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How is Britain coping with the recession?- Middlesborough

Smoggies steel themselves

''When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty . . ." Geoff Waterfield is getting emotional. “I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays, and bring up their families. That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline . . . that blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside. ICI were massive around here and they fell to pieces. When the hard times come, people just pull out. But you can't just pull out of the steel industry."

Waterfield is a typical Corus employee - 22 years in the job, born and raised around the corner from the Redcar plant, with a father, grandfather and uncle who have all worked in the steel industry. He is also the chairman of Middlesbrough's Save Our Steel campaign, and the union boss for the Indian-owned conglomerate in the area. Thanks to what the Corus chief Kirby Adams has described as a "global and over-supplied steel market", the threat of hundreds of redundancies has loomed over Teesside all year, the latest stay of execution being a 60-day extension until the end of October.

“For the moment, we're still in the game," says Waterfield.

Steel is certainly more global and more competitive than it used to be: the lifts in Middlesbrough's city-centre shopping mall are engraved with thetelling words "Thyssen Krupp" - the German steel giant. "There are definitely signs of recovery in the industry," Waterfield says, "but the glory days of the north-east when the shipping industry, the mining industry and the steel industry guaranteed jobs for life are gone."

With 3,000 Corus employees on Teesside, Save Our Steel estimates there are 10,000 people in total directly affected by the plant's potential closure. Waterfield wants direct government intervention in response to this latter-day manufacturing crisis. "This is a Labour heartland, and if they don't act they're going to lose voters for a whole generation. People in the steel industry have memories like elephants. There's nothing we have left that's sustainable; we need a 20- or 30-year plan to rebuild the manufacturing industry in this country, because otherwise what are we going to do?"

What indeed? The big buzz in Middlesbrough on a Saturday morning in late summer is around a water-sports festival called Take to the Tees, part of an optimistic push towards a post-industrial economy. The Transporter Bridge is now used chiefly for bungee jumping and abseiling because there is not enough heavy industry left to support its original raison d'être. "Historical tours and presentations are also available", concedes a sign sadly.

On the way to Middlesbrough FC's Riverside Stadium, we pass the colossal Middlesbrough College, a £70m silver half-moon of a building, gleaming in the afternoon sunshine and freckled with random yellow bricks - part of the £2bn Tees Valley Regeneration project. Next to the stadium sits a Costa Container Line ship bathing idly in rust, beside construction hoardings promising "on-water activities" and a "state-of-the-art marina". From international shipping to pedalos and yachts? It is an unlikely but creative stab at adaptation. Outside the stadium entrance a local band named the Princes of Monte Carlo play rock classics to a bemused but happy pre-match crowd.

Football has an especially intense relationship with civic morale and identity in the north-east (Boro's nickname is "the Smoggies"), as well as huge implications for the local economy, so last season's relegation from the Premiership could not have been worse timed. But the club have started the season well, and are hoping for an immediate return to the top flight. "If Boro's recent form doesn't cheer people up . . ." the BBC Radio Tees presenter had said that morning, before tailing off, disinclined to finish the thought.

Jill Calvert, a Middlesbrough steward, does not seem to need cheering up. She is as ebullient as her neon jacket: "People say there's no jobs round here, but I've got four!" The problem, she says, is that "immoral" people do not want the low-paid part-time jobs available. She cites a conversation with a shopowner in a less salubrious part of town: "He told me he only ever sells three things to them: tinfoil for the drugs, cans of Carling Black Label and Pot Noodles."

Later, we take a meandering night drive to the Corus plant, and the blast furnace really is beautiful: uplit in yellow, balanced on Teesside's coastal fringe amid gypsy horses and brownfield sites, far removed from the everytown global brands and disloyal lifts of Middlesbrough city centre. Against the black expanse of the North Sea sky, blueish flames leap from chimneys and steam gushes from cooling towers, haunting the city with what feels like a bygone vision of the future: the celebrated opening scene of Blade Runner was conceived by Ridley Scott in Middlesbrough when he was growing up, in the city's postwar heyday.

After Corus, we weave through bizarre Disney­esque regeneration projects - all pastel colours, soft edges and bullet-pointed promises - and steer past the tucked shirts and short skirts of the high street to St Hilda's, the oldest and most maligned part of Middlesbrough. This is literally the wrong side of the tracks: the railway is the dividing line and "over the border", as local people describe the area, is eerily quiet, with half-demolished social housing standing isolated on large patches of brown-green scrub, waiting to be put out of its misery. The amputated block that was once Richmond Street has only numbers 13-23 remaining and, of these, just three houses are still occupied. The rest are boarded up with cheap aluminium.

Somewhere near the border, a sign bearing the phrase "a bright future for Middlesbrough" is just about visible under the dim street lights.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood