by Jayne Sharratt
Jayne Sharratt, a postgraduate student at Falmouth College of Arts, has written the following article for the first online issue of hackwriters.com the college’s new website for serious writing. Each month a different theme will be explored. The first edition takes a speculative look at The Future. She explains: “Not to be too Shakespearean about it, this is a simple tale of twins, separated at birth, mistaken identity, lost children and hidden kingdoms. One daughter brought up by a rock star and a super model, another dragged through the underworld”.
The computer had sensed her ‘I hate men’, mood by the way in which she had slammed the door when she walked in. By the time she had entered the lounge, the stereo had begun to blast Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ at her, there was a large box of chocolates on the coffee table, the drinks dispenser had made her a large whiskey and coke, and the TV was flashing a message to say that her favourite soap would begin in half an hour, at about the same time the oven would finish preparing the individual portion of Thai Green Curry which the fridge had sent. In the bedroom the wardrobe had sorted a pair of comfortable pyjamas to the front, ready for when she kicked off her heels and wanted to change out of the suit she wore to work. Ella downed the whiskey.
“I don’t want to survive” she yelled at Gloria, who was reaching crescendo. There was no response, so she ate some chocolate, and then some more.
“Are you sure it’ll take half an hour for the food?” she asked.
“If you gave us some warning other than the door slamming…” Computer responded. “All it takes is a push of the button to send the signal you’ll be home in so many minutes.”
Ella pulled a face and asked for her glass to be refilled. “More whiskey this time,” she said.
“Neu-trish doesn’t think that’s a sensible idea. She says if you space your drinks by half an hour and alternate them with glasses of water then it will be possible to drink over a four hour period and not feel any after effects in the morning. It is currently 2 minutes since you finished your last drink, and 28 minutes remaining before it is recommended you have another. May I suggest some ice cold Colorado Spring?”
“Override.” Ella said, and was handed a drink, Whiskey and Coca-cola.
“Ben dumped you then?” Computer asked.
Ella ignored the question. “Kill the song,” she said as it became clear that ‘I Will Survive’ had been ordered to play on a loop. It wasn’t enough to not have a certain singer in your collection to ensure you never heard their songs. Computer could hook up to the on-demand radio station and play almost any cliche it liked to suit the mood it thought she was in. If a computer could think, or if it just reflected the values of her father, who had had the apartment installed, she wasn’t sure. Sometimes it sent the tunes to her through the phone chip in her earrings – the days when she could choose her own personal soundtrack by recording compilation tapes for her walkman were long gone, along with her school days. She rarely had to think for herself now.
“I want some TV – find me something brainless,” she ordered.
The screen came to life. A door was kicked in and four poker players were gunned down before they had time to realise what was happening. The surround sound blasted through the walls of Ella’s apartment and made her jump.
“Mindless, but not mindless violence,” she said. “Find something…just find something..”
“Do not fully comprehend command…setting to default..”
It was a news and documentary slot of some kind, and a man’s voice was droning over monochrome images from the suburban ghettos, the soundtrack playing a maudlin, whining track called ‘The Fear’ by a late, last-century pop band.
“What is this?”
Computer read from the TV Today break-down on the Grid “First in series slot where people look back at the wishes they made at the beginning of the century and reflect on the ten years since.”
“Harsh,” said Ella. She remembered what she had wished for ten years ago. She had been fifteen and the memories made her cringe. But the man in the film looked vaguely familiar, so she carried on watching.
Kim was watching the children leaving her local school. She couldn’t have explained why. Her own children had stopped going last year, and the child in the pushchair – her one-year-old grandson, Junior – wasn’t at that stage yet. Kim couldn’t read or write, and she wondered how many of these kids could. She watched them, their tatty designer-labelled coats hiding torn, worn uniforms, hollow cheeks, unwashed hair, untended sores and bruises. She couldn’t envy them – at 12 or 25, everyone had their paths already set. Hearing their heedless tussles, shouts, fights, hurls of abuse and excitement, she knew. Nothing changed, and there was an overwhelming sense of no hope. And no one missed it. She walked home, ignoring Junior’s wails, as large lumps of Northern rain slanted their way into his pushchair, into his face.
She couldn’t remember the exact day, or moment, she had known for sure she was pregnant. She knew she had been 13 – she couldn’t recall what school year that made her, her attendance had already become sporadic by then. She didn’t remember fear or horror or shock. She had wanted her babies. The horror had come 13 years too late when her 12-year-old daughter, Lou, became pregnant with Junior. She had accepted her own mistake, not even thought it was a mistake, until she had seen patterns repeat themselves, and then she had known, it was all wrong, and all too late.
Abortion was for rich people. Other people. Not only because they could afford to skip the NHS waiting list (longer than the term of a pregnancy, unless you could afford the necessary bribes) but because other people had lives to lead, future plans which babies might disrupt. Kim’s daughter had no future except the one she had gained from her mother’s example – motherhood. People like Kim didn’t have choices – the world just happened to them and they had to deal with it.
Kim’s son Jarvis was 11. She received a recording from him once a week, which he was forced to make. Phone calls were banned – there was a danger of spontaneity in them, and the authorities liked to be able to monitor what the residents told their relations. They called them Training Schools. Originally they had been sold to the public as places to which the long-term unemployed would be sent for re-training. They had become a place to send all the uncontrollable elements in society – the people who did not quite fit into the government’s vision. That now included children who would not stay in school, and hung around the concrete desert at night, scaring people, hijacking deliveries, encroaching onto the safe society most people lived in, making them nervous. They said she couldn’t control him. Well, she’d done her best. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. But with four children, and always having to worry about whether the weekly budget would stretch to food, rent, the loan sharks..and Lou’s pregnancy and then Junior…She couldn’t do any more than take him to the school gates and hope he stayed there, could she? And she couldn’t keep him indoors could she, when they lived in a few gloomy rooms in a ‘scum’ flat‚ and there was nothing for him to do? People who disagreed with them called them Boot Camps. That was the All New Third Way Party. Always opposing everything, never doing much. In fact the training schools had begun with an idea from when the New Labour Party was in government. They had been so determined that the underclass should be eradicated, that there would be no stowaways in society’s progress. Everyone should pull their weight, and state benefits should not be seen as a long-term income provision. Everyone had to be rehabilitated to become a useful member of society. Mr Gadgrind would have been so happy. That was when the emphasi
s on Training had begun. Training whether you liked it or not. It seemed under the new Tory government that a natural continuation of that philosophy was to be Training Schools. Anyone who did not cooperate with the new society vision was sent away, for re-training, rehabilitation, so that one day, probably, they could return and take a place in society as model citizens. Kim found it difficult to imagine anyone she knew with a place in society. When she thought about it she couldn’t remember meeting anyone who had returned from Training School.
Manchester and Liverpool had once been a part of Lancashire until they had been given unitary status as city boroughs. Now history had reversed itself, and the Federal State of Manchester incorporated most of Lancashire. In the far north of the State was the Kingdom of the Ribble Valley. It had begun as a joke. April 1st 1997, the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times had run the front page story about a statement of UDI, electing a Queen, setting up passport controls at the border. Among certain elements in the region it had been less of a joke, and the underlying feeling that “Country’s going to the devil, old man, be better off out of it?” had remained among the people who mattered, the people who owned the land and paid the bribes. So in 2004 the new Manchester State had struck a deal. The State would acknowledge the Ribble Valley as a separate kingdom in all matters excepting Federal Laws, and in return the new Kingdom would play host to the Training Schools necessary to fulfil the rehabilitation needs for the whole expanded Manchester State Region.
Sending the underclass to mingle with the tweed and green welly-wearing Landowners Association was not as unlikely a proposition as it sounded. To begin with, there was never going to be any mingling. The Ribble Valley is a wilderness in the north of England, the paradise of the hunting, shooting, fishing brigade. There is plenty of space for undesirables to be hidden, out of sight, out of mind. The kingdom as it is in 2010 is divided into roughly three main areas. Leaving the border town of Blackburn, passing the strict border control you pass the high wire fences of the Clayton-Le-Dale Suburb with it’s direct armoured Metro Line into Manchester. It is commuter-ville for people who don’t mind showing a passport every day on their way to work and want added snob-value. You enter the first wilderness, a landscape of moor land and bleak hills which wouldn’t quite earn the distinction of being called Mountains, even by English standards. The SmartRoad runs directly through and few people choose to stop. Most of the farms and houses that used to be here have been deserted in favour of more secure developments This is where the Training Schools are.
There was no need to build new developments. The Ribble Valley already had the Colonies, and had been looking for something to do with them for the last two decades. From the Victorian Age until the 1980’s they had been Lunatic Asylums, in the later years referred to obliquely, just as Institutions. There were three – Langho Colony, Brockhall Colony and Calderstones. Each was a large community, complete in itself, with wide tree-lined avenues, large hospital buildings, a church, railway station, daily food deliveries, a cemetery. There was no need for anyone to leave them, and with a few adjustments they could be adapted to the needs of Training Schools. They were secure, remote and all the residents were electronically tagged. Perfect.
At the centre of the kingdom is Clitheroe, the small market town which now serves as a capital. Here the Union Jack flies over the Conservative Club, the church and the small Norman Keep. The Queen’s picture still hangs on walls and the children are still made to sing the National Anthem at school every morning. Nobody sees the contradiction between this and the town’s UDI status. The Important People make up the rules, and they were not rebelling against the established order, but against the changing modern world. They stood up for their right to keep their class system and their Grammar school in place. Beyond Clitheroe is the second wilderness, a world of pretty villages and picturesque scenes, where the rich live in remote mansions and keep their own version of the feudal system going through their tennantry. There is again a bleak edge to the prettiness, which hints at a barbarism, never quite extinguished. In the sixteenth century they burned more witches in this region than anywhere else in England. It is this ruthlessness and determination to pursue the course of justice as they see it which makes the people of the area the perfect custodians of those society wants to disown. They have no mercy.
Jarvis was not due to send another recording for a few days yet, so Kim returned to her flat with little to look forward to. At this time she might have watched the digicasts if she hadn’t sold her wallscreen to stave the Loan sharks off for another month. So she missed the broadcast.
[Transcript of TV docu-slot]
MILLENNIUM WISHES – Ten Years On
“In ten years time I hope there will be no homeless charities. I hope there will be no need for them.” CRAIG BROWNE, DAY-CENTRE WORKER, JANUARY 2000.
It was ironic, really. In the year 2000 I wished my job away. To an extent I have got what I wanted. There are no hostels, day centres, emergency funds or drop-in centres anymore. The reason for this is not that there has been any drop in the numbers of the dispossessed and homeless since 2000 – on the contrary in the last ten years the extent of the population we define under the term ‘underclass’, or ‘socially excluded’‚ has grown significantly – but because there is nobody left brave or foolish enough to take the risks involved with working with these people who society has disowned.
When the millennium turned, the warning signals were already there to point the way in which Britain was heading, for those who were either willing or forced to see them. Personally I remember December 17th 1999 as a landmark in our descent into a two-tier society. It was on this day that Ruth Wyner and John Brock were sentenced to five and four years in prison respectively. Wyner was the director of the Cambridge-based charity Wintercomfort, which ran a day centre for the homeless, of which Brock was the manager. They were arrested and then imprisoned after an undercover police operation revealed drug dealing on a large scale was taking place in the day centre. The two were not accused of dealing drugs themselves, encouraging drug deals or profiting from them in any way. Nor was it said that they had done nothing to try and prevent drugs deals in their day centre. Their crime was that they had not done enough to combat drug dealers having access to their premises.
Their defence was that they were not aware of the extent of the dealing which was taking place in the day centre. They could not be, it was only detected by two undercover police men, pretending to be homeless and calling themselves ‘Ed’‚ and ‘Swampy’. One of the main dealers was a man who regularly complained to staff about the drug addicts. Another dealer kept her drugs hidden in her crotch, and was only revealed by the police surveillance camera. Wyner and Brock made it clear drug dealing would not be tolerated, operated a strict drugs policy and a system of bans from the day centre for anyone they suspected of dealing in drugs. The reason they did not hand the names of these people over to the police was because they were only suspected – there was never any proof.
The true injustice of the charge was that the government needed charities like Wintercomfort to work with young people with problems, they even encouraged them, because they provided support that didn’t come from anywhere else. The state was not prepared to deal with these people, it was easier to leave it to the charities. Wyner and Brock were arrested for doing the very thing the government had always desired them to do – be on the front line in society’s war against poverty, long-term unemployment, substance abuse and all the other pr
oblems associated with social exclusion. The conviction of Wyner and Brock in effect said that the government did not want anyone to work with these people. Once someone had fallen into the ‘underclass’‚ there was no point to working with them – they were unsalvageable and could not be reclaimed into society again. The way was being paved for two separate societies with no interaction apart from unmerciful repression, and no chance of climbing out of the underclass. In the twenty first century society’s safety nets were to be eroded until they no longer existed.The conviction of Weiner and Brock had little mainstream press coverage or reaction, and so it is hard to convey the sense of utter shock and disbelief felt by those who worked with the homeless or drug users at the prison sentences. No one had believed the charges against the two could be sustained, or that if they were the sentences would be anything other than nominal. Any charity or organisation which ran a policy of confidentiality towards their clients was worried by the precedent this set.
It seemed clear by 2000 that things were only going to get worse for the homeless. My wish that the homeless problem would be solved was not one I believed possible – the wish was a wistful one which belonged to another era. Pre-1997 we had naively believed that everything would change, when we had a new government. I define this time as the time before I grew up, when I had only the big, bad Tory in the wood to hate and fear. Disillusionment was already a familiar feeling by the end of 1999.
THE CALL TO REVOLUTION
What the government really wanted me to say when they allowed the TV company to commission me to do this programme is to say, yes, fabulous, my wish has come true, there are no homeless in the United British States. And maybe they’re right, when was the last time you saw a tramp sleeping in a doorway, a beggar asking for money? But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves where these people have gone to? You don’t think they’re all respectable members of society now, do you? Doctors, Lawyers, new Grid media moguls?
So the future’s so perfect, as perfect as the present, and why should you care about those who don’t quite get it, who haven’t been able to keep up? We live in a country where there are two societies, but the government says that this is going to change. You won’t have to be scared to go to certain places, you won’t have to have huge electronic fences around your property anymore. Why? because they’ll eradicate the ‘underclass’. How worthy that sounds. But what does that mean exactly? Let’s talk definitions in a minute.
Ten years ago an American called Charles Murray who had done academic research into the underclass in his own country came over here to do a similar investigation in Britain. This is how he defined underclass: “By underclass I do not mean people who are merely poor, but people at the margins of society, unsocialised and often violent. The chronic criminal is part of the underclass, especially the violent common criminal. So are parents who mean well but cannot provide for themselves, who give nothing back to the neighbourhood and whose children are the despair of the teachers who have to deal with them.”
This is the stereotype we have largely been left with, despite the passage of time. Murray took for his study, three indicators of an underclass; Crime, Illegitimacy, Employment, or lack of it. These three are still in use by the government for the purpose of definition. People are blamed for their misfortunes and made to feel guilty for existing.
Once again we blame single mothers. Children of as young as 12 find they are pregnant. Instead of reacting with fear and horror, they desperately want to keep their babies. “I want a baby to love,” said a 12-year-old from Sheffield at the turn of the century. They want the responsibility, the purpose, the attention, the love. A child who felt they had a future would worry about having a baby interfering with that future. Children are savvy enough to know about contraception. The problem is that children feel they have no future except the most basic and obvious – procreation.
We give these children no choice, no options. They are born into an underworld, and there are no bootstraps for them to pull themselves out. What purpose to life are they supposed to have? The girls have babies, the boys get guns.
And what is the answer? The government says it is Training Schools. And have you ever wondered what happens to people once they’ve arrived in these places…
It was not an envoy from the Tory government who ordered the slot to be pulled off the air. The message came from the HQ of the rock star who was now running to be the new leader of the Labour Party. Nobody was listening anyway. There is too much space in the Grid for anyone to listen to the unstructured ramblings of a madman from another era for longer than two minutes.Only Ella watched for longer, wondering if she recognised in the features of Craig Browne the only picture she had of her biological father…
© JAYNE SHARRATT 2000
Have you got a story or article you would like to see on HoldTheFrontPage?
E-mail us now