Britain has suffered its third terrorist incident in as many months. Horrendous as this might be in itself, it is likewise disturbing to watch those unaffected trying to make political capital of the attacks, or use them as distraction from issues nearer home. There is the usual extremist, they’re-wrong-and-we’re-right approach, typified by a racist blogger (he’d debate the adjective) who recently stated, “The problem is Islam” – completely disregarding the fact that, a few days previously, a white supremacist in Portland stabbed three men, killing two and injuring a third (said supremacist having been interrupted while menacing a couple of young girls). The problem is not “Islam” or “Christianity” or “immigration” or “diversity” or anything like that. The problem is people, and the fact that some people, regardless of their origins or beliefs, are shits. That’s it. Maybe they’re born shits, maybe they become shits because they think it will give them a sense of self-worth, or superiority, or respect in the eyes of others. Whatever. And if they think that skin colour or religion or politics gives them the right to cause trouble, they’ll do it. On top of that, a social and political climate that fosters opposition and hatred will encourage them, and that’s the kind of climate we’re in now. It’s very handy for some people, especially those in politics, to have an enemy “out there” from whom they can then promise to “save” us.
I left England in 2011. I don’t get back as often as I’d like, and when I do, it’s usually for fleeting visits. So my impressions of the place are cursory, to say the least. I was last there in March this year (2017) and visited two cities, Manchester and Birmingham, for just a few hours each. Not long enough to learn about anything, really, was it?
Manchester’s my home town. It’s got a rough side, which I was once familiar with – perhaps too much so. It’s also a student town, and like any student town, it’s always had a high number of beggars (students being more inclined to give, I suppose). Some of these were people who had slipped through the cracks in the mental health system, some were con artists, some alcoholics, some people who had fallen on hard times, some lost souls for whom begging provided, ironically, a sense of place in society, and a bit of much-needed human interaction. That was in the old days.
The thing I’ve noticed most over the last two or three years, though, is not just the huge increase in homelessness, but the change in the nature of it, and the kind of people finding themselves out on the street. Most are young, or youngish. They’re probably the ones hit hardest by benefit caps and austerity politics. But I have never, even here in the US, seen quite the conditions I saw in Manchester last March. It was… depressing, to say the least.
Now, OK, the weather wasn’t great, and Manchester’s not the prettiest of places when it rains. But as I worked my way past the lines of people begging – many sat on cardboard or on wooden pallets to avoid the chill of sitting on the ground – it was clear they weren’t simply trying to scrounge up a few quid, or get through a bad patch in their lives. Nor were they the traditional “tramps” that, say, Orwell encountered.
For a start, these guys were on it for the long haul. I see this in Chicago – people who’ve realised they’re in trouble and spent their last few bucks on a big coat and a rucksack, hoping to survive outside. In Britain, it seems to have gone beyond that. In the doorways of closed-down shops, in out-of-the-way corners of the city, you’ll find little stacks of blankets – and luggage. Not just rucksacks or plastic bags, but suitcases – sometimes even a set of them, as people who no longer have homes desperately try to cling to the possessions they still own. I think that was one of the saddest, most heartbreaking aspects of the whole experience.
(Let’s get something straight. When you’re poor, possessions are important. It’s not a case of being materialistic. You know how hard it’s been to come by what you have, and you’ll probably never, ever be able to afford any of it again. So you hang onto it, as long as you can.)
There are tents by the river. Again, that’s new. These are people learning to survive in a bleak, new world, in which homelessness is something which is likely to happen to you, and for which you need to be prepared, the same as illness or joblessness. And all of this has happened since I left.
Now, I’m from Manchester. I’m cynical. I’m not a person who feels compelled to give to beggars, and I’ve no patience with anyone trying to con money out of me by pretending they’re sleeping rough. But these people needed it, I’m damn sure, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt I had to give.
Depressing, like I say.
Things perked up a bit in Affleck’s Palace, with its countless little shops, and the indie entrepreneurial spirit the city’s known for; likewise, meeting an old friend for lunch, a musician and promoter, brought a little life to the occasion. But I couldn’t help remembering my father’s boast while I was growing up: “No-one goes hungry in this country.” Still true? I doubt it.
I love Manchester. I love Manchester, and I hate whatever led to the recent bomb atrocity there, and the mind-set that it takes to do such things. But there’s also a creeping decay in the place, an erosion of what were once seen as essential British values. Friends tell me you can see this elsewhere, in every major city. Why? Well, as the old saying has it, a fish rots from the head down. Unfortunately, it’s the people at the tail who have to bear the stink.
And moving on…
I don’t know Birmingham. I spent a drunken night there years ago, but otherwise it’s been a place for changing trains or buses en route further south. It seems now I should probably have stuck around.
Again, I was meeting an old friend, and the occasion proved surprisingly pleasant. Now, Birmingham is interesting in the light of current political debates. It has a mixed ethnic population, many non-whites, and a high percentage of Muslims (you know – those people who are all supposed to be terrorists). This is the place Fox News pundit Steven Emerson described as a “totally Muslim” city that “non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” which of course is plainly idiotic. There are certainly lots of Muslims. We even spent an hour in a very nice Syrian cafe, opposite the cathedral. And everyone we met, Muslim or otherwise, was courteous, polite and helpful. It was a real pleasure to visit.
No doubt Birmingham has its share of idiots, like anywhere else. But we didn’t meet them. Do you think we just got lucky?
“Che Ti Dice La Patria?” is a story by Ernest Hemingway, recounting a brief visit to Mussolini’s Italy. After a number of unpleasant encounters, the narrator concludes, “[n]aturally, in such a short trip, we had no opportunity to see how things were with the country or the people.”
My case exactly.