Tag Archives: welfare state
Titmuss on the Welfare state
In 1950 Richard Titmuss (1907-1973) took up the first Chair of Social Administration at LSE, where he remained for the rest of his career. Superficially this was a surprising appointment since he had no formal educational qualifications. But three factors explain his coming to the School. First, Titmuss was, and remained, extremely good at networking. In the 1930s, for instance, he had joined the Eugenics Society where he rubbed shoulders with prominent social scientists and academic leaders such as William Beveridge (LSE Director 1919-37) and Alexander Carr-Saunders (LSE Director 1937-57). Second, in the late 1930s, although employed by an insurance company, Titmuss was nonetheless carrying out independent, and well-regarded, research. His particular interests were in what he saw as the threat to Britain’s future population growth and structure and the state of the population’s health. Third, in the early 1940s he was commissioned to write one of the official histories of the British experience on the ‘Home Front’ during the Second World War, Problems of Social Policy. This volume, which appeared in 1950, remains an invaluable source of data about the wartime social services while also setting out what Titmuss argued must be achieved by post-war social reconstruction. For him, this should be based on the British people’s wartime social solidarity and social cohesion. [LSE history blog]
I don’t even know what to do with that biography. I’m one of those as thinks the right kind of experience in a field is generally equal to educational qualifications. But kicking it with Beveridge in the Eugenics Society? Just one of those unsurprising surprises that always seems to lurk in the closets of this empire.
So this is just going to focus on what I found interesting about what he saw and documented about the Welfare State, which is as useful in some ways as the Beveridge Report damn it. Considered a classic, these essays published in book form in 1958 contain another unsurprising surprise about just how far back current debates go. This is a collection of talks really, covering quite a lot of ground and looking at the many different aspects of poverty and working class demographics impacting on costs and policies of the welfare state. Not all them were useful to what I’m working on, but give such a good sense of how things began, which explains so much about how we have ended up where we are.
The titles give a great sense of the wealth of historical data and discussion to be found here.
Social Administration in a Changing Society
First, just a brief excerpt on this new department of the LSE, and the drive behind its founding — the expected appearance of the Fabian Webbs, the unexpected appearance of funding from Tata and the welcome transition from a moral inquiry into symptoms to a depper inquiry into causes:
This department for the study of social administration was founded at a time when fundamental moral and social issues were being debated with vigor and a new sense of purpose. It was a product of the ferment of inquiry to which the Webbs, Charles Booth and many others contributed so much. Poverty, on the one hand, and moral condemnation of the poor on the other, were being questioned. Inquiry was moving from the question ‘why are they poor?’ Professor Tawney, aware, as he has repeatedly taught us, that the most important thing about a man is what he takes for granted, was in his element when he gave his inaugural lecture as Director of the Ratan Tata Foundation… (17) it was a period when social policies were being shaped by diagnoses which took account of the presenting symptoms rather than of the causes of contemporary social ills. (18)
The Social Division of Welfare
So here we have the principal contemporary critiques of the Welfare State:
‘The Welfare State’ was ‘established’ too quickly and on too broad a scale. the consequences, it is argued, have been harmful to the economic health of the national and its ‘moral fibre’.
Ah, the old moral fibre. That’s one they keep coming back to.
Against this background, compounded of uneasiness and complacency, criticism has mainly focused on the supposedly equalitarian aims or effects of the social services. it is said that the relief of poverty or the maintenance of a national minimum as an objective of social policy should not mean the pursuit of equality…The error of welfare state policies since 1948 has been, according to this diagnosis, to confuse ends and means, and to pursue equalitarian aims with the result that the ‘burden’ of redistribution from rich to poor has been pushed too far… (35)
We can’t all be equal is another. Not that a bit of redistribution is the same thing.
Titmuss notes that the widespread nature of these criticisms have
produce[d] in the public eye something akin to a stereotype or image of an all-pervasive Welfare State for the Working Classes. Such is the tyranny of stereotypes today that this idea of a welfare society, born as a reaction against the social discrimination against the poor law may, paradoxically, widen rather than narrow class relationships. As Gerth and Mills have pointed out ‘… if the upper classes monopolize the means of communication and fill the several mass media with the idea that all those at the bottom are there because they are lazy, unintelligent, and in general inferior, then these appraisals may be taken over by the poor and used in the building of an image of their selves’. That is one danger…a second emanates form the vague but often powerful fears that calamity will follow the relaxation of discipline and the mitigation of hardship…(37)
I just…again, the more things change the more they stay the same. Turns out the upper classes did monopolize the media, did (further) propagate the idea that poverty was caused by being lazy and inferior. Our prime minister and cabinet are still spouting these things today like a stream of poisoned water out of a Flint water fountain.
What the welfare state was meant to achieve on the other hand? I rather like this, it feels a short rather conservation definition of the welfare state, yet one that takes as a starting place that the residents of the country form a whole, and that they are all part of one society:
All collectively provided services are deliberately designed to meet certain socially recognised ‘needs’; they are manifestations, first, of society’s will to survive as an organic whole and, secondly, of the expressed wish of all the people to assist the survival of some people. ‘Needs’ may therefore be thought of as ‘social’ and ‘individual’; as inter-dependent, mutually related essentials for the continued existence of the parts and the whole. No complete division between the two is conceptually possible…(39)
Pension Systems and Population Change
This is a talk about pensions and the impact of a changing population, the ‘long-term shift from an ‘abnormally’ youthful population in the nineteenth century to a more ‘normal’ age structure… (60) Are we really STILL having that same conversation? Yet at the same time it really brings home the horrors of working class life and early death before the welfare state was put in place. Also the fact that it was believed possible after the war, how much more should it be possible now?
All the adjustments involved in changing over to a different population structure can only be made with the minimum of social friction if the redistributive effects are equitably shouldered. They are as much a national affair as war or mass unemployment. It thus behooves us to take account of the total complex apparatus of social policy in relation to old age…(61)
It’s hard to believe this was written at a time when equality was growing, even if slowly…
The outlines of a dangerous social schism are clear, and they are enlarging. The direction in which the forces of social and fiscal policy are moving raises fundamental issues of justice and equality; not simply issues of justice between taxpayers as a separate class, or between contributors as a separate class, but between all citizens. Already it is possible to see two nations in old age; greater inequalities in living standards after work than in work; two contrasting social services for distinct groups based on different principles, and operating in isolation of each other as separate, autonomous, social instruments of change. (74)
Those days are long since gone, and it is steadily widening again. People still are worried about those pensions penciling out though.
War and Social Policy
Ah, another issue that remains an issue. Yet WWII moved everything in a new direction even as every war since seems to have been part of the pendulum swing back. On the Education Act 1944, Beveridge Report 1942, National Insurance, Family Allowances, National Health Service Acts:
All these measures of social policy were in part an expression of the needs of war-time strategy to fuse and unify the conditions of life of civilians and non-civilians alike. In practice, as we have seen, this involved the whole community in accepting an enlargement of obligations–an extension of social discipline–to attend to the primary needs of all citizens… as war has followed war in an ascending order of intensity, so have the dependent needs of wives and children been increasingly recognized. The more, in fact, that the waging of war has come to require a total effort by the nation the more have the dependent needs of the family been recognized and accepted as a social responsibility. (84)
‘The Position of Women’
A whole essay! On women! Amazing! Not particularly deep or insightful, why am I even excited, but it exists. Titmuss writes:
Few have been concerned with the working-class woman, and particularly with the conditions of life of the working class mother. (88)
He’s not wrong either. Shocking given the next fact:
At the beginning of this century, the expectation of life of a woman aged twenty was forty-six years. (91)
You really need to look at work done by people like Pember-Reeves and Harkness and Higgs to understand just how much hardship is contained in such statistics, but I am curious about the changes he notes here around marriage — not least because I had always assumed Victorians married younger and were more likely to marry period. Wrong.
No doubt the political and legal emancipation of women has contributed to these changes in what is expected from marriage. A more socially equal relationship was foreseen by the leaders of the Women’s Movement but what they could hardly have envisaged is the rise in the popularity of marriage since about 1911. (99)
Married life has been lengthened not only by declining mortality but by earlier marriage…In 1911 24 per cent of all girls aged twenty to twenty-four were married; by 1954 this proportion had risen to 52 percent. … There are now fewer unmarried women aged fifteen to thirty-five in the country than at any time since 1881… (101)
Industrialization and the Family
Not only does Titmuss give thought and space to the particular circumstances and hardships faced by women, but also of the family (perhaps following Engels here):
Industrialization demanded the breakdown of the mutual relationships of the extended family; paradoxically, the poor law struggle–though ineffectually–to maintain them… Authoritarian patterns of behaviour, sanctioned in the factory, were carried into the home. (110)
This is curious, were families less authoritarian really before factories? I wonder. He also tries to tackle the meaning of unemployment, citing Bakke’s Citizens Without Work on the idea ‘that a man’s job was not simply something that brought him money; it was an activity that gave him a place in the social world and in large measure gave meaning to his life‘. (113)
This of course is one of the underpinnings of Labour’s goal of full employment which in turn supports the welfare state economically.
The Hospital and Its Patients
He spends most time on the NHS here, full of facts and figures that I confess made me nod off just a little. The juicy bits were in the next section
The National Health Service in England
Like this one:
Among all the ideas of the 1930s and 1940s which led to the creation of the Health Service the one which increasingly dominated the mind of the public and the profession alike was the idea of prevention; the prevention of ill-health and incapacity. (140)
And what the hell happened to this idea of territorial justice?
‘Perhaps the most important argument in the planning approach [to the NHS] was the need for ‘territorial justice’–more equality of access to medical care services for people living in different parts of the country. In other words, a geographically comprehensive hospital service could not, it was thought, be provided under the aegis of some 2,000 separate, independent and often competing hospitals. (143)
But always fighting the everpresent argument that costs were spiraling out of control. In 1950 the BMJ’s headline went:
The National Health Service is heading for the bankruptcy court…and we are facing bankruptcy because of the Utopian Finances of the Welfare State. (2 December, 1950 — 148)
But this was from the time doctors hated everything about the NHS.
The other point of interest comes when Titmuss emphasizes the importance of practitioners spending time with patients…ah, imagine those days. How did we ever come to the 10 minute rule? Absurd. But that happened long after his time.
The Irresponsible Society
This was the most interesting piece I thought, from the point of view of today. Saved for last of course. He outlines some of the issues and guess what…they feel remarkably contemporary. Like this one Titmuss expected to be sorted in the 60s:
One of the most important tasks of socialists in the 1960s will be to re-define and restate the inherent illogicalities and contradictions in the managerial capitalist system as it is developing within the social structure of contemporary Britain. Much of the doctrine of Victorian Marxism is no longer applicable to a different set of fundamental illogicalities in a different age. (215)
In highly complex and wealthy societies like our own almost all social forces tend to encourage the growth of conformism unless checked by strong, continuing and effective movements of protest and criticism. If these do not come from socialists and if they are not stated in terms of power they will not come at all. (219)
Socialists fighting conformism! Encouraging multiple strands of criticism and protest! It’s the socialism I would have loved to see, if only that had happened!
This is just depressing:
We did not understand that government by the people could mean that power in the government, the Cabinet and the City, could lie almost permanently in the hands of those educated at Eton and other public schools. (220)
And finally, words against the solution that continues to be put forward today but its remarkably prescient on housing:
These problems will not and cannot be solved by the private insurance market, by property speculators, by forcing land values to insanely prohibitive levels, or by any criteria of profits and tax-free gains. Private enterprise is only building about 1,000 new dwellings a year in the county of London, for example, and most of them are luxury flats for the rich. Nor will they be solved by growth of the ‘social welfare firm’… (229)
If only New Labour could pay attention.
Titmuss, Richard M. ( 1976) Essays on ‘The Welfare State’ Third Edition. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Malpass on Housing and the Welfare State
Housing and the Welfare State. So this took me some time to read — housing policy is such important stuff but not exactly gripping. Took me longer to blog, as work is life crushing at the moment.
I always wonder really why I am drawn back to housing over and over again.
Still. This made me see Britain in rather a different way, not having much delved into histories of the welfare state. I am glad I read it before a number of others that all refer to it, but don’t engage in the same kind of structural analysis that I value so much. It is widely refered to, though rarely with full agreement.
So in thinking about how to define the Welfare State, Malpass finds two broad tendencies — one broad and one narrow. Narrow is encompassed by a defined set of public services, ie education, NHS, housing, personal social services and social security. The broad definition:
a specific type of society in which the state intervenes within the processes of economic reproduction and distribution to reallocate life chances between individuals and/or classes.(5)
For Malpass this state intervention does not exist in solitude, rather he quotes Esping-Anderson who writes:
we cannot grasp the welfare state without locating its activities in relation to the private sector…it is a myth to think that either markets or the state are more naturally equipped to develop welfare. Instead, markets are often politically created and form an integral part of the overall welfare-state regime. (6)
I would say that markets, at least in our times, are always politically created, what else underpins contracts, ownership, property? But I digress. Malpass describes himself as broadly in agreement with the academic literature in how it periodizes the welfare state: two main periods (pre and post 1988), but also recognising the difference between the postwar consensus and shared principles around welfare state, the mid 1970s watershed and its redefining and renegotiating of the welfare state, and then the 1980s and the work to re-engineer (and destroy) the welfare state as a whole.
Malpass also describes agreement around three distinct welfare state ‘settlements’:
political-economic: compromise between capitalism (private ownership & free markets) and socialism (state ownership & centrally planned economies). Commitment to a managed capitalist economy with central goal full employment, together with a series of universal services, free at the point of consumption, funded from taxes and insurance contributions. (9) (this has of course been renegotiated to a smaller role for the state in both managing the economy and delivering services. The cost of the 1980s renegotiations? Accepting labour insecurity and markets. The emphasis now is on ‘preparing/disciplining the work force‘ and a ‘redistribution of risk and responsibility from the state to the individual.’ (10)
social: which is centered around the push for full employment — though of course this would be full white male employment and he describes the ‘gendered, patriarchal and racialized nature of the postwar British welfare state.‘ (9-10) where the ‘Universalism of the welfare state was, in fact, deeply circumscribed’. (10) So even in the good old days, it wasn’t good for over half of us. Now? Changing patterns in households, much more diverse, more two-earner households, and no-earner. More pensioners. Old assumptions of white male breadwinners no longer work, but nothing has replaced it really. And of course the welfare state required full (male) employment, without it, things become very expensive. I’m not sure where that leaves us.
organizational: an early consensus on the way that these services should be delivered — large, public sector organizations in which professional and bureaucratic modes of coordination predominated. (10) Arguably, things could improve a lot. Now? Local authorities as ‘strategic enablers rather than service providers, relying on a range of private, voluntary and community organizations for service delivery. These are typically required to compete in provider markets or quasi-markets for the right to provide services.‘ (11)
And so we come to Malpass’s main argument about housing, noting how it has been seen as the wobbly pillar of the Welfare State. He writes, following Harloe (1995), that housing was always the
least decommodified and the most market-determined of the conventionally accepted constituents of such states.
Continuing the argument he quotes Cole and Furley (1994) on housing as ‘a stillborn social service lodged within a capitalist dynamic of property relations’. Housing is a commodity, and was seen even through the post war consensus as a commodity. Thus for Malpass, the turning point in the history of housing is not the end or transformation of any postwar settlement, but rather the ‘economic convulsions‘ of the post war boom and collapse of Keynesian policies in 1975. This book challenges
…accepted ways of looking at housing…arguing that housing policy in the postwar period is not best understood in terms of the welfare state. In relation to the more recent past and the present period, instead of seeing housing as being ‘amputated’ from the welfare state, it will be argued that it provides a model for the new, more limited, conditional and market-reliant form of the welfare state, increasingly delivered by non-municipal organizations. In this sense the modern housing system is more clearly delineated in terms of a large, private market serving the majority, and a slimmed down social rented sector, more focused on the least well off than at any previous point in time. … in relation to housing the postwar welfare state was a kind of rhetorical or ideological overlay on market driven processes that were already under way…(24)
Thus, while housing was something we did fight for and that we did win, when provided it was always for the better-off working classes until the 1970s. Only then did it become ‘residualised’. Where it had once started out being for the better off, it is now for the worse off, and brings with it all the stigma and social exclusion that such an obvious connection between tenure and the many dimensions of poverty can bring.
What I didn’t know (but have since read over and over again) — class was always explicit in housing policy’s foundations. Malpass acknowledges the difficulties in defining the term class, but notes that it is:
unavoidable in this context, if only because it was formally built into housing policy until the Housing Act, 1949. Until that time local authorities were technically restricted to providing housing for members of the working class… (27)
Yet even then, it was for workers, and the better paid ones. I think the key point is that the housing market alone has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, so that the state successfully argued it had been forced to step in, yet this never
led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistence of the market as the main mechanism for delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)
While there have been step changes to manage the housing market, there had been no challenge to hegemony. He argues that it is significant that large scale provision of housing came only after the crisis in the housing market affected a large proportion of the working class. In this, housing policy has always worked to support the market, not challenge or replace it. For much of the twentieth century, this meant slum clearance, and building subsidized housing. For the latter end of the century, it moved to helping better off working class into their own homes, the least well-off into social housing.
Thus from 1915-1975 (when he argues the true change in housing policy came) he follows Ginsburg (1999: 226-35) in arguing that British housing policy followed a ‘liberal collectivist’ framework:
- rent control/regulation for PR housing w/out significant fiscal incentives or cash support for landlords or tenants
- nationally regulated and subsidized provision of local authority rented housing for the ‘respectable’ working class
- programmes of Victorian slum clearance with replacement council housing for poor people
- fiscal and general government support for owner occupiers (19)
From 1979 to 1989 under the Conservative government, consistent emphasis on
- the promotion of owner occupation
- the deregulation of private renting
- acceleration of the trend away from general housing subsidy towards means-tested assistance with housing costs
- the cultivation of the idea that local authority housing was a failed solution and that it had become part of the problem to be solved. (21)
By the 1990s, BEFORE Blair comes along in 1997, a new paradigm for housing established
- As opposed to subsidy, housing now characterized by taxation
- Always before it was the private sector subject to restructuring, now it is the public, social rented sector
- issue of demand on public agenda once more, yet unlike earlier period, resources for public housing continue to be cut despite projected massive increases in demand and assumption, relying on private market to produce housing and fund social housing through use of planning policies. Second problem is that now viewed that demand overall is needed to build in large numbers, but some areas demand is a real problem. (21)
Blair just followed along this trajectory.
In summary, from the conclusion to the introduction:
The housing market has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, yet this has never ‘led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistance of the market as the main mechanism fir delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)
Step changes might have been made to manage the market, but no challenge to hegemony.
The rest of the book brings greater depth this argument through the many years of post-war housing policy, the shifting negotiations and increasing privatisation. I have so little time to blog, not sure I will have time to catch up with it. Hopefully I will have time to come back to it after reading a little more widely. I confess though, it’s the historical stuff that I love the most…
Malpass, Peter (2005) Housing and the Welfare State: The Development of Housing Policy in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film
I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.
And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.
They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.
And this is what he wrote.
“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.
Cathy Come Home
I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.
Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.
I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:
gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.
I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.
Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.
I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.
A newly growing majority once again.
It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.
Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.
The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.
For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.
And thus begins the great descent.
First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.
One bedroom, no married life…
You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…
Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.
Still, I liked seeing this life now gone. Hope still lived here with them.
It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.
This film is full of amazing views of the old two-up-two-downs. The landlady is kindly, forgives the arrears. But death takes her, and the nephew demands the money.
The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?
Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.
Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.
Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)
You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.
Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.
Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.
With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.
Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.
Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:
people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…
And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.
Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice
Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…
This place is full of even more women and children.
What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.
So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.
I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.
I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.
In the Ditch — a little more on the subject of estates
The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)
The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing. Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.
Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty. (17)
I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:
There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)
Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.
The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.
God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.
Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.
While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.
You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.
We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reverie has some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.
It doesn’t seem impossible.