You’ll Never Live Like Common People

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010, and I can tell you - poverty is another country. You have either lived there or you have not.

I get extremely annoyed at governments pontificating on how poor people can help themselves. “Tough Love” involves two concepts; moving from a place of understanding and compassion while setting realistic boundaries. It does not come from a cold hard place of judgement and superiority. Politicians appear to get off on “tough”, while ignoring the “love” aspect. Practically every sentence uttered on the subject betrays a total lack of understanding, based as it is on the assumption that all one needs to escape the poverty trap is a get-up-and-go attitude.

Contrast measures such as the 45p top rate of tax with the demise of tax credits, the capping of benefits with the refusal to cap grotesque bonuses, the imposition of a bedroom tax with the refusal to consider a mansion tax, and a pattern of medieval disconnect between the ruling class and the reality of peoples’ lives emerges.

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010. Through a combination of circumstances – a landlord not returning a deposit, a spell of illness, a bad break-up, a change of job – I ended up destitute. I couldn’t claim benefits, as I was working. I was turned down for help with housing as I lacked a “sufficient local connection”. I slept in a smelly sleeping bag in a rat-infested cupboard of the office in which I worked.

I had always espoused socialist sensibilities. I had always been sympathetic to those less fortunate than me. But the basic economic concept of Scarcity was academic construct rather than unforgiving reality. The fact is that I had never truly understood poverty until that January day. I thought it was having little in the fridge or raiding the jar for coppers at the end of the month or not being able to afford basic things for your home. Then I experienced having no fridge, no jar, no home, nothing.

The overwhelming shame and self-recrimination that went with my feelings of failure, meant that most of my friends were unaware of my situation. The few to whom I did reveal it, would invite me round to see me, but really to feed me. I would appear at their door without a bottle of wine; their birthday parties with no card. Soon we settled into a silently negotiated truce of avoiding each other.

Being poor is very expensive; it sucks you underwater and holds you there. Working in central London means you have the non-choice of crippling travel costs or overpriced bedsits. Small local shops are more expensive than big drive-to supermarkets. Electricity and gas meters are dearer than direct debits. Payday loans attract interest a hundred times higher than personal bank loans. Six bad pairs of shoes that fall apart after a month cost twice as much as one good pair that will last for years.

During my homelessness, I showered at the public facilities in King’s Cross station at £3.50 (later rising to £5) a pop. I saved 20p coins all week and took my clothes to an expensive launderette on a Sunday. I estimate I spent around £2,000 on such basic hygiene during that time; much more than I needed for a deposit and first month’s rent. But I had no choice. I couldn’t afford for work to catch on. I woke up at six every morning, went out through a side alley, showered, shaved, dressed and came back pretending to “open up” for people waiting outside the building. Dissembling was my full time job; being ashamed my hobby.

I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.

Whenever the “poshboy” or “cabinet of millionaires” charge is levelled at the government, voices rise in defence; even intelligent voices: this is unfair, it’s class war, ad hominem, their background does not invalidate their views. They miss a fundamental point. An individual view on solutions to any particular problem is not invalidated by the bearer’s background. However, lack of understanding of the problem can render it ill-informed. It is not a war on accountants to say that they are not the best placed group to make medical decisions. If homogeneity of background means that a group collectively lacks experience in a particular matter, then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is not the right caucus for solving the problem.

Talking of a difficult period in her life, a friend recently said: “Things wear out and you can’t afford to replace them. You wear out and there is nothing to replace.” Poverty is another country. It exists like an alternate reality in parallel with the rest of society. With time, humility and openness, empathy may develop. But let us not kid ourselves – an MP can visit poor estates from a position of comfortable plenty; all the visits in the world cannot replicate the experience of living in such hopelessness. He is merely a rich tourist on a depressing safari in a queer land.

The poor are no longer content to die romantically of tuberculosis, while the kindly rich visit to offer broth and advice on thrift. Their lives cannot continue to be reduced to Jane Austen novelettes. If the government is serious about solving the problem, they must be listened to and understood.

A still from Pulp's "Common People" video.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser