Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Cameron's Britain: John's Story

This is the story of John.
He was born in 1950 into the poorest district of a very poor town in the North of England. The eldest of six; he spent the first three years of his life sleeping in the shed at the bottom of his grandmother's garden, with his unmarried mother and two younger siblings. The grandmother, a distinctly Victorian and indomitable lady, refused to house her son's lover and their illegitimate children but was cordial enough to at least have them in the garden.

John's parents eventually married and the family were duly housed in a tiny three-bedroomed semi by the council. Three more years brought three more children, and stretched the family's meagre income to perilous levels. Food was always in short supply, though cigarettes and gin were not. John's dad spent every weekend down at the local pub, a habit he kept right up until his death. The children rarely had shoes, or coats, or other basic necessities and life in the cramped little house was often fraught and always hard. John slept every night fighting for space in the grimy, urine soaked bed he shared with brothers, and mornings were spent fighting for who got to wear the one remaining pair of socks.

John was a clever little boy.  From the age of four he walked the two miles to the church primary school, alone, and later, holding hands with his siblings.  Such a clever, thoughtful, painfully shy little boy. Clever enough to pass the 11+ when the time came, but not permitted to attend the local grammar school due to the prohibitive cost of the uniform. Or at least, that was the excuse his parents gave.

He was just fifteen when he eventually left school, and had hopes for a career in the Navy.  A Recruitment Officer visited John's home to try to persuade his parents that this would provide a good future for John, but they had different hopes for him; hopes of him finding immediate work and bringing much needed money into the home.
He found work on the railways, in a signal box at first, but gradually progressed to more manual labour as he got older and stronger.

Life at home was still hard; still fraught. His younger brothers were often in trouble with the police for theft or vandalism. They were beaten with a belt for their indiscretions and John too; after all, as the eldest, it was partly his fault for not looking out for them. Each of his sisters got pregnant at age sixteen and moved out into their own council houses or flats. Again, John was beaten for not having done something to prevent it.

Change and hope came in 1967 when John fell completely and irrevocably in love with the daughter of the landlord of his local pub. After a long courtship they married in 1973.
The usual stuff of life spun out; two babies born, house moves, holidays, changes of job, illnesses, grey hairs, grandchildren, creaky joints, deaths, parties, new three-piece suites, re-decorating, new cars...all that stuff that makes up a simple and yet intricately woven life.

That was then.

This is now. It's 2014 and by the time John is eligible to retire next year he will have worked solidly, at back-breaking, heavy, dirty work, for fifty years.

Fifty years.

In all that time he has never once claimed income support, job-seekers' allowance or indeed, any benefits of any kind. He has never been admitted to hospital, not even as a day patient. He has always paid his taxes and his National Insurance Contributions.  He doesn't have a criminal record, he has no debt. Despite suffering physical and mental abuse as a child, he has never raised a finger to his own children or verbally abused them. He worked seven days a week for years to pay to put them through university. He is immensely proud of them and still hugely in love with his wife. They celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary last year.

Unlike some of his siblings, John has never succumbed to alcoholism. He is living, breathing, laughing, loving proof that you can survive a neglected, impoverished childhood without perpetuating the abuse. The cycle stops with John and his life turns to a new, solid and dependable rhythm.

 Imagine then, if you will, how he feels now, at age 64, learning that when he is finally able to claim his state pension next summer, he isn't going to get the amount that he ought to, just because he was born 9 months too soon.
Imagine how he feels, knowing that all he'll get is £113.10 a week, for paying into the pot for fifty years.
Imagine how he feels, knowing that if he was born after April 1951, he'd get £148.40 a week; the New State Pension.
Please let that sink in, then imagine how he feels when confronted with the fact that his wife is also not entitled to the New State Pension, because she was born two months too late.  His wife; sadly retired due to ill health six years ago and unable to work now.

Imagine how he feels; how they both feel.

Then please imagine this scenario: at his wife's worried nagging, John eventually visited his G.P about chronic pain in his hands, which are incredibly swollen and sore to touch, and have been for some time.  The G.P grudgingly referred him to an Orthopaedic Consultant, with the comment that if he insisted on still working then "of course your hands will hurt and there's not much we can do is there?"

Of course John insists on working. Insists on pedalling 9 miles a day, to and from the builder's yard, to lay heavy flag stone for 7 hours in the freezing December wind. All to be told by an educated, middle class man, sat at a comfy desk in a warm doctor's office that his hands hurt because he 'insists' on working.

Three month wait to see the Consultant. Three months of more pain in increasingly cold and biting weather, with increasingly useless hands.

The verdict? Turns out working for fifty years outdoors with power tools and heavy machinery can really play havoc with your hands. Turns out John needs an operation to fix his hands which are all but crumbling day by day, which will mean three months off work. Minimum.

Imagine how you feel when you hear that. Imagine the sense of despair and pointless, impotent rage you might feel. Add this diagnosis to the one John had for his lungs; hardened with pleural plaques from all the asbestos he breathed in during his late teens and early twenties when he worked on the railways. Not entitled to a decent amount of compensation, by the way, unless he is diagnosed with a terminal illness such as asbestosis. What a comfort that will be should such a diagnosis be forthcoming!

This is Britain in 2014.
This is Cameron's Britain.
This is what happens to a decent, hard-working, honest, man; a man who has never cheated anyone; who was born into poverty and has worked like a dog his entire adult life to dig his way out of it.

Doesn't it just make you think of the word "Austerity" in a different light?

I bought this for John for Christmas:

Happy Christmas Dad. I love you. 



  1. Very moving and powerful. Thank you for writing and thank you to John for allowing his story to be told

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment x