Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Designing-out aspiration: the history of council estates At last a moment to put in a plug for Lynsey Hanley's Estates, an engagingly personal exploration of the history and experience of council housing. Hanley comes across as a lot more patient than I would be in explaining the politics and decision-making that gave rise to what have been called 'social concentration camps' and the succession of estates where desolation was designed-in. We learn that the author herself 'escaped' from such an estate to accumulate otherwise-inconceivable sacksfull of intellectual and social capital by going to university, but there's no sense of confused guilt or pride. She writes with great clarity about the tangled issue of social class and the 'wall in the head' that characterises the experience of growing up on a council estate: The wall in the head is just that - a state of mind - but it would not be so strong, or so seemingly insurmountable, were it not for the real walls that serve to strengthen it. Coexisting with the state of mind is a state of economics, a state of health and a state of education, a state of government policy and a state of segregation by class. She's maybe a little harsh on tower blocks - when they work, with proper maintenance and sensible allocations policies, there are many people who greatly appreciate living in towers; and I suspect she could be harsher on the current 'sustainable communities' building plans, where some of the classic errors like forgetting to provide local amenities seem to be being replicated. But this is a strikingly real book illuminated throughout, refreshingly, by personal experience. As it happens, sometime after I started reading Estates I found out that I'll be sharing a platform with Lynsey at this year's Swindon Festival of Literature, on the evening of Thursday 10 May - it should be fun.

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