This is just a note to say that this site is now retired. I’ll leave it online for reference purposes, but it’s all over bar the singing. For more from me over the coming weeks and months, come and visit my newish site, simonjcross.com which will become home to more content as things move ahead.
This blog is a response to the article in the Guardian on Tuesday 1st of April, by the journalist Helen Pidd.
Helen is a good journalist, and while I’m glad she wrote the piece, there are a few things which I think need to be addressed – apart from a couple of factual inaccuracies there are also some wider points made in the balanced article which could do with some attention.
Firstly to set the scene, for some months some of us in Grimsby have been working hard to prevent KEO films, a production company that prides itself on an apparently ‘ethical’ stance, from making a new series of the ‘documentary’ Skint in Grimsby.
The first series of Skint was set in Scunthorpe, and while the talk was of documentary, the reality was much more about tabloid style journalism. Individuals felt they had been misrepresented and lied to by producers, communities felt let down by empty promises. And the whole country got to have a chuckle about the ridiculous behaviour of the benefit class preceriat who inhabit ‘the town with a swear word in its name. A whopping 2.8 million viewers got to see the residents of the Westcliff estate as they went about the daily lives of the urban underclass.
Reviews were mixed, and confusing: “It’s funny, fair, frank.” Said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, while in the Telegraph Neil Midgely warned: “Presenting difficult topics on TV is one thing – presenting them as soap opera is quite another.”
But on one thing we can agree, that Channel 4 had a hit on their hands, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Kirsty and Phil engaged in a campaign to raise the property price bubble to breaking point.
The main Grimsby resident that Helen quotes is the Rev John Ellis, a man who has a hard won reputation for tenacity and drive, and whose Shalom youth project is a beacon of what real urban ministry among the dispossessed can look like. John is a friend who I admire greatly, and whose opinion on this I dispute totally.
He has spent almost as long as I have been alive working in this area, and it would be foolish to discount his experience and insight, but nonetheless I believe he has fallen for the spin of producers who are full of talk of ‘giving people their voice’ and allowing them to ‘tell their story’. What I know as a former hack myself is that this is tabloid 101. This is exactly what you say to get over the doorstep in any difficult situation – it’s precisely how I myself got over many a doorstep, although I hope I never exploited that opportunity as some do.
The truth is that the story is not going to be told just how the individuals want them to be told, they are not going to be in on the editorial decision making – they are the raw material, they are Foucault’s ‘bio power’ for the media machine. It’s their antics which are going to get Channel 4’s next ratings hit, not their grimy back story.
John says that his community is more ‘oppressed’ than deprived, he’s right – although the former is actually a consequence of the latter. He also says that he doesn’t think his community members are best described as ‘vulnerable’: “You keep hearing them being called ‘vulnerable’, but believe me, many are as vulnerable as a Sherman tank. They’re no shrinking violets by any means. They want their stories told.”
I’m one of those who do think many of these individuals are vulnerable, vulnerable precisely because they have been oppressed, vulnerable because they are addicted, vulnerable because they are poor, vulnerable because they are hungry. They are vulnerable because for many people, their whole lives have been lived under the shadow of domination by others, whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, a violent partner, a government (series of actually) who have chosen to ignore them or just didn’t know how to help them. They have had little or no recourse to self determination, and then along comes a media company keen to find another ratings winner in austerity Britain, which offers them a chance to ‘tell their story’.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the real story has to be told about this area, about towns and cities and village all across the country where people are living in squalor and poverty – about how people in the seventh richest country in the world can be going hungry, and about how children are growing up in environments where they are neglected and left with no aspiration or hope for the future and turn instead to the easy comforts and short term solutions of drugs, alcohol and crime.
Grimsby is a town which has certainly suffered as it has de-industrialised. Many parts of it are tired and run down, many parts of it are deprived or oppressed. On my own estate (Nunsthorpe) some houses are boarded up or derelict, and crime stats are depressing at times. This is a place at the sharp end of savage government cuts, and a place where thanks to cheap housing, people often move to – although not so often because they are in hope of a job. It’s also a place which is at the forefront of some emerging industries, particularly the renewables sector, and parts of the catering sector too, there are many exciting creative projects,and some wonderful creative people. There are good points about living here, and there are bad ones. A real documentary series might demonstrate that, and it might demonstrate the fact that some people do feel so desperate about the oppression they under that they make very poor choices indeed. They are a minority of the population, but they are real.
But lets be clear, that is not what Skint is going to do, to extend the Sherman tank metaphor a little, the very facade of strength and impenetrability that the oppressed and vulnerable build up to defend themselves against further attack will be used against them. The Sherman’s nickname of ‘Tommy Cooker’ for the way that they could be set on fire is apposite.
Now it could be that in the aftermath of the huge media fallout that followed ‘Benefit’s Street’ the next series of Skint takes a different tack, and actually does try to tackle some of the real issues, and tells some genuine stories – that is what I hope it will do. But to expect it is far too much. It’s narrated by an actor with a stereotypical ‘Northern’ voice, not by John Pilger.
The inaccuracies in Helen Pidd’s article are to do with the involvement of Steve Chalke in the public meeting which Helen attended. She cites Katie Buchanan of KEO Films as saying that “The Nunsthorpe public meeting had been convened by Steve Chalke, a charismatic Anglican pastor who runs over 40 schools under the Oasis banner, including one on James Turner Street.”
Perhaps this is Ms Buchanan’s misapprehension rather than Ms Pidd’s, but it’s quite wrong. Firstly the meeting was convened by Grimsby residents, I know for I am one of them. In fact I invited Steve, who is also my boss, and arranged the meeting at a school in which I work.
Secondly Chalke is not an Anglican pastor, he is a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t run any schools, he founded a charity under which an arm operates which does. Perhaps these are insignificant – but I don’t think so entirely, it shows me that Ms Buchanan at least, and perhaps Helen Pidd, haven’t been paying attention to my own correspondence with them, a particular shame with regard to Ms Buchanan whom I invited to the meeting personally, and explained the context fully. If she cant even get my story right in one paragraph when it was spelt out clearly in black and white, what hope do the residents of the oppressed areas of Grimsby have in a ratings chasing televised series?
Personally I strive to be even handed in this debate, I don’t try to pit one side against another, I haven’t backed calls for road signs with ‘get out channel 4’ or anything else. I believe in a free press, I believe in a society where people should be able to express themselves. But I don’t believe that is what is on offer here, and nor do many others, which is why I and others are at a kind of war with Channel 4.
But as it happens I don’t like using the rhetoric of warfare, I don’t really approve of the use of war as a metaphor in this way, it helps to embed an idea of war as normality in our thinking.
And in reality there is not one voice about this issue in our town, there are a large and vocal group of people who oppose the series, there are a smaller and vocal group who welcome it, and there are the vast majority who don’t much care – in reality it will be them who make the running.
The fallout from Skint will be something that I have to live with and work amongst, as it will be for John Ellis and others of us who have committed ourselves to the betterment of our communities. Ours will be the legacy of children who are kept off school, or ‘good’ families who move away from stigmatised areas, or families at war with themselves, or neighbours who never speak again. Long after Channel 4 have gone, and empty promises from local politicians with no money or mandate to deliver them are blown away like sand, there will remain those of us who don’t believe that its right to blame the symptoms for the causes, or to set up targets to be knocked down to spare the blushes of a political class living in times of austerity.
(Edited 4/4/14 to remove typo from line one where it read ‘Kidd’ instead of ‘Pidd’ which will teach me to wear my glasses while writing.)
This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
I woke up this morning with a sense of emptiness in my stomach. Not hunger – the discomfort and craving for food which I experienced in the first few days of my fast are not with me any longer – but a strange hollow feeling.
While emptiness is uncomfortable, it is easily bearable. And it is much to be preferred over the early part of the fast, when the body is effectively detoxing and craving all kinds of substances, sugar, salt, and fat in particular.
I have now reached the stage of Ketosis, the point in the fast where the body begins to break down its fat deposits via the liver, to turn them into energy. Until this stage ends, I am not expecting to be terribly uncomfortable for a while.
But the thing is this: Most people who are going without food in the UK today are not doing so over long drawn out periods of never eating. They are missing meals here and there, they are going without food for a couple of days at a time.
More than that, they don’t have the luxury of planning or researching their hunger, as I have my fast.
Often these short blood sugar draining spells of hunger can lead to rash decisions. Just as most of us know we should not go food shopping when we feel hungry, so it’s best not to apply for a pay-day loan while you have low blood sugar. Hungry people are easy targets for exploitation.
Occasionally these rash hungry decisions can end up in criminal acts – there is nothing new about this: an ancient Hebrew Proverb calls on God to neither provide too much nor too little – in order that one should neither grow rich and ignore God, or grow poor and have to steal to get what one needs. (Proverbs 30: 7-9)
Another side effect of the early stages of going without food is a slow down of the body’s essential services, in particular the ability to regulate heat. I’m a naturally warm person, but even I was cold and shivery in the first couple of days of the fast.
This reminds me too that one of the big tussles people have financially is with the costs of heating their homes – the ever present card or key meter ticking down until ‘clunk’ the energy goes off. No central heating, no hot water. The difficult decision of whether to put more money on the gas card, or to get some food is not one to be made when the body is craving sugar.
I’ll continue to blog my thoughts on hunger as I fast through Lent – I’m now on day five, an eighth of the way through, and the other 35 days still seem like an improbably long period of time, but there is light at the end of my tunnel – I will eat again. I am privileged to be able to make this choice. Others are starting their own involuntary fasts today, and for them there is no clear way out.
You can sign up to join the End Hunger Fast campaign here – why not join the many others who have pledged to fast for the day on April 4th?
I’m doing this because I want to raise awareness of the fact that in my community, and in other towns, villages and cities around this country, people are going hungry every day. Parents are making the hard choices between food and fuel, between eating themselves, and giving food to their children.
In my own area of Grimsby the local food bank has seen a staggering rise in use since 2012 – a massive 420% more people are accessing the Daily Bread Food Larder food bank. Even more chilling is the statistic that 25% of those who are relying on food hand outs are children.
Across the country there are millions of people, many of whom are in work, who have had to access a food bank since last year. In that time thousands of people have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition.
In any country it is terrible that people should be going hungry. In a country like ours, a rich country where ‘money is no object’ when it comes to rescuing flood victims, and where billions are spent on bailing out banks, it’s nothing short of a total disgrace that people should be going hungry.
You may know that another issue in our town right now is the proposal that a new series of ‘Skint’ will be made here. It’s a programme which highlights the way some individuals have chosen to live in a climate of unemployment, benefit dependency, and social problems.
I have been involved, heavily involved, in campaigning to prevent this filming. But this is not because I don’t want the problems to be highlighted. Some people have said that we ‘shouldn’t hang out our dirty washing in public‘ – I disagree with that. I want people everywhere to understand the plight of those who live on or over the edge of poverty and hunger. I want us all to wake up to the fact that societal failings have led to children going hungry.
The difference is that I don’t want individuals and their families to become scapegoats for the moral failings of society. I’m not interested in providing fuel for a form of contemporary freak show where we can all gather round our large televisions and laugh at the village idiots in the hope that it will raise awareness of what our communities have to live with.
We need to face up to the problems of our society and acknowledge their causes, not mock their symptoms.
That is what I am going to be going without food for forty days, starting on Ash Wednesday, I’m doing it as part of the ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign, and if you want to support what I’m doing, you can find ways of doing so on the campaign website.
A practical response could be that you could make a donation or series of donations to your local food bank, if you’re in Grimsby you can do that via either of the schools I work in, Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe or Oasis Academy Wintringham. If you want to join in by fasting, there is a national day of fasting on April 4th. You can also tweet your support using the hashtag #endhungerfast.
Some people have voiced concerns about my health, please be reassured that this is planned, and I have measures in place to protect myself from harm – but lets not forget that I’m privileged to be able to do that, for others this is more like a way of life.
it has been fun, the new place is great, much greater than the old one – annoying to have been without internet access for a fortnight, but quite therapeutic too.
Blogging may recommence soon, once we get back into the swing of things – but then again, Christmas is only just around the corner…
If you live in the general area of North East Lincolnshire, and are interested in finding out how ancient spirituality teaching can help you with your life today – you should definitely come along.
September 24th, 9.30 – 4.00pm, St Michael’s Church, Great Coates Rd, Grimsby.
Cost is £15.00. The event will only go ahead if enough people book, so get in touch to avoid disappointment.
Don’t know what the Enneagram is, or why it would be useful for you? You might find this helpful.
Interested in coming along? Book here (or get in touch with me direct.)
Want to sign up to receive Emmaus Encounters news updates? Do it here.
I’ve been working on my new ‘emmaus encounters‘ project, its all been a bit multimedia-mongous today. One thing I did, was the thing I said I wouldn’t do… I signed up for twitter again – if you want to, you can follow me at @numonastic. Don’t expect anything hugely amazing or entertaining at this stage, it’s all part of the development of a combined strategy for networking and promoting the various workshops and so on that we’ve got planned.
At the moment there are two workshops advertised on the site, one of which I mentioned here the other day, the other one is part of a UK tour that Nicholas Vesey of Norwich Meditation Centre is doing, to promote his book, which is named after the course ‘developing consciousness‘ that he runs. It looks like a good read. There are a couple more in the pipeline, including one on the Enneagram – and I have another two larger scale things coming along too. All in all, it’s looking quite promising.
I’ve also been busy creating a new mailing list with Mail Chimp – I’ve never used it before, and have to admit to having been a bit grumpy about it before hand, but now I know how well it works, I must say I’m impressed. Takes an age to create the list though, or at least it does if you have a pre-existing list of any size.
And if that isnt enough to keep me occupied, I’ve got a school drama club ‘mime assembly’ to sort out. Yikes. Oh… and a labyrinth.