Guest Blog: Paul Diggory
Chief Executive, North Wales Housing Association
July 1967 was the height of ‘the Summer of Love’. For some anyway. Not for an 11 year old who couldn’t yet afford the Beatles new album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released on 1st June. In fact, it was almost impossible to listen to it. If you’d looked up the word ‘dull’ in a thesaurus it would almost certainly have come up with the BBC Light Programme. Radio 1 was over two months away and a crackly Radio Caroline only available if you had a transistor radio to go under your pillow at bedtime, which I didn’t.
Early one morning I set up my favourite indoor game – two plastic goals from a cast-off soccer game selotaped to each end of a washing machine lid, with six-a-side teams of Lego bricks that enabled you to flick a counter around the pitch. Not having much cash made you resourceful and I used to make up league tables and all sorts. Sometimes I thrashed my younger brother but more often I’d play left hand against right. Liverpool never featured in my leagues as I couldn’t play unbiased. Just then there was the familiar rattle of the letter box and I abandoned play to see what the postman had brought. This morning, just one brown envelope, so I took it up to my Mum, who was having a lie-in.
For some reason I stayed at her bedside while she opened it. I could see from her face that it was something important but then she turned to me with her arms out. She gave me a vice-like hug and said “You’ve passed! You’ve passed the 11 plus!” Oh no, I’d had mixed feelings about this moment all summer but the reality brought out my real fear. We both cried. Mum cried tears of joy, the first person in our family to go to grammar school. I cried because they didn’t play football at Sir John Talbot’s. How was I going to become a professional footballer now?
But before I started there was to be more excitement. The Council offered us a transfer from our two-bedroom house in Caldecott Crescent to a three bedroom house in Sharps Drive, the next street. There’s a photo of me on my first day at the new school sporting my uniform: purple blazer and cap, Middleton house tie and a grey jumper that finally fit me properly in the fourth year. It was a lighter grey than everyone else’s because it came from Grattan’s catalogue. The wallpaper in the background could really only have been from 1967…
Mum and Dad were married on New Years Eve 1955. I arrived the following May, the significance of which I only spotted as I prepared my speech for their silver wedding anniversary party. They began married life in what they always referred to as ‘rooms’. This seemed odd to me because when they described the arrangements there was actually only one. Moving into a council house when I was two was a big thing. My Nanna had a council house and we used to spend a lot of time there. It was solid with lots of space and a lovely garden. Our new home was on an estate next to the town’s park. Now we had our own garden and I remember my Dad winning the garden competition a couple of times.
By the time we transferred I had two brothers and a sister. Another sister arrived a few years later so I ended up sharing with my two brothers. It probably made homework and revising for exams a bit harder, but they were happy days. I’ve no doubts whatsoever that having a council house gave me a platform that I may otherwise not have had. It gave us certainty, consistency, a solid foundation from which our family could grow. And around us we had friends and neighbours, a dependable and self-sufficient community.
Looking back, I feel lucky to have had the conditions in which I was able to thrive. A successful outcome of an ambitious and progressive social policy. It didn’t work for everyone but it gave us the chance to improve our prospects. Life was full of ups and downs, but nobody demonised us because we weren’t well off. When my Dad went on strike for about 10 weeks it was really hard financially, having to stay quiet and away from the windows when the rent man called. During that time I hated having to take a letter out to the form teacher on a Monday morning for my free school meals. Although I imagined people making fun of me I don’t remember that they actually ever did. It was character-building.
I was never promised anything in advance if I passed the 11 plus. But I was rewarded. Mum bought me ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. Out of the catalogue, of course, our lifeline. I eventually learned to love rugby but still got a shot at my dream. Sadly the trial for Liverpool at Melwood was unsuccessful and in September 1974 I started work with Wrekin Council leading to a career in housing. Every day has brought the chance to make a difference to someone. Like it did for me. There’ll always be people who don’t get it, who don’t like to see resources diverted to help level out the playing field. When their noise becomes excessive, we just have to believe in what we do and shout louder. And if we’re going to get across what we believe, we have to act smarter and find new ways to say it. Let’s not drop the baton now.