Author and Guardian journalist Tom Clark
Author and Guardian journalist Tom Clark

“I have to get this in… I like Hackney. It’s got a lot going for it.”

It’s an interjection begging for a caveat, as Tom Clark, a leader writer for the Guardian, finishes up a detailed analysis of precisely how the Great Recession of 2008 has manifested itself in his home borough.

While the relatively peaceful coexistence of cultures here may be praiseworthy, this is no egalitarian utopia.

“Hackney really does make the point about a divided society very powerfully, doesn’t it?” says Clark.

“You’ve got huge stocks of social housing, you’ve got a lot of recent immigration of people who are on very low pay, people on benefits and people who’ve been living in the same house for years and years and then they find out their house is worth £1 million plus – there are very different types of citizens in Hackney.”

And this had never been more clear than in observing the varied experiences of the recession here, and our attempts to eke our way out of it, as illustrated by Clark’s book Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump.

It’s not a book about Hackney, and even London only gets a handful of mentions.

But the borough, Clark’s home for the past decade, provided endless case studies for his far-reaching analysis of the symptoms of recession in Britain and the United States during their darkest economic moments: the Great Recession of 2008 and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In attempting to recover from this most recent slump, the two superpowers took very different approaches: Britain with austerity, the United States with a stimulus package.

And in the latter, Clark points out that for all its irresistible comparisons, likening our Great Recession to the Great Depression is only somewhat useful.

True, in both cases the bankers were to blame, with the concealment of debt via “financial wizardry” wielding disastrous global consequences.

But when it comes to sharing the doom, and sharing the recovery in these two “rich but unequal societies”, it’s not like back then.

That sweeping, universal fall of the Great Depression immortalised by Orwell here at home in The Road to Wigan Pier and by Steinbeck across the pond, sets it widely apart from from the varied experiences of The Great Recession – the one that displays itself, Clark says, in Hackney as well as anywhere, compounded further by two exceptional events: the 2011 riots whose “flaming heart” lay at the “grimy asphalt intersection of Mare Street and Amhurst Road”. And after that, the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The year the riots came to Hackney, Hackney’s dole queue as a share of the working age population had risen from 6.5 per cent in spring 2008, to 10.8 per cent. “Unemployment was peaking – at that point if you were young and you were black you were more likely to be unemployed than to be working and living on very inadequate benefits,” says Clark.

But far more visible on the streets of Hackney are the signals of ever-growing prosperity: the endless opportunities to spend money, and house prices rising faster than anywhere except in Kensington and Westminster.

Clark’s research shows that the slump hit Hackney’s black population harder than its white population, with a higher proportion of Hackney’s black and ethnic minority populations claiming job seekers’ allowance, and for longer (32 per cent of JSA claims lasted longer than a year towards the end of the slump, in 2013, compared to 27 per cent across London).

While the Olympic legacy is a target for debate about who’s making use of the pool and the velopark two years on, Clark credits it with creating jobs that “helped Hackney turn a corner ahead of the rest of the country.”

Even for those worst hit by the recession things are improving. The economy has grown 3 per cent in the past year. But where unemployment figures have improved, zero hours contracts and low pay continue to be hidden, unmeasurable culprits. “Where unemployment didn’t fall, quality work did,” says Clark.

“But if you go around the more prosperous streets” Clark adds, it’s ‘recession? What recession?’”

Look around, it’s all there.

Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump by Tom Clark and Anthony Heath is published by Yale University Press, RRP: £18.99. ISBN: 9780300203776.

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