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A poison tearing a family in pieces: South Tyneside has the highest unemployment figure in Britain, while Settle has one of the lowest. We asked people from both places how they felt

JOHN NESBITT languishes in a council house in Hebburn, south of the Tyne, an area with Britain's highest density of unemployed. He acknowledges the poison that has entered his system since he lost his job as a driver a year ago last week. 'I have become very lazy,' he said.

'He is very short-tempered,' said his wife, Margery. 'Half the time I don't know if I'm doing right or wrong. If he's going to be snapping at me, then I snap back and then I'm sorry, because I know what he's going through.'

'I get very vexed,' he said, his chin trembling. 'I find myself avoiding people.' Margery said: 'When he is asked to go to an interview, I say, 'I'll not build my hopes up.' But I do. Then whoomph] A stab in the back.'

John even seems apathetic about his daughter's wedding, which took place yesterday in St John's Church of England in Canning Street. Dawn Nesbitt, 21, an unemployed nurse, married Ian McAloon, an unemployed forklift truck driver. The young couple has been given a promising start: Dawn has managed to borrow a wedding dress; Mr McAloon has found a job, which he will start after the honeymoon; they have also secured a council house. But, said Mr Nesbitt, 'the wedding preparations have put me into debt. It will take years to pay off.' His son, a 16-year-old garage apprentice, is helping out.

Mr Nesbitt, 41, has been married to Margery, who is slightly older, for 22 years. Both were born and bred in Hebburn, a community that once clanged prosperously with shipbuilding and engineering, coal staithes, chemical works, forges, steamships and trains. Mr Nesbitt's father was a shipyard worker when Hebburn had six busy yards (only one remains); Mrs Nesbitt's worked for Reyrolle's, the electrical engineering firm that once employed 13,000 but now has fewer than 4,000.

As in other parts of South Tyneside, stretching from Gateshead to South Shields and where almost one in five are out of work, the community has little to bind it other than its debts. It is not quite a society in rags, but it betrays the symptoms of one deprived of the machinery for both industry and insurance against the wastage of human capital.

Mr Nesbitt has sent off 300 job applications since he was laid off by a car-delivery firm. He promises 'not to let this government beat me'. But it is soon clear that he sees himself as a victim of irrational, capricious forces. His Vauxhall Cavalier has been sold, and his telephone removed. The comfortable pounds 700 a month (including overtime) has given way to pounds 69 a week for him and his wife. His body is puffed up from fatty, cheaper cuts of meat, and he can no longer afford to work off the excess by swimming, at pounds 1 a session, in the local pool.

'Next Friday, I finish a six- week course at a Job Opportunity Workshop,' he said. 'The idea is to try to give you a bit more courage to go for job interviews. They provide you with envelopes and stamps for your applications. There have been 150 replies to my 300 letters, and hardly any interviews.'

Margery said: 'When the post arrives you look at the envelope. You know immediately what sort of reply it is. If it's a 24p stamp, there's just the faintest possibility of an interview. If there's an 18p stamp it's always a bugger-off letter.'

'It's always demoralising,' Mr Nesbitt said.

He describes himself as a Labour voter, though he has never been active in politics. He once belonged to the General Municipal and Boilermakers' Union, but left after joining his last employer, a non-union firm. He never was a great activist about anything, other than growing vegetables in his small garden ('We eat everything in the garden').

Asked about John Major's performance, his lip curls contemptuously. 'I would like to know why the Government can say to you, 'You have got to live on a certain amount of money, no matter what.' ' He has thought of writing to MPs, Labour and Tory, to curse their ineptitude and their pounds 30,000 salary, but refrained 'because I couldn't be sure I'd control my language'.

Yet he is neither politicised by his plight nor much interested in such issues as rising crime and its causes. For a man whose son is still in his teens and whose daughter is scarcely out of them, John Nesbitt has lost his zest and become almost indifferent to what people do and how they do it: as though his civic conscience has been fatally embarrassed.

When Mr Nesbitt lost his job, his children were supportive. 'I have always been a good provider for them. They are two strong kids and when it happened Ian said, 'You are a well-qualified driver. You'll soon get another job.' '

Margery said: 'We were disappointed - not in him, but in the company that sacked him.'

'And when they sacked me they put in two kids in my place at half my wages,' Mr Nesbitt said.

In one of his few job interviews, he allowed himself to be optimistic. 'I applied to learn to drive buses and was to start the course last month. Then they told me I was too old, and in any case I would have to be unemployed for two years to qualify for the course.'

So, still in his prime, Mr Nesbitt focuses on the free bus- pass that enables him to travel to South Shields at 9.30 every morning, and the free lunch, stamps and stationery he receives there at the Job Opportunity Workshop. He returns home every afternoon at four, to a wife whose arthritic hands prevent her from taking a secretarial job. He sinks into a sofa that shows signs of wear, switches on the television and dozes off.

Last Friday evening, husband and wife sat opposite one another in the small living-room, the tension between them almost palpable.

While Mr Nesbitt may have lost his sense of purpose and be on his way, perhaps, to losing his conception of, and faith in, his regional identity, the poison of the apathy has begun to have a disturbing effect on his marriage. His wife's face is impassive as he refuses to be photographed with her, offering no reason.

'If I'm still searching for work this time next year, we'll be divorced,' Mr Nesbitt said suddenly.

Surely he can't mean that? 'I do. Things will get worse with us facing each other day after day. I'll move. I'll get out of Hebburn. I'll leave Tyneside. I'll. . . . '

His chin trembles again. Mrs Nesbitt is silent.

(Photograph omitted)