PREFACE TO A NEW BOOK BY A UNIVERSAL CREDIT CLAIMANT LIVING IN MANCHESTER . ME. GARY KNAPTON.
There is a lot written and spoken about the benefits system – but rarely from anyone actually living within the confines of its rules and obligations. Media effortlessly promote their judgment of the welfare state and of their perception of a “culture” that resides within that state – from reality- styled TV documentaries and undercover exposés to Sunday newspaper features, daily tabloid breaking stories, radio phone-ins, endless social media dialogues featuring raging-troll ambushes to current affairs panel chat shows and even the odd big screen feature such as I, Daniel Blake from Ken Loach in 2016. The latter stands out for being disturbingly accurate, albeit coming from a different angle to the one I intend to project.
All the world, it would seem, has an opinion of both the function of the benefits system and of the type of people that the system is supporting. Indeed, the very idea that the system is “supporting” the people within it is often taken as a given. It should not be.
Here is my story. I have no interest in persuading ignorant people into my favour. I neither need nor care for their affirmations. I am interested, though, in truth. I have always known that the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society are ripe for manipulating not because of any financial limitations – even though these are often the most visible traits of that demography. Rather, they lack self-confidence and self-worth and often they lack a decent level of basic education such that some are not very literate nor are they articulate in their dealings with officialdom. Don’t get me wrong. They are some of the most articulate and street-smart people you could ever meet, in their local neighbourhoods and in their familial settings. In, what you might argue, are the places that count most dear. Just not so in the tautological, euphemistic and ceremonious world of the establishment bureaucracy and the silky sophistry of national media platforms and twenty- first-century communication etiquette befitting of this higher-education-based, digital age. You know, the clever way we all talk these days and the bright, clean-cut images of ourselves that we are expected to show to the world.
For a start, the quality of my expression and my grasp of real processes and politics belies the misapprehension among many of you reading this that the British social underclass is an illiterate mass.
Many people suffer bad luck and wind up in the benefits system. I know. They are my neighbours. Injured soldiers. Factory workers suffering asbestosis. And many more than you’d imagine are highly educated victims of economic recessions, doctors and scientists from far-flung war-torn lands or simply your average workaday citizen managing to keep their head above water until personal tragedy strikes, such as an acrimonious divorce, bereavement or individual personal trauma. Some carry a short or long-term mental illness. Many are young single mothers who are constantly finding ways to make ends meet and hold it all together. There are young fathers deprived of child custody who are wrestling with depression and self-loathing. There are blue collar workers such as airport customs officials whose demanding work and long hours have driven them to abandon their personal health for their jobs and are now struck down with acute obesity and heart problems. Some, many women, have found themselves on the wrong end of a violent relationship or abusive treatment in the recent past. And often in the present too, as new marks and bruises on their faces and arms testify. In the last two years, I have met them all. They have become my neighbours and friends and in this book, you’ll get the chance to meet some of them. But the point here is that people who have been knocked back by trauma, mistakes, bad luck, or a poor start in life lack confidence, right now in the present moment when the benefits system receives them. And as a result, they lack the sense of self-worth and self-value that we all normally take for granted. They need guidance and they need a break.
This, then, nurtures a culture of learned helplessness which means that such people tend not to stand up for themselves. How can they? Where has it ever got them? They rely on authentic sup- port and compassion. They would be an easy target for less scrupulous interests.
The Outlier Within
How should one shine a light into such darkness and let what was hidden be seen?
What is required is a dedication to the truth and an acceptance of responsibility. An observant, confident and system-savvy person on the inside. An individual with a half an eye on the grand design and with a streak of cynicism coupled with a rough working knowledge of media, the law and corporatocracy. An outsider on the inside. And not somebody just dipping their toes in the water for a short spike of caprice. Tokenism is not what I speak of. A long-term bona fide benefits claimant living on the wrong side of the tracks, deep inside what might be dis-tastefully referred to as “Grenfell territory”. Somebody who has known a good life. A university educated person with a long career in the digital and creative ad industries behind them. A positive individual with a loving supportive network of family and friends. A clean living writer and life-coach with a keen streak of longing for social justice and the requisite political engagement. Deep within the system yet refusing to be eaten by the system. Just biding their time. Watching. Learning. Recording. Not smoking weed. Not drinking alcohol. Not sleeping until midday. Not letting personal health and positive outlook slide. Not rebelling against their current plight by constructing a castaway image and identity redolent of so many poor souls who have long since become invisible to eyes and hearts. Somebody who feels that they may have found themselves in this very position at this particular juncture at this particular time for a reason bigger than a corrupt boss, an economic recession and a long-since spent redundancy cheque.
Somebody with a clear head. An iMac. A fibre connection. And a point to make.
I am a person who is both within and without. Mine is at once a message of hope and optimism as well as an evidenced diary of personal truth. This book may be taken as a stand alone campaign and research project. Not so much inspired by real events as a direct report of real events as personally experienced, very often I have backed up my claims with real evidence which ap- pears throughout the book in the form of photo images. Of course, there is a narrative style to my coverage but only in the interest of readability. Some of the names have been changed to protect the residents.
This is not an out and out political book although there are clear political ramifications to the con- tent and what the content implies. I am interested in architecture and the sounds and sights of the inner city and how it feels to receive a life of inner city habitation in acute poverty. How it looks.
How it sounds. How it tastes. How it feels. How it really is, sensationally. These interests influence my reporting. I am grateful for being alive and I am a keen observer of small details – what many people may classify as the mundane and the everyday, I find myself examining and reflecting upon. This attitude bears an influence on the book and the findings contained within it.
I firmly believe that things can and will change for the better and that in time we as a nation and society will rise again to be the best that we can be by affording the most vulnerable people among us the financial, social and psychological help they need and deserve. All that is required to get things in motion is a shift in cognition. We shall vindicate and accept our more needy brothers and sisters for what they are and upon sensing this the needy will, in turn, grant them- selves permission to live happily and free from shame and worry. They will return to collect the sense of value and self-worth that has been stripped from them. They will embrace their personal agency when society at large indicates to them that they are worthy of doing so.