A Notting Hill playground in 1972. The area has changed from postwar slum to postcode for
the prosperous PHOTO: THE PRINT COLLECTOR / ALAMY
Much of my time is taken up with reflecting on my childhood. At the drop of a hat I’m back there trying to make sense of it. Not simply to reminisce about former times, but almost to search for the key to what it was all about.
What did it mean to go through those times? Why did it have to be so? Could it have been different?
I am convinced – surprising some – that I had a brilliant childhood, but with shite parts to it. Slums mean rats and fleas, mice and cockroaches; constipation and diarrhoea. Hunger and violence.
Yet a spirit seemed to inhabit the slummed streets of Notting Hill that I was born into. A kind of truthfulness. Yes, a realness. That is why so many middle-class writers and filmmakers have gloated over Notting Hill’s poverty. And why people – like the prestigious Scottish publisher I met – wanted to live there; because it still had an edge to it, despite now being more faux than real.
Even Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill of 23 years ago seemed to be set in an interesting place, even if yuppified. Notting Hill remained picturesque, even if the former slums were gobbled up by the tenaciously wealthy.
Certainly the house that I was born into would now swap hands for millions if Westminster Council had not destroyed its cocktail of wretchedness to build a council estate.
My interest is not nostalgic, but rather in what produced this carefully-put-together piece of social engineering so that Notting Hill became the most notorious slum in London. What did the Victorians have to do to make it pass down to future generations as a living shithole?
The Westbourne Estate that I was born in was built speculatively in the 1870s as big houses for middle-class families. ‘Speculatively’ meaning no one commissioned the builders and landowners, the investors. But they built for a market that didn’t respond, and the houses were sold off in bankruptcy; were bought for a shilling in the pound and became multi-occupational units stuffed full of people in poverty.
Soon it was a slum and remained so until it was gentrified, seemingly by media types in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
What I realised, even as a child, was that I was born into a muddle. It was obvious in the puddles, rubbish, broken windows and draughty rooms; in the toilet shared with many other families. And my family lived in a muddle, spending most of their hard-earned money by the weekend, with the pub a prominent feature of weekend life. Always hiding from the rent man until we got evicted when I was five.
I would not have missed all of this for the world. It made me think about muddle. What a muddle the post-war seemed to be. What a muddle the British Empire seemed to be, with its Empress born 10 minutes, walk from my slum abode, but in the days when it was green fields.
What a muddle seemed the attempts of government to muddle through, caring more for the immediate than ensuring an enduring and better long-term future. Pluses mixed liberally with minuses. Shuffling into the future and carrying poverty with them. Governments seemed ill-suited to the task. And everything seemingly reduced to the argument that the more you consumed and the more rubbish you piled up, the nearer you were to happiness.
I’m intrigued by this postwar world and how deep the rubbish has become. Where were the great minds we were promised by democracy, and the reduction of abject poverty?
If we now took an audit of social exclusion – as it was called for a while – we might see how wasted have been our brilliant chances. Where were the grown-up policies that should have educated our poorest away from poverty? Where were the decent living spaces that would create a firm base to help the neediest out of need?
My postwar slum has disappeared and been replaced by plenty. That seems to be the problem now. Those with plenty have got plenty more out of our recent crises. And we are left with millions worried sick about fuel and food.
We seem to have lost a lot of chances to socially mobilise the poor out of poverty since my childhood. Yet every government comes in seemingly loaded up with answers and initiatives. For all of the initiatives over the decades, we couldn’t get enough people out of being harmed by inflation. That’s why my slum seems still to ask questions of me. What happened? What should have happened? What can we do?
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.
Urgent action is needed to prevent even more people being pushed into homelessness. A secure home is the first step in addressing the cruel cycle of poverty to ensure people can fulfil their potential. Join us to keep people in their homes.