Tony Parker

The People of Providence

This is one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. You enter the Providence estate through the minds of those who live there, as it slowly paints an intimate portrait of the world that exists beyond the anonymous appearance of a housing estate. Many go into depth about how they got to be here and the ongoings of their daily lives; the ups, the downs, aspirations, failures, philosophies, identities, covering everything from light-hearted jokes to heartbreaking traumas.

Parker spent five years carrying out interviews across the Providence estate, talking to hundreds of people about their experience of living on and around the estate, visiting them multiple times over a period of weeks or months. Though Providence is not the actual name of the estate I think it was or maybe still is a housing estate somewhere in south London. The book was originally published in 1983 and serves as a rich historical document of the area. Experiencing history directly through the minds of those that lived there feels so pure, giving it a depth that is difficult to find elsewhere.

Parker’s interview style also adds to its depth as he doesn’t include questions and attempts to record without comment or judgement. Therefore, for many of the interviews they act as a stream of consciousness for the interviewee, creating an unfiltered look into the intricacy of their life. Many speak with such honesty and vulnerability that it feels like you’re reading things that weren’t meant for you. Over the five years Parker traversed across every aspect of the estate as the sections of the book are split into the various areas. This includes the towers, the flats, the blocks, houses in the square, the posh part, the prefabs and even outsiders. I think these elements really help to display the complex world that exists within the estate.

It’s fascinating to hear how the estate has changed over the years, especially the variety of perspectives from both new residents and those who have lived there since its inception. Some find it to be impersonal whereas others see it as a rich community shaped by their own environment and experience. There are several prominent themes which appear throughout the interviews from social class, education, racism, marriage, religion and happiness.

I think class is probably spoken about most across all of the interviews as it feeds into many of the other topics. The estate is predominantly working class, though there are also many middle class people who live there as well. Residents reflect on the positives and negatives and offer their own perspectives on the matter. A few of the single mothers talk about the fact that despite working-class attitudes towards women being somewhat rigid, in others they’re far more tolerant than any other classes. This includes how single mothers are treated and that they feel as though people within the area are much more likely to help without passing on judgement or making assumptions.

One social worker who worked on the estate talks about material deprivation for the working-class, which he calls a basic poverty of design. Many things that the middle-class take for granted are often kept more separate from the working-class such as further education, legal services and concepts such as taste and design. He argues that the way things are made and upholstered would be unacceptable in a middle-class area.

‘There is no demand for anything better and there couldn’t be and there never will be so long as anything is considered good enough for a working-class area. The middle-class has rights, the working-class have privileges.’

The theme of class also spills over into other topics such as education. Many older residents are uneducated though they seem to have found the value of education and learning later in life. It’s quite a wonderful thing to hear them speaking passionately about what qualifications they’ve earnt or are working towards, what they’re studying at their night classes or just the books they’ve been enjoying from the library. It makes me think about the many ways we take our own education for granted and the fact that a lot of complaints around school centre on the lack of utility from the things we learn. Though formal education has lost its path in many ways, learning for the sake of learning, rather than focusing on its utility, is such a beautiful and fulfilling thing which is what a lot of people come to realise later in life.

There are also school teachers who talk about their own experience highlighting the many flaws of school and its cultural impact in a working-class area. From an early age schooling in a working-class area is largely regarded as a necessary evil rather than an aim in itself. It’s looked on as being a way of passing time till life begins. They don’t tend to see school and grown-up life as part of one continuing process, but as two entirely separate states.

Many women who were interviewed also struggled with their own perceived role in society with some embracing it and causing confusion for others. They talk about the assumption that they are supposed to have a passive role both in marriage and their daily lives despite bearing so much responsibility. This obviously took a toll mentally for many women with one talking about having to take five valium a day to get by.

‘So I say where does education get you, particularly if you’re a girl? It gets you dissatisfaction with your lot. It gets you thinking and you certainly can’t enjoy the sort of life I’ve been describing if you’re going to think. And most of all what education gets you is confused.’

There is also commentary on the decay of the estate which highlights the issues with council homes. Despite the housing being designed to provide better conditions over time it strays further away from the fact that it was for the people. A vicious cycle takes place which is similar to what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in The Tipping Point where places decay due to self-perpetuating cycles. As one of the residents describe it: people don’t care, they don’t look after the area, the area deteriorates and becomes shabby, and that makes people want to get away even more.

The decay got so bad that they could no longer have caretakers who were once well respected and watched over the estate, because of violence against them. One of the old caretakers who was interviewed also highlighted the issues with the council. It made me think about the way a lack of feedback systems can be key in causing the downfall of a variety of things both personally and environmentally.

‘It’s a funny thing that all the years I was working on the estate no one ever asked me my views about it.’

There’s also an enjoyment from many interviewees from just being interviewed. There’s such value in this form of communication especially to offset loneliness and many feel like they’re being heard for the first time. There’s a lot of sad stories but also many happy ones as people reflect on their own lives. Even couples communicating properly for the first time in their relationship, with one couple expressing how helpful it had been for their relationship. I guess you can be passive for long periods of time but opening up and conversing can be really beneficial.

It’s so amazing because there’s such a variety of perspectives on similar topics. You’re able to empathise with different points of view because you understand their background and because they’re fundamentally human. The different perspectives highlight the complexity of many of the topics and I loved reading about all the intimate details, even the seemingly mundane ones, from hearing people grapple with their own identity whilst also talking about what they’re going to have for dinner in the evening.

There’s so much more that I could talk about but I think you just need to read the book for yourself. Parker has an incredible body of work and his ability to allow people to be heard is unmatched, I couldn’t recommend anything more highly.

‘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 religious person, so I say being here is the nearest to heaven I'll ever get.’