I cannot describe a 1950s council estate without slipping into a catatonic stupor, my forehead resting on my notebook, all energy drained, and my anger rising at the utter pointlessness of these places competing with the utter pointlessness of having to write about them; worse still, spend time at one.
In 1970, the place was a shambles. The unimaginative, mass-produced yellow brick walls and dull, pitted red roof tiles. The cold Crittal windows. The straightness of every house design, with every architectural corner cut, the empty gardens of reasonable proportion but no character. Every viewpoint an encouragement to step back indoors. The reliance on deathly grey concrete for every underwhelming embellishment, from walls and paving slabs to kerb-sides, coal bunkers and lamp-posts. The surrounding fields that sprouted a hundred thousand sickly green cabbages. And the emptiness of ambition among its tenants, frugal post-war survivors whose endearment with this sprawling nursery for the next lumpen generation one can only assume comes from being elevated from six years of death and dereliction courtesy of the Luftwaffe – like giving a thin, damp blanket to a man who sleeps under newspaper.
My assignment is to live here for six weeks, among its lifers, and write a dissertation on ‘social housing and its contribution to, or destabilization of, post-war prosperity’. This wasn’t why I became an architectural student. I am a follower of Scott and Paxton, Hardwick and Lutyens, not Councillor Thomas Fucking Harris and his disingenuous and wasteful ‘Gardens for Growth’ politics. I do not want to design housing estates and public transport termini, shopping malls, civic centres or polytechnics. I want to design the places where these people cannot go. Nevertheless, my tutor has assured me that, as a model student with prospects, and provided I ‘keep my caustic tongue in alkali repose’, my report will likely form part of a bigger report that will be submitted to a select committee in no lesser a hallowed place than parliament.
I knocked at the door of 2 Ronfearn Avenue, named with misplaced romanticism after Ron Fearn, an English cricketer who lived in a nice house just outside Chislehurst. I can imagine the cursory naming process as christenings were slung around a slow council office while Harris scribbled them down on his grey plan. Soon after the estate was built, Fearn was tragically decapitated when he stuck his head out of a train window somewhere between St. Mary Cray and Bromley South. I strongly suspect suicide on hearing the news of his dubious honour.
I had been told to immerse myself in their lives. Do what they do, eat what they eat, go where they go. Fat chance. I’d written most of my notes on the train coming here. I was going to get my pictures, and leave as soon as the host had signed my last week’s accommodation paper to prove I had served my time. The door opened and the woman of the house greeted me.
‘You must be Edward.’ She was pretty in a worn-out way, and had a hint of an Italian accent. Great. Foreigners.
Positioned up the stairs were seven children, at various elevations so as to look like some scruffy gymnastics display team with Marmite make-up. The whole fucking family had turned out to greet me.
‘I won’t intrude,’ I said. If you could show me to my room, I will unpack and then I would like to spend the rest of the day walking the estate before it gets dark and no doubt dangerous.’
She expelled a small laugh, and tilted her head, I guessed out of sudden respect for my forthrightness. I was in control and that’s how it was going to stay.
‘Of course,’ she agreed. ‘But first come and meet my dangerous animals before I unleash them on the night. My children.’
I was shown through to the pokey dining room and kitchen. It smelled of dinner and washing, but I wasn’t sure which was which. The gaggle followed me through and took up their positions around the table. ‘Welcome Edward. Say hello everyone.’
‘Please sit down,’ said the woman. ‘Tea?’
‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘I notice that you only have three bedrooms here.’
‘Plus sofas and the bottom drawer of our chest of drawers’, she replied, ‘I have another on the way. We don’t close the drawer when there’s a baby in it, just in case you were wondering.’
‘Jesus. Really? Another one? Doesn’t your husband realise that National Productivity Week is not a lifelong commitment?’
She held the teapot in her hand and stared at me. ‘Please don’t blaspheme.’
I looked around the room, as she poured tea. There was nothing to savour and I felt depressed. Peeling paint, worn wallpaper, worn linoleum, a sink full of washing up, and a redundant ironing board.
‘What do you think of our home, Edward?’
I needed to re-establish my authority. At twenty-three, I was not about to be treated like a child. ‘A lick of paint and it could be a regular shit-hole,’ I said.
She slapped me. She actually slapped my face in front of all those children.
Her Italian accent seemed to grow thicker. ‘We do not swear in this house and you will treat my home with respect, along with everyone in it.’
‘I can’t stay here,’ I said. ‘I… I knew I wouldn’t be able to.’
She grabbed my shoulders and physically sat me back down in my chair. ‘I insist you do,’ she replied. ‘If you leave now and write your report, I fear for the future of the welfare state.’ She placed a cup of tea and a bowl of sugar in front of me. ‘Tea.’
Great. Foreign catholics with a political conscience.
She disappeared out of the back door with a coal scuttle. ‘Your face has gone more red,’ observed one of the brood.
‘Bloody hell!’ I said to the children. ‘Bloody, buggering hell!’
One of them, a little girl called Antonietta who’d never been taught to sit still at the table, jumped down and ran to the back door. ‘Mum! Edward said bloody and bugger and hell!’ she hollered, her cupped hands a tiny megaphone framed with bangs. I received a light cuffing across the back of the head as Maria headed past me to put two milk bottles on the front doorstep.
‘This is going in my report,’ I flustered.
‘I hope so Mr Khune,’ said Maria brightly as she headed past me back to the kitchen. ‘I wouldn’t want the future of architecture to believe that these places lack spirit e felicitá.’
The cleanest room in the house was my bedroom. There were fresh flowers and clean linen, an uncomfortable single bed and a light-oak chest of drawers that had been moved from the parents’ room, emptied and placed at my disposal. I was surprised to see two other pieces of quite outstanding furniture in my room: a Danish 1960s rosewood chair with khaki cord, which I immediately recognised as a Moller. The other piece, a small rosewood sideboard, I could not place but guessed from its design and quality of construction as also Danish, circa 1965. I doubt they knew either their provenance or value, and both looked incongruous, less so now that I was in the room. Elsewhere in the house furniture and other contents were more akin to their rightful place – patterned velour, crude heavy oak, Edwardian inheritances given as austere wedding gifts, labour-saving devices bought from the side stalls of the Ideal Home Exhibition – soap savers and Autochops – and too many home-made projects.
I met the man of the house, Peter, three days after my arrival. He had been to the Isle of Wight on minor business of some sort. When he returned home, the children leapt upon him in the hallway like a well-coordinated attack by a tousle-haired, many-limbed creature. Their shrieking and giggling subsided as Maria pulled them from him, and then took her own place in her private melee, wrapping herself around him like a queen insect, having had him anaesthetised by her soldiers. He did not resist. God, no wonder the woman was permanently pregnant.
One evening Peter invited me to join him for a beer in the Red Lion public house. I had nothing in common with the man but I thought I might get a further insight into the lives of others. We sat at a small table at the back of the pub. He was a tall man, very quiet but seemingly confident and contented. He wore good clothes, including a tweed jacket, checked shirt, and well-polished brogues.
‘Are you enjoying your time on the estate?’ he asked.
‘I hate it,’ I replied.
He turned his beer glass thoughtfully for a moment, then moved it to one side, leaned back slightly and lit up a Park Drive. He slid a foot out from under the table and blew a stream of blue smoke into the room.
I nodded towards his shoes. ‘Church’s’, I confirmed.
‘Never heard of them.’
He continued. ‘I’d like to thank you.’ He saw that I recoiled slightly at the horrid thought of being accepted. ‘Don’t worry, I don’t mean you personally.’ He flicked his ash. ‘I’m referring to the upper middles in general. Where would we be without you? You fought for the rights of women to vote while we languished ignorantly, gave our children foundling hospitals as we deserted them, reformed our penal system as we were hanged for minor indiscretions. You addressed urban poverty and the deprivation of the labouring poor, and the lifted the miasma from our squalid lives. Behind our emancipation were the well-meaning privileged. I could go on.’
Great. A generous socialist.
‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ I interrupted.
‘I find your sermon irritating. You are suggesting that my life will be one of service to those who will not serve themselves. That won’t be the case.’
‘But it will, young man, unless you plan to design a folly and live in it alone. All of the upper middle professions end up serving the less fortunate. Doctors, surgeons, lawyers, architects… you all spend your professional hours cheek by jowl with the likes of us. If you want to serve the better off, you had better think about dropping a class and becoming a tailor, shoe-maker or carpenter.’
He pushed his pint to one side and leaned forward. His blue eyes stared straight into mine.
‘I would also like to ask you not to report what you believe but what you find, or I’ll be honest Mr Khune, we’re all fucked. And as you and others like you destroy the social housing ideal by raining stigma down upon it that will become a new miasma in which we will suffocate, rest assured as estates like this die, we will be forced to live among you. Now there’s a frightening thought, surely?’ He sat back again.
What utter bollocks, I thought. He took a sip of his beer.
‘Spare me another polemic,’ I said, ‘but why did you choose to live on this estate?’
‘The houses are well built, the plots are large, there is very little traffic, and raspberries grow wild in the garden. And the rent is six pounds a week.’
There’s the nub, I thought. ‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘And it’s a Christiansen,’ he added.
‘The chair. It’s a Christiansen, not a Moller.’
‘How do you…’
‘I’ve read your notes.’
‘You’ve done what?’
‘And I made the sideboard. It was my apprentice piece after three years at the London College of Furniture.’
The heat welled up in me. I was furious. I rose from my chair and left the pub. ‘It’s a fucking Moller!’ I shouted back from the door.
I barely spoke to the Shepards again, although they continued to try and engage with me, and the children taunted me by leaving small gifts in my room: copies of Miles Davis’ A Kind Of Blue and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come accompanied by a small note in a child’s hand which read ‘which one is best?’, stamp albums, a penknife, and other tokens of apology.
I endured my six weeks and when I wasn’t isolated in my garret, where I also chose to eat, I sought out other tenants, declining suggestions made by my host family of ‘interesting’ people to whom I should speak (in the form of another note, this time from Maria, left on the sideboard): Mr Jones who had walked the length of Burma during the Second World War to escape the Japanese; Mrs Tucker the piano teacher; Mr and Mrs Parker-Moore, the humanist lay preachers; Mrs Baker, the self-appointed midwife of the estate, who was married to a man who had proudly never done a day’s work in his entire life but had a vicarious career in the doorstep health sector courtesy of his wife.
I made my own enquiries into a dozen or so ‘interesting’ families that seemed not to be keeping up appearances as I walked briskly around this estate of 500 or so houses. I am pleased to say that I found many examples of council house life that provided convincing evidence that these places were hothouses of sluggishness, disability, ignorance and unemployment. I witnessed monosyllabic resentment and a vacuum of aspiration, peppered liberally with the Anglo-Saxon when I pressed them for their opinions on the world in which they were sentenced to live. I was right. The people I spoke to thought it was a shit-hole too.
I decided that the family I had stayed with were an abomination, and they depressed me more than the architecture could ever have done. Let me be a little kinder and call them a dangerous exception, and not representative of the types that usually infest these places, as I saw it.
My report would have read as such but I felt it only right, on the basis of the norm rather than the exception, to leave my host family out of the final dissertation completely and focus on the people who really live in these god-forsaken places.