Benefit cuts, Boredom, Chavs, Class in the UK, Drugs, Smiths, Virtue
“Geezers need excitement. If their life don’t provide it, they incite violence. Common sense. Simple common sense.” lyric by The Streets.
The newspaper today is bulging with tales of the unemployed. Most of these stories are dedicated to exposing ‘benefit-cheats’ – that is, those who could work, but choose not to. Other stories describe those who spend their benefit money on cheap booze and drugs.
We are meant to be angry when we read these things. But something is stopping me.
At this point I should tell you something about myself. For 4 years of my adult life (I am only 29), I was a semi-functioning alcoholic. At my apex (or nadir) I was consuming 1 litre of gin a day, mainly in the evening. During the sunlight I stayed asleep, sometimes until late afternoon and typically woke up shaking and cold.
The cause? As is often the case with booze, it isn’t crystal clear. But from what I can remember it had something to do with the town I was living in; a small, rural, posh town not far from Warwickshire. I drank myself to the point of falling over every single day out of boredom.
‘Boredom’ sounds like such a trivial, light-hearted word, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Not really. In truth, it came close to killing me. My liver has proven heroically resilient. Nowadays, I am teetotal. But just a few more years of that kind of behaviour might well have done me in.
So when I read the right-wing commentary on benefit-cuts and think about my past, honesty and compassion force me to deviate from the national mood. I can’t condemn people who are doing precisely as I did, and often for the same reasons.
Boredom in Britain is something internationally renowned. It is not the same thing as people mean when they use the term in France, Japan, China, Africa or Latin America. British boredom has its own scenery, its own language and its own music.
British boredom is grave-coloured skies, freezing air and boarded up shopfronts. It is pebble beaches, Morrissey songs, Sunday afternoons and cruel-hearted Job centres.
When people take up arms against such emotion therefore, it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) hard to understand.
To accept this means objecting to civilised morality as it is conventionally upheld. Conventional morality holds that there is something satisfactorily virtuous and rewarding in things like a ‘good days work’, or having an ‘honest character’, or being ‘thrifty’, or ‘humility’ etc…
These are what I call the ‘miserable virtues’. They are undoubtedly virtues. Society could not survive without them. But they do not make up for a youth deprived of pleasure, art, decadence and adventure. An honest life and a sense of pride do not make for as enjoyable a life as other, more immoral, lifestyles.
What we as a country seem to be asking young people on benefits to believe is that the miserable virtues can provide a replacement for what they have at present.
And what do they have at present? It isn’t nothing. They have alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and ipods. Cheap, everyday things which allow them to escape (even if only spiritually) the grim, lifeless towns in which there are forced by circumstance to reside.
Why do we fail to understand why they won’t accept the benefits bargain?
If we are honest in this way, the realities of the world become clearer and we can admit to even greater heresies.
I completely understand why young people who are forced to live their most healthy and essential years in graveyard towns, with no hope of escape, turn to drugs. Drugs and alcohol help them dream of better things, better places, and the standard of living others are merely born into.
My conservative impulse fails to make an appearance where it should here. But I can’t lie. I am still young and I still value excitement. I am not ready to retire to a condition satiable by virtue alone.
And no matter how much the media encourages me to do so, I will not turn on my generational peers for not being ready either.