Housing in the United Kingdom has always been an area fraught with disparities. When cities began to expand post-industrial revolution, and more places to live were needed in urban settings, people began to move on a scale that hadn’t been seen before. This flocking of people from rural settings towards employment, allowed opportunistic private builders to provide densely populated and disorganised developments, which subjected many families to poor and overcrowded living conditions, without effective sanitation or natural light. There was pressure on the Government to begin looking at housing issues, and they were slowly persuaded to intervene.
Governments began to pass various Acts mainly aimed at addressing the worst areas of housing unfit for habitation, or to improve or demolish existing houses. The most important Act came in 1890: the ‘Housing for the Working Classes Act’. Efforts were made to build and regulate private Common Lodging Houses that catered for those in most need; often single men who lived in dormitory style accommodation. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act) was seen as a watershed in the provision of corporation (council) housing.
After World War Two, and the escalation of the housing crisis in relation to slum clearance programmes, many councils began to develop peripheral estates on the edges of towns and cities. Sometimes, boundary lines were expanded to include these new places, and people were moved from overcrowded inner-city areas out onto the far edges of communities.
There were many common problems with such new suburban developments, such as distances from town centres and lack of adequate bus services. People were often moved in before road and pavements were complete and had to deal with feelings of loss and isolation amongst thick mud, while they tried to settle into their new spaces.
I grew up on an estate that had been made to house an ‘overspill’ population who were moved from London as part of slum clearances in the 1950s. I have often wondered who came up with that label, and whether a better term might have been used. It has always struck me that rehousing must have been a traumatic experience, even for stoic communities who had lived through bombing raids and been trained to keep calm and carry on, no matter what was happening.
Sense of home and belonging are powerful things, and the poetry of landscape and identity is something I am working on in my own writing. In this poem, I aim to address what it might have been like, to come from London to a middle England market town, reliant on farming as its main industry, and try to put down roots amongst a population who were both hostile and voyeuristic in their approach to the moved-in city dwellers. Such feelings ripple through generations. I don’t know if things have moved on, with current house prices rocketing, legal changes around lead tenants, multi occupancy tenancy, shared housing and overcrowding a common experience; and those at the lower end of earning possibilities, once again being placed at the mercy of the more economically powerful. Occasionally the media shine a light on stories of those who are moved far from family and friends, as was shown in the film ‘I Daniel Blake’, and unfortunately such cases are more often than not shown through negative and critical constructs. Perhaps where we call home isn’t really a choice?
Ali Jones is a teacher, and writer, living in Oxford, England. She holds an MA in English, focused on poetry in domestic spaces and has written poetry in a variety of forms for many years. She is a mother of three. She is interested in the relationships between place and personal, in terms of ancestry, the everyday, geology, folk lore and fairy tales. Her work has appeared in Fire, Poetry Rivals Spoken Word Anthology, Strange Poetry, Ink Sweat and Tears, Snakeskin Poetry, Atrium, Picaroon Poetry, Mother’s Milk Books, The Lake Magazine, Breastfeeding Matters, Breastfeeding Today and Green Parent magazine. She writes a regular column for Breastfeeding Matters Magazine, and blogs for The Motherload. She was the winner of the Green Parent Writing Prize in 2016, the runner up for the Mother’s Milk prize for prose in 2016, and has also written for The Guardian. Her poetry pamphlets, Heartwood and Omega are forthcoming with Indigo Dreams press in 2018.
Rainy Saturday afternoons
winds ripple coffee over puddles. Below privet,
slugs stream out among an elaborate calligraphy
of dogshit and cigarette ends, the discarded and unwelcome.
Behind lines and thresholds, reproduction masters
hang in gilded frames. Chintz, Wedgewood kept for best,
plastic imitating willow, to hold prizes of Golden Delicious.
In the kitchens, Five Spice, Angel Delight,
a brick of Neapolitan wrapped in newspaper,
crouches low in the cool beneath Formica.
Radios speak into silence.
At night, the old country seeps back into the estate,
a new-born place, abstract finding form. Foxes root
beneath manicured hedges and turn over ashcans.
Moths ghost around sodium lights, mist hovers over lawns.
Spirits laugh in dark alleys, and whistle down chimneys.
When they first arrive, children walk the streets,
spying on houses of ones they think better off,
those only joined to one other, or even completely detached;
eying interiors, rooms with spaces in the middle of them.
In winter, it is at its harshest, the most unforgiving.
Stone statues squatting by gateposts,
bulbs pricking the soil like neatly stitched seams,
blackened branches of plum and cherry reaching
for a watercolour sun. The edges punctuated
by a shock of red; a phone box or an idling Post Van.
At the boundary, more open to the sky, a spit of wildwood,
elder, and spindle, treading mythical lines, along the periphery.
To stand there here is like peering over the rim of the world
into a fairy-tale. Only the post-box, for some reason placed
at the end, on the wrong side of the road, stands like
a crimson exclamation mark, in solidarity with suburban sprawl
New-borns need to find their own patterns and rituals,
the lineation of milk bottles on steps, washing flying
early as possible to beat the neighbours in a competition
that was always unspoken. Its heartbeat becomes rhythms
of daily chores, conversations over chestnut palings, chain-link,
the ongoing geometry of connection and distance.
New people cannot be avoided, made insubstantial
by bricks and mortar. They cluster and constellate;
meteorites travelling far from their origins. Imagine them,
stepping home from work into waiting warm slippers,
unwinding in cool gardens that smell of lavender and honeysuckle.
At twilight, stars appearing, maybe someone raises a hand,
as if to touch their brightness, the sky here so much clearer
than damp squibs spied through London smog.
What is a home anyway? A place with four walls, and a roof,
with your people and things in it, a place to lay your head.
A place that doesn’t threaten to collapse and wall you up in dust.
Separation is deception, there is simplicity in taking people,
lifting them out and placing them elsewhere. Distance is a long thread
that pulls in a new town, all factories, farming, warehouses, shift patterns,
shopkeepers, safety boots. Happiness is implied. Here is your own house.
You will have a garden, clear air to breathe, jobs a plenty, here is a fresh start.
Maybe moving was like picking at the edges of an old wound,
or ripping a plaster off too quickly and taking the scab away.
At night, in empty roads, a chorus of wings passes over dark rooftops,
fields beyond stretch silently, and at a window a single bulb burns
where someone sits up late, sips tea; remembers.