Friday 29 December 2017

Book of the Year

Back on the First of July I explained I would be doing much less blogging and generally I've kept to that. One of my intentions at that time was to use the time gained to do more reading but in truth it's mainly given me more time to watch football on the telly.

But over the holiday I have had more time to read and one of the things I've read, or more correctly re-read was what I think on any view has been the most important book written in Scotland this year: Poverty Safari by Darren "Loki" McGarvey.

The world it describes could not in one way be more different from my own comfortable middle class existence, never more comfortable than over a festive period where what to do, eat, drink or give as presents passes by entirely as a matter of choice and without affordability featuring in any meaningful way. Yet it is a world with which I am actually only too familiar, for it is the world in which for nearly forty years I have been engaged professionally.

So what (here I pause as to what to call the author: Mr McGarvey sounds altogether to pompous but Darren would pretend a personal familiarity which does not exist. I'll settle for his performing name and Nickname) "Loki" describes resonated with me on every page. Poverty cascading down through the generations. Not just financial poverty but environmental poverty; poverty of expectation both for and by its victims; poverty of hope.

Before I worked in Cumbernauld I worked in Easterhouse for seven years, from where Cumbernauld was then regarded as approaching a promised land. Anyone who could then get out from the "schemes" seized the opportunity to do and those from Easterhouse moved out centrifugally to Cumbernauld in the same way as those fleeing Easterhouse's south side twin, Castlemilk, gravitated towards East Kilbride.

And for some, perhaps for more than Loki would concede, the move worked. Amid a fresh start in a cleaner, greener environment, in (generally) better quality housing and with some at least of the lack of local facility problems that had so crippled the schemes addressed at the outset, new opportunities were taken. Helped, there is no point now in disputing by the widespread take up of the rent to buy,* which gave so many their first lifetime opportunity of home ownership.

But many regrettably were still trapped by history. I give this but as one of what could be any number of examples.

Not long after I arrived in Cumbernauld I encountered a woman who had been an Easterhouse client in a case involving domestic violence and (as Loki also observes) its common companion, child neglect. She was in not on her own behalf but with her daughter who was dealing with the aftermath of a relationship involving domestic violence and child neglect. Today, the first woman's great grandson is a child I encountered in a case involving allegations of.....domestic violence and child neglect. Generations for whom having a social worker is as routine as having a doctor and, regrettably, often more common than, certainly as a teenager, having a regular teacher, such is the prevalence of poor school attendance against such a home background.

And all the other features of this life. Constant economic uncertainty certainly, but also legal and illegal substance abuse. Unstable relationships involving the conception of children between people barely known to each other at the time. Anti-social behaviour without any real perception of how that might adversely affect the lives of other people or even cause them to look towards (and sometimes react towards, and worse), you. Chronic ill health at an early age including the almost ubiquitous "anxiety and depression" that leads to a ping pong existence of jumps between ESA and JSA, with all the stress of "Cadogan Street interviews" this involves. Ironically, given the way the Tories have now changed the financial entitlements, now piling on stress for little actual "benefit" financially to either the claimant or the State. And of course, the curse of "Sanctions" and the swap between relative poverty and absolute destitution that can induce.

Loki spells all of this out much more eloquently than me, with the "benefit" of personal experience in the telling.

But he then raises some more telling observations in the process. That "systemic" change, as proposed as the solution by the left wing political tradition he (and I) still adhere to, won't sort all of these problems on its own. There has also be a commitment to personal change. Personal change that requires help from "the system" certainly, and here I pause only to note Labour's achievement in reducing child poverty between 1997 and 2010, but personal change which "the system" itself can't induce alone. Not necessarily solely individual change but change that can be brought about collectively. Only however if driven from the bottom up, not dictated from the top down. A point on which he is quite adamant and on which I yet more adamantly agree. In my lifetime what was once the voluntary sector has lost far far too much of its voluntary nature, changing in the process not only its appellation but also much of its independence from local or central government, leaving recipients of the "service" provided often with little distinction between the two.

But the final conclusion is not his but mine. How can we help people to break of this cycle of misery?This should be the most important issue of our age yet instead it appears now to be on nobody's agenda. Not the Tories, for whom the idea of Universal Credit was once a worthwhile attempt to make it easier to move into work, but who have now, through botched execution and, more deplorably still, conscious intention, allowed it to slide into a crude cost cutting exercise. But not the Labour Party either whose "radical" manifesto last June, while full of lots of goodies for middle class students and relatively well off unionised interests in public and former public sector employment, had little or nothing to say about those at the very bottom to the extent indeed of being absolutely silent on what we might do about the benefit freeze. And as for the SNP? The Scottish Government? Don't even get me started.

I don't know what to do about this. And yet in one way I do. It follows from a tradition running from Victor Hugo, through Shaftesbury and Wiberforce to Dickens and to Orwell, that if an outrage is to be addressed it must first be exposed to the oxygen of publicity. Darren "Loki" McGarvey is a worthy successor in that role. Read his book.


and a Happy New Year when it comes.

* With hindsight, the problem with right to buy was not the principle but the failure to build replacement stock