I grew up on a British council estate, which means many of you may think you have a pretty good idea about the kind of person I am. For those of you living in America, a council estate in Britain is an area where the properties are rented out through the local council, normally to low income families or people living off the welfare state. They are often seen as being rough areas, breeding criminals, low-lives and scum. The media loves to pontificate on the inner workings of Britain’s “worst” areas, often with only the insight of a middle class voyeur attempting to explore the underbelly of the under classes. They provide the rose-tinted, romanticised perspective of an auteur, glamourising estates for entertainment value. While I cannot speak for everybody, that wasn’t my experience growing up on a British council estate.
Before I was old enough to understand the real difference between wealthy and poor, I loved the area in which I lived. Ivor the newsagent would keep aside my weekly copy of Girl Talk magazine, my grandparents lived around the corner and there were acres upon acres of woodlands and fields within a one minute walk from my house. My mum and dad would take us out for long walks with the dogs, sometimes taking a rounders bat or a kite. I felt very rich indeed.
It was only really once I started school and my universe expanded, that I realised living on the estate had certain connotations. I was put in the lower sets for Maths and English and as such believed I wasn’t very clever. One teacher in particular was horribly disdainful of the blue table where I sat, with several other estate children. I loathed her, because whenever she looked at me, I felt small. One day we had to write a poem. I loved writing, so I sat quietly, nibbling the end of my pencil, trying to come up with inspired rhymes. As my snobby teacher read it, she gushed at how far I’d come along under her tutelage. The poem was hung in the assembly room, for all 350 pupils to witness; Kate Haddigan was clever (even if she did live on the estate).
My teacher wasn’t the only one that was sniffy about my address. My school friends and their parents would often make a comment about the estate, or the people on it. I began to feel ashamed of it, the estate was always going to hold me back and ruin things, so I tried my best to hide the fact I was a council estate kid and act accordingly.
However, this isolated me from the people on the estate. Children that I had played with in tree houses and front gardens would now shout names at me as I walked home from school, making fun of my clothes, my hair or coming up with any number of vague, unflattering expletives to hurl at me. Sometimes they would just spit, or barge into me or block my way. In true council estate fashion, my family name held enough authority that I was never badly hurt, because the tired old stereotypes of old families ruling the estate mafia style really are true. It’s kind of like “Game of Thrones,” but with fewer dragons and more drunks. Yes, more drunks. Instead of House Lannister and the Lion sigil, you would have House Green, who you didn’t mess with because that one Green lad had the Doberman that bit the milkman’s middle finger off. Talking about it now feels like I’m talking about somebody else’s life. It feels like it never happened, certainly not to me. Was I really that frightened of some disillusioned teenagers? I would feel physically sick at the thought of walking down the street and facing my tormentors, who always seemed to be loitering on bikes, in brand new trainers and tracksuits.
In my experience, growing up in a so-called bad area can have two effects on a person. It can either stifle you with shame or fill you with courage. I spent years, even after leaving home, focusing on ridiculous things, such as my speech (which due to having a lisp as a child and extensive speech therapy, meant I had a non-regional accent, and hadn’t picked up the unmistakable nuances of an estate kid), the books I had read, the films I had seen, the food that I liked, all to cultivate a personality that was as far away from your quintessential council estate girl as possible. If I ever slipped up, or if there was a gap in my knowledge, I was crippled with worry. Oh no! They’ve caught me out! Now everybody will think less of me because I lived on an estate!
I realise that this sounds ridiculous, but when you’ve gone through life being mocked or bullied or genuinely looked down upon because of the area that you grew up in, it’s a real issue. It is no wonder that so many young people of these estates subscribe to the self-fulfilling prophecies and end up trapped in the poverty cycle. If families, friends and teachers expect nothing from a young person that lives on an estate other than to receive a police caution for anti-social behaviour, leave school with no qualifications and live a life claiming welfare benefits, then why should that young person aspire to anything else? If nobody believes in them, where are they getting their motivation? Any dreams they had may have been dashed at an early age.
I count myself extremely lucky to have had several great influences in my young life, that did enable me to have a different lifestyle than those I saw around me. I didn’t want babies and a Friday night trip to play bingo, I wanted to travel and have a career. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, they just felt like worlds apart from my very small corner. Of course my family, especially my mother and my aunt, both encouraged me to read and be polite, in the hope that I would make my way off the estate when the time came. I also credit my high school English teacher with allowing me to see that I could achieve more than others predicted. She was a wonderful teacher, overwhelmingly passionate about sharing her knowledge and encouraging her students. Her classroom was awash with colour and ideas and she was so encouraging of creativity and thought. She made me feel like I was as good as anybody else in that classroom and as such, I flourished. One day she was talking about how much she would miss us all when we went off to college and university. She talked of her own hometown and how no matter how exciting it would be to go off and explore the world, you would always be deeply connected with the place you grew up in.
At the time, I thought she was simply feeling nostalgic for her own home. How could I ever miss the estate? I can’t say that I do, even to this day. I miss my family, I sometimes miss the community atmosphere of the estate, knowing the postman’s name, the neighbour popping round to borrow a cup of washing powder. There is a deep connection to the estate because despite spending years feeling ashamed of where I grew up, I now wear it as a badge of honour. It’s not something that defines me, but it has shaped me. I grew up in an area where nothing was expected of me and trying to better yourself was seen as being “up yourself”. I received abuse, was pushed and shoved through my adolescence by peers that in retrospect, probably failed to understand me and lashed out. I wasn’t pampered, I have had to work really hard for everything I have in my life, I have had to fight stereotypes and push hard to break through the glass ceilings put in place for Britain’s underclasses. I was extremely lucky to grow up under a government where my university education was funded, where I was allowed to aspire to a quality education without financial concerns. I was lucky to have teachers who recognised my enthusiasm and imagination rather than my post code. Mostly, I was lucky to have a mother who believed and still believes that I could be Queen of the World if I put my mind to it.
Please don’t get me wrong, I know that everybody, no matter your background, has had to fight and battle to get to the point you are. My journey has been no harder or easier than anybody else’s. But it was mine. I could have succumbed to a life of living off the system, but it wasn’t for me. Not that I blame people for doing it. If you saw a ten pound note on the floor, you’d probably pick it up and pocket it. If a government is giving money to the disenchanted, uninspired public, people will take it. Council estates and the welfare state, because the two do go hand in hand, are such sensitive issues, ones that I hope with all my heart will be addressed before things get much worse.
There are so many questions as to why the residents are more likely to be out of work, or engage in criminal activities. There are concerns that whilst some estates or boroughs are becoming gentrified, others grow increasingly worse as criminals or anti-social people are housed in the same, condensed areas. There are fears that the government have lost control or simply do not care about the poor and the vulnerable. Some members of the public have been manipulated into blaming certain demographics and chase them with metaphorical pitchforks, such as immigrants, the disabled, the elderly, single parents who have all been vilified and blamed for the increasing strain on the system, the housing shortages and the general disarray in which we often hear about, but not all of us experience. Whilst there are undoubtedly some very real barriers facing estate residents, it is not impossible for them to escape the cycle of deprivation they may have found themselves in. It is very hard, I can attest to that, but if you can free yourself from your trappings, you’ll know that nothing is impossible. It’ll make you steely and strong. No matter where you came from, you can be whoever you want to be and answer only to yourself. And maybe one day, you really could be Queen of the World.
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