Homeless? But you're eating Sugar Puffs
Commentator and stand-up comedian Mark Steel has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 19 February 1999
So what must it be like to live in Islington? Everyone knows Islington exists only for yuppies. If there's a working class in Islington, it's assumed to be for ironic purposes. Maybe, among the brasseries and art dealers, there's a nostalgic cafe with a greasy-spoon theme, where you can order bacon, egg, free-range ketchup, two slices of deep-fried cappuccino and a large organic mug of piping-hot balsamic vinegar, with five sugars.
Certainly there shouldn't be a need for homeless centres. Unless the council has set one up for people with only one house, so they've got somewhere to go while the neighbours are all off on holiday in Tuscany.
But beyond the facade lies the 10th-poorest borough in Britain, with less green space than any other borough in London, and 60 per cent of its residents in public housing. Many of Islington's 10,000 registered homeless live in centres, awaiting acceptance on to the council housing list. The one I visited had 60 rooms on two floors, with a gloomy concrete corridor that made each footstep echo. So as you walked along it, you expected to hear the clanging of a large bunch of keys, the slamming of a metal door and the words "Norman Stanley Fletcher... you are a habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard."
Abdul, from Somalia, invited me into his room, but insisted I waited until he'd tidied it first. This didn't take long, as the only objects in it were a bed, a fridge, a Biro and a box of Sugar Puffs.
A teenager, he's an asylum-seeker, a phrase that is so often preceded by the word "bogus" that many people must believe that to be the official term, like "New Labour". He didn't speak much English, so handed me a sheet of paper on which his story was written. His father was a vegetable trader in Mogadishu when a clan took over his area and demanded a weekly payment. One day his father couldn't pay, so they shot him and Abdul's cousin dead. From then on the remaining family members were prisoners in their own house, until Abdul escaped in a lorry to a refugee camp in Nairobi, then borrowed the money to come to Britain and hoped for refuge.
Yet the attitude of much of Britain to Abdul's plight seems to be, "Yeah, but if he's that hard done by, how come he's able to afford Sugar Puffs?"
A new bill is being introduced to make it harder to claim asylum. Refugees will receive food vouchers instead of benefits. Also, they'll be expected to initiate their claim through official departments in their own countries. Which is fine, as long as the murderers you're fleeing from are reasonable about processing bureaucracy. Then you can ask them, "Excuse me, I'd like to move to Britain because yesterday you shot my family. Could you sign a form to confirm this please, otherwise they'll be ever such a backlog at the branch office in Islington."
Abdul kept apologising for not speaking much English, and I wondered how many times he must have meandered around unfathomable council offices, searching for the right counter to queue at all day - while someone bellowed, "You need the fourth floor, dear", as if he were 90 years old, shaking their head at the way he couldn't understand such a simple instruction. "All I talk," he said slowly, "is Somali, Swahili and Arabic."
The modern refugee has two hurdles to cross to get to safety. One resident, who'd recently left the centre, came to Britain after fleeing a government death squad in a canoe-chase down the Zambezi. What must it be like to survive that, and then be faced with the even more complicated task of not getting deported straight back there?
If Hollywood were to make a modern version of a classic escape story, it would hardly be like The Great Escape or Cry Freedom. The hero would be across the border in the first 10 minutes, and the rest of the film would show him waiting all day for a food voucher, before being told he was at the wrong building and needed social services, but that the office was shut until Friday.
Other residents include teenage single mums, and women who have fled violent partners. Which may explain how there remains a certain camaraderie. Single mums, the homeless and refugees all now have something in common, each taking it in turns to be blamed by New Labour for trying to wreck the country. Maybe I'll go back next week and find that Ken Livingstone has moved in.
But the toughest side of living here must be that there's nowhere to escape the reality that you're poor. Most of us, even at our most skint, have a cosy hideaway. Even on the 18th floor of a tower block, there will be a warm corner with a lamp and a record-player.
When I lived in a squat, the trick was to make one room habitable, so that you could forget that the rest of the house had no floorboards and there was a half-assembled motorbike in the kitchen. But in the homeless unit, the poverty follows you everywhere - to sightings of cockroaches, and sinks in which brown water gurgles. And to the dank chipboard atmosphere that doesn't only smell but also feels permeated with damp and mould, stale cigarettes and distant chip fat, with everything turning slowly yellow.
Despite this, a buoyant one-year-old baby was bounding along the corridor, giggling into any room that was open. His mother spoke, among other languages, French. So I tried to converse, using my stuttering, uncertain and south London version of the language.
She was from Rwanda, she said. I asked her how she'd got out, but she kept replying "by plane". What, I wonder, is French for "Yes, but how did you escape those people we saw on the news who were slaughtering everyone?" Eventually she got talking, at increasing speed, so that I could pick out only the odd sentence. Until, as she rattled along in a matter-of- fact manner, I grasped an entire passage, which ended "Toute ma famille etait mouri [sic]."
"Aha," I thought, "I caught all of that. She said `All my family was killed.'" How are you supposed to react to that, in any language?
As a society, we could decide to be proud that when people flee such horrors, we're able to make them welcome. Or we can say "Hmm, all killed. Well, the trouble is there are some marginal seats in Hampshire that we can't be confident of holding unless we're seen to be tough on you. Sorry."
So the legislation gets tighter, and vitriol against refugees becomes ever more encouraged. When we were jumping up and down on election night, you see, that's what we were all thinking - "Thank goodness we've now got a government that can pick on the most defenceless people imaginable, and make their situation much worse. Go on, pour the champagne."
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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