that “secret agents who do nothing but fuck and make awful art and shout at policemen” actually pose a threat at all.
Tom’s ramblings were shot through with jouissance, wit, and a particular childlike joy – the sort which absolutely excludes the tiresome, adult and rational. “He wasn’t at all a tragic figure,” Sylvia says firmly. “It was ‘look how much fun he’s having, let’s join in.’” Ellie describes this as the “hyper-reality fantasy element,” and recalls freaking out bailiffs by pretending to be MI5 agents, their cover blown by the latest squat eviction.Our mental health system, which seeks to “integrate” bodies into a system of production and reproduction and make them healthy subjects of capitalism, could never have cured someone like Tom
This exuberance courses through his infectious, scatter-gun prose style, and is also showcased in the lyrics of his prodigious output of mistuned protest songs. His track The Last Real Journalist is slammed out on cheap guitars at the MI5 protest – “oh what a shame/he used to have a good brain/now he’s gone and wrecked it all with David Icke and crack cocaine… now he walks the streets/got wings on his feet/paying tramps in drink and drugs to talk about the elite”. Tom was “a bit of a shaman,” Ellie says, who knew “how to work an audience” in art as in life – as this raucous dragged-up squat performance shows.
Ellie primarily speaks of him in terms of his music, and his interpersonal relationships with the homeless and disenfranchised of London. Anarchist Anthony views Tom as an “agitator”, inspiring Situationist moments of revolutionary fervour. According to Danny, an artist rather than a political activist, it was “all just bizarre poetry.” Each of Tom’s loved ones interprets his ‘act’ on their own terms, depending on the nature of their relationship.
But as Tom’s condition deteriorated, the ludic spark at the heart of his obsession flickered and died. Ellie says he “lost” his universal, shamanic quality as he “began to follow one particular type of life”, diving headfirst into psychosis and no longer surfacing for air. “Tom saw psychosis as a portal to the truth,” Sylvia says. When Ellie described herself as trying to “tap in and tap out of psychosis,” Tom responded with a simpler philosophy of his own: “never switch off.”
When he referred to himself as mad, Tom was not just being self-aware or self-deprecating. He was deliberately placing himself among the ranks of what he called “the paranoid schizophrenic mafia”, the freaks and dropouts whose madness was the only rational response to the hell of late capitalism. He saw his own mental illness as pharmakon, both poison and remedy, both a product of the socio-economic order which left him scapegoated and despised and the only mechanism through which this order could be resisted and overthrown.
His alcohol and drug abuse must be considered in this light too. Ellie says she wants to “take the onus off Tom being negligent or foolish… and ask what would put someone in such a position, what has happened traumatically in the past.” His squatting crew ANAL are considered the “reprobates” of the scene, more concerned with squat parties and bedlam than opening up long-term spaces and meshing with the local community. As with Tom’s mental health struggles, the squatting community ultimately replicated the structures it was supposed to displace. Tom was thrown out of squats for his rowdy, pissed-up behaviour, treated like an antisocial ingrate rather than a self-medicating, vulnerable individual. “If we were happy, we wouldn’t be drinking all day,” says Sylvia, raising a can of Stella to her lips.
Yet Tom also saw it as his responsibility to alter his state of consciousness in as many ways as he could. This sense of Stella-can-as-pharmakon is best summed up by Lauri Love, a softly-spoken ‘autistic vicar’s son’ – as the tabloids inevitably have it – facing deportation to the United States on hacking charges. Like Tom, he has seen the inside of a psychiatric ward, and he is an equally omnipresent figure at London’s protests, hauling ANAL’s buggy-strapped soundsystem from embassy picket to jungle rave to antifascist dust-up.
“[Drug use] is a sense of enlightenment, but it comes with a lot of noise,” he says. “It’s like turning up the gain on a radio when you’ve got a signal that’s very far away. You get the signal, although you have a lot of noise… to deny that element of insight in altered states of consciousness is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Having said his piece, the mild-mannered enemy of the free world flicks the volume of his boombox back up, and my recording of the interview is subsumed in a scream of static.
“Tramp liaison” was the name Tom gave to his role at Occupy. Activist movements like Occupy make a point of inclusivity, rightfully working to include women, people of colour, queer people, and others excluded from mainstream discursive spaces. But even within the circumscribed, egalitarian space of a protest movement, some voices are easily waved away. “Tom would stick up for the drug users, the people with mental health issues, the homeless,” Ellie says. It is a roll-call of the lumpenproletariat, the scum of society excluded from classical Marxist thought as beyond all redemption.
Mental health is a microcosm of this power structure. As noted above, emancipation spaces which do a relatively good job of accommodating the anxious, depressed and stressed can exclude the schizophrenic, alcoholic and aggressive. But even when they are not meek or palatable, disabled and addicted people surely still deserve a place in the activist movement. When Ellie says his “radical inclusivity” meant Tom “never judged anybody for being a dickhead, or a pervert, or a lech,” she raises difficult questions about who is included in and who is excluded from liberal feminist spaces.
Ellie relates a long story about passing a disabled rough sleeper on the street, soaked in his own urine. She brought the man to a squat called the Hobo Hilton, where Tom was staying at the time. (Writing about his time working “front of house” at the Hilton, Tom says: “I can talk to anyone really, pauper or prince, banker or builder.”) The rough sleeper continually disrupted meetings, threw food around the Hilton, and propositioned Ellie – unacceptable behaviour in a ‘safe space’, of course. Tom not only allowed the homeless man to continue sleeping at the Hilton over the protests of his fellow squatters, he made him a gift of the blow-up lilo he was using as a mattress.
“Radical inclusivity” implies Tom reached out to the most excluded, the junkies and bums, and made them feel at home. But Tom’s inclusivity was of another order entirely. He became a junkie and a bum himself, switching the inclusivity paradigm to include and immerse himself in their world. “He lived committedly as a homeless person,” Anthony says, a rare note of admiration creeping into his gruff, longshoreman’s voice. “A guy from a posh background, he made solidarity his first point of order… He lived in freedom.”
Tom often described himself as the “last real journalist”, and Ellie views his commitment to the life of a homeless dropout as “gonzo-style” journalism taken to its extreme. He lived in full-tilt, first-person immersion, refusing to step out of psychosis or inebriation or squalor for even a moment. His solidarity was as incarnate as Christ on the cross, wrists pierced with hypodermic needles, sipping a final, bitter cup of shoplifted Polish beer.
This does not mean Tom’s descent into madness was a choice. Speaking slowly, drunk in a squat after the inquest and barely audible over the jungle blaring from the ANAL boombox and the whine of power tools as anarchists barricade the door against the rumoured arrival of bailiffs, his brother Chris says: “Tom’s illness was that his cognitive dissonance wasn’t very good. Everyone sees problems with society. But most people have this sense that says ‘well, I’m better off just not thinking about it’. Like with smoking, like with eating meat… it’s easier to just eat meat or to smoke, and put it in the back of your head. We all have this switch, and we turn it off… but Tom couldn’t hold it in his head that society was really fucked, and that there were people living in society.”
He breaks off, and lights a cigarette himself. Chris has previously told me that he feels he started down the path Tom followed, only to “make the decision to be a bit more normal.” If I see my life vaguely foreshadowed in Tom’s, I cannot imagine how chilled Chris must be by the way his brother’s reckless existence consumed itself and was extinguished.‘We all have this switch, and we turn it off… but Tom couldn’t hold it in his head that society was really fucked, and that there were people living in society’
Fielding phone calls in the days after his death, Danny spoke to many old schoolmates of Tom’s who believe he simply “went to London and went mental.” The city itself is held accountable for Tom’s death, placed on trial. Such accusations have precedent: in the introduction to his Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth describes the “savage torpor” induced by metropolitan life, by “the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” This numbing effect, Wordsworth says, is why the Romantic gaze must turn to the country for sublime rejuvenation.
For Tom, too, “it would have been better to go back and live on a farm and remove himself from this world that he despises, from MI5 and politics and protest,” Chris acknowledges. But Tom would have considered retreat from “savage torpor” to the country a dereliction of duty. “Tom felt the cause,” Chris says, “and he was so… sure that he couldn’t pull away.” Any instinct for self-preservation enabling him to shrink back, to survive, was among the first casualties of his convictions. In the bleak uniformity of the latter-day metropolis, his craving for extraordinary incident could only be satisfied by drugs. Wordsworth continues: “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind.”
The locus of Tom’s resistance to the torpor of the city was the squat. Isobel recalls Tom ensconced like a tramp king in the Occupy tea-tent, “the hangout for the homeless, the disaffected or the alienated.” He made this venue part of his name, under the ‘Johnny Teatent’ pseudonym. After its eviction he sought out the disaffected and lumpen in the empyrean pubs and community centres and mansions left to rot by property developers, absentee owners and the gory, surging tide of London’s property market.
In the blog post where he satirises his own ideological standpoints, Tom’s avatar mocks “this bullshit, Industrial Revolution, outmoded, non-visionary idea that you have to have a job.” In his Manichean analysis, you cannot be anti-capitalist so long as you have a job: and if you are truly against private property, the only appropriate response is homelessness. Anthony, himself a former rough sleeper, believes the homeless embody “resistance instinctively.” They are the ineluctable embodiment of an ugly question, which society answers in a thousand ways: spikes sunk in concrete windowsills, the scornful retention of loose change, the darkened rooms of abandoned mansions gaping at the night. The squat, in what Tom called its “melding of the activist base and the home and the venue”, screams a very different response.
But anyone who has spent nights in a squat – particularly an itinerant, smash-and-grab, reprobate space like an ANAL takeover – knows how much space, time, sleep and breath you sacrifice to the collective way of life, and how exhausting this becomes. When your very home is politicised, there is nowhere to pull back to. Tom did have a country retreat of sorts, at his parents’ house in Stafford, but the metrics by which this is defined in the inquest – “library, dentist, electoral roll” – are scarcely relevant to his life in London. Writing after the eviction of the Hobo Hilton he says: “We want semi-permanent protest encampments forever, dammit.” His utopia was semi-permanent, defined by its inevitable collapse.
From city to squat and closer again, in and around Tom’s body itself, the same patterns recur. The drunkard Sir Christopher has a fetish for white underwear. One TV screen in his flat shows an endless succession of hunks in gleaming Y-fronts – the other streams Grand Designs – and he beseeches me to slip on a pair of white briefs and embrace him in the dark. I demur, and he slurs on: “When I inspected Tom and Daniel’s pants, they were absolutely disgusting.” I stifle a laugh, and he jabs a finger at me. “This is very serious. Why didn’t their mothers teach them how to wipe their bums? Because Tom alienated himself from his mother.”
A disregard for bodily hygiene suggests low self-esteem: but Tom was flushed with schizophrenic delusions of grandeur. Rather, his fungal infections and filth-clogged fingernails were visual signifiers of his solidarity with all dirtbags, the epaulets and brocade of the Tramp Liaison Officer, an attempt to imbibe his environment via osmosis. “I think he liked living the way he lived,” says Ellie. Danny recalls watching him spoon cooked meals directly off the table.
Tom sucked his solidarity in through his pores – and up through his nose. “The radical inclusivity thing,” Ellie says. “He really embraced that as a philosophy… And how much of other people’s shit did he take on, the fact of being equal with everyone all the time?” She is suddenly flushed with passion. “Not above people, he was never above people.” She takes a breath. “But he’s a fucking smart guy, and to die homeless, of an overdose… that’s the fucking bottom of the barrel, man.”
Many drug users skate over the profoundly capitalist nature of our habits, convincing ourselves that our consumption is in some way subversive. Likewise, it is easy to glibly view Tom’s helter-skelter descent into bedlam as ineffably counter-cultural. We get high on ecstasy and ignore the trafficked blood which soaks the sassafras: we pick delicately through the carrion of ruined lives, in pursuit of beauty or truth. Danny disparages those who “make a big fancy fairy tale out of things that are just dull”: the mundanity of another bum’s overdose, the repetitiousness of severe psychosis. He describes Tom’s activism as a simple “addiction”, an excuse to drink in the street and little more.
At first, Sir Christopher seems more resistant than anyone else to the idea that Tom’s life had political or moral significance: “Look. I lost Tom, I’m very sad about it. But don’t play with fire unless you’re willing to get burned.” Later, he tells me about a drinking bout which left him incarcerated in Orange County jail. Wasn’t he playing with fire himself, then? “Absolutely,” he concedes. “It’s the same thing.” In truth, his mannered nihilism places him closer to Tom on the spectrum of self-destruction than anyone else I interview.
“I cannot honestly see what me at the end of treatment would look like,” Tom once wrote. If he was made well enough to participate as a producer/consumer in late capitalist society, he would no longer be himself at all, any more than Sir Christopher would be recognisable if he suddenly went teetotal. “The coroner said the failures of the mental health service were beyond the scope of the enquiry,” Sylvia recalls. Her sharp, mustelid features quiver as she weeps. “They’re beyond the scope of any change that doesn’t come with assassinations and bombs. How can you be well in a society that’s sick?”
Tom’s brother Chris was recently approached by a panhandler selling paintings for beer money as he stumbled off the Edinburgh-London night train in the small hours of the morning. The man was well-spoken, somewhere north of sixty, and his ‘paintings’ were meaningless swirls of cheap paint and Illuminati symbols. Chris was struck by a vision of his brother, had he lived: aged, cracked, peddling worthless junk. He was terrified. “I don’t think my brother could ever have got ‘better’ in this system,” Chris says. “And I don’t see society changing enough that my brother could have had a place in it. I think he just felt more and more isolated.”
At the inquest, the coroner asks Tom’s mother if he had any long term goals. “No…” she says doubtfully. A cry comes from the gallery: “bring down the state!” In his own way, Tom was as stubborn as the security-espionage-capital complex he was so opposed to, which structured his entire existence. The man known as Agent Kingfisher was a negative of TS Eliot’s fisher king, “sat upon the shore/fishing, with the arid plain behind me.” Both bear the brunt of society’s failures on their ruined bodies. Cloistered, secluded, patiently waiting, the crippled fisher king must be healed to restore life and vitality to the land. But the king fisher darts here and there through London, inevitably destroying himself in an endless struggle to bring the unreal city falling down, falling down, falling down.
In a breathless encomium, Tom’s friend Janie Mac writes: “I have chosen to write a Eulogy and not an obituary for Tom because it is about celebrating his life yet I know Tom’s life was not always a celebration.” Any account of his brief existence must bear the weight of this negative capability. Victory in his one-man war against MI5 was impossible, and on some level Tom must have known this. But it was the fight itself which gave and which gives his life meaning – 28 years lived in struggle, in radical inclusivity, in wild and fearless performance.
At the end of Don Quixote, the mad knight retires to bed for a year after failing in his final, harebrained quest. He is despondent: “Am I not he that has been conquered? Am I not he that has been overthrown?” His friends are also heartbroken – not because Quixote’s delusions of grandeur have been shattered, but because “with Don Quixote’s retirement there was an end to the amusement of all who knew anything of his mad doings.” Like Quixote, Tom came alive not in the completion of his quest but in the “mad doings” which waylaid him.
Describing his role in the Hobo Hilton, Tom wrote: “I don’t do anything illegal. I just run the cabaret.” This is how Danny remembers him, as the circus master of his own life. He compares Tom to the Comte de Lautréamont, a mercurial French aristocrat whose oeuvre was read as prophetic by the early surrealists. Bar the “accumulation of terrible death images” he left behind, little is known of the Comte’s life and feverish death at the age of 24.‘He did not slip through the net. He ripped a hole in it and tried to escape.’
In a screed against those who censored his bleak, vulgar work, the Comte writes: “Naturally I drew register a little exaggerated, in order to create something new… a sublime literature that sings of despair only in order to oppress the reader, and make him desire the good as the remedy.” Taken as performance – even unwilling performance – Tom’s final years appear in a similar light, a song of despair intended to lead society towards some distant, scarcely-conceivable good. Danny says: “Tom seemed hellbent on turning himself into a mythical figure during the last few months of his life in particular, which I almost see as him subconsciously realising his impending death.”
Danny drunkenly tells me to make this story “my magnum opus”, to do the very best I can in commemorating his friend. He places his hand on my chest, over my heart. Later on I find him sprawled unconscious under a door torn from its hinges and nailed between a boarded window and the floor at a 45° angle as a crude flying buttress to resist the bailiffs who will enter the squat any hour now, any minute.
Though he says he does not want to depict Tom as “some kind of saint”, Anthony holds him in particularly high, pure esteem. “Society only failed Tom by not joining him,” he says. He compares Tom to “the kids in Long Island” who self-immolated in protest at the Vietnam War. “If every American kid lit themselves on fire there would not have been twelve more years of that particular war,” he says. I can find no record of these particular protests, but perhaps that does not really matter.
No-one is glad that Tom’s life went up in flames. But he did burn, and the living are left with the memory of the incandescing wick of his final years, a handful of ashes and little more. Whatever Anthony says, the comparison he draws with a serene monk doused in gasoline has the flavour of sanctification. Tom lived where protest and performance come together and resolve absolutely, at the crux of fire and flesh.
#232: Rue Britannia ● The legacy of the British Empire ● An interview with Priyamvada Gopal ● The People’s Olympics ● An interview with Neville Southall ● Agribusiness in India ● Deliveroo’s disastrous IPO ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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