DISCLAIMER: Besides some minor modifications, this was originally written as a Facebook status update in one sitting while in the shivering cold straight after checking out from the B&B in question. Any flaws with grammar, structure or it just generally not being very good are because of that, and nothing to do with my lack of talent as a writer. Honest.
Shortly after I moved to Newcastle to begin a PhD about the privatisation and gentrification of London’s social housing Ken Loach’s new film about the benefits system in modern Britain, I, Daniel Blake, was released. The irony of me moving from the security of a housing association flat to three hundred miles away to investigate the issues which were happening right on my old door-step was not lost on me. But the plot of I, Daniel Blake, where a former London resident is moved to Newcastle as that is the only place where social housing for them is available just hammered the point home. Of course, me being homeless is not why I moved to Newcastle, and I do not, any longer, live in social housing (more about this in a forthcoming post). I am fully aware of the lofty security and effective bubble from the harsh realities of modern Britain that many live within that I enjoy. But the fact that Loach had chosen the city as the location for his parable about the failing welfare state made clear to me the fundamental choice I’ve made in turning my back on the safety of my residency in London.
This weekend I needed to return to London in order to take photos of and re-orientate myself with the location of my field study of state-led gentrification. With this I experienced the ultimate irony, being that in my trip to take photos of former social-housing that will soon be sold for upwards of half a million pounds to the rich and speculative buy-to-letters, I inadvertently ended up staying in a bed and breakfast that was now making a booming trade housing those in need of temporary accommodation. So there I was, with my neighbours, in this unassuming house (nothing outside indicated that it was a B&B) being run as a bed and breakfast, surrounded by people who desperately needed the kind of housing that was now being robbed of them by the state’s policy of privatising social housing, formerly a fundamental part of what many would answer when asked, “What makes you proud to be British?”
I had not known the nature of this bed and breakfast when I booked a room at it for three nights. I’d chosen it because it was in a convenient location for my fieldwork, and because it was drastically cheaper than all other nightly accommodation in the area. The fact that the “breakfast” element of its title consisted of a fridge containing butter and jam with a loaf of bread on top of it did not set any alarm bells ringing. If anything, this seemed a lot more convenient than having to get up at 7am and sit in a dining room with all the other guests.
The first morning there was a commotion next door. A family were being evicted. They were begging the proprietor to let them stay another night, that they were homeless and had nowhere to go. That they had a baby and said it was illegal to throw them on the street. It was horrible to hear, but what could I do? Once they had been removed the B&B’s owner told us he’d been advised to not allow any guests with babies, because this is what they always say when their booking comes to an end.
On my final morning as I was packing up I used the bathroom one last time and was struck by the sight of the waste paper basket over-flowing with shit-smeared toilet paper. Clearly another resident was unfamiliar with UK plumbing and its capacity for handling items being flushed down it (no wet wipes though, please!). Having stayed in countries with less-robust plumbing I was not appalled by this, but it did make me think of the people for whom accommodation like this was now, for the foreseeable future, their reality. As I escape back up to Newcastle armed with photographs of 1950s buildings now so desired by the moneyed classes, I feel at a total loss of how to quantify and how to imagine what can be done to address this housing crisis. It’s a term we hear so much and are all apparently concerned about, but it’s getting bigger and more unimaginably difficult to address by the day.
Maybe eventually more people will be like me, except instead of accidentally booking due to cheapness on their part they will actively seek out a weekend in the life of the misery of the disenfranchised. There’s probably a lot of money to be made out of it.