“We got ourselves a reader here!”- Bill Hicks
Danny* is a man I speak to in my town whenever I run into him. Danny has intermittent periods of sleeping on the streets due to ongoing health issues and not feeling safe in the direct access homeless accommodation he is sometimes offered by the local authority.
I bumped into him yesterday and I stopped for a chat as it’d been months since I’d last seen him and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that homeless people are being even more ignored during the pandemic as people are even more fearful of getting too close or handing over money. Danny is nice, and always enthusiastically excited to talk to anyone who acknowledges he is actually there. He has a wealth of hilarious stories about his past escapades around the world and we often chat about those, or food, or our friends or what the fuck I have managed to do to my hair during lockdown. And books of course, because Danny always has a couple of books with him, particularly when he is street homeless and we spent quite a while talking about the things we like to read yesterday.
Danny says he isn’t that fussy what he reads, usually just what he can get his hands on, though his favourites are anything to do with history and the world wars. Library access is an issue when you don’t have an address or never stay anywhere long enough to have proof of one, so he reads what he is given by others or buys them from a charity shop which he promptly re-donates once he has finished them. He’s currently reading some Phillip Pullman which he is enjoying, and hadn’t realised was part of a trilogy. He then starts to tear up as he told me that a girl of about 15 had noticed he was reading His Dark Materials and excitedly spoke to him about it before running to her house and bringing back the rest of the series for him. We figured out a couple of titles we can swap when I see him next weekend. He tells me that he sometimes meets in a local pub with a group of men who are also homeless or vulnerably housed to drink and get out the cold for a bit and they’ve formed a sort of book club where they all discuss what they’ve been reading and swap titles that they are finished with.
Connection is desperately vital to us and books or art of any kind can give us that even in our darkest hours. If you have ever lived in poverty it can become a lifeline. Of course we hear more and more talk about internet access and in an increasingly tech focused world it has shifted from a luxury to a necessity as we rely on it solely to apply for work, benefits, banking and paying bills.
When I was at my most destitute, books kept me alive, and for once that isn’t me being dramatic. During the time I was living alone in a tower block, having gas and electricity on the meter was sporadic to say the least. But I didn’t need those things to read. I didn’t need an internet connection or even a lamp, really, I just needed daylight and occasionally a few candles. During a period where sometimes I could go days without talking to someone, reading helped me connect in a way I was struggling to in the real world. Sometimes to an author, sometimes to a character or even just a feeling or an idea. It transported me away from squalor to places I’ll probably never visit and took me away from what was an oppressively mundane and friendless existence. I’m always utterly astounded when I’m looking through my books now and spot one I have had from my teenage years. Because despite leaving home with two bags and travelling across the country, living in countless places before I got to my current home- sometimes in a very immediate and unplanned way- I somehow managed to keep them with me.
Abundance, nourishment and health isn’t just gained from money, materials and minerals . Growing up as a kid, opinions on books and reading just for recreation was mixed. I was lucky to have both a parent and a teacher who instilled that love of reading in me and encouraged me to write myself, but there were also times that taking time out to read got me in trouble as it was seen as a pointless, frivolous activity. But without it I would never have written a word. Learning to connect with ideas, and people, learning to have empathy and outrage at the suffering in the world is brought me to the warming fires of anarchism and all of the beautiful mad souls I have met as a result who have given me some hope that this world can be better than what it is.
So you can imagine my reaction this morning at the government’s announcement to ban any ‘anti capitalist material’ in English schools. The guidance states that “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation”. It later goes into examples of these supposedly extreme stances which it classes as “A publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism or to end free and fair elections”. What they class as an organisation is anyone’s guess when we’re talking about a political party that tried to legislate any gathering of more than 20 people as an illegal rave in 1994.
While the Conservatives insist that the new legislation will mean that lessons will reflect a diversity of issues and that schools should be aware of their duties around impartiality around political issues in the classroom, they hardly have a good track record in this sort of thing. Human rights academics such as Dr Richard McNeil Wilson who is a counter extremism expert in Florence and Labour politicians John McDonnell and Beth Winter have voiced their concerns that it sets us on a dangerous path. Because oddly, this new clause does seem to just relate to the relationships, sex and health education curriculum and while I’ve no doubt that teaching has changed vastly since I was last at school, I can’t remember the sexual health nurse warning us about the dangers of toxic shock syndrome then giving a demonstration on how to make a Molotov straight after putting a condom on a banana. The timing is a little too unsettling when we have seen thousands of school aged children showing just how good they can be at organising in wake of the climate change school strikes and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. So while it might seem that this is only a small change made for a subject that it shouldn’t make any difference to, we have to take notice of this and because this government does nothing by accident and is likely very much an indication of what we are to see more of in the future.
Sociology classes would get pretty weird. Like listening to Killing In The Name Of by Rage Against the Machine on the radio, where just as you’re looking forward to the spicy bit, it just cuts out entirely to the last two bars. History lessons have often failed to truly represent how every single civil right we have was won, with almost every adult and child learning more about the role of Britain in the slave trade from the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down in Bristol than they ever did at school. This being introduced would certainly extinguish the current campaigns that are ongoing to change this, and teach our colonial history in a more honest way. I don’t expect teachers to be handing out copies of The Anarchist Cookbook , but at this rate you couldn’t show a Sky Arts documentary on Pinter in a classroom because of Danny Dyer growling about kicking in “fascist slehhhhgs” and branding Oswald Mosley a “Melt”.
Yes, there’s still the internet as many have pointed out, but I’m working regularly with families who often don’t have WiFi or have to decide whether they’re using the last of their electricity to cook the tea or charge their devices. Access to books, to the arts, to music and cultural resources has faced an onslaught over the last decade with library and youth work closures. Prisoner access to books, which is vital for mental health and rehabilitation becomes increasingly difficult despite the tireless work being done by charities who set up to try and provide them. In America, the prison industrial complex is so brazen that private facilities have been charging prisoners five cents a minute to read ebooks and places bans on certain subjects which include carpentry, starting a small business and African American studies, presumably to ensure that inmates are more likely to stay trapped in the cycle of poverty and crime, meaning prison bosses and stakeholders never lose their most valuable assets.
It might not seem like a priority, especially when we look at the other issues that poor and working class communities are facing at the moment, but access to the arts has long been known to be part of the poverty cycle, not just a side effect of it and it has positive effects to our wellbeing and overall life experiences. The Workers Educational Association founded in 1903 knew this, bringing learning and culture to poor, working class mining communities, some of who would have left school at an exceptionally young age if they had been at all.
I’ve delivered theatre projects with kids at risk of being permanently excluded from school. Organisations like that are also fast disappearing thanks to ‘austerity’, but they did more to keep kids engaged in learning and out of the criminal justice system than any formal learning setting did. One of our kids had been so disassociated from any kind of education or engaged with anyone outside the estate she lived on for so long that she thought that all Jewish people had been killed during the Second World War and was astonished to find out otherwise. It might seem funny, but she was bright, hilarious and had aspirations that she had been indoctrinated into thinking were unrealistic. Because her relentless barrage of problems at home and life experiences meant she found it difficult to function in a traditional school setting, but thrived in ours.
There’s a reason why funding to all of these things are the first to go whenever the word ‘cuts’ or ‘budgets’ is mentioned. An empowered working class is dangerous. Empowered, learned and organised young people are a fucking nightmare for them in an increasingly divided world. We are told that books and the arts are frivolous luxuries for working class communities and made to feel guilty for even complaining about their demise when there’s “more important things to worry about”. The wealthy are happy to enjoy or borrow from working class culture when it suits them, but not as quick to support access to it. Look at the percentage of people from working class backgrounds actually employed within in the arts, either as artists or even front of house staff. You can’t pay your bills with “exposure”, a phrase which every artist, writer and musician I know is bitterly familiar with.
I’ve no doubt that our kids will find ways to gain access and disseminate information and knowledge to each other. Tell them you don’t want to have access to something and they’ll find their way through the barriers like flowers growing through cracks in the concrete to get it. Hopefully enough to pull the whole building down.
Instead of a song, Ive put a list of organisations below which could all do with your money and your time especially in these times. If you know of anymore, feel free to add to the comments on the facebook page.
http://www.havendistrubution.org.uk A UK based charity providing books for prisoners.
https://www.chavsolidarity.com Home of Lumpen, a journal for working class writers which gives paid work and what is often the first experience of publication for writers from poorer backgrounds as well as providing excellent workshops on class throughout the uk.
https://www.borderlinebooks.org A gateshead based charity providing books to prisoners, refuges, homeless shelters and people seeking asylum who have no funds for books
Cannylittlelibrary@gmail.com a collectively run radical library based at Newcastle’s Star & Shadow providing access to alternative books and zines and information and books on DIY, info for action, feminism, queer and working class struggles
Http://beyondbarsuk.wordpress.com a collective of volunteers who send books and other educational materials free of charge to incarcerated LGBTQIA people across the UK.