Poverty is strangely uniform in its appearance: shanty towns tend to look alike, whatever poor country one visits. Buildings thousands of miles apart can appear startlingly similar; single storey concrete buildings in the Philippines differ little from their counterparts in East Africa. Public transport in improvised buses and taxis is as overcrowded in one place as another; were it not for the enduring strength of Japanese vehicles that are fixed again and again, South East Asia and much of Africa would come to a standstill. Public water pumps where people queue with assorted receptacles are a common experience in countless diverse communities.
The international uniformity of poverty in the developing world finds a counterpart in a uniform of poverty closer to home.
In a weekend column headlined ‘The symbolism of sweatpants‘, Financial Times writer Tyler Brûlé, sees in the hoodies and joggers of those trapped in an underclass, the marks of depression and defeat. Brûlé, whose weekly column The Fast Lane usually deals with travel and hotels and executive life, shows insight sharper than those whose answer is simply more policing. The uniform of the youths is the uniform of hopelessness:
There is a bit of vanity in possessing a couple of pairs of sweatpants with swooshes, stripes and leaping wildcats on them, but beyond that they’re inexpensive, easy to care for and practical. They can go from bed to street and back to bed again in an endless cycle that mirrors the downward cycle of the communities where these garments flap on clotheslines and hang on balcony railings. In short, sweatpants are a sign of surrender, of giving up, of hopelessness, of no longer needing to make an effort in society.
David Cameron’s references to a ‘broken society’ and ‘moral collapse’ do not ask how such an underclass came to be. There are questions that have been left unanswered for sometime. Journalist and writer Nick Davies carefully documented the environment of hopelessness in his book ‘Dark Heart‘
This all began quite unexpectedly one rainy autumn evening a couple of years in a fairground near to the centre of Nottingham. . . `In amongst the bright lights and bumper cars, Nick Davies noticed two boys, no more than twelve years old, oddly detached from the fun of the scene. Davies discovered they were part of a network of chidren selling themselves on the streets of the city, running a nightly gaunlet of dangers-pimps, punters, the Vice Squad, disease, drugs. This propelled Davies into a journey of discovery through the slums and ghettoes of our cities. He found himself in crack houses and brothels, he be-friended street gangs and drug dealers Nick Davies’ journey into the hidden realm is powerful, disturbing and impressive, and is bound to rouse controversy and demands for change. Davies unravels threads of Britain`s social fabric as he travels deeper and deeper into the country of poverty , towards the dark heart of British society.
Davies’ work was published in 1998, in the early days of the first Blair administration. It was well received and widely publicised, yet nothing was done to prevent the growth of the culture that led to the events of last week.
The problems identified in British cities, drugs, gang culture, anti-social behaviour, violence and crime, are symptoms of a deeper malaise symbolised by sweatpants, joggers. Brûlé’s solution is the creation of work and the building of communities.
It’s everyone’s problem and it needs to be tackled today. With some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the developed world, the UK’s chief executives and politicians need to get off their loungers and pack their families off for a road trip to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to see how apprentice programmes work and why it’s still valuable to have an economy built on manufacturing. If England’s youth don’t have jobs, it’s because both the private and public sectors have put too much emphasis on higher education and not enough on teaching skills and creating an environment where people can perform those tasks with a sense of pride and dignity.
Maybe it’s not the whole answer, but it’s a step further than the politicians.