“On the back of Dr Jessica Eaton’s blogpost on council estate academics, how things looked in late 20thC Cambridge”
Dr Eaton’s blogpost is here – do read it first. The indented paragraphs are quoted from Dr Eaton’s blogpost, bar a separate blogpost towards the end.
Have a listen to this:
Lippy Kids by Elbow.
“In conversation with the magazine Q , singer Guy Garvey told about the song that was written to defend the British teenager. He said about this that they are victims of “the anti- hoodie shit that’s in the media, the thought that if you hang around the corner of a street, you’re a criminal.”” (See here)
It was only later on that I found out the above was the reasoning behind it. At school in the 1990s, my response to said lippy kids who disrupted our learning was a desire to have the lot of them put up against a wall and shot. I was a very angry teenager that internalised everything to the damage of my mental health. In many regards I still am that same angry teenager who still hasn’t processed the impact of what I see as those lost years, trying to reconcile the contradictions of life in conservative and Conservative South Cambridge.
“I was desperate to escape my council estate. I used to dream of the day that I ran away and lived somewhere ‘nice’. I fantasised about becoming rich and successful so I could afford the things I needed to live. I hated that council estate so much by the time I was 18, that I continued to be ashamed and embarrassed of my roots until I was at least 26 years old.”
The above was me aged 16 in my GCSEs year, and then again aged 20 just before I left Cambridge to go to university – something that I assumed would be a permanent departure with few return journeys.
“I want to share my 5 reasons for pride and the way my thinking has changed over the last few years; which has transformed my thinking from hating my roots to loving and respecting them.”
In my case, I’m still trying to figure out what my roots are. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the part of Cambridge I grew up in was a very mixed community. This didn’t necessarily make mixing easy. We had a couple of small council estates mixed in with traditional inter-war semi detached houses through to the large detached houses around and off Hills Road. In a couple of minutes you could go from one friend’s home which was a council house to another friend’s house which was a large detached house.
How television in particular drove the message of consumerism – which with hindsight fractured more than a few year groups on income lines.
Have a look at this advert.
I vaguely remember my late grandfather doing some grocery shopping at the local continental stores and when given a choice of margarines, I was like
“You’ve gotta get that one because on telly they said it’s got no artificial ingredients!”
I was about five. Such adverts even persuaded primary-school-aged me that we needed things that we absolutely did not. Like toothpaste for dentures.
Muuuuuuum! Telly says we gotta get dentu-creme because ‘Brush fresh, brush clean, all you need is dental cream!’
It was only in 1999 at my first lecture at university our first lecturer said if there was one thing to remember from the entire degree, just because something is in print or on TV, doesn’t mean that it’s true; question everything.
…and soft drinks in particular.
Now, imagine living in a world where all the images of people in the media – in adverts, art, music and sport (for me it was football) had pretty much no one who looked like you.
“It’s the music that sells it, isn’t it?”
Yep. And the message that I got was:
“Good little boys like me did their violin practice and went to church every Sunday – they didn’t play football!”
I still remember a former parish priest ranting that he couldn’t recruit enough altar servers in the mid-1990s because all the boys from church-going families played football on Sunday mornings, and he thought that such activities should be banned. Thus my experience of classical music were repeated exams between 1989-1992 and what must have been one of the worst church choirs in the city. Which explains why I recoil in horror at even the prospect of listening to choral music. And that was before the various scandals now associated with said institution hit the newspapers.
Combine that with a message of ‘You have to be good like White Jesus’ – this was before the Millennium – all the churches in Cambridge had depictions of the bearded one with blue eyes and fair hair. Even my grandparents had a couple of the portraits that were mass-produced at the time.
South Cambridge in the face of a decade and a half of austerity
Civic and social institutions everywhere were struggling. It’s only as a result of going through the past newspapers of the time that I now appreciate just how difficult it was for some of the adults at the time to deal with such uncaring ministers in Whitehall. And South Cambridge got off lightly compared to the mining towns and coastal towns that were crushed. The 1980s was also the first decade when schools in Cambridge would have more than just one child or family from minority ethnic &/or mixed heritage backgrounds. Even in the 1980s there were still teachers who had started their careers around the end of the Second World War. I don’t think any of those teachers could have imagined the world that we’re living in today. One of the results of all of this was that things like oppression and racism were never discussed at school – or college even. This was despite the fact that there were too many incidents of it happening. Again, not so much the random angry man or woman shouting in the street. It was more subtle than that.
“We convince ourselves that we can leave our poor pasts behind and reinvent ourselves as these new, successful, educated, accomplished people.”
One of the songs in the charts around the time I left school to go to a different separate sixth form college was this one.
…which is quite a depressing song really.
But such was the antagonism between different groups of us in our specific year group – something that a number of the teachers at the time and since then in subsequent years in our adult lives have commented on, that it was as if we couldn’t wait to see the back of each other.
It was only after university that I realised how ‘institutionalised’ we had become by an education system that was not fit for purpose – something that Baroness Kennedy’s reforms to teaching in 1997 would later make very clear. The rigid segregation children of year groups – something now done away with, is something that still lingers with me in my mindset that I can’t get away from. As a result – particularly in the mid-1990s I don’t have much memory of socialising outside our year group cohort. Even after completing my A-levels a little bit of me felt guilty at not having gone straight onto university because that was ‘the next thing to go onto’ – even though I tried to justify my decision at the time of not following the crowd. The reality was I didn’t think I was ready for it, and this was my first very close brush with failure – crashing and burning with exam results. And in late 1990s Cambridge, exam results were what we were judged by. Even the theoretical concepts of ‘failing’, pulling out or even having a ‘second chance’ was never discussed.
“One of the things that hit me the hardest when working in practice and academia is the way communities and individuals in poverty or oppression are perceived as a bit stupid, unable to become anything and destined for a life of shit.”
This was another myth we were sold, and I didn’t have the courage at the time to challenge it because we were all on that same hamster wheel. It was only when I joined the civil service in the mid-2000s that I bumped into a couple of people I was at school with, but who were streamed in lower academic ability sets, was I pleasantly surprised to find that they had later on gone to university and graduated successfully. Which then made me even more angry at ‘the system’ (and the Conservatives who were in government at the time) that their system of schooling did not allow for children to progress at different rates. It still doesn’t now.
“But generally, these kids that we are sidelining and ‘predicting poor outcomes’ for, will go on to be happy, healthy, successful parents and/or employed people in thousands of different roles in our communities.”
The one thing that really struck me – something I’ve only recently been able to make sense of, is how the entire culture was so incredibly judgemental. Church, with its unattainably high standards – set up almost as if they want everyone to fail, was a big driver behind this. Remember this was the days of Section 28. Shame was – and still is a very powerful weapon as we’ve seen with the recent news about morning daytime TV shows.
“I was always told by teachers and others that us kids on the estate we ‘never going to be anything’ – and why wouldn’t we believe them?”
In my case it was either the opposite – or rather it was something stereotypically ‘respectable’ – and for me it was ‘scientist’. I was going to become a scientist. I didn’t become that scientist because as with so many in my generation we had neither the facilities nor the qualified, passionate and enthused teaching staff. Furthermore, it was a time where only a few brave souls inside Cambridge University were prepared to do something for local school children with science outreach.
“So many of us dreamed of the perfect life away from the estate. We fantasised about how nice everything would be once we had enough money to pay the bills. We imagined our nice new cars that worked. We dreamt of friends and family around our posh houses. We thought about all the amazing jobs we could do when we were big.”
It was similar with me – in particular during my ‘year out’. (I never called it a gap year at the time – I think it was because there was a company at the time with that brand name that sent post-A-level students on placements to other countries, and I wasn’t on that programme but knew people who were). My passport to ‘success’ was to be this economics degree that I was due to start – with ‘development studies’ tagged on so I kept a conscience.
“Money solves some of your problems, like being hungry or having debt collectors trying to force their way in to your house all the time. But it doesn’t necessarily give you the emotional and social things you wanted. The higher you climb, the more you’ll notice how cut throat it is. How individualistic everyone is. How materialistic everyone is. How people are comfortable fucking over the little guy to step up the ladder.”
When I moved down to Whitehall and got to see, experience and live the bright lights of London, I very quickly found out that it wasn’t nearly as glamorous and wonderful as I had been led to believe. The class divide in the civil service fast stream was massive – and I had gotten in during one of the years it was being particularly poorly managed. Such is my luck. Fortunately it has been overhauled – not necessarily to the way I think it should have been done, but it is being properly managed and co-ordinated from the centre in a way that it wasn’t in my day.
“How unfair the world is, even when you think you’ve ‘made it’ to the upper echelons. How much you will be discriminated against in the academic world once they figure out that you’re not one of them.”
It was the ‘networking’ that was where the class divide was most prominent. The private school/oxbridge stereotype that I wanted to pretend didn’t exist turned out to be something that very much did. The one thing I persuaded Cabinet Office do to with my trade union hat on was to refocus its outreach activities towards those universities and colleges that have a highly diverse student body. It was interesting to see that bear fruit with an outreach programme of events hosted at many of the 92-group of universities. Funnily enough I did find a niche in all things digital government but by that time it was too late – I had already decided to leave in the face of the Coalition’s huge job cuts.
“You have no idea what it feels like to be oppressed by a powerful group of people who see you as inferior and non-human, until you have been the oppressed people. You have no idea what it means to be forced to do things you don’t want to do because you owe someone money or someone is exploiting you.”
One of the reasons I never forgave my first university for my three ‘lost years’ was housing. A student from a wealthy family is less likely to struggle in a difficult housing market than someone who is from abroad or who visibly looks like they are from a minority ethnic background. I know what it’s like to have a racist prospective landlord slam the door in my face because he thought I was this nice well-spoken White student because of the accent he heard on the phone, only to see me rock up and tell me the room was ‘taken’. The place I ended up in was actually being run by the son of a family friend who happened to be studying at the same institution as me, but who I had not seen since I was at primary school. It was a sh-t hole and ended up being condemned as unfit for human habitation by Brighton and Hove Council.
“However, there is something about poverty, crime and oppression that no one can ever understand until they have lived in those environments and situations. You cannot possibly imagine what it is like to have no food and no way of getting any food, if you have always been fed.”
One of the reasons I went into housing policy in the civil service was because I was one of those people living a hand-to-mouth existence in and out of a fortunately friendly travellers hostel in Brighton while struggling with mental health issues in the face of an academic institution demanding tuition fees up front (I still haven’t forgiven Labour for that) while leaving everyone for dead in a very competitive housing market that inevitably caused tensions with locals who were also struggling. Labour might have had a chance of solving the housing problem if it hadn’t spent all that money on the Iraq war, and if they had stability in the roles of ministers for housing and local government. But Blair and Brown squandered both with their annual ministerial reshuffles.
“Like millions of others, I was fed the myth that if I worked hard and went to university, I could escape my social class and I could move up the ladder in society. It’s bollocks, mate.”
Have any of you played this game before?
I get that all too often.
That article goes on further:
“It’s partly down to exasperation at people thinking I’m less British than them because I’m brown; but it’s mainly down to extreme boredom. The rundown of my convoluted four-continent-spanning genealogy takes ages unless I lie”
My niece and nephew are the first children of our family’s new generation to have been born on the same continent as their parents since the late 1800s. On one side of my family we can trace our ancestry back to Tudor England.
The ‘where are you from?’ Q came up recently again, my interrogator being surprised that I hadn’t been to India because that’s where I was told I look like I am from – before being asked about which specific part of India I was from. I confess I’ve not studied the geographies – human and physical in detail so *would not have a clue* about where the side of my family that has lived in Mauritius for generations, was originally from.
Cambridge, Brighton and London – and six weeks in Vienna in the middle of my civil service career, are all I’ve ever known. In the end I could not afford to settle in either Brighton or London. Hence returning to Cambridge where, because of health I had no choice but to move back into my childhood home – for which I’m incredibly grateful. At least I have a roof over my head, in the face of Cambridge’s homelessness problems.
Going back to Dr Eaton’s blogpost and her conclusion:
“Loving my council estate. Loving what it taught me and what it gave to me. Respecting the people I grew up with and their potentials and abilities instead of seeing us all as broken and poor. Loving my accent. Loving my dialect. Being patient with myself when I can’t pronounce a word I read in books. Fighting the corner of every person living in poverty and oppression – making sure they are not written off or stereotyped. Raising the issue of classism in our research, policies and practice. Being damn proud of who I am, where I come from and what I can offer the world.“
In my case, the South Cambridge that I grew up in no longer exists. Too much of it has been demolished, too many of the families that I grew up with have moved on or have been priced out of the neighbourhood due to house price inflation. Furthermore, the employment practices of Cambridge University and other firms has led to a significant rise in population turnover, which has destabilised the city and made it harder for neighbourhoods to fight against speculative development. This has been made even worse by central government’s misguided planning policies that have all-too-often only benefited the wealthy.
I think one of my internal drivers for studying the history of Cambridge the town (see my blog on this at https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/ ) was trying to work out ‘how I got to here’. Why did things turn out as they did? What chances did I have to change the course of my own personal history? To what extent was I sitting in the railway carriage following the tracks that someone else had laid down?
In one sense I got lucky and stumbled across many long-forgotten civic stories that are essential not just to understanding the past that Cambridge went through, but also in terms of shaping its future. And as I found out the hard way, if we’re not prepared or willing to shape our own futures and destinies, someone else more powerful is going to do it for you – and not necessarily in your own interests.