Housing Benefit Hill: Still life behind drawn curtains

The Guardian Weekend September 11 1993

CJ Stone as he appeared in 1993
CJ Stone as he appeared in 1993

ON A SUMMER'S evening this place has the air of a holiday camp. Something about these squat, long blocks, windows blazing, TVs blaring through open windows. Someone is walking the dog, nursing the glowing remnants of his last cigarette in a cupped hand.

Not so bad really. Poverty's not as gruelling in the summer.

That's what I'm doing too. Taking the dog for a walk. Looking at the stars. Enjoying my cigarette like an evening companion in the balmy, soft air.

Of course it's not a holiday camp. There's no pulsating centre of light and life. No bars and restaurants. No entertainments of any description. Just the squat, long blocks full of too many people.

Holiday camps pack the people in, one on top of another, for two-week stretches. Here it can last a lifetime. I pause outside Claire's briefly. She's in there, I can hear the TV. Claire's got four kids crammed into that shoebox of hers. Anthony, the eldest, mousy-haired and even-tempered. Marty, ginger, freckled, mischievous and occasionally sullen. (These two often walk my dog for me.) The other two are blonde, sharing the same father.

Claire is 26 years old. I used to pop round there a lot, after the kids had gone to school. We'd sit there, Claire and me, and smoke a succession of cigarettes while the TV wittered in the corner. The smoke would hang in the air like a fog, as soft sunlight filtered through the ever closed curtains. It didn't matter what time of the day or night it was, those curtains were always closed.

This was just after me and my ex had split up. Claire's had done a runner too: with a 16 year old. We were consoling each other, a bit of mutual support.

I like Claire. She's determined and strong. And unlike a number of the parents round here (including me), I've never heard her shouting at the kids. She's thin to the point of anorexia, with a face marked by the strain of constant struggle. No matter how low she gets, she never shows it outwardly. The older kids were aware of her unhappiness. There's a real pride there, an old-fashioned working-class dignity rarely found nowadays.

Sometimes I wonder how she manages to live in those conditions. Her place is spotlessly clean, but lacking decent furniture. The carpet is a thin, nondescript rag. The wallpaper, painted woodchip, is ripped off in patches to show the plaster. The woodwork is chipped and cracked and the walls are full of holes. No pictures, decorations or ornaments anywhere. Just the TV in the corner.

What a life! Kids, fags and telly. It's a wonder that Claire stays sane. But she does.

Her ex (or ex-ex now, since they're back together again) is 21, seven years her junior. He moved in with her when he was 16. They'd been seeing each other for a couple of years before that. People grow up fast on Housing Benefit Hill. At 16 years old he was already a family man.

Stewart was born here. His parents live a couple of blocks down. His brother lives right next door. Claire was married to Stewart's brother's girlfriend's brother (I can't put it any other way) before succumbing to the temptation of a schoolboy enthusiasm. He ex-husband's parents also live a couple of blocks down. That's the way it is round here, complex knots of interlinked relationships, like a huge net. You have to do something to relieve the boredom. And then, maybe that net encircles Housing benefit Hill like a trap. Once you're in here there's an air of permanence about it, like a life-sentence.

Of course, Claire's in-laws weren't too keen on her for a while, leaving their son for someone barely out of short trousers. If I was to say they'd cursed her, you'd have to take this literally. Both of them are practising witches. Personally I think that Claire bore the psychic battering with heroic fortitude. Her ex mother-in-law is a formidable woman.

A single woman on the estate awakens forgotten instincts amongst the men. There had been a prowler about. On more than one occasion Claire had heard the letterbox rattle, and imagined a pair of hungry eyes peering through. As a consequence Stewart's mother, Sally, was spending her nights around there. They were fortifying themselves with precise doses of amphetamine sulphate (only enough to keep them awake, no more) and talking till dawn.

Sall is a friend of mine. She too is a very powerful woman. Perhaps there is something about the conditions of life up here that fashions strong women. Or a residual vestige of an earlier, matriarchal culture. Whatever the case, the men are definitely the weaker partners.

I've known Sall for eight years now. What is certainly true is that for a forty something grandmother and mother-of-three (her eldest son is in his late 20s), she maintains a remarkable youthfulness. You'd think she was 35. It's this same eldest son who supplies her with the amphetamine sulphate.

She reads constantly, when she's not working or keeping the wolves at bay round Claire's. Novels mainly, but also all of the local papers, including the free ones. These she drains (she has a thirst for words), every last drop: births, marriages, deaths, the small ads, the property pages, even the notices for planning permission. And the truly remarkable thing is, she remembers it all. She can tell you who had planning permission for what building and when, going back years.

I COULD indulge in a little polemic at this point, but I won't. I'll just say that it is a graphic illustration of the continuing class system in this country to point out that Sall works behind the counter in a chip shop.

Maybe we're lucky up here on Housing Benefit Hill. This is a medium-sized country town and our little estate is right at the edge. My back window looks out on a ploughed field bordered by hedgerows. Small compensation for poverty and the long, slow drag up the hill with bags of shopping and the kids in tow: but a significant factor nonetheless. Perhaps it is this that stops us from going mad.

But I often wonder at life in an inner city development. Same conditions. Same poverty. Same sense of living on the edge. But surrounded by the roar and stench of traffic, the crime, the inescapable heat in the summer. (At least here a cool wind blows from the sea.) I think that there's no question why Britain regularly breaks into riot, and why the city housing estates are where the nation's nerves come to the boil.

Well Claire is sorted, as they say. She has her young lover back. In the end, maybe, Stewart was too decent a bloke to leave her to bring up the kids on her own. Or perhaps it was pressure from the formidable Sall. Whatever: his brief time on the town was just a little infatuation, something he never had a chance to do when he was 16, and it's over now. Claire's a lot happier for it. I'm happy for her too.

Original illustration by Steven Appleby
Original illustration by Steven Appleby

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