I’ll call him Tom.
Tom is eighteen years old and he lives in a typical English village. That is, a small community of chocolate-box cottages with a shop and a pub surrounding a placid village pond. The outer perimeter of this idyll was blessed in 1948 with the addition of a small clutch of social housing, and again in 1985 by a further estate of featureless rabbit hutches which their developer sold as ‘desirable executive homes’. Commentators at the time suggested (quite unfairly) that the developer had only built them to give the social housing tenants something to rob.
Today the owners of the chocolate box cottages huddle by their wood-burning stoves to the tune of the picturesque village street, which is filled with window-rattling heavy traffic. Taken over by a large brewery the pub was run down and closed in 2006. It remains boarded up and empty. The village pond is far from empty. Abandoned by any wildlife two generations since, it is full of old car tires and the occasional shopping cart.
In Tom’s council-built estate many prospective Banksies have bequeathed their efforts to the critical eyes of those short-stay tenants who come, desecrate and depart. Detritus adorns those places the planners intended as recreation areas: abandoned furniture, abandoned cars, abandoned needles.
The ‘executive homes’ gaze out upon all this with tombstone inscrutability. Owners do their best to pretend they have nothing to do with the village. They never use the village store, for example, preferring to drive to a larger town nearby.
Tom drives too, though the cars he drives are rarely his own. The village store, or the area outside it, is where Tom spends most of his time. He and his friends, seated on their pedal-cycles or just on the pavement filter the store’s customers: the chocolate-box people are intimidated by him and unwilling to shop there. Soon the store will go the way of the pub, and the village will have no facilities at all.
Tom does not work. There are no jobs in the village, but this is not his real problem. His parents have never worked or provided him with a role model: in the benefits culture there are no disciplines and few routines, so the nearest Tom ever got to either was during his brief, sporadic relationship with school.
Academia has no place for him. He is disruptive; he is not bright. Any spark of brilliance there might have been was extinguished promptly by teachers who singled him out as a butt for ‘class humor’, leaving him with a dread of the desk and the dusty room, and a phobic terror of examinations.
Nevertheless, Tom does work, albeit in unskilled labor and the ‘cash economy’. With his benefits and irregular extra earnings he has enough to finance his expensive smart-phone and trainers. Perhaps his purchasing choices are more responsible than anything else for society’s verdict. They belie his real poverty, giving the impression that he is living well on the benevolence of The State when he really has very little of any worth.
Tom is eighteen. His girlfriend is pregnant. He walks with his hood up and his head down. People say that if he looks up it is only to check out your roof for any loose lead. He drives stolen cars fast and recklessly, because he likes it. One day the magistrates’ patience will wear out.
I know that this is not a new story. It is entrée to a genre that promulgates a certain view of British society which, however accurate, will win no friends at the tourist board. It is one view, but it is the crossroads at which I stand, because Tom, or someone very like him, is the ‘hero’ of my next book.
This is the book I need to write. It is the tale of all the Toms I have met and known down the years, people not equipped to meet the demands of the technological society, the ‘no hopers’ who are not that way of their own making, but who simply landed on the wrong planet at the wrong time. Real people with real value, and with a real morality which sadly all too few of the gifted, great and good appear to share.
Tom deserves his story, but how, from where I sit, do I truly get inside his head? Where is his future and from where does he dredge the one thing we all seek, his shred of hope?