Archive for September, 2016

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

guapaThe author of the novel recently gave a talk which some members were able to attend. This provided a valuable insight into some of the questions asked about the book during our discussion.

The name of the novel was questioned, specifically the use of the titular word in the feminine form; was it in reference to the supposed effeminacy of homosexuality? However the name was apparently imposed by the publisher, so the author’s intent is very much negligible in this instance.

The book was considered a page turner. That the author captured the naivety and directness of the Middle East was appreciated. Reference was swiftly made to one of the more humorous lines in the book, shouted out as an insult by a taxi driver; “may sixty dicks ride your mother’s pussy”. The line” the burka wasn’t a problem until the Americans got involved” was also highlighted.

The location of the novel was of interest, and some felt it could have been set in Jordan or Syria. One member questioned whether the location was non-descript in order to make it more accessible, or less alien, to an international reader, whilst another added that the ambiguity of its setting made it a more difficult read. One member suggested it was intentionally kept ambiguous for fear of reprisals, though another, who attended the talk with the author confirmed the ambiguity was in order to protect the work the author undertakes in the location. Despite this noble intent, one member felt the lack of physical setting was a real loss to the novel.

The political upheaval of the book was felt to keep coming in and out of focus, despite the novel only covering a 24 hour period. Although there was brevity in the period the main narrative covered, most of the protagonist’s life was covered by protagonist’s remembrances.

Some felt the main problem of the book was its naivety; it was felt the difficulties between the oppressive regime and the resistance wasn’t explored sufficiently and we just get the characters ‘fighting their oppressors in a gay bar’.

It was felt that Rasa focussed on trying to ‘fit’ in each environment we find him in, but that he regularly fails to. Always the ‘outsider’, he is accused of being white by an African American. The character painted himself as a victim, yet had the freedom to leave the politically volatile, repressed, homophobic environment we find him in; he even travelled to the US, perhaps only in a bid to explore a perceived sexual liberation, but chooses to return home, despite its negative impact. However, it was noted that Rasa doesn’t live a life secluded in the cosier environs of the gay bar and company of his liberal friends, but regularly travels to the less affluent parts of the city, for the purposes of both work and leisure.

One member was annoyed by the lack of Rasa’s political and sexual awareness during his time in the US. Another membered countered by stating most gay men, or indeed human beings, are not particularly politically aware.

Although Rasa’s oppressive, traditional Grandmother was recognised as of strong character, a member felt she was hideous and would have liked to have got rid of her himself. However, the lead character was considered weak or lacking depth by some, with a member questioning who ‘he’ was. Others felt he didn’t carry the story and that he was ‘wet’ The questionable depth of the characters extended to some of the other main characters, such as Nora, the owner of the bar Rasa and his liberal cohorts frequent.

It was felt that the book would have benefitted from being written from the perspective of Rasa’s friend Maj; an overtly camp, resident drag queen from the titular bar. Rasa’s reminiscences illustrate the character as never being far from trouble and how Rasa has always been the one to get him out of whichever scrape Maj gets himself into. Whilst Rasa was somewhat passive in his political and sexual identity, Maj was always overtly himself and being actively political in being so. Despite the consequences of Maj being himself, without restraint, regularly results in danger, violence and, pertinently to the main story, police intervention, Maj remains unwilling to restrain the presentation of his identity. He is therefore recognised as a stronger, more dynamic character than the lead.
Quotations:

“Before I met Taymour I had no reason to tell anyone anything. And then, when I had him I wanted to share my joy with the world.”

“Watching him walk to his car, I felt light as air, as if the weight that had been bearing down on me for years was gone, and I was now like everyone else.” And finally this passage: “When I returned to the bedroom I noticed his red boxer shorts on the floor by my bed. Had he forgotten them, or did he leave them there for me? I looked for my own underwear but could not find it. Surely he must have noticed, as he pulled on his gym shorts, that he was wearing not his underwear but mine. Maybe it was a message, a promise that he would be back.”
“Don’t go to the wedding.”

“I have to go. It’s eib not to go.”

“The tyranny of eib.” Maj sighs. = بنك الاستثمار الأوروبي = shame on you

“May sixty dicks dance on your mother’s pussy,” the driver barks, leaning into his horn..

“Khawal refers to effeminate men. A long time iTezlo the word referred to male belly dancers. But it’s not used for that anymore.”

“Is it used for gay?” I asked.

“What …what did you say?” he stammered.

“Gay.”
“Don’t use that word here,” he said, eyes narrowing. He licked his lips, stood up from behind his desk, and ushered me to the door.

It was funny that both English and Arabic have so many words that explored every dimension of what I was feeling, and yet not one word that could encapsulate it all.

In my final year of high school, I discovered POLSKA­SAT. It was Omar who, in excitable whispers over the phone one day, first told me about the obscure Polish channel that you could get on the satellite if you knew the exact frequency. That Saturday night, after Teta yawned and announced she was going to bed, I waited until her snores traveled across the quiet house and then scrolled through the channels until I arrived at POLSKASAT.
To top off her wages, on Fridays Teta wore her hijab and black abaya and went to the mosque down the road to collect donations, and on Sundays she wore a crucifix and drove to the near­est town. She hid among the churchgoers, stood up and sat down when they did. She knew when to say “Kyrie Eleison,” and she even took communion. Then, as the charity box was handed out, she reached in and took her weekly stipend.

I was angry about my education, with its ancient and rigid teaching methods peppered with false truths and blatant lies, where the only goal was to make us forget how to criticize and ask challenging ques­tions.

The next evening I listened to the American president’s solemn declaration of war. I watched the footage of bombs dropping on a city that looked like my own, and realized that from now until the day I died that city would not be what it had been. It had become shorthand to describe an event. Thecountry that once existed was no more. It had changed the moment the first bomb fell through the dark sky. Before the war had even claimed its first human life, the first victim was the city itself. A concept, a history, a culture.

the hijab meant nothing until America decided it did.

Maj laughs. “By the very nature of being a religious cleric they must be delusional. Besides, Islam or not, there is a long acceptance of homosexuality by Arab society that stretches back to the pre-Islamic period. It was those prud­ish Victorians who spoiled the party.”

“And you’re wrong, Rasa,” Nora says. “When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was not because of homosexuality, it was about lustful acts in general, and criminality, and general debauchery, really…”

“If I get married to a woman, which I don’t suppose will happen if I can get away with it, but if I do, then I will have children.”

He put his arm around me and I leaned back.

“What about if you were with a man, would you adopt?” I said, watching him hover above me.

“Absolutely not.” He pulled me back up in one clean swoop. “It’s unnatural.”

“It’s unnatural for two men who love each other to adopt a child? Why?”

“I don’t know, it just is,” he said. “It’s against soci­ety.” We tripped on each other’s legs. “It’s one-two­three-turn, right?”

I nodded. “What is society though? I mean what are the rules of society?”

“It’s just against society,” he repeated, and gave me a kiss.

And so the next day I told Maj that I felt that two men should not be allowed to adopt children. I tried the argu­ment on for size and heard myself say it, just to see what it was like. To my surprise Maj agreed with me, saying that adopting children was a heteronormative performance that sought to castrate queerness.

“Maybe we should go protest.”

“Yes, yes. Great idea. Let’s go protest. Against who?” “Against everyone. Against everything.”

“Sounds good,” Maj says. “But first, maybe a drink or two at Guapa.”

guapa-2 The Long Way

The memory returns to me so vividly I feel I am back there, at 14, in the backseat of that taxi. At the time my father had been dead for 18 months, my mother had vanished the year before that, I was magically sprouting hair in places I was not expecting, and I was still sharing a bed with Teta.

I was returning from a history lesson at Maj’s house. We were both struggling with the material. Our school followed the British curriculum, which meant we had to study the history of Europe and the World Wars: the Kaiser, the Treaty of Versailles, then Churchill and Stalin. It all seemed like another universe to us, so Teta and Maj’s mother agreed to share the costs of a private tutor.

I hailed a taxi outside Maj’s house and got into the backseat, as Teta directed me to do when riding in taxis alone. The man behind the wheel was young, though I couldn’t make out his age: perhaps 18, maybe 20. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt that gripped his body. He drove without speaking. A familiar pressure inside me began to build. It was a terrible choking sensation that had been growing in the months since I lost my parents. I had no control over my destiny, and everything around me could suddenly die or run away.

I rolled down the window and pressed the back of my head against the leather seat. The crisp November air felt cold against my face, releasing the pressure somewhat. Through the streetlights, which lit up the inside of the car in recurring waves, I saw that the driver’s forearms were potholed with scars. I admired the way his T-shirt stretched tightly against his chest. His arms broke out in large goose bumps.

“Shut the window, it’s cold,” he said. I rolled up the window, feeling the choking sensation close in on me once more. I watched the muscles in the driver’s arms tighten as he shifted gears. The large veins running under his skin awoke a sensation inside me I had never felt before. I wanted to connect with him in some way, to be closer to him somehow.

“Is this your taxi?” I asked.

“My brother’s,” he said. His jaw clicked as he chewed a piece of gum. He sighed and put one arm behind the passenger seat while steering with the other. I looked at the hand resting behind the seat. His fingers were decorated with gold and silver rings. Dark black dirt was wedged underneath his fingernails. I glanced down at my own fingernails, which Doris had clipped earlier that day.

I tried to imagine what this man’s life was like, outside of this taxi. His rough accent meant he probably lived in al-Sharqiyeh, maybe in a tiny room that smelled of fried onions and cigarettes, because that’s what I imagined al-Sharqiyeh would smell like. How much did we have in common, he and I? If I knew then what I know now, I would have put our differences down to a complex algorithm of class and culture. But back then I did not know about any of that, so I stuck to what we had in common: the car we were both sitting in.

“Do you drive this taxi often?” I asked.

“One or two nights a week,” he replied, making a turn into the side street that took us off the highway and toward my new neighborhood downtown.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?” His eyes flicked up to look at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were a cool gray, almost silver. “Driving the taxi,” I said, holding his gaze as I played with the dog-eared corners of the history books on my lap.

“It’s just a job,” he said, turning back to the road. “Well what do you like doing when you’re not driving the taxi? Do you watch television?” Teta fed me on a diet of dubbed Mexican telenovelas, American television shows, and an endless stream of news. Perhaps his television set also showed those channels.

“I don’t have spare time. When I’m not driving, I work on a construction site.”

The next turn would take us to my street. I felt a sudden panic. I wanted to spend more time with this man. We were moving closer to something new and exciting. I wanted to be his friend. And not just any friend, not like Maj or Basma, but a friend who would always be around, someone I could hug and be close to. My insides were buzzing. I wanted him to keep on driving, to take me out of this sad town, far away from that empty apartment with Doris and Teta.

“Is that why you have big muscles?” I scrambled to find a way to delay our separation. He glanced at me, studied my face for a while, clicked his chewing gum. Then his lips turned to form a crooked smile.

“Come up here and sit next to me,” he said.

I hesitated. It would be eib to say no, although it also felt eib to say yes. Stuck between two eibs, I left the books in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove past Teta’s apartment. He took a right into a dark street and parked the car between two large trees. He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his thing. It stood between us, hard, like an intruder to an intimate conversation. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed it, and he let out a slight moan. I studied the thing in my hand, feeling it grow in my palm.

“Yalla,” he whispered as his eyes scanned the area. “Huh?”

“Put your mouth on it,” he said impatiently.

I swallowed and bent down. He smelled sour and hot. I put his thing in my mouth and looked up for further instructions.

“Wet your mouth, wet your mouth,” he hissed. “Your tongue is like sandpaper.”

I swallowed a few more times until my mouth was wet, and this time the process went more smoothly. He seemed happy with this and sighed. He pressed down on my neck but he remained alert, his head darting back and forth as if following a game of tennis. I was down for a few minutes when my excitement began to disappear, replaced with a strong sense of guilt that I was making a terrible mistake.

I struggled, concentrating on breathing through my nose and not gagging each time he pushed my head down. I wasn’t sure how long this would last. He groaned. My mouth filled with salty slime. The warm hand at the back of my neck disappeared.

“Get out now before someone sees,” he said, zipping his trousers up. I wiped my mouth, took my books from the backseat, and got out of the car. The man started up the engine, reversed out onto the road, and sped off.

I looked around. There was no one. The awkward feeling slowly disappeared, and the memory of what happened seemed sweeter. I stored bits of it for later: the warm hand on the back of my neck, the sour smell, the shape of his thing in my mouth. I relived those memories as I walked home. Teta looked up when I came through the door. I was terrified to face her. She always seemed to know everything. This was something she should never know. She was sitting in her nightgown, cracking roasted sunflower seeds between her teeth. On the television the news showed footage of bombs dropping on a busy neighborhood.

“You found a taxi?” she asked, picking at bits of seed lodged between her teeth.

For a moment I thought she might be able to tell just by looking at me, or that she would smell the taxi driver on my clothes and face. I swallowed hard, feeling the salty slime slide down my throat. It felt scratchy, like I was coming down with a cold.

“Yes, but he took the long way,” I said, trying to look as natural as I could. I took a deep breath. This was the first lie I had ever told Teta, and as I said this a part of me split from her forever. The gooey liquid in the back of my throat felt far away from the words coming out of my mouth. I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.

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The Dilly: A Secret History of Piccadilly Rent Boys by Jeremy Reed

td(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

On the fringes of Soho, Piccadilly has long been London’s principal location for the illicit sale of sex, and Jeremy Reed explores the history of rent boys from Oscar Wilde’s notorious attraction to the place to the painter Francis Bacon’s predilection for rough trade. The book includes tales of Soho’s clandestine gay clubs from the days when homosexuality was illegal, the punters inexorably drawn to the area, the development of the secret slang known as Polari or Palare, (though I’m not sue he’s right on this as it was used at London’s docks in the 18th Century and some trace it back to the 16th Century) as well as the Dilly’s influence on pop stars from the Rolling Stones to Morrissey. The author examines the careers of a number of former male prostitutes who worked the infamous ‘Meat Rack’ and investigates what drew them to risk their lives. His study includes a chapter recording his friendship with Francis Bacon and concludes with an account of the demise of the Dilly trade, when male escorts booked online supplanted the boys hanging out on the neon-lit railings.

Because prostitution was illegal, these boys mixed with the criminal underworld – like drugs, I wonder of the answer is legalisation.

It the last chapter an add-on? The book ends logically with the previous chapter.

The role of the church is noted – Fr. Ken Leech set up Centrepoint for drug rehab. when he was at St. Anne’s Soho.

The infamous ‘Bishop of Mecdway; makes his appearance. He came to fame on a TV documentary about runaways called ‘Johnny Comw Home’ where he picked up boys from Kings Cross and settled them in homes which were really brothels. He got authority funding because nobody checked his bogus credentials.

Quotations:

Jack Saul and his associates at the Dilly adapted Circus slang or Palare into their coded vocabularies, with male prostitutes being called pejoratively ‘Mary-Ann’, ‘pouf’, ‘fairy’, ‘tante’, `tapette’, all terms known to Wilde and his milieu as family. A criminal slang vocabulary, known at the time as Parlyaree’, as the prototype for the secret gay slang Polari that coloured the repressive 1950s and 1960s, as a form of verbal drag in which language is camped, was already in circulation, with some of its insolently spiked additives picked up from the nearby Alhambra Music Hall at No. 23-27 on the east side of Leicester Square that was used as a pick-up place by both male and female prostitutes.

According to Warth, the semiotics of Polari and offended by the exclusively the Masonic lingo, ‘Homosexuals have their own private language, constantly changing as some of their expressions go into common usage. They recognize each other by the phrases they use. Makeup which they sometimes wear, is “slap”. Putting on women’s clothes is “dragging up”. A man who they recognize as unsympathetic to them and likely to scoff at their mincing ways, is a “send-up”. Anyone strutting and posturing, as they do, is “very camp”.’

Alex recalls elements of the hustler’s lingo he used at the Dilly, such as ‘vice-boy cigarettes’ for marijuana smoked before sex, and drugs sold at the station, ‘ups and downs’ for amphetamines and valium, `two-for-one’ for heroin and, if he was on, he’d be hiding his ‘bee bites’, or if he was out to rob he’d be ‘working the fags’. He recollects other terms such as `goofer’ for a punter in his forties, an ‘ice palace’ for a client’s affluent home, ‘incendiary blond’ for a faggot; a whole vernacular of quirkily inventive and quickly deleted terms used as argot by Dilly boys in the 1970s.

That Polari had been introduced by Dilly boys into oho clubs was observed by Ken Leech who noted, In the world of the coffee clubs there is a culture with its own language and words like `bona” (good), “vada” (to look), “nishta” and “nanty” (no) are used extravagantly. The homosexual language is called Polari and should be.

distinguished from camp language, which is more widely used and less restricted.’

On the run, and pathologically motivated by one of his wallet-grabbing forays to the Dilly, Scanlon tracked a company director to the station toilets, came on to him sexually in a cubicle and snatched his stashed wallet. Ramming the man up against the wooden door Scanlon coolly rummaging through his wallet discovered the man’s identity and details including his address and threatened to tell his wife unless the director paid him k800. Scanlon, after stealing the panicked and traumatized victim’s credit card, walked the man to his bank to cash a cheque for the amount demanded.

Two years later he was accidentally recognized as wanted by Detective Colin Johnson who was on undercover duty at the Regent Palace Hotel bar, a venue consistently popular with rent boys on account of its location, clearly putting the frighteners on a visibly distressed and grey-suited businessman. When the two men disappeared into the hotel, Johnson organized an immediate search to find the room they had taken for an assignation and arrested Scanlon, who had in the meantime demanded k30o from his unsuspecting victim. Arrested and tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to ten years. Judge Michael Argyle, repulsed by Scanlon’s intimidating methods o±

extortion and systematic menacing of wealthy homosexuals said in his reprimanding summary, ‘These are loathsome offences. Today is your paying-up day.’ As a marker of insidious Dilly machinations Scanlon’s case epitomized gay criminality — a sexually confused, indisputably disruptive sensibility using his self-loathing in part to victimize the compromised and the vulnerable through extortion. Gays subverting  othe r other same-sex types were an invasive Dilly rogue gene, mercenary twisted, often aggressively homophobic and far more injuriously dangerous than stereotypical queer-bashers.

Wheeler strips down thee romantic illusion that being a Dilly boy was a sexual gateway-maaking easy money for doing nothing but hang out looking availar

For punters sometimes deny they made a deal with you, or don’t pay you. What can a rent boy do in this situation? Say you’re under age and go to the police? Who is the police more likely to believe, a middle-class businessman, which most punters are, or an eighteen-year-old gay prostitute? Boys get raped, gang-banged and beaten up . . . And what about the queer-bashers pretending to be gay and punters who take you round the corner where you are expected to give a blowjob and he’s got three of his friends waiting to give you a going over?

This brutally realistic, take-no-prisoners confession of the unavoidable flip-side to being Dilly rent quite rightly argues a case for the punter controlling trade, often through class and privilege, and in effect being vindicated by the police if a dispute should arise over a deal reneged on by refusing to pay. Rent boys as socially despised outlaws were unable to appeal to the police if they were abused by punters because their profession was illegal, and, of course, the punter knew it and used it to his advantage. We come back to the time-tested criterion that no one likes having to pay for sex, because of the implicit psychological admission that he can’t find a partner or is in some way cheating or living a double life, is physically unattractive or, hardest of all in the gay world, growing older.

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Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

chavs(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

“Chav” means “underclass”, which means working-class people who don’t keep their noses clean or behave impeccably. The word’s etymology is contested: some accounts associate its origin with chavi, a Romany word for “child” or “youth”, which developed into “charva” – meaning scallywag – used for a long time in the northeast. Others treat it as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent”.

Chavs, Jones writes, are unremittingly portrayed as “Thick. Violent. Criminal.” Travel brochures still apparently promise “Chav-Free Activity Holidays”.

An example of middle-class contempt towards working-class people is rightwing commentator Simon Heffer’s talk of the “feral underclass”.

As British society has become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives’ demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class.

In New Labour’s eyes, being aspirational working class meant embracing individualism and selfishness. It meant fighting to be a part of Brown’s ‘bigger middle class than ever’ p. 90. They Laud ‘aspiration’ but what if there are no jobs to aspire to?

Jones reveals the increasing poverty and desperation of communities made precarious by wrenching social and industrial change, and all but abandoned by the aspirational, society-fragmenting policies of Thatcherism and New Labour. The chav stereotype, he argues, is used by governments as a convenient figleaf to avoid genuine engagement with social and economic problems, and to justify widening inequality.

Midway through the book, Jones gives a somewhat harrowing account of how some call centre workers in County Durham are treated in exchange for their £14,400 per annum. Those who spend more than 4% of their time in the toilet or making a coffee face financial penalties. A no-hang-up policy, however rude and aggressive the callers, means “quite often on the floor people in tears at the way people have spoken to them”.

Critics will say that his leftwing politics requires working-class people to be “oppressed creatures”, always victims, not rational actors in a play they help to write.

Maybe he romanticises an ideal of working-class life, the noble savage here.

‘….the dozens of Daily Mail readers who bombarded the newspaper with messages in support of the Tory councillor. ‘I fail to see the problem with his comments,’ wrote one, adding: ‘It is NOT a God-given right to mass-produce children.’’ p. 27 Roman Catholics would disagree.

chavs-2Quotations:

“It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?”

“Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’: something similar could be said about the rise of the far right today.

“Demonisation is the ideological backbone of an unequal society.”
“Taken together, New Labour policies have helped to build a series of overlapping chav caricatures: the feckless, the non-aspirational, the scrounger, the dysfunctional and the disorderly. To hear this sort of rhetoric from Labour, rather than the Tories, has confirmed the stereotypes and prejudices many middle-class people have about working-class communities and individuals. But it can be far subtler than outright attacks. Many of New Labour’s underlying philosophies were steeped in middle-class triumphalism. They were based on the assumption that the tattered remnants of the working-class were on the wrong side of history – and must be made to join ‘Middle England’ like the rest of us.”

“Being born into a prosperous middle-class family typically endows you with a safety net for life. If you are not naturally very bright, you are still likely to go far and, at the very least, will never experience poverty as an adult. A good education compounded by your parents’ ‘cultural capital’, financial support and networks will always see you through. If you are a bright child born into a working-class family, you do not have any of these things. The odds are that you will not be better off than your parents.”
“It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live,’ he argued. ‘If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should all be drawn from different sectors of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.”
“Chav-bashing draws on a long, ignoble tradition of class hatred. But it cannot be understood without looking at more recent events. Above all, it is the bastard child of a very British class war.”
“George Orwell observed: ‘If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole … the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the corners of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.’”
“What does the case of Jade Goody show us, other than the capacity of the British media for crassness and cruelty? Above all it demonstrated that it is possible to say practically anything about people from Jade’s background. They are fair game.”
“Pinochet shared one of the main aims of his ideological soulmates in Britain: to erase the working class as a concept. His goal, he declared, was to ‘make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs’.”
“Get rid of all the cleaners, rubbish collectors, bus drivers, supermarket checkout staff and secretaries, for example, and society will very quickly grind to a halt. On the other hand, if we woke up one morning to find that all the highly paid advertising executives, management consultants and private equity directors had disappeared, society would go on much as it did before: in a lot of cases, probably quite a bit better.,”
“Morality is personal. There is no such thing as collective conscience, collective kindness, collective gentleness, collective freedom,’ she planned to argue. ‘To talk of social justice, social responsibility, a new world order, may be easy and make us feel good, but it does not absolve each of us from personal responsibility.’ It was clearly too much for her speechwriters and did not make the final cut. However, they were not able to stop her infamous declaration several years later (in lifestyle magazine Woman’s Own, of all places): ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
To justify the slashing of welfare benefits, he argued that long-term claimants had to ‘take responsibility’ for the number of children that they had, and that the state would no longer fund large workless families. In reality, just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more. But Hunt was tapping into the age-old prejudice that the people at the bottom were breeding out of control, as well as conjuring up the tabloid caricature of the slobbish single mother who milks the benefits system by having lots of children. The purpose was clear: to help justify a wider attack on some of the most vulnerable working-class people in the country.

 

comments open a window into the minds of educated, middle-class hacks. They had stumbled into strange, unfamiliar territory. After all, they knew nobody who had grown up in these circumstances. It’s no surprise that they found it difficult to empathize with them.

I suspect in general a lot of national journalists, the people who will have gone up north to cover it, would have been entering an alien world,’ says senior Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire. ‘It’ll have been as alien to them as Kandahar or Timbuktu. They just wouldn’t know that Britain … Because it’s not their Britain, it’s not the bit they live in, they come from.’

This is not baseless speculation. The occasional journalist even con­fessed as much. Melanie Reid in The Times argued passionately that ‘us douce middle classes’ simply did not understand the case ‘because we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country.”

 

Kevin Maguire is one of a tiny handful of senior journalists from working-class backgrounds. You will struggle to find anyone writing or broadcasting news who grew up somewhere even remotely like the Dewsbury Moor estate. Over half of the top hundred journalists were educated at a private school, a figure that is even higher than it was two decades ago. In stark contrast, only one in fourteen children in Britain share this background!’

 

Increasingly, wannabe journalists have to pay for their own training, which usually means having at least one degree. That leaves a huge amount of debt on their shoulders when starting out in a profes­sion with notoriously low wages for junior staff. ‘The only people who can do that are those with financial support,’ he says. ‘That is, those whose parents can support them, which means the nature of those going into journalism has changed dramatically.’

 

There was once a tradition, particularly on the Labour benches, of MPs who had started off working in factories and mines. Those days are long gone. The number of politicians from those backgrounds is

I small, and shrinks with every election. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987, despite the fact that that was a Conservative-dominated Parliament. On the other hand, a startling two-thirds had a professional job or worked in business before arriving in Parliament.

 

Welfare fraud is estimated to cost the Treasury around £1 billion a year. But, as detailed investigations by chartered accountant Richard Murphy have found, £70 billion is lost through tax evasion every year—that is, seventy times more. If anything, ‘welfare evasion’ is more of a problem, with billions of pounds worth of tax credits left unclaimed every year. The cruel irony is that poor people who live in communities like Dewsbury Moor actually pay more in tax as a proportion of their wage packets than many of the rich journalists and politicians who attack them. But where is the outcry over middle-class spongers? Given the media’s distorted coverage, it’s hardly sur­prising that people significantly underestimate the cost of tax avoidance and overestimate the cost of benefit fraud.

Looking back on the episode, the future Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin later confessed: ‘The Conservatives can’t talk of class war. They started it.’

the strikes were almost completely avoidable. James Callaghan’s Labour government had imposed years of effective pay cuts on public sector workers in order to keep down inflation. But this approach was based on the myth that union pay claims caused price rises, rather than the other way round. Inflation was rampant across the Western world at the time, regardless of how strong unions were.

You didn’t get young lads going off the rails at the weekend. You wouldn’t upset an old guy because he would be the same one you’d rely on in the pit to protect your life at work, so why would you upset him at the weekend over a few pints?’

it was the relatively better-off council tenants who were becoming homeowners. Those who remained council tenants tended to be poorer and in the worst homes. By 1986, nearly two-thirds of tenants were from the bottom 30 per cent in terms of income, and only 18 per cent were from the richest half. Yet, just seven years earlier, a fifth of the richest 10 per cent were council house dwellers. Council housing became increasingly reserved for those who were most deprived and vulnerable. It was in the 1980s that council estates got their bad name as dilapidated, crime-ridden, and deeply poor: exaggerations in part—and any elements of truth were the direct result of government policies.

 

As Stephen Pound, a loyal­ist Labour MP, argues: ‘I think part of the problem is that people in the working classes have been sold the line that they shouldn’t be there, and you can somehow drag yourself up … The old socialist motto is “rise with your class, not above it”. The reality of this country is that to rise, you rise above your class.’

The resulting despair was a major cause of anti-social behaviour.

I sometimes feel—and I’m not criticizing or knocking young people, I don’t mean this as it sounds—that among the younger generations, because maybe they’ve got no prospects, there’s a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude. Things like litter, and things like that. I see them walking past here, there’s bins attached to the lamp posts, but they just throw everything over the wall. And if you say anything, you get a lot of aggression straight away.

A nearby pub that was recently closed because of drugs was a particular source of anti-social behaviour. ‘I remember after midnight Mass at Christmas, it was Christmas morning—about half past five—and I was out here, sweeping up the glass and everything before people came to Mass in the morning. Bottles, just smashed—thrown all over the wall, litter everywhere.’

When people think of single mothers, it is often teenage girls that spring to mind. But in reality, only one in fifty single mothers are under eighteen. The average age for a single parent is thirty-six, and over half had the children while married.

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