Oh wait, no, I meant this:
*Edit: for the purposes of this post, I’m going by what is portrayed by the media as an underclass, and not getting into the sociological ins-and-outs of it, since the former has more resonance with the public than the latter.
The above links to another sneering, dehumanising tale from the Daily Mail about a woman who has had her fourteen children taken away from her by social services. She is a, “baby making machine”, with her life being, “rich material for a satire about the tragedy of the British underclass”.
It’s quite likely that she is, in fact, an unfit mother. But she’s also a human being, not that you’d guess from reading that article, which also discusses how some of her children died like it’s just a little thing. It’s deliberately one-sided, portraying her as an almost emotionless leech. It’s skirted over that she has learning difficulties. Don’t want to get in the way of a good story, eh?
The Daily Mail like to bang on about, “the underclass” a lot. They are this century’s British, “life unworthy of life” A quick glance over the spiteful comments from the Not so Great British Public confirm that at least a section of society wish “the underclass” could be sterilised, and, “she claims for hip and back problems yet can have fourteen kids!” Yeah, she’s had FOURTEEN KIDS. Why do you think she has hip and back problems?
You’ve seen the underclass. They wear tracksuits. They live in council houses. They have kids. They claim benefit. They are scroungers, and at the bottom of society. More liberal types like to think that this dismissive, scornful derision poured upon, “the underclass” is limited to hateful rags like the Daily Mail. It isn’t. Everybody who isn’t part of it views the people who supposedly are as beneath, be it with pity or with hatred. The Daily Mail like to castigate them, the Guardian like to gather a few people in an interior-designed room to decide what’s best for them. They are a mass, a writhing sea of featureless faces, all older than their time, in the black pits of economic deprivation. They all have the same story, they all have the same future. Born, beaten, breeding, dead. They are-en masse- stupid, ill, baby machines, useless and everywhere. There to make the rest of society pat themselves on the back for how undeviant and worthwhile they are. Middle class housewives who stay at home while their husbands earn are heroes, working class mothers who stay at home and claim benefits are scum. You are hard working therefore worthy of life! Make them pick up dirt in the street! Reinforce that social model! DO IT!
When I read stories of people living in council houses smoking and claiming benefits I’m actively jealous because they have something I have never had and desired for most of my life; a stable home. I’m on the council housing list and know I’m going to stay there for the next decade. I can honestly see the appeal of having a baby and getting a council house because having a home is an absurd privilege, when it should be a right.
Tales of, “the underclass” enrage me. Because I am the underclass.
Time and time again, I’ve been proffered the courtesy, “but”. It goes like this:
“I hate benefit scroungers”.
“Yeah, I’m on benefits, mate”.
“Oh, but you’re different. Your problems are genuine. You deserve your benefits”.
Why? Why do I deserve the small amount of to live on that benefits are? Doesn’t everybody deserve that? Doesn’t everybody in the fucking world deserve to have enough money with which to buy food and clothing? Why are my problems more real than Theresa’s up there? Because I budget my benefits so that I can afford an internet connection? Because I articulate them? Is it because I have an education?
Except I don’t. Consider me as the subject of that article-
“Seaneen left school with seven GCSEs…”
And if we want to go even further,
Seaneen was born on a rough council estate in Republican West Belfast, the third of five children. She had a traumatic childhood lived in poverty. Her mother suffered from mental illness and physical ill-health that meant she claimed benefits. Her father worked as a low-paid laboratory technician before being forced into early retirement by his alcoholism. He died at the age of forty seven from alcoholic liver failure.
Do you see what I’m getting at? On paper I’m not out of place. My mum will be on benefits forever. My dad was an Irish alcoholic, the same kind despised and lampooned via the mainstream media. He was not a middle-class whiskey drinker. He was the man you’d pass on the street drinking White Lightning. Social services had to step in a few times and tell my mum to send us to school. Our house in Ardkeen was in the local paper when we moved out because the squalor was so bad. There were loads of photos of women pointing at bits of filth on the wall. I am not one of those crazy kids who lives in London on benefits while their rich parents sneak a few hundred into their bank accounts every month. If I fall, I have no safety net other than my social worker being able to step in and help me.
It cuts two ways, because people think they’re doing me a favour by, “but”ting me. That I’m not one of those nasty little poor people. I dress nicely (in my second hand clothes), I dye my hair funny colours, I know people who are in bands and shit. Newsflash: I AM. Every bit as much as Theresa up there. As are a lot of the wonderful people I know who live on benefits and have done, and will probably always do, because they are too unwell to work.
I have been, at various times in my life, the crazy person who smells that you’d cross the street to avoid. I am a mentally ill (oh, but I have bipolar disorder so I must be CLEVER and MIDDLE CLASS, right?) person on benefits. Like many of the, “underclass”. It’s me too, it isn’t just people like Theresa. You can’t pour vitriol over a whole section of society while quietly trying to exclude me from it on the spurious grounds that I’m quite clever, or something. That I don’t wear tracksuits so I’m different than they are. The difference with me is that I don’t live on a ghettoised council estate. But fuck, I probably would given the opportunity. I’m terrified of getting ill sometime in the future and losing my home. But I still can’t afford my heating bills and I’m one severe episode of illness away from possibly being fucked for life. I could be the “passive poor”, I could be, “the traumatised” and on paper, I would be. I function via numbing medication, I accepted a trade-off in my life. And if I’d had my baby, it might have been taken away from me, and I was aware of that.
But you look closer, or at least, you should. My messed up dad nicked books from school for us to read, paper for us to write on, pens for us to write with. Because of him, I went to the Good School, like my sisters. Our horrible houses were so ill-kempt because my dad would often lose his rag and kick a door and because my mum was often too depressed to clean and we were lazy shits. You read this blog and know me somewhat and I don’t think you’d ever associate me with those tracksuited haggard faces photographed even though I’m likely from a similar background and superficially in a similar situation. I could be an exception. And even if I was born, didn’t educate myself, enjoy books etc, had lots of kids and lived in a council flat, so what? There are reasons why the “underclass” exists, why poverty exists, there are reasons for violence, there are reasons for “ignorance” and low intelligence (things ascribed to, “the underclass”) and blaming the individual in these little pin up pieces to remind everybody that some people don’t deserve to live completely ignores the wider problems in society that don’t start at the bottom, they start at the top. They haven’t failed society; society has failed them.
The differences people try to point out with me are that I’m intelligent- but how do you know the clichéd image of the “underclass” are not? A lack of ambition, or a lack of culture, doesn’t mean someone isn’t intelligent. Intelligence isn’t just education, it is much broader than that. It isn’t just common sense, too. Even if they aren’t intelligent, then…so? People are different. Being middle class or upper class doesn’t make you intelligent, it just likely gives you access to more educational opportunities (and don’t get me started on nepotism…) And what’s so wrong with not being intelligent? What about kindness? Being happy? Being giving? Being funny?
Sometimes the middle class aspirations of be born, get a great job, have a nice house, toil, retire, die, seem every bit as ridiculous to me as the aimless ones so often ascribed to this peasant underclass. The difference is perceived as “giving back to society”. Every person gives back to society by their existence. I hate this idea of social burdens. It’s repugnant and extremely dangerous and it’s the one that lumps the, “underclass” into one homogeneous hopeless mass.
You might also be thinking, “How can you be part of some sort of underclass when you write a blog people read, won an award for play, have people interested in your writing?” Again, people might separate me via the route of ambition, in that I have some. They might separate me via intelligence, while forgetting I do not have much of an education, so “something” must make me “better” than your average council estate mother (and it’s always the women, notice, who are most vilified). They separate me via my cultural interests, which buys into the repellent idea of, “high” and “low” culture. But the blog is a blog, the interest in my writing may help me in the future but it doesn’t make a difference to my every day life in which I have intense difficulty actually writing due to my stupid fucking brain, in which I can afford very little, sit in the cold and claim Housing Benefit so I have somewhere to live. It doesn’t negate my background, and it doesn’t change how it would look if you put all the cold facts of my life on paper, right now, at this moment in time. Right now, at this moment in time, I look like a member of the underclass. I don’t particularly engage with the rest of society, either. In the future, who knows, I might some wildly successful writer whom the Observer asks to pen a weekly column about my three golden-faced, honey haired children and the problems of fitting them all into my hybrid car and getting them off to their public school, or maybe I’ll become a social worker and put my years of experience as a mental patient to good use, but that’s not the case at the moment.
I’m not playing Larkin Trumps (“they fuck you up, your mum and dad, but mine fucked me up more than yours”), or trying to either romanticise or vilify my background. Nor am I indulging in self pity because I don’t feel that way, likewise, I’m not comparing myself to those who are in desperate situations (and many are, but they’re just “scroungers”). Nor am I an asylum seeker, who I don’t know how they live in this country without feeling assaulted. I’m pointing out that on paper means nothing, and that I don’t deserve any more or less respect than the “tragic” examples of the underclass plastered all over the media whose lives, desires and dreams we know nothing more about than is told by the journalist. The lack of humanity people can feel stuns me. To see a group of fellow human beings as a problem rather than as afflicted by problems.
Now I’m going to empty my ashtray in case a Daily Mail journalist comes round.
Filed under: Bipolar Disorder