Fighting the war without bullets
Cate Devine, The Herald
Early on in The Wee Yellow Butterfly, Cathy McCormack states: ‘I’ve never taken a real interest in politics before I was forced to live off the social.’ This stark statement sets the tone for her blunt and shocking description of what life is really like for those, like herself, living in poverty in the 21st century. ‘When it dawned on me that the working class no longer had a political party that represented their interests, I became really scared,’ she adds.
In a matter-of-fact tone, and in the Glasgow vernacular, she goes on to relate a litany of experiences that the reader could easily believe came from the 1930s rather than the 1980s to the present day. Her voice is an essay in controlled anger – a tribute to her ghostwriter Marian Pallister, the former Evening Times and Herald journalist.
Yet when we meet in the ground-floor council flat in Easterhouse where McCormack has lived for 34 years, the atmosphere is serene. Mediation music is playing and deep red voile curtains drape the back door while candles flicker in the kitchen, whose brightly pained walls are draped with butterfly lights. The music is from a CS McCormack founding the local pound store. Her little back garden is sheltered by a huge hedge and is full of birds. It is, to her, ‘my tropical paradise’.
After two hours in this cherished little idyll, however, I feel cold to my bones. My tea cools within seconds and my pen feels like an icicle. Until last year there had been no heating in this room since it was built as an extension to the original apartment in 1994. ‘They didn’t put in a radiator when they installed central heating, so I have to put on the oven to get some heat,’ says McCormack, who wears a thick cardigan over her tiny frame. ‘They’ are the Eastghall Park Housing Co-operative which runs this part of Easterhouse. It took over responsibility from Glasgow District Council, one of the targets of McCormack’s disdain.
When she moved here in 1975 with her new husband Tony, another victim of poverty who had been born with symptoms of TB in his fingers, Glasgow had the highest rate of TB in Europe. Her own mother, who lived in Cranhill, died of bronchitis. The newly built Easterhouse estate was supposed to change all that. Bit it was not to be.
‘We moved into what was basically a concrete bunker’, writes McCormack, whose idea for the book was conceived after a visit to the townships of Nicaragua in 1992. ‘It had a gas fire in the living room and an electric fire on the wall of one bedroom, but no heating in the other rooms or in the hall. There was nothing to keep the hear in or the cold out. Neither was there any ventilation.
The Clean Air Act meant that Glasgow District Council stopped installing coal fires in its new housing stock, and the result was condensation and damp – and carpets that turned green. ‘Taking away the coal fires started the real dampness epidemic. Their efforts to clean the outside air led to polluting the air inside. And sky-high fuel bills.’
By the late 1970s she had a young daughter who contracted asthma and a baby sun who had runny eyes, chesty colds and thrush. Yet the council officers blamed the dampness on the residents’ habit of ‘boiling too many kettles’ and ‘not hearing the house enough’. Any upgrading done only ‘treated the symptoms, not the cause’.
And so another generations health was damaged by the poverty trap. McCormack, who was working in the Malcolm Campbell’s fruit and veg shop, began campaigning and demonstrating against the conditions in which she and her neighbours where forced to live, delighted to find that she had a voice. Margaret Thatcher was in power and Easterhouse had one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. As the McCormack writes with deep regret, ‘Malcolm Campbell’s decided to take advantage of one of the Thatcher youth employment schemes and sacked me just weeks before I could claim compensation.’ She then helped form the Easthall Residents’ Association.
Even in the late 1980s children on the estate where on inhalers and steroids thanks to poor living conditions. ‘We were determined to set the agenda because our children’s health had been in the hands of the politicians for too long.’
She began to be invited to talk at public meetings in London and elsewhere. This feisty little woman got involved – and to her get credit, got things changed. When working with the Scottish Public Health Alliance she got herself onto a study tour of Nicaragua. She quickly drew comparisons between Glasgow townships and Third World townships. Throughout the 1990s she addressed the World Health Organisation, the UN and the Westminster government. The Guardian ran a double-page spread about ‘this incredible woman’ and her achievements in the campaign against poverty where followed in the Evening Times and The Herald. In 1989 she visited the South African townships of Soweto and Johannesburg, the inspiration for her BBC TV Worldwide film, The Sharp End of the Knife, which illustrates how people can rise up and make a difference to their own lives.
But it took an unhappy experience of working at the RE:generate anti-poverty community trust in Easterhouse to all but break her spirit. Nothing, she feels, has yet stopped poverty. The ‘war without bullets’ that deliberately isolates the poor is ongoing.
‘My field- poverty – has become an industry’, she says wearily, sipping her tepid cup of tea at her kitchen table over which an anti-poverty banner hangs, made by Chilean friends and borrowed while she was fundraising for Nicaragua. ‘When people work in industry, they want to get to the top. They become competitive and protective. If they fix poverty, they’re out of a job. You’re not going to win in the popularity stakes if you try to make a difference in other’s people’s lives. I get so angry at the money that is put into researching poverty. Nobody seems to be listening. This is not the past I am talking about, it’s now’.
McCormack, now 57 and redundant, is currently on a £64-per-week Jobseeker’s Allowance, from which she must pay rent, and community tax, prescriptions, food- and fuel at the full rate. Single households of working age receive the double whammy of having to pay everything from one income. Meanwhile, under Labour, the ‘propaganda’ continues about the poor being scroungers and benefit cheats.
She is proud that she and her fellow campaigners managed to change Glasgow’s housing policy. Central heating is now mandatory, all homes now have an energy audit to let tenants know how much it will cost to heat them, and the health research they did that proved the link between dampness and poor health has created a precedent where no landlord can pretend otherwise.
What’s not mentioned in the book is a paper recently published in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiol Community Health. Entitled The Effect of Improving the Thermal Quality of Cold Housing on Blood Pressure and General Health, it is written by hypothermia expert Dr Ewan Lloyd of Edinburgh University. Cathy’s input is evident in the joint byline. It was she who pointed out to him the internal effects of the body constantly going from hot to cold. Now the link between cold damp housing and heart disease in the West of Scotland I established.
Nevertheless, she says she cannot believe things are as bad as they are today. ‘Things have got worse, even than before,’ she says. ‘I know people who have to go without food because they cant afford to hear their homes and eat. I never thought that could happen. It used to be that you get your benefits and went to Lidl to get some food in. Now you cant do that because your gas and electricity have to be prioritised. I know people who are absolutely desperate for work, but cant get it.
‘I still go to conferences and parties and tell the horror stories. Yet people still do not believe me’.
Now that her book is finished, she says, she feels as is a great weight has been lifted. ‘My story is all in there’, she says. ‘Now its up to people to read it and interpret it. Its over to them.’
She hopes that her idea for a Truth Commission for Scotland, mooted in the book, will begin to make sense. From the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire she learned about the effectiveness of popular education using puppets as well as drama workshops. Through this device participants learn to take ownership of their lives. A Truth Commission would empower the Scottish people and make them see they are a part of the solution. Politicians, she says, are not going to do it for them.
‘We have experienced social and economic apartheid for years, and we cannot go on like this,’ she says. ‘At the end of the day, unless we understand our past and our present reality we cant be free to participate in our future’.
The Wee Yellow Butterfly by Cathy McCormack, Argyll, £7.99