If you don't live in Hackney and don't live on the Devonmount, you don't know what that means. But I'll tell you what it means. It means Vietnam, North Vietnam that is, beating America in a war. That's what it means, a little country with a lot of determination, and without two ha'pennies* to rub together, beating what my dad calls the biggest military machine ever built by man or money. Because ours is the worst estate. The flats are filthy and the stairs and the courtyard are never cleaned. There's coal dumps in the yards and half the places are boarded up. You should have seen the Habib's flat. Water pouring down the wall of one bedroom, the wallpaper all peeling off like scabs*, and the roof-plaster all torn to bits. My dad said that it was nothing less than a crying shame for a workers' government to treat the workers so. My mum said she remembered when she was a little girl, and they ought to be thankful for a bathful of water which was hot.
The door of their flat has been forced open and the young ones play in there. That's what they call kids who still go to primary school on the Devonmount. I'm not a little 'un any more, I'm twelve and I'm not interested in climbing the garbage carts and pulling bits off people's cars and playing cowboys and Indians or hide and seek or cops and robbers in the empty flats. I used to be, and in those days I couldn't see why everyone on the estate complained about it. To me the empty flats were space. They gave you the feeling not that you belonged there, but that the place belonged to you so you could never leave it. Last year they built an adventure playground for the little 'uns on an empty site, and they went in hordes there, but after a while they didn't like it, they stopped going and started back in the empty flats again. There was nothing to nick* in the adventure playground but the empties. You can find and flog all sorts of things around here. There are some blokes on the estate who'll give you quite a few pence for a load of pipes or even for boards and doorknobs and toilet seats and that, and the kids on the estate break in and rip everything up. It's only when a flat has been completely ripped up that it becomes a place to play in. It gets cleaned out like a corpse gutted by sharks. I walked through their flat yesterday and it's been done over.
When Tahir's family first moved in, the people around didn't like it. They didn't go to the trouble to worry them, but the boys from C Block came to our building and painted 'Niggers Out' on the landing. My dad said it was a shame and he gave me some turps* and a rag and asked me to clean it off, but I couldn't, it wouldn't come off. He said it was an insult to coloureds, and I know it was because the lads from C Block don't like coloured people — they're always picking on Pakis and coons* when they're in a gang. My mum says they only do it because they're really scared of them, but I don't think they are. When Tahir and I came home from school together they used to shout, 'Want to buy an elephant?' and all that bollocks*. Tahir never took any notice. He always walked looking straight ahead, but even though he didn't understand what they were saying, he'd become very silent and not say a word to me all the rest of the way.
Source: East End At Your Feet, Macmillan Educational Ltd. 1977, pp. 76/77
* ha'penny - half a penny
* scab - Kruste, Schorf
* to nick - etaws abstauben, stehlen
* turps - Terpentin
* coons - coll. niggers
* bollocks - Blödsinn
1. Describe what the situation on the Devonmount housing estate looks like and say why it it is unlikely to improve.
2. Why do the kids from the housing estates prefer 'playing' in the empty buildings rather than on the newly built adventure playground?
3. Look for at least four examples of figurative language and say what their function in the narrative is.
4. The government doesn't seem to care much for the people living in those Hackney home estates. What would you advise the council to do first?