by Carolyn Scott
WILLIAM BLAKE said
almost 200 years ago: "The Fields from Primrose Hill to Marylcbone were builded with pillars of gold." Today, Snob Hill, as those who lived at the bottom used to call it, is builded with pillars of a different kind.
Blake's New Jerusalem is a modern council estate. The * only gold is sunshine glinting on the glass and metal of four 22-storey tower blocks of flats.
Since tower blocks first appeared in cities and suburbs, it has become fashionable to cite the suicides; to report the stories of vandalism, loneliness, inconvenience and destruction. In Swiss Cottage, in North-West London, the blocks Dorney, Bray, Burnham and Taplow have a different story to tell.
They have their failures, as every vertical village has. "But the spirit of this place fascinates me," says one of the tenants, Jack Riggall, a longdistance train driver. "Go and knock on any door and ask a favour, and I guarantee it'll be done for you."
Jack's wife is on the committee of the Dorncy Block Tower Tenants' Association. She says: "It's the effort and enthusiasm that 'makes the association work. If you don't know people, you don't care what they think. If you know them, you think of them as people. You want to be fair to them, and you want them to think well of you. "We were all amateurs when we started. We didn't know anything, and we laughed about it together. Now we feel
tie really proud." One thing gives more cause for pride than anything else. It is the knowledge that, unlike many tenants' associations, the Tower Tenants are held in respect with the local council. The association was started at Domey, the first of the four blocks, in 1968, with the express purpose of fighting the enormous constructional snags which had developed — in council jargon, damp penetration, condensation, block movement and miscellaneous hazards quite unforeseen when high-rise building was still in its infancy.
To the people living in the blocks at the time, it meant that rain came through the metal windows and condenseton formed green fungus on the bedroom walls; three-inch cracks appeared in the partition walls, the gas central heating system was inefficient and peppered with loud explo
sions during the night.
Children were constantly in danger of falling down a 12foot drop from the grass area in front of the flats onto the concrete garages below.
"But we found," say the people most closely concerned, "that it was no good just concentrating on the constructional difficulties. We had to get the social side right first. We had to be really involved."
It was at this point that the association began to differ from so many militant tenants' associations before them. It is totally a-political, which is why it has remained independent of many other associations in the arm It is also working with, not against, the council.
By common consent the council was approached and asked to provide rooms on the ground floor for social activities instead of the proposed public launderette. The idea was agreed, and everyone began planning and weighing in with help and ideas.
All four blocks joined together in one association, run by an executive committee. One of the chief objectives was to keep hold of the tentative atmosphere of tolerance and co-operation which was beginning to grow up between the council and the association, guided by reason rather than bull-headed 'belligerence.
On the advice of the local Member of Parliament at that time, councillors and architects were invited to attend tenants' meetings every three months, and after some hesitation the invitation was accepted.
One tenant said: "When they !found we were reasonable and not shouting all the time, they were prepared to listen to us and to try to do what they could."
Early in the discussions, the council agreed to introduce a bulk gas heating system so that no one, however old or hardup, need live in a cold home. Recently, play-spaces have been planned for the children, and rent rebates, back-dated to the time of moving in, have been put through because of the early difficulties.
There are roughly 500 people in each of the four blocks. Where possible, families live near each other, saving themselves and the council money when there is sickness to cope with or young children to look after. As the association grows stronger, neighbours often step in when family arrangements break clown. Many old people who dreaded moving into tower blocks have found a delight in the sight of sunsets seen across Primrose Hill, in the warmth of the central heating and the possibility of still living near to their children and grandchildren.
Those who want to, can be helped down to the Darby and Joan Club, run downstairs once a week, and George Harvey, one of the residents whose special concern is the welfare of old age pensioners, will see to it that they have their milk vouchers, their rent rebates, and help towards holiday fares and board.
Teenagers have their own club one evening a week in the social rooms and young mothers can go out for a night a week to bingo downstairs. secure in the knowledge that their children are only two minutes away and within earshot of listening neighbours.
When an elderly lady came in from the shops feeling ill, one of the residents stayed with her, another drove her to hospital, and she had visitors every day and a card "from all your friends in Dorney Tower."
A young housewife with two children wrote in an issue of the bi-monthly Tower Gazette, editedby a wife in Taplow block: "If only people could realise that no matter where you live, once you have closed your own front door behind you, you are alone.
"It is one of the problems of the age we live in that people do not want to bother about others. What they do not seem to understand is that this also works in reverse . ,.."
And it is apt, because this isn't a story of magic, but of cold hard fact and perseverance, that two of the people most closely associated with the success of the Tenants' Association today, Sid and Ivy Bazell, were among those who found it hardest to settle down. They came from a flat where the lavatory was in the garden and the only bath was a zinc hip bath in the kitchen.
Ivy Bazell said : "People are moved from what they call 'slums' to these flats and expected to think they're on top of the world. But they're not always the top of the world.
"Some people were very happy in their two slummy rooms in a road full of little houses. They could go into the garden and find their neighbours in the garden next door.
"An old lady in our road
used to sit at her window all day just to catch somebody's eye and pass the time of day. She was in a terrible state when they moved her here. You can't pass the time of day from the 16th floor.
"It's easier for men. They're out all day. At first when we came here, I used to dread the children's holidays coming. Every time I heard a scream or a shout I used to run to the window. But I've accepted living here now. You have to 'learn to accept it and to make something of it.
"I missed the garden more than anything. I called it the dirt patch. but we had delphiniums and I could keep a bowl filled with roses right through to Christmas. It was a kind of therapy."
Now the Tenants' Association has taken the place of the garden, and Sid has given up his position as shop steward at the London store where he works, to be general secretary to all four blocks. "I was brought up in the road where we used to live," he says. "And yet when we left there I hardly knew anyone. But I like mixing with people — living here has taught me that."
There have always been suicides at the tower blocks: as there have been in most builtup areas. There is vandalism and unpleasantness, but the more people get to know each other, the more chance there is of curbing anti-social behaviour.
There are all the petty carpings and petulances of those who want something for nothing, and the fretting and scrimping of those who find it hard to believe, after a lifetime of hardship, that warmth does not necessarily cost a fortune.
There is also the incredulous delight of people who have discovered, against all their cautious disbelief and better judgment, that there are a lot of nice people in the world.
"In a place like this," says Ivy Bazell. "you're either tied up in knots with it, and involved with everyone. or you don't make the effort. If you're not prepared to make the effort. you can be very unhappy.
"But by making the effort, you start really getting to know people and to care about them. You become involved, and then it's amazing what happens."