Saturday, December 02, 2006

Naked Hunch

I started the week with a long, unfocused rant about David ‘Dung Cam’ Cameron and his simplistic pronouncements on ‘relative poverty’. By Tuesday I’d realised that rage had got the better of me and promised to try and coolly go about deconstructing his ravings and juxtaposing them onto the day-to-day realities of life in wealth-divided Britain as I know it. I’m now going to finish what I started on Monday.

One of the comments left on yesterday’s post about Secret Millionaire Ben ‘Lost Me’ Way seems the perfect place to begin. Anonymous wrote,

‘I think it's very unfair of you to criticize people in the community who are trying to do something for young people who very often don't have a chance of getting ahead in life. Both Ufu Niazi and the boxer James Cook are dedicated individuals who have worked tirelessly for years, often without recieving (sic) any payment or thanks. They seemed happy with the involvement of Ben Way. What's your problem with that and what, if anything, have you ever done to help?’

I readily admit I do not do anything ‘to help’. I don’t get any joy out of sniping from the sidelines but there is a very good reason I do it. I fundamentally disagree with the ‘charitable’ ethic that is still the basis for action on poverty and disadvantage in this country. I feel bad about dissing Ufu because he is very obviously ‘making a difference’ to the lives of some individual young people but I still think he is part of the problem because he is clearly not able to manage all aspects of the Pedro Club and, by insisting on muddling through, he becomes an obstacle to anything changing.

Former British super middle weight boxing champ James Cooke, on the other hand, is effective because he is a stable rather than chaotic force and brings both expertise and consistency to his role. I’d certainly rather see him have a knighthood than Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, or Philip ‘Slime’ Green. But I’m uncomfortable about anything that’s personality-dependent simply because it can fall apart when you take the driving force out of the equation. I’m anti-leadership for this reason. Leadership implies a concentration of power which, on a very local level, is more likely to be divisive than productive. The great strength of the Venezuelan classical music programme (see Monday’s post), is that it obliges mentoring in a structured way without offering control as an incentive.

I worked in ‘community development and regeneration’, mostly in the East End, for over ten years and I have seen hundreds of millions of pounds wasted on ill-conceived but well-meaning projects. They all have one vital basic flaw. ‘Regeneration’ projects invariably start from a desire to redress an imbalance in equalities. None of them ever attempts to change forever that balance by influencing the values that determine it. The people who run these projects think they do but so much of the status quo is immovable that all you ever end up with is a superficial flurry of activity that makes people feel that ‘something is being done’. It’s like playing a particularly pointless game of chess.

People who have an unfair share of power must be prepared to give it up but they never are. Without power sharing there can be no trust – the basis for equality. Amongst the ‘givens’ you might inherit are entrenched local personalities who wield enormous influence, businesses with vested financial interests, other authorities and voluntary organisations with conflicting priorities, politicians who disagree on fundamental ‘facts’ and nowhere near enough money to do anything but an unsatisfactory ‘quick fix’. By far the biggest problem is that people invariably disagree on what is the ‘right’ thing to do and lack the expertise or the faith in themselves and others to put the time in to work it out.

This drove me nuts in the end. I realised that I was part of the problem too because, with rare and gratifying exceptions, I was unable to work through an issue in a logical sequence with colleagues and arrive, by way of reasoned deduction, at the best possible solution. The Catch-22 is that you always have to do something and that something can easily end up being the random consensus of an exhausted and mentally defeated committee. I have participated in that and I’m not proud of it. And I have spent money – lots of it – on rubbish that I knew was not going to benefit anyone except the people being paid to provide it. The worst thing for me was that I couldn’t do anything to change the way things were – except become a staunch critic. It’s a long game.

All over the country there are ‘neighbourhood renewal’ groups tinkering away at ‘mission statements’ for years and ending up with a couple of phrases that say nothing at all. The fear of doing the wrong thing and not ‘making a difference’ is pervasive but that result is often inevitable. It wouldn’t be this difficult at all if certain interests were prepared to give up control. Therein lies the problem and it’s the reason I was so incensed by Ben ‘Lost Me’ Way and his crass attempts at unlocking his inner philanthropist. I read the pre-interviews he did with The Sunday Times and The Observer. Channel 4 did actually manage to filter out the most cheesy of his idiotic observations but not this,

'I'm realistic: my money won't help solve any of the deeper problems in Hackney but, by enabling the club to look after the children, I hope the donation will radiate out into something significant. My passion is to help the club survive long term.'

I cannot express quite how enraged I am by this without actually setting fire to something so I will try a little calm context which I am sure will be more useful. I lived on Clapton Park Estate (where the Pedro Club is located) for a short while in the mid 80s. It was never a particularly rough estate and the flats are huge, light and well-appointed. In the mid 90s Clapton Park was one of the last in Hackney to undergo total refurbishment whilst staying in council ownership and was handed over to tenants to manage. It went well for a time but, like other tenant-managed estates, seemed to fall fashion victim to the whims of central government who shelved tenant management schemes in favour of housing association control and local authorities withdrew vital emotional support.

Around £50m was spent on Clapton Park initially and it had the best start any regeneration project could have wished for in an era when there was much more money and willingness to collaborate around. But it made little difference to the long term opportunities of residents. Kind of puts ‘Lost Me’s quaint little vision in perspective. The Pedro Club is 77 years old. It will obviously ‘survive’ but how useful is a youth club in the ‘ragged school’ mould to children of the 21st century? ‘Lost Me’ gave every indication that he is quite a natural in the Dr Barnardo role.

We, as a society, are still afflicted with an inability to challenge a naked emperor or even spot that we ourselves have left the house without our pants on. Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown is possibly the worst candidate for a prime minister in history. He can’t speak in public without looking like he forgot to go to the toilet and poll after poll confirms that the great bulk of people neither like nor trust him. He is the very antithesis of a statesman. Even his own colleagues think he’s a plonker. Yet, he insists on ascending to a job for which he is plainly unsuitable, for no other reason than he just wants it. This misplaced sense of deservability means that he is absolutely prepared to put his own interests above that of a whole country. It may be impossible for us common folk to conceive of the arrogance which feeds that type of megalomaniacal ambition but it is real and it is inherent in young ‘Lost Me’.

The rich and powerful get all caught up in the concept of ‘giving something back’ to the community. When the likes of Madonna get hold of it, it becomes positively pornographic. My question would be – why gorge yourself on the common wealth in the first place? Is it a kind of corporate bulimia? Everyone thinks Warren ‘Executive Finger’ Buffett is a great guy for giving most of his money away but who did he give it too? Bill ‘Greed is Good’ Gates!

I don’t want societal progress filtered through the warped values of half a dozen sleazebags with no morals. Let’s not forget that ‘Lost Me’ orchestrated his relationship with the Pedro Club to satisfy a fairly hefty menu of his personal needs and began a trust relationship with a lie, fully expecting that to be acceptable. The workers and kids he met at the club extended him an agenda-free open hand. Is anyone else not seeing an = in this equation?

My message to young ‘Lost Me’, if he hopes to avoid the slide into total arseholedom, would be – pay personal tax, pay your employees a decent wage and pay attention to your mouth. You could start by speaking in whole sentences…

Lovely art from


Anonymous said...

Hi. It was me put the comment on. I don't want to put my name but I was in trouble when I was young and the youth club was the only place I could go. I think what you say is right that a lot of clubs are not very good and messy and that but it did help me a lot. The youth workers were better than teachers at talking to you and they really listened to you.

That's so pants said...

Hi again anon. My hope was that I was dealing with this sensitively because I do realise that even the worst youth workers can be a lifeline to a kid with no one else to talk to because, at least they're an understanding adult. My fear, as I said, is that the general poor quality of youth work is plugging a gap that should be noticed and otherwise might be. As long as there is something there, the problem can be ignored. The present situation is as much an indictment on standards of teaching. The abysmal failure of the Connexions Service for example I think is an indicator that our whole approach to children's developmental needs is flawed. As I said, I don't have the answers.

grunge girl said...

This is an interesting perspective. The wealthy see all activity as a transaction essentially involving the exchange of money. It works for them and it's what they're comfortable with. It's a real shame that they have come to have so much dominance over all aspects of society.

Anonymous said...

You say you do nothing and although you do not wish to snipe from the sidelines you do so because in your very eloquent opinion it is much needed. Yet, at the same time you feel free to criticise without sufficient justification on specific circumstances that are clearly not known to you. Just because crime might occur in companies does not justify the claim that every company is criminal. So I agree with you that statutory sector clubs are awful, directionless and always adding to the problems but it does not justify that all voluntary sector youth clubs are equally useless.

I have worked with Ufu and the Pedro Club (where incidentally James is the Treasurer) to re-open the club and I can say that just because he has worked for nothing and run the club on a hand-to-mouth financial basis in order to keep the club open does not make your comment about him correct. To quote: "he is part of the problem because he is clearly not able to manage all aspects of the Pedro Club." You should be careful what you say as he has no say in the financial aspects of the club and was not at the club when the embezzlement took place. He runs a very good club and just because your experiences have made you bitter about governmental attitudes you should be wary about superimposing such bitterness on to the situation of others when you do not know specifics. Now it is expected of me to defend Ufu as I know him well (and when I get back to the UK I shall mention this and he'll probably laugh at my annoyance) but your experience of the area is from a time that is not current where the gun and gang problems have quadrupled during the closure of the club and where crime has now fallen (and the local police say much is due to the impact of the pedro) because the club has been open for a year.

The funny thing is that you sound a little like Ufu. The difference is that you have no answers (from your words) whilst he tries to find answers.

That's so pants said...

Hello anon and welcome. Firstly, let me make this very clear, I was not criticising the individual efforts of people who are clearly due our greatest respect. I do not speak from 'bitterness' as you assume but from a very strong conviction that random and frequently shambolic charitable activity is a very poor substitute for a sound education and equality of opportunity. When I first arrived in Hackney (where I still live incidentally), 25 years ago, youth and adult education provision was much better than it is now. We've gone very seriously backwards in this respect and I believe this must be challenged. This is why I have taken to protesting rather than continuing to jump through hoops in the hope that one day I'll have done enough jumping. That day won't come. Please remember also that I was responding to a television show and putting what was voluntarily devulged to the public domain into context with my not inconsiderable experience working with local authorities. My primary criticism was for the idiot millionnaire child and the warped values that he brings with him to a relationship that is founded on A LIE. I watch East Enders. I know this can only end badly. My advice to anyone involved in youth provision is to stick it to the man (whether he be government minister or funder) and tell him you're not interested in ticking his little boxes and massaging his little ego. It will only get better if some serious demands are made on behalf of young people - better still - if they make them themselves.