Sunday, 31 December 2017

Why do they lament?

30 December
At Christmas and New Year we embrace a few favoured family traditions. We always watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' or 'Scrooge' aka 'A Christmas Carol' on Christmas Eve. Those activities were established by my brother and my mother. I try to follow Kings College carols on the 24th, that's my tradition. We take a post-meal walk but never open presents until the evening on the 25th. Who established those rules? I have no idea but the habit evolved most likely at my brother's where we sit down to eat the festive meal about 4pm. 

At Hogmanay we run round the house like mad things shouting 'Lang may yer lum reek' on the strike of twelve. My father - a MacPherson - handed that craziness on to us.

We also tend to do quizzes rather than bother with what's on the box. This year the only TV programme I watched 'live' over Christmas was 'Call the Midwife'. When I'd digested the storyline and contrasted it with 'A Christmas Carol' it seemed to me that our leaders, especially the ministry of justice - for prisons, the home office - for police and the DWP - for work and pensions - formerly social security, still have a lot to learn. Despite government inactivity regarding the NHS and our most vulnerable citizens both dramas will continue to be viewed in our house during Christmasses yet to come. And we'll still give to charities to help those in need, showing rather more concern than the Tories.

Both 'Midwife' and 'Scrooge' veer towards the sentimental yet have important messages to convey. The former's offering this Christmas showed 1960 society's attitude to Down's Syndrome, the latter the difficulties of being a cripple in the 1840s. The former tells of wife beatings from a domineering man, who was also a sexually abusive father, the latter of folk working for a pittance, barely able to afford a Christmas dinner, yet in full time work. Aspects of life for some in the 1840s and the 1960s are not yet behind us.

With SENDIST legislation - special educational needs and disability - schools and colleges now make provision for Down's and the disabled. In that sense, partly because responsibility for special needs was removed from the department of health to the department of education in the 1970s, Britain is a better place in which to grow if born with syndromes or handicaps. 

However the increasing demonisation of beggars and those on benefits has meant tolerance of the financially needy has all but dissolved - at least in the offices of the parliamentary Conservative party.
On Christmas Eve, 1843, Scrooge passes a group of waifs singing - and shivering  - on a snowy pavement for their supper. They were clearly making a nuisance of themselves outside his large home. He says 'Be off with you' in much the same way some of us ignore beggars, cap in hand, on our streets today. I don't always give to beggars. I'm not sure how I manage to walk past, but sometimes I do.

When asked by charity workers if Scrooge would make a donation for the needy 'for it is at Christmas time that want is felt' he merely asks 'Are there no workhouses, are there no prisons?'

The lack of compassion for the poor as we stumble towards 2018 doesn't mean a return to the shame of the workhouse but our prisons are suffering - buildings, inmates and officers are all in need of much greater support than they receive from our government. Are we, the law-abiding electorate, not in danger of looking like the ignorant bystanders in Dickens' novels?

In towns we have food banks for the near destitute and soup kitchens for those sleeping rough. Labour wants to shift power from private landlords to tenants - giving them more chance to avoid eviction - thereby reducing the numbers of homeless. By contrast Finland has all but eradicated homelessness altogether. It can be no coincidence that the numbers sleeping on the streets of Britain has increased 134% since 2010*, when Cameron and the Tories came into power. According to Shelter a
private landlord/lady can make an eviction without giving any reason. If s/he chose to serve notice on 4th December this year a tenant could have been homeless on Christmas Day. If notice had been served on 11th December the recipient tenant could be homeless tomorrow. Not a happy new year for some. Tenants are given 21 days to clear up and move out. 

But to where?

The department for Communities and Local Government knows homelessness is on the increase. Why, as 2017 becomes 2018, do we have such a shameful housing problem in a wealthy country like ours? When social services, housing benefits and other benefits are cut and part-time insecure work becomes the norm for the mainly unskilled worker, where does rent money appear from? When private landlords increase and council or social housing decreases Britain sees its impoverished lying in the gutter. 

The night Marley's ghost visits Scrooge and shows him images of 'mankind' tormented by a lack of accommodation, warmth and food Scrooge asks 'Why do they lament?'implying he has no idea.

As I add up my donations to Crisis, The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other charities I hope the money helps those who are shivering, hungry, ill and homeless and I wonder what has changed since 1843. G K Chesterton's poem 'The House at Christmas' describes the virgin Mary as homeless '... driven forth out of an inn to roam...'

We celebrate the birth of a homeless child, born 2000 years ago, in the comfort of our modern sitting rooms, surrounded by cards, nuts, satsumas, decorations and more mince pies than are good for us. But the continuing increase in homelessness is a disease of modern Tory Britain. The Irish Times supports the idea of unwanted Christmas presents being donated now to be ready for those in b&b accommodation in December 2018. No change there then.

Why do they lament, indeed. 

*Homeless Link figures

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