Image: Neil Ashley
They’ve put up an advert for pole dancing classes in the local hairdressers, feminism is yet to take hold in the Midlands. This is the same town where a girl I knew was once told-off by police for having showered - thus washing away evidence - before making her way to the station to report that she’d been raped. The sense of rights and values I find in my normal social and internet circles have still got a long way to travel.
There are more innocent manifestations of the differences; if you asked for a long black when you wanted a coffee then you’d have to explain what it was, you wouldn’t ask for a long black if you wanted a coffee because you wouldn’t want to appear an arsehole. As a child, my father would’ve sent me to get the papers first thing on a Saturday morning, the local newsagents never had more than five copies of The Guardian in this town of ten thousand, and the few who bought them were quick to do so. When I ask the supermarket attendants if they have organic eggs, it’s not because there’s any hope so much as to cast one more tiny drop in the politics ocean.
Whenever I’m home it’s a bit like this, I realise how important the BBC’s decision to shift staff to Manchester really was, reminded how incubated London existences tend to be. It’s not that London lacks poverty or hard facts of life, it has plenty of both, but by virtue of being a major city there’s a cosmopolitanism that helps gloss over some of the cracks. For central boroughs in particular, people at least have the notion of being close to a place where things are actually happening. When poverty and lack of opportunities are crossed with the parochial, you get something altogether different. Jamie Oliver doesn’t come round offering apprenticeships in his restaurant, nobody’s holding their breath for Michelle Obama’s first visit. Coming home always feels a bit like a Shane Meadows film, kitchen sink realism or whatever it’s called. I’m wary of likening reality to films, on one level it gives others an image of a place, on another it seems dangerous to rely on media to gain empathy for an issue. I find the blur between fiction and reality can be unhelpful. This isn’t a Shane Meadows film.
It’s not all bad. One evening I meet new friends of my mother’s; I find a group of baby boomers sitting around discussing the Australian government’s old policy of abducting aboriginal children to break generational bonds and traditional communities. They discuss the horror by which this could have happened as recently as the 1960s. One of the group has made a psaltery… on a piece of paper slipped beneath the strings is an outline of notes that will play “You are my sunshine”; the tendernesses in this town have always been as hidden as the drug addictions and domestic abuse that also exist behind closed doors. Walking down the now-deserted high street you get a sense of emptiness, a non-place without human activity. They (the mystical, anonymous they that undertake big changes) recently completed a multimillion pound bypass, justified to the local community on grounds of taking traffic out of the town centre. Tesco have bought two fields and are now proposing a superstore, their planning justification is to bring traffic back into the town centre.
There are some visible signs of change, glimmers of positive identity politics; Yeo Valley have brought the idea of farming without pesticide and fertiliser into an accessible context. Lentil dahl has arrived on the shelves courtesy of an Innocent pot. It’s frustrating that the values have to be packaged behind a brand, neither do I like that Innocent are now owned by Coca-Cola, but on balance, I have to be happy these concepts are arriving in some form. The change on supermarket shelves makes me think of research I saw recently; baby boomers are more likely to get involved with community action, millennials more likely to recycle and buy ethical. Politicians and campaigns teams must take note of this changing face of civic engagement.
I’m home for a funeral, and at the industrial estate opposite the crematorium, a few towns along the A47, I find a burger van that is the only alternative to hungry. The sound of people chatting politics is one of my favourite things, and though the conversation is all benefits claimants, the stallholder and his customer are only talking about experiences of those local to them, and who am I to tell them any different? I hear of the G-Star Raw jeans… at least £150… that the unemployed woman next door is walking around in. I hear of the youngsters who’ve got no money but can afford to buy cannabis. I hear of all-night parties held by an unemployed neighbour who once refused to turn down the music at 3am… “I don’t have work tomorrow” her alleged response. The owner of the burger van proudly tells the story of how he directed his hosepipe over three partitioning fences, flooded her stereo until the music stopped.
Even if all this has been embellished for storytelling, I don’t doubt the general truth, I know plenty of cases that fail to uphold the good intentions of welfare, and do everything to support those who wish to take it away. Austerity politics is like a megaphone, it has amplified all of the simplifications and idiocies that existed anyway, and the left can be found lionising the poor in fashions no less ridiculous than the right’s efforts to stigmatise them.
Back at the burger van, and though I might sympathise, I can’t stand by and watch the timeless pastime whereby the poor condemn the abuses of the poor rather than the more costly crimes of the rich. And so I pipe up… something generic about tax evasion and screwed by corporations. The owner of the burger van puts down a metal hoop on his hotplate and cracks an egg into it. “You know George Osborne?” He challenges me with a spatula, and as the egg turns white in the heat he goes on, “George Osborne has his money… and he puts it in an account so that he doesn’t have to pay tax… it’s exactly the same at the top as it is at the bottom.” I realise he’s actually agreed with the substance of what I’ve said, even though his tone was challenging; I’m reminded that when people feel wronged and frustrated they approach all interaction as if it were an argument. From his burger van in the Midlands, I notice the man has drawn the exact same conclusion – that of a rotten top and bottom – as a Telegraph blog that followed the London riots. Along with his customer, they debunk the myth that the electorate is apathetic rather than monumentally pissed off.
I ask who he’ll vote for. Sucked cheeks. “I was brought up Labour, but Labour shafted us… now I’m UKIP” is what he says, to the delight of Nigel Farage and all those eager to prove UKIP is not only a Tory headache. The customer standing next to me is disapproving, and I hear the horrible words… “British National Party, mate… the BNP”, and a fist goes up. What comes next, however, is worse, because the owner of the burger van screws up his face and says “the BNP… they lost their way” which isn’t a sentiment you ever expect to hear from a sentient human. I stand, unmoving, but in my imagination I see myself, forehead in palm and head shaking slowly. I am roused from dismay by the customer proclaiming his highest loyalty… “English Defence... full member of the EDL!" he says with an impish grin. Between the two of them I listen to various statements of crusading blather, I hear about heritage and how “the Australians have got it right”, an idea I will later learn from a local schoolteacher is vogue amongst white working classes. The conclusion of all this is that “multiculturalism has failed”, and I curse the Tory politicians who gave such a powerful statement to those who would repeat it without scrutiny.
With his customer nodding a solemn agreement at my side, the man takes his spatula and starts sliding eggs onto a slice of bread. He tells me a second time, more profoundly, that multiculturalism has failed, and so I tell him that I’m Turkish, and a Muslim too, the first of which is the truth, the second a half truth I occasionally deploy with those I feel need to be challenged in their idea of what a Muslim is. I argue that our very conversation is evidence for the success of multiculturalism, but the telling thing is that neither of these UKIP and EDL men bat an eyelid at my ethnic revelation, and just as the EDL member beside me says earnestly that he’s not a racist, so you realise how honest people have been manipulated by ideas that don’t correspond to real life, or even their behaviour, so much as a confused and resentful space inside their heads. The low education of nationalists is frequently a point of derision by leftists and liberals, but the reality is that it should be a starting point for compassion; these were not bloody nasty people so much as people perhaps all too honest, who have been abandoned to bloody nasty ideas. A man spends his days in a portable cabin on an industrial estate, hauled out there each day on the tow bar of his estate car. He fries burgers and sausages for a living… £2.50 a time… the weather is cold, the horizon obscured by concrete walls and warehouses of sheet metal, in his ears is the constant murmur and occasional roar of traffic. I’d like to see many financially secure liberals emerge much nobler from such an existence, and the whole exchange makes me think of books by Stendhal, Flaubert and Céline in particular, all French writers with a great knack for humanising the poor, presenting them as innocent but not always as nice as we’d like. It’s easier for leftists to ignore this inconvenience rather than confront it, whereas the right lacks all compassion regarding the situation that produced such results.
Soon after our good natured parting on the industrial estate I’ll return to London, I’ll order long blacks again, go from sausages at the UKIP burger van back to falafel from the Iraqi Kurds at the north end of Leather Lane. I’ll go back to talking about interesting articles and exciting social enterprises. Bubbles can be useful. A positive bubble in a desperately flawed world is a good thing, it helps you stay positive, hopefully it helps you do positive that can make that world better. Bubbles can be useful... with one proviso. You have to remember you’re in one.