I love Manchester. I have lived abroad several times in my run up to settling down, but my heart always ached for the city street, always slightly damp from almost end to end rain. The city centre has an attraction all of it’s own, with the cherry-tree lined Victorian Piccadilly Gardens, the former site of a psychiatric hospital, now concreted over, an office block added and a modernesque fountain, still home to those who are for one reason or another, unemployed.
The Victorian garden was, by day, a gathering place for tracky-bottom clad grubbiness clutching a bottle of alcohol in a brown paper bag. With zero tolerance for homeless people and alcohol came the Big Issue, various homeless charities whose remit is to house each person sleeping rough in the city centre, and a big Disneyesque water feature. Now, those same homeless by choice people sit on the side of the fountain, cans in pocket, watching the Manchester rainbow, the tiny space where the rain ends and the fountain begins. The city centre is a place where you can truly see the underclass going about their business (or more likely not) in the daytime as workers gaze at them from their double-glazed ivory towers.
TV shows like Shameless have iconised the Frank Gallagher’s of this world, the alcohol swilling, drug taking, contraceptive shunning ‘off ‘is ‘head’ hero of the unemployed, and normalised this into a cultural norm. The sick-note alcoholics who philosophise from their armchair whilst watching Jeremy Kyle. These are the ‘they’ve taken all our jobs’ brigade, the people who are not in work and somewhere in their soul feel a tiny spark of remorse that other people have lives, blaming anyone they can for going to the Job Centre and taking the cleaning job no one who drinks six cans of Stella and two pills a night can get up for.
You may be thinking by now that you are reading the wrong blog, that some middle-class, right wing hijacker is guest blogging. In fact, this particular blog was triggered by the news this week that the Audit Commission has noted that social consequences of the recession are not recognised early enough by local councils. These consequences are mainly but net exclusively alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence.
Not wanting to thrust theory down the throats of those looking for facts, the practical day to day evidence is there to see in any city centre. In Manchester, the day starts with a fight to reach the office through hoards of petty criminals. On the bus, a man gets on and asked each passenger for a pound coin, telling us that he is locked out of his home and his son needs to get to school. It’s mostly elderly people, frightened by his slightly menacing gaze and ‘cut me here’ tattoo on his frontal lobe, who oblige. He alights and gets on the next bus, and we watch his routine through the drizzle.
On the street, I am approached by a man who smells of whisky and he tells me his car has broken down and he needs to get to the hospital to see his terminally ill son. I refuse and he asks if he can borrow my Blackberry to phone him. He asked me the same set of questions yesterday and the day before. I hurry off towards the fountain and see several Stella drinkers making a start on their six pack. The berate me for having a job as I pass them in my suit and the last one vomits, a little bit hitting my shoe. I am accosted by a young man who I have seen sitting by the cash machine every day for at least two years, and told he needs money to get home to see his mother.
As the day gets started, a hoard of women with prams join the Stella drinkers by the fountain, their toddlers running through the fountain while they chain-smoke the morning away, a surreal sort of coffee morning. By lunchtime they are meandering to the chippy, the children’s shivering bodies moving through the raindrops, leaving no footprints on the wet pavements. The afternoon shift begins with the obligatory drug dealing gang taking charge of the fountain entrance, just behind the police cabin. By evening, they are gone. The Bridgewater Hall and Deansgate provide an evening venue for those who insist on staying on the wet streets and begging.
Seems harsh, doesn’t it, to criticise these poor, homeless people and those poor people who don’t know any better?The problem with this is that there is already adequate agency cover for homelessness in Manchester. Outreach workers are keen to get homeless people into hostels and off the murky streets. There is a place for everyone through the Big Issue education programme, where eventually these people who have lost their place in society through divorce, family problems, redundancy, in fact, social consequences of recession will get a flat and an IT course and the correct benefits whilst being assisted to find a job. Or just social consequences. There are jobs and nursery places for the chain-smoking mum and and their children respectively.
Or, from a more understanding point of view, maybe this is how they want to live and in this age of equality, should we not respect people for their choices, however different they are from our own? Do we (people with jobs, education and a social conscience) really know what is best for people who choose to live a life of substance abuse in the Manchester drizzle. Is it our moral duty to ‘save’ the ‘underclass’ from the social consequences of anything?
Morally, this issues are around crime. Anything that is morally right is something that does not hurt another person. So obtaining money by extortion, dealing drugs and letting your children run around barefoot in the Manchester rain are all, to some degree or another, affecting another person negatively. Poverty and substance abuse lead to addiction and addiction leads to crime, both from the the point of view of how money is obtained to feed the addiction and how the substance is obtained.
Socially, it is a matter of choice. Live and let live. It’s OK to be Frank Gallagher – it’s cooler to be Paddy Macguire. But what about their children, third generation unemployed, SATS indicating NVQ2 will be their highest achievement, if they keep going to school and don’t spend their time by the fountain or the cash machine? Who will turn their lives around? Will they skip school and sit watching back to back episodes of Shamless and Jeremy Kyle, feeling a sense of community as their parents lie upstairs recovering from their weeknight hangover?
As I wipe the vomit from my shoe I just don’t know the answer. The gap between those making social theory and policy and those living the Shameless dream is wider than ever, crime and domestic violence rates soaring and alcohol costing 30p per unit in some supermarkets. But Manchester is still beautiful. It sits on a timeline that, despite appearances, never hardly changes. The old psychiatric site, where those whose behaviour did not conform with the narrow values of Victorian society were hidden, is now the natural home to those who are the moral and social outcasts of society. Rather than being locked away inside a building, they are locked away behind a culture that is endorsed by the media and ignored by society. Those faceless people with no home or no life, just an empty existence matched by an empty stare into the Manchester rain.