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Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.
Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.
Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933″.
Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.
In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.
In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.
Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.
O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.
Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.
By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.
O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.
Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.
What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.
Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.
• To order Harry’s Last Stand for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) and Austerity Bites for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Below the first of a number of short extracts, that I will be publishing on this blog, from ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ – now out in paperback, and available from all good bookshops and, of course, from Amazon.
What about sex? Even young children realise, if only subliminally, that they owe their very existence to the act of sex; they are born from their mother’s all-too-human body. Eeeew. Disgusting. Etc. It does not prohibit discussion of ‘the facts of life’ but it certainly throws up a barrier between mothers and daughters (and even more so between fathers and daughters).Talking recently about coming out to her mother, the actress and comedian Sue Perkins said that the really difficult thing about it was the introduction of the idea that she was actually having sex, regardless of who with. That is the mortifying, if utterly obvious, fact in play. Despite these embarrassments, it is vital to get across the simple message to our daughters that only they can decide what to do, and with whom, and that a young woman who values herself is more likely to be valued by others.
I asked four friends, all of whom are involved in ‘communications’ in some way, how they dealt with this delicate issue:
Friend number 1: I answered any questions directly put to me about sex but didn’t talk about the act itself, or its effect on me, or sexual pleasure etc., and recently, a newspaper asked me to write a piece about my first sexual experience and I turned it down specifically because of my daughter. If I hadn’t got her, I would probably have written the piece. I told her about the commission and she said she’d be fine about me doing it, but I felt inhibited. I don’t think it’s part of the parent–child relationship, to talk about intimate experiences, UNLESS they come to you and ask. In which case, I would feel duty bound and indeed willing to discuss it. Something about boundaries here, I think.
Friend number 2: Despite having what I’d describe as a very open relationship with my children they were always very guarded about their private lives. And so as my two daughters were growing up I found myself wary of saying anything; since I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment and they didn’t. There was an unspoken understanding that in a way they knew MORE than me. Also they were both always ‘sensible’, late-ish developers, so no boyfriends till twenty-odd. They also read a lot, debated things like safe sex at school, and so I felt I had permission to have a very hands-off approach. I never felt I was ducking out. Instinctively I knew if I raised the subject of sex with them they would either shrug, laugh or scream. Oddly, I feel I can be more open with my teenage son on all these matters. He’s not as embarrassed as they were.
Friend number 3: When they were little, I gave them the basic facts of life – and tried to be quite honest about it. By the time they got to the early teen years, I was passing them basic material – booklets and things – on ‘what happens to your body in puberty’ but in a slightly shifty manner. I would sometimes sit with them when certain programmes were on late at night – those entertaining but ghastly shows about sex and bodies. I found them almost shockingly frank. There was this one TV journalist called Anna who took a sex education show around schools – and she would put naked men and women, of different ages, up on a stage – and get the children to talk about it. It was great actually. My daughters and I sniggered a bit but it was very instructive and I felt a weight taken off my shoulders. Once my elder daughter got involved in a relationship, at seventeen, it was harder. More books, I’m afraid. So I ordered a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, the American bible of self-help feminism of the second wave (one of the very few available from Amazon) and said, ‘OK so I think this has important information which you need to know about.’ More laughter – but I noticed that they would flick through it and I heard them talking to each other. ‘Look at this chapter heading “What if I can’t come?” ’ and ‘Oh my god, there’s a chapter on masturbation’. And Iwould say – ‘Yes, very important theme’, and then run out the room. That was the best I could do – I mean, what parent is going to show their child how to masturbate? Or even say those few magic words, ‘Find your clitoris and make it work for you.’ I guess, if I’m honest, that’s the one message I would really like to get over.
Friend number 4: Looking back, I probably should have talked more about sex when they were younger. To tell them they have a right to sexual pleasure, a right to say no, that you’re not a slut if you sleep with a boy. They should learn how their bodies work. They should not be ashamed to ‘get to know their bodies’. I suppose one of the most important lessons is that there are different kinds of sex. And while I would say, ‘learn to masturbate’, because then you will know how to show others how to give you pleasure, it’s also OK to have sex, and not to come. Maybe you can only come fairly intermittently. The point is, there are different kinds of sex. I feel it is my duty as a parent, if I want to promote real happiness for my daughters, to be more honest about this stuff.
Below, details of some of the events I have been – or will be – taking part in over the autumn, as part of publication of ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ ( Unless otherwise stated, this will usually be the title of the session…)
Please come along – and join the discussion…
Friday 23rd August
6.30pm Greenbelt Festival
Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire
Monday 9th September
‘Finding a public voice’ Key Note Speech at Induction Day: Camden School for Girls, North London.
( above, picture taken with the Camden Sixth Form leadership group – what a team!)
Thurs 19th September
“How to be Female and Awesome.’ 4pm Blenheim Literary Festival with Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Polly Morland, author of The Society of Timid Souls -Or How to be Brave (published by Profile).
Saturday 21st September – mid afternoon – Brighton
Labour Women’s Conference. Debate with Bonnie Greer and Caroline Criado-Perez on ‘everyday sexism and how to fight it..’ A thousand strong audience here; according to Harriet Harman, who spoke later in the day, this was the largest ever political meeting of women held in this country, certainly in recent times.
( You can just about spot the One Nation logo behind my head!)
Tuesday 24th September
Discussion on BBC Woman’s Hour about the book with Erinn Dhesi.
( Erinn and I just before we went into the studio: her first time on national radio, she was amazingly calm!)
Thursday 26th September – Publication Day!
‘Meet the Author’ Interview on the themes of the book with Nick Higham on BBC News 24.
Saturday 28th September,
Noon, Wigtown Book Festival
Venue: County Buildings Wigtown, Newton Stewart Scotland DG8 9JH
Daily Telegraph review of my session. Complete nonsense to suggest any of the men were shrinking in their seats. But hey – you’ve got to add colour to a report don’t you?
Thursday 3rd October
6.30p.m. City Books Event. Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College, Dyke Road, Hove BN3 6EG
Further info: email@example.com
Also on October 3rd:
10 pm. Discussion about the themes of the book on Nightwaves, BBC 3’s arts and ideas programme. The interviewer was Anne McElvoy, who was, as in all my previous encounters with her on radio, in a ‘spatty’ frame of mind. I think she thinks of me as the archetypal progressive lefty comprehensive-education- supporting ‘muesli eating’ feminist whom she needs to challenge at all times. My aim here, as always, is to demonstrate the grace, good humour and gritty combativeness that goes with my kind of politics.(All that muesli eating helps, I reckon…..)
Link to the programme here.
Sunday October 6th
Appearance on Fiona Phillips’ BBC London programme to discuss the book and the question of role models for young women. Below, with Fiona Phillips and Briony Kimmings, actress and playwright.
Link to programme here; my interview took place over the last half hour of the programme.
Monday October 7th
Guest on The Current, CBC’s breakfast show; discussion with Jen Gerson and Roxanne Gay on the theme of whether Miley Cyrus and Rihanna are empowered or exploited…..
Tuesday 8th October
7pm Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford
48-51 Broad Street
Thursday 10th October
Evening Event at Toppings Ely
Venue: St Peter’s, Broad St Ely CB7 4BB
further info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday 11th October
Lunchtime Key note talk to: the Association of Maintained Girls Schools, London.
Saturday 12th October
12.30pm Wimbledon Book Festival, with Viv Groskup
1 Archway Mews, 241 Putney Bridge Rd, London SW15 2PE
Tuesday 15th October
7.30pm Off the Shelf Literature Festival, Sheffield
for further details: Tel 0114 273 4716/0114 273 4400
Thursday 17th October
Event with Stella Creasy MP at Royal Society of the Arts on ‘What Should We Tell OUr Daughters?’
You can listen to the podcast here.
This is a full recording including audience Q and A.
Tuesday 22nd October
Evening Event with Newham Books and Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.
Venue: Wanstead Library
Wednesday 30th October
Lady English Lecture
Melissa Benn: ‘What should we tell our daughters? Equality and feminism in the 21st century’.
St Hilda’s College
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 – 17:30
Jacqueline du Pré Music Building
You can watch the video of the lecture here.
Saturday 16th November
2.30pm Chorleywood Bookshop Festival
With The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman
More details here: http://www.cwlitfest.org/events.html
Sunday 24th November
3.30pm Folkestone Book Festival
Wednesday 27th November
Bristol Festival of Ideas, Watershed. 6.30 pm
Sunday 1st December
Cambridge Winter Wordfest with Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor. Venue and time TBC
more details: Cambridge Wordfest, 7 Downing Place, Cambridge CB2 3EL
T: 01223 515335
I shall also be doing a number of talks and debates in early 2014 – in Cardiff, the Lake District, Plymouth, East London among many places – to mark publication of the paperback of ‘Daughters.’ Details will appear on this website soon.
If you didn’t catch it the first time, you might be interested now?
School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education
The story of the struggle for Britain’s schools, and a passionate call for education as a public good.
School Wars tells the story of the struggle for Britain’s education system. Established during the 1960s and based on the progressive ideal of good schools for all, the comprehensive system has over the past decades come under sustained attack from successive governments.
From the poorest comprehensives to the most well-resourced independent schools, School Wars takes a forensic look at the inequalities of our current system, the damaging impact of spending cuts, the rise of “free schools” and the growth of the private sector in education. Melissa Benn explores, too, the dangerous example of US education reform, where privatization, punitive accountability and the rise of charter schools have intensified social, economic and ethnic divisions.
The policies of successive British governments have been muddled and confused, but one thing is clear: that the relentless application of market principles signals a fundamental shift from the ideal of quality education as a public good, to education as market-controlled commodity. Benn ends by outlining some key principles for restoring strong educational values within a fair, non-selective public education system.
And here are some of the reviews:
“In this polemic, Benn sets herself up as a one-woman commission of inquiry, analyzing the social, political, and financial case for comprehensive schooling in a climate of spending cuts and a culture of privatization.”
– The Times
“This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day … It is powerful but also reasonably argued … [and] marks her out as one of Britain’s foremost advocates of comprehensive education.”
– Anthony Seldon, Observer
“Benn’s book could well be an important watershed. It is a clear-sighted re-statement of why universal, comprehensive education is – obviously – the best option. It should, and hopefully will, be taken as a rallying call to the left.”
– Phil Beadle, Independent
“An exceptionally well-informed, cogent, and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain.”
– Stefan Collini, Nation
“If you read just one book on education this year, then make sure it’s School Wars by Melissa Benn. Brilliantly researched and compellingly written.”
– Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust
For more reviews and discussion of the themes of the book, please go to Verso’s website.
Since my younger daughter, who is just 16, started A-level politics this autumn, every evening meal has been dominated by a spirited discussion on subjects as various as responsible capitalism (do I really believe in such a foolish, contradictory thing?) to the merits, or otherwise, of an unwritten constitution.
Unsurprising, then, that yesterday morning, over breakfast, we were intently discussing the issue of lowering the voting age, following the decision to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. As Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, said on the Today programme this week, it may be an unsatisfying, rather ad hoc way to bring about such a major change, but it makes the introduction of votes to 16- and 17-year-olds throughout the UK far more likely.
Read the rest of the piece here.
To see previous pieces by Melissa Benn published in The Independent, click here.