A friend told me I should send Ken Loach a copy of House of Bread. The central characters share a name and have more in common than that. Both up against an intractable system where kindness and humanity are the exceptions, not the rule. Sanctioned, sectioned – strangely similar words for what feels like punishment; for non-compliance to some constructed norm.
We saw the film in Rye, several worlds away from Daniel Blake’s: mine, sectioned and medicated in a South London mental hospital, or Daniel Blake in Newcastle, in his flat so reminiscent of the South London estates I knew from my twenties. Lucky me, I was just passing through. But I remember the bare bulbs and peeling paint, the hustling, the many stories too similar to Katie’s in the film and I wonder what happened to those people I knew back then, many of them no doubt up against the system still, just as they were in 1990.
In Love, Medicine & Mexico, my account of my recent recovery from cancer I’ve written about this time in my life and described it in House of Bread. When you realise that the emotional toll of physical and mental trauma resounds down the years, profoundly affecting health, it only serves to make what is happening now to so many in our world more frightening. I, Daniel Blake was moving throughout, but when Katie tells Dan to stop giving her love, it is devastating. The need to stay strong, be tough, to shut down the heart to survive each day – it doesn’t work. People break, hearts break just as Dan’s did in the end.
It’s wonderful to get the paints out, but Autumn isn’t always about colour, light and cosiness. For millions of people, and many of them ill, it just means it’s getting cold.
‘…I could have almost deleted the memory of the council flats, the key cards, the scoring dope seventeen floors up, the nameless Christmas cards from one flat number to another, the pissy oft-stuck lifts and so many unhappy people under one socially experimental roof. The human hutches for the pharmed, the inconvenient truth of Britain’s underclass, so many of whom were familiar with the psychiatric services and so many of whom had no voice.
No one who’s lived on one of these estates could be surprised at any outbursts of anger or riot as young people are actively disenfranchised and silenced by these soulless camp-like housing estates. Where humanity is taken away from the earth, uprooted, far away from the vegetable patch, to a box-like flat to eat microwaved junk food out of yet more plastic. Places where your children stay in watching TV because the playground, vandalised and broken, is ten floors down. I’m glad I know what it feels like to live like this, however hard it was at the time, as I swung between that place and the Wiltshire countryside, where I was working for a restorer on a very different sort of estate, home to landed gentry. What a contrast – a foot in both extremes of our class system and both feet hurting.’