The Post Office is so crowded that the queue reaches out of the door. All ages and all races stand patiently to await their turn with the harangued but always polite counter staff. A couple of kids run in and out of the queue, playing harmlessly and drawing affectionate smiles from those waiting.
One man is holding up the queue, arguing furiously and desperately at the window. His benefits haven’t arrived. The clerk tries to explain patiently that it isn’t the Post Office’s fault, but he is more concerned with how he will eat that day. Another older man, with his head half shaved, starts to emit a low tuneful moaning, as if praying to some imagined God. As he grows progressively louder the prickles of annoyance can be felt amongst those around him. This is not a place where people are afraid to speak up. However since he is obviously not very well, his strange singing goes without comment. There is a strong tolerance here amongst those of us who really are all in it together.
I’m relieved to see a smartly dressed woman, obviously on her lunch break, withdrawing six pounds in cash and then quickly leaving. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has too little in the bank to use the cash point. There is a strange kind of shame in standing in a queue for twenty minutes to take out the last couple of pounds in the bank. It is relieved a little by not being the only one in that position. The clerk doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as I ask for my three pounds. I suppose it’s not uncommon.
In the supermarket immaculate young mums, more stylish in Primark and budget cosmetics than those from the leafy suburbs, push around Argos buggies as they check the price of every item of value food. One woman is singing softly to her giggling toddler. Almost everyone who passes them smiles at the happy little girl. People chat at the check out. There is no division between those serving and those being served. The rain is a widespread source of disappointment. That and the ever increasing prices.
The Big Issue seller, soaking wet as he is, wishes everyone a nice day as they leave the store. Occasionally someone, who obviously doesn’t have much themselves, buys a copy. Almost everyone returns his greeting. Some people stop to stroke his dog.
Outside the charity shop are several bags of old clothes, left in the rain, which the store have so far failed to notice. Already a small number of people cautiously begin examining the bags. No-one pays them any heed as they sift through the now sodden clothing.
The Pound Shop is packed with people buying everything from boxes of cereal to cheap shampoo. I spot a toy I think my son might like, but on closer inspection, realise it would break like almost everything else they sell. The shoppers in here are resourceful, examining every item in detail. Some people in the queue have baskets piled high, others stand in line to purchase just a pack of baby wipes or box of cheap washing powder.
Just six months ago this soulless shop full of plastic tat was an indoor market. The Council closed it quickly and ruthlessly, giving the stall holders barely any notice that their livelihoods were about to be destroyed. Another piece of the community wrenched away to be replaced by corporate poverty pimps, staffing their shops with workfare and minimum wage casual jobs.
There’s a small crowd outside the Jobcentre, smoking and sharing cigarettes. “There’s never any fucking jobs in there” says one disgruntled youth to his friend as he leaves.
Further down the road a young black boy has been stopped by police. He barely looks sixteen. He is obviously irritated, but stays calm. I hang around outside the caf’, watching. I’m not the only one. People keep an eye on the police round here. Everyone knows what they are like.
The pair of coppers is eventually joined by a van containing several more. They don surgical gloves as they prepare to search the young boy in full view of the busy street. He seems resigned to this. It has no doubt happened many times before. The boy stands defiantly as the men in uniform rifle his pockets and stick their hands down his trousers. They find nothing. He is sent on his way and the police fade away, laughing and joking amongst themselves.
I buy a cup of tea from the caf’, and sit outside to smoke even though it’s too cold really. I’m so joined by two men, probably in their early fifties. We talk about the football. England managed a draw with France in the opening match of the European Cup. This is roundly seen to be a good result, although there is no optimism about the tournament. One of the guys starts winding up the Turkish Cafe owner who had been predicting a 3-1 victory to France. The banter is good-natured, as the cafe owner concedes he lost a bet at the bookies on the result. No-one mentions the Olympics, the Jubilee, or any of that crap.
One of the men leaves, with a bulging bag of clothes. “I’ll get this started shall I?”, he says to the other. I realise he is heading to the launderette next door and that they are sharing the machine. At three and a half quid a time that makes a lot of sense.
There are problems around here for sure. The main one being no-one’s got any money.There are a residual group of street drinkers, who look battered and twice the age they probably are. No-one envies them. Some of the kids round here can be a nightmare. There is nowhere for them to go. And there are villains, neglectful parents, drugs users and drug dealers, just like any corner of the UK.
But they are the minority. There are few parents round here who would leave their eight year old child in the pub, forgotten in the haze of drink. The drugs round here are no different to the ones that this country’s Prime Minister nearly got expelled for taking in the privileged corridors of Eton. Unlike the Bullingdon boys of Oxford University, the vandal youth pay for their crimes with Community Service and prison, not platinum credit cards.
But there is more humanity and tolerance in this small part of London than the millionaires in Government could ever understand. People with nothing look out for each other, speak to each other, care for each other and help each other in ways the grasping businessmen who sneer at the poor would consider completely alien. Selfishness and greed are not virtues here. Yet these are the people that odious government ministers blame for their own poverty, ignoring the fact that the thieves in the city have stolen the entire world. Whether working for a pittance, or unemployed, whether single parents, disabled, unwell, or with poor mental health, people round here, and in thousands of other deprived areas of the country, survive despite the onslaught against the poor.
There is little round here that couldn’t be improved with more money. The opposite is happening as libraries close, rents soar, wages stagnate and benefits are cut. The very poorest pay everyday for the crimes of the rich. Those who are in debt owe money to legal loan sharks, like the spiv who recently wrote a report advising the Government to make it easier to sack people.
The stream of lies that come from government – that the poor are poor because they are feckless or lazy – just reveals the cossetted world they were brought up in. Their view of the very poorest is driven by poverty porn television shows or right wing tabloid newspapers rather than any direct experience of the people they would no doubt step over in the street. They cut and cut and drive people further into homelessness, poverty and despair, but still we survive.
The poor are poor because the rich take more and more. Greedy landlords push up rents whilst greedy bosses force down wages. Unemployment and workfare is used to undermine the few improvements people have fought for. Land is sold off to build yuppy flats no-one round here can afford, and supermarkets strangle the few remaining locally owned shops. Whilst pensioners freeze in their homes and worry about surviving the winter, energy company bosses and hedge fund managers fly around in private jets paid for by profit stolen from those with almost nothing. Sick and disabled people, many of whom may have worked hard for years, see benefits they were promised and had paid for, slashed to fund tax cuts for millionaires. It was bankers, not benefit claimants, who broke the economy.
The ferocity of our children’s anger, as flawed and often tragic as it was, has already been displayed. That rage is not confined to just the young. Every pale faced shyster in Saville Row suit who lectures us about our lives from their suburban mansions only fuels the fire. As the hundreds of thousands with nothing left to lose turn into millions, that rage may yet come to the front doors of the pampered elite. One day we will take this world back.