Living the High Life and Post-War Dream in Dundee
Scottish Review, June 28th 2017
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy tower blocks and social housing are everywhere in the news.
Much of it has been ill-informed, instant commentary. People asserting that tower blocks aren’t suited to modern living or making sweeping statements about the failings of council and social housing, A large part of this seemed to be a displacement or discomfort of middle class opinion having to talk about a forgotten and neglected section of the country, and confront the living conditions of large numbers of poor people.
Housing is a topical subject. Long neglected by the British political classes it has become a social and generational scandal – one that has overlooked millions of people, and in particular, younger people, from owning or renting a decent home. It is all a far cry from the Thatcherite hubris of a ‘property owning democracy’ in the 1980s: a phrase which came of age in the 1950s and which was invented by the Scottish Tory Noel Skelton in the 1920s.
The present housing predicament is portrayed in the just released ‘Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle’ made by Paul Sng. It looks at the forty-year onslaught on public housing, and in particular, the scandal of regeneration being reduced to selling off estates and gentrification. It does so looking at two areas of London, Lambeth and Southwark, Nottingham, and three areas of Glasgow, the Red Road flats, the Gorbals and Govanhill. It was telling that the Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Saturday sold out and was packed with young people.
I grew up in high rise living in a multi-storey as we call it in Scotland. I lived with my parents, Eddie and Jean, for thirteen years on the thirteen floor in Ardler, Dundee.
It was a spacious, safe environment. It had large green spaces, football pitches, play areas and large woods. It was the exact opposite of the concrete modernist utopia of post-war planning. Instead, the council had purchased Downfield Golf Course who had moved immediately up the road, and built six tower blocks surrounded by amenities, lots of greenery and scenery.
There was the Gelly Burn which ran through the estate. Nearby was the new Downfield Golf Course – a private club which my dad was a member of until the mid-1970s when he felt rising membership fees didn’t justify his occasional use of, and which myself and my friends used to sneak on to and play the second to seventeenth holes – missing the first and last by the clubhouse. Camperdown Park was in walking distance, along with Templeton Woods, Clatto Reservoir and the Sidlaws.
It wasn’t all dream living. Ardler sat next door to St. Mary’s, an older council estate which had a reputation for being rougher and more unruly. This was part folklore, but also became self-fulfilling, and years later, national charities trialled the notion of ‘tough love’ with problem families in St. Mary’s which directly contributed to New Labour’s approach to anti-social behaviour. The road to such Blairite thinking literally began in the streets of Dundee.
My parents moved to Ardler when it was built and opened in 1968. They moved from a small tenement flat behind Dens Road Market which had basic facilities. As for many families, our bright, spacious flat was a big step up in the world to somewhere clean, fitted with up to date amenities, and large, well-designed rooms.
It was safe. Each floor had six flats – four family and two single – with three firedoors which were always kept shut. My father once saved an elderly gentleman’s life. The man had passed out as a result of a chip pan fire, and my father crawled into the flat along the floor underneath the main smoke and brought out the unconscious man. The fire was limited to the flat.
There was a palpable sense of community and connectedness. My mum seemed to know nearly everyone, or so it often seemed. ‘Going out with royalty’ was how we described the experience of walking about with my mum: so many times would she stop to speak to people or be asked a practical question.
She worked in the local pharmacy, but also was involved in running the community centre, and for several years edited the local newsletter, ‘Ardler News’. At age fourteen this is where I began writing in public, producing a regular music column which I wrote under a pseudonym.
I realised the power of writing when I was doing a run distributing the free paper. A group of tough guys came up to me and made their usual intimidating and bullying gestures. It was all a bit of an act, but they took a swing at me, I ducked and dropped the newsletter, and as I backed off, they all picked up copies of the ‘Ardler News’. As they walked off into the distance my assailants said to each other: ‘Now let’s see what the music column says.’ There and then I knew that for all their macho antics, actually I had power over them.
The views from the thirteenth floor were stunning. You could watch advancing storm clouds from miles away get closer as they passed over the Carse of Gowrie and Invergowrie Bay. On a clear night from our kitchen window you could see the shimmering lights of Edinburgh.
During the blackouts of the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 you could watch the areas being shut down moving through the city and coming closer, giving extra time to prepare for the electricity blackout. My parents used to watch this cheering with friends – stocked up with food, candles and other provisions in a continuation of the wartime spirit. They identified, as did most of our friends, with the miners and despised the Tory Government led by Ted Heath. It seems incredible now, but he was viewed then by my parents as the most right-wing form of Tory imaginable, compared to the compassionate Harold Macmillan in the 1950s.
There were various official council rules. One was no dogs or cats. We had the amazing invention of piped TV via a special plug that gave a signal from the local ‘Radio Rentals’ office. This was meant to stop us putting outside TV aerials up, and hence spoiling the aesthetic of the tower blocks. Eventually of course people did.
We found that having a corner flat meant that by tweaking our outside aerial, instead of getting Grampian we got STV. Grampian had dour continuity announcers and a small town parochialism, whereas STV seemed to offer sophistication, a more vibrant world and better Friday night films (including for a teenage boy horror and vampire films).
Ardler was like many council estates in Scotland in the 1970s filled with a wide range of people and backgrounds. There was little to no visible poverty. People had steady jobs and rising incomes, and the variety of jobs ranged from the public sector to bank managers, shop owners, and small business people.
I can remember when I heard for the first time of anyone being out of work. It was a shock. In 1977 a friend’s father was briefly unemployed and when he got a job as a bin man, to our shame myself and my friends openly mocked and ridiculed our pal. The following year, my father took voluntary redundancy from NCR who were scaling back operations in the city. I immediately realised this involved a loss of status and I didn’t tell any of my friends or teachers about my father’s six month period of unemployment. It was the only time I visibly saw my parents worry about money.
The world was changing. Even as a child the slow cumulation of public spending cuts began to make its effect on our estate in the late 1970s. A children’s centre was built but wasn’t opened for a couple of years. Ardler High School was on the drawing books for years, but first delayed, then postponed, and finally, cancelled.
At the same time a tide was shifting against tower blocks. My parents religiously watched the BBC chat show ‘Parkinson’ and on one programme in the mid-1970s the actor and national treasure Kenneth Williams appeared. As he ranged far and wide subject wise, he ventured onto the subject of living in high rise flats, and commented: ‘Nobody knows anyone in tower blocks. People live desolate, lonely lives’.
This was a red rag to a bull to my mother, considering the breadth of her friendships and acquaintances and she immediately wrote a letter of complaint to Kenneth Williams, c/o ‘The Parkinson Show’. This was typical of my mother: practical, motivated, always doing things, and it wasn’t surprising that she got a reply and courteous apology.
Nearly all my friends at school lived in council housing, with one or two exceptions. But by the start of the 1980s and the Thatcher Government, council house sales were being promoted by central government in the face of bitter opposition from Labour councils such as Dundee.
In one discussion in our English class the teacher, who had come specially from the private Dundee High School to teach at Rockwell High – with the promise of the future Ardler High – we debated council house sales: good or bad.
What was revealing even then was that all of us as pupils were against sales – drawing on our positive experience of council housing. Our teacher was passionately in favour, presenting it in the language of choice and individual expression. But even more profoundly neither of us could understand the other point of view. We thought our positive experience of muncipalism was self-evidently right; our teacher that undermining this was correct. There was a chasm of incomprehension between the two worlds.
I left Ardler in 1981 when it was still visibly and in spirit the place of my childhood. But the storm clouds were gathering, and with NCR downsizing, Timex – who provided much employment in Ardler and nearby areas, mainly to women – witnessed a series of bitter strikes, culminating in the company withdrawing from the city in 1993. The tower blocks which had been such beacons of dynamism and hope became difficult to let, and eventually the decision was made to start pulling down the six tower blocks, the last coming down in 2007. The weekend after this I sneaked on to the demolition site and took three bricks from the last tower – the one my granny had lived in. They proudly sit to this day in my garden.
We have to remember the many lessons of the Ardlers of this world. Council housing produced two generations of people who had security, stability and wider opportunity. Growing up in Ardler, I felt that the world was my oyster, and that all of the talents, energies and dreams of myself, my friends and others, had the chance to find expression and recognition. Yet, in the last few decades all we see in politics and the media is a damning stigmatisation of council and social tenants, denying the rich ecology of voices and people who live in places like Grenfell Tower and estates the length and breadth of the land.
How do we stop the retreat into the harsh, brutal world which has seen the death of at least 79 people? Poet Ben Okri spoke of the cladding which proved so fatal at Grenfell Tower as representing a wider meaning: ‘Political cladding, Economic cladding, intellectual cladding – things that look good. But have no centre, no heart, only moral cladding.’ Okri called this ‘claddification’: the pursuit of appearance, superficiality and emptiness even when dangerous. It is far removed from the safety and security of my childhood in Ardler, and we owe it to the struggle of past generations to do the right thing for future generations.