BOOK REVIEW : A modern Gin Lane

Danziger's Britain: A Journey to the Edge By Nick Danziger HarperCollin s, pounds 18 There are here `so many sad stories it would bring tears to a glass eye'
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The general election draws near: the government smears ever more fatuous mendacity across the billboards, Labour struggles not to offend C2s, the Daily Mail, anyone at all - and Nick Danziger brings us a timely corrective. This book has its flaws, but it is nonetheless so important that every one of us should read it and weep. A journey through the world of Jarvis Cocker's "Common People" (who "watch their lives slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do") this is a chilling indictment of what we've let happen in the past two decades.

Fathers and sons race each other to abandoned properties in Newcastle; the fathers want to strip off anything salvageable, roof slates or window frames or copper piping, before their sons arrive and burn the place down. Vandals break into a Liverpool infants' school, mess the kids' puzzles into a pile, then crap on them. In Brighton one lad slurs to Danziger, "Think drugs, take drugs, eat drugs". He finds junkies shooting up in rural Suffolk, and a pregnant teenage mother in Cornwall smoking dope while her 18-month-old daughter batters her doll. He finds Glasgow mothers burying child after child, gone to jellies and smack, while the children that are still alive steal from them to buy their own road to an early grave.

This is a bleak terrain of forged money and bored kids, of lottery dreams and stabbings, of abuse by fist and needle. More than once Danziger senses the adrenalin shudder of being in a war zone; surrounded by feral children on desolate wasteland in Salford he writes, "I felt like carrion!" Broken dreams? These children never had dreams to break. A homeless girl in Leicester, steadily fouling up on her probation, says mournfully, "I just wish I had a better life than I had done". There are here, as one man says of Glasgow, "so many sad stories it would bring tears to a glass eye".

There are also stories of resilience in adversity, of priceless voluntary work and heroic self-help - but they're guttering candles in a dark waste of poverty. "Mum, don't die yet," a woman in South Wales fondly tells her senile mother as she props her up to feed her, "I can't afford the flowers." Or there's the girl in Suffolk going quietly off her head because she's on pounds 22.10 a week (when the bus fare to Ipswich to sign on is pounds 5.70 return) and they're telling her they'll cut it off if she doesn't do the same training course she's done twice already. At every turn you feel the stress, the rage, the pain and despair.

Through these bitter scenes, Danziger's writing remains always fluent, lucid and humane. He sometimes writes regional accents rather uncertainly, and I'd quibble with the seeming presumption of the title - but he's given us his Travels and Adventures already, so I suppose he's lumbered with that, and doubtless publishers want writers all to be brands these days anyway. Between the covers, however, this is prose without presumption or judgment, gathering the stories of the abandoned with a clear-eyed sadness.

Unlike the stories themselves, his occasional observations upon them are mostly unremarkable - but then, God knows, what's happened to great swathes of British society is obvious enough, if only anyone cared to look. I must say also that there are too many of these stories; an editor should have been more ruthless, not simply because it would have been a better book, but because, at 356 pages, fewer people will buy it than it deserves. The price, though justified by many excellent photographs, will be a deterrent too - but Tony Blair, for one, has pounds 18 to spare, and he should spend it immediately. Every time I see him or Gordon Brown buttoning the lip on tax, I shall think of the people in these pages.

The other day, I took a friend back from a football game to her home in a broken ex-mining village in Yorkshire; we passed someone in an Everton shirt, and I wondered why they'd be wearing those colours round there. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, "Probably going cheap, weren't it?"

And we forget, don't we? We forget all the people sacrificed on Mammon's altar these past harsh years, because it's easier that way. For providing us with this most potent reminder, Danziger deserves all praise, and the widest possible readership.