Novelist Glen James Brown explores how the housing crisis might spell disaster for working-class fiction.
In the 1970s, the pub on my estate had a Thursday night disco where you let off steam after a shift, one tired eye on the weekend. It drew everyone from the surrounding streets, including several residents of the nearby Miners Rehabilitation Centre — an institute of convalescence for those injured down the pits — who’d limp down to get tanked up and throw shapes to David Essex’s Gonna Make You A Star. It was, perhaps, their preferred means of recovering physical fitness: one physiotherapist of that institution was so feared for her unremitting methods that she earned a reputation terrifying enough for one ex-patient to tool around in a T-shirt saying: I SURVIVED IRON KNICKERS.
My dad told me that story, like he’s told me countless others. Tales by turn tragic, touching and flat-out weird (and often requiring handfuls of salt). But the common thread to them all was this: they all happened in places I knew. In the early 1990s, I used to go to an under-12s disco in that pub — ‘Whispers’ it was called — where I’d drink peppermint cordial and not dance to Belinda Carlisle. A few years later, I’d spend N.Y.E 1995 round the back of it, necking warm cans of Stones bitter I’d later puke onto my bedroom carpet. The bricks and mortar were a conduit: mine and my father’s stories woven together, the past reaching out to sew me into itself. Later still, I used this tapestry as a template for the fictional Burn Estate in my novel Ironopolis. In the book, the traumas and joys of the characters – their individual histories – are layered over the same locations to form a living narrative of place. I was, in other words, writing a facsimile of the community I grew up in.
Community is narrative. Groups move from the past into the future via stories they tell about themselves in the present; a sense of continuity and solidarity providing a sense of belonging and security. Yet this is no rose-tinted Remember-When-You-Didn’t-Have-To-Lock-Your-Doors nostalgia. Indeed, close-knit working-class communities were often stifling and unforgiving, the desire to escape them overwhelming, but for all their limitations, the hardships faced by those who lived in them made their existence vital. The history of British working-class communities in the 20th and 21st Centuries is one of perpetual struggle against the ruling classes, first for worker’s rights, decent wages, job security, and then to hold on to those things in an economic climate that sought — seeks still — to wrench them away. On a communal level, strong communities are a crucial catalyst for change because awareness of how the present fails to measure up against the past grants at least the impetus to fight for a better future. For the individual, to be part of a communal narrative does not mean submission to group-think, but rather to be located in a sphere of mutual contrast and comparison; to possess the vantage of seeing how your life compares to others. Political and social narratives told over time shape goals and aspirations on both a collective and individual level, though this mutual importance does not end at mere economic gain. Communal narratives could also be a vital means of establishing — and maintaining — individual identity itself.
In 2003, the developmental psychologist Michael Chandler and his team published research into suicide among First Nation indigenous teenagers in British Columbia. Suicide rates were shockingly high in certain communities – hitting 800% the national average – while in others there were almost nil. When Chandler’s team investigated they found something heartbreaking: youths from high-suicide areas had no stories to tell, either about themselves or their communities. The tribal councils of high-suicide teens had no control over their own land, governance, education or cultural facilities, resulting in a fatal break from their own pasts. Individuals no longer saw themselves in a wider social context of shared history or tradition, nor understood the generations that had come before them. In possession of no past, they lacked the ability to extrapolate into the future, instead existing in a perma-present of substance abuse, day-time TV, junk-food, and, ultimately, suicide. In his book The Biology of Desire, neuroscientist Marc Lewis sums up Chandler’s work: humans need to be able to see their own lives progressing, moving from a meaningful past to a viable future. They need to see themselves as going somewhere, as characters in a narrative, as making sense.
Now I would not be so crass as to try to equate the current threat to UK working-class communities with the sustained and systematic horrors wrought upon North American First Nation groups, but Chandler’s research does suggest that individuals in touch with the richness of a communal past are more able to envision future narratives. Larger shared narratives stitch individual stories into a fabric of interlocking influence — people and community made solid through the reciprocal act of their stories being told, and this begs the question: if individual narratives are bolstered by the communal, what is happening to working class communities in the UK?
Right-to-Buy in the early 1980s saw millions purchase their homes from Local Authorities (L.A.s) who were then restricted from building replacement stock. ‘Council Estate’ went from a prosaic to pejorative term as ‘Sink Estate’ entered the lexicon — crumbling estates full of the ‘worst’ people, as councils used their overstretched stock to temporarily house the most at-risk. In desperation, local authorities often resorted to renting back housing they had once owned, a delicious irony for the profiteering landlords snapping up ex-council stock from the original right-to-buyers. The consequence today is writ large: since 2010, L.A. building of socially-rented homes has fallen by a staggering 97%. Private-initiative Housing Associations (H.A.s) have stepped in to build and run housing, adopting a policy of ‘Regeneration’ — large-scale demolition and rebuilding of council estates deemed unfit for habitation — yet this is rarely a like-for-like exchange. While L.A. homes were ‘socially’ rented at up to 50% of market value, H.A. homes are either full-market or ‘affordable’ rent — 80% of market value. The distinction is vital: a £128-a-week socially-rented flat in Islington would be anything up £300 at affordable rent. This is the difference between continuing to live in an area — perhaps where you and your family have lived for generations — and not.
And now even affordable rent is being squeezed. In major cities such as London and Manchester, housing developers win building contracts based on promises to allocate a proportion of homes for affordable (as opposed to social) rent, but then utilise viability assessments — calculations showing how too many of these units eat into profit margins — to argue down that number. Last year, viability assessments contributed to new, affordable homes making up less than 1% of all new builds in 2017. For home owners refusing to hand over their properties for demolition, C.P.Os (compulsory purchase orders) are obtained, yet the home-loss payments often don’t come close to the price of a newly regenerated property, especially in places like London. A quick glance at any H.A. literature shows the target market: the upwardly mobile family-unit, the young professional, the investment portfolio. But what of those who don’t fit this vision? Where do they go? The answer: wherever they can. In London in 2015, 16,810 homeless households were moved to other boroughs with available stock — a 30% increase on the previous year — with 2,707 families shifted out of Greater London entirely. The bottom line: communities who have lived together for generations are now being rent apart; the threads tying past to present to future stretching and snapping.
The connection between home, community and mental health is well documented. Suicide rates are two to three times higher in the most deprived areas. A Shelter report found housing issues have adversely affected the mental health of 21% of alladultsin the past five years. Of those, 48% said affordability was a factor, a statistic no doubt exacerbated by the decline of socially-rented accommodation which pushes many into the expensive and precarious private sector. Poor property conditions and forced evictions were other contributing factors. Supportive relationships with family, friends and neighbours have long been identified as beneficial to mental health, so it is not difficult to imagine the trauma at being uprooted from your home and deposited in unsecured private accommodation — often in another area entirely — far from your support network.
The housing crisis is just one strand of a continued assault on working-class life. Across the board, they suffer lower attainment. Working-class children are less likely to go to university and, should they ascend to a white-collar profession, earn on average £6,800 less than those from more privileged backgrounds. They are also far less likely to enter the arts. There is currently a debate about the lack of diversity in publishing — People of Colour, LGTBQ communities, and the working-class are all under represented. Author Kit de Waal has been especially vocal about the dearth of working-class writers. In a recent article, she cites research by Goldsmiths estimating only 10% of authors, writers and translators had parents who worked routine or manual jobs, while just shy of half came from professional, middle-class backgrounds. Things do seem to be changing — Penguin Random House’s ‘WriteNow’ initiative is committed to diversifying the voices they print — but this presupposes there will always be a wealth of unpublished stories to choose from. This might not always be the case, and the destruction of working-class communities – of council estates and social housing – should not be underestimated.
What could this mean for the next generation of working-class writers? As long as there is a housing crisis, once-stable working-class communities will continue to be broken up; individuals subjected to the unending stress of providing safe, stable environments for themselves and their loved ones. A detrimental effect on creativity is all but assured. George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:
To write books you need not only comfort and solitude—and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home—you also need piece of mind. You can’t settle in to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.
Change ‘unemployment’ to ‘eviction’ (or add it alongside) and the sentiment remains the same. Couple this with severance from communal narratives from which to draw inspiration and strength, and there is a potentially insurmountable wall between you and creative expression. For a working-class writer wanting to communicate the experience of being alive — surely the chief purposes of literature — being able to see themselves as part of an enduring narrative — part of a community that also provides the mental breathing space to create — could be crucial to maximising the already-slim chances of their voice being heard.
I am not suggesting that without a stable community behind them a working-class person will be unable to put pen to paper — many writers have done just that and produced incredible work — but if we continue, as a nation, to sledge out the supports from beneath working-class people, if we take away their tenancies and knock down their homes and price them out of the replacements, then we may be denying them from ever picking up the threads of themselves; the chance to be stitched back into the tapestry of their own lives and history. The odds of legitimising oneself on a personal level lengthen and the door yaws open on uncertainty and precariousness, of dropping out of narrative-time entirely and into one endless present. How many potential writers are snuffed out in this way before they even begin? I was lucky. My experience of growing up in a working-class community was a positive one, and I drew on that shared history to write my own novel. But soon my upbringing may become the exception to the rule. If I had not had access to this long legacy of stories — stories like that pub disco — as well as the stability and time to practice my craft and crank out my embarrassing juvenilia, would I have written the book? Would I have even seen within myself the future possibility of becoming a writer? I don’t know.
So is there anything we can do to avert this? Well, for starters, build enough socially-rented housing with life-long tenancies so that everyone who needs a home can have one for as long as they want. Roll ‘affordable’ rent back to ‘social’ rent and safeguard the mandatory requirement of socially rented homes in each new development by doing away with the insidious culture of viability assessments. These actions alone would go some way to stabilising and destigmatising social housing, ease the daily assault on mental health, and afford the mental space to think creatively. We should make it feasible for working-class communities to return to inner-cities and knit back together their communities — their inter-generational stories and histories — that have sustained and defined them. Because these stories aren’t just indispensable to them, they’re indispensable to us all — the publishing industry included. Because who knows? There might just be a best-seller or two in it.
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown is available now from Parthian Books.