On Benefits and Proud: The show where 'deserving taxpayers' stalk 'proud benefit claimants'

Channel Five has plumbed the depths of human decency with its latest scapegoating programme.

Sometimes, when I want to feel better about myself, I switch on the television and judge people.

The BBC and Channel Four have both really helped with this lately, like true public broadcasters should. They’ve given me We All Pay Your Benefits, in which two people known for a show based on a fight to be the grubbiest capitalist encouraged ‘taxpayers’ to stalk ‘benefit claimants’. And who could forget Benefits Britain 49, where we inflicted misery on the sick and elderly for no real reason at all.

Still, not be beaten in tastelessness, Channel Five came in last night with a late entry: On Benefits and Proud. As the title implied, this was a show in which we tracked down people who use benefits to help them live and who weren’t feeling the necessary level of shame about it.

This was obviously televisual gold. There’s just something particularly brilliant about the poor. Ideally uneducated, definitely unemployed, and (if possible) fat and/or northern. It’s so very now, isn’t it? Because people are actually unemployed and working out how to pay the bills. Knowing that added an exciting element of reality to it all as I sat on my sofa and laughed/tweeted angrily/tweeted angrily whilst laughing at what I tweeted. 

Heather Frost, an unemployed 37 year old who has eleven children, was our central target. Sorry, interesting participant. The big news was that Heather has eleven children and the soft local council were helping them not be homeless. This was something I was sure I was meant to be terribly angry about and luckily, we saw that news of the family being re-housed was greeted with public outrage. 

“If it was someone [dealing with this vilification] who suffered from depression they would have jumped off a cliff and killed themselves," Heather said to the camera, as we cut to a statistic on how much single mothers were costing the taxpayer.

Admirably, the producers quickly threw out any attempt at subtlety. Annoying, fat Londoners and Scousers were rolled out, accompanied by plodding music and puns. “Their only hard graft is working the system,” trilled the narrator. “And all those kids!" we snarled in uniform with him, as if working class children were rats.

There were repeated shots of televisions and references to satellite packages, as if this was a Channel Five exclusive. People on benefits in this country are not in fact entertaining themselves with shadow puppets. You saw it here first!

The general idea seemed to be that, despite living in houses with wiring showing, everyone involved was actually bathing in benefit slips. We were shown “just how much cash they’ve got coming in!”, like…um a single mum who receives £115 a week. “It’s time to spend!” yelled the narrator, as we watched people on sickness benefit and JSA go to pay the electricity meter.

Even the producers seemed to get bored of producing banal anti-benefit propaganda at one stage, as we spent five minutes watching Heather not feed her children vegetables.

In case the audience was similarly losing it, we were repeatedly reminded both that Heather was on benefits and had eleven children. ELEVEN. ON BENEFITS. Throughout, it was unclear what the solution to this was supposed to be. Taking away their support and letting the children go hungry, or going back in time and stopping the working class woman procreating, possibly with forced sterilisation? What was clear was that, like the others, she should feel very bad about herself and she was absolutely representative of the average benefit claimant.

This was perhaps the best/worst thing about On Benefits and Proud. Like previous programmes, from the outset it was held up as a piece of analysis that was genuinely going to help us work out once and for all the complexities of social security.

It would be more honest to call them opportunities for scapegoating and give the audience some rotten veg. After all, Heather wasn’t using it to feed her eleven kids. 

Benefits claimants, ripe for the shaming. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism