Scroungers, Strivers and Schadenfreude

imageI haven’t been able to watch more than a minute of Benefits Street. The reaction of those who refer to the people featured as “thieving scum” etc pushes me to a place that’s beyond anger; a sort of deep disappointment, hopelessness. I know they will never be convinced of another point of view, unless it happens to them.

I was homeless once. I had to queue in the dole office to get a benefits cheque as I was ‘of no fixed abode’. There wasn’t any drugs, drink, or mental illness involved – I had to get away from home due to my mother’s spiralling violence and abuse.

I was young, innocent, frightened and not streetwise, in the least. My story could have had a very bad ending. I was one step away from hopeless.

Some friends of friends had a squat in London, so at least I wasn’t out on the streets; but I remember the grinding cold, the continuous ache in my bones and hunger. After a while, my nutrition was really bad due to lack of funds. I bought spaghetti, oxo cubes, cheap bread. There were no food banks back then.

Strangely enough, I was safe. Safer than I had been at home. The guys in the squat were bikers, who had a strong moralistic code. They would even send me off to stay with their mothers or grandmothers if they had a party. They looked after me like a band of hairy, greasy, leather clad, big brothers.

I never begged, but strangers were still kind. The chip shop owner used to give me food. The people at the local pub allowed me to use their bathroom, the bakery used to slip me a loaf about to go stale. Sounds Dickensian, but this was only a couple of decades back.

We all got ill. With no heating or hot water, it’s an effort to keep clean (although I bathed the best I could with a basin of water every day). The cold air was the worst, it got into your lungs and carried any passing cold right into the trachea. I got asthma eventually, after a series of chest infections. It’s a weakness I still carry.

I looked like a waif in an army greatcoat far too big for me, woolen hats, Dr Martens and layers upon layers of clothing over my jeans. A long way from the immaculate beribboned child I once was or the flamboyant art student I was but a few months before. Fashion was long gone.

I got out when things changed. The population of a squat is a transient one. As my surrogate brothers moved on, new people took their place.They were mainly middle class rebels, with a bit of money, which was spent on drugs.

Soon I felt unsafe. I managed to get a decrepit, half derelict house in a rough part of London through a housing association. Downstairs was uninhabitable, dark, damp and full of rubble. I didn’t want to think about the rats. Upstairs was as bright and clean as I could make it, with donations from friends, skip diving and junk shops. It was an address, at least.

I finished my studies, got a job and everything changed. I was one of the lucky ones, well educated and with the will to turn my life around.

After a few years of working my way up, I was running a small company, turning over £4m a year, with a share of the profits. I had tens of thousands in the bank, which I spent.

I could buy anything I wanted to. A sports car. Luxury holidays. Dinner at the best restaurants. Cases of Champagne. Cocktails in the swankier bars. Designer clothes – a massive apartment, decorated to the highest specifications. Lending my friends large sums of money. Frequent weekends away for my friends. It was a manic circus around me.

It was all so meaningless. Just wrapping paper. All that money kept me distant from my friends in different jobs, the teachers, the care workers, the actors, the struggling designers.

I didn’t want to hang out with people like me, I didn’t like the middle class rich, all babies, property, school catchments and tennis clubs. I had nothing to say to them. I still don’t.

Maybe it’s because I have seen both sides of the story, I feel happiest somewhere in the middle. I decided to work part time a few years back, but 4 days a week quickly became 7 and, although I wasn’t earning anything like I used to, I was still highly paid compared to many of my peers and partners.

It burnt me in the end, all that ‘striving’. All I ended up with was a great deal of “stuff” and mental and physical exhaustion, which is a kind of living death.

Now all I need is enough to get by. I can live luxuriously enough on half my last salary. I know that there’s always a story behind hardship, most people aren’t feckless ‘scroungers’, they have got trapped. And it’s no fun, I can promise you that.

It only takes one turn of the wheel of fate and it could be you.

Maybe we should try sympathy instead of schadenfreude.