An Urban Fairytale Under Threat

In the late 60s, a baby boy was born to a Nigerian woman living in a Hackney council flat. It was her fourth child, her third son; and her husband left soon after for another London woman. With her father’s help, she and the children eventually flew back to Lagos.

Her little boy played on the streets, bonding with cousins and the neighbours’ children, while she went to work and the older children to school, to which he eventually followed. Lagos was mainly decent back then, the beach still clean, and they were an aspirational, well-connected family. The boy, who could sing in tune, joined the church choir with his brother. Then, aged 13, he fell seriously ill. He recovered, but his hearing was gone. He was completely deaf.

His schooling finished, for three years he kicked a ball about the streets and bits of waste land, weekdays and weekends in the company of ever younger and rougher children. By the age of 15, he had forgotten most of what he had once learned. His speech had virtually disappeared, his reading ability contracted. He could follow only the most basic written English, no Yoruba at all.

But he was biddable, on the occasions anyone took trouble with him; good-natured, with a ready smile. His family came up with a solution; he learned carpentry, helped out in Lagos workshops for a year or three, then packed up his modest toolbox to join his elder brother in London. He still had a British passport, and they’d have facilities there, his mother reasoned, social workers and so on. When it came to a young man’s ability to focus on the important things in life, with the grace of God, deaf-mutism just might be an advantage. It was the early 1980s, and he was not yet 20.

*

I always wanted to make a fairy story come true; to be, if not a fairy princess, then a fairy godmother, a little condescending though that seems to me now. By 2004, I had waited long enough.

He had his own business by then, been a sole trader turned limited company via a spell at Furniture college, with a rented workshop in a rapidly gentrifying part of southern Hackney. He’d moved from a hostel, to a condemned council flat, into a newly-built one, on the ground floor of a smart low-rise, with a neat patch of garden out the back. He was slow off the mark for Right To Buy, he was aware, but his business turnover was too irregular to commit to a monthly mortgage, and Hackney workshop rents increasingly punitive. But he kept an old estate car on the road to transport his handmade tables, wardrobes and chests into the attractive homes of liberally-minded, white-middle-class clientele. He fitted them, quietly and competently, attracting a certain amount of housewifely flirtation as he worked, of which he rarely took advantage.

Most importantly of all, two decades of total silence had been broken by the insertion of a cochlear implant, courtesy of the unbelievable NHS. It had been the best 30th birthday present ever. Against all odds, he could hear again.

It’s not perfect. He still needs to lip-read, and group conversations in noisy settings, like pubs, is still out of the question, or any group conversations at all, really, are still way beyond him. But he can follow some radio and TV programmes, without subtitles. Best of all, he can hear music again.

He traded in his weekly martial arts in for social dancing. He took up salsa and tango, and became a regular at city clubs. Gentle and unthreatening, he was quickly popular with mainly-white ladies, especially the larger or more mature ones. He was looking for love, of course, like most of us there were. But like all of us, he also loved music and dance, and he had talent, rhythm, and good manners. He didn’t grope. He didn’t show off. He was simply, quietly competent.

I invited him to move in with me. He bought his flat off the council at last, smartened it up, and let it to cover the mortgage. And then I got pregnant.

His workshop rent, meanwhile, kept rising. With my consent, he went site hunting across south London. Eventually, he found the ideal unit, high ceilinged, just south of the river. We entered into a bidding war and finally acquired it for a sum which seemed a lot to me, but he was adamant it was the space for him. I got my well-off siblings to buy my share out of our parents’ old family home, and made his down payment. There was enough left over to build a mezzanine floor with office and install shelving and equipment. He had his dream workshop. We had another mortgage, and soon, a gorgeous baby boy.

That boy is now seven, still gorgeous; bright and talented. His dad observes his privileges with a mixture of pride and envy, for already, the boy’s state-primary education outstrips much of his own. A proper middle-class kid, he takes violin, piano, and swimming lessons. It’s not fair, his father thinks ruefully, even as he tries to keep pace with all three.

Business, in the meantime, has weathered the recession. An impressive woodwork portfolio has accumulated from over 30 years in the trade. He has employees, a pool of loyal customers and a solid reputation. Our combined ages are 100-plus now, and neither he nor I have a pension, but our massive personal investment, in that workshop, in his business, will, we hope, pay us off.

*

But now it’s under threat. Developers are circling over what are probably the last small-industry sites in inner London. They are offering silly sums – less that we paid for the freehold nearly ten years ago – to buy up that dream site, and all the other sites on the estate, waving the threat of the council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders at us all. The piddling sums they are offering would make resettling anywhere, really, but especially inside the M25, out of the question, and effectively close us all down.

We all know there are vast amounts of money to be made from land and property speculation in inner London. It’s mad and it’s wrong when tiny, pokey flats and garages in places like Earls Court sell for half a million. But, given that they do – who, legally, morally and actually, should be drawing that profit? The modest local people who invested, fortuitously or otherwise, in the places before the madness took hold – or the developers, swooping in now to exploit as best they can what they hope is local fear and ignorance?

We and other businesses and residents don’t actually want the cash, not yet. We want to be able to carry on doing what we do, where we do it. If we cannot keep our spaces, then we want access to others, not too far away. In our case, we know the developers have new work spaces planned. We should be top of the list to receive one; to exchange one prime-inner-London-freehold site for another. Why ever not?

Versions of this story are happening all over town, it’s happening to local residents and small businesses, like ours. Each victim has a story behind them, as we do. Someone needs to make a big stink about it. This is my small contribution.

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White middle-class cheater, moi?!

Here, a private-school mother accuses middle-class parents who use state schools of taking the high moral ground while making damned sure that Their kids won’t end up as “cleaners or lorry-drivers” – which is all, after all, that private school parents (henceforth PSPs) like her want to ensure. She should be congratulated, perhaps, on lashing out in public, in The Guardian no less, at what probably bothers most PSPs most, at least the thinking ones, the ones with some kind of social conscience (not the Russian oligarchs of course): that non-PSPs, that is (middle-class) state school parents, will persist in claiming the moral high ground. When really, we are doing f***-all for equality, or social mobility, since Our (middle-class) children will succeed anyway. Whatever school we sent them to. So (she doesn’t say, but I’m extrapolating) the really socially committed thing to do would be to become a PSP, like she is. Pay a private institution. Given that we can. Either that, or encourage our (middle-class) children to opt out of university and be cleaners and lorry drivers instead. I think.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that most so-called middle-class people couldn’t even afford today’s private school fees, what these PSPs are really doing is assuaging their twinges of guilt. Not all suffer them of course (viz. Russian oligarchs again) but enough do to make this point of view not hard to unearth.

But there’s an angle to this account which I think other commentators have missed. This PSP, Claire Hynes, is black; so is her child, presumably. I know nothing about her cultural background; she may well have been born and raised in this country. But either way, there are many PSPs for whom succumbing to the British or any state school system would be the height of personal indignity. The quality, Ofsted reports, even the actual school intake are all beside the point. Decent families simply do not do it.

Plus, you only have to read a book like I am Malala to understand the essential role that small private schools play in remote parts of remote countries. Without them many more children would not reach school at all.

It may be different here, but I am fairly sure that for many first or even second generation immigrants from around the world the British private/state education divide is easily transferable from back home, partly because of the old colonial inheritance. Of course you pay for your children’s education if you possibly can, just like any British gentleman. The difference in quality is more than worth it.

And black parents have other considerations too. Labour politician Diane Abbott famously defended her decision to send her son to a private London day school with the argument “Hackney schools are letting down black boys.” A statement, incidentally, manifestly disproven by the many Ofsted-outstanding Hackney state schools’ results; no thanks to Abbott, the sitting MP. The argument that black children need to grasp all the privileges coming their way with both hands in order to stand any chance of a decent future is I expect common currency in black middle-class families; perhaps that’s why they continue to re-elect her there. A social conscience, they might well argue, is a luxury only whites can afford.

All of which overlooks one thing, however, highlighted by the initiator of this Mumsnet thread. Education is not just about what you learn and who you network with along the way. It’s also about who you learn to think you are.

Not a subject area, probably, which troubles much the offspring of the thoroughly established PSPs. But finding yourself, from a very early age, one of very few non-whites, in a place which takes wealth and whiteness pretty much for granted, I don’t think would help the rest of our kids with it greatly.

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Tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum . . On The Archers’ “feminism”

Any other Archers’ listeners out there? Anyone else supremely irritated with the Helen-turning-into-Stepford-wife scenario? Anyone else tempted to scream at the radio (or ipad): no full-time carer of a three-year-old is ready to drop everything to pander to needs of hubby (or fiancé, in this case) at a moment’s notice, at any time, except, if they’re lucky, after 9pm?

Where was that three-year-old, as Helen was preparing trout to order at 30 minutes notice last night? Why was he not tired, fractious, somewhere in the background, resisting his bath and demanding attention? (Did he also get trout for dinner?) Why was the place suddenly even more spotless than usual, how did Helen find time to tidy and polish the dresser, at last, before hubby (in this case fiancé) got home? What house with a three year old in it, especially one no longer at nursery, is ever spotless and tidy? Why does the scriptwriter think Helen suddenly and easily has time to do all these things JUST BECAUSE SHE IS NO LONGER AT WORK?

It’s that old dichotomy: paid work is real work, unpaid work is, well, not really work, just a sort of optional hobby. Even if it’s old-fashioned housework. Even if it’s childcare involving pre-schoolers. Who actually does that nowadays, I hear the scriptwriters chorus, apart from our poor, duped Helen?

No prizes for guessing where this storyline is going. There’s Helen, victim of an untold number of past traumas, a supremely vulnerable single mother. There’s Rob, the improbable man of her dreams, who clearly has a few nasty skeletons Helen is resolutely refusing to see. There’s Helen’s “feminist” mum Pat, railing to her own long-suffering hubby about Rob’s sinister influence on their daughter, inducing her to give up work to focus solely, nominally, on her child, but actually (see above) on him. Cue for a drawn out exposition of an encroachingly manipulative, increasingly abusive relationship, probably non-violent, but which may reach a violent climax. Pat will be vindicated, Helen, probably, catapulted into another bout of depression/anorexia. Rob will disappear in disgrace. As for Henry, the three-year-old? He’ll disappear too, conveniently, for a while, as Archers children always do whenever heavy-handed plots require it of them.

Or so I’m guessing. But to be honest, I’m so pissed off with this part of the equation I don’t really care. It’s so old-fashioned, so limited, to see Paid Work as the feminist holy grail, and the principle demand on a modern-thinking mother’s time and energy. In fact, many middle-class mothers view the office as a place they go to recoup from the chaos and drudgery of home life, drudgery they can afford to outsource. At the office, at least, they have some choice, or at least set routine, about when to go for a wee, or a sandwich. At the office, they share responsibility for the enterprise’s outcome with a whole team of capable colleagues. At the office, they enjoy some basic human rights.

And as for Pat’s feminism – well-meaning as she clearly is, no feminism is ever really going to cut through traditional Daily-Mail prejudice while it fails to acknowledge the vast amounts of unpaid work most of us do. No feminism can afford to neglect the fact that in many many cases, the hardest workers of all in our and many other societies are not the “career-women”, but those, overwhelmingly female, who are grafting round the clock without ever ‘earning’ an actual penny, just keeping their households and families on track (benefit scroungers, anyone?). This storyline just brushes all that under the carpet again – most infuriatingly, in the name of feminism itself. If I didn’t trust Radio 4 a little better, I’d suspect it was a Daily-Mail inspired set-up, using “feminist” Pat to remind us, cleverly, how out of touch with real women’s lives “feminism” is and always was. Instead of which, I’m giving The Archers’ scriptwriters the benefit of the doubt. They’re not actually being malicious here, just rather dim, and clearly not carers of three-year-olds.

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Apocalypse Now: Battles on the domestic front

I’ve been a pretty laid-back parent on the whole. I’ve operated on the principle, if my kid wants something, he can have it, or do it, if I can see no reason why not. I’ve regulated screen-time, but not much else. He could choose about almost everything; I saw decision-making as a learning process. I thought freedom would teach him responsibility.

Maybe it did. Up till now, he’s done pretty much everything required of him and then some. He’s made me proud, far more often than embarrassed. Oh, he’s not the quickest off the mark with his pleases, thank yous and sorrys. If a toy, anything, attracts him, he’d head for it first, ask “May I?” later, if at all. He assumes his right to assert his preferences all the time, about what to eat, where to go, what to buy, where to sit in the bus. I’ve frequently imagined, accurately I am sure, observers’ disapproval of such self-importance in such a small person; and when I read the above, he sounds like a right little pain in the arse, even to me.

But he’s not, at all. He’s gentle, alert, considerate, popular across a range of social backgrounds. His behaviour at school has been close to exemplary since reception. I’ve been told he has a fine sense of justice and the best kind of manners; “thoughtful and diplomatic” were the words our head-teacher used. So I’ve assumed that basically I must have been doing something right.

But then we hit Year 3. Homework has tripled, other expectations similarly magnified. Suddenly, his weekly schedule is such that fairly strict home routines are inevitable. It’s still all do-able, with plenty of time left over, but only if my little free-spirit is prepared, for the first time, to get down to it when and how I say. No ifs, buts and other prevarications. No two-hour long, quite cute displacement of 10 minutes’ work. In fact, the displacement activity is not cute any more. Homework, music practice, getting ready, has got to happen, like we agreed, now.

Trouble is my strong-willed boy isn’t used to it. Neither am I, though my soft-touch exterior conceals a determination to match his own. The result is, battles that last all weekend, tantrums that last all night. A house that looks like a bombsite ten minutes after he walks in from school; two parents perpetually cowering as books, pencils and other missiles are hurled about the room in fury.

I didn’t do Supernanny, Gina Ford or Controlled Crying when he was little; I concluded smugly that on the whole I could manage without their advice. As parents, his dad and I inhabited mainly separate spheres, with me taking virtually full responsibility for childcare, feeding, organising and entertainment. Oh, I grumbled, could have done with a lot more time off. My partner grumbled, accusing me of monopolising our son. But basically, we accepted the situation because it more or less worked; we managed, the kid seemed fine.

But I need Supernanny now. I also need his dad, every single evening and throughout the weekend. I need Dad to be up-to-date with his screen and junk food allowance, and with what school work remains. I need him to accept without querying my new imposed conditions. And I need his sheer muscle-power, to back up my tactical skills. We need to be a closer-knit team than we ever have before.

Last night my child, aged 7, cried himself to sleep for the first time in his life. Somewhat shell-shocked, without raising our voices, we shut him in his room, because he wouldn’t stop attacking us (because we took away the i-phone, because we said it’s time for bed). He started attacking his room then, until I removed every toy and book he was using as a hammer and put them in the recycling bag. At half past 11, he lay, finally, on his elevated bed, whimpering, defeated.

I unlocked the door, waded through the debris, climbed up onto the bed to hug him, cover him, and turn off the light.

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Are we really so dreadful, Mr Self?

I think Eleanor Morgan has missed the point here, though it’s more likely that, being of a different generation, she sees a different point. Will Self and I, on the other hand, were born within two years of each other, into urban middle-class families, with one Jewish parent. Our fathers were both academics – indeed, they had offices on the same departmental corridor, and knew each other, in the distant, cordial way of preoccupied men of ideas. It is highly probable that the Self children ( Selves?) and my sibling group attended the same LSE children’s Christmas parties, year after year throughout the 60s and 70s. We were both at Oxbridge, at about the same time, where we were both undistinguished academically. But he had grown up a privately-educated Londoner, while I was a state-school provincial. His parents divorced, mine didn’t. My 1980s rebellion was and remains more political than his, and, I believe, more profound, although I took far fewer drugs.

But I like to think that what he and I have in common gives us a connection, despite what we manifestly don’t share. I’ve read that humans are sympathetic to the suffering of mammals – dogs, horses, baby seals – who share a some characteristics with us, though not enough to ever be mistaken for one of us. We are less sympathetic to the sufferings of birds and reptiles and other complete aliens . . . And positively hostile to those of our own species who might conceivably, in a bad light, even if only momentarily, be confused with us. So we reject benefit scroungers, the poor, the mentally ill, even, perhaps especially, if we were ever one of those things ourselves, and reserve our charity for suitably appealing aliens, animals, and other more comfortably distant forms of life.

Which is a roundabout justification for my irritation with Will Self, and his, hypothetically, with me. I suspect he despises hipsters, and other self-deluded “creatives”, mainly because we have just a little too much in common with himself. For he and I are of course both Writers. What?! I hear him snort. Another deluded middle-aged crone dares refer to her talentless self in the same sentence as Moi?! Another scrounging hipster convinced her career is about to take off?! Pass the puke bucket, please!

I did meet the man once, as an adult, at a writers’ workshop about ten years ago. He was dynamic, entertaining, and barely troubled to conceal his opinion of our modest ambitions, which it was certainly not his brief to encourage. Instead, he read from his own work in progress, of which we were suitably appreciative. We were a bunch of nice, mainly middle-aged, mostly middle-class ladies. But we were by definition untalented, not even pretty, and it was unlikely any of us had ever done heroin, so honestly, what was the point of us at all?

By definition, not all writers can be successful. Every successful writer requires a vast backdrop of readers, many of whom will be attempting to write themselves. For every writer or artist who Makes It there must be thousands who don’t, some, even the majority, of whom do nonetheless become quite proficient at their task. Maybe we teach writing or literature; maybe we just bring up our children and read to them. But either way, the fortunate Successful would not be where they are without us. Yes, a little humility would be appropriate.

For while I don’t dispute, on the whole, that the Successful are talented, I do dispute that they are the only talented, and that success always falls directly and proportionately according to Talent. I think in many cases, one great work early on in a career often sustains the mediocre rest of it, including contingent journalism, while much better work by unknown artists remains ignored simply because they didn’t manage that stunning youthful breakthrough. The industry likes talented newcomers especially (only?) if they are photogenic. As youngsters, they can then carry on producing indefinitely every few years, and never mind the diminishing quality; the readers probably won’t, so long as the decline is not too drastic. I’m not really complaining. We are all too busy to read as much as we would like, so have to short-circuit to familiar names and proven records rather than experiment constantly with complete unknowns. But I’ve long got over my youthful desire to read every single thing by a particular author, just because I discovered one great book. On the contrary, unless further recommendations are irresistible, I tend to assume, that’s it, I’ve done the best of him or her. I’ll give someone else a chance now.

I’ve never read Will Self’s fiction, apart from that one extract he graced us with, from, I think, The Book of Dave. Oh, I know I should have, I know he’s pretty ace. But you know, there’s so much else around, so little time, and for one reason or another Will Self has never risen beyond the middle of my must-read-next list. Anyway, he told us himself he barely ever bothers with modern fiction. He read all the classics in his youth, despite not doing an English degree, which is I suppose pretty cool. I’d never have got much beyond Thomas Hardy and Middlemarch if it weren’t for mine; but maybe that’s private school for you.

But back to me. I was never a hipster (I had no idea what a hipster was). I spent most of the 1990s living and working abroad. I understand from Self’s article, and following up his references, that hipsters are basically male (beards, low-cut T-shirts with no mention of cleavage; note; Self is usually talking about blokes unless he makes explicit to the contrary.) But I am a writer, with a vocation, which remains unaffected by the fact that I’m as unsuccessful as it is possible to be. I still think that writing is what I do best, even if only in comparison to the rubbish I am at everything else.

But I’m being disingenuous, of course. I write because I can, because between motherhood and housework, other caring and admin responsibilities I still have the occasional hour and the financial liberty to spend it at this desk. Not nearly as often as I would like, not nearly as often as Self does, I’m willing to bet, but still, now and again. I count myself privileged for that. I have no illusions about ever Making It. I just get on with it, because it’s what I do. Pathetic, eh? Maybe; but you know what? I simply couldn’t care. Get over yourself, Will Self.

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Turbulence Ahead

Shock news – both our school’s head and deputy head teachers are resigning. It’s doubtful whether suitable replacements can be found before the end of the school year. The deputy, who I’d assumed would replace the head, was my child’s brilliant reception class teacher and has only been at the school as long as we have. It’s baffling.

 

This time last year, the previous deputy left, hot on the tail of a whole group of other teachers with fairly long, apparently distinguished records at the school. Each time, regrets were expressed and excuses made; each time, poor parents’ hearts lurched with anxiety, then resettled, thinking, maybe there are good reasons. Maybe the replacements will be even better. Maybe it’ll pan out for my baby in the end.

 

School is where my child spends most of his days – yet I’m desperately out of control of what he experiences there. It seems everything I liked about our place is under question; its music, its “whole-child” ethos, its genuine diversity. What is actually going on? Those of us with most at stake seem to know least.

 

Is this why people home-school? (Is it why they private-school?) But even if I were intellectually and professionally equipped to teach my child the entire curriculum, what about socialisation? Learning to read, write and so on is a doddle for most kids compared to the intricate and complicated art of making and maintaining friendships, with a diverse bunch of other kids, all as unpredictable and self-centred as he is. It certainly was for me, growing up in an isolated and academic environment which seriously undervalued the unquantifiable social arts. I’m not making the same mistake. My child has to spend plenty of time working it out with other kids; school, with its ostensible focus elsewhere, is the best place for it.

 

Apart from which, I need a break – to write this blog among other things. I can’t be supervising my kid, hounding him from TV screen or ipad with one trick or another, 24/7. He has to go to school.

 

But how fragile a thing a genuinely exceptional state school seems to be nowadays. Perhaps ours, after subsiding into staff squabbles and mediocrity, will eventually be forced by Ofsted crusaders into the “rigorous”, results-impressive, disciplined-academy-type mould of other nearby “Ofsted-outstanding” primaries. Perhaps everything else it has done well will be down-graded or completely discarded. Our school has only ever been “Ofsted-good”. I always liked that about it. But perhaps these days “good” is just not good enough.

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