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Invisible Britain: Telling the stories of those so often overlooked

With a foreword by actor Michael Sheen, a new book of portraits and interviews gives a voice to people affected by social issues such as austerity, Brexit, deindustrialisation, nationalism and cuts to public services.

“People don’t want to be felt sorry for; they just want to be heard.”

Marie McCormack, Glasgow

Ask people if they could have any superpower then what would they choose and invisibility would come pretty high up the list. To move unseen, unheard, no one aware of your existence. The freedom to observe while being unobserved yourself. Leaving no trace and no witness. Of course, this is with the assumption that you are in control of your own visibility or otherwise. That you still have agency. To have invisibility imposed upon you with no guarantee that you will ever be seen again is another thing entirely. Invisibility is not disappearance.

As I write this, there is a video online that has, at last count, had 14.5 million views of a guy doing a magic trick using his unwitting younger brother. He covers the boy in a sheet, then in a room full of expectant friends and family members, he removes the sheet with a flourish and, lo and behold, the boy has disappeared. The rest of the family are in uproar, shocked and amazed by the trick, calling out for the lost boy. The boy, however, is still there, looking on, bemused, as his family goes crazy in front of him. He is, of course, not invisible at all. It’s all a prank, pre-planned, to trick him into thinking he can no longer be seen. A state of being that mere minutes before he might have dreamed of, fantasised about – but now he is tasting something of its reality. His bemusement quickly turns to distress, and soon he is sobbing, terrified, desperately pleading with his family to see him, to make them aware that he still exists. To once again be revealed as having presence.

Invisible Britain is a book of revelation, also. The faces in these photographs look out at us on an equal footing. Asking to be seen and heard. Not as case studies or statistics. People. Lives being lived. Each telling us a small but significant part of their story. Not as background colour to grit up a screen drama, or as council estate fodder for a tabloid scrounger story. These aren’t the bit parts – today these are the heroes.

Not that they are some homogeneous lump of noble suffering. Privilege doesn’t have a monopoly on complexity. There are many voices here, multiple, contradictory points of view – frustrated, hopeful, angry, scared, defiant, passionate, compassionate. There are things in these stories that are shocking.

Things that moved me to tears. Things I disagreed with and things that are hard to accept. They get to speak for themselves, and be seen as they are.

Poverty porn it is not. As Reis Morris of Notting Hill says, “… poorness … that’s not the reason. The reason is the system.” Marie, who I quoted above, says, “We are all vulnerable.” She’s right. We can all struggle no matter what our backgrounds or circumstances. We can all suffer, but some of us have access to meaningful, effective, well resourced support when we need it and some of us don’t. These stories reveal communities where demand for support services is increasing but funding for them continues to disappear. And in this case it’s very real, not some parlour room trick.

What these stories don’t reveal are people passively bemoaning their lot and waiting for someone to rescue them. Many of these voices will unflinchingly tell you what they have experienced and how it has given them a burning desire to commit to helping others going through the same. That is ultimately where hope lies. People helping each other to help themselves.

One of the most powerful things that this book has left me with is the image of the children’s faces in some of these pictures. They look out at us, direct, sober, expectant. They ask us a question – “Will you see me? Will you dare to put aside your covering sheets and your tricks and your feigned shock and concern, and, instead, will you simply see me?”

Billy McMillan, Easterhouse

“If you say Easterhouse to someone, the first thing they think of is normally gangs, violence and drugs.”

Easterhouse is the most geographically isolated suburb of Glasgow. It’s seven miles from the city centre; literally the furthest point at which you are still in Glasgow. It’s wedged between the M8 to the south and the countryside to the north. It feels like it should be a separate town and not part of Glasgow, ’cause many people here don’t identify with the city. I’d say I’m from Easterhouse rather than Glasgow.

My family were amongst the first people to be moved into this area. I was born in the old Easterhouse, when the gangs were still a major power. Violence and drugs were much more prominent then. If you say Easterhouse to someone, the first thing they think of is normally gangs, violence and drugs. At one point that was the reality, but it’s never been predominant. You’re looking at roughly 120 people at any given time who were involved in that. There are 5,000 people that live here. When you tell people you come from Easterhouse – and they think you’re possibly going to stab them – that’s an immediate misunderstanding.

It’s easy to say that Easterhouse is a better place now than it was in 1999 when I was born. Drug use has stagnated a wee bit recently and the gangs have disappeared completely. Houses have been knocked down and rebuilt. Most of the schools have been knocked down and rebuilt. I’ve seen the area change from a new town to what now resembles a traditional suburb. You could argue that this transformation is responsible for the decline in culture. It’s responsible for the decline in drug use, but most of the issues that were in Easterhouse before the gangs are the issues that caused the gangs, and are still present: sectarianism, child poverty, unemployment, health…

There’s the view that progression is a good thing, and then there’s a sentimental attachment to the past. In many respects, progression in the housing developments has been for the best. Most of the houses that were pulled down here didn’t have central heating or indoor toilets. But it feels like a backhanded attempt to raise property prices. Easterhouse was built for 40,000 to 50,000 people and there’s now less than 5,000 here. Most of the people moved on, which is just a general trend of gentrification.

There was the belief in the 50s and 60s that by moving people to the greenbelt they might become healthier and get the soot out of their lungs. Traditionally, once an area industrialises, the middle and upper classes move out to the suburbs, while the working classes remain in the inner city. In the 60s and 70s the plan seems to have been to move the working classes out of the inner cities and move the middle classes back in. There was no way for people to travel from Easterhouse to the city centre; there was no regular bus. There’s no amenities here. There’s no jobs. It felt very much like the area was set up to fail.

I’d like to see a better education system in Easterhouse. I’d like to see more employment opportunities, more community opportunities and better housing. Building the most appropriate housing for the people here, as opposed to simply building houses that appear on the surface nicer and newer or fancier.

Corinne Jones, North Kensington

“There was a family on my floor: a mum, dad, sister and two brothers. None of them made it out.”

I lived in Grenfell Tower on the 17th floor. It was my first permanent property in ten years. Everything was temporary before that. I never felt comfortable sleeping in my room. I never thought of a fire, but the silver cladding on the building just reminded me of the Twin Towers. In the night, I used to wake up sometimes just thinking something would happen, and have that panic inside of me.

There was a family on my floor: a mum, dad, sister and two brothers. None of them made it out. The older brother had moved out a few months before because he got married, so it’s just him now. No brothers, no sister, no mum, no dad.

In the week after the fire, we were put in a single hotel room for the four of us for one week. I had to fight to get out of that. I went down to Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council offices on the Friday to complain, and was told to wait until Monday and they would sort it out, which I refused to do. Luckily, I had a good key worker that was able to fight our corner and get us a hotel that had two interconnected double rooms.

We were there for just under six months. There was no kitchen and we didn’t even have a microwave inside the room. It was a pretty expensive hotel, so you’d have some people in there that had money. It just didn’t feel right to be sitting down with people who were on their holidays. We never ate dinner at the hotel, because the food that they cooked wasn’t food that the kids were used to eating. And I had to go to my mum’s house every day after school just so the kids could do their homework.

There are people that are still in hotels. The council told us in November that we could choose a temporary property as long as it’s within a certain price bracket. I chose about 15 properties. Six weeks went by and nothing had happened. So I had to get in touch with a housing minister, after which I received a call from the council to say they’d got keys to a property for me to come and view the following day. I then moved in two days later. That’s what we have to deal with to actually move forward in this situation, because if you just relax and expect them to do their work, they’re not going to. You have to fight with them for everything and keep putting pressure on them.

We moved out of the hotel and into temporary accommodation at the end of November, but we still don’t know where we’re going to live in the long term. In February we were offered a flat I was happy with, and I tentatively accepted it based on fire safety and electrical checks being done. We were meant to move in there in May, but the flat failed the fire safety check. The checks should have been done before we even saw the properties, before they were even offered out to us. It’s like a numbers game, so that they can say ‘We’ve got another family that has accepted a property’. It looks good on their books.

Now we’re back at square one. I’ve got to accept that’s not the house we’re moving into. I’m not sure what’s next, but I want our next move to be permanent. I didn’t even want to move into temporary housing, because I didn’t want to have to go through the rigmarole of moving again.

As much as we can talk about the events of what happened the night of the fire, we are still in a fight. We are still at war. I’ve asked the council what type of training have the senior staff members had? Because it seems like they are not trained to deal with us. Sometimes they take it really personally and I don’t think they should, because we are upset and quite rightly so. A lot of times you can see them not being able to handle the situation in a good way.

The people responsible for the numerous different failings, from the windows that were made out of PVC, to the cladding that had polystyrene in it, need to go to jail. Everything was combustible. And on top of that, they underspent on the whole refurbishment. The senior members in the council were putting pressure on them to make sure that they underspent, in a borough that has the most amounts of money reserves in the whole of Europe. It’s just so insulting. I wish I didn’t have to deal with them at all. But we have no choice.

Michael Sheen is an actor with numerous film and TV credits to his name. A few include; The Queen, Caligula, Frost Nixon and Hamlet. He is also an ambassador and patron of numerous organisations including UNICEF UK, Social Enterprise UK and Credit Unions Wales. Michael is the founder of the End High Cost Credit Alliance.

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published by Policy Press on 1 November. Editor Paul Sng will be touring the book with a series of Q&As and screenings of the film that helped inspire the book, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, from 1-10 November. Dates and details via www.invisiblebritain.com