One of my favourite ever bands is The The – they had a lot of hits in the 80s – and the song I like best is called Heartland. It is all about greed, money, selfishness, the destruction of the welfare state and the waging of unnecessary wars. Some things obviously never change…
Have a look:
The lyrics never fail to chill as I sit on the bus going past the luxury flats popping up at Kings Cross (on land given to a developer for NOTHING) or the flats sprouting across the road from where I work at Paddington Basin. And when I looked out of the classroom window today, all I could see were cranes, hanging in the air across West London like sinister metal skeletons.
As the song goes:
The cranes are moving on the skyline, gonna knock down, this town…
I sing it to myself all the time; it is not a new song but it shows that despite the lies people of my generation told ourselves, the 80s never ended. They just got bigger and more frightening. Partly because we were more interested in having a laugh than challenging corporate greed and complicit governments.
The song also came into my head when I got an email from my friend Adelle who I know from the telly years. Adelle lives in Streatham in South London and she and her friends have had their lives ruined by – wait for it – a developer of luxury flats called Hambridge Homes.
These flats have popped up in between Wyatt Road and Wavertree Road and are blocking out existing residents’ light. Maybe it could be excused if these flats and houses were providing homes for people in need – or key workers – but they are being marketed at over a million quid a throw.
Here’s a video the residents made to explain what is going on:
I might be old fashioned but I think that light and air and space are things we all have a right to. Even in crowded cities we should be able to look out of the window and see what is going on.
Please watch the video if you can, and sign their petition. Every little helps.
Anyway, as I said, I reactivated this blog to tell you about my book – though as I am constantly reminded by stories like the one I have just told you, the book is part of a much bigger story. Shortly after writing my last post I hacked away at the intro and simplified the first few chapters. I removed a lurid flashback to the 90s and (pardon the pun) inserted it further into the narrative of the book. This was hard for me to do as I had really enjoyed writing those scenes and their rather explicit content certainly got a few pulses racing. However, as many sensible people pointed out, they distracted from the main thrust of the narrative, which tells the story of a small estate being sold off for regeneration.
So, without further ado, here is the first chapter – as it stands at the moment.
The book is called The Flats. At the moment it stands at just under 80,000 words, though as I have said, it is very much a work in progress.
I feel weird doing this, but here goes….
This is a book about the way we live now, in a world where we are all for sale. It is a story about London, about money and power, and a story about people and their desires and how they struggle to be free. It is a story of how we are all connected – whether we like it or not. Those are the grand themes – the big ideas – but the story I am going to tell you is simple and may appear quite prosaic. All over London, people’s homes are vanishing, deleted in the name of profit. But it doesn’t have to be that way. My book tells the story of how a developer tried to get his hands on the flats. And how he failed.
By flats I mean council flats, not the ‘luxury’ flats glistening in estate agents’ windows for telephone number prices. The flats are at the bottom of my road. They were built in the 1930s during the first wave of municipal socialism that morphed into the welfare state after the war. A blue plaque marks a rent strike from the 1960s – an idea that would be quite laughable in today’s meretricious world. They are brick built, relatively low rise and cluster round a cobbled courtyard. If you can get past the security gates, you find yourself somewhere strangely quaint and tranquil – an echo of a bygone age – rather than the shouty, yob infested estates of the poverty porn that plays almost nightly on TV. People hang out on the balconies chatting and children can play safely without the risk of being mown down by a drunk driver. If it is someone’s birthday, people club together for a bouncy castle or a barbeque in the courtyard. There is a genuine sense of community. That’s one of those words people throw around so much as to make it meaningless. What does it actually mean? I have my thoughts, which I hope will soon become clear.
But painting the picture of some socialist utopia would be dishonest. Dubious characters live in the flats, like Terry the sullen mechanic, who first got nicked for fighting in 1979 and has a record sheet longer than the M1. Terry votes UKIP and batters his drunken girlfriend, who grew up in Gloucestershire but moved to London because she likes a bit of rough. I kind of do too, but not in the way she does. Poor silly Sally. She really is quite beautiful, in a tainted, broken way. I like her a lot; though I don’t like it when she turns up at my place at 3 o’clock in the afternoon wanting to booze and smoke weed on my terrace when the boys are in the house. I am worried about Sally as I think being unable to control yourself makes you very vulnerable.
Terry and Sally fight a lot, so much that Sally’s daughter has been taken away. I think social workers are a mixed blessing but I kind of see the point with those two. They drive their neighbours insane with the constant fighting and she makes a lot of women very angry by flirting with their boyfriends (and even their sons). The Kentish Town mums – big women with big arms who wear tracksuits – think Sally – all long legs, long hair and vodka breath- is a slaaaag. She is an exotic alien creature, who never seems to do anything much, unlike most of the mums who are grafters, looking after kids or old people or working in supermarkets. They like a drink …don’t we all…but they are not permanently plastered from morning til night. The Muslim women just call her ‘infidel bitch’ and think her behaviour is haram. They have big families and can’t understand how she is happy to let her only child live with her father. And she never eats! How come this woman never eats? Not like Lizzie – Lizzie eats all the time; a huge mountain of a woman who acts as the unofficial information service for not just the flats but Kentish Town in general. A big blonde brassy woman. A cartoon character – until you get to know her. But isn’t that true of all of us?
I probably come across as a bit of a cliché myself. The stereotypical middle class liberal with my worthy job in a Pupil Referral Unit and my slightly scruffy flat filled with books, cats and my slightly scruffy children. I am middle aged and in the eyes of the world totally past it, cruising my way towards menopause and eventual death. I am a woman of a certain age; I have been around the block and back again. I am part of the story but it is definitely not all about me; I am aware that I am of limited interest. My name is Rachel Evans – in case you were wondering – and my job is to guide you into the story and introduce you to my world.
I know I have a tendency to lecture – amongst many other things I am a teacher and used to holding forth – but I also have a desire to entertain. I want to make you laugh and cry and smile and shout with joy as you descend into the world I am bringing you.
But enough about me – you’ll get to know me soon enough. Rather too well, I assure you. Let’s get on with the story and get back to the flats.
I mentioned Sally in the introduction but I don’t really want to talk about her at the moment. I am keeping my distance from her as I can’t really cope with the drinking and have told her that she’s no longer allowed to booze in my house. Things came to a head just before Easter when I went to see her one morning on the way to Morrisons and saw her drinking vodka for breakfast. She had been up all night on coke and was completely off her face. I felt very sad. Sally is a beautiful woman but she looked so wrecked. I am not a religious person but I felt like the angel of death was in that room; I could see bad times ahead for her.
Instead I’ll introduce you to blonde, brassy Lizzie, who I love dearly and also find fascinating. We are weirdly connected in that a very long time ago she used to share a flat with my brother. If you put them together now you could not imagine a more unlikely friendship but they were different people fifteen years ago. Strikingly different. She had just left a career as a music PR and he was just starting out as a recruitment consultant. They had met in a club and become friends – things were like that in the 90s. I think they slept together a handful of times, but they were never a couple. Lizzie was from Essex and dreamt of marrying a rock star – Meg met Noel for goodness sakes! It could be you! Obviously, bagging a rock star was about as likely as winning the lottery – the other ultimate 90s fantasy. Lizzie still religiously bought lottery tickets, so obviously the dream still lived on in one shape or form.
Lizzie’s dreams were big but the reality of her life was very small. She never strayed far from the flats. Her job, in a community centre for the elderly, was five minutes’ walk away and once a week her boyfriend (who lived next door) drove her to Morrisons on Holloway Road. She didn’t really have enough money to do much more than watch TV, go on Facebook and gossip with other people in the flats. And eat. Lizzie ate a lot of very, very bad food. Food that was high in calories, laden with trans-fats and oozing refined sugars and additives. Food that was on special offer in Iceland or Morrisons or Lidl. Pink, blue and beige food that turned you diabetic just from looking at it. I am a snob about food and Lizzie’s food frightened me. It reminded me of the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland that made you double in size; it had certainly had that effect on Lizzie. She was enormous – multiple chins, a huge belly, thunderous thighs and vast meaty upper arms. She was not remotely ashamed of her girth and flaunted it in skin tight lycra leggings, mini -skirts and crop tops, revealing flesh like the uncooked pastry of a frozen sausage roll. I knew a lot of larger women who shrouded themselves in tent dresses – marquees of material designed to distract. But Lizzie wanted you to look. During the 90s she had starved herself – we all wanted to be Kate Moss – and no one bothered with food at the record company. Cool people lived on cocaine, black coffee and cigarettes – eating was for squares. Maybe if Lizzie had ended up married to the drummer from Suede or the keyboard player from Gene she would still be skinny? But she fell pregnant after a fling with the man who came to change the water cooler and her dreams of celebrity by proxy came to a sticky end. Food became her friend and she got bigger and bigger. It was like she wanted to swallow the slightly shallow person she had been in the past and reinvent herself as someone else. The sad fact was that only person she was hurting was herself. She was such a kind and clever person as well; I always loved going to see Lizzie.
Not surprisingly, Lizzie was the first person to hear about the plans to ‘regenerate’ the flats. She had seen the plans down at the community centre and didn’t like the look of them at all.
“This ain’t right babes,” she told me over tea and biscuits. “The council is selling this to us as the best thing since sliced bread, but I don’t trust them. It’s Sweets Way and Aylesbury Estate all over again. Why can’t they bleedin leave us alone? We ain’t doing no one no harm. This is our community.”
Lizzie looked upset. The flats were her world, her sanctuary, where she could lock herself away from the people who made her feel bad – her family, her ex-husband and the many people she owed money to. In the flats she felt safe; people loved her because she looked after their kids and fed their cats for them. If the plans went ahead and the flats were redeveloped she would be out on her ear.
“We don’t have to take this lying down Lizzie. For a start, none of this is a done deal. These are just plans. They may never happen.”
Even as I spoke these words I knew I was talking crap. The flats were prime location, a developer’s wet dream. They were architecturally attractive and designed in way that it would be very easy for a developer to cram more units into the existing space. There was also a block of garages that could be knocked down to make room for more hutches for the upwardly mobile – or more likely transformed into a brick bank for overseas investors.
“And even if the plans are real, we can fight them. Howard can help us– he may be crazy and a pervert but he’s a good lawyer. And then there are all those people I know on the council – they need our votes. Come on Lizzie, we’re not going to take this lying down.”
Lizzie looked sadder still.
“It’s all right for you babes. It’s not your home they’re threatening.” She bit aggressively into a neon pink doughnut. Tears filled her eyes. “Sorry babes, this is making me feel emotional.”
I gave her a hug. She felt soft and warm and smelt of cheap perfume. I find hugging people a bit odd – unless they are children – but it seemed to help. “Come on Lizzie, we can do this. We can. Trust me.”
I felt weirdly exhilarated. Not because I wanted Lizzie to be homeless, but because I like a fight. I find the easy option dull and the prospect of a struggle very tempting. I like to be busy; work is my therapy and activity my anti-depressant. There is a side of my nature that is melancholic, dark and introverted. Anything that keeps the darkness at bay has to be a good thing. I don’t want my children to see their mother as a sad listless creature, crying herself to sleep because she is middle aged and nobody loves her.