Still ‘500 miles’ from home, today it is 50 years since Cathy

The film Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach and written by Jeremy Sandford, can be seen in full here. It is highly recommended if you have never seen it. The credits track was ‘500 miles from my home’ by Sonny & Cher, hence the title of this piece.

I would also like to draw attention to another blog remembering Cathy, by Tom Murtha on Inside Housing, which can be found here. Inside Housing has launched a campaign to mark this week’s 50th anniversary of the landmark film – campaign logo below and more information here.  It is also carrying an interview with the Director on his feelings about what has happened since he made Cathy. (IH’s Cathy anniversary stories are free to read and not behind the paywall).

Much to their credit, a group of housing associations has also been organising ‘Homes for Cathy’ events and activities around the anniversary. Many associations were founded at this time as concern for the homeless grew, one being Shepherds Bush HA, who held an anniversary event this week.

More links and reflections can be found by using the hashtags #CathyComeHome and #Cathyat50

Below are my thoughts.

50 years ago today the BBC screened ‘Cathy Come Home’ as one of its series of Wednesday Plays.

I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 16 and I have more memories of 1966 than of any other year of my childhood or youth – the World Cup, ‘O’ Levels, Aberfan, the escalation in Vietnam, the first General Election I paid attention to, the Moors murder trial, the Rhodesia crisis, Revolver by the Beatles (Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was also released but I wasn’t aware of it at the time). And Cathy……..

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I have seen the film dozens of times (it was a regular feature when I used to give talks while working for Shelter in the 1980s) but it is hard to explain the impact the first showing had. Years later it was voted the ‘best single television drama’ and ‘the UK’s most influential TV programme of all time’. Twelve million people watched it that first night, about a quarter of the population. No-one had ever seen anything like it, it was so realistic. And genuinely shocking. It felt like everyone had watched that Wednesday Play, and everyone talked about it the next day. No single TV programme could have that kind of impact today, with hundreds of channels and many other distractions.

My Dad was a plasterer, in work nearly all the time, my Mam a part-time cleaner, and we could hardly be described as well off. We lived in a council house – a Bevan house – on the large Montagu estate near what was then the northern city boundary of Newcastle. The house was of an amazingly high standard, front and back gardens that were my Dad’s pride and joy, and at the top of the road the Kenton Bar was the last building before open countryside stretching all the way to Cheviot. It could be tough but it was a great place to grow up. Until I saw the film it was unimaginable to me that people like Cathy could exist or that stories like hers were possible. All she ever needed was the one thing we had – an affordable council house, a secure and comfortable base on which to build a life.

There was little public consciousness of homelessness prior to the film, and the revelation that homelessness could lead to children being taken away from their family was shocking. It is so shaming that the number of homeless people is vastly bigger now. Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, is also having a serious impact and shows how little some things have changed. Its theme has echoes of Cathy. The circumstances are different, but the core story is the same: a decline from a contented and stable life into poverty, caused by ill health (Daniel’s heart attack and Reg’s accident at work), the experience of state institutions that punish rather than support, ending in destitution and total break-down.

I met Ken Loach when I worked at Shelter in the 1980s, I think introduced by Des Wilson, the founding Shelter Director. I tried to interest him in doing another film on housing and showed him around the sights of Paddington, the dozens of bed and brekfast hotels housing homeless families in Bayswater, the huge and squalid multi-occupation terraces of Sutherland Avenue and the rapidly deteriorating Mozart Estate, then only 10 years old but already neglected by Westminster Council. He didn’t bite but proved to be both charming and quite hostile to the very idea of soggy liberal housing charities (something that made more sense as his own political position became better known). There ended my career as the second Jeremy Sandford.

50 years since Cathy means that the 50th anniversary of Shelter is imminent. The two were widely assumed to be linked but in fact it was just a remarkable coincidence that Shelter was launched a few days after the film was shown. It still gave Shelter huge impetus. Now a large organisation providing vital advice services, it seems to have lost some of its campaigning edge and punches below its weight in terms of influencing public attitudes and Government policy.

Cathy was the start of my political awakening, an event in my teens only matched by reading Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ and being exposed to ‘ideas’ at University that converted my working class chip into a vague leftish philosophy. I have suffered periods of optimism since – 1974 especially, and 1997. But the 50th anniversary of Cathy, the resurgence of homelessness matched by the apparent indifference of much of UK Housing, Labour’s divisions and ineffectuality, all in the context of a global resurgence in nationalism and intolerance, make me feel that I have been deluded for fifty years in thinking that, as day follows night, each generation will do better than the last.

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3 Responses to Still ‘500 miles’ from home, today it is 50 years since Cathy

  1. Cathy Come Home opened my eyes too, but it was Shelter that strengthened the commitment that led me to spend the last 30-odd years working with vulnerable private renters and homeless families. That was because Shelter used to hold regular Conferences to encourage a dialogue among all organisations working to prevent more Cathy’s. The dialogue was further developed through Shelter initiated smaller groups working to achieve specific changes in the law.
    These days, we learn of Shelter’s policies through news items and we are pleased to use its research to underpin our own arguments. But since Toby has asked for tips, perhaps another ancient housing campaigner could put in a plea for Shelter to open its doors to debate again and harness the work of the many small agencies like our own to strengthen Cathy’s collective voice.

  2. Hi Toby
    Thanks for your comment. I nearly took the comment about Shelter out because I didn’t want to divert from the main point (ie how old I am!). I was also trying not to be over-critical because I know how hard it is to influence policy in the current climate. I didn’t say Shelter has lost its way – its services are vitally important for thousands of people and I think a lot of the output on policy is really good, hgh quality and soundly based. I use it a lot! So my point is about something that is harder to define – impact. It seems to me that UK Housing is its own policy policeman and is far too careful in what it says. Organisations like NHF are hopelessly compromised and incorporated in the Government agenda but has Shelter also become too cautious because of its wider service role and the need to raise huge amounts of money to keep that going? Shelter should be shouting from the rooftops about what is going on, the vast increases in homelessness and the rises about to hit us due to welfare reform. The Director of Shelter should be able to be a nationally-known figure and the first port of call for the media. I just don’t see it happening – but I do accept that good work is being done, for example in promoting the Homelessness Reduction Bill.
    I don’t hide my own political views, but this is not in my view political. Shelter (and others) should be a voice for the homeless and should be equally critical of Labour as well as Tory Governments when they fail and the circumstances of homeless people get worse. Labour deserves criticism for chipping away at homeless rights and not building enough genuinely affordable housing but the prospects for homeless people have nosedived since then.
    I faced similar circumstances when I worked at Shelter in the 1980s and I do not take a superior attitude or think that was a rosy period of great campaigning that could be mimicked now. The policy & campaigns team then was about 5 people but the organisation felt like a small think tank not a campaign. The best thing we did was give up a policy/research job to employ a campaigner to work specifically on the use of bed and breakfast hotels, the worst manifestation of the housing shortage at the time. It led to hard hitting publicity exposing the treatment of families and vulnerable people, which then enabled us to make wider points about investment, and it also led to a number of innovative new services such as the B&B project in Bayswater (the largest concentration at the time). It was not political (Shelter was riven by political and personality disputes at the time and couldn’t have taken a coherent political stance if it tried) but it was sharp and authentic because it looked at issues from the point of view of the homeless people themselves. The only similar thing I see at present are the campaigns around benefit sanctions and the appalling effects they have on people, once again being driven by a Ken Loach film, which is beginning to have some ‘mainstream’ impact.
    These days I’m part of the SHOUT campaign and its purpose is to provide a non-political but unambiguous message about the vital importance of social housing. It has had some success with no resources because it is well-researched and focused. Despite its bold statements, or perhaps because of, it has made good links with people in all parties and none, including the Conservatives, and is encouraging people of all political persuasions to speak up for genuinely affordable housing.

    Sorry to reply at such length but that’s because it matters!
    Steve

  3. Toby Lloyd says:

    Powerful blog Steve – and yes, Cathy Come Home still has an amazing power today, not least because (sadly) the issues it portrays are still with us.

    I’m sorry you feel Shelter has lost its way since your days. We do try to find the most effective model of campaigning in the social and political climate that we find ourselves – but it’s not easy, and I wouldn’t claim that we always get it right. Any tips from an experienced antecedant would always be welcome!

    Toby

    Toby Lloyd

    Head of Housing Development

    07702 734 805

    toby_lloyd@shelter.org.uk

    Shelter

    88 Old Street London EC1V 9HU

    Read Shelter’s policy blog. Visit Shelter’s policy library. Follow me on twitter.

    Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through our advice, support and legal services. And we campaign to make sure that, one day, no one will have to turn to us for help.

    We’re here so no one has to fight bad housing or homelessness on their own.

    ________________________________

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