Animal rescue: but in this case it was dog that saved master, says John Dolan. Photo: Marcus Peel
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How one man escaped homelessness through drawing – and his bull terrier muse

John Dolan spent almost two decades in the “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. 

John Dolan seemed restless. He paced up and down the gallery, occasionally darting outside or disappearing downstairs without warning. At times I thought he might have settled, as he perched on a windowsill or lit another cigarette, but then he would be off again with George, his Staffordshire bull terrier, following patiently behind and me trying to keep my Dictaphone in range.

It wasn’t surprising that John was feeling on edge. He had just over a week to complete as many as 500 drawings of George before the launch of his exhibition on 16 July. The plan is that more than 1,000 sketches will cover every inch of wall at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, east London. The installation will be a fitting tribute to an animal Dolan says turned his life around. “It was all down to the dog,” he reminded me several times.

Dolan, who is now 43, spent almost two decades in what he describes as a “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. Caring for the dog gave him a new sense of purpose and a reason for staying out of jail. He started to draw, something he hadn’t done since school. The first picture he sold was of George, for £20.

With time, the pair became a familiar fixture on Shoreditch High Street. John drew street scenes and sold the pictures for £20 or so. When passers-by were abusive, George would bark at them as John had trained him to do. He showed me their secret signal: he pointed his finger and George yelped. “Then I’d say, ‘I’ve never seen the dog behave like that before. You’d better step away.’ ”

In 2011, the publishers of Shoreditch Unbound asked if they could print some of John’s work in their book, which celebrates East End cultural life. Other commissions followed, and after meeting Richard Howard-Griffin (who runs the Howard Griffin Gallery) he began collaborating with high-profile street artists including Stik, Thierry Noir and ROA. In 2013, he held his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin, where he sold some of his drawings for more than £2,000 – an impressive rate of inflation for any artist.

Predictably, a book deal ensued. Discussing his life with a ghostwriter was “like therapy”, he says. But John and George: the Dog Who Changed My Life is too sappy for me. I prefer his direct storytelling, which veers wildly from soaring self-confidence – “I thought I’m a naturally gifted artist so I might see if people wanted to buy my art . . . within a few months I was published alongside Tracey Emin” – to heartbreaking, matter-of-fact descriptions of living with mental illness and addiction.

Dolan is still adjusting to his new life. A few days before we met, he’d joined a gym. He is reducing his methadone dose, because he needs to be clean to travel to Los Angeles for his first US exhibition later this year. Although newly reunited with his family, he felt unable to spend Christmas with them. “I’ve been out of the system for so long,” he said.

Sometimes you can still see John sketching on his old patch of pavement in Shoreditch. He was trying not to sell any more drawings of George before the show, but on occasion, if he felt “sympathy” for someone, he might relent. (I suspect this happens often, because he insisted that I take one home.)

Leafing through some of his ink drawings of landscapes, I told him I wasn’t entirely convinced by his story. Surely his artistic talent – and not George – is the reason for his success?

“Nah, if it weren’t for the dog I wouldn’t have picked up the pen.” And then he was off, maybe for another cigarette, or to sketch a few hundred more Georges before bed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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