The People of Providence
The People of Providence
Over a period of 18 months Tony Parker interviewed the residents of an ordinary housing estate in South London. He listened to an assortment of personalities including a vagrant, two policemen, an often-convicted fence who was the mother of five children, a pro-flogging magistrate, a local doctor and a seventy-five-year- old widower who spent ‘an hour or two in bed each week with one or other of about twelve different ladies I meet at our church’. The inhabitants of ‘Providence’ opened their hearts, revealing all their quirks, emotions and prejudices. These interviews prove that extraordinary stories are found not only in deserts and jungles. Even amid the bleak sprawl of South London, Parker discovered a community that is diverse and enthralling.
‘One of the most original, absorbing books I have read this year.’ - Observer
‘It is a triumph.’ - Times Literary Supplement
The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of its Inhabitants
Format: 416pp demi pb
Tony Parker (1923-1996) was born and educated in Stockport, the son of a bookseller. A pacifist, he was a conscientious objector in the 1939-45 World War and worked underground in a coalmine for 18 months before being discharged on medical grounds after he was injured in an accident.
Almost by chance he began writing books of a documentary nature, based on tape recorded interviews. It was a technique he pioneered and made his own, and which was once described by the Times Literary Supplement in a review of contemporary literature as "the one genuine new art form of the past decade." His first book The Courage of His Convictions was published in 1962. Subsequently single mothers, IRA terrorists and soldiers were all the subject of his interest at one time or another, in one of his twenty-two books. Two of his books provided material for television drama documentaries.
He died in Suffolk with his second wife in 1996, leaving five children.
Extract from Chapter One
Small and neat in a grey wool roll-necked pullover and check-patterned slacks, she curled her feet up under her where she was sitting at the end of the sofa. Her husband sat on the floor on a cushion on the rug opposite, leaning back with his knees drawn up, supporting himself on an elbow on the seat of the armchair: a tall thin-faced man in an open-necked shirt and jeans. He was thirty-two, she was twenty-four. He nodded emphat- ically as she spoke.
– I don’t mind saying it. It’s true, isn’t it Alan, when we first come to Providence just a year ago almost now, our marriage was more or less on the rocks. We’d been living for two years in two horrible rooms at the back of an old house in Wandsworth; it looked like we was going to be stuck there for ever. I went to the GLC, I said what chance was there of getting something, anything, anywhere? They said all they could do was put our names on the list, but we shouldn’t get excited about it: because we was something like number 1395. The man said if we had a baby that’d put us up a good bit; but neither of us would have even contemplated it then, if we were thinking of anything what we were thinking of was parting. I was working, only a clerk in an insurance office but I was earning enough to keep myself if I went on my own.
Every night all we did was sit in front of the old black-and-white telly we had, then Alan’d usually go down the pub around nine o’clock for a drink. Sometimes I’d read or do jigsaw puzzles. God, I can’t even believe it now, how dreary it was. It was terrible Alan, right?
– Jesus, well I don’t know how either of us stuck it. It was a bit easier for me: yes, it was Linda, just a bit because I had a more interesting job than what you did. She was in this lousy office. I was an electrician with a firm of shop-fitting contractors, so I used to travel around. One week I’d be working up in north London, the next say in Chatham or one of the Medway towns; at least I had a bit of variety. Let’s be honest, to both of us daytimes when we was out working were the times we enjoyed. At night like Linda says we were bored bored bored. Funny thinking back about it: you forget even though it was only a year... .
Well, let’s have more coffee eh, and then work out when you’re going to come and talk to us. Do you want it always we should be together, sometimes me on my own, sometimes Linda on her own, or what?
Alan: What I am now is a driving instructor with one of the nationally known firms. I started a few months back. I’ve always liked driving, only I never thought I’d be able to master the teaching part of it. I’d never reckoned myself to be a very patient sort of person: I thought the trouble’d be that I’d be effing and blinding all the time at people who weren’t doing things right. But they send you on a training course, and that sorts you out about things like that. The other thing they teach you – you’d be surprised how hard it is to learn this actually – is they teach you how to control yourself the other way, not laugh at people who’re making idiots of themselves. That’s more difficult, it’s more difficult not to laugh at people than not to get annoyed with them.
Changing my job, starting on something completely new once we’d got settled down here, that must have been, you know symptomatic. I told you didn’t I I was an electrician? But it wasn’t a good job; I’ve got one or two beginning certificates and things; but I was lazy, I wanted to earn a living and have money in my pocket. Only I wasn’t prepared to go to night school and study to improve the prospects for myself. I wasn’t ambitious, no way at all. I’m not saying I’m all that ambitious now; but at least I’ve got more sort of interest and pride in what I’m doing, I want to do it well. And I go to evening classes now, once a week: not anything to do with work or the thoughts of ever getting a job with it, but just as a hobby I do photography, I enjoy it.
Linda’ll tell you, I don’t think I’d ever enjoyed anything ever at all before we come here. I was a right miserable sod, a real loner. I always had been: I never talked to people, had nothing to do with anyone and I didn’t want anyone to have anything to do with me. When I went down the pub I’d stand in a corner on my own, not looking for anyone to come up to me and not giving them any encouragement if they did. That’s a question I often ask myself, what did Linda see in me? I don’t know the answer, you’ll have to ask her. But I do know sometimes I used to come back from the pub and I’d look at her, and I could tell she’d been crying. It can only’ve been because she was so lonely. That was what her life was like then, with me.
Well, she’s not now though, she’s never like that: we’ve got baby Cindy, and we’ve got this nice flat, and as far as I can tell she seems to be happy all day long.
– I still don’t really know, you know, to this day how we were so lucky as to get this flat. They’d told us we were way way down the waiting list, we never thought we’d a chance in hell. We decided well we’d lose nothing if we kept plugging away except the price of a phone call: so Monday mornings we took it in turns, one or the other of us rang up the GLC housing and said were they any nearer offering us anything. Not nasty, only a polite inquiry sort of thing; but regular as clockwork, Monday mornings around ten o’clock.
And then one day I suppose it was after oh about eight months, something like that – this woman said to me ‘Oh Mr Norris’ she said. ‘Yes we do have something this morning if you’re interested, we’ve got a flat come vacant in one of the tower blocks on Providence Estate.’ I said ‘Right we’ll take it.’ She said ‘Well you haven’t seen it yet, I’m saying would you like to go and have a look at it?’ I said ‘Yes we’d like to go and have a look at it. Only as well as us going to have a look at it, I don’t want any misunderstanding, we’ll take it, all right?’ She said ‘All right that’s definite then; so let me know when you want to come and get the keys and go in and look at it.’
When I went home that night and told Linda she didn’t say a word, she just sat down and burst into tears. I’m not very good at things like that; I said ‘Right well I’m just going down the pub for a bit.’ And I went off and left her sitting there crying. I remember when I came back – funny the sort of stupid little things you remember – I remem- ber she’d laid the table all nice and neat with a clean cloth and every- thing. I thought oh celebration. I said ‘What’re we having?’ and she said ‘Wait and see, it’ll be ready in a minute, go and get washed.’ You know what it was? Sardines on toast.
She’s not one for getting excited as a rule, Linda. She didn’t say much at first except ask me to tell her as much as I could remember about the telephone call I’d had with the woman. Then after a bit she said ‘What did you say it’s called, Providence Estate? Where is it, north of the river, south or what’? I said ‘I haven’t a clue.’ I did and it was absolutely true. She said ‘Well don’t you know the actual address or anything?’ I had to say I didn’t. She just gave me one look; you know, as much as to say ‘You bloody idiot, I bet there’s no bloody flat for us at all really.’
– I might’ve known, I mean what Linda would do after that business I was telling you about last night about me not knowing where the flat was or anything. The next morning she was on the phone to the hous- ing people, and then she rang me up at dinner time to say she’d found out the address, she was going to get off work early and if I did the same we could go and have a look at it.
We met at Oxford Circus at four o’clock, we got a tube, then we got a bus and we got off in the main road over by the park, then we walked through and came out onto the estate. We asked someone which one was the tower block called Darwen; then we asked someone we met coming out as we were going in which would be number fifty- two. They told us that’d be the fourteenth floor. So up we came in the lift, then we were stood out there on the landing outside the front door. ‘Right’ I said, ‘come on then, hurry up.’ ‘Hurry up what?’ she said. ‘The key’ I said, ‘open the bloody door, hurry up let’s get in and have a look.’ ‘I haven’t got a key’ she said, ‘all I want to do’s have a look in through the letter box.’ I went stark raving mad. I said ‘Do you mean we’ve come all this bleeding way just to have a look through an effing letter box?’ She said ‘Stop screaming and ranting and using that sort of language, whatever sort of people’ll the neighbours think we are?’
Then we both suddenly burst out laughing, I suppose because she’d used the word ‘neighbours’ you see. Somehow that seemed to put the sort of seal on it; we both knew then that whatever it was like inside we were going to live here. We were like a couple of kids: we got down on our hands and knees and started trying to peer in. We couldn’t see anything at all except the hallway. But that was enough: hallway, I ask you! It was massive, it looked like bloody Buckingham Palace compared to what we were living in.
We were laughing and giggling, and we kept pushing each other over when we were trying to look inside. We were making a right racket, then we suddenly looked up and there was a woman from one of the other flats on the landing. She’d opened her front door to see what all the noise outside was about. She didn’t know us from Adam, but when we told her we’d been offered the flat only we hadn’t got a key and we were trying to see what it was like, straight off she said well to come into hers and have a look at that, because they were all exactly the same and that’d give us a good idea.
– I think that’s the thing that’s struck me most of all about living on this estate, what I was saying last night about all the people being so nice and friendly. When we were living in rooms in Wandsworth you never knew a soul, nobody seemed to have the slightest interest in anyone else at all. You could live like we did in the same house as ten other people, and unless you passed them on the step coming in or going out you wouldn’t even recognize them in the street if you saw them. But here everybody’s ‘Good morning’, ‘Good afternoon’, ‘How are you today?’ and all that sort of thing all the time: they’ll chat with you coming up in the lifts, give you a nod when you see them washing their cars round the back by the garages. It’s just like you’re all part of one big family and they all really enjoy living here.
I think most people do enjoy living here on Providence. I think the only ones who don’t must be those who’ve been here too long and are always telling you it’s gone down since whenever it was they first came. Those who are here now – well, I suppose most came from the same sort of situation we did, living in furnished rabbit hutches. If they’re not happy with what they’ve got now in comparison, I can only say I feel very sorry for them. To me living here’s fantastic, it’s perfect and I can’t imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else. I suppose it might be difficult a bit when Cindy starts growing up and going to school, and when we have another one; I suppose the fourteenth floor of a tower block’s not an ideal place to bring up toddlers in. But that’ll be a good few years yet before we have to start thinking of moving to somewhere else.
This is the first real home I’ve ever had. We go out on the balcony there, we’ve bought ourselves some binoculars for it: we stand out and look at the view all round, you can see all of south London. I breathe the fresh air – and it is nice and fresh out there – and it’s peaceful and quiet. I sleep deep at nights and I’m content.
We don’t go out much because of Cindy. I go to photography one night, Linda goes to cookery one night, and that’s it. The rest of the evenings we sit at home, perhaps have a can of lager each or some- thing if we’re watching the telly. Now and again we look at each other, sometimes we perhaps hold hands for a few minutes. We neither of us needs to say anything; we both know what we’re thinking. It could’ve been all very different.
Linda: The first week when we moved in I simply couldn’t get used to the sheer size of it, it just seemed absolutely huge. We’d hardly any furniture, and I used to walk about from one room to another and stand in the middle of the floor looking at how big they were. I’d had a week off from work which was due as part of my holidays, and at the end of it I said to Alan I was going to give my notice in as soon as I went back and from then on stop at home. I said I was going to buy lots of emulsion paint from Woolworths and I was going to decorate the place from one end to the other. Alan gave me the biggest grin I’d ever seen him give in his life: he said he’d been thinking exactly the same thing, he was going to take a week off too and we’d do it together.
That week we were at home I decided I was never going to work again, not unless we were ever really really desperate. I wanted to stay at home, have a baby and make a real home. And that’s what we did. It was so important to me that Alan and I should be happy. I was getting to the state I didn’t know which way to turn, I couldn’t see any way out of it except for us to separate. I felt such a failure: Alan’d had a really rotten life, his mum’d died when he was little and he didn’t get on with his dad or his dad’s new wife. He lived with his gran, then with his auntie, then with another auntie – and I used to think ‘And now me, I’ve gone and made things worse than ever.’ Well anyway that’s all water under the bridge now: he’s changed so much, he’s a new different person all together. And if you asked him I hope he’d say I was different and nicer and easier to live with too.
– What we’ve got is first this big sitting room with the floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto the balcony: then through that door there’s the big kitchen, then that door there leads out to the hall. Off one side of that there’s the large bedroom which is ours; then opposite that there’s the smaller bedroom which is Cindy’s; then along towards the front door there’s the bathroom and separate toilet on one side, and a little sort of walk-in cupboard opposite that. The hall’s wide, that’s one of the best things in the flat; it gives you the feeling of airiness and space as soon as you come in. The other thing I like is the high ceilings that all the rooms have; and the central heating; and the balcony which runs from outside here along as far as our bedroom; and the easiness of keeping it clean; and the friendly neighbours; and the built-in cupboards round the kitchen walls ... well, I could go on for hours about all the good things, so you’d better tell me to stop.
There are disadvantages too, yes naturally there are. Only let me think a minute first, because I don’t ever think about them very much. ... Well funnily enough the one I thought before we came would worry me hasn’t, and that’s being so high up. I don’t like heights, or at least I always thought I didn’t; so I did once or twice wonder if it’d worry me, being up so high. But so far it hasn’t done at all: the only time I’ve even thought of it was once when there was an electric power cut when I was pregnant and I’d been out shopping, and I had to walk all the way back up the stairs to the fourteenth floor. It took me about twenty minutes at least, I thought I’d never make it; but anyway I did in the end.
Now as far as I’m concerned I don’t seem hardly to ever think about the height. Sometimes I look out over the balcony and you can see all the people and the cars and things down below, and it’s nice, I like it. Sometimes it gets a bit windy, I mean noisy with the wind; but I don’t mind that, I imagine it’s something like being in an aeroplane.
Honestly nothing else really, nothing I could complain about. It’s all plusses. I like the shops down in the precinct in Robins Walk, I like being near the park so when it’s a nice day I can take Cindy out for a walk in her pram. I even like housework here, which is something I could never have imagined myself doing if you’d asked me a couple of years ago.
We haven’t got as much money as we had when there was the two of us and I was working, but I don’t mind about that. I don’t ever want to go to work again; I want to have another baby before long. That’s about the limit of all I want out of life as far as I’m concerned. I think when you’ve been unhappy and thought you’ve made a complete mess of your life, then suddenly somehow you get a second chance – well it’s fantastic, like a miracle. All your gloomy thoughts go out of your head, you start living and enjoying life again and being thankful for what you’ve got. I’m not just thankful; I do enjoy being here, really enjoy it. I’m not a very religious person, so I say being up here is I’m sure it’s the nearest to heaven I’ll ever get.