Pleased with the way this one turned out!
Pleased with the way this one turned out!
After quite a few delays, Sophie and I managed to release our first podcast documenting our research for Britain’s Got Tenants. Listen below, or go to the company website for links and references mentioned in this episode.
Last night, Sophie and I went to see Estate: a Reverie by Andrea Luka Zimmerman at Arts Admin. I would rather talk about it with people who have seen it than write about it – it is detailed and caring and meditative in a way that, to me, lends itself to conversation, or a poetic response (which I don’t feel up to writing right now) rather than the critical / analytical one which I would tend towards if I responded to it today.
However, I did note down some quotes (turns of phrase) from a post-screening talk with Andrea and Graeme Miller (for the sake of those who weren’t there, but mostly for those who were):
“a defiance of putting pictures on walls”
“different kinds of precariousness”
“elements that are very particular to jeopardy […] and that not being all bad because of its release of creativity”
“transformed by various degrees of incomers”
“the empty spaces started to become play spaces”
“like a community torn together”
“spilling of sound and lives”
“the area, which had been declared a sterile zone”
“a machine came down and tore down the house – in about three grabs it was gone”
“I can’t help but refract around the film”
“the world came and found me and bit quite hard”
“a space that was completely porous”
“intense folding moments”
“the absolute paradise of social housing”
“ferociously loyal to the idea of social housing and the practice of it”
“in your face complexity”
“that thinness – those thin walls”
“lungs of the city”
“the rather harshly anti-sceptic flats that are going up”
“I have a dual passport”
“that garden’s been a big project, but I didn’t do that as an artist”
“that divide between being, say, an artist and a citizen”
“really friendly and very open”
“a safe estate, which means that kids could come in if they were running away from gang violence”
“because I never had a home or something”
“bring a feeling of belonging to the place I am”
“making the physical place of where one lives a part of one’s work”
“I was interested in ageing criminals”
“Geoff – he hated the Krays”
“work that’s self-commissioned”
“I don’t want to memorialize it either”
“political indifference and callousness”
“I see one side of the street holding the either side of the street in place”
“that natural phenomenon of people in time”
“I don’t know if any of you know about Doreen Massey”
“also, we narrativize”
“narratives give us a sense of obsolescence”
“you’ve been replaced by another narrative”
[on Helen, a local hairdresser] “her youngest customer was in her seventies”
“sue the government for neglect”
“what is contemporary, what is serving the new capitalist machine”
“how can cinema take part in a democratic way of looking […] I don’t mean a consensual way of looking”
“I absolutely adore Doreen Massey”
“events are moving very, very quickly”
“we did loads of different things, like dreams”
“a spoken-word kind of rap film”
“what happens to the people in the film”
“I refuse it so much that all my efforts go into counter-memoirs”
The evening before our day trip, I’m having dinner with my friend Dom, who’s just moved to London, and I mention the project. “My Granddad worked in social housing in Aldershot. For the council,” he says. “Before you or me were born. So finding someone who knew him might be a long shot, but you could try if you like.”
Throughout our day in Aldershot, conversations overlap and connections emerge. Some conversations are planned, others just happen. The beginnings of a sense of place, its people and its past, start to form. At 5 pm, we present the project at the West End Centre to an audience of local housing officers, charity workers and community leaders. After the presentation, Lydia*, who works for Rutherford Council, tells us that the local authority no longer provides any social housing in the area. The housing which formerly belonged to the council has been transferred to housing associations: Dom’s Granddad’s job doesn’t exist any more, but there are others building and managing social housing – Heather, for example, who works for the local housing association First Wessex. She will introduce us to tenants’ and residents’ associations.
When we arrive at the West End Centre in the morning, Barney (our host, and the director of the centre) is busy, so we wait for him in the foyer, at a table and chairs painted by local artist Kazland.
(There’s also some crazy mural art in the Gents)
While we’re waiting, a woman in (what we later find out is) Nepalese dress comes up and starts chatting to us… in Nepalese. She apparently only knows five words of English – doctor, Nepal, sister, army, baby – which she uses liberally and, at times, interchangeably. We manage to establish that she is attending a traditional Nepalese dance and music session at the Arts Centre, that her husband is serving in the army, that she has two children back in Nepal, that Sophie and I are not married, that Sophie has no children (our acquaintance seems puzzled by this point and returns to it several times; eventually Sophie expostulates – “I’m only thirty”), that she does not speak English, and that we are all friends. Every thirty seconds or so, she lapses into peals of laughter. Barney arrives; we establish that he is not Sophie’s husband either, that we are all friends, and eventually she heads outside for a cigarette before going to her dance session.
At lunch time, I pop into the Grasshopper Delicatessen on Upper Union Street to buy some lunch.
It is clean and bright and the goods are attractively presented: Polish, British, French and German brands – rows of colourful tins and jars – neatly stacked with prices custom-printed on rectangular cards beneath them, fresh fruit and veg in baskets, a generously stocked cheese and sausage counter. If you have good sausage, the Polish will come, says Maria*, who is helping her mother who runs the shop. There aren’t many Polish people in Aldershot, “not like Hull”, but there are a few, and they are starting to come. I ask her whether she gets many Nepalese customers. Yes, they come in, they look at the spices, but they usually want to buy them in bulk. The M&S down the street is closing; she doesn’t want to compete with Lidl’s prices. But she is offering something else: the best international brands.
She reckons that as the town grows, business will pick up. “They’re going to build 20,000 new homes, and if we can get some of the overspill, we’ll do well.” That’s the plan. [I believe that, actually, planning permission has been given for just under 4,000 homes]. She gets me to taste the contents of some of the brightly-coloured jars (stews, conserves, confits). I come away with a jar of Polish veggie lentil thing, an apple, and a tin of smoked sprat, which I eat in the Westy foyer, much to Sophie’s dismay.
[can you change slightly? Sounds like I’m dismayed that you’re eating in a public place rather than eating sprat… which looked gross – Sophie]
Aldershot is a garrison town and a large number of Gurkhas are based there (the local Nepalese population has grown since veteran Gurkha soldiers and their families were allowed to settle in the UK in 2009). “There’s a problem of perception,” says Lydia*, who works for the council: there are lots of people in Aldershot who have been waiting for a home for a long time, and the perception is that “it’s the Nepalese who’ll get them”. “There are tensions,” says Alice*, who works for a mental health charity. Barney and Jennifer (who works at the “Westy”) have provided tea, cake and Celebrations. We talk with our guests from the council, from local charities and youth groups, from the Citizens Advice Bureau (the ones who came to our presentation), and we tell them more about the project, and they tell us more about Aldershot, and then it’s time to go home, and we catch a train back to London.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity
Yesterday I was in Sweets Way.
Sweets Way has been decanted. That’s what they call it when an estate is emptied of the people that live there, of the people who call it home. When Barnet council decanted Sweets Way, they weren’t going to let the decantees get in their way. “They make you feel like you are nothing” one of them told me; “they treat you like animals. Even animals, they would treat better than us,” said another. The council’s policy seems to have been to get them out as quickly as possible, with little regard or care for where they were re-housed. So the residents organized a campaign to resist: they saw their friends and neighbours lives being ruined, they felt intimidated and bullied themselves, they felt they had been taken advantage of, that nobody had explained what their rights were. Most of all, they saw that their lives had been blighted in this way in order that a property developer should be able to maximize its profits.
Of all of the above, the last sentence is the most contentious. The council would probably even admit that there were individual instances where residents were treated poorly, or where cases were mishandled (at least, individual councillors might admit this). But surely the point of the re-development scheme at Sweets Way is to build more homes, homes that Barnet sorely needs. Consider then, that there will be far fewer socially rented units on the new development (formerly known mainly as “council housing” – rents adjusted to income levels, so that people who can’t afford anywhere else have somewhere to live). None of the people who previously lived on Sweets Way will have the right or the means to return (leaseholders, for example, are issued compulsory purchase orders for their homes which are worth far less than an equivalent home on the new development will cost). Building however many dozen new homes will have no effect on stabilizing or pushing down house prices: there will never be enough new houses for supply to exceed demand, and the new build homes will be marketed to more affluent people, contributing to the gentrification of the area, and thus pushing house prices up. So it is worth considering what the housing crisis is, and whether allowing commercial developers to build more homes in this way is really helping, or simply exacerbating the situation. I will continue to unpick all of this in the work I am doing with my company (we’ll be making some podcasts over the next couple of weeks to document our work, so watch out for those).
All of the above is context; what I really wanted to talk about was my visit to Sweets Way last night and what it was like (it left me in equal measure cheered, disturbed, and apprehensive), but that will form the subject of a post later today.