Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
JULIE LOUISE FAWCETT MBE (# 32)
Julie Louise Fawcett MBE
Born in Sutton, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father: English / Mother: English & Jewish
Julie hails from the suburbs of south London where she was born into what she describes as a ‘puritan’ family. While World War II was already receding into history - all rationing had finally ended in 1954 - the ethos of wartime frugality still pervaded Julie’s childhood home, where the disciplines of abstinence and thrift were maintained as the sound foundations of a modest life. Julie recalls: “My mother was a brilliant housekeeper and made sure that minute detailed accounts were held so that she knew exactly how much money was paid and owed. We were not, as a a family, particularly outgoing: no neighbour was allowed over the threshold; no school friend was allowed up the path; and the curtains had to be firmly drawn before the lights went on, a hangover from the blackout perhaps, just in case a neighbour could see in.”
Julie went to a local primary school and during her recent interview in Chiswick, she reminisced: “I went to the same primary school as John Major, but at a different time. We were taught in classes of 48, in tin huts. In Winter, there was ice on the inside of the hut; in Summer, the milk soured within five minutes of the bottles being brought in.”
“Secondary school was an all girls’ school with a strong Methodist strain. This reinforced the Puritan attitude to life but also made sure that everyone was driven to achieve their 8 GCSE’s, come hell or high water. A Levels were expected too and the ethos was such that we all performed to the required standard and some bettered it.”
“In my case, university lasted just six weeks. The feeling of being an outsider really kicked in. The other students came from backgrounds that did not resonate with me and I found the whole experience isolating, irritating, precious and pedantic. I returned to London, where I worked for an organisation called Sight & Sound Education that taught speed writing, typing and book-keeping to the unemployed and to private students under the old TOPS and YOPS schemes.”
“I married and was pregnant with my first child when we were offered a flat on the Stockwell Park Estate in Brixton. No one told us that it was one of the most notorious areas in the country; our introduction to Stockwell Park was being burgled fifteen times in one year.” Julie suspected that this was not a coincidence; they had been deliberately targeted. With the great majority of the other tenants being black, they were seen as white outsiders; they were not welcome. “The levels of violence were sky high, drug taking was de rigueur, and I had never lived anywhere before where I did not understand people’s accents or their culture.”
The notorious Stockwell Park Estate was one of several architectural experiments to have interconnecting, elevated walkways which, in the case of Stockwell Park, allowed you to walk right to the centre of Brixton without your feet touching the ground. The walkways, that had looked so convenient and attractive on the architect’s drawings, later proved to be almost ideal escape routes for the area’s roaming criminal gangs, so using them became a major security hazard for everyone else on the estate. Inauspiciously, Julie and her family had moved to their new home Lambeth in 1981, just after the first Brixton Riots - the area had been in flames for days, with over five thousand rioters on the streets, hundreds of cars and shops smashed and looted, and relationships with the local police at rock bottom. Julie was 24.
“Having been thrust into an alien environment, I had a clear choice: sink or swim. Though I was never one who was keen on the water, I would rather have sunk without trace than gone into confrontation mode, but by then I had four children, very little money and no prospect of leaving Stockwell Park … so circumstances led me into what you might call ‘protective mother tiger stance.‘ While the criminality, and the absence of the kind of morality I was brought up with, horrified me, there was also something tantalising, anarchic, free, warm and chaotic that made me want to stay. A slackness and looseness and wild energy ran the estate and it was impossible to stand by and watch, even though we were completely abandoned by the authorities.”
So Julie’s enterprising spirit was engaged and she marshalled all her strength to see if something good might be created in this desolate and shockingly violent place. “A few of us started a tenants’ group that eventually led us to taking over the management of the estate. The local authority gave us £3.5 million to work with and we levered in £42 million more in terms of capital money for Stockwell Park.” Their vision was basic and quite simple: it was to turn the Stockwell Park Estate into a place where everyone could feel safe, where they might even be proud to live.
“At the same time we opened up a Youth Club. The essence of over-excitable life bounced into the building. We regularly had over 100 young people on a Friday night. We fought with them, laughed with them, cried about their lives, cried about ourselves. We absorbed their energy and became a part of it. We were all outsiders to the kids. They took our hearts but could not penetrate our minds. We were, to them, old and staid. We upheld law and order but also the idea of ‘fairness’ - we believed that children should be educated, protected and brought up in an atmosphere of love, tolerance and forgiveness. The kids thought differently and we clashed on numerous occasions. Life then was sometimes like swimming in a goldfish bowl: completely exposed, nowhere to hide and very vulnerable. You learned a lot. You began to understand the attitudes and you sympathised with the dilemmas, but always you championed those strict lessons of self-reliance, like reading, going to school every day, keeping mum, hiding behind the curtains and adhering as strictly as possible to the legal side of life; however, believing in the system and supporting the idea of ‘Britishness’, with a stiff upper lip and a broom up the backside, are not concepts easily conveyed.”
In talking to Julie, it was clear that, as a strategy, they could easily have targeted the members of the community who were good tenants, who were no trouble, who caused no disruption and who were great neighbours; instead, they focussed their attention on the disreputable tenants, the ones who generated the most difficulties, strongly believing that it was their minds that most needed to be changed. They had to find a means of engaging the most disaffected and disengaged, and they did that largely through the children and the youngsters.
The centre that they operated from was beleaguered, mainly by criminalised black youth, many of whom were dealing in hard drugs, and they knew they had to engage them somehow if they were to succeed at all. As a group, they systematically confronted and challenged the youth over an extended period of time, and these were nasty, tough individuals, sometimes supported by larger gangs. The hostility that they faced was great indeed and many of the threats were personal too.
As their endeavour gradually achieved its aims, the Tenants’ Association was successful in securing over £40m towards the large-scale, capital refurbishment of the estate and, with the skilful deployment of these funds, they were able to redesign Stockwell Park in ways most tenants would never have expected. They created gardens, which the local authority generally disapproved of; they had the aerial walkways, the ‘muggers’ alleys’, all taken down; they had security gates erected where these were essential; and they planted hedges to replace unsightly fencing.
Though as a resident, Julie continues to be seen as an outsider, she and a team of five others transformed the Stockwell Park Estate, previously a largely lawless and dysfunctional development where no Police, Fire Brigade or social services staff would ever dare to set foot, into a place where a quality life is now possible, where children can play safely outside, where women no longer have to fear returning home after dark, and where those who have retired can enjoy peace and tranquility in their homes. This is not to say that all of the problems have gone away, of course; poverty and desperation continue to plague many households, and making a decent living is hard and possibly getting harder for those at the bottom of the economic heap. “I tell you, when you’re poor, it’s very easy to think of escaping from poverty through criminality, though to me, this has never seemed a sensible option; ultimately, unless you lead a charmed life, the price of criminality is simply too high.” However, as we all know from the media, gang culture and gang violence have not gone away, though the gangs do appear to be largely keeping away from Stockwell Park these days, preferring other places instead, places that cocoon them, places that are still the way the Stockwell Park Estate used to be, before Julie and her team arrived on the scene.
“The Centre also now provides services to a rather extended client group. Of course, we are no longer just a Youth Club, we are a Community Centre and considerable numbers of our new clients are white Europeans and those who are dispossessed, the absolute outsiders of London. Some of them live on the estate, some are homeless, while others travel for miles to come to our Centre, knowing that we run an open-door policy. We provide free phone, internet and printing facilities and, having set up arrangements with a number of restaurants and food retailers, we also now feed people on Fridays. Quite a few highly-educated Europeans live very modestly in single rooms without internet connections, so our facilities are invaluable to them. We organise multi-cultural social and sporting events, and we encourage creative participation. We are open from 10.00 am to 10.00 pm, seven days a week. While everyone is welcome, everyone is expected to help and to take part in the maintenance of the centre, and many do.”
Julie had felt like an outsider at school and at many times during her early life; asked how would she describe the disadvantages of being an outsider, she says: “The biggest problem for me is this strange inability to deal with the middle classes and the values that they appear to hold.” Julie, who was awarded an MBE in recognition of her service to the community of Brixton, has demonstrated a remarkable ability to confront and to deal with the hardest criminals, gangsters, and social misfits, those who have nothing, those who don’t care about anything, and those who have lost everything. She has the sharpest, most profound understanding of the lives of the underprivileged, of the plight of those whom society belittles. She is courageous in being able to challenge those who may sometimes exclude themselves from society and who pay a terrible price for it, those who seem to have no respect for anyone else and who seem capable of doing almost anything in pursuit of their own interests or desires. All of this is her daily meat and drink.
Julie is asked: ‘What advantages might there be in being an outsider?’ Without hesitation, she replies: “It has allowed me to create a warm, close family that has always supported me and continues to stand by me. This is where I draw all my strength and comfort from. I am always engaged, I have masses to do, and they often don’t see much of me, but they are the very foundation of my existence, of my life, and my happiness.”
Invited to consider whether she would choose not to be an outsider if she could, Julie responds: “No, I am now happy as a outsider; I wouldn’t choose any other way. It has put me in the position to do everything that I have done and all that I carry on doing because the job isn’t done yet. Once an outsider, always an outsider.” An outsider she may be but you could say that, together with her team, Julie has succeeded in transforming the Stockwell Park Estate from the inside.
Interview Date: 16th April 2013
Updated: 4th June 2013
To learn more about the work of The Stockwell Park Community Trust, go to:
Awarded an MBE in recognition of her service to the community, Julie has a remarkable ability to deal with criminals, gangsters, and social misfits; she has a profound understanding of the lives of the underprivileged, of the plight of those whom society belittles. Though as a resident, Julie is still seen as an outsider, she and a team of five others transformed the Stockwell Park Estate, previously a lawless and dysfunctional housing development, into a place where a quality life is now possible, where children can play safely outside, and where women no longer have to fear returning home after dark. An outsider she may be but you could say that, together with her team, Julie has succeeded in transforming the Stockwell Park Estate from the inside - this is quite an achievement.
Photography: London 4th March 2014