It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. I’ve been under the weather again – a massive fucking stormcloud this time.
So let’s just jump straight in. Over the next few posts, I want to explain what it’s like growing up on a council estate and how being brought up as a member of the underclass can have a lasting effect on a person. The main areas I’m going to focus on are intelligence and education, work and money, and identity and ambition. If that all sounds a bit dry then don’t worry: I promise I’ll make some terrible jokes and swear too much so that I massively lower the tone.
Firstly, though, I want to give you a snapshot of what life was like for me back then. In order to do that, I am going to take you back to 1996, and I’ll begin on the 27th of January – my 12th birthday. One of my only memories of that day was getting a cassette single of Slight Return by The Bluetones and being massively disappointed the following day when fucking Spaceman by Babylon Zoo beat it to number 1. Remember that song? For years afterwards I’d hear the first part of it and think ‘oh ok this isn’t so bad’ but then the main part of the song would kick in and I’d remember what an utter piece of shit it was.
At the time, I was still at school. I was in my first year at secondary school, and I absolutely fucking hated it but hadn’t quite gotten to the stage where I wasn’t actually turning up anymore. It’s not that I was bullied as such – although being a weird-looking ginger kid who came from a poor family meant I definitely got my fair share of abuse. It was more that I just didn’t get along with anyone there very well. The only reason I wasn’t bullied more was simply because I was fortunate enough to come from a part of town that had its own little ‘gang’. We were more of an ‘idiots on rollerskates’ gang than an actual gang, but hopefully you get what I mean. On our own, we were all just massive losers, but we all had cousins and some of us were fortunate enough to have cousins in families that people knew not to mess with, so other kids tended not to try to beat us up.
My other saving grace was that I occasionally managed to do things that the other kids thought were cool. These things were incredibly stupid things, such as smoking, shoplifting, and doing other people’s homework in exchange for cigarettes or lunch money. However, it’s kind of impossible to go through a childhood in that kind of area without having at least one fight and I somehow got it into my head that if I had a fight and won, then I’d be left alone. So I got into a fight – at a family fun day, of all places – and she ran away after I slapped her a few times, so I claimed victory. The thing is though, I honestly didn’t want to get into a fight with anyone. The only reason I did that was because I was fucking terrified of someone starting on me one day and either getting my head literally kicked in or being jumped by all their mates. (This whole thing kind of backfired seeing as I spent the rest of my summer dealing with people coming up to me going ‘my mate wants to have a fight with you’ in order to prove how hard they were and having to talk my way out of further altercations in case they all decided to beat me up at once.) But this can probably be explained by the fact that this was only a couple of years after witnessing my mum getting knocked around by her pig of a boyfriend for the best part of a year – including when she was pregnant – so it’s probably no big surprise that violence frightened me. I was still traumatised by that whole episode.
Speaking of which, by 1996 I had settled into my grandparents’ home pretty well and wasn’t (yet) displaying too many outward signs of the trauma I’d been through. What didn’t help was that my mum kept randomly turning up, either because they’d spent all their money on beer and had none left with which they could buy nappies and other essentials that apparently aren’t as essential as beer, or she’d turn up half-cut because she’d had another row with the stupid cunt she lived with and needed somewhere to sleep for the night. The latter was the one I found hardest to deal with. Sometimes she’d turn up absolutely wasted in the middle of the night, wearing a mini-skirt, a vest with no bra, and a pair of slippers. After my grandparents listened and rolled their eyes at her, she’d get in bed with me and tell me that this was totally the end this time and she’d get her stuff tomorrow and then we’d get a flat together and everything would be awesome. I fell for that about fifty fucking times – each time ending with her going back the next day for her clothes and my baby half-sister (apparently it was okay to leave a baby with an abusive drunk) and inevitably calling me the same night to tell me that he’d promised to change and she was going to stay there. Honestly, I think that shit messed me up almost as much as the night I left there for good.
The second most annoying thing was when it would happen earlier on in the evening. She’d generally have more clothes on, but she’d arrive and seem to think she could interfere. Back then, I technically had a 9pm curfew, but all the other kids had to be home by 8pm so my curfew tended to mimic theirs. My mum, for some inexplicable reason, thought that she could just turn up and overrule my grandad. She would actually come out and yell my name until I came home, with my grandad either yelling at her to shut up or yelling at me to ignore her. I remember hiding behind a car one night while my mates all covered for me – but not without taking the piss out of me at the same time. I didn’t need that on top of everything else. But, looking back, a lot of us had similar stories to tell. At least I was no longer being abused. I’d take being mocked over getting knocked about any day of the fucking week.
In fairness, my little ragtag gang wasn’t so bad. Back then there wasn’t very many of us, and our main problem was that there was absolutely fuck all to do round our way so we became local minor irritants. One game we used to play was ‘run outs’, where we all split up and had to get back to ‘base’ (the green BT street cabinet thing next to the bus stop) without getting caught by whoever was guarding it. Only, while we were running, we’d do shit like chuck dustbins into the road or look for cars whose drivers hadn’t applied the handbrake and move their car around the corner. Really annoying things, but nothing overly criminal. Our other game was ‘garden hopping’, which involved starting at one end of a row of houses and racing through their back gardens to get to the other end. I didn’t do this because I was too clumsy and couldn’t scale a wall fast enough, so I tended to be on lookout duty along with the only other girl in our little group. We did this often enough that the people whose gardens we ‘hopped’ through actually started leaving little traps for us, like trip wire or Staffordshire Bull Terriers. But there really wasn’t much else to do, and we all had the kind of parents/grandparents who wanted us out of the house as much as possible, so we improvised.
The area I lived in was a cul-de-sac type thing made up of council houses and council flats, whereas the roads leading out had houses that increased in value the further away from our little cul-de-sac you got. So there was quite a bit of class variation within our little group. There was around ten of us in total. One of the boys and the other girl in our group – along with myself – lived in pokey little council flats. A couple of them lived in council houses, but the rest of them lived in the slightly posher houses further up the road. This made things difficult, because although they were reasonably sympathetic towards our lack of money, they still mocked us for wearing the ‘wrong’ things. If you’ve ever heard people say that school uniform is a good thing because it means that all the kids have to wear the same thing and therefore puts them on equal footing then you’re likely to be safe in assuming that those people have never been poor. Yes, we all wore white shirts and black trousers or skirts, but kids are really good at telling the difference between a black skirt bought full-price in Tammy Girl and one that came off the sale rail in the market. Anyone with eyes can tell the difference between a cheap shirt and an expensive shirt, mainly because cheap shirts are pretty much translucent, which added extra bait for bullies: OMG I CAN SEE HER BRA. We weren’t allowed to wear coats with big logos on, so everyone wore Eisenegger puffa jackets. Everyone wore Kickers shoes in the exact same style and everyone wore the exact same style of Ellesse trainers for PE. Well, not everyone, obviously. I didn’t, and there were a couple of other (literally) poor kids who didn’t either. Some of the things that were fashionable in my school weren’t completely unaffordable, such as Body Shop bags or JD Sports drawstring carrier bags, but for the most part I never really fitted in.
Outside of school wasn’t much better. My grandad finally relented on the Adidas bottoms issue when I point-blank refused to go out wearing two-stripes, and he even started letting me buy them from JD Sports once he realised that buying them from a catalogue meant he was paying twice as much for them. But unlike some of my friends, I’d get two pairs a year if I was lucky. In fact, my nan bought me a pair once and told me I had to save them ‘for best’. Fucking Adidas bottoms. For BEST. They were white, so maybe she thought I could wear them to a wedding or something. (I actually didn’t end up wearing them very often anyway; not because I was saving them for best, but because OMG I CAN SEE HER KNICKERS.) I had a pair of Nike trainers that were somewhat acceptable, but all the posher kids had ones with air bubbles, which they would pop with cigarettes and then walk around making weird squeakhiss noises. This was an odd thing to do, especially when the poorer kids followed suit – it was done in a ‘look how nonchalant I am about trashing my own things so my family must be well-off’ kind of way, but the poorer kids weren’t going to get theirs replaced any time soon so they just walked around squeakhissing until next christmas or birthday or whatever.
Needless to say, non-uniform day at school was something I dreaded. In fact, I started dreading lots of things about school that year. I was doing well academically, but this wasn’t something to be proud of if you wanted to be popular because being intelligent was extremely uncool. My problem wasn’t so much that I wanted to be one of the cool kids; I just wanted people to like me, and I didn’t know how to cope when they didn’t. So I would go out of my way to act like I wasn’t as smart as my teachers thought I was. I was so embarrassed about being smart that I would lie and say I’d cheated in my tests and that’s why my scores were so high, or I’d say someone else did my homework for me, and so on and so on. By the end of 1996, when I was in year 8, I’d started acting out completely and was skipping school most days – and when I did go, I’d turn up in trainers so that I’d be sent home, or dye my hair purple so that I’d get put in isolation, or I’d simply just walk out of lessons and wander out of the school in the middle of the day. By the end of year 8, I’d stopped bothering to turn up at all.
You would think that someone – my grandad, for instance, or some other sensible adult – would have stopped me and said ‘come on, you need to go to school so that you can go on to college and university and have a career and make something of yourself’ or something like that, wouldn’t you? Well, it’s exactly this kind of thing that I want to look at over the next few posts. You see, this might be sounding like some kind of brag, but the truth is that I was smart when I was a kid. I’m not very smart now, because I fucked it up by pretending to be stupid when I’m not and I guess all the drugs I’ve taken haven’t helped but what I’m trying to say is that even though I was intelligent, there was never any expectation that I would achieve anything and therefore there was no encouragement. My grandad would sneer at students because he thought they didn’t do any work and were just having a few lazy years before they had to get a job, so of course he never encouraged me to do that. I was always expected to just go out and get a job – any job – once I left school because that’s what everyone in my family did. Someone like me was never going to be a doctor or a scientist or a teacher or whatever because that’s way too ambitious. Don’t be silly. Go and work in a shop.
I think I was in my twenties before I realised that was wrong. Council estate mentality stays with you long after you leave the council estate.