Getting the Blues in Suburbia
There aren’t many factory workers like me in the area where I live – a pleasant suburb called Giffnock which lies just over the south side of the Glasgow boundary. I moved there about five years ago and when my workmates heard where I was moving to they were amazed. Almost all of them live in council flats or houses (Scotland has a much higher percentage of council and other rented housing than England) and they seemed to place Giffnock in the same wealth bracket as Beverley Hills or Mayfair. “They’ve all got money up there” I was told.
Of course, when I moved into the place I found the reality to be just as I expected. Nearly every household is dependent on at least one wage or salary earner and so far I haven’t met or even heard of a single millionaire. On the other hand, I have met people who have equally strange notions about factory workers. They presumably get their ideas (prejudices would be a better word) from the media and are quick to condemn strikes and wage demands which they imagine industrial workers indulge in every five minutes, just for the fun of it. Obviously, different sections of the working class have false ideas about the others, but it only needs a look beneath the surface to see the essential sameness of all their lives.
Every morning from Monday to Friday, excluding holidays, I leave home at three minutes to seven. I buy my newspaper in the newsagent round the corner and stand in a shop doorway waiting for my lift to work. I get picked up about five minutes past seven and we are on our way. The streets are deserted and as we approach Eastwood Toll we, pass the big houses and the tall blocks of luxury flats which sell for around £80,000. All of them are in, darkness so the occupants must still be in bed, and’ it’s the same with the bungalows just along the road.
In the next ten minutes we pass through the massive Pollok council estate. There’s plenty of lights burning in the houses here and lots of activity, with people walking along the streets, standing at bus stops or waiting at corners for their lifts. Most of them probably feel, like me, that it’s tough having to start so early, but in an hour’s time the Fenwick and Kilmarnock roads will be jammed with the cars of the salary-slaves from Newton Mearns, Whitecraigs, Williamwood and Giffnock all heading into. the city. For despite what my workmates may think, most of those who live in the big houses, luxury flats and bungalows are employees too, and the fact that they start around nine changes nothing-except that they get home in the evening an hour or two later than we do.
So there are superficial differences between these owner-occupiers and council tenants but the things they have in common are much more important. Like problems, for instance. When we read about all those redundancies in factories, shipyards and steelworks, does anyone imagine that only the shop-floor workers are involved? “White-collar” workers, right up to the highest levels of management, get the push, too. They are not immune to this (nobody is these days) and many of them live in places like Giffnock.
Just recently we noticed that Ian, one of near neighbours, was home a lot during the day and, his car was usually parked outside his house. Eventually we learned what had happened. He worked as some kind of executive (he sometimes talked about his “staff” ) in a big whiskey company, and as the trade is in the middle of its biggest slump in over fifty years his employers had “let him go”.
Ian’s problem now is to find a new employer. Naturally, a man in his position will look up the situations vacant columns in so-called “quality” newspapers like the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald rather than the more “popular” Daily Record. There was a time when he could have made an appointment at the impressively titled Executive Register, but not now. The Register was closed as part of the government’s economy drive so instead of a private interview in a posh office with a fitted carpet, Ian may have to go to the local Job Centre the same as anyone else.
It cannot be denied that the inhabitants of Giffnock are generally a bit better off than those in, say, Pollok. Here and there you can see an extension being built onto the back of a house or maybe double glazing being installed, but they feel the pinch just the same as workers in industry. Another neighbour, Colin, hasn’t taken his family on holiday for two years. “Can’t afford it”, he tells me; the high interest rates which mortgage payers currently face could be the reason. There must be lots like him in Giffnock.
So some of them try to earn a bit extra just as electricians, plumbers, painters, joiners, and other workers do by taking on “homers” in their spare time. The local newsagents have some cards in their windows which demonstrate this. For example, a local man who is probably an architect will draw up plans for your new extension or garage; an accountant offers his services and someone who is “fully qualified“ will provide English tuition in the evenings. In the next street there is a woman who does part-time market research. They need more cash, too.
The classified ads in the newspapers also tell a story. Some years ago the discovery of oil in the North Sea encouraged speculation that the fuel would cost next to nothing, so people in places like Giffnock rushed to have oil-fired central heating systems installed. Nowadays the rush is to convert to cheaper gas and the ads are filled with unwanted oil burners and tanks but you can’t give them away. I know, I had to pay the local dustmen to get rid of mine.
The fact that many people in places like Giffnock live in better houses, do different work or earn more money than some others does not elevate them out of the working class. They still have to work for a living, worry about making ends meet, face the indignity of the sack and in one degree or another, suffer the problems created by capitalist society. This is what places them firmly in the ranks of the workers whether or not they like it or my workmates know it, and the passing of time makes it more and more evident.