What do you say to a man who says we are all going to hell in a handcart? For this householder, no one could do anything to improve Walworth, the estate around him or his even own street. After some pushing, he went on to say that the problem lay with national government. They were spending good English taxpayers money on foreign aid rather than on our own schools, hospitals and roads. He implied that the money was wasted abroad and said that the priority needed to be with the people of this country.
He explained the reason for his fatalism about the estate. He quoted figures for the large number of people speaking no English, the high proportion unemployed and those of another nationality. He concluded that the future of the estate was doomed. The looming blocks of grey concrete that confronted his terraced house (with fabulous views over the city) should be demolished he said and never rebuilt again. He was articulate and clear but convinced that any hope had drained away years before.
Kathleen and I worked with him for some minutes sharing our apparently naive enthusiasm for community action. He was able to parry several of our thrusts but over the time we had with him, he visibly softened and began to engage. He is a carer for his elderly father who also lives locally and is of retirement age himself. He has no children, no investment in the future and feels he has no purchase on the levers of change. For him, the government is just self-serving; , the council, the community are demonic forces of destruction and he has nowhere to find shelter from their malevolence.
Faith in community
This encounter got me thinking about my view of community and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. I DO hold this faith firm that human beings are naturally made to find common cause with others, to bond together to better themselves, to face their enemies and to ward off the fiends of the modern day. I also believe passionately that we have undermined and alienated these deeper parts of ourselves, leaving us empty husks as individual consumers and customers. Our communities too have been eviscerated by the anti-social behaviour of the elites – councils, big business and the super-rich. We need to build a texture to our places of belonging – our communities – that is respectful of the past, vibrant today and creative of a bright new future.
Confronted with this man’s sense of utter hopelessness, such an unsophisticated vision seemed to have little to say. But as we worked at the edges of his robust defence, his deeper self began to be revealed. We was unsettled when our vision was not glossy or large-scale; that sort of thing, I feel, he had heard before and dismissed. When we asked whether he knew others in the area, he pointed vaguely to either side indicating only his immediate neighbours. Did they want to discuss their views with us? Would he like to hear for himself what they thought?
It’s hard when the world you knew has disintegrated all around you. All you once valued – friends, institutions, networks, pubs and even streets – have been obliterated. I have not experienced that level of dislocation for myself, at least not at a communal level. The very 1950s blocks that stand witness to this man’s daily grind were not there in his local childhood; they replaced what in hindsight seems to him a vibrant community of back-to-backs. And the solidarity and hard work of those days has been replace with anomie and unemployment.
We pressed for an opening to show that we were listening to him – whilst clearly disagreeing with his fatalism. We urged him to trust us to consider new more positive ways of seeing the world around him. He couldn’t come out to any meeting he said as he was a full-time carer for his father and too busy; he had no time. He was growing old so had no commitment to the future – he had no hope – but he would at least offer us his contact details, he would stay in touch. He has opened the door to us – in more ways than one – and we are gifted his trust. Now we need to be faithful to our belief that his spirit will find a new expression with his neighbours.