Hope

come hither astronomers, have ye no disdayne

There’s something very worrying happening here. It’s in the language, in the kinds of terminology that is getting deployed to describe people. Under the carapace of a resurgent right-wing populism is a disaffection. An anger which is against the political establishment, against politics of all kinds, but with something more to it, too.

It is something I found when I began doing something, not unlike you, forty years ago. Interviewing people – using tape, which I never used again! – I found there was a disorientation in many working class communities. You see in the old division of labour there was something comprehensive. Everyone knew their place, every town made something… and people were not afraid to think and believe in themselves. That collective was more easily imagined and brought to mind…. me and my class. Our future. But I found, even, what is it… forty years ago! That the certainties of that structure were disappearing. And I was accused of romanticism, of nostalgia… but Labour, the Left, never recovered, they lost that demographic. In some ways they’ve lived on borrowed time. Many communities have lost something, a certainty, a way of life, yes, that they never recovered. And in moments like this there are dark energies, globally even, allowing this uncertainty to be vented out with the most hideous of consequences, absolutely hideous.

You must remember that there’s been a kind of double expropriation of politics. There is one of language, wherein terms have been taken and shaken and divested of their original meanings. Democracy, community, even what is happening with the EU… all these problems of sovereignty relate to TTIP, to the banks, but words and causes have become loosened and unlinked, and it has become popular to blame something entirely different. The EU is not responsible for their grievances. These are issues of tax avoidance by Google or British American Tobacco, of the UK being a kind of pirate state, a land of stolen loot, where nothing’s been made for a long time… But there has also been a gentrification of political language, particularly radical politics. A professionalisation, where one needs a Masters or PhD to participate and speak of class politics. I’m the son of [working class English industrial family], but I sound different don’t I? And you too, like you say… So when there is this reaction against all politics, against liberals, there’s something that should make people on the Left uncomfortable. It is a reaction against a loss of coherency. A disorientation in the old working class, who cannot think nor speak, in a certain way…

Sceptical? Yes… that’s my outlook, too. I’ve never been a party member. Well, I joined Labour again for Corbyn… and we have to believe he could succeed, because in that belief or lack thereof is a politics, one which the right-wing media is utilising very well. But as I’ve got older I’ve dreaded the antagonism that comes with having a fixed position. I can’t bear people who ask questions already knowing the answer. One loses that confidence, that sense of… animation? Maybe, that… ability to reach to generalisations, assert arguments with a sense of entitlement to being right. One loses that with age. How old are you? Well… I avoid the Internet now. So many just feel they can say the most horrible and unpleasant things to someone they feel no connection with. No. Perhaps it is time for me to stop. I don’t have the energy to rough through that any more. One’s world becomes more full of doubts. One sees that the world is no longer yours, no longer for you, and that maybe it’s time to pass the baton on.

But one must always bring energy. I do not believe in facetious hope, always calling on others to have faith. That doesn’t help, that can make the intolerable bearable. But I believe that one can have sincere doubts and still attempt to release energy. Do not ask me for my viewpoint. When you say you want to know what the answer is, I say it is in all of us, the community, getting together and deciding collectively. And that is possible.

Choices

penny

No, the system is not good. I’ve seen a lot of people get worse when they get here. There is nothing for them. They come into the system, and they are here for years… You see [Mr Z], he was at [a nearby homeless hostel] a few years ago, a mental health place, then he went to [another hostel]… in the last three years he has gone really downhill. He used to have cereal! He used to talk to us. He would look you in the eye, talk to you for hours, he was a real character. He would go out, look after himself, cut his beard, can you imagine… Then they put him in [a local large homeless hostel], a ‘wet’ place… and he started drinking with all the rest. And they do nothing each day there. Now, here, it is sad… you see him, he is like a ghost. Looks at you in the eyes, but sees nothing. He’s gone. The mental health drugs he is on are very strong. But it’s not just that. And there’s others like him, I don’t need to tell you.

The system just lets people vegetate. They come here, get their benefits, their rent paid. They take drugs… but there’s nothing else to do. They are just allowed to self-destruct. Maybe it’s democracy, freedom… they have a choice, right? They have human rights… But they don’t, it’s no choice at all. Maybe the administrators, the management, they make out like it works. “This year we’ve saved x thousand pounds, we moved on these people…” to another hostel down the road, where they keep drinking and using. “This year we completed x thousand client actions which improved their wellbeing and gave them opportunities…” No. It doesn’t work like that. And we see that. They are coming here and doing nothing. The ‘end of the line’ some of the clients call it, you’ve heard, right? But we’re also trying to survive, and we play the game too, record the contacts, make out like it all works fine. With their benefits and their begging, they are making more money than you and me, my friend! My word.

I’ve seen this over four or five years since I been here. It’s sad. I seen young people come in and out, they go in enthusiastic, wanting to make change. Then they get exasperated when that doesn’t happen. Because these hostels are not places where people get better. You see them come in, they are using but maybe they are OK… and soon they get worse. People have been going around them for years. Like [Mr Y], his wife left him, he came in a drinker… then he got into drugs, here, hard drugs. And he couldn’t handle it, and he got worse. And he died, last year. Overdose. There could’ve been another way.

There is no incentive to get out. Nothing making them do anything except slowly kill themselves. It’s a Victorian solution… take the poor, give them just enough to live, lock them away somewhere. We put a label on them, like “junkie”, “addict”, or “benefit scrounger”, “criminal”, so that we think we are different from them, that they caused their own problems. The prisons are like this too. Yes, there’s been something traumatic in their lives maybe. But this capitalist system, it exploits people… and there are so many who don’t fit in. They cannot ‘participate’ in the economy… well, what does that mean? They cannot make money for somebody else. So they are here, slowly getting worse. Hiding the problem away. So many people are apparently superfluous to our society, so we hide them away, lock them away. We should be doing much better than this… for them, for the community, for the government. So much money is being spent on benefits even, to places like this. And for what?

What would I do? I would take them out of here. Out of London, out to the country. Among nature, where there is chance to farm, to work with their hands. Being absorbed and focused on something positive and creative that takes them out of themselves. Gives a sense of work, and pride. Achievement. Being the originator of something good outside of yourself. Away from all the drugs and violence and pollution and unfriendliness. London! It is true what they say about it. No, they should go to a place where they have to take part in doing things, building up a life separate to all that escapism in drugs. But then they are saying “give them choice”, it is a democracy, right? Ha ha… There isn’t much choice at all.

I don’t want to make you depressed! You are young… But I see this. And I don’t know what the answer is. I still don’t, even now. But none of this works. But it’s made out like it’s a solution. There has to be something much deeper. Social and political. A total transformation. But that’s for your generation, my friend.

Gavvers

boltcutters

I just tell people what they want to hear, mush. I’m an expert at that, fucking… Psychologically reading people. They don’t know what they’re giving away. I can read you like that. You think I can’t bruv? I know you. I can figure you out. People’re more worried about their fucking selves than what they’re giving away. And I can see that. Small signals. It’s all a construction. You’d be amazed. I can just put on a costume and go out there bruv, West End, Mayfair, the City… and I’ll have it. It’s all an act. Dress and act the right way and you can be whoever you want.

I’m an expert. I used to have to be a different person for everyone bruv. My dad, my mum, her man, my uncle, my nan… I never had a home. I was always going round people’s houses. They had different rules, different expectations. I had to play them. I can play everyone bruv. Cos there’s rules you learn, how to play each part, and you do it. Fitting in. And that whole time you’re away from… whatever it is you are. I didn’t want to be that person. I never felt that person. The real me? That’s fucking funny… I don’t think I was myself until I was… 18, nah… But… It ain’t like I’m that much different. It’s only more shocking.

That’s why I like to be in my own. Not loneliness, just being me. No faking. No noise. No having to say the obvious things for other people’s… convenience. I can just relax. Only when no-one else is around.

Bruv, you’re asking me about what I’m doing. Look around you. No-one’s fucking getting anywhere, people are just surviving. Tell me mush, how’s it supposed to help an addict if the one place he goes for his fucking treatment is bang full of others all clucking? Go down to the pharmacy at 9am, there’s forty other fucking smackheads waiting for a fix. Geezers on the floor drinking Skol, engraved fucking arms… Bruv! That’s the last fucking place you go to come off. Or down the fucking […] centre. Come on. You put a bunch of gearheads in a room and get em to talk about drugs all morning and what’s going to happen in the afternoon? I’ve been there bruv. You can’t help it, you’re hungry, you either corrupt others, or you get corrupted. Tell me, where would the best place be for a smackhead to pick up in a place they didn’t know? Go down the fucking drug centre. Someone will have a number for a dealer bruv. Just fucking ask, and ask, and ask the next man…

The system don’t work. They’re always sending you round the fucking houses, one hostel to another. You never get no peace. No one gets out. Where’s a smackhead gonna go if he gets off? There’s fuck all there bruv, no housing… and what about his criminal record? No place will take him. The gavvers are always onto you for one thing or the other. So it ain’t like I can do much different. I’m running out of […], I go out there, charvy innit. Bruv, don’t tell me… I know. Where can I fucking go? No… I can’t. I ain’t got people like that, not now.

You don’t see it, but you’ve got a fucking… freedom, a freedom I don’t have. Bruv. This is life. And this is mine innit. And now you’re thinking you wish you never knew. I can read you. You don’t even fucking know what the answer is yerself.

God and the Devil

Lucifer

Change isn’t possible, change is.

People tell me I’m a… What’s it… Philosophy… Philosopher. I got knowledge from life. You’ve got to oof and boof it. Yeah boy! Fight. All the time. I used to be bad, do bad things, but I’m better now. But you can’t take no shit. If it was up to me, I’d make everyone work. Yeah! That’s how they do it in my country. Not just letting people do what they like.

All the time you got God and the Devil on your shoulders, from the moment you wake up, yeah. Tell me, which one are you going to sleep with tonight? Cos it is only one. That’s real.

It’s hard, but I try to be positive. Help people out. Like I saw these kids, they were shouting and arguing with these people in the street yeah. And I just went in and said ‘stop it’. Cos you shouldn’t be shouting at kids. They’re just kids! People don’t understand the youth. You’ve got to let them be. I remember that age, always running round, knock down ginger! Yeah. Now they don’t let them get away with anything. I was stabbed yeah when I was carrying my boy. He was alright. I always said I’d get them out of gangs, them codes, you know. Now he’s alright. I’m proud of them. But since I fucked things up, I ain’t seen him much.

You alright though? Yeah… There’s something people got in their eye. Like I see it in you. You’re a child… no! I don’t mean it in a bad way. There’s a light in there. Innocent, you know. I can’t do bad things to that… cha. I need to. But it’s all positive. So I’m just gonna go away from here.

Like this.

Circle

circle
How is life man? I hear they are playing very well, your team. Palace? I don’t remember who their manager is now. I don’t really follow it, ha ha.

I’m doing well my friend. Life, it’s like a circle. When you are a baby and you’re helpless, you cry out, you are alone… Then you grow up, have your family… Then when you are old, you go back to the same as before. There are many older people here who are alone, who don’t go out, their family don’t see them. It’s sad. In my culture people always look out for the elderly, and the children. The neighbours and friends will come round, bring food, help them out. It’s in our religion, we have to do it. Yes, hehe, I know not everyone follows their religion. But it is different to here. My grandad, I would go and see him all the time, take him out, glass of wine. They are impressed, they are happy that someone cares for them. It would make him laugh, and make me happy doing it. I remember it now, and he was happy. Do it for what time you have left.

Your story makes me smile. It’s easy to get caught up with worries, you know… Money, finding someone to love. So many things are beyond our control. You could go into work and someone runs you over, or someone has a life changing opportunity. Or maybe nothing. What you can control is your relationships, caring for people. The way you interact. Cos one day we will be like them, like my grandad, and we will need loved ones around us.

I was in love with a woman once, when I was working in [the Midlands]. We were together for a few years, we broke up… It was hard. My brother helped get me a job here. Now I have my own business, I have a child, I am with someone good. Things are better now. You don’t know… what is around the corner. Just be good to others, that is all you can do.

Worker ants

worker ants

Have you heard about what’s going on in France? It’s kicking off there isn’t it, big time. In the squares… Nuit Debout, yeah I think that’s it. Getting together and talking about the future… but they’re doing something about it. They’ve had enough! Good on em. They’re blockading the refineries. That’s how you do it. Now even the nuclear power workers are joining them, everyone. Stop the power, bring the country to its knees. You can’t just go on a march about it. It’s to do with a labour law they’re trying to pass, make people work longer hours. They had that passed here, no-one did anything.

It’s not always been like that. My dad worked in the shipyards, Glasgow. They went on strike in the early 70s, just shut everything down. In the yards, the miners, everyone out. They couldn’t afford TVs or cars… they saw the swinging Sixties, and that’s how people remember it, but they couldn’t afford to keep the family fed. So they stopped things. They fought for holiday pay, for decent wages. They had to. No-one was gonna give em it. Now that’s gone.

What’s stopping it here? Well I have quite a trade unionist family, but Scotland… it has a more radical tradition, it’s more European. People are more critical up there. The independence movement really got things going, stirred it up, but it’s older there, that feeling. England. I don’t know… It’s a way of being I think… Centuries of conditioning. The stiff upper lip, not responding to your emotions, just sitting on that anger and resentment. Docile! Yes, people just not asking about things. Some of my friends even in London, who’ve come here from other countries, they see themselves as here for a short time. They don’t give a shit, they want to be out of here. I don’t blame them, but it’s tough.

My best mate’s neighbour, she’s homophobic, a bit racist, ignorant… but they get on, she’s alright. She’s a single mum, got two kids, and she just works. She never votes. Does her shopping, always thinking about what she’s going to buy next, two week holiday in Spain… sometimes reads The Sun, always working. What a life. I call them ‘worker ants’. There’s a lot like that. And people being like that, head down, nothing changes.

I remember the young people at this project I used to work at. They’ve been brought up in that Thatcherite culture. There’d be a problem, and I’d say to them ‘there’s 79 other people here’, but it’s just me me me with them. ‘What are you going to do for me? These are my rights…’ We were never like that as kids. That neoliberal bullshit, it’s just seeped in. I don’t know. The riots… something’s got to change. We’re not paid enough, and we’re doing too much.

Hands tied

knife

We’ve got to be grateful for what we have man. When you see someone just deteriorating, not looking after themselves like that, lost, not in themselves… It makes me think you know.

Sometimes… in life! Life, haha… You think you’ve got it hardest, like God has singled you out. Oh man. Like no-one else has got it bad, cos you’ve got no money, or there’s problems with your family, you know. We’ve got to be grateful. Cos when you listen to another person’s story, you’ll find out, boy. People are struggling, they’ve not got food, no shelter, no papers, no language, nothing. Don’t take it for granted, your health, the people around you. Life ain’t easy y’know, but compared to the rest of the world, oh boy.

Let me be clear. Healthcare. Take my country [Nigeria]. If you’re in an accident, you get sick… they take you to the emergency room. You know the first thing they ask you? Who’s paying. Cos if you can’t pay, they not gonna treat you. If you offered to pay it off? No. Imagine their response: we’ve got ten other people today needing the same operation. They’ve got overheads, workers to pay. No. They’ll leave you in the waiting room. The nurses will come, they’ll say ‘my hands are tied’. You’ll die there. It’s wrong! Some of these treatments might just be a few injections, antibiotics. But a national health service? We have a very large population, but…

Why don’t people fight back? Well, the poor are angry. There’s a new president who’s standing up against corruption. Billions have been circulating in that economy, enough for a good standard of life, a welfare state. But they’ve siphoned it off, the top officials, into foreign accounts, properties. This new guy is shaking them down, trying to get it back. At first the officials said OK, but now they’re trying to stop him. But he’s popular, he’s doing the right thing.

He’s got all these officials against him, he doesn’t look well, he’s in his 70s. There’s a, what’s it, an ‘old boys’ network’ against him! Because it’s always been the same people in power, the old men, since the 1880s, the 1660s… and their sons will be in power too. They come into power, offer to make certain rewards, take advantage of certain funds… haha! And when they are on their way out, they will sponsor someone on the up, who will look after their money, and maybe they will give them some.

Take this cake. This is the national cake. And each man comes into office and cuts his big slice and says it is mine. And then the next one. And the people ask what happened to the cake, and they will blame someone else.

It’s easy for other countries to judge. You know that thing David Cameron said, about Nigeria and Afghanistan, being corrupt? Our president said, ‘I don’t want any apologies, I just want to get back the money that’s been siphoned to Britain’. To Britain! All the tax evasion, property deals and offshore accounts. That was a very good answer. There is very little welfare state there. If you have no job, you would just starve… no, family would help. The new president has introduced a new payment for people in hardship who do not work. It’s not enough for food and rent, but it’s a start. But many of the young people, the young graduates, have become armed robbers. Yes! Because there are not enough jobs for them. They have taken up crime. There are many problems in Nigeria, but maybe it’s not as different as other places.

One day, I’d like to go back there. I have some land… I could farm, grow fruits! I know how to do it. One day.

Change, it comes down to choice. Human nature? Yes, maybe. Ultimately each person has a choice to do or not do what they’re doing. That can be very hard, there might be a whole lifetime of doing things a certain way. They might be scared of change, cos there’s a reason why they’ve done things this way up til now. They might drink or use drugs cos they’re avoiding something, innit, and to go without that means facing those feelings. Leaving a community of people you use with. You can lead a horse to the river, but, yow! You can’t force it. That’s down to each one of us. And many people don’t make a choice, and you got to just accept that.