Going underground

Questionable pop ballads and Deptford's very own subterranean feel

'A song from the darkest hour': Brown's party playlist

All poets want to be rock stars, and all rock stars want to be poets. Which is fine. There will always be a place in the world for ageing poets in leather jackets, and no-one would begrudge a rock star a few too many bad metaphors. It’s more perilous by far, however, when it’s not poets but politicians who decide they need more of the guitar hero about them. They should be wary of such urges, as Gordon Brown’s choice of walk-on music for his speech on Wednesday shows.

The Prime Minister’s arrival onstage was heralded by Manchester folk-rockers James’ ‘Sit Down’ – which begins by announcing itself as ‘a song from the darkest hour’. It continues as bleakly: ‘Its hard to carry on when you feel all alone, / Now I’ve swung back down again, its worse than it was before’ – an odd choice for his make-or-break ‘Obama moment’.

James frontman Tim Booth links the lyrics to Brown in a way that the Prime Minister might not have intended. ‘The song was written as an expression and call for unity in a lonely and frightening world. Personally the lyrics were written during a 4am bout of insomnia when the world looked bleak,’ he told us. ‘Here, it's being used by a desperate politician trying to hang on.’
Booth isn’t keen for the song to be a regular on the conference playlist. ‘If the Labour party use it more than once we might have something to say about it,’ he warns.

Labour are no strangers to misguided musical choices. At the 1995 Labour Conference, Tony Blair bounded onstage to ‘If the Kids Are United’ by 70s punks Sham 69, in defiance (very punk) of the fact that the current Labour front bench were neither kids nor, at that point, particularly united. It could have been worse, however – other Sham 69 possibilities include songs about breaking out of jail, getting drunk, and throwing up in toilets. Two years later, Dream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ voiced the optimism of the 1997 conference. It didn’t seem quite as optimistic, however, when it was still being played in 2004.

Not that the Tories can feel superior. Boris Johnson's campaign to become Mayor took place to the apocalyptic sounds of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. With lyrics like ‘We ain't got no swing / 'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing,’ quite why that ever seemed like a good idea remains unclear.

Knife crime and talking dogs

The winner of this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize was announced on Wednesday. The award goes to Patrick Ness' novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which combines talking dogs and mysterious pools of silence with the topical concerns the title implies. Todd, the novel’s protagonist, has to decide whether he can kill people with his knife, a ‘big ratchety one with the bone handle and the serrated edge that cuts practically everything in the world’.

‘I really wanted to show what it is like having a knife in your hand’, Ness said. ‘It's power. Power has terrifying consequences even if you think it's quote unquote “just”. Once used it changes you, and in ways you may not want and can't change back.’ Two weeks after Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about knife crime (and a murdered goldfish) was removed from the curriculum, it’s nice to see that not everyone thinks we should be covering teenagers’ ears to keep the world out.

From tavern brawls to grass roots art

Marlowe was stabbed there and Francis Drake was knighted there, but since the Renaissance, Deptford’s kept a bit of a low profile. This is changing, however – a new influx of cafes, galleries and studios are transforming the area into a hotspot for up-and-coming artists. Now the area's Deptford X, holding its tenth annual arts festival. Subtitled Ghost Trade and the Spectre of Change, the festival will include installations, film screenings and Cy Twombly-esque asemic carvings on the windows of the train station. “There’s a real buzz down here, but it’s not just an overspill of trendy east London,” says curator Julia Alvarez, who graduated from the nearby Goldsmith’s College. “Deptford’s got its own flavour, there’s an underground feel.”

Getty
Show Hide image

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.