There’s no such street as Benefit Street.
Why I want to celebrate the other side of Birmingham that Benefits Street doesn’t show.
(First published in the Daily Mirror 10-3-14)
I love Birmingham. When I left there for the brighter lights of London I didn’t really like it that much. I was sick of my continuing mini war with the police, the girls down south were looking fine, and I wanted to get noticed as a poet. Birmingham was full of creative people, but there were just a couple of ‘black’ community centres where I could perform, and the other venues were not keen on Reggae inspired Dub Poetry. In fact even when I was trying to go straight and use my creativity, most of the places I would perform at were illegal dances.
Forty years ago I was expelled from school. I got into trouble with the police, and I spent some time in what was then called Winson Green prison, now Birmingham Prison. The prison is around the corner from the now famous James Turner Street. When I was released with no qualifications and a criminal record the future seemed bleak, so I got out of the city altogether. But after I got out I found myself passionately defending the city of my birth. People down south would constantly attack our accent, and call us uneducated criminals.
I loathe journalist asking me about my criminal past, after all it was so long ago, and I’ve done so many positive things since then. As a proud Brummie survivor I’d like to think that my life and achievements are a modest antidote to what some called the ‘Birmophobia’ of television programmes like Benefit Street which depicts Brummies as shiftless, workshy, ignorant and dysfunctional, even though we have a proud industrial heritage dating back to when Birmingham was ‘the workshop of the world’ and the ‘city of a thousand trades’.
There are parts of Birmingham that are very deprived and neglected, and although I try not to spend much time with politicians, when I look at areas of my city I want to grab hold of the few that I know and show them how some people are forced to live, whilst they sit in London claiming we’re all in this together, that or worse still, that we are experiencing an economic recovery. I suppose the question that ‘Benefit Street’ poses, and which everyone has been reacting to, is how did things get this bad? But the problem with it and the makers of Benefit Street is that they don’t attempt to answer this question, let alone look deeper at the underlying causes.
The producers think that Benefit Street is a legitimate and illuminating piece of show business, but let me make this clear, there is no street in Birmingham that is called ‘Benefit Street’. This is fiction from reality. It’s a programme where real people are recorded and more importantly, edited, into what turned out to be a cross between a reality show and a soap opera. I would love to be proved wrong, but by calling the programme Benefit Street I cannot help but conclude that the producers knew what kind of programme they were going to make before their crews arrived in Winson Green. Worse still, if they didn’t know beforehand, and if they cared about their subjects, they wouldn’t have given the programme that title anyway. What is wrong with James Turner Street? The name represents what Birmingham was all about. It was named after an industrious industrialist, and it has been James Turner Street since the 1870s.
I suspect that the production team don’t share the background of their subjects, I can’t help thinking they are well-heeled, mainly London media types, getting off on seeing how the other half live. Nothing against them of course, some of my best friends are well-healed media types, but Benefit Street is not that other Channel 4 show, Shameless. They are different because Shameless is coming from a place of love and affection, from someone (the creator) who knows that place and its culture.
What Benefit Street and other depictions of Brummies as comic and uncouth monsters have in common is that they think they can get away with it because the rest of the country will join in. The representations in Benefit Street real or factual are misleading and are playing to prejudices as unfair as the one implicitly repeated over and over again in the TV series, and even in its title – that all people on benefits are unemployed, it’s actually about 5% and they receive around 3% in total of the overall benefits bill – the other 95% of people who receive benefits also work.
I’ve been involved in a few programmes about Birmingham lately, one celebrating it’s multiculturalism, another about the way the police and mental heath workers are uniting to deal with emergencies that involve the mentally ill, and I’m currently making a film with isore Media and the Probation Service promoting employability for ex-offenders. You see, I thought that this would be a chance to actually do something about the problems of worklessness, drug addiction and offending behaviour depicted on some of our streets in Birmingham.
The reason we believe that our modest offender employability film is more important to society than Benefit Street is a simple and pragmatic one. As research has demonstrated, ex-offenders who are in employment are 30-50% less likely to re-offend, an outcome that even ‘the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade’ must welcome as the going rate to keep someone in prison is at around £40,000 cost to the tax-payer a year (according to the NAO). That’s not counting the enormous benefits and ripple-effect to offenders and their families who do find employment and become productive members of society.
Who hasn’t made mistakes? I have. But after making many mistakes when I was younger I always told myself that I had to learn from them, and then help others with my knowledge and experience. I see my participation in this film as an opportunity for me to use my experience to help others, in a real concrete way. We should all be valued, we should all value ourselves, and we do value our lives when they are productive and we have food to eat. I have my heart in this film; I have my heart in this city. This is not poverty tourism; this is not even show business. This is keeping it real business.