My tower block tastes of fear and panic. It is in the screech of metal as the security gates open. it is in the squeaky one plastic hand sanitiser that is stiff due to lack of use. It is the smell of extra strong disinfectant that is mixed with fear and lost routines as we try to navigate getting to our floor level without touching anything. It looks daunting. My sister calls it a metal prison. But I call it home.
I should be used to fear after Grenfell and the two years of upheaval cladding removal, new heat and fire sensors. I should be used to living a life I have little control over but I am not.
This pandemic has brought living differently to a whole new level. You have all the time in the world to worry if one person gets it in the block will we all get it? We have no choice but to use the communal space. Frightened eyes scurrying away from each other in corridors held in breath as we run into our personal boxes.
The daily looking out the window to see the roads below becoming emptier and emptier, and the view across the road another tower block with same sense of despair we can only look at each other. And then the panic inside you grows and grows but you have nowhere to take it. The doctors is closed and you’re too frightened to go outside because the texts from the NHS put the fear of god in you. I see carers who cannot get into the block because they haven’t got the security codes, I see food parcels being dropped off in see-through bags. The indignity of the disregarded because we dared to get old.
So, you sit with your fear and the loneliness in a little small box in the sky. Feeling anonymous and forgotten. I am jealous of people in lockdown sharing posts about their gardens, We have a very small balcony where it’s shoulder level, no sitting out on the balcony with a glass of wine for us. I am sure they thought it would protect against accidents and suicides. Well it didn’t stop the latter. It only increased your sense of otherness of not being enough to warrant a bit of sunshine of your face.
And then I dared to take a risk…
Because you can die of this virus, but you can also die inside, and I was tired of seeing my neighbours lonely but resigned faces. Injustice etched into the lines on our faces. There are many ways to die here.
Before the pandemic, my life was community. It was my medicine for the bipolar disorder I have been labelled with. And it worked, I functioned and contributed, and I was happy because supporting others got me through any dark days. We have a project called On top of the world Hulme, which is run by me, Anne and Christopher Finnegan, where we promote social support and advocacy among older tower block tenants through arts and creativity. We have had two books published Classphemy by me and Thirsty Scholars by me and Anne Finnegan. We run a social drop in but also drama and creative writing groups, a seanchai café (Irish storyteller), hooley (Party) nights, and a savings club. We are part of a network called GM Savers which is all about looking after each other, making plans together for your community, and networking groups together across the city to share ideas.
“It was clear what was needed was more than the practicalities for those isolating. We needed joy and hope and a sense of not being alone.”
Since lockdown we have been monitoring needs among all our members and signposting them for food parcels and other support. We started a daily ring round. I can still hear the sobs from an older lady who apologised to me because she could not stop crying, or the woman whose voice had gone because she had not talked to anyone in so long. Or my neighbour Joe who said at least in the war you got to see your family and the pubs were open! Most talked of the absolute isolation and fear. And that somehow because of the media narrative they were at fault because of their age. It was clear what was needed was more than the practicalities for those isolating. We needed joy and hope and a sense of not being alone.
We started Get Busy On Your Balcony! We brought the music, enthusiasm and love. It was such a sense of freedom as we sang up to the block “I just called to say I love you” by Stevie Wonder. As we saw smiling faces coming on to their balconies.
Since then we have regular balcony bingo sessions and have been social distancing disco dancing. Our next plan is street theatre. On Top of the World Hulme’s new programme for the next three months will be street theatre using stories and scenarios from local people. Most of the material is about not having a voice in our changing community and celebrating our heritage. We will as always carry on advocating and supporting our fantastic community to ensure their voices are not lost amongst gentrification and age discrimination.
Living under lockdown is hard, this does not solve all the problems, but it recognises that tower block dwellers are human with spirits and soul that also need nourishing. As I step into my lift and it rises so does the hope that somehow, we can make it through.
About the author:
Tina Cribbin is a community activist and poet based in Hulme Manchester and is part of community group On top of the world Hulme. Tina is also involved in the Seanchai Cafe, a community cafe based in South Manchester and is the author of Classphemy, a book of poetry that throws a light on the injustices of the modern welfare system.