Not for the first time, I was woken up by a researcher for the Nick Ferrari show on LBC this morning.
The last time, I was in hospital and had to lock myself in a bathroom so that the 10 minute radio ding-dong that followed wouldn't be interrupted by loaded syringes or well intentioned enemas. This morning, woolly and tea-less, I waited on the line for 10 minutes while Nick gently led a caller on disability benefit to "admit" that 2 of his 5 children were born after the accident that disabled him. No ding-dongs needed there. Just a gentle and seemingly friendly set-up.
Benefit Street, the new Channel 4 documentary about a street in Birmingham where many of the residents "live on benefits" has been causing tsunamis of horror on my twitter timeline and beyond. Yesterday, I thought I'd better see for myself and watched it on catch up.
I waited for the familiar rage and frustration to surge through me, but as the show developed, I found myself fascinated.
Firstly, I ought to say that I grew up on a council estate. I've seen many complaints that those against the show are "champagne socialists" with no mandate to speak, so before we go any further, I thought I'd make it clear that I at least speak from a position of some experience.
Has anything really changed today? Are the people living on "James Turner St" in Birmingham really so
different to the neighbours I grew up with? Are we living in the middle of a benefit free-for-all, unprecendented in modern times, or is human life simply as varied and colourful as it always was?
There are 99 houses on "Benefit Street". The first episode of the series touched on the residents of perhaps 5 or 6. How many of the other residents are pensioners? Pensioners "live on benefits" but I imagine few viewers would question their receipt. Surely, in nearly 100 houses, someone is hidden away behind those closed curtains Osborne so detests, bedridden and afraid, wondering how on earth they will pay the bedroom tax? It's all selective.
The resident that caused the real outrage was a shoplifter, (Danny) in and out of jail on an almost weekly basis, unrepentant and drinking tinnies at lunchtime in the weak Birmingham sunshine. Mr Ferrari I assume, wanted me to defend him - who would? He was an utter scally with no redeeming features or mitigating circumstances. But there were other characters. "White Dee" the Mummy figure, patiently trying to steer the less fortunate through a new landscape of fear and uncertainty. "Smoggy" went door to door selling 50p "shots" of basic necessities to those unable to afford a whole box of washing powder or sugar or coffee. An impressively entrepreneurial idea showing the determination and resilience of many faced with a life lacking the advantages of, say, a government minister.
So was the road I grew up on so very different to James Turner St? I doubt it. We all knew the scally selling knock-off trainers or dodgy TVs. We all knew the "dealer" and steered well clear. We all knew about the scary guy with a boot full of weapons or the family so unable to cope with the basics of life that their home needed fumigating every few years.
But most worked. Back in the 70s and 80s social housing was there for all. I lived in a community, all human life was there, not just the pretty airbrushed bits. There were a few who didn't work who had no reason not to and they were shunned by the many who did. Lower even than the scallies. (Though not the dealer)
The sad bit about the programme was the lack of balance. I could have made an identical programme in the 80s (well, apart from the fact I was in primary school) if I'd chosen to. I could have igonred the pensioners and those with serious illnesses or disabilities. I could have ignored the single parent only plunged into tough times by the death of a partner. I could have ignored the asylum seeker working all the hours God sends to try to find a job and leave the horrors of massacre and torture far behind them.
But Channel 4 did just that. At least in the first episode - maybe the next four will do better. They chose the scally and the drug addict and the benefit cheats. However, I think the reason I didn't feel the rage many others did was that they also showed the "White Dees" and the "Smoggys".
I wonder whether some of the outrage over the programme actually belied prejudice from those who no doubt, believe they only want to defend and support those less fortunate than themselves? Weren't some of the leftie screamers as guilty of selective viewing as the right wing frothers and spitters? Wasn't it rather easy to say "Ah, you only portrayed the scum" when firstly, that wasn't true and secondly, that very attitude reinforces the idea of "scum" or a "deserving" and undeserving" poor? Would it not have been more valuable to wonder and ponder? How did the shoplifter Danny become who he was? What pushed the young couple with small children into benefit fraud in the first place? Was "Fungi" a useless waste of air or a vulnerable fool easily led by what he saw as a "glamorous" crook? Why did the shoplifter believe prison was only slightly less desirable than "home"?
By screaming in horror, did some not just play straight into the hands of bigots? Were the residents of James Turner St really any different to any poor area throughout history? Were there no professional beggars in Roman times? No thieves in Tudor times? Was Fagin just a product of Dicken's febrile imagination?
Surely the real issue is that streets like the one I grew up in are gone forever? We sold the nicest homes and herded the unfortunate or undesirable into ever smaller ghettoes of misery and failure. No role models to support and guide (which makes White Dee even more remarkable) no-one to live up to, only others as unfortunate as the next to look down upon and judge?
For me, the most revealing part of Benefit Street was watching the reactions of some viewers trying to pretend that all people are equal, living in their own near-perfect image. They're not and they never have been. Who was "helping" the shoplifter to break his destructive cycle? Who was guiding Fungi to get well other than the saintly Dee? Where was all this support promised by successive governments to break destructive cycles?
If you take a group of people with nothing - and I don't just mean materially. I mean people with no hope, little education, broken homes and no opportunities and simply take away the money they rely on to live, has our country really become so stupid thast they don't realise that some of those people will commit crimes rather than watch their children starve? Even less palatable, that some will commit crimes just for the fun and ease of it? It's happened all through history, why would today be any different?
For me, the lasting thought that echoed through my mind long after the programme finished was the impression that making people starve was no more likely to breed "moral fibre" and "bootstrap striving" than it ever was. The "help and support" we're promised - as ever - is still a million miles from James Turner Street. I expect more howls of outrage as crime soars and homelessness explodes, but none of the underlying causes will be addressed any more than they ever were. The Smoggys will claw their way to better times, just as they always have and the Dannys will rob their way in and out of jail, just as they always have.
The only difference now is that it's their turn to be front and centre in the "Freak Show" of history that well meaning lefties and bigoted righties would rather pretend never existed.