The welfare state recedes and we are beached on the great shore of the future. We are deprived of our element, our milieu. What are we to do now, on the new shore? What can we achieve, we who are stranded in the new world, in New Europe? New buildings are going up, but not for us. The rust belts are being regenerated, but not for us. How can we afford to live in the new buldings? How could we buy a flat in the regeneration zone?
We are the dross of the new world. They should leave us lying here on the shore, beached whales, creatures grown fat on the welfare state, creatures who passed through the great oceans of unemployment! It is a distant memory, but once they paid our housing benefit and our council tax. Once, but this is a long time ago, we were given an allowance for a cooker, for a television. Once, there was the fortnightly trip to the dole office for our unemployment benefit.
It wasn't called Jobseeker's Allowance, not then. Unemployment - the un was privative, but we experienced it as liberation. Unemployment, unemployed - we had broken ourselves from the world of the employed, we were cast adrift, but they made sure we had a fridge and a telephone. Cast adrift, but for our fortnightly giro and our rates relief and our housing benefit. Some of us were on the sick, some of the dole. But all of us went unnoticed under the same indifferent skies. Some of us cycled, some walked. Sometimes we gathered at the cafe in the sun. But that was before the regeneration. That was before they tore up the cafe and the squats and a new world was made.
What did we do in those long afternoons? Time was propitious; we had been given time, great swathes of time on the condition that nothing could begin. Time gave us everything because it was not yet itself, because we damned up something of time for ourselves.
Together we ate and drank in the sun. There were many of us, then. Many, because we hadn't been picked off by the regeneration companies and the new supermarkets. What it was to walk the scruffy pavement by tower blocks that belonged in East Germany! What it was to lose oneself in the alleyways that resembled the great concrete labyrinths of Warsaw! We were lost, we knew that, but we had lost ourselves, and lived in squats in buildings long due for demolition.
Sometimes, it is true, the planners would come and squint upward at the towers. Sometimes plans for demolition would be announced, but it never happened. The city council was never organised enough. The Labour councillors were busy squabbling. The wrecking balls never came, and we were happy, rats in the maze, rats who'd lost themselves in long afternoons and winter sun. We hated politicians; but we could do - this was the time of Thatcher and Major. We hated them, but it was a casual hatred, one taken for granted. It was the backdrop of our lives, that hatred. It was diffused everywhere and we all agreed: Thatcher was the devil, Major was the devil's accomplice. Happy alibi of hatred! Happy excuse for a life suspended!
In the long afternoons we read alone and came together at the cafe. Years passed that way. Years passed, one after another. A fortnightly cheque; our rates paid and our housing benefit paid, what more did we want? At that time, one spoke of structural unemployment. At that time, it made sense for some of the population to be permanently unemployment. True, we were not emburdened with children; we were still young; we were not like the miners who'd lost their livelihood, their way of life. In truth, ours was already a way of life. The long afternoon, discounts on cinema tickets and performances at the theatre, cheap bars and clubnights in condemned buildings.
Yes, ours was a lifestyle. Years passed; we read, we ambled, we cycled to and fro, we sat in the cafe in the sun. Those times will be forgotten, we know that. The long afternoon of Europe will be forgotten. Old Europe's last summer.
Nothing stopped in '97, the Labour victory. '97 accelerated the change. Down came the towerblocks, down the condemned buildings. No longer was the city council lost in arguing with itself. Regeneration began; new European money came to our deprived area. Never mind us, the deprived who were happy in our deprivation. Orange-bricked housing appeared. The tower blocks disappeared, the condemned buildings disappeared and now spread estates of orange-bricked housing and the new supermarket.
What had happened? We were offered council housing, but away from the regeneration zone. We were to be dispersed, scattered to the four winds. We had lived there, we'd thought it wouldn't change, we were happy in the rust belt and would have populated it until eternity, but it was changing around us. It changed, we did not change. We were rusting. Investment poured in to the rust-zones where we lived and we were moved away. Orange-bricked houses everywhere. Identical orange-bricked houses, decent accommodation, nothing to object to, everywhere. Not council accommodation, but private accommodation everywhere. Not for those who wanted a council flat, but for private owners and private investors.
House prices were low, it was said, but they were not low. Investors snapped them up, it was said, and the rents were driven up. How could we afford to live there? The regenerated world was not for us. Gently curving streets. Nothing above two stories. An orange-brick community centre. The cafe rehoused in an orange-bricked complex. The message was clear: leave. We left, what choice did we have? We were scattered to the four winds.
Time began again. We'd lived outside of time, but now time recovered its direction. A new purpose filled the world, we could smell it. A new purpose, but not for us. European money, but not for us. Regeneration, but not for us. Now something else changed: a kind of despair descended upon us. We read, it is true, but there was no cafe at which we could meet. No cafe, no cheap pub. The old pub, all concrete and barbed wire, was demolished. A new orange-bricked leisure complex appeared in its place. A complex for those who lived in the new houses, and who shopped at the new supermarket.
Cycle lanes were painted on the roads and the new bikes appeared. Not the wrecked racers we used to cycle, not battered old machines with a rusty lock, but the new bikes, the hybrids and mountain bikes, with yellow-jacketed riders. With flashing rear lights and flashing front lights and yellow-jacketed and behelmeted riders. How efficient they looked! How purposeful! Even going about their leisure, they were purposeful! These are the new Europeans, we thought. We are the old Europeans. These are the new breed, the bargain city-break breed, the mountain-cycling-in-the-city breed, the property-investing breed, and we are the old breed. They're probably scanning the new European countries in search of property bargains right now. They're probably surfing on the net to find the new property bargains in Estonia, in Lithuania. They're probably anticipating new E. U. member states in whose property they can invest.
New Europe was all around us, efficient and gleaming. New Europe was the new leisure complex, the new supermarket. And who were we? Perhaps we are the last of Old Europe, we thought. Perhaps Old Europe ended with us, we thought. Perhaps Old Europe was the secondhand paperbacks we exchanged. It was the compilations we made on cassette for one another. It was Gang of Four and The Raincoats. It was The Fire Engines and Magazine. It was Kafka and Canetti. It was that great tide of records and books on which we were borne.
Who wasn't in a band? Which of us hadn't moved here because of the example of bands that had come together from the long term unemployed? Who amongst us didn't dream of being coalesced in this way, of finding ourselves in a band? Now you studied music technology at college. To be a musciain was a profession like any other: you were taught, there were lectures and modules. You were taught; everything could be taught; everything was a skill, and every skill was part of a skillset and the skillset was to be acquired to broaden your skills portfolio. Nothing was to be left to chance, we were all accountable. We were sent on training courses; we learnt what kind of people we were: motivators, team-players, facilitators or leaders. We learnt about quality and quality management.
Slowly, before us, new Europe was opening, and we were invited to join the new Europe. Slowly, around us, a new world was opening, where everything could be taught, could be broken down into a school, where there was to be no drifting, no time unaccounted for, nothing that could not be gauged, measured and improved. All was optimisation, all was movement. Training was all; preparation was all. We were made ready, were braced for the new world. This will be a 24-hour city, we were told. Investment will stream through the city, they said, and it was already true. The old warehouses in the city were transformed. A new bar had been built in the wasteground beneath the railway arches.
The world was changing, and we were to be fitted to the new world, our skills would mesh with the skills required. Our skill sets would lock into those our employers would want. We learnt of our transferrable skills, of our skills portfolio. We learnt to construct a CV and to draft a letter of application. In truth we had been mobilised, we were part of the great mobilisation. Everything was ready, the world was ready, the city was ready. But we were already tired. How could Old Europe become New Europe? How could our bodies become New European bodies?
Our Old European heads ached; our Old European eyes were glazed over. The future had come; we were redundant in advance. The future was here, the city gleamed, and we were the dross of the past. How we prayed for a new recession! How we cried for a new wave of redundancies! Let's go back to the rust belt. Let's find a bolthole and settle there for the decade. Let's find a small room to read our old paperbacks! But no sooner had we found another part of town than it was regenerated. Wherever we went, regeneration followed.
The more resourceful among us entered bids for community regeneration and art projects. The quicker and more able were able to seize and make good on some of the new funding opportunities. Community arts! Community projects! Oh dizzying activity! Oh new world, built with European money! All hail the new world, built with money from New Europe! Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the future broke over our tired bodies. We lay on the shore and the future broke over us. Here was the future, but not for us. Here was New Europe, but not for us.