The fight against entropy

It all begins with a hard line against Eucryl Tooth Powder.

I suppose it all started when I learned about the Second Law of Thermodynamics at school. There you are, bumbling along in your safe little world, blandly assured that things will go on getting better, that everything will become more prosperous and ordered, and then – wham! – you see that simple little equation, Δ > 0, absorb the implications of the fact that heat cannot pass from a colder to a warmer body, and not only do you understand that eventually the universe will die in a uniform chill of something not much cosier than absolute zero, or something roughly around -700°C, but you also understand how hard it is to keep your room tidy.
 
Since then, I have fought only the most desperate rearguard actions against entropy. “You can’t fart against thunder,” as my Great-Uncle Cecil used to say, when faced with a superior hand at poker – and things don’t come much more thunderous than the heat-death of the universe.
 
Women, though, in my experience, do not see it this way. And in case you think that’s sexist, I should add that most men don’t see it my way, either. Men, though, are more slobby; there are women who are messier than me but they are so spectacularly messy that they get featured on television. The key words here are “in my experience”, and last week, after a few months of Putting Up With Things, the Beloved decided to take a rare day off work, roll her sleeves up and get cracking against the entropy. So that I can help her with this, instead of just lying in bed deeply sensing the futility of all human endeavour to a slightly more intense pitch than I did yesterday, she invents a game called “Keep or Chuck?”, complete with theme tune. The game – and it really is quite clever of her to realise that to get me to help, a game must be made of it; no one else has worked that out before – is played to a strict time limit of ten minutes at a stretch, and the object is to make as many decisions about what to keep or chuck within that time. No overt reward is given for chucking as opposed to keeping something but a little something in the games master’s demeanour suggests that chucking manky redundant things will be rewarded later and keeping manky redundant things will not be so much.
 
So: title music, please. And, bearing in mind I have been living in the Hovel for only six years . . . bathroom cabinet first. Nyrelex for Chesty Coughs (expiry date, 1998): chuck. Night Nurse (now virtually crystallised, best before 1997): chuck. Peppermint foot lotion “of the most extraordinary consistency”: chuck. Brush-on facial hair remover: chuck. Haemorrhoid cream (b b 2004): chuck. Clarins Honey-Tinted Moisturiser (no best before date, but only the letters “ARIN” of “Clarins” remain visible): chuck. Rinstead sugar-free pastilles (b b 2005): chuck. “Soothing and cooling” moist haemorrhoid tissues (b b 2004): chuck. (I begin to sense a pattern here and feel a pang of pity for whoever lived here before me.) Eucryl Tooth Powder – or, as the Beloved calls it, “Eucryl Tooth Powder???? What the fuck’s that???” – keep: I bought it myself. I then have to explain it. Explaining Eucryl Tooth Powder to pretty much anyone under 50 is harder than you might think. Mitchum roll-on deodorant (“so strong you can even skip a day”): keep – the name and slogan are hilarious. No, on second thoughts, chuck. It pre-dates me. (Later inspection shows that it has actually been kept.) Ibis Mosquito Re-Impregnation Kit (no date): keep. Unless climate change gallops along even faster than in the most pessimistic scientist’s nightmares, I won’t be needing this in the Hovel, but how cool is a re-impregnation kit? Even cooler than an impregnation kit, surely.
 
And so on. In the ten minutes allotted to “Keep or Chuck?”, the Beloved has managed to show me an enormous array of redundant products which, despite having been kept in a cabinet for years, have not so much accrued a layer of dust as actually grown beards; and I wonder, not for the first time, what kink it is in my psyche that prevents me, or people like me, from performing this perfectly simple and reasonable act. It is possible that the childhood loss of a loved family member made me reluctant to throw things away, that it’s a reaction against rejection, death being the greatest rejection of all; but then again I know people with similar events in their backgrounds and they’re not untidy at all. Search me. Or not. You don’t know what you’ll find.
Sorting through entropy is notoriously difficult. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.