Friday 16 December 2011

The road to Fookinel (with apologies to Michael Young)

Worktown's northern metropolitan district of Fookinel is characterised by a high degree of family breakdown, poor housing, low social aspirations, high unemployment and anti-social behaviour. It's not where you or I would choose to live. But it sits at the very heart of the challenges that face our society. Hopelessness and fear coupled with envy, greed and pride all jostle for prime position in a pathological combination. The result? social unrest, ill health, low achievement, early death and a huge cost to everyone else.

The first problem is that neither you nor I would want to go anywhere near Fookinel. Less so would we want our children to go anywhere near it. They're on their own. The road to Fookinel is empty. And road out of it is poorly maintained and virtually impassable. Fookinel is so notorious that it has become a part of speech.

Not that there haven't been a number of well-meaning interventions - particularly in the domain of education. Fookinel Academy is the latest of these, exhorting its' depressed students to the highest possible academic standards. Various radical initiatives are tried out: personalised learning, huge classes, free curricula, etc. Technologically, they tried giving the kids iPads, but quickly found it necessary to police their use to such an extent that the extra work involved in overseeing the use of the technology outweighed the benefits. What has been successful is the 'zero tolerance' behavioural policy. The children of Fookinel find it difficult to put a foot right, and quickly find the weight of the school authorities bearing down on them. This does seem to have had some positive results: GCSE results are up this year. The champions of the zero tolerance initiative will sloganise their success as "these kids need structure!", or "strict discipline shows that we care!". All meet with approval from managers and well-meaning people who don't live in Fookinel. For the kids of Fookinel, it's just one more set of obstacles they have to jump over. The kids have adapted to dodging obstacles.

But outside the school gates, the kids remain in the domain of the street and the home. There all hell breaks loose with the regularity of clockwork. Dad left when mum was still pregnant with Jonny. There have been a string of male visitors to the house, many of whom have been abusive. Mum doesn't work, but between benefits and with irregular (and rather strange) financial injections, she manages to keep going. Drugs are a necessity to cope. The house is often (and increasingly) cold. They live on canned food and occasionally ready-meals. To mum, every other person in the house, if they don't make some financial contribution, is an extra problem. That includes Jonny. The TV is always blaring out.

Home, to Jonny, is not where the heart is. Jonny hasn't thought about his heart for a long time. It is a long time since he cried. Home is a place of torment where he tries to go to sleep. Although as he gets older, he'd rather find other places to sleep. Already, the lure of financial independence afforded by illegal activities is strong. His friends already deal drugs. There is little doubt that he will go down this route himself too.

Everyone's attachments are to the things they see on TV. All attachments are to fantasy objects, the most popular being talent contests. Each person dreams of winning: their identity is interpreted in terms of their relation to the fantasy. Music (and to some extent, computer games) play a hugely important role in this. In both of these, there is a sensual compensation for the damaged emotional fabric of their selves. But it is only a palliative measure, and indeed, its palliative effect has a whole economy around it. In this way, continual expensive consumption of the celebrity fantasy often takes priority over the meeting of more basic physical needs. This sort of sensual compensation for broken self-regulatory mechanisms is the order of the day. Inner-world storylines are fractured fantasy clips from TV. Outer world communications reflect this with the anxiety of having to defend identities which ultimately are indefensible. Quickly conversations turn aggressive. Offence is taken almost as a matter of course. Little intervention can calm this down, such are the rifts within personality which lie at the heart of the problems.

Conviviality is completely absent in Fookinel. It wasn't always like this: the old people of Fookinel who remember the community as it was, remember deeper human values and stronger self-respect. Religion brought some degree of this conviviality. But fundamentally, it was the factory that did it. Now, whilst attachment is to fantasy objects and consumer society, and identity is seen not in relation to one another but in relation to unattainable dreams, there seems little that can be done.... But the issue almost certainly is to deal with conviviality.

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