Walls in the head

<strong>Estates: an intimate history</strong>

Lynsey Hanley <em>Granta Books, 256pp, £12</em>


Estates is an insider's take on the history and realities of life in council housing. Emblematic of a wide range of social problems, estates are a byword for drugs, Asbos, domestic abuse, wayward "hoodies", residual unemployment and gun crime. But residents are usually blamed for their own predicament, and I'm often left biting my lip when these stories appear.

As someone who grew up in a working-class area of Birmingham and still lives in a Brum tower block, I enjoyed Lynsey Hanley's approach to the subject. There are few passionate, articulate voices from within estates that describe their realities without sensationalising or making political capital out of it.

The usual temptations are either to idealise estates or to fall into negative stereotypes and middle-class condescension. Hanley skilfully maintains the delicate balance between these two, mixing social commentary with very personal accounts of her upbringing. Another danger is producing an insufferably dull account of social policy. Yet Hanley writes with an ironic, characteristically Brummie sense of humour and cutting sarcasm, which makes the book colourfully readable. Describing the difficulty of wandering around the estates as a flâneur, she observes: "There's a risk of looking like an intruder, an outsider or, more likely, a wally."

Estates provides its often barbed social commentary through intimate, personal accounts. But it also describes Lloyd George's "homes fit for heroes", designed as a bulwark against Bolshevik ideas; Aneurin Bevan's idealism and refusal to "take the coward's way out"; the cynicism of Harold Macmillan's "housing crusade"; and the Trojan horse of Margaret Thatcher's "right to buy" policy. This account is tremendously important in restating something that should be obvious to most observers, but is usually left out of discussions about hugging hoodies and urban decay. All the grand housing decisions have been made (until very recently) with out consulting the very people who would be most affected.

The geometric vision and minimalist zeal of architects such as Le Corbusier and Karel Teige, writes Hanley, infected the minds of town planners like an "intellectual flu". The generous subsidies given to local authorities and unscrupulous contractors conspired to edge the poor out of a say in their own destiny and contributed to the litany of disasters associated with concrete tower blocks. Whose idea was this? Someone who didn't have to live here.

A further obvious but necessary point is that the failings of housing estates are as much to do with underinvestment in infrastructure as with cosmetic problems. "All the back gardens and spacious front rooms in the world cannot compensate for access to work and education."

For me, Hanley's most valuable contributions to the subject are her insights into the psychological effects of life on estates. The book draws a link between the creation of uniform buildings, induced gloom and the prevalence of mental illness. The eerie silence means that psychosis is almost woven into the design of the houses: "You were put here and you don't know why, your environment makes as little sense as your life."

"The wall in the head" - an almost insurmountable mental barrier to social mobility - is one of the most resonant ideas in the book. Declaring herself an "escapee", Hanley details the low expectations of her estate education, being bullied and the need to learn "middle class" as a completely new language and set of cultural norms. I chuckled when she describes seeing the Guardian for the first time - yet the limitations placed on ambitions, and the paucity of escape routes, are seriously sinister: "If you want a lot out of life, go be a pop star."

I was surprised that Hanley doesn't comment on the current mania for luxury apartment builds. Aided by generous city-council regen eration budgets, £250,000, two-bed flats are springing up the length and breadth of Birmingham at the same time as politicians bemoan the decay and lawlessness in council estates. There's no clearer demonstration of official hypocrisy and how "cut off from the mass affluence" council tenants are.

Estates tactfully manages to avoid reading like a leftist rant: Hanley makes a number of positive suggestions for curing the ills of council estates and understands the very real need for speedy slum clearance. However, "it's not so much what was taken heed of as what was ignored". The real inhabitants of estates were often just an afterthought, and still are. Council tenants continue to be blamed for their own indigence and depicted as a subspecies genetically predisposed to violent crime and drug abuse. Estates are "holding cages for the feral and the lazy". I'd personally welcome more bilingual middle-class/ working-class escapees such as Hanley - the idea of "the wall in the head" deserves to be heard on both sides of the divide.

Soweto Kinch is a jazz musician. His most recent album, "A Life in the Day of B19: tales of the tower block", documents inner-city life in Birmingham

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack