By Andrew Fraser
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It was two days before Christmas, when I fell off a train drunk from London and stumbled up the hill from the station to my first real home in five years.
I hauled my trusty suitcase, which had seen some mileage, up the hill to my new abode, past all the prettiness and the Christmas lights, into ‘my’ flat and into the next chapter. Where the bloody Norah had I landed!?! It certainly felt a long way from the homeless hostel and societal collapse of Barking.
The honeymoon period was not long and this was not quite the fresh new start I would have hoped for, had I been hoping for anything. Which I tended not to, for fear of disappointment. I knew literally no one in town and had somehow found myself living underneath the local numero uno sociopath, who had caught wind of my commitment to helping rough sleepers, my family now, and smelled my vulnerability. You would think after all those nights sleeping outside in the gutters of Soho, Stratford, Romford and elsewhere, I’d be streetwise but I was discombobulated and quite heartbroken to be leaving behind some of my mates with whom I had shared a pavement. They were even more fucked up than I and still in deep trouble fighting for their lives in a London which was becoming ever-nastier.
By Christmas Day he was stalking and terrorising me which went on well until the New Year and I discovered he had form for the same kind of behaviour all over town and we finally got him put back inside his box.
This combined with the emerging Covid crisis made it an especially spooky time for me, now, ironically, locked indoors, for fear of going out. I began to have panic attacks and was becoming agoraphobic.
So it was very hard for me to really get a grip on where I was. Like everyone else I was locked in. But I think I appreciated that door that locks, that toilet, that bed, the roof and the warmth, more than most.
Really it’s only been this last year that I’ve got to know Stroud. And I do love it even though I might as well have stuck a pin in a map, once I’d decided to admit my defeat in my doomed relationship with The Smoke. At long last I had managed a happy accident. London felt like a battleground and had since long before I was rough sleeping. I had had a successful career in the media, rising as far as Deputy Editor at Attitude magazine, but I don’t think you realise until you are out of it, how much London becomes your captor. Amid the glamour of nights out in the West End, there was always the background noise of soaring rents and declining mental health. The gnawing unspoken realisation that I couldn’t miss a beat. And that I would have to keep running at this pace for the rest of my life just to stay still. People who rented flats were moving into shared accommodation, below that people who couldn’t afford shared accommodation were sofa surfing if they were lucky.
All of us who didn’t own their own property were caught in a downward vortex. And then there was the drip, drip, drip of increasing rough sleeping everywhere you looked. It was deliberate. The government’s way of letting us know that that’s where we were heading if we stepped out of line. No slacking. Schnell! Schnell!
I really, really loved East London. And it wasn’t quite the leap from Leytonstone to Stroud that I might have imagined. Certainly not the Leytonstone that I moved into 13 years ago. The parallels are scarily obvious.
Both towns were fiercely independent. Both were ‘Best Kept Secrets’. Both had amazing histories of artistic, inventive and countercultural endeavour Neither were twee like West London was to Leytonstone or the Cotswolds are compared to cool Stroud. It was that independent spirit that I fell in love with in Leytonstone and that I’ve found here in Stroud. Leytonstone felt like an island of tolerance, good taste and affordability in the maelstrom of dog-eat-dog post-Olympics East London life.
Ministers meanwhile, Labour and Tory, had been promising the ‘regeneration’ of East London without warning us that it would destroy lives, families and whole communities, all for the benefit of…well, who exactly?
And it’s those similarities between Leytonstone and Stroud which concern me the most. I would hate to see that happen again. Stroud too is like an island, calmer, prettier and more wholesome than Gloucester yet at the same time earthier, more organic and real than than the deeper, posher Cotswolds.
And so it was unsurprising when Stroud was anointed “Britain’s Best Place to Live” by somebody presumably with property interests in the Five Valleys at the Sunday Times. Do you ever wonder why no town wins it two years in a row? Because it’s generally a Kiss of Death for those who don’t wish to see their town become the next social disaster zone. It’s not for nothing that Brighton is known as London-on-Sea, littered as it now is with embarrassing amounts of wealth coupled with sub-Victorian levels of poverty. A short walk around town will show you how Stroud is being lined up to be Chelsea-in-the-Cotswolds, thanks to the redevelopment of Merrywalks Shopping Centre with its fabulous Borough Market style food court and for-the-super-rich-only clothing emporiums. It’s an attractive thought to many of our richer populace.
And gentrification can be a giddy thing, I’m sure, especially if you own your home. Why go to London when you can bring London here while watching your home’s notional value soar. My friend Michael in Leytonstone was smart enough to get a mortgage on his tiny one bedroom flat many years ago. And he’s seen it quadruple in value to over half a million. Not that he can move anywhere bigger should he start a family. Not unless he sells up and moves somewhere like… errm, here.
You could have bought a whole street around there for half a million not so long ago. And plenty of investment funds did, including the owners of the flat I rented faithfully for nearly eight years, until they put the rent up £180 a month on a building that they had never maintained. The only time they ever spent a penny on repairs was when I had a biblical wasp swarm for several days after they ate through the chimney breast and made themselves at home in my living room. That was actually worse than homelessness. To say it was dilapidated is to do a disservice to old Havana. I had the notional right to appeal the rent increase, and I might well have won, but the Landlord would still have evicted me and my downstairs neighbours, who had paid to get rid of the damp out of their own pockets because they were worried about their little boy’s breathing. All they had to do was pull a Section 28 No Fault Eviction.
I knew that there was a huge imbalance in the Landlord/Tenant relationship but I don’t think I realised until then just how powerless you are as a renter. The ‘liberalisation’ of housing laws begun under Margaret Thatcher had created new and inventive ways for the rich to screw the poor over, and then blame them for being screwed over, because they wouldn’t have been if they had only played the housing market themselves. Speaking personally I can’t even decipher an IKEA flatpack instruction, let alone understand, desire or know how to get a mortgage. And I’d already racked up too many debts to get one anyway. I did understand the simplicity of Wonga.com though. That was easy, just one click and all your fears of homelessness went away. I was living beyond my means somehow, yet working my arse off. All around me there were people with similarly good jobs, nurses, teachers, artists who were likewise falling into the poverty trap. If I couldn’t make ends meet when I had just about maximised my earning potential, what would the future hold? The knowledge that I couldn’t get ill was making me more sick by the day and only alcohol could numb the fear. I can’t explain to you how terrifying it is when you realise you are walking a tightrope and you realise there is no safety net beneath to catch you if you fall.
It was Time Out wot dunnit in Leytonstone, just like the Sunday Times did in Stroud. A derided backwater, way out in Zone 5, people had no idea about its gritty delights, reasonable prices, fantastic ethnic restaurants, affordable boozers, decent schools (mostly because it was a cohesive, working class community) and proud Alfred Hitchcock heritage. Until somebody started shouting about it and there were no more people left to evict to get a bargain property in Bethnal Green. I was really excited when we got our first swanky Vietnamese Restaurant, not really understanding what that was presaging. Stroud is already there, with its Korean, Turkish, Japanese, Mexican, Latin American and Thai offerings. One of the things that always kept me clinging to the big bad city was the thought of losing access to places like that. It’s pretty astonishing that a town the size of Stroud has probably a better selection of food choices than most medium sized cities… including Gloucester, just down the road. Obviously, it’s being lined up for big things.
I went back to my old local a couple of years ago. Not that I often drank in there because it was like God’s Waiting Room with the odd drug deal to liven up proceedings. More than six million had been ploughed into it. It had fire pits, it had fish tacos, it had ping pong, it had pints for just under a tenner. It had a clientele entirely comprised of 21st Century Hooray Henries with badly behaved kids and accents I had never heard before in this part of town. Forget Hitchcock, Leytonstone had finally arrived and the reimagining of the Heathcote was proof that yes, you really can polish a turd. I only stomped in to get my free drink promotion. And of course I quietly fumed at all the cuckoos drinking around me, who had stolen our nest. I walked sullenly back to Leyton station stepping over the bodies of the homeless, whose numbers had exploded amongst all this jolliness. I watch a world now on my TV which with its black, gay and disabled representation, seems a world away from the truth about what life is really like in this country. Nobody is more discriminated against than the homeless, but they are discriminated against in a way that would not be tolerated about any other minority. How can we even talk about human rights when we persecute the most vulnerable and there is no universal human right to safe shelter in this land?
By my estimation Stroud is about five years from becoming the complete social calamity that is London and Brighton, not to mention Manchester and our other “regenerated” cities. And I don’t really see anything that can be done to stop it. And you might like it, if you like nice things and don’t have a problem stepping over the destitute, because it’s their fault obviously and they chose to be destitute anyway.
So what can we do? Other than a price crash or a revolution, the housing bubble (actually a boil on the face of this country) will continue to inflate. Governments could do plenty to stop it, but the housing market has become a sacred cow. Nobody would dare crash it by bringing in private rent caps, banning second homes (it’s outrageous that people should have more than one home when so many have none), or making a serious attempt to regulate the private rented market, which would scare the slum landlords out of the game.
But there are things that we can do to prepare ourselves. First of all we need to stop blaming the victims of homelessness. Sure, some of them drink and take drugs. Wouldn’t you, if you were left with no hope and abandoned by society? Poverty feeds addiction and addiction feeds poverty. Everybody knows that. And I also believe, just as people need to be aware of their carbon footprint, people also need to take a look at themselves and look at their social footprint. If you’ve made a killing moving to Stroud, or even just by sitting still, then I can promise you it is at other people’s expense. People you will never know. People who will be pushed further and further out towards the poorest ghettos. I’m not asking you to feel guilty. That’s the system we have and if you’ve worked within it to ensure your own and your family’s security, then that’s fair enough. But you still – we ALL still – have a moral obligation to help those who have been left behind. I remember reading about second home owners moaning about all the poor people piling up around Brighton’s backstreets, and demanding the council have them moved, blissfully ignorant of the part they played in so much human misery.
Speaking in the Stroud Times, Natalie Long echoed the feelings of many others since Stroud got crowned the best place in Britain.
“I’m facing my fourth move this year,” she said. “It’s an awful time for renters. There’s very little coming up for rent and whatever does is gone very quickly, before you can even get a viewing, or it’s overpriced. I’m single and my wage doesn’t cover the rent and bills and everything else on top, landlords also want huge deposits, and then there’s the threat of being booted out constantly.
“I’ve only been in my current place since February and already the landlady has served notice to move out so she can sell. I’d just started to feel settled here after a very turbulent few years. It’s a horrible situation to be in. Not knowing where you’re going to end up next. I work full-time, yet find myself in this situation of not being able to afford the overpriced lettings due to the housing shortage, and facing being homeless in a few months.”
I’m hoping that something inventive will spring from Stroud’s creative loins. People from places as awful as Slough, Stratford and Stoke claim Civic Pride but Stroud really DOES have something which makes it special and different to everywhere else. The Sunday Times wasn’t wrong about that. No wonder everybody wants a piece of it. I’m extremely grateful to have my own little corner and, although you might say I am also a part of the problem, I think I served my time in capitalism’s prison to at least appreciate what I’ve got. And I don’t want to see people around here going through what me and my brothers and sisters on the streets of Newham and Barking went through.
Britain might have decided that homelessness and housing poverty is an acceptable part of civic life but that doesn’t mean that the People’s Republic of Stroud has to. From what I know, it goes against all the traditions of the town.
I really do have hope though. People keep telling me how different Stroud is and I believe them. That this place is enlightened and united and bloody-minded enough to go against what’s happening elsewhere on this island, to put aside political differences. To demand the rich cough up and throw a protective blanket around our rough sleepers and say, a home is a human right. To demand an end to rough sleeping in the town. Not by pushing them out of town but by putting them indoors. Rough sleepers are as important a part of our community as anybody else. Unless you’re one of the very lucky, you might even become a member of their flock one day.
Wouldn’t it be great if we were the domino that refused to fall to Boris’s dog-eat-dog, rampant capitalist cannibalism of everything that lies in its path? Wouldn’t it be great to give the People’s Republic of Stroud real meaning, right now?