Problem Families

Ian Jack

  • From Moorepark to Wine Alley: The Rise and Fall of a Glasgow Housing Scheme by Sean Damer
    Edinburgh, 209 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 85224 622 6

Southern Britons may be forgiven for thinking that most people in Scotland grew up in cottages among the purple bens, or in tenements dwarfed by shipyard cranes, or in douce villas where grace was said over every scone. This is the legacy of Scottish literature and Scottish comedy, which in the course of this century has replaced one romantic stereotype with another – J.M. Barrie’s soft mothers with William McIlvanney’s hard men, Harry Lauder’s but-and-bens with Billy Connolly’s tenements – and it is in large measure a lie. In the decades between Attlee and Thatcher, Scotland could fairly be described as a nation of council tenants. During these years the towns and cities of the Lowlands accelerated a process which had begun before the war and decanted their populations into houses built by and rented from the local authority, an internal migration which gave Scotland the highest ratio of public to private housing of any country in Western Europe, and higher even than many countries in the Eastern bloc. Old industrial towns such as Coatbridge still accommodate four-fifths of their population in council houses. England, even its New Towns, has never seen the like; but then England, even in Victorian Salford or Limehouse, never quite attained the degree of squalor which Scotland’s new council houses were supposed to remedy.

They can be wearisome places, these council estates. Long looping crescents of grey pebble-dashed houses, a few shops selling processed food and fags, a bus shelter with the glass removed. Here the most regular visitor from the outside world is a chiming ice-cream van. Abandon wishful thoughts of the ploughman’s fiddle or the riveter’s rattle; since the Fifties most of Scotland has grown up to the first few bars of ‘Greensleeves’ or ‘Under the Bridges of Paris’, calling the faithful to satisfy the Scottish appetite for sugar and animal fats.

Their dreariness was not of course intended. It is easy to forget that Scotland’s council estates have a history – some are now more than sixty years old – and that this history begins with the rustic idealism which imagined that a Briton’s (or at least an Englishman’s) perfect living arrangement was a two-storey cottage with a garden front and back. If the ‘garden cities’ of the Home Counties were the happiest consequences of this idea, then Moorepark, the subject of Sean Damer’s study, must be one of the saddest. Moorepark is not the most infamous of Scotland’s housing estates: Paisley’s Ferguslie Park, Edinburgh’s Craigmillar and Glasgow’s Blackhill occupy in the national demonology the place which was vacated when the old Gorbals came crashing down. But it is still a hell-hole, a hopeless patch of shabby poverty located just outside Govan, which is Glasgow’s old shipbuilding quarter. Govanites used to know it as ‘Wine Alley’, cheap fortified wine being the last refuge of the Glasgow drinker. Now they call it ‘the Acid Scheme’, and talk about drug salesmen with guns.

Yet once it was a place of hope, famed in Govan for its bathrooms. Glasgow Corporation built Moorepark in the Thirties to receive families displaced by slum-clearance projects elsewhere in the city. The scheme comprised about five hundred houses and flats built on 16 acres of land next to a railway line. As homes, they were hardly luxurious. Kitchen equipment was confined to one cold-water tap and a coal bunker. The only electrical outlet, other than the lights, was one five-amp socket in the main bedroom. Nor were the rents cheap. When the first tenants moved to Moorepark in 1935 they paid on average £1 15s 8d a week and earned on average £2 10s. They included shipwrights, caulkers, cabinet-makers and coppersmiths, labourers, locomotive drivers, widows and spinsters. The rent seems to have been paid over happily enough. These people were delighted to be where they were – bathrooms! – and their memories of those early days are vivid and moving enough to survive the author’s decision to transcribe their interviews, relentlessly but not always accurately, in the Glasgow patois of a Kelman novel.

For example, Mrs A: ‘When we got settled in here, the first thing was a bath. We thought that oh it wis marvellous to have a bath.’ Or Mr B: ‘When ah came an looked at it [the scheme], it lookt a beauty, it really wis, the place was bran new, toilets an everything; there was nuhin more that ah wantit. Ah use-tae like it tae come home tae ... [the gardens] was all beautiful, when we first came down it wis like an oasis.’ Others remembered how men from mean tenements turned into enthusiastic amateur gardeners overnight, and how they would work together to bring some prettiness to the raw landscape. Families invaded each other’s homes for Saturday-night tea-parties. In the summer, women and children waved out of their back windows to the holiday trains on their way to the Clyde coast. It seems a remarkable happiness until you remember that in the Glasgow of that time only a fifth of the houses had four rooms or more, a quarter of the proportion in most big English cities. As Moorepark made up part of that lucky fifth, Mr B’s ‘oasis’ is not too wide of the mark.

So what went wrong? The obvious answers of unemployment (where are the caulkers now?), rising expectations and declining civic behaviour are not quite enough. Those are general to Central Scotland, but by no means every Scottish housing scheme is like Moorepark. Dreary they may be, but many of them are still the quiet respectable places they were thirty years ago. I grew up in one and, by coincidence, read this book while convalescing in my childhood home. It seemed to me as I lay in my bedroom of thirty-odd years before that nothing much had changed. Outside, wee girls scuffed about in their mother’s high-heels. The ice-cream van came and went. Men tended their gardens. There were many more cars and even some neighbours who, as my mother remarked, ‘rolled up’ in taxis – the ‘rolling up’ conveying frivolity and strong drink – but a hypodermic abandoned in the gutter here would be talked about for weeks.

Not so in Moorepark, where the used syringes can be crunched underfoot. According to Damer, fear is rampant: ‘fear of violence, fear of Hepatitis B, fear of Aids’. Burglary is commonplace and work hard to find. Moneylenders employ ‘stick-men’, or enforcers, to beat up defaulters. Many of the houses are empty and many more occupied by young single people who lack the required number of ‘housing points’ to move to a better area. They throw wild parties and barter heroin on the street corners. Some become prostitutes. Naturally, Moorepark has ‘difficult-to-let’ status on the council’s books: nobody wants to move there, it is a ‘problem estate’. Damer asks the older residents who they blame, but their answers are not often the ones Damer wants to hear.

Two voices constantly quarrel in this book. One belongs to the tenants Damer has interviewed, the other to Damer himself. The tenants’ view of their estate’s downfall is quite straightforward. It began during the war when they took away the railings that separated the gardens, and grew with years of council neglect when Glasgow rushed to build more houses and forgot to repair those it already owned. ‘Roughs’ and ‘riff-raff’ moved in. The bad drove out the good.

Damer, however, does not easily take to terms such as ‘bad’ and ‘good’; even the idea of ‘problem tenants’ gives him some difficulty. As an ‘unrepentant Marxist’ with a sociological training, he argues that these are ‘ideological representations’ invented by the bourgeoisie – particularly in Scotland the Calvinist bourgeoisie – to ‘organise the consent of the working class to participate in a fundamentally unequal society under the guise of democracy’. The split between ‘roughs’ and ‘respectables’ in the Scottish working class, therefore, was not the natural perception of the workers themselves but an idea implanted to fragment them and weaken their struggle with capital. The state moralised the upper sections of labour by ‘flooding their culture with bourgeois ideology’, and demoralised the people beneath by describing them as feckless, drunken and criminal, me undeserving poor.

This is a familiar theory, but Damer’s narrow interpretation of it begs a lot of questions. Did the Scottish working class inherit no values at all from their rural forefathers? How should a pure, untained working class have behaved? And were the Scottish working class really such suckers? Were all their ideas, of good and bad and right and wrong, of God, of manners, of self-endeavour, of a rough and ready egalitarianism ... were all these simply a conspiratorial implant from the class above them? And if so, what are we to make of the Scottish radicals, including Marxists, who sprang almost entirely from this ‘respectable’ class and rarely departed from its tenets of sobriety and industry? As the Glasgow writer Cliff Hanley once remarked of his days in the Independent Labour Party: ‘The gutters will run with tea ...’

More relevant to the history of Moorepark is Damer’s statement that in the rehousing schemes of the Twenties and Thirties the state managed ‘to reproduce the very splits in the working class it had engineered in the Victorian years’. Set aside the question of ‘engineering’ and Damer does have the evidence on his side. In Glasgow at least, the poorest people from the worst slums tended to get the worst of the new council housing. The city’s earliest estates, built under the Housing Acts of 1919 and 1924, were well-designed and expensive: they are still prized among the people on Glasgow’s housing list. But the legislation subsidised property rather than people, and even with that subsidy only the better-off could afford the rents. The poor had to wait until the 1930 Act, which made slum clearance its priority and permitted cheaper and denser new houses of inferior design.

But from these facts Damer makes a large jump into theory. The emergence of the ‘problem tenant’ label in the Thirties, he says, ‘can be construed as a malevolent attack by capital on the principle that the least well-off sections of the working class were to be rehoused as of right by the state. It was an attempt to deny that the capitalist mode of production in this country had been responsible for the slums, and to argue that its very worst victims suffered only from self-inflicted wounds.’ He offers very little to support this idea and the evidence in his book tends to contradict it. According to Damer, problem tenants and families were first mentioned in a government report in 1930, to be defined sympathetically as ‘the halt and maim of society with a heritage of misfortune not always of their own making’. They could be problems to the management because they did not pay their rents or maltreated the house. They could be problems to the neighbours because they got drunk, quarrelled noisily and gave a ‘good hammering’ to their wives. But far from consigning them to the dustbin of the undeserving poor, the state planned to rescue them. ‘The bad tenant will learn more rapidly by eye than by ear; example is better than precept. We therefore favour the principle of separating unsatisfactory tenants from one another ... and interspersing them among tenants of a good type.’

This was a purposeful strategy of moralisation. But whether it was a capitalist device in Damer’s crude sense is a different question – here splits were to be healed rather than widened – and it is certainly possible to argue that the terms ‘problem tenant’ and ‘problem family’ emerged because socialism, or at least civic idealism, had taken on the responsibility of housing the poor and saw it, like education, as a way to improve their condition. After all, families were not ‘problems’ for the private landlord in the old days: he could swiftly evict them, he had few responsibilities outside his own self-interest. But the new public landlords saw housing in a much wider and more uplifting sense. They were proud of what they had built and invested their houses with a purpose far beyond revenue in rents. Families which obstructed this idealism, however misplaced, became problems not only for their managers and neighbours, but also for the ideal which said that bright new homes would ‘cure’ the human failure which planners believed had been caused by the slums.

In socialist Glasgow, the housing department began to moralise their tenants with a vengeance. The scale – indeed the cheek – of their supervision seems amazing today. Moore-park had a resident factor, or manager, who made sure council writ was obeyed (Mr B: ‘Even the cats knew him – that’s no story – the kids all knew him, they knew tae obey him when he said anything’). Sanitary inspectors kept their eye on the state of the common staircases and gardens, while nurse inspectors, or ‘Green Ladies’, inspected homes for cleanliness and bugs and generally kept tenants up to the mark. In the first year, 1935, they made 2395 inspections and found 488 houses ‘clean’, 27 ‘fair’ and none dirty. Only 25 contained bugs and were successfully disinfected.

The negligent were taken to Govan magistrate’s court and punished, and had their misdemeanours recorded in the pages of the Govan Press. ‘Five tenants appeared in court yesterday charged with having failed to wash the stairs in accordance with sanitary regulations ... sanitary inspectors said tenants got cards on which dates for sweeping and washing stairs were set out. Jimmy failed to comply on February 6. The sanitary officials chalk-marked the stair. Mark was still there on February 12 ... 2s 6d fine or five days.’ Of course, there was resentment. But Mr B, looking back from the unsupervised present, feels a loss. ‘They taen away our supervisors – the factor, the sanitary, even the police – ye never see them in here except they’re liftin someone. They never walk around anymore. The factor ... my, he wis a rotter, always shoutin at them tae get their windaes clean. But he cared whit the place looked like, you know?’

By the time Damer first went to live on the estate, as a ‘researcher’ in 1971, all this was well in the past, with the heroin yet to come. Gardens were devastated, windows bricked up, rubbish and broken glass filled the children’s playpark. The only shop arrived in the form of a ‘Pakivan’ every morning and left every night. Damer noticed a little girl who regularly beat up her doll and yelled: ‘You fuckin hoor, that’ll teach you to spend ma money on drink. ‘For Mrs A, this was no surprise. ‘They hear that much badness and they see that much badness in their own house ... their mother and father shoutin at them and callin them all the baskets o the day, only that’s no the word they’re usin. They start fightin and ye hear stuff gettin thrown about ... oh wives are treated like durt here. ‘Mrs A is an original tenant who moved to Moorepark as a girl, and something of a miracle. She could have moved to better estates but has chosen to stay. She is respectable, forthright, brave and generous, with, as Damer notes approvingly, ‘a well-developed sense of sisterhood’. She distributes food and clothes to the needy, yells at badly-behaved children and faces up to vandals who jump on her car. And yet what finally does Damer have to say about her? ‘I do not think Mrs A can be blamed or criticised for using moralistic rather than class terms in her day-to-day analysis of what is going on in the scheme. She has never been offered a class analysis of any thing ... in her Calvinistic language, she was re-articulating her childhood experience and, unfortunately, reaffirming what is frequently the rhetoric of the local state, particularly in Central Scotland.’

By the end of the book, it is unclear whether Damer believes that problem tenants exist as a reality or not. On the one hand, they are an invention of bourgeois ideology, compounded by a phenomenon known as ‘displacing the label’ in which the really bad people always live elsewhere. (Damer quotes an American anthropologist who discovered in a Mexican village that ‘the witches were always accused in the end of the village furthest from his informant.’) On the other hand, he finds that he ‘cannot be romantic about the casualties of Glasgow’s capitalism ... it is a horrifying experience to have to live next door to such people.’ And he admits, which is big of him, that for working-class people the idea ‘often has a basis in reality’.

As children, small Calvinists no doubt, we never had much trouble identifying these unfortunate families. A tell-tale sign was the path beaten diagonally from the street to the front door across what had once been a lawn, ignoring the right angle of the council path. A few of them lived quite close. It is reassuring, from this distance, to think of them as ‘bourgeois constructions’, but I still don’t want to live next door.