Ruby Grierson stood in the middle of a slum house in Stepney, East London, her film-making equipment set up and ready to go. To the gutsy but dishevelled resident who lived there, she said, “The camera is yours. The microphone is yours. Now tell the bastards exactly what it’s like to live in the slums.”
That’s how the story goes, anyway. And it is to be celebrated. Although she remained an uncredited assistant on the mundanely titled film Housing Problems (1935), Grierson had changed documentaries, and perhaps journalism itself, forever. She was one of the first to ask her subjects to speak directly to the camera. To the viewer. To the world.
These people did speak out and, thanks in part to Grierson, we can hear — and, sadly, recognise — their woes nearly a century later.
It’s arguably the most tired and dog-eared old quote about architecture ever but it’s still worth thinking about Le Corbusier’s maxim, “A house is a machine for living in” — from his 1927 manifesto Vers Une Architecture (Towards an Architecture). Don’t miss the full quote, though:
“A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.”
Some of the essential components of living listed briefly there by Le Corbusier evaded the people featured in Housing Problems and they still evade many in the UK today.
We are in what is called a “cost of living crisis” — though it is not novel. The machines, the systems upon which life depends, are once again noticeably costly and dysfunctional. They are letting us down. A family member said to me recently, “It’s just like we’re going backwards.”
I can understand why some feel that way. As a journalist, I’ve spoken to people who have starved themselves so they can feed their children. Visited food banks and heard shocking stories from the workers and volunteers there. I remember a young couple leaving a food bank in London that I went to, slowly pushing their baby’s buggy with a plastic bag full of cans slung on the handles. They looked exhausted. I have also heard from some who weren’t able to heat their homes this past winter despite the terrible impact that has on their health.
In journalism and film-making, there is a long tradition of witnessing hardship. Some powerful examples come from the 1960s and early 1970s, when housing in Britain was being turned over. The old slums were finally — decades on — getting demolished. Concrete flats rose up in their place. But many of those buildings, too, were riddled with problems.
In 1969, Thames Television made a film called Where the Houses Used to Be. Like Housing Problems, it too foregrounded ordinary people. Residents of freshly constructed blocks of flats. Some loved their new surroundings and shared examples of how their lives had improved. But many were frustrated by the anonymization and restrictedness of apartment living. It didn’t seem very sociable — certainly not very British.
After we hear a forlorn melody played on a solo flute, the first person to appear in the film expresses her sadness at having to leave her old terraced home behind. This is how she describes it:
“One of the things about living in a house in the street, you had friends, you had neighbours, you had your next-door neighbours — you had your neighbours over the garden wall. Em… You were individuals. You could paint your front door what colour you liked. You could paint your bricks if you wanted to. You could have what colour curtains you liked. You were an individual, when you live in a flat you’re not. You’ve got to conform — really conform — or else, you’re out.”
(There is a little bit of irony here, depending on your viewpoint. The first terraced houses in Britain were huge, well-appointed 17th Century townhouses for the rich. Eventually these were miniaturised, the glamour chipped off, and tiny terraced houses became an easy way of packing working class folks into cramped urban areas, often right next to the factories where they toiled. That doesn’t mean they were unloved by everyone who has ever lived in them, though.)
In the 1960s, while some of the poorest people were moving from slum terraces to flats, the middle classes were embracing suburbs. But they had their own issues. Suburbs stretched communities out and seemed to deprive them of basic amenities. I look around some of the towns that I know very well where I live, in Northern Ireland, and all I can see is fields of suburban housing estates. Nothing to do. And small gardens failing to divide them up properly.
The same year that Where the Houses Used to Be was broadcast, 1969, the BBC put out an exceptional television essay by Margaret Drabble bemoaning this sort of thing. It was called I Love this Dirty Town. It seems that civic planners back then just didn’t know how to meet people’s genuine needs. “Dead on Sundays,” notes Drabble of the ‘burbs. “But also dead on weekdays and every night of the week. Unforgivable.” Caught between the slums and no man’s land.
Architecture and planning can themselves be problematic but so too can the neglect by certain landlords and housing associations. That is a centuries-old problem, really. Millennia, even. And despite injustices, it’s easy for some to dismiss this. To blame the “deserving poor” or play down any complaints. Blind eyes never turned as quick.
The narrator (Victor Henry) for the 1971 Thames Television programme Report: St Ann’s, about the slums of Nottingham, puts it like this:
“People are not starving, not in rags, not sleeping in the open. It’s difficult to realise to what extent many people are deprived of things that everyone else takes for granted. The surface is unrevealing.”
The surface is unrevealing. So, you can see where our job lies as journalists. To do the revealing. To do the witnessing. To say, “The microphone is yours.”
There’s been some excellent, if at times upsetting, reporting in this vein recently. Take Daniel Hewitt’s eye-opening visits to people living in cold homes this past winter, for instance.
Or Lewis Goodall’s five-minute film about the exasperated students at Manchester University who decided to go on rent strike. “We should split our rent with the rats,” one quipped.
What’s clear so far is that “housing problems” are nothing new. But they’re still news. It’s all the more extraordinary that we struggle with these things in the year 2023. Living like this.
Poverty, in truth, holds up a mirror to the machines for living that we have constructed — and shows how convoluted, ramschackle or ineffective they are.
Look! All mod cons.
But what does it matter if they don’t really improve your life. What good is a smart TV, if you can only sit watching it in the freezing cold.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was born in 1929. She had a lot of stories about growing up in a working class home in Belfast. One I often think about is her description of having to wash my great-grandfather’s overalls in a bucket. He worked in the shipyard and his clothes used to get caked in oil and dirt. It must have been back-breaking just using a washboard to try and get them clean.
She recalled her memory of getting a washing machine for the first time. Life got better. A machine for living.
When I started out as a journalist, I wrote almost exclusively about technology. I was totally fascinated by gadgetry and online communities. I think there’s still a lot to say about those things. But over the years I’ve got more and more interested in the fundamentals. The fact that washing machines, for example, are still — still! — too expensive for some to use freely. Or that millions in the UK live in cold, damp and mouldy homes. Homes without good insulation because they weren’t built properly and are too expensive to change now. Single-paned windows patinaed with condensation every morning.
There are some fascinating technologies available that could help. I have enjoyed writing about a few recently — from energy-tracking gizmos to heat pumps and special forms of insulation. Or the grass roots movements using food sharing and messaging apps in an effort to alleviate food insecurity.
These days, I care much more about the super-efficient fridge than the fridge with a built-in HD screen and smart speaker. The damp-proof floor covering excites me while the clumsy hoovering robot leaves me cold. Forget wi-fi connected lightbulbs… does your boiler work the way it should?
There’s too much fluff. Too many distractions, marvels and big American or Chinese companies that monopolise your money and attention. I know people who can’t get a leak in their roof fixed. This juxtaposition has bothered me for a long time. Initially, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but reporting on public health issues over the years, attempting to renovate my own house, and lately the cost of living crisis, have brought it into relief.
Part of the problem is that so many things are politicised, now. Change might be harder when everything is divisive. If I write an article about heat pumps, for instance, there’s always a few right-wingers who pop up on Twitter to descry them. As if a technology that could (potentially) make your home warmer, for less money, is something to be afraid of. I am not without some bias, no-one is, but really, all I ever want is for readers of my stories to be better informed, so that they can make their own decisions. Not influenced or brainwashed — I don’t think I have the ability to brainwash anyone! If I did, I’d be a lot richer.
To be informed, though, is essential. Machines for living are often too complex. We need to understand them better. This knowledge ought to be democratised.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been glimmers of hope. Debates about things like pedestrianisation, indoor ventilation and the value of green spaces or spending time in nature. Although already forgotten by many, some of this has sunk in, and a few cities around the world are changing a little as a result — which is encouraging. Still, there is a weird background resistance out there to efficiency, to egalitarianism. The mind boggles. Ultimately, we have the chance to seize worthwhile technologies and architectures, and use them to improve many lives. There is know-how and geekery ready and willing to assist with such things, too.
At the heart of it all remains that question, which we should always be asking, of how people live in their own “machine” or system, whatever and wherever it is.
How do they actually live, day by day. What is it like. What could be better. What are their levels of comfort. How sociable may they be. How independent are they. And, yes, how free?