Tuesday, 20 April 2010

To have, and have not

Late one night last year, there was a fight between Troy and Travis Smith which spilled out onto the street, and ended up on top of the bonnet of their mother's car. Travis Smith saw us looking out at them and ran in front of our house, sticking his fingers up and yelling FUCK OFF, FUCK FUCK FUCK over and over again. We shut the curtains and tried to pretend he wasn't outside, although he began to bang on our wall to attract our attention. After a while of this I looked out and saw he was sitting on the wall, reaching into our tiny front garden and pulling out the few flowers which were growing. 'Can you please leave my flowers alone, ' I asked. He looked at me perfectly calmly. 'They're not your flowers, ' he replied, 'They're the government's.'

I looked at him. He was quite serious. He knew somehow that his family's lifestyle - income, housing, everything - was entirely provided by some sort of remote, abstract authority, and that was how he imagined it was for everyone. 'Er, no, ' I told him, 'Actually, I grew those flowers myself ...' He looked at me blankly. I stared back at him over a gulf much wider than the metre and a bit of concrete between me and the wall.

You know, I have to admit that, despite the horror of living next door to the Smiths and their associates, there is a very funny side to all of this. And if it was happening to someone else I would be the first person to laugh.

Look at Mrs Angry, sitting primly on the sofa watching Newsnight, tutting because she is having trouble hearing Jeremy Paxman grill some weasel worded politician mouthing off about the breakdown of society, while inches away, on the other side, an enraged, tattooed, toothless Tracey Smith is threatening her son with another 'whack' and screaming obscenities at him.

A lot of the time, these days, I seem to be stomping about in an advanced state of bourgeois outrage, like Audrey from the Good Life finding herself knee deep in Tom and Barbara's pigshit, or God help me, on full time net curtain twitching alert rather like, as my impertinent son once dared to suggest, Hyacinth Bucket, condemned to eternal damnation in a never ending episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show. And, let's be honest, it is funny.

This same son, it should be noted, used to hold political views that were somewhat to the left of Robespierre, and in fact at one time, when he was younger, seriously proposed to me that the entire Royal family should be publicly executed in Trafalgar Square, for the good of the country. An idea for Boris and the fourth plinth, I suppose. Since living next door to the Smiths, however, he has moved almost full circle and become an expert ranter on the subject of benefit scroungers and yob mentality.

One day, after one of these outbursts, to save him from a lifetime of shame as a Daily Mail reader, I sat and lectured him on the necessity of the Welfare State. I reminded him about my mother, who grew up in a world of abject poverty, despite her father's backbreaking working life of forty years down a coal mine, with never a day's sick pay, or compensation for one of the three serious injuries he had. In the 1930s, my mother's young brother and sister died within days of each other from diptheria, in an epidemic that swept through the slum terraced back streets where they lived. There was no affordable medical treatment for them, no 'hand outs', no benefits, no unemployment money: you worked, or you starved. Sometimes you worked and you nearly starved anyway. I pointed out how the Welfare system was created to prevent such social injustice. He wasn't entirely convinced, though, perhaps because he could sense the lack of conviction creeping into my wet liberal arguments.

And anyway, how do you explain the journey from the terrible poverty of those days to the present day, benefit dependent culture of the Smiths? They are not poor, in the sense of my mother's family: they have a home provided for them, and financial support, they are given access to decent schools, they have tvs, games consoles, alcohol, recreational drugs and holidays, and there is no question as to whether or not they should be entitled to this level of 'support'. Perhaps it is a mark of a civilised society that we do not question their entitlement. If the Smiths had not made our lives hell this last year and more, I probably would have thought so, anyway. But now I just think they have taken the Welfare State by the neck and screwed it, and us, for everything they can get.

Mrs Smith has played the welfare system astutely; brilliantly, hats off to her. Having a son labelled as having ADHD has helped enormously, of course. On the only occasion Mr Angry spoke to her, in the early days of the tenancy, after we were kept awake all night - literally -for several nights in a row by her oldest son and his friends, a gang of drunken, foul mouthed yobs in the bedroom next door, she said in a tragic tone of voice 'yeah, ya see, my boy Travis, he can't help it, he's got ADHD ...' 'Oh dear,' said Mr Angry, 'that's a shame, but it isn't Travis that makes all the noise, is it? It's your other son.' This was a waste of time, as Tracey Smith has learnt to use Travis as an excuse for everything, and this enables her to play the hard done by, unemployed, 'vulnerable' single mother, struggling to cope with her 'boisterous' sons. Not anti-social, you understand, normal boys who are a bit lively ... Thinking again about my mother's father, at the age these 'boisterous' youths and their friends are now, he was already living in the hell of the trenches of the First World War, and indeed, while they spend most of their days and nights fooling about on their Playstations, young guys their age are losing their lives, on their behalf, in Afghanistan.

Something has gone badly wrong somewhere, but I'm not sure where. We really have reverted to the state Disraeli once identified, one of 'Two Nations' :

'between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different time zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws ...'

Margaret Thatcher notoriously once claimed that there was no such thing as society. David Cameron, in his bid to find an electable face for a party tainted with her perceived lack of humanity, has tried the cringe making 'hug a hoody' tactic before discovering 'Broken Britain' and seeking to exploit voters' fears of social breakdown. But who broke Britain? When did it start? Yes, I'm looking at you now, Margaret.

In the twenty first century we are struggling to be a functional multicultural society, yet the real divisions, I would argue, lie not in culture or ethnicity so much as in education, attitude and employment. Even within the Tory party there is still a conflcit, a difference of class: stand Posh Boy and George Osborne next to Brian Coleman and Mike Freer, compare and contrast. It's like looking at the difference between a Regency terrace and a concrete, Brutalist car park from the 1960s. What do all Tories have in common, then? A feeling that the individual's rights take precedence over social responsibilities, in other words, a feeling that what they want is what they should have, regardless of others. Yob mentality is no different. It suits the Tories to keep the new poor in their place with the provision of benefits, shoved into any old accommodation, left with the worst state schools, the least access to good medical care. Out of sight, out of mind. The Victorians believed that the lowest classes were the undeserving poor and that it was all somehow their fault. Modern day Tories don't care if they deserve it or not: in their world they are irrelevant. Broken Britain, Broken Barnet: we get the society we deserve. If you don't like the sound of it, think before you vote the architects of easyBarnet and Futureshape into power, either nationally or locally.


zwanzig20 said...

Surely after 13 years of Labour Government, they should take some of the blame?

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, I agree that the government has failed to get to grips with the problem, but I believe that much of what Cameron labels as 'Broken Britain' has its roots in the Thatcher years, when, for example, on 'laissez faire' economic and ideological grounds industry was allowed to decline without intervention and support from government. The loss of the mines, the steel factories, ship building etc was a massive blow to so many communitities, causing mass unemployment and a generation of workers dependent on the benefits system. Combined with other more blatant social engineering, the sale of council housing, tinkering with health and education, we were left with a society in which the gulf between rich and poor, well educated and uneducated, had got bigger and bigger, and we saw the growth of a severely disadvantaged, neglected underclass. Welcome to Broken Britain. My annoyance with Cameron's seeking to blame this all on the present government, however, is largely due to the fact that many of the local authorities who are failing to address the problem of antisocial behaviour are themselves Tory run and actively choosing not to put funding into these areas - a tste of things to come should there be a Tory government or another Tory run council. Cameron has already made it clear that he will not provide funding for imporved policing, and I am sure the same will apply to the measure need to tackle ASB.