Monday, July 02, 2012

This is not my country ... is it?

Being English, there are many ideals that I believe my country should aspire to from freedom, equality, openness and meritocracy to a deep sense of fraternity. However, I increasingly feel this is not my country but some of social engineering experiment gone horribly wrong. I happen to blame Milton Friedman and his acolytes but that's another story, another day.

I could labour on about the appalling state of social mobility in the UK, the reduction in civil liberties, the inequality of austerity measures when people like Jimmy Carr try to dodge taxes or the banker's scam over LIBOR for financial gain or even to the lack of social cohesion as we all slavishly follow the tune of TINA (there is no alternative) and submit ourselves to a "dog eat dog" mentality. Of course, dogs don't actually eat dogs but what's a bit of reality to the quasi scientific cult of monetarism that rules our financial institutions.

I thought I'd however discuss a more human story than LIBOR. A tale of an elderly couple.

One was a drunk and eventually it killed this former World War II member of the Polish Air Force. According to him, he had escaped Germany, walked across Europe, fought in the war alongside the British in the Polish Air Force and lost most of his family in concentration camps (brothers, sisters, mother, father, aunts and uncles - you get the picture). I never had reason to doubt him. I grew up on these stories just in case you wonder why I despise fascism so much.

He had settled in the UK, and with his wife they had worked hard all their lives (he as a self employed painter, she worked for British Gas). He often claimed to have painted Margaret Thatcher's house near Dulwich. Eventually, the couple retired to their council home with a small pension and almost no savings.

They never made a great deal of money and they could never afford to own a home. The one exception was when they bought their council home (under a government scheme) and then promptly sold it to a property agent. This netted them a small sum (£30,000 or so) but they were relatively hard up and it cost them their home and their community.

Before you judge, the practice of property agents buying up ex-council homes and financing this was rife. Have you never wondered how those expensive ex-council properties in London were cleared of the previous tenants? A bit of money to the hard up is a great way of creating an exodus. In general, the people who lost the most were the previous tenants - they lost community, friends and homes for a bit of cash.

So, they ended up in a new council estate having to play all sorts of dodgy games because the council wasn't supposed to give them a home as they could afford to buy a home (which they couldn't). They knew no-one, they were isolated and they already had a tendency to drink but they told everyone they were fine. This became the norm. A bottle of cheap special offer discounted supermarket whiskey for breakfast ... sounds the ticket.

Of course, their health deteriorated and a couple of trips to the hospital ensued for numerous conditions - strokes, emphysema, suspected heart attacks - you name it. The care was modest, the nurses marvellous but it usually involved some sort of merry go around about how quickly they could be got rid of. The hospital wanted them out, social services didn't want anything to do with them and they suggested the grand idea that one of their daughters - either the one who has a mental health condition or the other one who is in and out of hospital with cancer and chemotherapy - could look after two drunk octogenarians with medical complications who wanted to stay in their council home. The wider family offered to help but this was rebuffed. So despite going into a home being the sensible option - the two were sent back to their council property. Brilliant.

So, further hospital trips ensued and the family decided it was best if home help was hired (because no-one lived near them) and conveniently one was available who was apparently certified by social services and works as a home help for others. The rest of the family kept in contact with the sisters The sisters also mainly kept in contact with the couple by telephone because relationships were fraught ... a combination of trying to deal with two cantankerous old drunks with severe short term memory and other health issues is only made more complex when there's bad blood due to the past. I would occasionally visit and despite knowing them when I was younger, they would often not know who I was when I turned up. My personal relationship became fraught, my visits became very infrequent and a year or two would slip by without me noticing.

And so the situation continued for a decade in a state of limbo with occasional visits by the sisters until the elderly gentleman (their father) died. The council house the couple lived in had degenerated in the end into a bit of a pigsty. The home help had helped herself to the entire of the £30,000 of the savings the couple had and that appears to be about all the helping that was really happening. The police were called, the home help had vanished. The house had also been recently fleeced of anything of value. What has actually happened here, no-one actually knows ... getting a coherent story from the surviving drunk who can't remember who you are or that they've spoken to you thirty minutes ago is practically impossible.

A few days later, the surviving member of this couple was found rambling incoherently drunk in the middle of a large town at midnight and managed to put herself back in hospital. I know, I was called by one of the sisters and I offered help. It wasn't needed as the social services said mental health would look after her. Alas mental health said social services will deal with her. The hospital was just trying to get rid of her.

Naturally, they were trying to get the daughters (i.e. one who has ongoing cancer, the other who is schizophrenic) to look after her - anything to avoid putting her into a home. The willingness of social services to save money by not providing care is as equally ferocious as the willingness of some Gov departments to waste vast sums of money on pointless IT projects and mega buck management consultants. We really need to rethink our priorities.

In between this saga of social care, I read about more austerity, scumbags like Jimmy Carr trying to dodge taxes and the Bankers (who've already had loads of our taxpayers cash) scamming LIBOR.

At times like this, in my darkest moments, I think privately to myself "I want to see public flogging brought back". This tells me, something is going seriously wrong for me to get so angry with the way people behave to each other that I can think such awful thoughts. But mostly, the anger is from a feeling of guilt - I should have done more, if only I had visited more often I would have known, if I hadn't just listened and investigated, I should have been more observant, I was too willing to leave it to the sisters, too eager to take the rebuff, I had allowed that relationship to become fraught etc. Too little, too late.

This tale is small fry compared to the suffering that goes on around the world but it's important to me. That elderly Polish gentleman, who escaped a concentration camp, lost most of his family within them, walked across Europe, fought for the RAF and lived the majority of his adult life in Britain ... that was my grandfather.

It makes me feel guilty for my life choices. I was smart, I could have taken that job trading at the bank, I could have scammed LIBOR and all the little people, earned the big money, stuffed my money in offshore bank accounts and then I could have had the riches to do something about this. Their lives could have been different. Except, there's always going to be someone else's grandfather.

We need to build a more caring and loving society.