Sunday, 11 November 2018

Watching Mumsnet, Watching Britains Largest Family

I have a love hate relationship with Mumsnet. It’s always fascinating to me as the epicentre of a particular kind of engaged, intensive form of mothering with a particular focus on education.
On Mumsnet I have seen posters ask “Doesn’t everyone teach their kids to read before they start school? Surely that just part of good parenting.”  I’ve seen long threads on the subject of what exactly constitutes “social capital” and how they can be sure to impart it. (Trips to the opera were mentioned.). I’ve seen debates on various types of secondary schools conducted from the starting point that everyone’s child would easily get into grammar school. No doubt because of the work already invested in “talking and reading to them when they were little”
It’s a part of a particular kind of parenting which originates in the middle class. The basic strategy being to have fewer children and to invest more heavily in them in the hopes that they can become high earners and replicate the privilege that allowed you to parent in that way in the first place.

What’s interesting about this kind of parenting is not so much its merits.  It’s a fairly reasonable adaptation to the circumstances of middle class life. What’s more interesting is the extent to which its followers believe it to be a moral and social good in and of itself, rather than a method of replicating and hording privilege to the benefit of their own offspring.
It’s one of the many ways in which middle class people tend to confuse their own interests with the general good. And since middle class people are in positions of power and influence that gets translated into social policy so that working class women have to be harassed to parent more like middle class mothers.

Zoe Williams book The Madness of Modern Parenting is very good on this point.
I’m reminded of all this on this current Mumsnet thread discussing the Radfords, “Britains Largest Family.”

The Radfords are essentially doing an extreme version of the opposite strategy. Instead of having small number of children and invesiting in them heavily they have a very large number of children and utilise their labour power for good of the family as a whole.

Traditionally, this might be on a farm. In the Radfords case, its the family bakery, looking after younger siblings and in the very modern profession of celebrity itself.

It’s worth having a look at the thread to see people who do intensive parenting in a small family, completely failing to understand collective parenting in a larger family.

“How do the kids do afterschool activities?” They ask. “When does anyone listen to them read?” "What about parents evening?"

The implied answers being, of course “they don’t”, "never" and "I bet they don't bother to turn up." Cue much frothing from a section of society that view these things as sacrosanct.

The theme finally reaches its peak when a poster suggests that all 21 Radford kids will be a “burden to society” because without intensive parental involvement in their education “they are unlikely to become high earners.”

I love this particular comment because it makes so much of the usually unspoken Mumsnet assumptions explicit. Human value is measured in wealth. Poor people are a burden. People who fail to meet middle class standards for educational involvement are a problem, not just for their own children, but for society as a whole.
All this is far more interesting, to my mind, than the lives of the Radfords themselves.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Manipulative Clients

In the early 200’s I was living on a traveller site and making my living from the Big Issue. I learnt a lot about evasiveness and manipulation there.  I leant why it was necessary and I learnt how to do it. 

There was a grave yard a few miles away where a water tap was provided for relatives to tend the flowers on the graves. Of course, we collected our drinking water there.
There must have been a few complaints because, by my time, there was a notice was pinned up saying “This water is provided for the users of graveyard- NOT for tramps!” 

Because of this, we used the after tap less frequently and more circumspectly. We could probably have stopped using it altogether and driven a little further for water but people would have complained at that place too. 

The logic of the situation encouraged us to tan the fuck out of any goodwill and then keep pushing the envelope long after the goodwill had dried up. Far, far beyond the point that a townie would have shrugged and moved on.  

The majority of times, I would pull up in the lane, hop out with the water butt, fill it and be in my van before anyone could notice.
But when someone did show up, I would fix them with a cheery smile and say “Sorry! I know it’s a bit cheeky, but my radiators busted. I need to keep putting water in till I can get it fixed.”
I would watch people’s faces relax from suspicion to relief because I had given him something they could relate to. 

As far as I was concerned, drinking water was a more immediate and legitimate need than water for a vehicle. But I learnt that objective need doesn’t necessarily bring sympathy. And from then on, if I needed to ask permission or forgiveness (the latter is easier by the way) I was sure to translate it into terms that might be easily understood. I didn’t think it was lying exactly. 

Another time, I was selling the Big Issue. I’d taken a break from selling to get a bit of shopping in and had returned to the pitch with the bags. A friend came by and warned me against doing the same thing again. If people can see you’ve been shopping and are still trying to sell Big Issues they will think you’re taking the piss, he explained.  He was right of course, and from this, I learned to be relatable not only to what people know but also to what they think they do.

They don’t want to buy a magazine from someone who is a little bit skint but able to get by with help of an outside organisation. Someone, like myself, who might be in work fairly often but still need a little stand by. They want to feel like they’ve rescued you. They want you to be absolutely on your knees but they also want their causal £1.50 gesture to be the decisive turning point in your life. And they want to feel this way even when they’re 5p short of the cover price. 

What they want is an impossible fantasy. I learned to play up to it. 

Later on, I was living in a really large squat in London. 20 of us the one time I counted and more when I had given up trying to count. One or two of us had medical problems. One very young girl with quite severe mental health problems and a woman with a chronic stomach problem. There was only one doctor who would see us, this homeless doctor in Kings Cross

I went there quite often with the mentally unwell girl, to act as moral support. It was an extremely grim place. I was in there once and a guy started having alcohol withdrawal seizures right there in the waiting room. While the staff were rushing to ring an ambulance, someone from the Kings Cross Regeneration Agency came in and tried to get them to fill out a survey.  At a glance, you could see that she had reached the point in her own downward spiral where she had almost, but not yet, lost her job. She was wearing business clothes, but a little grubby and not ironed. She seemed strung out. She asked to use the toilet and returned a few minutes later looking happier and more energetic. I thought “My God, if the regeneration people are crack heads…this area really is fucked” 

It’s unrecognisable now of course. They regenerated it, crack head employees notwithstanding. 

The staff there would occasionally ask if I wanted to register and I would always refuse. I was volunteering with the CAB at that point and I knew a little about how public sector funding worked. I knew that no one had sat down in Kings Cross, thought about the desperate junkies and homeless prostitutes and written a funding application that said “We want to provide a primary care service for crusty- squatters in Hoxton” 

Like the graveyard water butt- we were taking something that wasn’t designed for us. There was going to be limited good will and, as a collective, we might have to lean on it more than was reasonable. I wasn’t going to wear it out sooner than necessary on the off chance I might get an ear infection. 

It was at the CAB that I first sat on the other side of the desk and learned to see myself as a professional and not a service user. It was first place I heard a service user described as “manipulative”. I recognised this immediately as a word to describe how I had learned to get by. 
 Translating your needs into something understandable, playing up to expectations, taking from services meant for somebody else. 

I didn’t have a problem with “manipulative” clients. I understood what they were trying to do and why it was necessary. 

In fact, my secret agenda there was to learn more and better manipulation. I thought the CAB could teach me some trick to get a council flat and stop the jobcentre from hassling me. Disappointingly, no such trick exists. Eventually I squatted their office long enough that they put me on the payroll and all those problems sort of melted away. That had been the trick all along. 

I’m very privileged these days, not to need evasiveness and manipulation. Not because I'm self sufficent and never need help, thats not true of anyone. I'm privileged that pretty much all of my wants and needs are readily understood by mainstream society. And often sympathised with. 
 No-one will think I’m taking the piss if I go to the doctors. They won’t cock their head and say “She’s just trying to get painkillers and a sick note.” If I need to, I can walk in and explicitly ask for painkillers and a sick note.

Even so, I employed quite elaborate manipulation, in the most respectable period of my life, to make a social services investigation go away. You can read about it here. The social worker won’t have thought of me as one of her “manipulative clients”. I can confidently tell her, all her clients are manipulative. Some more obviously than others. Manipulation is what everyone does when faced with someone more powerful that they need something from. 

Every so often, I get the opportunity to pay it forward. Someone will come and try to beg money from me, visibly distressed and with a story that doesn’t quite add up. And I’ll pay. I know it isn’t what they just said. But it will be something. A real need, translated into something else. And it isn’t my place to know.  

Saturday, 30 December 2017

My life as a crusty- What was it all for?

Once upon a time, I was a crusty. I lived in squats and on traveller sites, I hung from trees at road protests, I was very briefly tabloid fodder famous under the nom du guerre of “Animal”.

This part of my life lasted 10 years and for a lot of it, I was an unashamed lifestylist. I believed that my lifestyle not only reflected but also advanced my politics. Our more intellectual members held serious discussions about how society might be changed for the better by expanding our sub culture until it reached a tipping point where it might influence wider society. Even as the rest of us destroyed our bodies and minds with drugs. 

In the early 2000’s “Crimeth-Ink” coined the slogan: “Homelessness, poverty- If you’re not enjoying it you’re not doing it right” and, although I could understand why others found this offensive, it chimed with me immediately. I was homeless. I was poor. And yet, I was having the time of my life.  Materially, I was better off than I had been for much of my life. Squatting gave me spacious accommodation, Skip-diving gave me access to the middle market convenience foods I had always wanted to eat. I had a fantastic social life. I had sense of mission. It was a far better life than the best case alternative; a poky bedsit and a minimum wage job.  

Outsiders unfairly characterised our scene as “middle class dropouts” and although that was true for some of us- it was far from universal. We had a strong underclass contingent. We had a lot of working class kids from small towns. We had a lot of ex-army guys. Our way of life was both an act of rebellion against a comfortable youth and a way of surviving an adverse one. 

Through environmental politics, I mixed with people who weren’t lifestylists. In fact they had a strong critique of lifestylism. They said the word like an accusation. It was a risk to more useful political expression. If people acted like opposition new road required you to become a crusty- well then, we would only be able to mobilise crusties to oppose roads. And indeed as the anti-roads movement progressed, the proportion of crusties did increase with “straights” often sidelined as “local support” or patronised as “weekenders.” 

One time, I was living on a traveller site just outside of Basingstoke. A bunch of us had found work through a local employment agency. The recruiter let slip that she had accidentally overfilled the order. We were to turn up at the warehouse and, if there were too many of us, one of us would be sent home. We decided immediately that, of course, we would all walk off the job rather than have someone sent home to site. I suggested we extend the same solidarity to any other agency workers who might show up, townie kids most likely. It would cost us nothing to do so. Someone said, with venom, “No way! They wouldn’t do that for us” and everyone nodded along. 

At that moment, I saw how a subculture can be an inward looking thing. We set ourselves outside and against mainstream society. I had thought this was a progressive impulse because it demonstrated a critique. But the reality of our behaviour was reactionary. 

Looking for a way to combine subcultural identification with a wider socialist politics, I joined the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) while still living in a squat. The IWCA was so keen to disassociate itself from any counter culture- even the subculture of the Trotskyist left that it almost adopted a pastiche of “traditional working class culture” as its own subcultural affiliation. We’d go door knocking in tower blocks wearing smart black jeans, clipboards and bomber jackets. We must have looked like bailiffs.  

This is a picture of me from that period. I'm the one with the bleached hair pulled into a harsh pony tail. As you can see I'd begun to adopt the trademark IWCA "normcore" asthetic.

Honestly you would think some of our members had they never had a preference in clothes or music their entire life. I felt like shaking them and shouting “Oi Punks! You’re fucking Oi Punks! And there’s nothing wrong with that!” 

Instead, I had to spend my time explaining squatting culture. How it was a cross-class culture. I laid out the attitude of myself and the many working class crusties I knew: “My life in mainstream society is shit. I’m never going back to that!” 

I listened to comrades tell me that I “wouldn’t last five minutes” on estates like the one I grew up on. This was a particular head fuck as my family had, in fact, been targeted for some anti-social behaviour and I still hadn’t quite untangled why that had happened or what it meant. 

At the same time, my squatter pals would ask me “Why is it a working class association? Why not do something that includes everybody” and I would think “Jesus- I’ve only spent the last 10 years working to sustain this scene and the one time I look to do something for my own people- look at the push-back I get!” 

Then, one night we were scoping buildings for a fundraiser squat party. One possibility was a derelict community centre that I knew (through the IWCA) was the subject of a local campaign for reopening. I imagined that building after a couple of hundred ravers had been through it and my blood ran cold.
By that time, I was under no illusions that my chosen lifestyle offered a solution to working class people as a whole. Suddenly, I understood that in fact, it was parasitic upon working class communities. It felt more and more difficult to be both a squatter crusty and an IWCA activist.
In the end, I secured a job working for the CAB rented a room in a shared house. Around the same time, my IWCA branch was expelled- partly for the offence of including crusty anarchists such as myself. 

From the outside you might think I saw the light and joined mainstream society. Except that I didn’t stop squatting until I had a job that brought in a lower middle class income. And I wouldn’t have qualified for that job if I hadn’t been able to put 18 months into the training while living rent free. I mourn the end of the squatting scene and the opportunities that it gave young people like myself. 

There followed a period in my life which I can only describe as a romance with respectability. As a second generation hippy it was refreshing to re-evaluate things I had always looked down on. The value of holding down a job and contributing taxes. The pleasing lack of legal complications when you actually pay for water or electricity or train fares. My very favourite part of having a steady income is not having to bother with all those exhausting scams I used to need for survival. 

I married and had kids and brought them up in a three bed maisonette at the respectable end of an estate. (All estates have a “respectable end” and tenants can always tell you where it is!) I even attempted (and then gave up) that staple of respectable working class womanhood, regular attention to housework! 

Then one day a couple of friends came to visit. They are two of the nicest, funnest, most loyal people you could imagine, but they are also very loud and quite punky and possessed of obvious traveller accents. As they shouted up from the street to be buzzed in, I noticed a number of neighbours taking notice and bristling. And just like that, the affair was over. Respectability, in its way, is as exclusive an identity as any counter culture. It relies on having someone else to look down on. 

Why am I thinking about all this right now? Well more and more of my online life is getting taken up with radical feminism and I’m coming across women who will very vociferously question my heterosexual marriage and my male child. And I’m thinking “Well, hello again lifestylism” 

It turns out, a strand of feminism, I was particularly drawn to for its materialism also has its cultural wing. People who see their lifestyle as a political expression and not just a personal choice. I tell them that lifestylism is personally liberatory but that it doesn’t scale up to a political movement. It places you outside and against mainstream society. It distances you from people who would otherwise be your allies. 

And yet, and yet…Hasn’t every movement attempted to build a counter culture as well as pursuing material change?
Even the IWCA, proudly drawing on a working class identity, were following a deliberately cultivated counter culture. Someone, long ago, had to say “no, we will not be referring to ourselves as “Lower Class” (once the accepted term). We will be defining ourselves by our positive contribution to society. We are the class that works” 

A counter culture gives people something that material gains alone can’t do. And that is a way to understand themselves, which excuses them from the mainstream narrative. Because the mainstream narrative is brutal.
Especially these days when there seems to so much hatred and disgust of the poor. Reaching a pitch I genuinely don’t remember from my own poor childhood in the 80’s. And don’t even get me started on the hyper objectification of women, which also seems to have ramped up a notch. Imagine having to understand yourself through that lens alone. 

I once read a study of the health effects of poverty and low income “bohemian” people had better outcomes than non-bohemians. And this wasn’t only true of middle class drop-outs but also of people who had adopted “bohemianism” as working class people. The difference was not material. It was access to a set of alternative values that lessened the stress of poverty. 

A counter culture can be literally lifesaving for those in it. But can it be truly civic and collectivist? Under what conditions? As a second generation working class hippy, this is a question that has rippled down to me through the years, from the moment Abby Hoffman grew out his hair and, for better or worse, tied the new left to the counter culture.