There are a few statements regularly made by members of the public that are guaranteed to get my blood raging. … no point voting … politicians all the same … nothing ever changes … no point giving to charity all goes on admin … These are among the regulars. Wrong on all counts.
Another, similarly lazy observation we hear too often is the one that dismisses ‘the younger generation’ as idle, shirking, uneducated, selfish, unconcerned-about-the-world. Some are. A minority. Some are anything but.
Today the blog is given over to Joe Hayman, a young charity manager from North London. Having been keen for a long time to make a contribution on the big issues facing Britain but concerned that he didn’t know the country as well as he would have liked, he decided to travel around Britain, capturing the people he met along the way.
“Having lived all my life in London,” he says, “I was concerned that I didn’t know the country very well, and I knew that many people outside London seemed to feel marginalised in the debate about the state of modern Britain. Getting out from behind my desk to travel around the UK seemed an ideal way to capture the perspectives of ordinary people on the state of modern Britain and to become clearer in my own mind about the contribution I wanted to make.’
He has now turned all that into a book, British Voices www.britishvoices.org.uk. and here writes a short blog by way of introduction to it. Unsurprisingly, the epidemic of UK drinking figures large. But so does the desire and the talent to rebuild communities.
It was September 2011, and I was in Bideford, Devon in the early weeks of a three-month tour of the UK, talking to members of the public about life in Britain as research for my book, British Voices. It was a Saturday night, and I had been invited to join the local street pastor team on their patrol around the town centre.
The Bideford Carnival had been taking place during the day, and, at half past ten, there were hundreds of children and young people still out at the fair. Most were no longer using the rides but were instead drinking and dancing on the street by the quay.
We came across a security guard who had just broken up a fight between two young women.
“I used to like the fair,” he said sadly, looking towards the teenagers drunkenly falling over one another, “but normal life as you know it doesn’t exist any more.”
While we spoke to the security guard, Elaine, a member of the street pastor team, had been counselling a young woman who had clearly had too much to drink. They had been sitting on a bench by the quayside and as the young woman walked away she lost her balance and lurched to her left, almost falling into the water, before centring herself and walking on.
The town centre was full of people and most seemed to be having a good time but as the evening went on, the atmosphere deteriorated. We found a girl lying in a doorway, and Elaine gave her a bottle of water from Duncan’s backpack. Along the street, a young man sitting on a bench vomited, and Elaine gave him a tissue to wipe his face.
Outside another bar, we found the police taking a man away. We spoke to the bar manager, whose face was bruised.
“There wasn’t a hint of trouble all night,” he said, “and then suddenly one attacked another, and I tried to break them up and someone hit me.”
“I can’t be bothered with this any more,” he added wearily. “Why can’t people just enjoy having a drink?”
It was a question which stayed with me for the remainder of my travels. I had initially wondered whether some of the residents of Bideford – particularly the young people – were simply a little carried away after the carnival; yet as I travelled around the UK, I saw people drinking in a similar way in many different parts of the country, not just on Saturday nights in town centres, but also in their homes too and not simply for enjoyment, it seemed. It was a trend which seemed to cut across age and social class.
I began to look at this uncomfortable relationship with alcohol alongside other trends which I observed on my travels, and it left me with mixed feelings about Britain: while I found almost everyone I met to be fundamentally kind and decent, clearly devoted to those who they cared about and also able to show me – a complete stranger – great generosity, I also sensed deep anxiety wherever I went.
Many of the people I met seemed isolated in transient, fast-moving communities, confused about their own identity and place in a rapidly-changing world. A number appeared to feel lost in a society with fewer institutions and role models to rely upon than in the past, while many, particularly young people, seemed deeply apprehensive about the future. The drinking I saw in Devon and elsewhere seemed to be linked to this wider national unease, a way of escaping or seeking to cope with the deep anxiety people felt.
The Britain I found on my journey had benefited hugely from technological and economic advances but that material progress did not always seem to be reflected in people’s sense of security and confidence in themselves and the world around them. Indeed, many of those who I met felt a great deal had been lost alongside the progress: social bonds, a sense of mutual respect and responsibility, trust in one another.
Yet as I talked to people I came to feel that rebuilding social bonds and trust was a real possibility, not least because of the innate kindness and decency of those who I met across the country. Building a stronger sense of community and trust in the UK might not make the future for young people in Bideford any more certain, but it might encourage them to see support from others to address their anxieties as a realistic alternative to using alcohol to seek to escape them.
Joe Hayman’s book, British Voices, is available via www.britishvoices.org.uk. The profits from the book are being used to set up a new charitable trust aimed at building a stronger sense of community in the UK.