Housing Benefit Hill was a series of columns which appeared in the Guardian Weekend between September 1993 and September 1996. Originally it featured a cartoon series by Steven Appleby, which were very funny, but not specifically intended as illustrations of the text. (Mind you, sometimes they could be accidentally appropriate). However in September 1995 the editors at the Guardian commissioned Ian Pollock to illustrate the stories, and the results are shown below.
They are remarkable drawings, not least because somehow or another Ian seemed to be able to capture not only the essence of the story, but the actual appearance of some of the characters. It was genuinely uncanny. I never met Ian, and, as far as I know, he never visited the people or places I was talking about, and yet, on the scantiest of information, he was able to do a portrait of that person of such accuracy it was as if they were sitting for him as a model.
1. Ex marks the spot
The first story involved a visit to Mid Wales, where I’d gone to write my book.
I later used this story in Fierce Dancing, which included an interview with Rose Simpson. You can read that here.
Ian’s picture shows an imagined scene inside the pub where I used to go after a day’s writing.
The traditional headgear of the Welsh lady in the picture is referred to in terms of the Incredible String Band song If I Was A Witches Hat:
“If I was a witches hat
Sitting on her head like a paraffin stove
I’d fly away and be a bat
Through the air I would rove….”
The ex-Army Officer behind the bar is looking suitably wan and the Welsh dragon on the table is drinking from a whiskey glass.
This was a nice first picture to go with the series, but it doesn’t manage to pack quite the punch of the later images, which get more and more telepathically accurate as the series continues.
2. Deeper and down
The next story is about my friend Steven Andrews, at that time living on a council estate in Cardiff. The picture shows him with his son Isaac, with the council estate in the background.
This is the first of Ian’s remarkable portraits that bear an uncanny resemblance to the character I describe.
This is Steve in earlier years, before he began to go bald. I love the fact that Ian has given him several sets of eyes and that his son is looking at him askance, as if slightly embarrassed about his flamboyantly dressed hippie Dad: which I think was probably very close to the truth, though I make no mention of it in the story.
I based my second book, The Last of the Hippies, largely around Steve, and the central story here, about Steve being overtaken with the munchies, became a whole chapter in that book.
3. Caged Beest
The next story is about Andre Van Beest, a retired person I used to visit in a warden assisted council home in Sittingbourne in the nineties.
Andre was a very singular person. He’d been a sort of hermit, living in a shed in Cobham Woods near Strood in Kent for a number of years, before the council managed to remove him.
His story had appeared in all the local papers and he was well known in the region.
He was a tough, wiry character, incredibly fit for his age. He was probably in his 70s when I met him, maybe even older, but his body was as taut and muscular as a 20 year old.
I’d written to him after seeing an article about him in one of the local papers, about the fact that he was being made to live in a warden assisted flat. He had a dog which was half-fox which had been taken off him and put down when he moved something which he said broke his heart.
He was a model rail enthusiast, and at least half of his bed-sitting room was filled with a gigantic model railway set, which he used to get going every time I visited.
Ian’s picture is absolutely uncanny in its accuracy.
In the previous story I’d described Steve as looking like Roy Wood of Wizzard, which was probably a helpful indicator for Ian’s development of the illustration, but there was no such hint in Andre’s story. He was “a gnarled pixie” and he had a cleft palate. That’s all I’d said. And yet it’s like Andre has been brought alive in the image, clutching a papier-mâché model of Cobham Woods, where he had once lived, to go with his railway set.
You can read the story here.
4. Ain’t life a bitch?
Housing Benefit Hill was supposed to be about the council estate where I lived while I was writing these stories, but over the years I’d drifted away from it as my principle subject matter.
Many of the earlier stories had been quite sad. They were about poverty and deprivation, about isolation, about loss. There were some happier stories too, but the majority of them were decidedly downbeat.
However, once it became known that I was writing the stories, it became more and more difficult to continue in this vein. People began to object. Rightly so, as the stories were intrusive, bringing accidental attention to people who weren’t really asking for it.
My stories moved location, to other council estates in other parts of the country, and featured other characters than the ones who lived nearby. They became about people who wanted to be written about, as opposed to people who didn’t. The atmosphere lifted too. They were more upbeat, funnier, about people who enjoyed themselves, despite their poverty, as opposed to people who had been largely ground-down by it.
This story is the exception.
Kerry was a neighbour and she had a dog called Roma, who had to be put-down. I’d driven them to the Vets, which is how I came to write this story.
Again, Ian’s illustration is remarkable in its accuracy. Again, there is nothing in the story to indicate how Kerry should appear.
It’s like there’s a sort of magic going on here, as if Ian has, by some sort of osmosis, absorbed the essence of the story and is then able to illustrate it. It’s as if he’d been there, with me, on that day when I took Kerry to the vets to have Roma put down.
5. Rubber soul
Rubber soul is another of my stories about Steve, about the first song he ever wrote, which was called Extracting the Latex From a Rubber Ducky. It was a nonsense song, nevertheless it acquired a certain fame. People liked it and Steve became very popular on the back of it. Unfortunately, he also hated it. The more people wanted to hear it, the more he resented it. He wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, but people just expected all this nonsense from him. Eventually he killed the Rubber Duck live on stage, but people still wanted to hear the song. Years later he realised that he should have been more grateful for this short-lived burst of fame on the back of one song.
Again, Ian’s picture shows Steve, very much in his element, again with several sets of eyes, surrounded by rubber ducks, in a pair of red satin trousers with yellow stars, which I’d described in the text.
This is one of Steve’s best stories, once again brilliantly illustrated by Ian Pollack.
You can read the story here.
6. Lonesome trucker
The next story features Stan the lorry driver, who I’d got to know during a road protest.
It was based on an interview I’d done with him in his caravan which was parked up on a bit of land just outside the town.
He was a sort of loquacious loner, with a lot of interesting and eccentric opinions about life. He was particularly insightful about what made people become lorry drivers.
They were loners, he told me: “Go into any truck-stop and you’ll see them,” he said. “Twenty trucks, 20 lorry drivers, one driver at each table sitting alone with his pint.”
And once again Ian has got Stan down to a tee. This is pretty much what Stan looked like. Same distracted look. Same unshaven face. Same crooked nose and beetroot coloured ears. More than anything, though, this is a kind of spiritual portrait: an image of the inner Stan. Seeing this picture for the first time, and knowing Stan, you would have sworn that Ian Pollack had been there at the interview with me, had heard the man as he spoke about his life, had sat with him drinking tea in his caravan looking out over the lonely fields above our town.
7. Time travel
This story features in my book, the Trials of Arthur Revised Edition.
It dates from the time, in the mid-nineties, when I was on a quest to find the famous biker turned Eco-Warrior, King Arthur Pendragon.
It involves a bus journey out of St Pauls in Bristol with my friend Ornella, and a party of people, including two West Indian kids called Quelly and Jehenelle. We were off to Avebury to meet the Druids. I was doing a lot of that at the time.
Ian’s picture captures the essence of the occasion, with the two kids sitting on a stone, while a bunch of Merlins in the background, arms raised majestically, practice their mystical rites.
I no longer see Ornella, and I no longer visit St Pauls, but it’s great to have a memento of the day.
8. Primordial booze
This is another story about Steve Andrews, also known as The Bard of Ely.
It’s a very funny story which I also used in my book, The Last of the Hippies. It involved Steve falling into Cardiff Docks with a friend, Rod the Mod, and having to be rescued.
In this case Ian hasn’t drawn Steve looking like Steve. In fact he’s drawn him looking like The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which is precisely how I’d described him in the text.
9. Off the Grails
“The Holy Grail is a cup of tea”.
What more can you say?
You can read the story here.
10. The young pretender
This is the story that ensured that my Housing Benefit Hill column was about to come to an end.
The editor, Deborah Orr (now a Guardian columnist) told me later that when she read this story it occurred to her that I’d strayed so far away from the original subject matter that it was time to draw the series to a close.
It was after this that I began the series known as CJ Stone’s Britain, which are all available here.
This one describes me doing a reading from my recently published book, Fierce Dancing, at a rave party in London, very nicely drawn by Ian Pollack.
11. Search me
This story was about my son Joe getting himself imprisoned for a night after a late-night jaunt with his friends.
Once again Ian has managed to capture the image of my son, despite never having met him, looking suitably forlorn in a prison cell. The only thing he’s got wrong is the colour of Joe’s eyes, which are brown not green.
12. Sitting target
This is an absolutely stunning image of an event which really did take place in our town. It’s a drawing of my friend Mark Fuller, a local artist, dressed up in a rubber suit, which he had made and donned for a performance art event called Neighbourhood Watch.
I did describe the event in the text, but Ian has managed to capture the essence of it to perfection, with the image of Mark, dressed like an “insectizoid alien”, pushing a shopping trolley in some insane ritual of self-humiliation.
The drawing is as near to perfection as I can imagine.
You can read this story here.
13. Psychic weather
This is the penultimate story in the series, and involves an adventure with another of my regular characters, Fen, who also appears in Fierce Dancing.
14. Over the hill
The final story in the series, describing me on an opiate binge meeting with a bunch of speed freaks about to cause damage late one night on Housing Benefit Hill.
These columns have to go down as my most successful writing ever, and I was sorry to see it end.
My thanks to Ian Pollack for having brought these stories to life with his amazing pictures.
I’ve always said that we should do something together sometime in the not-too distant future.
I hope one day we can make this wish come true.