Once upon a time I spent many hours and days on board Indian trains. Rail journeys on the Subcontinent were a far cry from anything here in the
Getting from one mega city to another generally involves 30 hours of heat and
dust and not much in the way of personal space. Most of it was brilliant;
endless conversations about cricket, shared food, the unique magical feel of a
station in the depths of a baking hot night where hundreds sleep out on the
platform and the only sound was the haunting cry of the Chai seller. UK
There was however one real stand out horror – the deformed beggars. Almost every station would bring on board versions of the Elephant Man. Men and women, boys and girls, all vying with each other for the most gut wrenching deformity. The worse the mutation, the more successful the begging. This horrific freak show had nothing to do with accidents of birth. If only it had. Instead these desperate souls had been deliberately broken and twisted by their own family members within days of their birth. In their first few days on earth, the family determined what their bread winning role would be. They would live out a life of hopping on board trains with evocative names like the ‘Frontier Mail’ or the ‘Pink City Express’ to ply their hellish trade. Look at me. If you can. If you dare. And reflect my deformity with generosity.
It’s a hell of a way to feed the family.
How does this nightmare plug into the miserable story of Mick Philpot? I guess it just goes to show that there are always those among us who look to cash in on misery.
When I was on the road south to Anfield on Sunday morning, I listened to several podcasts which picked over the bones of the Philpot affair and the reaction of public and politicians alike to its dismal horror. On the Spectator’s ‘View from 22’, Owen Jones took a right wing adversary to the cleaners in every aspect of the debate. He conclusively won the argument by revealing that of the 1.3 million families in receipt of benefits, only 110 or so had more than 10 kids.
Philpot of course is the absolute exception, not any kind of rule.
A Shipman. A Suttcliffe. A random nightmare.
A rather more chilling point was made by Tom Clark on the Guardian’s ‘Politics Weekly’. Tom was more interested in examining the extraordinary headlines which blazed out of several of the tabloids in the wake of Philpot’s life sentence. He wondered if millions of benefits claimants were being demonised as a result of the behaviour of a single, appalling individual. Were the tabloids eagerly jumping on the case as an excuse to turn the majority against an increasingly loathed minority? And then he made my blood run cold when he compared this red top rabble rousing to Kristalnacht.
So what happened back then? It was November 1938 and Nazis had been cranking up public loathing of the Jews for many years. They needed something to take their hatred to the next level. That something came along when an exiled German Jew living in
called Herschel Grynszpan assassinated a Nazi diplomat called Ernst Vom Rath.
Grynszpan acted completely alone, but many millions paid a heavy price for his
action. Goebbels grabbed the moment and sent the media into overdrive. On the
night of 9th November 1938, millions of Nazi supporters took to the
streets and exacted their revenge for the killing of Vom Rath. 91 Jews were
murdered. 30,000 were arrested and shipped out to Paris Dachau
and Belsen and Buchenwald. 1000 synagogues
were burnt to the ground. 7000 Jewish businesses were smashed up. On the
morning of November 10th, awoke to pavements glittering
with the broken glass of Jewish shop windows. Germany
The actions of one man were taken on by an angry media and twisted to create a seething hatred among the majority towards an already despised minority.
So yes, Tom. It has the ring of familiarity.
So does this simply prove that George Osborne is a gobshite of the first order for linking the abhorrent Mick Philpot to the welfare system?
I would say yes and no. I don’t have much faith in Osborne’s motives, but sadly there is a point to be had in his sentiments.
At First Base we have been witness to vile nastiness rooted in the welfare system for many years. Of course it doesn’t begin to compare with what Philpot did, but there are similarities. I heard one Osborne apologist make the point that the basic motive for Philpot accidentally burning his kids to death was that he had hatched a half baked scheme to get more of his kids back under his roof which would have thereby re-united him with their benefit dividend.
£1000 a month, most of which he seemingly had earmarked to spend on drink and drugs.
This motive for evil is all too familiar. We see it every day. Here’s how it plays out in the shadowy corners of our sad and fading country. In many ways the benefit system works a little like the begging pecking order on the Indian trains. The bigger the list of problems a person has, then the more cash we give them by way of compensation. And that of course is exactly as it should be. A person who is seriously ill or disabled needs the biggest safety net. It’s a no brainer.
But there are all too many dismal grey areas.
Take the young guy with low level mental health problems. Something has gone badly wrong with his upbringing and he has lived out his childhood in the care system. Learning difficulties mean that he has never learnt to read and write. He was the one who everyone took the piss out of at school. He was the one who was always the butt of the bullies. The one with the wrong clothes. The one who never made any friends. The one in care. The one who was always alone in the playground. At 18 he was declared to be an adult and therefore deemed OK to look after things on his own. So we duly gave him a flat and about £300 every fortnight.
What does his life look like now? Achingly lonely. Empty. The modern world is a place he can’t even begin to manage. Work is out of the question for he lacks the skills to work. Can’t read. Can’t write. Can’t count. Can’t switch on a computer. Can barely hold a conversation without getting tongue tied.
He’s the bloke who is always on his own, who looks like he has forgotten to wash himself. We look away when we pass him on the pavement. Once upon a time he would have got a job sweeping up in a factory and maybe, just maybe, the workforce would have adopted him and invited him along to things. The pub of a Friday night. Trips to
Football on a Saturday.
But we don’t have factories anymore.
However, the fact that £300 a fortnight magics its way into his account makes him of great interest to a certain Philpottish breed of predators. The pondlife. The amoral. The low life, low level addicts who have learnt the art of feeding their habits by befriending and shaking down the very most vulnerable. The pondlife know exactly when the £300 will drop into the account of their prey. They appear out of thin air, all smiles and bonhomie and promises of a laddish day to remember. Come on mate. Let’s party. I’m you best pal. And the aching loneliness can be left behind for a few hours as the pondlife ply him with a bottle of Frosty Jacks and a handful of blue valium pills. Once they get him completely off his face, they get a hold of his debit card and empty his account.
A day or two later he winds up walking through our door with a letter from support worker explaining he has no money for the next twelve days until his money is due again. Can we feed him please? Keep his body and soul together? Course we can. And we try to sit him down and suggest ways he can keep his money safe from his once a fortnight best mates. But it hardly ever works because the loneliness is just too all consuming.
The Welfare State does what it does with the very best of intentions and most of the time it works as Beveridge wrote on the tin all those years ago. But not all the time. Some of the time it creates a market out of misery. It puts a high monetary value on deprivation and vulnerability and inadequacy. And when you put money on any table, there will always be a Philpot sniffing around and licking their lips.
So George, you are actually more right that you probably realise. The truth of what you said is found in the grime filled cracks at the very bottom of our world. You won’t get a glimpse of the petty day to day nastiness to be found in these cracks from you lofty perch in the House of Commons. To get the chance to take a look, you probably need to spend a day or two in a place in First Base. But I don’t think that is really what you want to do, is it George? No. Of course not. Sadly I feel that Tom Clark has it pretty well correct. Your words are more Goebbels and Kristalnacht that any kind of genuine concern.
You really should be ashamed of that. I don’t suppose you will be.