Homesick by Catrina Davies; Skint Estate by Cash Carraway – review

Two powerful books by low-paid women struggling to keep a roof over their heads illustrate the severity of Britain’s housing crisis

These two very different books, by women in their late 30s, are written in response to the same question: how do you find a room to call your own in Britain in 2019?

Catrina Davies eventually attempted to answer it by living in a corrugated-iron shed near Land’s End. Cash Carraway, whose financial plight is exacerbated by being a single mother – her daughter is her joy and saving grace – bluntly details life as a sex worker and zero-hours minimum-wage slave in order to keep any kind of roof over their heads in London. Reading the memoirs consecutively offers a lesson both in despair and in resourcefulness. It is also a reminder that poverty in this country is not confined to one place: there are windowless bedsits with both town mice and country mice.

Though their voices are very different, in some ways each woman’s journey to writing her book – their hoped-for route out of the situations they describe – is comparable. Both had challenging teenage years; both went to university; both took too many drugs and had disastrous relationships; both imagined they lived in a country with adequate safety nets for those prepared to work, and discovered in the decade of austerity and the benefits cap that they did not. One crucial fact, in the context of each, is precisely the same, however. In the 20-odd years since they came of age, average house prices in Britain have risen seven times faster than average wages. Along with millions of others, they are the casualties of that economic fact.

Davies casts her plight in a more romantic light – she convinces herself that living in a shed near the sea without hot water or electricity is her version of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. The shed, 18ft by 6ft, marooned on its own at a crossroads, was once an ad hoc “office” for her dad, who had a rural surveyor’s practice that went bankrupt in 1992. Davies had explored every other option before this one: most recently she rented a boxroom in Bristol in a house with four other adults and a child (her presence was in contravention of the lease, so she had to erase all traces of sleeping there). The house was let by owners who were travelling the world on the combined income of those living in it. Before that, Davies lived in a caravan and in the back of a yellow Iveco van and in a tent outside a backpackers’ hostel, where she worked as a waitress.

For a while, life in the shed – often described with the careful attention of the best nature writing – has a kind of hippy simplicity. She has enough peace and quiet to read A Room of One’s Own. This window of security is disturbed first by a break-in, in which Davies loses all her possessions (apart from the precious cello she used to busk with, which she imagines was too cumbersome for the thief to carry off); then by a car transporter smashing into the shed while she is out; and eventually, after repairs, by an eviction notice.

Despite these setbacks, Davies creates a life in which she “still feels skint but no longer poor”. She indulges a passion for surfing, winter or summer; she finds a job tidying the gardens of distant second-home owners, with their infinity pools and electric gates and lawns that stretch down to the cliff-edge. Along the way she makes a compelling argument for the urgent subject that remains stubbornly absent from Westminster politics: land reform, a fair tax on property and ancient estates, like that on which her shed stands. “Squeezing capital out of [land] is a hell of a lot easier than squeezing it out of work,” she writes. And: “Basic needs can be satisfied very cheaply when you don’t have a landlord to support…”

Cash Carraway: ‘she fantasises about buying a car so she and her daughter can live in it’
Cash Carraway: ‘she fantasises about buying a car so she and her daughter can live in it.’ Photograph: Becky Glover

Cash Carraway, author of Skint Estate, also dreams at one point of finding just a shed for herself and her young daughter. She fantasises, too, about buying a car so they can live in it, but she can’t afford to learn to drive. She wonders about joining a cult, just for the free bed and board. Mostly, though, she treads the underworld of Gumtree and OpenRent. She describes how “credit checks” have become the modern equivalent of “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish”, designed to exclude certain groups – single mothers in particular – from getting a stable place. She develops an obsession with the housing list and how to get on it, worrying night and day that the 12 years of her daughter’s childhood will be spent in temporary hostels and Travelodge rooms, dreaming about finding “the one home” that they can settle into and finally begin living.

Instead, she writes: “We move every six months. You spend the first three months setting up your new life getting the bills in order, enrolling in a new school and settling in, and the next three months packing up and searching for the next place.” Since the introduction of the benefits cap, London buy-to-letters no longer want housing benefit tenants, even those in consistent full-time work, like Carraway. The bar is set ever higher. Landlords begin asking her for six months’ rent in advance and a two-month non-refundable deposit. She ends up paying £1,500 a month for a one-bed flat on a council estate, alongside tenants who got lucky 30 years ago.

Carraway gives her struggle a practised edge of bleak ironies. Her book has developed, in part, from a fictional one-woman spoken word show, “Refuge Woman”, which she has toured in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Battersea Arts Centre. These origins give it a tendency to search for a killer one-liner, or dramatic extreme, when the story can stand well enough on its own. Her life is, she writes, “an invite to Daily Mail comments screaming: Where’s the dad??” She is one of “2 million demonised single women in the UK banished from the sisterhood… because we can’t afford to cook Deliciously Ella… and don’t have Farrow & Ball No 26 Down Pipe on their living room walls”.

Her story begins in 2010 when she found herself pregnant and alone in a women’s refuge shouting at David Cameron on the TV talking about fairness. She has escaped from her boyfriend, the father of her child, who left her with a black eye and the parting words “abort it or I’ll abort it for you”. She has grown up with violence, suffering regular beatings from her mother, who kicked her out at 16. Her first job, she writes, was “after-school work” at a Soho clip joint, leading punters downstairs for sex where, instead, they would be fleeced by a pair of gangsters. To escape the refuge, having exhausted all other zero-hours options, she works 13-hour shifts in a peep show as a “pregnant hostess” in order to save £10,000 to get her and her unborn baby into a place of their own.

As with Davies, the one thing that sustains her is to get up at 4am to write stories about her life for magazines or clickbait articles for websites that might land her £200. In a particularly vicious irony, a windfall of £5,000 for a play script triggers a fraud investigation by the benefits office and another eviction.

At times, these two first-time memoirists seem almost too self-consciously eloquent about their struggles to be thought of as representative. But their books nonetheless give powerful voice to the often silent story that explains so much of Britain’s current fracturing: the fact that half a generation can afford no settled place from which they can start to build a life.

• Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies is published by Riverrun (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival by Cash Carraway is published by Ebury Press (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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