It still seems strange to find the name Iain Duncan Smith in the same sentence as "Secretary for Work and Pensions" and "compassionate conservatism". But the self-appointed physician to Breakdown Britain could usefully spend 90 minutes of his precious time watching Jez Lewis's new documentary film, Shed Your Tears And Walk Away. This is a portrait of Hebden Bridge, but not of the picture-pretty Yorkshire Dales town as seen by visitors and colonised by commuters and second-home owners – although the chic, sandblasted cottages, age-old trees and fiery skies form a permanent, almost contemptuous, backdrop. It is a portrait of a part of Hebden Bridge that was left behind.
The spur for the film was Lewis's gradual realisation that no fewer than 15 of those he grew up with, and five who had lived on his street, had died in what should have been their prime: from drink, drugs, suicide or accidents. Lewis's own move away to university had been a conscious escape. Those with less get-up-and-go, less education, less awareness of any wider world, were trapped in their narrow valley and even narrower social circle, as their hometown changed around them.
Lewis follows a group, many from families he knows, who drink, smoke and inject their way to oblivion in the park. They have their own casual camaraderie, through stunted happiness and grief, but seem untouched – bar the occasional abortive trip to detox – by any outside intervention. One young man, recalled by Lewis as the school's best sportsman, had taken the extreme step of running off to join the French Foreign Legion. It turns out that he had served in some of the world's nastier hotspots, before returning, ill-equipped for normal life and with nightmares about killing his first child-soldier, to the dregs of the life he knew before. Of help there is no inkling.
In his film, and more reflectively in conversation, Lewis posits many reasons why his one-time mates, and Hebden Bridge itself, have turned out the way they have. This was a town, like many others, that was almost left for dead after the mills closed; it was discovered by hippies and others, who found dramatic landscape and dirt-cheap housing. After the hippies came the yuppies, with well-paid jobs in Leeds and Bradford. To a place already awash with drugs and free-living was added money and gentrification. The natives had lost their town, but they had nowhere else to go.
Hebden Bridge is in Calderdale, where the suicide rate, at the last count, was double the national average. But it is not alone in its afflictions. In Shed Your Tears, a whole section of the population has essentially given up; it is not just the young jobless, troubled and bereaved, who walk away from their distress, but authority of every kind, too. Those congregating to while away pointless existences in the park live untouched by the police, social services, the NHS; the job centre has moved away. Over to you, Mr Duncan Smith.
Only in the US of A
Could there be anything more astounding than the US electing a black President? Well, yes, there could. First, the country's most-faithful couple, Al and Tipper Gore, quietly announce their separation after more than 40 years of marriage. How, you have to ask, might news of marital tensions in the goody-goody Gore household have improved relations between Al and Bill as the sordid revelations about Clinton and Monica unfolded? And would Al then have been less embarrassed about having Bill campaign for him in 2000? And might Al, perhaps, then have beaten George Bush? The what-ifs are endless – not to speak of the irony that, even as Al and Tipper part, Bill and Hillary remain together...
No less astounding is Helen Thomas's precipitate ejection from the US media establishment. The doyenne of the White House press corps, much decorated and approaching her 90th birthday, had a reputation for fearlessly speaking truth to power. As colleagues allowed, in the matter of questions, there had long been one rule for Helen and one rule for the rest. But when she ventured, in conversation with a rabbi armed with a camera at a White House event for Jewish Heritage Month (yes, you couldn't make it up), that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go home to "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else", she exceeded even her own capacious room for manoeuvre.
As speaking invitations were withdrawn, she announced her retirement with immediate effect. The worst of it is that Thomas was one of very few journalists working today for whom the rise of Nazism and its Final Solution was within living memory. She really should have known better. But she was also an adornment to journalism in the way only mavericks can be, and very helpful to novice women foreign correspondents, as I once was. It would be a great pity if those big positives were forgotten.
Run it up the flagpole
White-van men and London cabbies will no longer have a monopoly on flying the St George's flag in coming weeks. David Cameron has announced the flag will also fly above Downing Street during the World Cup – and, wait for this, "at no additional cost to the taxpayer". Not only does this most unfootballing prime minister get to mix it sentimentally with the masses, he simultaneously offers a sop to the English lobby. Nor can Scotland and the rest complain; if they want their flag flown from No 10, they will have to improve their sporting skills. Genius. The only question for me is whether the flag stays up for the duration, or comes down if and when England are knocked out. Let's wait and see.