Monday, January 23, 2012

Born under a bad (street) sign

My mother directed me to a local news story - the boy who lived next door but one to us has just been imprisoned for four years over his involvement in the drug-related death of a young woman. He's not a boy now of course, but that's the way I remember him. Carrying out internet searches of the street where I grew up always makes me miserable - apart from the ultra low cost of houses there (the three bedroom, two bathroom home I grew up in recently sold for £75,000), there are news stories of gang violence, attempted rape and people being set on fire. I can only feel glad that when I left for university in 1990, I vowed never to go back.

It wasn't always like that. My parents, who moved there in the early 1970s, had to pass an interview with the local council. My mother said that being allocated the brand new council house was like "winning the lottery". Next door to us was a manager at the local Fine Fayre supermarket. Across the street was a teacher. Everyone worked. There was a high proportion of young married couples with kids. All of the children played happily in the street together - old-fashioned games like hopscotch and hide and seek. It was idyllic.

Then it went wrong - the unions instigated a series of particularly nasty strikes in the 1970s, resulting in power cuts, bodies not being buried and piles of litter in the streets. The rest of the country had had enough, voted in the Tories and Margaret Thatcher took the tough approach, instigating a number of changes, some which appeared to have the intentional goal of hurting working class people, others which had unintended consequences. The poor got less attention and help - "on your bike" said Norman Tebbit - and if you had the wherewithall to do so, there were opportunities out there. But for those people who found it more difficult to help themselves, their situation worsened.

People lost their jobs, the local miners went on strike for over a year, parents started getting divorced and car crimes and house robberies started to occur (it's depressing how many crimes on council estates often involve poor people robbing other poor people). Removal vans appeared in the street with increasing regularity - the manager and the teacher quietly moved away to buy houses in nicer neighbourhoods, rather than rent in an area that was going downhill. We never saw or heard from them again. And in their place - an increasing number of "problem families" - large numbers of children - some with behavioural difficulties, and different men going in and out. It's always harder to keep relationships going when you don't have any money or any hope.

My parents suffered. My Dad, who worked as a full-time bus-driver found that his pay couldn't keep up with price increases, despite his increasing hours spent doing overtime. So we sold the car and my mother carefully budgeted every meal. His pay became so pitiful that we had to have government assistance, only coming off it when my mother also got a full-time job. The days of mothers staying at home and looking after the children were becoming a fantasy for working-class families.

And then the drug trade appeared. By the 1990s, a policeman was posted at the gates of my old school, to stop the drug dealers from getting to the children. The girl next door used to say that she could get drugs at school any time she wanted. Living on a council estate started to feel less like winning the lottery and more like a prison sentence. So it's not really surprising that my street now comes across as a dystopian nightmare in the news. Thanks Maggie.

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