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Cathy Come Home: then and now

Although I’m a child of the 70s, I’ve always had a fascination with the 60s. A strange time of change and experimentation that seems so different from the world we live in. I love the music, fashion and art of the 60s and am inspired by the radical ideas that emerged from this turbulent decade. Proof that you can do things differently if you want to; that the social order isn’t set in stone.

As a fan of all things 60s related, I’d obviously read about Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach and Jeremy Sandford’s iconic film about homelessness. I’d always meant to watch it and noticed someone on Facebook the other day talking about how they’d bought a DVD. So I ordered one myself from tax-dodging Amazon using my Barclays debit card – don’t you just love the contradictions of capitalism!

The film is fantastic. You can actually view it in its entirety on YouTube, though I think the DVD is worth buying as you get a director’s commentary from Ken Loach, explaining how the film came into being.

It was the pet project of writer Jeremy Sandford, who finally got it made by the BBC in the mid 60s after years of rejection. Sandford was maried to another writer, Nell Dunn, whose books Poor Cow and Up the Junction were also turned into iconic 60s films.

Poor Cow is also available in full on YouTube and like Cathy Comes Home stars the actress Carol White. Both films tell the story of working class people struggling to keep their lives together, but whereas Poor Cow has a certain 60s sexiness about it, Cathy Come Home is bleak and unrelenting.

The film basically shows how easy it is for people to slide from relative affluence to total destitution through a series of random life events. At the start of the film, Cathy and her husband Reg are an optimistic young couple, looking forward to life together.

Reg is well paid and they start off renting a flash modern flat; by the end of the film they are homeless and Cathy has her children taken away – the turning point is when Reg has an accident at work and can’t earn enough money to cover the bills. They now have a family and move from a slum property to a caravan to a hostel; in this last place husbands are not allowed and Reg and Cathy are forced apart by the authorities.

Cathy Come Home is very much a campaigning film and is peppered with statistics about the number of people homeless in Britain at the time. I found this very interesting, largely I guess because many of us see the 60s as some golden era of full employment and cheap housing, light years from our current state of short term contracts, part time work and total absence of affordable housing.

The world of Cathy Come Home paints a very different picture. Yes, new homes were being built – local authorities were engaged in massive building schemes – but many were still trapped in over crowded rotting slums. This was the era of Rachman, the notorious slum landlord who stuffed decaying buildings in West London full of desperate immigrant families. It was also the era of the tower block, the belief that people could be stacked into the sky in giant concrete mausoleums.

Yes, it was possible to live in London without being a multimillionaire, but for many this meant living in total squalor, in a two room flat with an outside toilet. Or you might get rehoused – somewhere like Ronan Point, a high rise that partly collapsed in 1968 after a gas explosion demolished a load bearing wall. The utopian dream of replacing Britain’s Victorian slums with shiny modern tower blocks was irrecoverably tarnished. The story is told in some detail in Adam Curtis’s documentary: The Great British Housing Disaster.

During the 80s, the idea of local authorities providing homes for people in need became increasingly unfashionable – the idea now was that we should all become home owners. Councils sold off homes at vast discounts to tenants – many of which are now owned by private landlords. The Blair government gave up on the idea of council housing, preferring shared ownership schemes and so-called ‘affordable homes’ – a term with Orwellian overtones. Indeed a new ‘affordable’ development is being planned in West London called Orwell Mansions, where cheaper homes are mixed with upmarket flats.

I’m sure some of them will be very nice, but schemes like this are hardly helpful in a city where property prices and rents are out of control. I own property because I’m in my 40s – I know how lucky I am and feel sorry for young people or the many people who struggle with sky high rents in the capital. There has already been a rise in the number of homeless people in the UK and April’s bedroom tax, where the neediest in society will be penalised for having a spare room, is hardly going to help. This heart-breaking letter from a woman who will face the costs sums it up for me.

So what am I driving at? That it seems that housing has always been an issue in this country and that we have a rather unpleasant record when it comes to providing homes for people who need them. But at least in the 60s, people like Jeremy Sandford and Ken Loach were making films about the problem and more importantly, that organizations like the BBC had the balls to show these films.

We need another Cathy Come Home and more films and articles that challenge the status quo. Not endless soaps, reality shows and nostalgic drivel like Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake Off.

Let them eat cake!

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