“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 28 October 2016

Digital by Default

Sometimes, on very rare occasions, a book or film comes out that is so important, it becomes a personal signpost in your life. Time divides into "before" and "after", and life is never the same again, because your eyes have been opened, and there is no alternative but to respond, to change, to act.

I can think of two straightaway, in my own past - Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth,  which opened my eyes to the futility of war, and the necessity of working for peace; and the film Cry Freedom, about the life of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody.  Others include Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant, so memorably brought to life in a factional film by John Hurt; Pride,  about a group of young homosexuals who came to the aid of a village of Welsh miners; and the graphically violent Twelve Years A Slave, which portrayed the horrors of slavery in the US. Although for me, it was the book Noughts and Crosses, by British author Malorie Blackman, which really woke my conscience to the issue of white privilege.

All these books and films have one thing in common: they show the viewer / reader very clearly what it is like to be on the losing side of the System. Tonight I can add another to that list. I went to see the award-winning Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake with a friend, and it affected us both profoundly.

To sum it up in a phrase, it is a tale of the dispossessed, based on a true story about two real people, who fell through the cracks in the pavement of "normal" society, and about the unthinking, unfeeling prejudice they encounter. It is about the inflexibility of the welfare system at its bureaucratic worst, in which jobs-worth employees of the Department of Work and Pensions and its associated companies blindly stick to the rules in their dealing with their "clients", denying their common humanity. Valid reasons for not complying with the many and varied regulations are dismissed as excuses, and no leeway is given, no mercy involved.

[PLOT SPOILERS] In the case of the title character, Daniel Blake, a seriously ill widower and trained carpenter of long experience, is recovering from a major heart attack, but officials refuse to listen to his clear explanations that his doctor and consultant have both told him that he is unfit to work, and insist that he applies for Job Seekers' Allowance. Which involves completing online forms, producing a digital CV, and other pleasant impossibilities, which Blake, who is computer-illiterate, like many of the older dispossessed, is simply unable to do, although he tries and tries.

And because they deem that he is "fit for work", he has to prove that he is actively searching for it. He hawks his CV round the streets and working sites of Newcastle, walking miles a day to do so, but is unable to provide digital "proof" of having done so, and so is sanctioned (denied any benefits at all) for four weeks. He is warned that the next time this happens, it will be 13 weeks.

One particular DWP employee is portrayed as sympathetic, and tries to help him (for which she is severely admonished by her superior), but the rest just stick to the letter of the law, and refuse to listen to him. He is told by one pompous official "We are digital by default", to which he retorts brilliantly, "Well, I'm pencil by default!".

Eventually, after having to sell virtually all his possessions to stay alive, he finally gets to an appeal to be allowed to claim Sickness Benefit, but succumbs to a second, and this time fatal, heart attack just before it.

The other main character, Katie, is a young single mother from London, who has spent the previous two years living in a one-room hostel with her two young children, before being offered a flat, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, in Newcastle. Her story is similarly heart-breaking.

One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film comes at a visit to a food bank. Katie, who has been denying herself food to stop her children from going hungry, is given a tin of baked beans with one of those snap tops. She loses control, goes into a corner, tears open the tin, and begins to scoop the cold baked beans into her mouth, avidly, desperately, Dan and the food bank volunteer are both moved and horrified, as she apologises: " I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I was just so hungry." Both my friend and I were in tears at this point (and many others) as were the people around us.

Katie is eventually forced to turn to prostitution in order to pay for food and clothing for her children. She hates what she is doing, but feels she has no choice.

We came out at the end of the film feeling helpless and angry. What sort of crappy society is it that we live in, where people are treated without kindness, without compassion, where obeying the system matters above all, and where breaking any of the System's rules has dire consequences?

The only rays of hope that we could find were in the ordinary human-kindness of neighbours and friends, and of Dan and Katie towards each other. The mercy shown by the store manager when Katie was caught shop-lifting; the concern of Dan's young neighbour; the various folk in the library who tried to help him on the computer. These stand out as beacons of hope in a cruel world.

I, Daniel Blake has left me feeling angry and helpless, but filled with a desire to *do* something to stop this crap from happening to people in my country, right now.

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