Hi. I am a 47 year old man living in Salford near Manchester in North West England. For over twenty years I enjoyed a meaningful career in press and digital media in London, Brighton and locally until February 2015. I lived a very comfortable, executive lifestyle. Since then I have been a Universal Credit claimant living in the badlands and experiencing first hand a life hidden from view. Not on your TV sets. I am your fly-on-the-wall. Come take a walk with me.....
An extract: From Under A Cloud on Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant: a new free digital book by Gary Knapton. Some names have been changed to protect the residents.
Smeaton is on the move.
Down in the concrete subways golden leaves, trampled underfoot from the churchyard by passers-by long since away, fan out and float in shallow pools, bloated. Mostly supine but some prone like the newly risen bodies of drowned people. A branded soda drink plastic wrapper curling into itself like a sleepy child fresh separated from its liquid cylinder mother, rocks lightly in the downdraft of the wind tunnel. Close by, a four-drink coffee house disposable holder sinks in the mulch, the corrugations of its egg-box fabric comb-drenched straight where it submerges. A short blue betting shop pen. A string of unidentifiable scraps of take away food and drink. Probably.
Manchester United. Sharon Warner Fat Slut. A tudor rose. Dates of birth. Initials. A hip-hop music reference. More football badges and boasts.
The graffiti is, to me, homely and familiar warm. A placeholder against which I consciously index the bookends of each day. Like a garden gate or a lapping dog or a good wife thrusting a packed lunch into my hands whilst wrapping my neck in wool and at the same time kissing it. The letters of each word and symbol emblazoned in crude acrylics and primary colours and a pointed block font with inconsistent Gothic serif. Branded righteous by time and authenticity and the luminous reflected energies of a low flying Autumn sun. To walk here daily is to receive each object sensationally and as modalities without yet relationally within. Quantities and qualities ring-fenced yet threaded in a daisy chain or weaved into a tune. The echo of a brazen catcall. The transcendental aesthetic.
Nobody knows Smeaton’s first name. He is six foot three and walks gingerly to a limp beat rhythm, aided by a stick clutched squarely in his left hand where a brown leather strap wrapped tight around his white knuckles from which the blood flow had scarpered, thus binding him to the prop. Yet I could swear I had seen him running at a pace after dark. In amongst the urban shadows.
Nobody knows whether he lives on the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth floor of the Hill. Whether or not he is sofa-surfing or paying rent. For he is accounted for arriving and departing at the lift doors to all of these floors on most days and nights and seemingly not to a discernible pattern.
He definitely lives on the block though. Of that there is no doubt. A smart attorney might attest, if push came to shove and willed by a baying jury, that his comings and goings prove nothing more than visitor behaviour. Yet Smeaton lives here. He has that look that we all have after a year or two. Not his attire. The one behind the eyes that betrays a knowledge of the Hill that, were she a lady, would be termed “carnal”.
So into the labyrinthine structures he goes. His comely bulk diminishing. Eaten by distance. Behind him the pebble dash concrete and sun flecked filthy panes stack up and mesmerise in a gorgeous vertical mindful to me of airport runways.
Low sun. High-rise. The tower and the saucer.
This is Heartbreak Hill.
Ferrier is at least ninety. He is a chain-smoking socialist with an impressive host of ex-wives. He knows absolutely everything. One can only imagine the burgeoning archetype sophistry of the university from which he graduated. How he adorned its reading rooms and courtyards in a world gone by. The cycle racks. The turreted red-brick constellations. The buffeted shiny wax parquet floors.
Mike used to live in Germany and pawns his watch on most Wednesdays to finance the leisurely drinking of cheap port from Iceland at home with his girlfriend Mandy. He’s on the twentieth. He’s a kind and gentle soul. Approaching retirement age and wheezing like the Arctic tundra yet smoking with defiance to the very end. A good soldier. His registered COPD status does not win him a blue badge for his car nor a free bus pass. So confined, he shuffles, most days, around the precinct malls beneath the block with his mate Geoff who thinks he is shortsighted but is in fact blind. As you will attest when he walks into you. Which is always. Geoff, like Mike, is gentlemanly and upbeat.
Ferrier is a weather-worn sailor safe in his bubble of parted gems and the promise of those kept back.
Now these three, I see from here, exit the precinct at its western gate and make for the FeedMyCity food van parked outside Mrs Wyatt’s. The wind howls down the Broadway into the deep distance.
Smeaton, having emerged from Dante’s pass, has already melted into the shimmering blur of the inner city.
An extract: From Under A Cloud on Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant: a new free digital book by Gary Knapton. Some names have been changed to protect the residents.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill is a new free public access book on surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton. It is being redacted and edited for legal reasons. This blog drip-feeds book extracts and related material.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c.36) is an Act of Parliament of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that creates a public “right of access” to information held by public authorities. It is the implementation of freedom of information legislation in the United Kingdom on a national level.
I am taking the DWP to a tribunal hearing. It should take place this winter. Earlier in this blog I wrote about my Work Capability Assessment experience of summer 2018.
This is not a call to get the violins out. This is not a story about me. Rather, I am using my personal situation to gather data in the manner of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I am interested in how the government’s Department of Work & Pensions treats people when it believes it is acting under a veil of privacy. When it thinks nobody is looking and keeping a record of what is going on.
I am interested in evidence of structural and infrastructural corruption and abuse of process.
About one year ago I began to suspect that seriously ill people, signed off by specialist psychotherapists, GP’s and employer HR specialists as being very unfit for particular types of work that require elements of personal judgment and accuracy were being forced into taking jobs where poor standards could and actually did compromise public safety.
It is my contention that the DWP, once in receipt of verification that an individual is ill in such a capacity – buries the relevant documentation and forces that individual back into the very same type of work.
In my case and in my own personal experience, this work includes such things as placing road cones on motorways to form contra-flow traffic systems on the M6 and M1 in the UK. It includes working shifts with metal detectors on frozen meat products that enter the UK from abroad to go on general sale in our supermarkets. Items such as frozen chickens and fish.
It is my contention that, in such lines of work, when standards fail due to human error and catastrophe strikes, a cover-up is executed whereby the personnel within DWP that knowingly sent an unfit person to the front line, then feign innocence. Meanwhile people are dying and suffering injuries and are always at risk of such.
How the DWP buries evidence of ill health
In February this year I used a section of law within the Freedom of Information Act (2000) to force the DWP to send me everything it holds on me.
Ten years ago Heather Rose Brooke – a British-American journalist – used the same piece of statute to force MP’s to declare their expenses.
On Valentines Day I cycled to the Post Office collections centre with the ubiquitous red postcard. But instead of a large bunch of roses and a declaration of undying love from a secret admirer, I got something much better. And it made the old Yellow Pages look slender.
I painstakingly worked through the mundanity of the DWP CRM and I colour indexed a few pages that I thought may be of interest before handing the whole bundle over to my lawyer.
Months passed and then yesterday – the 20th August 2019 – I met up with Rose who had prepared my tribunal appeal script and wanted to brief me on what lay ahead. When I arrived at her office she was especially upbeat. In no time she pulled out a document within the FOI bundle that I had not seen. And it tells its own story.
Above: the Freedom of Information Right of Request bundle from DWP dwarfs my desk and all other desktop inhabitants. It’s like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina without the narrative hook.
The process for legal tribunals is that I bring the case and the other side defends its position. Lawyers would argue that my terminology is incorrect but this is the best way to explain what goes on. Technically, I am not prosecuting I am an Applicant. Therefore, the other party is not defending, it is a Respondent. In this instance, the other side is The Secretary of State. Yesterday, my lawyer had received the Secretary of State’s Response to my tribunal application. It basically defends the DWP position that I am perfectly fit for work. And I mean perfectly. You have to score fifteen points or more to be considered as potentially unfit for some professional roles. I scored zero.
So we’re going through the Respondent’s bundle and the thing is we are comparing it to the truth of what they actually know about me because, remember, I have the FOI warts and all “This Is Your Life” mega-pack on what the Secretary of State really knows.
One Glaring Omission
The Secretary of State appears to be obsessed with my physical health. The fact that I can tie my own shoe laces and put my hands above my head. Make my own bed. Cook my own food. This office defends its decision to score me zero points for all the mental health categories and declares that in interacting with other people in the workplace there is nothing out of the ordinary.
Buried by DWP and only picked up by my lawyer as she scoured the Freedom of Information data is the following document: (scroll down to see an image of the original).
It is only three pages long. It is a communication between the DWP Centre for Health and Disability Assessments and my GP. I had never heard of it before. I was unaware not just of its content but of its existence.
It is stamp dated 10th September 2018 – precisely when DWP was giving me a clean bill of health to set up the motorway cones for your midnight drive home up the M6 and check the metallic content of your dinner. Mysteriously, it does not appear in the information that DWP has sent to the court to respond to my application for a tribunal hearing.
It has been buried.
In it, the government asks my GP if I am fit to work and she replies No with a rather detailed answer in handwriting. Take me out of the picture and just see an individual you never heard of. Would you want this person carrying out public safety tasks that you and your family depend on?
Imagine a fatality and here is a professional risk assessment of the employee who put nuts in your food or caused a multi-car pile up involving your daughter or your mum. Compiled long before the tragedy. Received and buried by the same government department that forced that person back into the same job.
In her own handwriting, when asked about conditions affecting this person’s ability to work, my GP has scribbled the following:
Low mood. Anxiety. Poor sleep. Multiple stressors including family issues, financial issues – long standing.
Had psychological therapy July 17 – ended after completing 16 sessions of cognitive analytical therapy. Discharged in October 17 but very quickly referred back by GP. On waiting list since November 17 for the high intensity team was expecting to be called June 18 but still on waiting list to my knowledge.
Not on any antidepressant or anti-anxiety meds. We have tried to avoid sleepers. Has tried benzodiazepines sourced from friends but dissuaded from doing this.
States also been a victim of hate crime.
Intensive psychotherapy would preclude job seeking I feel.
Don’t take my word for it. Read the letter below. I am not paraphrasing. And yet the point is not the content, the point is the subterfuge. Why is DWP failing to disclose crucial evidence it has collected from registered health professionals? Why is DWP abusing the legal due diligence process?
How would you feel about the employer of the errant worker, knowing that they knew the above about that individual and still sent them back into a job that in the end caused an accident that had a bearing on you or your loved ones ?
This is your government.
HeartbreakHill is a project like any other. It takes two steps forward and one step back. Happily, it is moving ahead with pace once more and I am aiming for a general free public release of my book before Christmas. I’ll keep you posted.
The book is written. We are engaged in thorough editing and redacting for legal reasons.
Above: The hidden document. The one that got buried. The one they are keeping, even from the tribunal court.
Above. Secretary of State’s Response to my tribunal application and case as I have laid it out. This is the top sheet.
I will be settled
The thing is, my case is likely never to reach the tribunal floor. If it does, I will win. But more likely, DWP will award me an “unfit for work” status in the interim, thereby killing the case off. And so in a sense, the systemic corruption gets a clean pass and I am silenced. The far-reaching implications of the point I am making and the abuses I am exposing get shunted back into the darkness.
What I could really use is a legal team with a class-action angle and a leftfield courageous team of investigative journalists to do a body count of people in my position and then hit the litigation mechanism with a stack of departmental abuses, a truck load of proven cover-ups and a handful of deaths and injuries that satisfy the causal link criteria in UK law.
This story is to be continued. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from seven thirty for about ninety minutes the JVA mobile soup kitchen pops up on Brindle Heath, outside The Church public house. This forlorn arm of former industrial wasteland juts out on a rise above Salford and affords a wide angle view of inner city Manchester. In winter after dark those Mancunian lights twinkle and blur in a promise of urban avarice.
Oh baby the stars shine bright.
At seven fifteen a slow caravan of vehicles weaves off the East Lancs Road and onto the heath. A dozen men and women, old and young, disembark and promptly assemble a marquee, a serving desk featuring urns of hot food and beverages and a makeshift self-service open-air cafe of left-overs from Greggs. Paper plates and cups are stacked next to those grey plastic troughs of knives, forks and spoons we had in school dining halls thirty years ago. But here the cutlery is plastic. A square of tables and chairs allows customers to sit and chat while they grab their first meal of the day or, as is often evident, the first meal in days if not weeks.
The staff stand in attendance behind the hot-food-and-drink desks, eagerly serving the queue and making light friendly chat. Serving tea and coffee is a young woman in a pink hooded top with blonde hair. Jenny is eighteen and studying for her A levels. She’s here with her mum and dad who are setting up the marquee and loading take-away bundles of food off crates from the back of a Volvo estate car. John is managing the sandwich bar and cleaning the tables. He’s been living in hostels after completing a prison sentence five years ago. He’s been volunteering for JVA since the first month he got out. I saw him here on Christmas day in 2017, which fell on a Monday. You don’t take days off when your customers might starve to death if you do. They probably will anyway but you’re pushing it back.
JVA stands for the Joint Veterans Alliance. The charity struggles for funding so its members are draining their personal funds to do this. Ex-military men who are kicked onto the scrap heap when they return home from years of service in exile choose to give up their lives back on civvy street by helping those in similar need. Now isn’t that something?
On that Christmas day Monday that I mentioned, these men and women were out here on the freezing Brindle heath. Teeth chattering, feet stamping and fingers numb. Some of them were even walking the doorways of Manchester city centre with freshly baked Christmas cake for the poor souls who couldn’t even make it to support site locations. Everyone counts in large amounts.
Dave circulates and chats to the eaters – some of whom he has come to know well. I see him promise to go down to the local A&E right after the kitchen concludes in order to check on the boyfriend of one of the girls attending. Tanya says Kevin was beaten up last night before being arrested in the melee. It’s clear to me that this is more than just a soup kitchen. It’s a social service. A welfare support.
Some young men stand away from the set-up in the deep shadows, feverishly wolfing down food like animals. It’s good to see. You know, real hunger being sated. It reminds me of when you feed your dog. That ravishing function of the teeth. Sheer urgency.
Others sit at the table and either converse lowly or lean into their plates in a bid to see off intruders. This is not a social function, afterall. Nobody’s here to network. Energy levels are low.
One middle aged lady ladles tea from a hot cup clasped tightly between both hands into her mouth from a spoon whilst wearing a big smile. She’s blowing off rising steam at the rim and ingesting in a continuous loop. Her ear-to-ear grin is infectious and I smile too. She doesn’t want any food. She’s so skinny she’s no doubt gotten out of the habit of consuming it. People don’t want to get their hopes up by flooding their metabolism with the vital promise of nutrition only for another long session of hunger to cheat their newly awakened nervous systems. It’s easier just to leave the stomach asleep and retain a psychology of hopelessness. Anything more is tantalisingly cruel. Life’s hard enough. This is the real version of expectation management. Not that sugar-coated client-care bullshit your L&D coach has you missing half a day in the office for.
I spot-count eighteen hungry souls devouring the food and everyone has a hot drink. People share cigarettes and pass round a joint. Off to one side is a vacant lot sealed by ten-foot high wooden boards. There’s a small gap in the boards thirty feet away from the marquee. People squeeze through to use the privacy to take a pee.
The atmosphere is calm and relaxed. One or two are here to chat but conversation is largely muted. I recognise many faces from around town and the shop doorways. I nod to a few people who sleep in some of the local hostels and who often shout my name when I set out on a run through town. People in my block are here. Neighbours. The women come here in packs. It offsets the danger of walking through a crazy-golf sequence of disused subterranean concrete subways, especially after dark. Most of the subway tunnel lights are smashed or disconnected. But it’s a journey you have to make.
It’s food. It’s an absolute life saver.
!Audacious & The Mustard Tree
There are gospel churches scattered throughout Salford, from Eccles to the quays to the Irwell river banks where our city rubs shoulders with the celebrity neighbour. The river is the visible boundary. Where she morphs into the ship canal at Pomona docks and swerves right at Old Trafford she’s referred to as The Old Ditch.
The Lighthouse is on the new link road that connects Eccles to MediaCityUK. The New Harvest is down in the Irwell valley opposite the Arena. !Audacious is huge. I once navigated someone to it from the quays by jumping in the car with them and co-driving. The beauty of the soup kitchen in !Audacious – and similarly at The Mustard Tree opposite the Chinese Cash ‘n Carry is that customers get to sit at a table and choose from a menu. They get to enjoy being waited on. This elegant twist injects a vital ingredient into the lives of the starving poor: personal dignity. What could be of higher value ?
Think about it: we are not just trying to feed hungry mouths. We are extending compassion and love to our fellow brothers and sisters. The prime function is an authentic demonstration of personal value. Proof of life. The food is the medium through which we do it.
Loaves & Fishes
Opposite my Job Centre on Paddington Close in Pendleton, M6, is the new home of Loaves & Fishes. This soup kitchen has indoor seating but also boasts a garden with wooden benches and parasol heaters – rather like a beer garden. The outdoor bit allows customers to mingle out of the watchful eye of staff. You know, get a bit of breathing space from authority figures. Bear in mind a lot of these people have been in jail or hostels or police cells or they are constantly in trouble at school or college. They sure could use a moment or two out of the eye line of custodians and deputy heads and arresting officers. Anyone in authority triggers the old anxiety. Loaves & Fishes recognises this.
While people eat, a suite of offices in the main building houses citizens-advice-bureau trained staff who help customers complete application forms to organise their finances and stay on top of obligatory admin. Yeah. At the very bottom end of society, the paperwork in-tray comes in sky high stacks. Many people cannot write. Yeah. The fifth richest nation on earth. Like, for real.
Edwin Hugh Shellard’s gothic-style church was built in 1856 but looks and feels much older. It’s truly glorious and complete with a quadrant garden of landscaped trees and colourful flower beds. It’s like stumbling into Corpus Christi college down Merton street in Oxford. Weirdly it sits deep in the heart of the poorest sink estate in town, surrounded on all sides by towering slum highrises in a pedestrianised crime hot zone called the Broadwalk. The weed and crack dens of Mulberry, Magnolia and Sycamore (all the highrise blocks have soft, Utopian escapist names) look down on Mrs Wyatt’s soup kitchen, flooding it with acid techno and Bob Marley beats, twenty-four seven. Mrs Wyatt lives here. Her jumble sales, soup kitchens and crash-English courses for newly arrived Syrians fleeing the war zone are legendary. She runs a hostel from here that offers temporary bed and breakfast to a dozen or so young men and women.
Known as St Paul’s C of E church to innocent passers-by, it is so much more. You’ll see as much if you take a minute to cross the threshold.
Set up by a couple of women who used to be homeless themselves, Lucie’s Pantry is my own GoTo. I take other people to all the others for company and to keep abreast of goings on. There’s never a shortage of people to help and things to do. A smile. A hug. A chat. Authentic personal enquiry. These are world changing devices to people who grew up without love or parents or school and are now dying of hunger.
Social supermarkets look like food banks but there is a crucial difference; personal dignity. They position themselves smartly between high street shops and soup kitchens. People newly unemployed who cannot afford to feed their families often get issued a food coupon at their job centre which can be traded for goods at a participating food bank. The thing is, this can be humiliating – the ultimate admission of defeat in terms of economic independence. It sends people headlong into the throes of the mental health system, Samaritans, A&E or worse. Social supermarkets recognise that solving short term poverty in a manner which generates a stream of equally dangerous situations is not the best way forward.
You cannot just throw people food. We are not dogs, even if we eat like them.
If you’re on Universal Credit and live locally you can join Lucie’s Pantry. This is a terrific social supermarket. You pay £2.50 a week in cash. Many people do not have bank accounts. You have to prove your benefits status and local residency status and you have to record the temperature of your fridge. You take a cold-storage bag to put things in. Each week you pick up a basket and shop. You get to take ten items. Four from the red shelf. Three from the green. Two from the yellow and one from the deep freezer. There are usually one or two freebies on offer. You check out with an item count. Pay up. Sign the attendance form and that’s the deal. If you miss a week you still have to pay so it will be £5-00 next week. Miss more than three weeks on the run and you’re out.
The place is like the size of a double car garage. The food is wide ranging. You can carb out on junk such as canned soda, cakes and crisps or you can grab staples: bread, milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and veg. I manage to fill my quota on healthy eats. Spinach. Nuts. Shin beef. Full fat milk. High fat condiments. Tomatoes. Salmon steaks. Avocado. Quinoa. It’s not always possible but usually I hit the jackpot. All the food is on the verge of turning but it comes in from all retailers. Tesco Finest. M&S. Sainsbury. The Co-op. Asda. It’s all here.
Crucial non-foods include sanitary towels, loo roll, kitchen roll, mouthwash, toothpaste, showergels, soaps and general hygiene accessories.
Immigrant families humbly scour the shelves, many not yet in command of English. It must be awfully frightening for them and while the women shop, I sense shame hanging off the men as they stand with their children near the door.
Yet Lucie’s Pantry takes most of that shame away because – and I speak from personal experience – unlike a soup kitchen – that low entry subscription fee transforms beggars into genuine paid-up customers and this is the vital quality we must offer our brothers and sisters at this end of society. The forgotten lonely and the never-quite-decriminalised and the immigrant citizens and the mentally ill and the uneducated and the abused and the shameful. Usually, people I meet carry more than one of these burdens on their shoulders.
Every now and again I come across a neighbour in the lift on the way up to my condo in the sky. He makes enquiry as to precisely where Lucie’s pantry is. He’s clearly interested. But when I offer to show him, perhaps because other people are in earshot, he proudly declares he doesn’t need it. He clearly needs it. Personal pride is just as big an obstacle as any other to people at the lower end of opportunity just as it is to people at the top.
Because just under the surface, we are all the same. Feeding people is not enough. All humans are worth their quota of human dignity. We can feed each other and leave our self-respect in tact. And we can do more. We can reach out – and not just metaphorically. Hug people. Sit down in the doorways with your brothers and sisters and look them in the eyes and ask after them. Get to know and use their names.
Just out of sight, Salford has a big beating heart. I love living here. We are leading the way. This is the most important work in the world. Turn your TV off and join us.
The above is an extract from Gary Knapton’s book From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant. Coming soon.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: A Contemporary Diary From The New British Underclass of 2019.
Go find the others
“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Go find the others…” Timothy Leary
Knowledge is not wisdom in the same way that learning is not comprehension. This is not an impromptu lesson in semantic priming. The consequences are stellar: a cold uncaring non-society or a common humanity of intuiting and wholly experiencing the essence of our bonding qualities.
The homeless sleeper with a dog. If, like some of my acquaintances, you experience such a person and instantly think ‘How come they can afford a dog? Hmmm. This implication of decadence really gets under my skin!’ … then you are applying knowledge – a kind of base retention of facts – and you are focusing narrowly on those facts. Zooming in myopically. Being clever. Honing your cognitive skills to argue a cool brand of razor like reason. The thing is, you have not noticed how your question seamlessly segwayed from inquiry to rhetoric. This leaves you superior, cold and unkind. Heartless.
Also now trending: the line of argument that homeless people are not really homeless or that they are so of their own volition.
Yet, whereas knowledge is a base retention of facts, wisdom is knowing what all the facts mean when they fit together. This is comprehension. A rounded understanding. A long lens zoomed out for a landscape view of the grand design. Not some dumb pinpoint inquiry.
The wise person will tend to get the whole context and break free from the attentive glare of the immediate knowledge: man with dog: ergo, dog costs money for upkeep: ergo sum, man must have money. This blatant inconsistency left swinging in the wind as a semi-conscious barrier to the dissonance we feel when we step over the shop doorway bodies without so much as a human nod, holding tight the loose change in our pockets lest it make the give-away chimes of mean-spiritedness. The whole rhetorical question constructed on instinct as a base foundation to justify our turning a blind eye. Our very questioning of the validity of the needy in our midst, paper-thin as it is, just the tool we need to continue on our ego-driven way without the nagging sense of shame or guilt. Move on quickly to thoughts anew. Best not dwell.
I’m not saying give all your money to the thousands of homeless people that line our streets. I am simply saying stop lying to yourself that some modern conspiracy has taken hold whereby wealthy people simulate neediness. Wake up to your privilege and the gratitude that it can unlock.
The wise will empathise and feel pity and gladness that some charitable projects have seen the light in funding the very poorest most wretched souls in our stinking rich society the opportunity for vital psychological company.
And the heart of the wise man and wise woman will see the cleverness of the knowledgeable for the disconnected damaging agent it is. This aside from the sheer dumb stupidity of choosing, of all demographics in our over privileged world in which to carry out a spot check financial audit, those with the very least.
Dogs for the wealthy and those with families are fine huh? You seem to want to deprive those with nothing to start with.
This is what happens when we retain facts and stop at the learning-knowledge level. It is vain glory. We look and sound clever. We give the impression of wisdom. But authentic wisdom only comes when we make the effort to execute the data banked into a genuine personal comprehension such that we know what sums of knowledge might mean. Without afforded meaning, we are cool calculating actors. Arrogant and unkind. Merely intelligent in the passive, sentient sense.
Wisdom is heart. Comprehension is compassion.
Turn the telescope around and zoom out to enjoy the all-inclusive perspective of panoramic detail. This is the birth of truth and context. This is the birth of unity.
Knowledge from learning is granular and atomic. Equipped thus we tend to see only our differences.
Wisdom from comprehension is our community: our common unity. Equipped thus we tend to see our true nature: that we are one.
When you are ready and able to find the humanity in the homeless guy with the dog. With the annoying guy in the office who won’t stop banging on about Brexit. With friends and relatives who have slighted you. With people who ask for favours all the time but never seem to acknowledge or give thanks with signs of learning or an expression of gratitude. With people who stand resolutely for interests that do not align with yours. With your perceived and actual threats and enemies.
Then you have gone and found the other people within those people. You have gone and found the others.
The late MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, was a dedicated humanitarian whose maiden speech to the House of Commons requested that we can all exercise the opportunity we get daily, for free, to concentrate on the things that bind us rather than the things that stand us apart.
Go find the others
Whenever you have an insight and, like a muscle, you exercise it and enshrine it with the frequent reference of new habit, personal growth occurs.
Often, at this stage, people will ask – what now? What do I do now?
It is a question of a practical nature and an indictment of our teleological consumer age, where we all have to be metaphorically “going” somewhere or doing something in a bid to continue the rush to get out of now and to make headway in the chase for some promised land that lies just up ahead. Over the brow of the next hill or round a bend in the road. Always just out of sight.
Yet, if you go find the others in the people you least like, as described above, there is nothing else to do because everything has already changed. This is change on a personal level.
And if you still care to satisfy that practical urge born of a utilitarian mindset, you can always take the phrase literally, and go find the other people in your midst who have discovered this self same insight. You can jump into their standing wave and in this manner you can hone the skill set and refine your relationship with it. You can join the existing community and continue along the curve of learning and inspiration that awaits for you there. This is a gateway to peace and joy.
Go find the others
Or, you can create your own standing wave for other people to join. Both such actions constitute change on an interpersonal level. Rather than embracing the existing community, you can take your new self, in demonstration, to the residual unwitting community at large. Again, this usually involves “doing” nothing. People, it seems, will be drawn to you for your newfound compassionate calm and the magnetic pull of the energy field you emit.
Since you have gone and found the others in a psychologically internal sense, the neonate others will come and find you in a very real and physically exterior sense. Personal begets interpersonal begets educational begets public and thus the ripple breaks out across the waters of culture and society at large.
These are the reciprocities of the higher chakras. The uncoiling serpent springing forth. Unity visible. This is kundalini rising.
Thanks for reading
The book From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit is in final edit and will be available to the public in due course.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book from Gary Knapton
Love in a blue time
Why are robots replacing humans at so many jobs? Because they can. Ergo sum, humans, until the point of singularity, have wasted, are wasting and will continue to waste their lives usurping the function of machines. Doh! Small wonder that nobody in the globalised “western” world stops to appreciate the value of their eyesight or the sweet sound of rainfall on tree leaves. The sheer wonder of the anti-gravity nature of muscular architecture in bipedal hominids. You know, a viscous dense liquid, thick as fortified wine, pumping vertically upward from the toes of your feet to the neocortex of your brain continuously, successfully, subconsciously, for billions of heartbeats without one single incidence of failure. Bloody marvellous. No surprise too that people rarely reflect upon my point of machine reductionism. Afterall, robots don’t reflect. It’s only a short jump from here to the glum admission that we have turned ourselves into little balls of energy for productive material and tertiary output. We have commoditised everything and even objectified our own bodies to the extent that we can’t extract meaning or self-value without looking at our property or in the mirrors. But the mirrors present only a reflection of our view of the external from the same inner perspective. We are lost. The collective noun? Losers.
Can I speak, then, of an experience of what would classically be termed “poverty” in a hopeful way and with gratitude? Can I talk about Universal Credit and, by implication, its armoury of adverse qualities whilst standing resolutely outside that weary, weatherworn arena of modern day politics and personal egocentricity?
Can I reflect upon and narrate and address my own journey without falling easily into the wide avenues of blame and the cul-de-sacs of despair that have come to own this debate and have succeeded too often in all but drowning out the humanity and the humility which, stripped of its harpies of anger and bitterness, rings out in an altogether different tone to that which the mainstream media and half of my Universal Credit collecting brethren are singing in? From the midst of a world organised neatly into exclusive ownership, the glitzy temptress of “stuff” shelved, penned and caged. Exclusive sirens. Each new commodity: a dancer twisting like a flame in a slow dance – while the sleepwalking masses learn the attachments of need, desire and fear – can I summon the grace to walk from the erstwhile call of these Orwellian silos of “success” and induce instead, from my own personal bell-tower of human embodiment, a new campanology of gratitude, wonder and joy? The joy of witness. The wonder of question. The gratitude of this living, breathing, beating heart experience. Can I just do this if nothing else?
I doubt it. We’ll see.
There is a crisis of agency. Not just in the high castles of power and privilege. It’s easy and accurate to feel like a victim and play the victim. There is a crisis of agency within all of us.
We find ourselves paralysed within the polemics of superficial debate, held in the magnetic fields of partisanship, tribal loyalties, the pride of reputation, the appetite of ego and the neurosis-papered prison walls of political correctness. The echo chambers of our self-constructed feedback loops resonate our righteousness high into the cavernous rafters of our own organised groups – digital and non-digital. It is not good enough to blame social media for robbing us of the ability to be open minded and to take personal responsibility. We are social media. We are doing it.
Universal Credit went “live” in November of last year for many of us. This upgrade to the service-end of the benefits system manifests as an online interface that gives the recipient of the welfare payment more control over information in a bilateral manner.
This enables me to show you how Universal Credit “looks” when it turns up as money on the ATM screen and how it breaks down. There are only two components of it, for me, and the millions who receive this type of UC in Britain today – formerly a triumvirate of Job Seekers Allowance, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Exemption.
The single sum payment which justifies the adjective “Universal” is contained in the blue box at the top of the Payments screen when I log into my account. This is cut into two: one bit to pay my rent and one bit to live off.
Now, as opposed to in times gone by, I get to see what next months payment looks like a good seven days before it arrives, without having to call the hotline and ask. This is a good thing. At the breadline end of society people get jumpy and antsy about the short term future. There is often no need to, but we do.
“You said that your rent is £455.00 per month” is written in text in the Housing box. It’s not quite accurate. I didn’t “say” my rent was that amount. I was obliged to provide, in person, the original copy of the tenancy agreement as proof of rent. That’s fair enough.
And you can see that despite this acknowledgement, the Housing sum dispatched is actually lower than my rent – so the bit to live on takes a hit before it starts. Council Tax is no longer a duty from which I am exempt.
Yet I am housed. I have privacy and exclusive possession. I enjoy running water and electricity. I have a roof over my head and food in the kitchen. I am typing on a high-spec desktop computer supported by a pretty awesome fibre connection. I have a wardrobe of clothes. I am educated. I am blessed with both my physical and mental health. And unlike many of you, I am not interrupted by the busyness of business with its dollar sign attritional glare and its stealth drug of need and attachment that hovers just above the neon clouds of consumerism like a high precision drone. Out of sight – even though it owns you.
If you are working, ostensibly all is well. You possess free will and, even though you are a little time poor – and even cash strapped – you are in employment and as such you are rinsed in a wholesome sheen of worthiness, purpose and engagement.
And I agree. You are.
And yet you are not. Let’s just say “it’s complicated”. Such an existential line is a lie you have been fed. Deep down you long since began to intuit the con.
Agency – the will to power up our minds and bodies and actually do something – not necessarily to change anything on a physical plane but rather to play the cards we are dealt and make optimal use of the here and now – starts with clarity and perspective. And that starts with raw honesty.
My situation, although seen as a plight by my immediate peers – the guys I graduated with and my former colleagues in low to mid-earning salaried jobs with company cars and expense accounts – puts me way out ahead of billions of people on the planet who would literally give anything to be in my position. So I consider it my duty, in the name of raw honesty and authentic perspective, to compare myself to them and to them only.
I have friends out in the refugee camps just beyond the Syrian border working hard to pioneer a version of monetary Blockchain technology to replace food vouchers in the cardboard cities of 100,000 wretched souls where professional gangs are stealing and forging the paper coupons. This will enable everyone to eat. My friends have walked away from their lives of Western privilege to contribute, heal and serve, compromising their personal safety to do so. Doing it anyway.
Closer to home, in the soup kitchens, hostels, food banks and social supermarkets that line the streets of my neighbourhood, the biggest hearts – the people most dedicated to the ultimate charitable cause of feeding starving mouths and dishing out hot bowls of empathy and generous servings of compassion with a smile and a listening ear – are precisely the people in most need. The homeless, the hostelry registered, the sofa-surfers, the injured ex-military, the liberated ex-convicts, and all other constituents of the sour end of the social underclass – are the first on their feet to give every waking minute to help feed others in even greater need.
Last night a friend hosted the opening night of his new business development networker in Manchester – focused not so much on business as on personal growth and emotional intelligence. I went along. It was a mild evening on the edge of the British spring season so, living in the city, I walked through the urban bustle to the venue, feeling lucky for being a city dweller, always having chosen to live in the heart of the din. Not knowing anyone but the host, I made friends with six or seven new people and enjoyed an instructive and inspiring talk from the guest speaker who demonstrated the technique of resilience and the courage of vulnerability right in front of me. For free. No charge. She was kind enough to share and I drank it up.
In the course of the evening I met a lawyer, a couple of psychologists, a recruitment HR head, an asset manager, an organisational developer, people in construction, people in tech. Many of these people had enjoyed successful careers and were financially independent. They were wealthy. Rich. In their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. But they wanted more out of life. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they had decided to address the incessant nagging that haunted them so often that there had to be more than this material idiocy. And when their careers and dreams were interrupted through either personal tragedy or personal epiphany, their own crises of agency had died right there and each had taken huge steps, replete with risk and discomfort – to at least try and make the world a better place for others. A kinder, more patient and more compassionate place.
Away from the numbers
My point is that many of us who score “poverty” by all the standard metrics are actually wealthy. And many of us who score “wealthy” by the same are actually turned by an acute sense of poverty of the soul. Away from the numbers. In the currencies of focus and direction and resilience. On the abacus of creativity and connectivity. In the bank of authenticity and agency. Of meaning and purpose and value. My account is healthy. Of lung capacity and brain oxygenation and blood iron and the strength of my immunity system and a nutritious diet and my wholly attentional use of a gym and a psychotherapist. Of my basal metabolic rate. Of time to reflect and pause and to simply be in the moment. Of meditation and spirit. Of charity and hope and faith. Of vainglory and ego checked each and every time they rise up. Of all these things I am in credit by some distance.
People of all circumstance. It’s up to you how you live. You have the power to choose and the requisite duty to accept, like it or not, that the downsides – the costs – are the trade-off elements of the choices that you, alone, made, make and will make again freely. If you are sunken low in some deep-spun narrative of how, in your exceptional circumstances, free choice in the way that I mean it has somehow been stripped away, then you are in denial and your refusal to address the denial by seeking fresh perspectives from professional, independent, objectively qualified third parties is just another choice you are making right now as you read. Making the best of the cards you are dealt is no one else’s job. Being self-aware enough to realise that, in fact you and you alone, most of the time, are the card dealer is nobody else’s concern.
I threw my television set, freezer, toaster, facebook account and microwave owen away years ago and I read and write and run all day as it sets my heart on fire.
You have a choice and every day you wake to make that choice afresh. Even if you think you do not. You do.
I cannot presently speak to those of us with careers and private sector realised ambition, nor to those of us with assets to conserve nor those struck low by acute mental illness or shackled with onerous glee to the responsibilities of joyful, difficult parenthood. Clearly, it is apparent that within each demographic and within each circumstance there are opportunities. Agency, like deprivation, is relative. It is pointless to attempt to create qualitative leaps by destroying the concept of categories. It is better to see, truly, where we are and better to endeavour to work with, rather than against that position from a mindset of genuine acceptance. My socio-economic status and immediate financial situation right now might align neatly with the new social underclass of Britain in 2019. The underclass is dynamic. People move in and out of it in a fluidity that is not reported or computed. The underclass is not static. It contains a shifting sequence of personal journeys. It is there to catch you when you fall or need a while to regather. It is a compassionate support mechanism. It is not terminal. Nor dormant. Nor the final resting place of degenerates and sociopaths. For those, see most workplaces. And for the archangels at the severe end of the sociopathic spectrum, you’ll need access to the boardrooms and all such corridors of raw power. Follow the money to locate the malady, which like the waters of any mighty river are sourced in the seemingly innocuous springs of higher altitudes, where rarely trodden mountain paths give onto exclusive summer gardens and lush artificial meadows – their wholesome, beguiling properties a cunning, cosmetic camouflage of venomous evocations and dark energies. Orangeries in the desert. California love.
Whether you are an artist dedicated to following your creative path, the victim of a personal trauma, a recent immigrant to this island – and there are a million different reasons why my fellow brothers and sisters claim Universal Credit today – you can make the most of your life. You can turn ostensible negatives into positives in a flash. You can flip the script.
Ask for help. Take responsibility. Speak openly of your vulnerabilities and flaws. Throw open your closet and out yourself. Detach from your reputation. Change the game. Don’t be scared of the losers. Who are the losers? Refer to the opening paragraph.
For when I am weak, then I am strong
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book by 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
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