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Falling for an 80s Brixton Idyll

Charlie Clemoes

13.07.2020

In Geoff Dyer’s debut novel The Colour of Memory, the writer and occasional novelist paints a pretty vivid picture of what it was like to live in Brixton, London, in the 1980s. Drawn from Dyer and his friends’ own experiences, the novel’s characters go through life with little concern for career or money, living within walking distance of each other, and spending most of their time hanging out, talking theory, listening to jazz, drinking, partying, sometime occasionally producing some art or writing, but more often than not doing very little. It’s all very pretentious, but lovely nonetheless.

Like the characters, the book is fairly aimless: there’s no plot, it’s more a sequence of episodes in the life of a bunch of bohemian drifters. One episode, though, remains especially present in my mind: the narrator’s efforts mid-way through the book to find somewhere to live after being evicted from a house share. It's been a while since I read the book and I don’t have it to hand right now but as I recall the scene opens with the narrator wandering into the housing office to register himself as homeless. Up until then he’d had a pretty hard time finding somewhere to live and things were starting to look pretty desperate, but upon explaining his situation to the housing officer he pretty much right away gets given a top floor flat in a medium-rise social housing bloc, right by where one of his friends lives. It’s all very casual. He’s asked hardly any questions by the housing officer and there’s evidently no waiting list. Brixton back then wasn’t somewhere so many people wanted to live. It may have been rich in culture and community, but it was also a really deprived area (it still is in some places), with high unemployment forcing some of its inhabitants into petty theft, burglary and other kinds of crime that kept property prices down.

The book doesn’t shy away from this aspect. Before properly moving into his new flat, the narrator proudly explains the efforts he takes to secure the door from break-ins: “some people knew about parquet floors, loft conversions and double glazing; what I knew was low-budget impregnability”. Later in the novel, the narrator and his friend Carlton get chased by a group of fascist skinheads, who target Carlton as a young black man. They’re only saved from serious harm by catching up to a moving bus and hopping on.

But despite the book’s obvious message that Brixton was barely hospitable to even the most intrepid yuppies, I still can’t get over how easy it was to get that flat! Even now, the tenancy for a social house in the UK is really secure and for that reason it’s always been highly desirable. In the space of one meeting, the narrator basically gets his hands on a subsidised rental flat in an inner London borough in perpetuity. In the same meeting, he also gets housing benefit to cover the already subsidised rent. So it was basically a house in inner London, right by your friends, practically for free, forever. Imagine the possibilities!

That this episode has stuck in my mind, years after reading the book, says something about how different the situation is now, how much I’ve come to assume housing is expensive and precarious, and how much I’ve internalised the ideas that secure housing is a privilege (not a right), accessible only to the rich.

Dyer and friends on the rooftop of his block of flats in Brixton in Summer 1986

Now, in the London Borough of Lambeth where Brixton is located, the demand for social housing is so high that there’s no longer even a waiting list. Anyone can still sign-up for social housing, but if you’re not already a social housing tenant, looking to downsize or having to be rehoused because of fire or flooding, or disabled or homeless with dependents, or an army veteran, you’ll be assigned to the fourth tier of need, with last dibs on any newly available social house. You could wait decades and you’d still be at the back of the queue.

I learned this from volunteering at the Peckham Citizens Advice Bureau in the neighbouring borough of Southwark. Citizens Advice is kind of like a one-stop-shop for legal advice and it’s really the only resource available to Britain’s working-class communities when they’re faced with a difficult financial or legal situation and need advice on their rights. I volunteered there two days a week and would be the first line of contact for people during drop-in sessions. You only got ten minutes with each “client”. This was never enough time. They first had to summarise their story, and then I had to work out a solution with my supervisor and print out information from the CAB online database, or, if their situation was urgent, desperate, complicated or all of the above, we had to pass them on to someone more senior.

The sheer number of people who came by with serious housing issues was staggering. Often you’d get people in rent arrears with their social landlord (usually one of these so-called arms-length management organisations created in the 1990s to marketise the social housing sector, and connected but independent of the municipality). Telling people how much it cost to rent the equivalent house on the private market was particularly difficult. You basically saw the rug pulled out from under them. They were about to be kicked out of their social house, they wouldn’t get another one and they couldn’t afford to rent anything like it in the private sector. It seemed like these people had up until that very moment been completely unaware of how difficult living in London had become for people on a low-income or unemployed. If you didn’t stop to think of the wider context, it could be hard to sympathise, especially since I was barely getting enough money together for a shitty, overpriced rental on the real outskirts of inner London.

I started volunteering at Citizens Advice in 2015, which was about a year after I read The Colour of Memory. Reflecting on my response to the book at the time, I feel like my concept of London’s housing problems was still relatively underdeveloped. This was when I was still living in an anti-squat in Greenwich. I’d moved there in 2012 and kept it for just under two years, at which point I moved into that shitty rental. The Greenwich anti-squat was pretty big, but really dilapidated, holes in the wall, rising damp, fraying carpets, mysterious stains on the wall, a completely inadequate kitchen and there was of course the constant risk of being evicted at any moment, with only a week’s notice (such is the nature of anti-squatting). Still, I seem to have few, if any, bad memories of living there. This is mainly thanks to the underlying fact that it was so cheap, something like £200/month, because only two of us were paying rent, while we sublet the spare rooms to the other two. This meant that the four of us could achieve something almost close to the lifestyle described in Dyer’s book. We wanted that too. We had all read the book, we felt akin to its characters, and like them, we made a virtue of idleness and drift.

Me and my friends on the roof of our house in Greenwich in Summer 2014

Except, of course, we still had to pay rent, and we received no housing benefit from the state, so we still all worked day jobs. Sure, we didn’t really work that much but it’s not like we had the entire day to ourselves and we certainly didn’t have a wider social circle nearby to insulate us from the guilt that we weren’t achieving anything. Because of the dole (unemployment insurance) and housing benefit, Dyer and his friends really could make do without working at all.

This historical moment was, of course, very temporary and highly contingent upon the slow destruction of the post-war consensus, especially in the US under President Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was never in the interest of Reagan, Thatcher, and their acolytes to provide free money and free housing to a bunch of bohemian layabouts. Rather, their goal was to increase unemployment to a scale that had hitherto been considered unthinkable and soften the blow with handouts. Under Thatcher, unemployment in the UK jumped from the roughly four percent it had been since the 1940s, to a high of twelve percent in the middle of the 1980s. Only in recent years has it ever come close to that postwar rate again, and mainly thanks to a combination of statistical manipulation and a massive expansion of casual service work.

For the emerging neoliberal order which Thatcher’s government ushered in, mass unemployment fulfilled a few important functions. First of all, it made it easier to erode worker pay and conditions, because if there’s more people milling around in need of a job the workers in a job are more expendable and less likely to challenge employers’ moves to make work more flexible and precarious. Besides that, it also diminished the power of trade unions, since there were fewer jobs (especially in unionised professions) and so fewer dues paying members. Meanwhile, replacing employment with state subsidy created a culture of dependency, where working class communities became much more reliant on welfare.

By the 1970s, an organised industrial proletariat had developed the power to shut down the economy in countries across the Western hemisphere. Many governments chose to neutralise this threat by giving labour a seat at the table. Thatcher and Reagan instead chose the nuclear option: destroy the heavy industries where labour was strongest and instead focus on the emerging finance, real estate and service sectors, most of which were under-organised, precarious, and concentrated in larger metropolitan areas such as London and New York. In the process, they destroyed whole communities in smaller towns outside of these new economic cores, forcing successive generations to wallow in joblessness or abandon their hometowns for the far-off metropolis.

It inevitably took decades to wean the UK economy off of high employment and heavy industry. In the meantime, there were a fair few people like Dyer and his friends who were able to take advantage of the giveaways used to pacify the jobless masses, enjoy the fruits of that decaying postwar system, and then find their feet in time to exploit the opportunities for individual gain afforded by the new system that took its place. Indeed, much of that generation who first poured into deprived inner city neighbourhoods like Brixton, were also the ones who eventually bought property there and sat back as its value increased tenfold, while the area’s original inhabitants were slowly priced out.

To be fair to him, Dyer is somewhat aware of all this. In an essay entitled “On the Roof”, he writes that it was “an idyllic time and—such is the nature of idylls—it is now a vanished time… I see now what a privileged historical niche I occupied for the first twenty-five or more years of my life. Free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant, and then—the icing on the cake—the dole!” But like much of the rest of his fellow GenXers he seems mostly unaware of his own responsibility for letting this happen: by rejecting the (by then unfashionable) working class institutions that fought and won all the free stuff Dyer talks about, by swapping collectivism and solidarity for a vague lifestyle politics and by effectively accepting capitalism as the only viable economic system, this generation has a lot to answer for.

And yet, the image of home Dyer’s book conjures still gives me a keen sense of possibility. It may have been temporary, and forged out of failure, but maybe it’s still worth holding onto: inner city living, near your friends, no need to work, free housing, time to be idle and maybe at some point be creative. To me, that's a pretty perfect idea of home, and one worth holding onto.

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Charlie Clemoes is a writer, editor and podcaster living in Amsterdam and originally from the South West of England. He works as a senior editor at Failed Architecture and hosts the Failed Architecture podcast. He's also intermittently associated with the Amsterdam-based design platform fanfare and has been teaching architectural theory at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie.