Philip Ruthen on
Help Us Somebody - The Demolition of the Elderly
The London Press, 2006 www.thelondonpress.co.uk Genre: Social comment. Price: £5.95
Pages: 180 ISBN: 1-905006-14-4
One of those points in time of convergence found me listening to the Rt Rev. James Jones on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, just a short while after re-reading Bob Dumbleton’s important living document and collective indictment on contemporary ‘urban regeneration’, social reform and social housing. Demolition of 1940s pre-fabricated housing is and has been occurring across the UK within the ‘urban renaissance’ of town and cityscapes. The various factory constructed and assembled on-site houses were erected largely as the response of the incoming Labour Government to a housing crisis at the end of the Second World War, with well over 150,000 being built, and an expectancy of short-term usage only. Many communities exist today contentedly living in these original pre-fabricated buildings. Writing on the general tenet of replacing ‘obsolete’ or ‘unhealthy’ housing Bob Dumbleton acknowledges that in almost every respect it’s a progressive move, but “for others it is an upheaval too far. These are not easy deaths. Fear is a cause. Drawn out anxiety aggravates the diseases of age. And people get very tired as the process takes several years” (Introduction p 1). This publication addresses another socio-economic taboo – regeneration can be bad for your health. And foregrounds the ‘d’ word – resultant death.
The testimonies, and therefore evidence, presented in Help Us Somebody informs of the ironic ‘use of state power to make unequal people more unequal – as in ill, and dead’ (p 151). The author, collating alternate evidence and experiences of people primarily in Newport (Gwent), and Bristol since the late 1990’s, presents a systemic picture of institutional abuse (my term) toward people, particularly elderly people, placed in horrendous dilemmas concerning the roofs over their heads, where corporations’ choices become non-choices.
Bob Dumbleton, as volunteer housing activist from the 1960s, socialist, radical and retired academic from Cardiff University, advisor to the Welsh Tenants Association, has extensive, deep-seated connections with and of real people in real life, converse to the sense of webs of disconnection spun by local authorities’ implementation of state housing plans.
To find a publisher for this book, however, was another task in itself, the rejection slips accruing as the text was viewed as ‘falling between two stools’ - neither stridently political, nor polemic, or being an academic thesis. I think these rejections – although unwelcome of course – show that the book’s careful stewardship of contributors’ words and lives has not been compromised. The personal and political are there, the analysis is there. The perspectives of coming to terms with an undaunted complex system imposing its own pressures on its staff to deliver up the regeneration projects, the local people’s responses and resignation, and the lessons not learnt from recent history provides a documentary good faith. As does the author’s own chronicling of opposition or despair directed at him from tenants at times, for being a seemingly powerless advocate. Jacqui Handley, a Newport resident, exemplifies the brooding tone of life:
'Time’s Moving On'
Can I wrap them in soft tissue so they don’t break
Can I box them up
Can I take them all with me.
Will I still remember
When I don’t hear my creaking floorboard
Nor my gate, which gently creaks
Or my dripping tap that helps me sleep
They will be gone
Today, I will move//
The unacknowledged causes of death from regeneration and demolition, and widening associations of people enduring ‘the unreasonableness of modern encounters’, gave me the means to link the theological argument of James Jones to radical politics. God, shown by his reference to Isaiah, requests a relationship with mankind based on reason and debate, as “to be given space to explain yourself and to be understood is the oxygen of life”. The right to articulate a defence against being suffocated from systemic pressures enforced by officials, capital-based personal and company interest, formalistic law and complex technological mapping inhibiting human contact becomes all the more vital. When rights are ignored or are just not there – whether the right to stay put, or for personal health and well-being considerations to be put foremost, for example, un-reasonableness can enter.
There is a stark message that regeneration can kill, can cause illness. And the extent of this, now, and over past generations is difficult to say, because governments and researchers have done little work in this area. The debate – according to the canonical or ‘established’ authorities in statutory power and academies – is largely uninformed. But uniformed by whom? Where have the funds been directed to find out? Where are the funds, and the will to find out? Who have they listed to, read about, visited, ‘followed up’? There is a body of evidence there already, in papers, articles, and in the mass of projects and communities, but alternate evidence means a need for its appraisal, and a consequential change in regeneration cultures. A step too far perhaps for the Government, local authorities and developers to consider? Similar situations arise in the re-settlement of, for example, people from psychiatric institutions into supposed community care - probably in contemporary times and in as recent times as the 1990s. Few of the lives
lost and the causes were fully recognised and the documentary evidence largely un-collated.
I think of the London News programme on TV recently, the campaign by worried residents in the London Borough of Lewisham to protect their rights to maintain their lives in the pre-fabricated buildings erected during and after the
Second World War.
Quickly becoming aware of more examples of similar ‘clearances’, Bob Dumbleton’s book is timely, and necessary. And, to echo a phrase from the evening’s BBC TV Newsnight debate, ‘authenticity is everything’:
…..Time’s running on now not long to go
I’ve tried to cope
But I know when the door knocker hits the metal door
This will not be my home anymore.
(from 'Time’s Moving On' p 179).
The extracts of poetry from the poem by Jacqui Handley eloquently end the peace.
Philip Ruthen © December 2007
Declaration of interest: Philip Ruthen was a student, and was also tutored at UWIST, Cardiff, 1983-1987 by Bob Dumbleton; paternal grandparents lived in a prefabricated house in the North of England, the Prefab believed now to be demolished.
Thought for the Day Date: Wednesday 12 December
Presenter: James Jones Subject: To be given space to explain yourself and to be understood is the oxygen of life.
Canvassing prefabs in Lewisham Sunday, August 26, 2007
Posted by The Brunswick Blog at 6:55 PM Paul Elgood Liberal Democrat Councillor for Brunswick & Adelaide ward of Brighton & Hove City Council and former Parliamentary Candidate for Hove & Portslade in the 2005 General Election.
How we built Britain – Modern south: Dreams of Tomorrow
Ep6/6 Sunday 15 July 9.00-10.00pm BBC One
Residents Calling For Prefabs To Be Saved (from News Shopper) Lewisham
Online Edition News Shopper
www.newsshopper.co.uk by Samantha Payne 2007