Leisure Centre which Daly Thompson once visited and hastily left.
Dog racing track with weapon detector.
Community Centre with armed guards.
Roundabout to joy-ride round.
Blackbird Leys was where I grew up, and my childhood years revolved around the notion – dispensed from my Nan – that by living there we were suffering purgatory early, and would head straight for the highest reaches of heaven in our afterlife. Well, you had to believe something.
It wasn’t just the row upon row of tiny matchbox houses, the serf’s square of garden, the dogshit smeared along the dreary pot-holed roads. It wasn’t even the fact that Blackbird Leys had been built on top of Oxford’s sewers and that the air was constantly permeated with a heady mixture of decomposing waste, although that contributed (quite dramatically, in fact) to the overall effect.
It wasn’t the melancholy, the look on people’s faces as they formed an untidy queue outside the post office, waiting impatiently for a giro that wouldn’t quite buy enough food.
Not the snot-face kiddies screaming hungrily in their buggies, or the sullen mothers hastily pulling a ragged piece of tissue from their pockets to wipe the little shithead’s nose. The black-eyes worn like make-up, the low-level apathy seeping into everyone’s bones.
It wasn’t any of that. It was us, the kids – we were the worst. We happily committed unspeakable atrocities. Whether it was terrorising the local loonies – Mental Martha, Electric Mary, Demented Fred, tormenting the resident Asians, spray painting obscenities on their doors – whatever it was, we excelled at it, turning the sunset sky into curfew time for most. Stealing our neighbour’s cars and racing them around the dingy estate roads; badmouthing pensioners and pick-pocketed people so poor the loss of money meant hunger for a week.
We were young, unaccountable, and blithely transformed the melancholy of the adults into palpable, stinging pain, as they dully watched us traverse the same old road, to the same old destiny. The destiny sentenced us to curtailed school careers, teenage pregnancies, a lifetime of menial work and to purgatory in that shit-hole, Blackbird Leys.
No dreaming spires here. Tourists, enter at your peril.
BLACKBIRD LEYS DEFENDED (kind of)
The three schools regularly get articles in teaching publications as examples of how education is reaching out to the dreafully disadvantaged, and changing terribly damaged children into people who will be able to function in society. At least one or two percent of BBL children can now look forward to making it to university without getting pregnant.
There is of course a feeling of unity on the estate, if not because you are related to half your neighbours, but because you want to kill the other half. Although Oxford City Council have worked hard at the later part of that statement and shipped many of BBL’s undesirables to the new twin sister estate “Greater Leys”.
The remaining part of the sewage plant upon which BBLeys is built on has now been turned into a lovely nature reserve, where, when residents do dispose of their pets, now thoughtfully leave them sealed up in plastic bags so the children don’t see the maggots.
The library provides a lovely outreach point for the estate’s pensioners, somewhere warm and welcoming, where they won’t be mugged, and a place they can sit until the church opposite is open for a cup of tea.
The “criminal sub-culture” and drug problems have been exagerated by many newspapers, the police are a regular comforting presence there, and when things do get a little out of hand, you can be happy in the knowledge that they will just block both entrances off to the estate, turn off the street lighting and bring in the riot squad.
The many alleyways provide the kids with places to deal and do drugs so the average passer by does not have to be exposed to it, and cars are not often stolen because after all there is the code of not dirtying your own back yard.
Blackbird Leys Defended
As entertainment for a smug middle class audience, and an exercise in the chattering classes� last acceptable form of bigotry � poking fun at the proles, Eloise Millar�s article works well. As an honest picture of Blackbird Leys, it fails miserably.
The uninformed reader of Eloise�s report could be forgiven for assuming that the general state ofbeing on Blackbird Leys is that of impoverished, deadhead apathy. This assumption would be wrong. There is hardship on Blackbird Leys, as in all working class areas, but we have escaped the level of material poverty evident in less fortunate communities; communities that have been decimated through the collapse of heavy industry. We have, at least, always had car production.
It was in fact, to house the expanding population of car workers that Blackbird Leys was initially built and though today, BMW employs nowhere near the 40, 000 or so that once worked for British Leyland, (as it was then known) the factory still provides a living wage for many local families. Also, the south east as a whole, being an area of low unemployment, has stopped the all pervasive poverty that Eloise hints at, from sinking its teeth into the estate.
The same, Cowley car plant, which borders Blackbird Leys, was once dominated by some of the most militant trade unions in Britain. This militancy was reaching its peak around the time Blackbird Leys was being built. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Poland fought alongside the indigenous working class at Cowley, pushing up wages and conditions to some of the highest for blue collar workers in the country. These were the people that made Blackbird Leys. They hardly fit the model of the apathetic drone that Eloise refers to.
Some of this fighting spirit carried over into the next generation. In 1981 for instance, a large contingent from Blackbird Leys was at the forefront of a successful offensive that put paid to a planned march by the British Movement through the City of Oxford. Fear of a re-match has frustrated far-right ambitions for this area for over two decades. A more recent expression of residents� lack of apathy when presented with something worth fighting for, (or against), was the election of the Independent Working Class Association�s first councillor in May 2002. The IWCA gained much of its support through its campaign against crack and heroin dealers. The IWCA has carried out a number of comprehensive door to door surveys across the estate, over the last couple of years. Having talked to hundreds of residents, it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority would consider Eloise Millar�s depiction of their estate unrecognisable and offensive.
The Leys was from the very beginning, an estate where working class people, of whatever background, lived, laboured, socialised and often settled down together. This can rarely be said, in all honesty, of Oxford�s middle class �communities�. Eloise�s reference to �tormenting resident Asians� gives an unfair impression of the estate that is at odds with the popular experience.
Eloise offers up lazy, negative stereotypes for maximum dramatic effect. Whatever her intention her piece reads like a self serving justification for the prevailing, Blairite philosophy of meritocracy which fosters the belief that it is ok to laugh at the working class as �they only have themselves to blame�.
Blackbird Leys is a typical working class estate, there are problems, but there is also a sense of community and belonging, that you won�t find anywhere in plummy North Oxford.