Chapter 1: Sue
Woolley Colliery. To the West of Barnsley. Out in the countryside. Three simple rows of terraced houses and the colliery. That’s all that stood there for a hundred years. Reached from the bottom, via Darton, the red brick wall as you get passed the train station still bears a faint trace of the graffiti painted during the miner’s strike. An obscene reference to Margaret Thatcher. There was more above the stone bridge on Station Road. I remember the condemnation and censureship of the school teachers.
I remember walking down Bloomhouse Lane with my Grandad to pick up his wage. The last summer before I started school. Huge dumper trucks brimmed with coal flying down what today seems like an unfeasibly narrow country lane. Hawthorn hedges on either side. The black single decker buses with the NUM branding in yellow, ferrying men to and from the pit. Day shift, afters, nights. Silver birch trees separating the pavement from the traffic as we turn onto Woolley Colliery Road and make our way to the pit entrance. Huge green fields stretching away to the right and the black expanse of the colliery to the left before us. Slag heaps. The muck stacks. The warning siren. Stepping over the dried black mud, ‘’Ey up, Tommy’ from men covered in black dust, wearing donkey jackets, mucky orange overalls and big steel toe capped boots. Winding gear towering above. The huge metal wheel. The thick, coiled metal rope. Conveyor belts suspended in the air, always moving. We head up the steep concrete steps to the payment block, three windowed booths with cicular Perspex grills set into them, under a short canopy. Brown envelope with a plastic window. Payslip wrapped ‘round the folded notes. A check, a summing up. Then into the canteen. The colliery employed two thousand men back then in 1976. Formerly the pit that Arthur Scargill was NUM representative for. It closed in 1987. The silver birch trees have gone in the last few years. Ripped down unnecessarily as part of the new development. The slag heap that covered most of the valley side is getting flattened out. The new housing development lies at the bottom of the valley, where all the workings used to be. Visible from the M1. The three rows of terraced housing that climb up the other side of the road look on resentfully. Another long access road snakes down the side of the valley. It used to lead to the coal washing plant.
At this bottom end of the old colliery a shopping park is promised. No one knows why. The locals already have their shops, the newcomers will cling to their route out of Barnsley and the motorway. To Leeds and Sheffield. The Meadowhall and the White Rose.
Striding over large boards bridging the ripped up earth where the services are being put in, I go into the sales office and speak to the representative. She’s called Sue. Dark haired, brown eyed, 40 something. Coloured like plain chocolate and caramel. Tidy and well-groomed. A clingy top advertising a hint of sun bed cleavage. Tight, shiny black business pants. Lots of well-applied make up. Teeth whitened. I get a huge welcoming smile. Best friend’s Mum. Sue treats me like a pal.
The sales office is in what will ultimately be sold as a large four bedroomed detached house. A massive double storey window set in the hallway. The walls feel inconsequential and I wouldn’t be surprised for them to wobble. Plaster board covered with designer magnolia. Sudanese Hessian. The ceilings are low. The windows small. The space cramped. Chrome fittings. No 90s brass or 80s gold. Everything clean and simple.
Sue has her office set up in the large, rectangular lounge. Beech desk, laptop with Mah-jong and Facebook on the screen fading into a screensaver of an aerial shot of another development, some success story from the south of the county. People like multi-coloured ants waving up to the helicopter as it strafed past. There’s a small printer ready to get down to the serious work of contracts and binding signatures.
Across from this another table holds a scale model of the development. Toy town. Someone’s dream to make a few million sketched out in balsa wood and oasis sponge. There’s a dinky version of a Porsche 911 parked in front of one of the houses. The road through the development drawn arbitrarily to give a village feel to the place. Humanize it. And get maximum use from the plot. ‘Well, who wants a garden these days?’ remarks Sue. Quite rightly. Low maintenance.
Sue gets me a sweet milky coffee from the machine in the kitchen. Double cream and a party pack Twix if I fancy one. Sits next to me on the stylish and surprisingly comfortable sofa from Habitat.
Referring to the model, I ask how sales are going.
‘Yeah, great,’ she beams. A flash of French polished nails. A tempting displacement of the boobs. Skin creasing in the valley between them. Perfection in decay. Over-ripe. Preening gestures with the fringe. ‘People still want good housing. And these properties are not only beautiful designer homes they’re an investment.’
It was like I’d just pressed the belly of a Furby. A speech learned by heart spieled out.
The signs up on Woolley Edge tell a different story.
The Credit Crunch. No one wants to say the word ‘recession’. But there’s crisis on the TV every night: Northern Rock came first. Seemingly out of the blue. Then City traders with their heads in their hands as the legs of the market give way again. Another shell shocked worker being interviewed as they leave work for the last time, dazed at the wheel of the car they can’t afford to run anymore, window wound down and a microphone pushed into their face. So what are you going to do now…? I don’t know. The BBC graphic of a jagged graph in blood red plotting a downward fall in share prices and upward rise in the cost of oil, gas, electricity, mortgage rates… I think we’re going to be seeing that particular visual on our over-expensive LCD TVs for some time. An icon for our time. Concern about pensions. Confidence at a low. Worrying about consumer spending. Banks folding, huge public investments evaporating as Iceland’s financial systems fail just at the time when we need that money to be safe – because there’s not going to be anymore coming in. The tax receipts are shrinking. And who is going to be able to afford another rise in council taxes to plug the gap left by lost investments? We’re caught in a vicious spiralling circle. Every job loss has the two fold effect of lowering the tax revenue as contributions dwindle, while adding more weight to the benefits bill as former taxpayers start to sign on. Less tax means a tightening of public spending. And we’re suffering job losses on a scale we haven’t experienced since the early eighties. Boys from the black stuff, Auf Wiedersehen, pet! The government trying to shore the financial system up. The reverse in the housing market means a fall in the collection of stamp duty. There’s panic on the streets of London. Panic on the streets of Birmingham. I wonder to myself could life ever be sane again?
We have built an economy that relies on affluence. On our ability to borrow. On the faith in lending. The Service industries. Credit. Luxury goods. Invisible comestibles. No one actually makes anything anymore. The manufacturing base has gone. A reverse pyramid. Keynes is standing on his head.
The development here at Woolley Colliery is the latest in a tradition of aspirational housing that kicked in towards the end of the 60s. It’s apotheosis and blue print laid bare in Abigail’s Party. The brand new Vauxhall Viva gleaming in the car port. The package holiday to Spain. Central heating that didn’t rely on shovelling coal into buckets. Pink and avocado bathroom suites. Perhaps chocolate. Room dividers and microwave ovens. In Barnsley there is the Italian Estate in Darfield. The Barratt development up off Sackup Lane at Staincross (opened by Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw in the guise of Bodie & Doyle c. 1981. Flown in by helicopter; leather jackets, aviator shades, a fake snub nose revolvers), the Long Causeway at Monk Bretton. Most of Higham. They were estates that were populated by people who holiday’d abroad via the travel agency rather than hitting the B & B in Scarborough or Whitby every summer. They had two cars on the drive, double glazed windows and fully fitted kitchens. Dad went to work and came home without his hands getting dirty, Mum had a part time job. The two kids did their homework on time and were headed to University. The first in the family.
A softer, smaller version of The American Dream. We weren’t aspiring to be president or the chief executive officer of a Billion Dollar Business. We just wanted two weeks abroad every year, a detached three bedroom and a credit card.
In the last ten years we’ve been seduced by nought percent, live now pay later and easy finance.
Up on the top road, the route in from the motorway, deals are on the board for 105% mortgages. Discouts and bonuses. I get a sense of panic by the developers. Wanting to offload their own credit burden.
Sue’s talking again. There’s something about sun bed boobs. I think it’s the incipient Melanomas. She passes across some literature. A matt coated A4 brochure with the estate name picked out in high gloss. Mine to keep. Elongated serif font. Air brushed photo of a married couple, perfect skin, beaming kids and a golden retriever. Twelve months down the line Dad’s considering hanging himself in the garage when his pay is frozen, job losses rumbling through his multi-national and the tracker mortgage rate has gone through the roof, Mum’s having it off with the bloke from next door to help her forget about her credit card repayments, the dog’s been abandoned by the side of the dual carriageway and the kids are both heading towards therapy for bed wetting and eating disorders. Plastic max’d to the hilt, the mortgage fattening up like a cuckoo in the nest. The mortgage is in negative equity. Arguments and stress-induced dysfunction.
Grabbing hold of a bunch of keys we head to a modest three bedroom town house. Sue’s swaying hips and curvy backside dragging me forwards. We stride up a short drive. Dun block paving. There’s a built in garage with a room above it, a window poking up through the slates. Except it isn’t slate, it’s reconstituted; it looks like the real thing but isn’t. Like the rest of England. It’s made up to look like something from a London Mews or a Hollywood idea of an English country cottage. There’s a bay window.
We pause on the threshold. Turn and survey. Sue points out the five different types of house this part of the development offers. The Chesterfield. The Buckingham. The Cotswold. The Marlborough. The Blenheim. Mixed up to create an illusion of individuality but at the same time giving everyone more of the same. Privacy is not an option. This is panopticon suburbia. Watching you, watching us, watching them. The angle and proximity of each property means that your every move is observable. Adam’s mowing the lawn, Diesel shorts, tight Old Glory t-shirt, Rachel’s on her way to work in her new VW Golf GTi… a cat walk.
‘That’s what a lot of people want,’ Sue confides. ‘Developments’ – Sue doesn’t like the word ‘estate’, conjuring up, as it does, social housing and Chaville – ‘developments such as this engender a sense of belonging. People move here, they’ve got the BMW on the drive, they holiday abroad a couple of times a year, they have a decent pension plan maturing, they eat out at a good restaurant or gastro pub a couple of times a week and they know they’ve arrived.’
A Sex & the City/Desperate housewives/Cold Feet/Friends world of girlfriends, Thomson Gold resorts and half-fat latte sessions in trendy bars discussing the latest collection from Jasper Conran. Coffee table books about shoes and sex toys. It’s an interesting and somehow beguiling proposition. Happiness and satisfaction a commodity. Sold in a big bricks and mortar box, double-glazed and energy efficient Grade 1. Complete with a pocket-sized garden. Another tick in the box on the check list for happiness. University. Check. Relationship. Check. Marriage. Check. Two kids. Check. Pension scheme. Check. Congratulations you have scored 85% on our life satisfaction survey. You are a success. And it’s all achievable through a steady work ethic and a decent credit rating. Repayable in not so easy to swallow bite-sized chunks over the next quarter of a century. I must be a winner: I have the flash German car, the big house, an iPod, the latest mobile ‘phone, the modern furnishings and the well-groomed partner plus, two super, smashing kids…
Sue opens the door to one of ‘The Cotswold’ houses and we step inside the cramped entrance hall.
What immediately strikes me is the size of the place. It’s on the market for £180,000. Though I’m sure Sue’s willing to negotiate on that these days. Free wall-to-wall carpeting, some gadgets thrown in. A few white goods. A help with the deposit and arranging the mortgage. Sue on a plate for the first couple of weekends.
I look around critically. Compared with the 1930s corporation houses on Probert Avenue in Goldthorpe or Windsor Street, Thurnscoe that I’ve visited the property is tiny. The main living room is only slightly bigger than the third bedroom at Paul’s place on South Drive in Bolton-on-Dearne.
Even so, it’s obvious at first glance that this is a few leagues up from Brunswick Street and Hope Avenue. A different world. Regardless of being smaller and despite the lack of garden. A different standard of living is being sold here. It’s not just the bricks and mortar. It’s a lifestyle and community that’s for sale. Buy here and you’re assured your neighbours won’t sit at the front of the house in the summer, the settee dragged out from the lounge, two litre bottles of cider and a seasonal joint of skunk to embrace the summer with. There won’t be any feral kids roaming the streets. No litter. Domestic violence on these developments will be more low key. The alcoholism kept indoors. This is the socialism of affluence. This estate is about a communal sense of prosperity.
‘This is designer living,’ Sue informs me, almost reading my own thoughts. ‘Upmarket spec for the professional who knows what they want from life and have the means to afford it.’
I nod regardless, gazing around. Capitalist Socialism. I can envisage morning tai chi on the open-plan lawn to strains of Dido. Taking turns with the family from next door to drive over to Manchester Airport in the 5 series for the trips to Goa, Cancun, Sharmel Sheikh. Kids in the same succeeding schools.
There’s mandatory flat screen TV above the living flame, chrome surround gas fire. ‘L’ shaped red leather sofa with sharp angles. What look like dried out bulrushes in a stretched cream pot down on the floor in a corner. A gold dish with pot pourri. Some hearth rug made from tubes of brown suede material that shrug up like a cuddly sea anemone. Phillipe Starke Perspex Eros chair in orange. A large Roy Lichtenstein print in a brushed aluminium frame on the wall. Oh, Jeff, I love you too but…
The lounge leads onto a fitted kitchen. Beech units with long steel handles straight out of a 1960s science lab, black marble work tops. Mosaic tiles and down-lighters. Double American style refrigerator. Breakfast bar cum island unit. Everything snug and soft closing. Slate-effect tiled flooring. Dualit kettle and toaster. Large digital clock on the wall with red display.
Working her long, Aloe Vera softened hands as she speaks, Sue goes into her patter, buzz words: Payment vacation. Incentives. Aspirational lifestyle.
She encourages me to make myself comfortable. Live the dream. Sprawl out on the red leather and imagine myself watching the Premier League in High Definition. Lacoste pajama shorts, pecs toned and tanned, nibbling on tacos and supping expensive imported lager. Mens’ Health on the coffee table, a few corporate branded golf balls on the berber. Other half with a spray tan, Tiffany ankle bracelet, tottering through on some Jimmy Choos pushing the hostess trolley. Nibbles anyone…?
She nods at me, smiling. ‘You’re getting the sense of it, aren’t you?’
I return the smile, feeling good about myself inside. My mate John Terry gives me a big thumbs up from the expensive box on the wall. And looking out of the window I can almost see the Audi S-line gleaming from the block paving. Late night champagne from the built in refridgerator and filming some hi-def gonzo in the en suite master bedroom with our lass. Barbecuing Norwegian shrimps for Toby and Jenny from next door in the summer, a chilled Grenache on the go. No more doubts. No more nagging thoughts about where I’m headed and who I am.
‘Where do I sign, Sue?’