Meet The Neighbours: Surviving Universal Credit

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. 

Stunning views out toward the Pennine foothills

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
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