“We each are primal energy. Whenever we decide to contribute, to heal and to serve – we effortlessly engineer devotion, community and change through growth. We are the world that we create.” An ancient Eastern philosophy.
This blog is your chance to join the conversation and get book extracts, new evidence and related material: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill – Surviving Universal Credit: Transcending Hardship & Exposing Injustice – a new free social media book from Gary Knapton
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit & Transcending Hardship: a new social media book by Gary Knapton
Fireworks are synonymous with red letter day celebrations – most obviously Guy Fawkes night and New Year’s Eve. Yet with a year-round bird’s eye view of a big city and its suburbs, I soon came to realise that the truth is otherly.
Sure, the landmark celebrations manifest a popular – near blanket use of pyrotechnics – but individual celebrations light up the night sky too – and they happen all year round on any day you care to pick. New births, marriages, prison releases, sporting victories, birthdays, anniversaries.
Looking out at the world from on top of Heartbreak Hill, I see them all.
Strontium red, copper blue and barium green regularly caress the walls of my lounge, kitchen and bedroom. At this altitude, sky stuff doesn’t just flash onto the window panes. It literally enters the depth of the living space. And such as fireworks constitute a most welcome invasion.
At distance, I will see but not hear the displays. An arc of cobalt or a line of sulphur climbing gently into the black infinity will no sooner catch my eye than corrupt and fade. Devoid of noise, fireworks lose their sense of ferocity and become a majestic, silent dance. Poetic. Soft at the edges. Graceful as formation dancers in water. Furtive as Morse code messages. Seductive as runway models.
Closer to home, I will often hear but not see the event – perhaps blocked by a building or should it be emanating from a position behind my viewpoint, implying its presence in a mute spasmodic sequence of long-fallen disco light projections or simply denying me any visual sense of itself at all. Now the fireworks encircle me with a stealthy imminent menace on a different spectrum – the electric hum of a drone of bees giving way to a frenzy of cracking and spitting – like food on oil burning in a pan.
And then on an equal number of occasions, I’ll get to enjoy audio and video combined. All these displays are on a more human scale – lasting for only a minute or two, if that, and featuring a modest armoury of technologies. Bearing witness, I am reminded of days gone by and a world where everything wasn’t taken to its logical mighty conclusion. Where audiences were local, events were unrecorded, peer pressures were anathema and vanity was but a child.
A flight of swallows. A flock of swifts. A wedge of swans. A skein of geese. Heartbreak Hill’s proximity to the docks ensures a vibrant mix of coastal and inland birds in flight. A colony of seagulls headed for the ship canal will ring in the new day – even beating the 5 am sunrise in the summer months. Each bird flies at its preferred height. A raft of ducks down on the water will break ground to form a brace before its members take off in unison and get airborne into a flock that usually only ever ascends to about one hundred feet above the earth – each bird almost touching the next to make the most compact shadow across the sky yet still way down below my homestead viewing point. Swans cruise higher. Geese higher still. The truth that birds fly in levels only gets demonstrably known by people who live in clouds.
The Canada Geese play out a delightful if arduous ceremony – the pack leader standing proudly near the water’s edge and calling its far-flung comrades down to the Central Bay at Agecroft with an intermittent bark that gradually increases in volume and urgency. Eventually, the response arrives as its brethren emerge and waddle across the grassland from under the bushes on Salford Wharf – others paddle in from waterborne positions and more still make landing out of the air. Each new arrival confirms its compliance with a nasal honk of its own such that within five or ten minutes a busy crowd of geese are reaching fever pitch. They all turn eastward in their own time and the crowd begins to surge down the landing pads, from a laborious wide-swing strut to a more purposeful forward , faster stride – all the time the noise level increasing – like a statement of intent. The gaggle takes off in a dense cloud of furiously flapping wings which deliver a whooshing, walloping thud like bedsheets beaten on a balcony or washing line. Yet once airborne, the gang swiftly turns north and flies a mile up the hill past my block before arcing off east again onto the downriver flats of the Irwell floodplain where it meets Castlefield near the city of Manchester. The collective has worked out a shortcut and simply bypasses a large meander in the river at Exchange Quay by taking a route inland.
I hear birds walking on the roof above my ceiling as I lay in bed at night. The patter of balance and patrol. Sometimes scattergun. Sometimes rhythmic like the snare drumbeat of a marching band.
High-rise audio on these old, cold and creaking, squeaking social housing blocks, or Chin Music as I call it, is like no other. This is Manchester and at these latitudes Mother Nature communicates in an Atlantic burst of original Skepta and Stormzy rants not platitudes.
A delightful surprise, when I first moved in, was rainfall. Not so much the sound that raindrops make when they come into contact with solid or liquid surfaces. It’s the sound that showers of water make when they pass you mid-air and continue their descent beyond earshot. It’s a consequence of altitude and if I stand by an open window as a light downpour sets in over Salford and Manchester this unique light bristle whoosh lends to the illusion that I am in the sky and travelling with the storm. The sensation of speed is awesome and the very volume of water contained in rainfall somehow makes itself known to me. It’s like taking a shower without getting wet. Overall, a very refreshing and uplifting experience. Humbling too, because the sky is a big place and I am in it.
If the storm is heavy these sounds will be drowned out by the crescendo pulse of rainfall crashing hard against my windows and the surfaces of the streets down below where the piercing hiss of car tyres ploughing through an aqua sheen on the converse camber of segmented tarmac roadworks rises like the wail of a banshee premonition.
Sounds travel up from the ground with astonishing efficiency – arriving at my flat with, if anything, a newly rinsed and far-flung echoing quality – their potency depending on their tone, pitch and provenance.
Acoustics, driven and pronounced by the wind, deliver a wide variety of ear candy that play tricks. I once had a neighbour who was an acoustics engineer for a music producer and he explained to me how sound ricochets off buildings in its path, turning corners on its journey. The upshot is a kind of illusion. Some everyday noises emanating from nearby – such as the beep of the pelican crossings down on the roads that encircle and lead away from the main entrance onto Heartbreak Hill. Or the airbrakes of buses making stops outside. Such inner city sound production and reverb might disappear totally for a few days and then return with crystal clarity, while long-distant sources of noise are thrown into range. Teenagers shrieking in playful delight as they walk home from a school five miles distant. A dog barking on the Littleton Road floodwater meadows – the former home of Manchester Racecourse and before that, the stunning folly of a Dublin physician’s crazy castellated manor house that became known as John Fitzgerald’s Castle Irwell. The pervasive drills and hammers of construction work in the adjacent city a couple of miles from here. Helicopters filming the match unfolding at United’s Old Trafford stadium or music concerts in the Cricket Ground of the same name will swing into view, silently. At other times, their blades will cut through the air like a snow blizzard yet when I look out, they are a good few miles off.
The city lives and breathes and to make a home here is to sit in the centre of all its vibrancy. All sounds are distorted and shaved. Emulated, garbled, contorted and coined and sheared and newly marbled. Engraved and re-engineered to create a unique piece of music. This Cotton City Orchestra. It might come across as you read this like some big commotion but it is not as rabble-drawn as I am making out. Everything somehow softens into a mellow background murmur. To live high up in the sky is not just to enjoy the amazing light and astounding views.
Like a long, slow exhalation of breath, the air whistles in clear pockets and rings out softly in currents of hope and question.
Much like when you stand high on a hill or a cliff edge – and you catch the near silent sneer of the mighty sky. There’s a solitude born out in the fact that all sources of noise are so far away, way off down below. I am in a tent at the end of a crane. I live in the hall of the mountain king. Each springtime I hear sparrows making a nest in the outer wall of my kitchen near the extractor fan – their rattlesnake tweets as clear as if I am holding them in my hands. Our energy fields conjoined.
At night a bunkered promissory, wholesome emptiness hangs with me up here in the clouds, co-existing alongside a deep-seated whirring whisper born of aggregates. An essence of old solitude: the night breeze on every leaf in every tree within a ten-mile radius. The soulful sigh of ever-so-distant cars on ever-so-distant roads. The coattails of the North Wind as it banks off the foothills of the Pennine mountains and scurries across the moors and down onto the Salford meadows onto which Heartbreak Hill looks out. Giving life to all the wind farms in its path. By daylight, I get to see every step of this story playing out from my north-facing kitchen window. Yet by night a few dozen terraced street lights flicker and the footlights of churchyards and their spires tail off into black nothingness where thirty miles of rolling countryside sit. This in sharp contrast to my east-facing main windows – where the chaotic neon hedonism of city nightlife and glorious human iniquity never lets up.
Darkness amplifies the sound. Charges it. Adding a sense of anticipation and emphasising the capricious, pseudo-nautical nature of my residential vantage.
I hang above the city, precariously perched. The quotidian dance of her sights and sounds become me. Inform me. Absorb, reflect and own me. I know her well yet she remains resolutely anonymous. Of all my neighbours, she’s my favourite.
An extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book on Surviving Universal Credit in the inner city. By Gary Knapton
Transcending hardship together: a diary
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
Anna & Sasha
When I first moved onto Heartbreak Hill my immediate neighbour to the right was a big Spanish bloke called Fernando. He worked the night shift as a cashier and general-hand in a local 24-hour petrol station. Most times I didn’t see him as much as hear him coming and going. The key turning in the lock of his front door or the muffled patter of faint bass drums or the intermittent garbled audio of a television show. I’d get a nod and a smile when we arrived or left at the same time. Not much, but it was a kind and genuine smile that held deep columns of brotherly affection. You could tell just from this gesture alone that the guy was not Anglo-Saxon as we do the cursory nods of day-to-day passing in a much more tokenistic and mechanical way. Wooden with a shoe shine finish. We may both subconsciously and consciously have grown to be so instinctively self-important and time-pressed that this simple ceremonial gesture is perhaps a little too laborious for you and I, the glorious. Somewhere between the understated British and the “killing-it” American, there’s a broad channel of authentic, warm, humane Latino.
Then, after only a couple of months into my term, Fernando was suddenly gone and my new neighbours were a late-twenties/early thirties couple from Latvia. I think Anna had been living in England longer than Sasha as while his English was initially passable hers was fluent. Even the mannerisms and intonations. I thought she was British for a while. You have to talk to Anna for a long time before you get a real sense that she originates elsewhere. That’s how good her command of our language is. You know like when you’re watching Wimbledon on TV in the summer and the tennis players that have been on the global Grand Slam circuit for a few years end up so fluent in English that the only giveaway, besides their fame and their name, is an underlying and often subtle drawn-out twang or the occasional tripped inflection. Dutch footballers are the same. They end up with a slight hiss on an over- worked “s” but apart from that consonant, you’d never know. The only other giveaway is how good their vocabulary is.
Foreigners are always better than natives at vocabulary because they have, literally, swallowed a dictionary. That’s what language learning has you doing. I recall when I was younger having to look up “nonchalant” because my Dutch mate kept using it – correctly I might add. And I’d never heard of it. And my mate Verl from France throws out “diffident” and “obstreperous” – the latter of which I can only just say, let alone casually drop into a sentence correctly.
I first met Sasha when he knocked on my door and I answered. He didn’t have a basket of fruit and some home-made brownies and a bottle of red but then again I didn’t pull back the storm-screen and walk him down my verandah and round past my apple orchard by way of a tour of my New England homestead. But in actual fact, thinking about it, we very much did our own version of American middle-class greeting. Not so much Desperate Housewives as desperate high-rise.
I lent him my vacuum cleaner and my wifi router password and he gave me some delicious Latvian chocolates. Have you seen the Latvians with their chocolates? Get some Baltic friends. They somehow always have a small mountain of dark chocolates individually wrapped in brightly coloured tin foil and those fancy plastic wrappers with an inner and outer sheet, much like how Quality Street were presented up until about the 1980’s. And they usually keep them in a big glass wide-necked jar or bowl like Willy Wonka or your gran. Sasha and Anna aren’t the first Latvian acquaintances that I have made so I’m not just making sweeping generalisations from a sample of one. It’s more like a sample of five. And they have “day” names and “family” names which gives their first name its very own kind of birthday each year (day name) whilst at the same time bending or distorting it very subtly as a sign of patronage (family). So Anna becomes Anya (spoken and written) to her nearest and dearest – but I’m not allowed to use it.
These guys did what I and many new arrivals on the block did at first. We’ve been subtly conditioned by a world that has grown gradually shinier and sleeker and hospital-clean in every way, probably without even knowing it, and then you disembark into this shabby old creaky building, which at this height gently sways and rocks through winter gale storms, I might add, and you breathe in and you hold your breathe and you think “It’s only for short while. I’ll be out of here soon.” But then you breathe out and take in the actual experience and you begin to appreciate what Heartbreak Hill has to offer. You acclimatise to its original charm and its quirky style. It’s stunning views and spacious rooms and its collection of real people with real stories to tell. And you decide to stay and at this point, you begin to invest in the place with a little love and care. You begin to build a relationship with this unusual survivor of a classic era. An oasis of genuine in a post-truth wilderness. Beauty is in the eye, as they say. But it’s more than that. The Hill has taken me under its wing. Turns out, I didn’t decide to stay after all. The old high-rise tower block decided for me.
It’s Anna who I bump into most often. Two or three times a week. Sasha I see every month or so. And occasionally I see them both together. Going off to play tennis or headed to the gym or queueing up at the tills in Aldi.
A fine couple bonded no doubt by their conquering of barriers that we as native locals fail to see – homesickness and cultural ticks and the immigrant judgment – that millisecond, almost imperceptible flash reaction of everyone they meet – even the well-meaning kind-at-heart – as the out-of-towners. It’s over before it began but they saw it. They felt it. A movement behind the eyes. An unconscious yet palpable shift in interpersonal dynamics – perhaps only once and ever so fleeting yet potent enough for our brothers and sisters from lands afar to register that somehow in the essence of the code of the ether of this new situation, there exists a home advantage that will never be theirs to hold. A cold unconscious tribalism seemingly encoded into the marrow of our shallow, silly species.
Newcomers to any institution are nervous until they get past the induction and are awarded a sense of belonging. That they are accepted. They are “in”. We think you’re alright. You’re one of us. Recall your first day at a new school or your first week in halls at university. Think about starting a new job or commencing a stay over with guests – anywhere. A business trip. Au pair. A stretch in hospital. A prison term. When you get the mortgage approved and the chain moves like clockwork and you turn up in LimeTree Crescent or Newbuild Gardens or The Heights to despatch three dozen boxes of personal effects into the entrance lobby and adjacent bare rooms before, as night falls, you head off down the local boozer – and as you enter, hand in hand with your partner – the chatter dips and heads turn and new pairs of unwittingly judgmental eyes give you the once over. No harm intended and no offence taken. But still….. it’s an energy field known only to the outsider. I think of Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe – the tale of a man arriving in a new town and how by virtue of his sheer newness the walls of suspicion and intrigue rise up – and how that very book was authored by Mary Anne Evans – a mid-nineteenth century novelist smart enough to use a male pen name because she knew only too well how we all judge a book by its cover. George Eliot.
I am using the word “institution” rather loosely – giving it a wide berth – but this is what a social high-rise really amounts to. Like all the above examples I cite, this is a new club with long-established members sealed off in a variety of cultural and physical and psychological ways from the world at large. You are invested in it. You’ll be here a while. And like any club, there are written rules, unwritten rules, nuanced habits and stealthy precedents. There exists an impressive variety of members and on Day One you are as green as you are cabbage looking. Welcome to the Big Brother house.
Anna and Sasha both work in blue-collar office jobs. I know Sasha does telesales and account management as I’ve chatted with him as he’s on the verge of breaking out into a run for the bus in morning rush hour. The 38 to Piccadilly and then a train to Stockport. I think Anna manages a project team in a financial capacity for a big household brand somewhere in town.
Good neighbours in high-rises make home feel like home. These two are great. They are quiet, polite, smart and positive by default. The kind of people you want next door. Followers of a clean- living code. People who reach out.
For we are all and each the sum total of our human connections.
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. Coming soon.
All names of people cited in this extract are real.
Standguide, Staffline, Adidas & The Work Company
It is Tuesday 5th December 2017. I am doing a job search on the communal computers in the red- brick complex of the Salford Foyer. I am at Standguide under threat of a benefits sanction. These days they require me to do a job search in front of them. There is a distinct lack of trust in me which underpins this order. The first terminal I log on to is not connected to the internet. I have more luck with the PC to my left (there are about a dozen terminals in the room and the room is empty but for me). I open a job spec, read it, and it advises me to email the HR team for further details. I then quickly discover that all webmail sites are blocked – Hotmail, Google, iCloud. So I cannot do anything. I can view the history of the jobs I have applied for. But I cannot apply for jobs – which is the precise function of my attendance.
I walk about the complex and accost random members of staff. Martine on reception helps me out but she’s clearly very busy with her own workload and cannot help me with this IT matter anyhow.
After sixty-five minutes of being in a room where I am unable to make job applications, I raise the issue with Stacey, my long-term contact. The iMac on which I am writing this very book, with its fibre connection and office desk space in my disturbance-free private flat is but one Tesco’s car park away from me. I can see the Heartbreak Hill block from where I sit at this unforgiving, locked-up PC through a window fitted with a security cage. It seems incredibly dumb to leave my private high- end facility and to sit here with this unworkable one. I get that StandGuide wants me to prove that I am making job applications of a certain quality and quantity. I politely make the point that every single application and progress action has been precisely logged every week for years into an online database facility which the “other” job centre can access. I am told that this job centre (the private one) does not have access to that. So it seems the burden of proof is mine to shoulder. Lazy and idle until proven industrious. I submit to the attrition. I spent a good chunk of my redundancy cheque on my own desktop computer. Each month I buy home insurance and a fast data line. Yet here I am.
Having completed my one-hour lock-in, I make to leave and as an aside I ask Stacey to check if I can bring a neighbour with me to an employer recruitment day that is scheduled for the following lunchtime. Lee is not registered with Job Centre but he’s a worker and keen to get in at the Adidas factory a couple of miles down the road from where we live. Adidas are using a recruitment agency called Staffline to undertake a recruitment drive for many new zero-hours workers. I want Lee to come along. Yet, when Stacey places a call to Staffline to clear this, we learn that the recruitment session has moved forward from 12 pm tomorrow to 10 am today. I check my phone for the time. It is already 10:10 am. Then it all goes a bit Frank Spencer. Roll up folks, it’s comedy hour!
The Innovation Forum
Stacey knocks me seven quid from the petty cash, promptly signed off and dished out by Martine, and a cab is called for me. I don’t have a say in this. I will be making a very late attendance at a meeting and that’s that. This is now panic stations. We speed across to The Innovation Forum – one of those vanilla business parks with the grandiose names that have in the last ten years become the hallmark of modern vanilla strip-mall Britain. All glass atria and wooden mock Skandi panelling on the outside. An exterior skin of sleek promise. An army of bolshy sales staff with no manners and bunches of biros and paper application forms on the inside, ready to scalp the hoards of zero-hours potentials that get shepherded through the double electric swing doors. Everyone I encounter is too busy or too tired or too target driven or too passive or too dumb to receive in earnest the sweet, sweet irony. You know, here in the “innovation” forum.
Due to DWP staff incompetence I am twenty-five minutes late for a meeting that I understood got underway at 10:00. Why did they taxi me to a meeting for which I am really quite late? Simple. Because they are paid an introduction fee for my presence. I announce myself at the main reception but before I can finish speaking a young man in chinos, a jersey and spectacles hastily envelopes my shoulders in his out-stretched arms. He softly yet swiftly glides me away to the airport hanger-styled waiting area where another four people are bent low over a central coffee table, scribbling away on application forms. This is the post-digital form of data capture in 2017. Staffline, like Louise Croston at VSO, shoves a bundle of questions in front of me with a pen and orders me to fill it in, quick as I can, no questions asked, while in the fore of my mind I recall the Job Centre allocating this very meeting a mandatory status. Which means, bluntly, give this strange person all of your personal details now, or risk having your benefits cut and being evicted.
The idiots are winning
Is it me or are some of these questions, by their very nature, dodgy for legal reasons? Couched in a concern-for-health framework, Question 11 in this shot, which is the form that Staffline asked me to complete for the Adidas role, about pregnancy, is surely pushing the boundaries of acceptability and is also surely outing the employer as discriminatory at least in its initial intent. Maybe paranoia outreaches me now. The answer to Question 7 is very easy. Question 7 asks: Do you have any condition that causes difficulty sleeping? Yes. Exposure to the idiots. And the idiots are winning.
Having disclosed my address, mobile and bank details, I am then accosted in a very forced-but-friendly way by a lady who walks toward me from the centre’s main thoroughfare with a stern intent. I watch her approach with misgivings that I have not the time to develop before she is upon me.
“What’s your name love?” she smiles at me like an air hostess. “I’m Gary” I reply.
“Come with me“. She actually physically stewards me into an office of admin staff with a few chairs as a reception area. I presume she is a colleague of the chap in specs who led me with such zeal to the zany pre-flight waiting-area seats some moments ago. It’s like a comedy farce. Everything is frantic. I feel both guilty and stressed for no apparent reason. Perhaps this is the idea.
“Don’t worry. This is voluntary” are her final words to me before she leaves me in the charge of a bewildered chap who is busy at his workstation. These words make no sense whatsoever yet I am not given a chance to ask questions. I am not in a dialogue with anyone. I am literally being “placed” in certain office spaces while unidentified adults lean into each other to converse in a whisper.
Don’t worry. This is voluntary. Sounds a little bit like “trust me, I’m a doctor.” Not one ounce of this experience feels voluntary. None of it, in fact, is. Such considerations enter and flee my brain in nanoseconds.
Everything is becoming a bit of a blur. I have now told two people my name, upon them requesting it, and neither has had the decency to tell me theirs. I feel like fodder. The cattle in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. If I get down on all fours and moo in a drawn-out bovine yawn will everyone present come clean about this agri-business set-up through which I am being fed?
It turns out that the guy in glasses is called Peter Blasco and this new lady who whisked me away is called Sarah Whetstone. Peter is an employee of Staffline but Sarah is not. She works for a company called The Work Company although when I ask her who she works for she tells me that they are called “The Growth Company.” Welcome to the privatised welfare sector. All these little ten-a-penny “agencies” are just private businesses grabbing at the public purse. Treating me and my kind like a herd of animals. Round them up, grab their data, collect a fee. I rather like being at the coal face of this madness. I soak it up and think of this book and the new material that endlessly pours forth. For this I am grateful. Or is it nothing but Stockholm Syndrome?
Yet, Sarah Whetstone (I only found out her name by asking her colleague who is also called Gary) really is beginning to annoy me. She is smiley and polite but the whole “come with me and ask no questions” charade is patronising, to say the least. Jobless adults are treated like infants in the presence of grown-ups.
Gary Smith is the first polite and professionally competent person I meet so far. He gets up from his workstation and shakes my hand. I say “I still do not know who you guys are and why I am here.”
Gary replies “We’ll go outside and talk“. And with that, it suddenly feels like a scene from a John le Carré novel. If Gary had only mumbled that last line into the lapel of his jacket it wouldn’t have felt incredulous. At this point, being abducted by the secret service would be a real boon to my spirits.
“Can you make me a coffee first?” I ask. He pauses. He hears it like it sounds – a very unusual request – you know, jobless humans acting with self-respect and making demands like working humans – but he yields and asks me if I take sugar. I get seated back by the door which I note has the words “The Work Company” stickered across the lower pane. In yonder jobless wilderness, here we find the least appropriately named business imaginable. Orwellian art-house, surely. This whole building could be an Emin exhibition at Tate Modern. “Innovation Forum” by Tracey Emin Wins Turner Prize. This headline has wings.
Gary Smith then goes to sit back at his workstation, facing me in the guest waiting area and continues to work. I watch him and count three minutes on my phone. I have been dragged away from what I was taxi’d here for, without any explanation or even human introductions, and I am sat like a child or freshman or apprentice on their very first day. Feeling like the teas-maid or Mr Cellophane. He’s clearly not making my coffee – sugar or not – unless he has a very fancy PC on his desk that produces beverages. If it exists, I am not familiar with this version of Windows.
Eventually, I make my point and The Work Company gets the size of me. It lets me go, I complete the Staffline paperwork and leave. Nobody says goodbye or stands up or shakes my hand or even acknowledges me upon departure. All these workers and all such staff in the privatised wel- fare sector are abysmally trained, untrained or just damn lazy. Everything is slipshod. It is my pleasure to politely but firmly make it known to them that this is the state of affairs.
Sarah Whetstone’s holiday brochure smile and sunshine demeanour quickly transform into a scowl when I let her know she has rudely interrupted me from my arranged appointment by literally physically pulling me away while I was in the very middle of a meeting with another company entirely, failing to introduce herself, plonking me down in the waiting area of a different office and then simply walking away to leave me wholly at a loss and wondering what the hell was going on.
“I was not rude.” she asserts in response, all gaiety and charm now a distant memory – the grittier truth shining through. The irony entirely lost on her. I fail to respond and leave her words hanging simply to avoid a scene, although I am quite furious and I sense that she senses it.
The Work Company gets a fee for training unemployed people in the basics – like “What is a mouse?” IT skills, personal hygiene and time management. Ms Whetstone, as far as I can gather, has worked out that a good way of getting new heads onto training seats and making her cash tills ring, so to speak, is just wading out into the common areas of Innovation Forum and grabbing the Staffline applicants. A nice smile. A charming few words. Who wouldn’t fall for Sarah’s ruse? She’s not happy when I tell Peter that I take exception to her manner and style. Her pleasing countenance fades and she gets quite feisty. I could rise to the occasion but for me, these people hit way below the intellect and in some way or other they would find it within themselves to earn extra salary bonuses by sanctioning my Universal Credit. Recall Chelsea Shannons’ story. I leave the building and walk home. Raped of my personal data for nothing in return by a bunch of cheap sales target rabble. Again.
I state my availability as “nightshifts” on the Adidas warehouse application form. Nights pay at £8.65 per hour compared to a daily rate of £7.50. I am told by Peter that I will get at least thirty- two hours per week with a promise of overtime if I pass the induction period. I don’t ask or get told how long this induction period is for.
I quickly calculate that on the base rate for nights this would gross me £276.80 per week, or an annual income of £14.393.60. This comes in at £1,199.47 per month and this is the unit of measurement that allows me to make a direct comparison with my existing Universal Credit payment – which is a monthly payment of £729.48 as I may have mentioned earlier. Of course, this is on the basis of my salary being tax-free – and so this would only be my take home pay (thereabouts) on the first ten thousand pounds worth of earnings, and national insurance deductions, of a sum I could not deduce from the top of my head, would accrue from day one.
When basic rate tax kicks in and NI continues to deduct, I would be bringing home £959 (after 20% tax) less National Insurance – so I figured that would come in at about £900. So I would be working nights in a factory five days a week for a gain of about two hundred pounds a month. If you then deduct work clothes, work travel and work food I do not think I am being a drama queen when I announce that this job has actually no material (financial) advantages. But it would steal all of my time and energy. The experience of working at Adidas would be great material for this book – but would I have the time or headspace to even keep writing?
If you are of the opinion that people in my position should not be comparing a benefits payment against an earned wage and calculating the differential as the real wage, you are simply coming at it all wrong. So here is my reality check for you: the “benefits” label is a misnomer. Firstly, there is no benefit. This is not free money. It is all used up on heating. shelter and food and still leaves me short of heating and food for at least one week per month. And don’t even think about laundry and new clothing. So first off, the benefit is, per se, way too low for any human being. It is derisory and insulting. Secondly, if a multi-million dollar international company is offering me a payment in return for fifty to sixty hours per week of hard manual labour that only over-reaches the aforementioned excuse for a human benefits payment by a few pounds and pence – they are engaged in nothing short of white slavery and this should be illegal.
The whinging benefits recipient is not out of line. Everything and everyone else in the employment chain is. And if you can’t see that – if you have been co-opted by the system to such a degree that you can’t even see what is staring you in the face – then so are you.
If you starved your pet dog and cut it’s access to heat and shelter this would be deemed as abuse and neglect. Yet with humans it appears that the accepted lexicons are “benefit”, “support” and “welfare”.
The Adidas dress code
I was precariously balanced with the recruitment agency’s application form sliding off my lap, painstakingly completing the block boxes with a black biro pen. Peter Blasco, the Staffline representative was kneeling down to meet the eye level of another such applicant – a lady about half my age who was sat opposite me and executing the same task. It was a one-on-one kind of “T&C’s” chat that Peter was to reel off to each of us before we left the session and handed him our completed documentation – after which we would wait to receive a telephone call from his agency about progressing the application further – meeting the employer, no doubt.
A whole bunch of adults leaning over to write with a pen onto paper forms on a very low-slung coffee table with the host literally kneeling on the carpet to talk to each of us. Fawlty Towers.
As I wrote out my National Insurance number, employment and education history and all such nonchalant applicant data, I could hear Peter telling my fellow scribbler that if she was to turn up for a shift wearing clothing that bore the logo or name of a sports competitor – such as Nike or Reebok – and that even if it was not so much in-your-face as a base ball cap but something hardly noticeable – she would be sent directly home and told to change, whereupon she would miss the shift, be denied payment for that shift and effectively “warned” not to repeat the behaviour. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.
I playfully but firmly challenged Peter. How could I resist? The lady that he was speaking with was duly nodding along and it strikes me that the fearful acquiescence of potential candidates in such a situation is interpreted by the employer and recruiter as some form of fawning obsequiousness – a servility that only encourages the work provider and their dutiful helpers to turn into such little Hitler’s as I was witnessing. It is out and out bullying. Playground tactics. No rabbit-in-a-hat tricks.
I pointed out to Peter that the night shift workers at Coca-Cola in Wakefield (I used to be one) are not reprimanded and docked work for turning up in Pepsi attire. That at my first job out of college – The Financial Times – we used to keep copies of all major competitor publications in the building as a form of good practice. At Loaded magazine, we bought copies of FHM and Esquire and had their posters adorning our office walls. That perhaps it would be good for Adidas to see their competitors clothing modelled on its own employers as a form of competitor analysis – the same as most normal companies in the world at large actually do. When I was in an executive role for Manchester United as its Value Added Services Projects Manager with two season tickets, company car, an office on Baker Street in the West End and one in the ground with first class train tickets between London and Manchester and five star hotels at my behest, they knew I was a Leeds fan. Even the players are not club loyal. When I worked there in 2002 Ron Gourlay (Head of MU Merchandising and later at Chelsea) was from Glasgow and tied to The Firm. David Beckham was a West Ham fan. Roy Keane was Spurs. And the sky didn’t cave in.
How stupifyingly childish of Adidas. Brand apocalypse? Badges and icons given priority over humans and humanity. Nice touch!
Have you worked out what’s really going on? OK. It’s like this: back in the early twentieth century in the U.S, car maker Henry Ford knew that his biggest market for new cars was his own employees. He envisioned and sublimely created a kind of pyramid scheme – you get in on the project and you become a customer. You get your mates and your family relatives a job at the plant. They become customers too.
In return, Henry was a philanthropist, looking after all of his workers by paying top dollar and building community infrastructure such as parks, schools and setting up a range of charitable trusts – all directed toward improving the living standards of his staff.
In a cheap imitation of the above, Adidas has seen the opportunity for the pyramid scheme – but then gone all shy when it came to the philanthropy bit.
I knew what was coming. Peter just looked at me blankly and churned out the standard lines that he had been programmed to churn out. Rules are rules are rules and all that jazz. I was tempted to prod him to check he was not a ‘bot. A three-stripes Germanic droid. I resisted.
Don’t you see ? This type of rule is nothing to do with a dress code. It is to do with employee subservience. In a world where employer responsibilities have vanished while at the same time, worker responsibilities have reached a kind of post-modern zenith, things are arriving at their logical conclusion. In a zero-hours contract world we now have a situation where the worker is not even guaranteed as much as one hours work per week, yet in return will have to work extraordinary and unsociable hours at absolutely (zero) no notice for a derisory sum of money and here at Adidas – will have to be a genuine “Company Town” kind of character. A walking three-dimensional advert to the brand. I have to be Mr Adidas for my £8.65 per hour. I’ll never have a social life or any kind of healthy private life – I’ll hardly ever see my friends and family. Adidas cannot guarantee when the shift of each work session will conclude due to the nature of the work, so I don’t know when I’ll be home. But that’s not enough. Now I have to filter my wardrobe for anything bearing Umbro and Fila and Nike and Tacchini – which is no easy task for most people because a large proportion of the demographic that will be taking on such jobs will have grown up adorning sports clothing as casual daily wear most of the time.
Ah! Precisely. Not only is this super wealthy brand exploiting workers in terms of pay and conditions and contractual rights – it knows that the kids from the hood ALL wear casual sports gear ALL of the time. And in banning anything but its own brand ostensibly for work purposes, it has just guaranteed that thousands of low paid workers in Trafford Park in Manchester will buy new trainers, tracksuits, baseball caps, sweatbands and countless tops, hoodies and T-shirts – from now on ONLY with the Adidas logo on. It may as well pay them in Adidas coupons rather than real money. In a way, it kind of is doing just that.
Brands are sticky. From banks to cars to sportswear. The ramifications will bounce around and filter through generations of families and friends. In a bid to knock Nike off its perch – a perch bought with sponsorship of the local football team – which is a global brand in itself – here comes the chief competitor with a new plant less than a mile from the football stadium and a dress code stipulation that, from most angles, just doesn’t make sense. Company Town indeed. People are less than pawns to BigCorp. It’s Nike versus Adidas and everyone living in the area is but a Lowry-esque factory slave. And oh how the locals comply like good little Lemmings!
Needless to say, Peter Blasco, having witnessed my dialogue with Sarah Whetstone, whereupon I called out her patronising tone and manner, didn’t call me back later to discuss work opportunities, as I had been given to understand was normally the case. I may have been a tad too disobedient in the core of my personality, for the type of shift clone they were seeking to take advantage of.
Move along, move along. These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
I cannot say that I lost any sleep over any of this.
The work delusion
Think about it. Everyone in the system that could speak up is a stakeholder in the house of cards so it’s in all of their interests to spin the line that the work is out there. You know, actual decent paid work that allows one to build a life of sorts. Not this thinly disguised slavery. They all play this game of illusion as if the date was 1949 and the country is in deep recovery from a war so labour-wise it is all hands to the pump. Except this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The recruitment agents need to project an image of market buoyancy – much as we know estate agents do with regard to the housing market. The government is under similar pressures – accountable to an active electorate that is largely ignorant of the real state of play. The media these days is a super-corporation (cable and satellite) if not a government mouthpiece (obligatory licensed channels). The public at large believes the media. It totally buys in. People like to think that they are living in a society where hard work always pays off and that idleness is penalised. The vast swathes of upper-working-class and lower-middle-class Britain that have grown wealthy by sitting on their hands through three huge housing bubbles since the late 1970’s needs to believe that it is worthy of this newfound fortune. There needs to be a sense of profound psychological entitlement.
The upshot is that precisely nobody wants to believe, let alone hear, the unfolding of my own personal narrative. The idea that good, honest, hardworking people cannot find work even when they persistently try to do so does not chime so well with the big song and dance. I’m pointing out that the emperor’s new clothes are too skin coloured to be taken seriously and I have a strong sense that even as most people read these words they have switched off. Emotion kicks in. Denial kick in. Excuses abound. I will be discredited for this reason and that.
Perhaps the idea that there is no work generates a fear that people will have a license to sit back and put their feet up. So what? Maybe, after all, we should decouple the notion of money from that of work at least where that money represents the most basic of provisions – which in the fifth richest nation on earth would include housing, utilities including fibre and mobile, health, insurance, pension, education from cradle to grave, healthy nutritional intake and a healthy lifestyle – perhaps a bicycle or a gym membership. Bill Gates is proposing that we tax the robots and I love this way of coming at the world’s problems.
If work, in the main, does not contribute to society, why are we rewarding it? Why are we enshrining it in moral armour? Why are we seeing it as good or of worth in any real sense? For most people, to “work” simply means to expend all their efforts on improving their own lot and to hell with everyone else.
If we were to give everyone an annual income of thirty thousand pounds, excepting those who are very wealthy, I’m sure everyone would spend it. The economy would be flying at full tilt as all this money goes around the system rather than being locked in a private wealth fund or in some off- shore bank account. And better still, we’d see a total drop off in rip-off Britain, fervent sales scams and incessant commercial cons.
Work, in the modern age, is just an incentive to offer totally useless and annoying services that nobody really wants. The high street is dripping with dross and everybody is skint. Who has the courage to totally flip the script on this set-up? Me, for one. Those of us not invested in the status quo are the ones who dare to think bigger, think earnestly and think in favour of what would really work for the good of all of us. Not just me, me, me. The good news is that there are so many people like me, with nothing to lose, that one wonders whether the economy has inadvertently reached some kind of tipping point where the “nothing to lose-ers” so far outnumber those wishing to conserve and preserve their stinkingly grotesque nest-eggs. This, coupled with high levels of education and a consensus of individual confidence and creativity lends itself to optimum conditions for something new to spring forward. Maybe the system, like all systems and all empires and all states of normalcy – all establishments – has simply eaten itself such that some form of new ground-up architecture begins to shine through like an inevitability. I am confident that large tracts of young people and the poor and the disenfranchised are arriving at similar conclusions with no help from me.
Work lost its contributory soul
It’s hardly like everyone is busy building schools and hospitals and irrigating crops. When work stopped being about making positive contributions to our communities and money stopped being its reward, what happened is that work became this selfish thing we do and money became the end goal. If I were to secure a job as a lawyer and, due to it’s restrictive supply of “club members” fashioned by its union (The Law Society) I were to command a huge salary largely for nothing short of robbing peoples pockets in exchange for a bit of tedious administrative work, and if I were to spend all of my huge salary on me and my kin – houses, cars, holidays, a second home, private education fees, jewellery and fine dining – people in our Western material world would for the most part be both admiring and envious of me. How fucked up is that?
Public purse arrears
My public purse arrears are way lower than anyone working and earning less than £100,000 per year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) publishes an annual report to confirm it.
And anyone earning above that sum? It’s still a moot point. You’re still not off the hook. Not by a country mile.
It’s perfectly alright to give birth in an NHS hospital, drive on public roads and get married in our churches and put your kids through state schools and recruit staff that were trained and made literate by the state but then you want to call grabbing obscene amounts of money in return for no positive contribution to society “work” while you disappear behind big electric gates with your hideous kitsch “stuff”, spend every penny on you and your lot, ignore everybody else, look down on the people you are depriving and whinge about a tiny amount of tax. Who pays for the traffic lights and road works and pollution controls and the legal framework that protects and enables your business and the emergency services and the entire real world infrastructure that supports the end-to-end supply chain system so you can “click n collect” without even having to mingle with the un-washed masses ? Santa?
You think you’re some C-Suite big shot but you’re just as hooked up to the supply chain system and spoon-fed like a babe-in-arms and just as owned by the benefits system as anyone else. It’s hardly as if you can feed yourself or clothe yourself or keep yourself warm. You’re just one juicy seventy-two hour power cut from having to descend to street level and fight for your food as the hungriest homeless sleeper. And all the mortgage equity in London ain’t changing that, cowboy.
Yet right now as I type I am less than twenty-four hours from James Smith – my Job Centre work coach -advising me that I really should take a dead end job and not let my charity work get in the way of it. His words were “I wouldn’t want your little six hours a week get in the way of a job.” The little six, huh? He was precisely referring to a nine to five admin job or a drivers job and he was exactly referencing my intention to do some voluntary work for Citizens Advice Bureau – as I had completed an application, met the head of North West recruitment for CAB – a chap called Gareth Hughes – and at the time of writing I been informed that I would be trained for an advisory role at Salford University with a position opening for me in early 2018. In the end this did not transpire due to personnel changes at the charity.
I have actually grown to like James Smith – my work coach. He’s a hard-working young family man just trying to get by. My indictment of sub-standard quality thresholds within the DWP system is not always a personal one. As a nation, as a society, as a human race, as a species – our values and priorities are incredibly askew.
Consider the moral mess we are in. How fallen are we? Don’t help people Gary! Be the low paid servant of businesses that damage our planet and our mental wellbeing. The former is stupid and we look down on it. The latter is normalcy and to be admired.
Work is a massive decoy. It is no longer work in fact. So why should money follow it? If you are co-opted into the money train, grasping wildly on behalf of yourself and your kin, that’s your greedy dumb problem. There is no line of logic that holds that because you are too weak to resist it, I too should give in. You’re the idiot. My hands are clean..
The sad fact is that people at large will not hear what they do not wish to hear. Yet I will continue to call the truth as I see and experience it. And I guess you’re just going to have to deal with that. After all, this is my true story and I have made the effort to tell it. My evidenced narrative gives me an authority that you presently lack. If you disagree, prove it. You know what to do. Oh no! It really does involve turning your massive television off and creating something for yourself for once. Too much to ask? Of course, it is.
We have all been conditioned to react in a most knee-jerk fashion to the very idea of any sort of systemic revolution and the fashion that I speak of is ridicule. People call up images of communist China or Russian Gulags but aren’t these all just rather childish? Look at the state of Britain. People are starving on the streets while the rest of us are blissed out on TV soma. And too much food.
In our land of plenty, too many have not even enough to survive. You and I are both complicit in this. Don’t you think it’s time to wake up?
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book coming soon.
Part 4: Transcendence
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
As I begin writing this final chapter, the winter closes in. It is a dark November morning as I type out these words. Three months ago, in the long lazy heat of a summer afternoon, workmen arrived to give me a new front door. They’re doing every flat on the block including the common area inter-connecting doors and as far as I can tell from chatting to the workers, every block in town. It’s the direct political fall-out of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy which will no doubt tag this year as the grim keynote event that defines a troublesome period for the British underclass. Us. Our lot.
The irony is that I have a bathroom suite as old as me which is rotting off the wall and doesn’t work properly – yet I’m now getting a new fire door that I don’t need.
The two lads stripping my door frame and fixing new locks and handles are in their early twenties. The one I make conversation with is called Lonnie and after a few days, he brings manual assistance in the shape of his father – a quiet, hardworking chap who looked a little older than me.
All residents were told to set days aside for these guys to get the job done, but rather than sit around feeling imprisoned, mindful of all the outdoor errands I need to run that I cannot attend to – I decided to sit at my desk and write.
This is how this book started. I don’t have a TV and reading can get pretty tiresome in an on-call atmosphere – occasionally the lads would request my attention to answer questions about the flat – yet I’ve always found writing a different kind of creative entertainment – where interruptions or at least a climate of potential disturbance somehow doesn’t negatively impact on my ability to write nor my enjoyment of writing. Something about the commitment. The action.
I’ve called this chapter “Transcendence” because I want to try and describe how I have overcome the trials and anxieties of living under a cloud on Heartbreak Hill by getting into a frame of mind whereby the bad things do not matter that much. It has long been my firm belief, and happy experience, that if one can genuinely arrive at a place in one’s heart where the difficulties in life are not that much of a concern, then miraculously, life is not that difficult anymore. It’s an old technique borrowed from Stoic wisdom and Zen Buddhism that I like to think feeds fittingly into a rather quaint notion of British resolve – and in any case, it works for me.
From Easterhouse to The Pepys Estate
Each one of my neighbours on the block and all of us that find ourselves deep inside the welfare state – residing in the housing projects far over on the wrong side of the tracks up and down the country – from Glasgow to Newcastle; from Sheffield to London; from Manchester to Nottingham – shunned and lambasted by mainstream society at large – from the upper working classes and middle classes to all arms of the establishment from media to government and it’s police and judicial support services – have found ways to cope and actually enjoy life a little.
We are grateful for the little things and quite accepting of our fate. The secret is to access the power of surrender whilst retaining one’s personal agency. To accept without being defeatist. To strive for change without resisting the present day status quo. Everyone has managed to transcend the horrible plight in one way or another. You find your personal Jesus and you run with it.
This is a laudable mental achievement by me and my kind – by which I mean my socio-economic demographic – and as it never gets mentioned by a distant, other-worldly media that seems too concerned with celebrity high fashion and abstract political concepts that mean nothing to most of us – such as Brexit and cabinet reshuffles – I want to give it fair oxygen here.
What follows is a closer look at a number of the things I do: daily behaviours and techniques that I deploy – to ring-fence the survivor mentality and bring me peace of mind along with a deep sense of authentic inner security in this awesome, beautiful, dangerous urban jungle.
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
The Making of Heartbreak Hill
Dedicated to Anna with thanks
This reproduction of the author’s dedication from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill explains the title of the book and the inspiration behind it.
I was inspired to write this book upon reading a mid-nineteenth century memoir from a resident of the Indiana State Hospital For the Insane called Anna Agnew. Her memoir – From Under a Cloud at Seven Steeples – attempts to set the record straight with first-hand accounts of life within the confines of an insane asylum. Her book ignited massive changes in attitude toward that class of vulnerable citizen, exploding myths, dispelling ignorance and forcing people to shed their prejudices and utilise their own agency. She, in turn, was inspired to put pen to paper when, on en- countering her in a state of melancholy, a doctor once remarked;
“Surely as the sun comes from behind the cloud, just so surely will you come from under the cloud now enveloping you.”
Anna’s book was the impetus for far-reaching structural and attitudinal change that swept the western world once people woke up to realities that had for too long lay hidden behind mainstream media propaganda.
I do not consider myself needy, vulnerable or at risk in the same way that many of my neighbours are. I am one of the lucky ones. Yet I nonetheless find myself under the cloud of social dependency. And although it shouldn’t even be a cloud, it is. It occurs to me now that I have a clear opportunity to give voice to a vitally important story that largely remains untold.
For her inspiration and for the title of my book, I thank Anna and I dedicate this project to her.
Mile upon mile of concrete and tarmac. No greenery in sight. Rain bounces off the paving flags. The glass pane of the bus stop for the 67 is shattered all over the floor. It’s after dark but the precinct has a “floodlight” glare from its array of security lamps that beam out a whitish light. Police cameras look down from every corner of every street. Men in high vis jackets and steel capped boots pull the death out of cig ends before a bus comes to take them to another night shift. Home Bargains, The Pound Bakery, MoneyLine, Cash Converter and the arcade are all closed. Only BetFred lights its windows up after hours. A crew of hooded lads in their low teens lap the precinct at increasing speed on souped-up bicycles with no lights, bagging out e’s and snatching bags and phones from anyone daft enough to let them. The only place open is the off license at the foot of my block. Inside, past the shelves of sweets and alcohol, Aubrey and his assistant stand to attention behind the counter, hip-hop music blasting. They are nodding in unison like Churchill dogs. Bouncing to Skepta.
In 1952 Salford Councillor Albert Jones proposed a massive urban regeneration scheme in an area of town called Hanky Park. Six thousand terraced houses were to be demolished over a three hundred acre stretch of land. Improvements to the A6 road adversely affected one hundred and forty-seven shops that ran along it and a further one hundred and sixty corner shops were to be caught up in the demolition. This was known as the Ellor Street development centred on Heartbreak Hill in the M6 postcode of the city. In more recent times the boundaries of the City of Salford have been redrawn to include what was then considered the far-flung and somewhat distant towns of Eccles, Walkden, Worsley and Swinton. You know, long before the private motor car was a standard luxury. But in 1952 Salford was a City hanging onto the coattails of the city of Manchester, to the west of the latter’s main concentration. A forty-five minute walk along Broad Street connecting the two. I still make this walk often.
The concept of Ellor Street at Hanky Park was to build two hundred and sixty brand new shops within a new shopping precinct, to recompense the retail outlet destruction wrought upon local businesses, more or less in neat mathematical symmetry. A hotel, offices and a multi-level car park would surround what would be the highest skyscraper in the North West and gave oxygen to the fervent chatter of this scheme being “among the finest in Europe”.
Ten years later, in 1962, the building work began and in 1970 the new local markets opened for business. In 1971, this being also the year that I was born, retail units began to open in the precinct proper and one year later in 1972, the flagship residential tower around which the whole complex spread, Heartbreak Hill, at twenty-four stories and a height of two hundred and fifty feet, welcomed the very first residents into the shiny new apartments that steepled high into the Salfordian clouds.
Soon, things were to go wrong. Councillor Albert Jones was jailed for financial corruption and much of the money that was earmarked to complete the project disappeared. Only ninety-five shops of the proposed two hundred and sixty ever came into existence while the hotel and car park were discarded from the original plan.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Heartbreak Hill and the buildings that spring from it were loosely designed in the fag end of the Brutalist/Modernist mash-up architectural style typical of that British era. Loud, courageous statements of concrete and prefabricated browns and greys, where form follows function, could suddenly be seen from miles around in a declaration of a utopian zeitgeist, crudely altering the lay of the urban horizon. There are no hiding places when the Modernists move in.
My home is at the top of a tower containing two adjacent elevators and no service lift. There are six one bedroom flats on each floor apart from the first floor which has a concierge office and an exit onto the loading bay areas on the roof of the retail outlet. The second floor has only four flats as the communal laundry and the caretaker’s office are to be found here. In total there are one hundred and thirty-six residential apartments, some containing couples and some with single occupancy. A garbage chute runs from top to bottom at the side of the lift shafts and there are two staircases. There are no corridors to speak of. On exiting the lifts you either turn left or right. There are three flats on each side and a staircase on each side. The whole thing is a vertical pile of concrete condo’s.
I live on the top floor. I moved in in the summer of 2015. This book has been written between mid-August 2017 and mid-January 2018 so as I write I have been a resident here for a little over two and a half years. Long enough to have settled in. Long enough to feel that this block is my true home. Long enough to fall in love with the place. To have surrendered my heart to Heartbreak Hill.
In the early 1990’s the complex underwent a £4 million refurbishment which gave some of the outdoor parts of the shopping centre an all-weather roof covering – effectively turning some of the local streets – including Heartbreak Hill, Marsden Way, Robson Way and Fitzroy Way, into homogeneous sections of strip mall – but the street history is given homage and testimony in the mall signage that sits overhead as you stroll among the shops. I have before and after recollections. In 1988, as a sixteen year old, I spent a day with mum and dad, traipsing the markets and shops. We had made the forty miles trip west across the Pennine mountains from Heckmondwike in dad’s car. It was the year of the Seoul Olympics and mum bought me a sports T-shirt from a stall on Salford markets that I would wear to race in the winning team on the 4X100 metre relay sprint event at The Princess Mary sports arena near Cleckheaton in the Spen Valley. On that day I was a student of Heckmondwike Grammar School, racing for Priestley House.
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
I Am Not My Car
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill - extract
It’s apparent to me how crudely we form opinions of each other when we receive knowledge about where a person lives – the part of town for sure, but also the look and feel of the buildings that we call home.
When I lived in Greenwich Heights, London and Abito, Salford Quays I was a busy professional office worker. I had a lot of material things and a healthy cash flow, but I must confess that like many time-poor people – I was a little self-consumed. The edges of my lifestyle were problematic. I ate too much, drank and smoked. I swore a lot. I thought a lot of myself. I thought very little of anyone else. I didn’t smile too often. Yet because of my job and my relative money wealth, independence and career success, people revered and admired me.
I remember once pulling up at my home in a brand new company car that I had collected earlier that day – straight off the production line – to be enthusiastically met by a neighbour who previously had hardly ever given me the time of day, yet on this occasion he was all smiles and hand-shakes, like a long lost friend or a sales pitcher – all eyes on the motor and making schmaltzy sounds of approval as if I had actually designed and manufactured the car myself.
To my regret, equally as fawning and obsequious were two of my longer standing acquaintances in whom I’d never noticed, prior, such an ambitious material streak and such a willingness to confer on humans new upper levels of pseudo-respect based on the sum total of their “stuff”.
Heartbreak Hill Syndrome
Yet the superficiality doesn’t end here. It has a flip side – that I have come to witness first-hand in my time living in a less desirable postcode – here on Heartbreak Hill.
In a mirror-image contrast to my experiences of living in Des Res – where people can behave rather poorly and irresponsibly but without consequence nor the drawing of adverse inferences from their peers and society at large, I have watched with glum fascination and later, as I grew used to it, outright enjoyment, at the way people treat me entirely differently. I meet with frowns and pregnant pauses loaded with critical judgment and disappointment. I receive sympathy – like somebody just died. People ask where I live and when I tell them they extend a hand to my shoulder, lean in and quietly whisper “I’m sorry.” People look at me with outright incredulity – you’d have to witness it to appreciate the full intensity of such a gesture – when I explain that I am on Universal Credit. It’s as if I had disclosed a long stretch in prison or a discreet affair with a teenager or some far-flung extrovert penchant. This is a very powerful experience to endure. Despite rationale informing me that such reactions were disproportionate if not entirely inappropriate – on an emotional level, I felt a strong sense of shame and guilt. This is not just very unpleasant but quite destructive because if my audience senses such emotion in me it can be used to confirm the validity of their initial position. This I refer to as the benefits feedback loop.
It can be intoxicating.
The above extract is from Chapter 1 of From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton - a new free social media book - coming soon in its entirety as a PDF download - currently under final edition and redaction for legal concurrence and personal protection.