Just who benefits most from our welfare state?

Picture this scene: for the very first time, you find yourself in a magistrate’s court—a rectangular, wood-panelled room with a stand-fan whirring in one corner. Around you, on the carpeted floor, you can spot brand-new briefcases, small piles of plastic folders and six pairs of well-polished leather shoes—one of which tap-tap-taps to a silent tune. Your iPhone says it’s 11:46am. Beside you, your colleague shifts from left to right in his seat. ‘Second case should have started now,’ he mumbles. Looking down, he then glances at the small clump of A4 paper before him, a five-page list of the morning’s proceedings. Before you can say anything, though, the heavy door to your right swings open. Wearing a tight-fitting tracksuit, a young woman walks into the courtroom. Above her silver lip-piercing, her brown-blonde hair is scraped back into a greasy ponytail. In each tattoo-covered hand, she carries a rustling bunch of Aldi and Iceland shopping bags. She drops them beside the entrance. ‘The absolute scrounger,’ you think as you try to peer inside the bags. ‘Just look at her: appearing in court, and she’s gone shopping—yes, shopping—beforehand.’

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ALDI: where I presumed the young woman had been shopping before coming to magistrate’s court.

 
Earlier this year, whilst reporting in Barnstaple Magistrate’s Court, I witnessed that very scene—except that, in reality, Josie Dawson had not been on any sort of benefit-funded shopping spree. (Her shiny-white Nike trainers, though, suggested she might have been on one recently.) Instead, as my colleague said to me, she had brought along her main possessions—clothes, toiletries, a black-spotted white duvet—because she knew she was going straight to prison, having violated the terms of her suspended sentence. In Josie’s defence, contesting two caught-in-the-act counts of Class A drug-possession, her solicitor said that Josie was ‘very realistic’ about the hearing’s outcome. So that Josie could ‘sort herself out,’ the solicitor then said: “My client is asking to go to prison.” Upon hearing this request, my colleague looked straight up from his notepad. Cupping a hand around his mouth, he leant across and whispered, “Never heard someone ask that before.” As he spoke, I watched Josie. Sat in the far corner, she was absently scratching at a star-shaped tattoo on her hand. Ten minutes later, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for her as she lifted both hands and the silent court heard the sharp click of handcuffs being fastened. Aged 29, a crack-cocaine addict and going to prison: what a sad, mis-led, messed-up start to her adult life.

Heroin: another of the drugs that Josie Dawson had been caught with by Devon and Cornwall Police.

 
I held this opinion of Josie until I met two other North Devon locals: Catherine Yates and Shana Little. Aged 42 and 44, respectively, both women have physical disabilities, both are mothers to autistic children, and both—whilst Josie received free rehab treatment in prison—have been made to suffer from Devon County Council’s £100m budget cuts. Since 2011, from 10:00am to 4:00pm, Catherine and Shana attended Oasis Day Centre without fail three times a week. For Catherine, who has a permeated spine and walks with a crutch, the day-centre is a ‘lifeline,’ a form of ‘respite.’ For wheelchair-bound Shana, disabled several years ago by a neurological condition, Oasis is ‘a happy family.’ “It’s a happy family,” she explains, “because we’ve got high amounts of stress in our own families…and, before this, Catherine and me didn’t really have any sort of life.”

Rosebank Day Centre: the location for Oasis Day Centre after its previous site was closed by the Council.

 
Now, however, after the Council announced the closure of 17 day-care centres across Devon, the future of Oasis remains in doubt. “For Oasis to be closed down,” says Catherine, a mother to four children, “that’s going to affect a lot of people’s mental health—not just those that come here, but also the families that need that time to have a breather, and for us to feel like normal humans.” Shana, meanwhile, spent five-and-a-half years at her West Devon home before discovering Oasis, where she struggled to adapt to her disability and battled with depression. In search of a ‘better quality of life,’ she then moved to North Devon—only to have ‘a small taste of it’ before the Council announced the day-centre closures. “I was housebound for pretty much two years before Oasis,” she says. “I was quite introverted when I first came here, and I was very dubious of everything. But, through Oasis, I’ve learned to cope better with what I’ve got and how to handle things better.”

Catherine (above) and Shana (below) posing outside Oasis Day Centre with letters from the Council.

 
Between Josie, Catherine and Shana, then, we have two types of people found today in British society: the scrounger and the hapless disabled, persecuted by governmental policy. When I spoke to them, Catherine and Shana repeatedly outlined the County Council’s apparent ‘betrayal.’ “All along,” Catherine said, who worked at Pall Europe in Ilfracombe for six years, “[local councillor] Stuart Barker always said that, if we wanted to stay as a group at Oasis, we at the County Council will keep you as a group.” Like the coalition government’s bedroom tax, which has slashed the benefits of thousands of disabled people in the UK, Devon County Council has left some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens even more so, despite what councillors might try to argue. “We feel almost victimised,” says Shana, a former healthcare assistant in Oakehampton Community Hospital. “I cried when I saw Stuart Barker [explaining the Council’s decision] on the television.”

Barnstaple's Civic Centre: the headquarters for Devon County Council.

Barnstaple’s Civic Centre: the head offices for Devon County Council.

 
Evidently, the contrast between Catherine and Shana and Josie Dawson—an unemployed, benefit-claiming addict, who previously declared in court that she never wanted to give up drugs—is stark.* While Catherine and Shana now have to fret about ‘a future of isolation,’ taxpayer-funded help is readily available to Josie in prison. Of course, whilst right-wing commentators would probably argue otherwise, the issue of Josie spongeing off the state does not ultimately lie with her. Instead, it lies with our welfare state, as does the victimisation of Catherine and Shana. By closing day-centres, Devon County Council is persecuting some of the people that need its help most. In prison, meanwhile, Josie can receive far better—and free—help for her personal needs than both Catherine and Shana. Regrettably, if the father of our 69-year-old welfare state William Beveridge was still alive, I don’t think he would like what he could see for himself in North Devon.

Barnstaple’s Clock Tower (North Devon), a location close to the town’s only magistrate’s court.

 
*Source: My colleague, who attended Josie Dawson’s previous hearing in May 2014. For North Devon Gazette’s article, click here.

Pizza Romana

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How tasty does this pizza look? I was genuinely surprised at how much detail my camera (Canon 400D) managed to capture.

©BenStupples2014

Newsnight: Paxman & Hitchens

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An artist’s portrayal of Christopher ‘Hitch’ Hitchens when he was (or seemed to be at least) in somewhat better health.

 
Christopher Hitchens and Jeremy Paxman, though at different ends of the political spectrum, are two of my modern-day journalistic heroes. Besides their political differences, both of them are incredibly well-read, supremely witty and, above all, fiercely intelligent. In this Newsnight interview, dating back to November 2010, just over a year before Hitchens died (quite suddenly, actually) from cancer-induced pneumonia, you can see how much Paxman—so widely renowned for his acerbic, no-nonsense tongue—respects the man sat before him. Addressing Hitchens’s poor health, Paxman holds his left hand for most of the interview just in front of his mouth. His pose almost makes you think that Paxman is restraining himself, not wanting to enter into a debate with Hitchens, who was always a superb orator. To power-phrase Sir Bob Geldof writing about his daughter Peaches four months ago, saying ‘was’ only serves to sadden me afresh.
 

Torso del Belvedere

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This photo was taken inside the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. The figure, apparently, is Hercules, seated on animal skin.

©BenStupples2014

Cravattas

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I took this photo in Rome’s main shopping district. I hope you agree with me when I say the reflection gives it decent depth.

©BenStupples2014

Museo de Sorolla

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I took this photo in Museo Sorolla, the house of the Spanish modernist painter Joaquín Sorolla. I like the stark contrast of light.

©BenStupples2014

The Etymology of Snobbery

Tell me, and be honest: do you ever wonder about the etymology of words? Do you ever grow curious about our day-to-day language? (‘How do you do, Mr. Stupples?’) Do you ever ask yourself whether the words you speak, whisper and – sometimes – shout originate from 2,000 year-old societies, or have today’s quick-witted teenagers just made them up instead? If language for you is simply a means of communication, as it probably is for most practical-minded people, you might want to stop reading right here. If you like words, though, and take pleasure from their nuances, read on about what I consider to be on the English language’s most interesting words: Snob.

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Interestingly, this image demonstrates how the word also became commonplace across amongst the American population.

The word ‘snobbery’ came into use for the first time in England during the 1820s. It was sad to have derived from the habit of many Oxford and Cambridge colleagues of writing sine nobilate (without nobility) or ‘s.nob.’ next to the name of ordinary students on examination lists in order to distinguish them for their aristocratic peers.

In the word’s earliest days, a snob was taken to mean someone without high status, but it quickly assumed its modern and almost diametrically opposed meaning: someone offended by a lack of high status in others. It was also clear that those who used the word were doing so pejoratively, to describe a process of discrimination they found regrettable and worthy of mockery. In his Book of Snobs (1848), a pioneering essay on the subject, William Thackeray observed that snobs had, over the previous twenty-five years, ‘spread over England like the railroads. They are known and recognised throughout an Empire on which the sun never sets.’ But, in truth, what was new was not snobbery, but a spirit of equality beside which a traditional kind of discriminatory conduct no seemed increasingly unacceptable, to men like Thackeray at least.

De Botton, Alain. Status Anxiety. London: Penguin Books, 2004. 21-22. Print.

 

Pretty In Pink

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Taken in Rome, I like the colour and composition of this image. Fortunately, the handbag and dress compliment each other.

©BenStupples2014 

His Master’s Voice

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I took this photo last year at my secondary school, Monkton Senior. Less than a second later, this old fella had his mouth full.

©BenStupples2014 

Compluntense III

Taken kneeling down, I like the depth and contrast of light in this photo.

Taken kneeling down for an alternate view, I like the depth and contrast of light in this photo, stemming from the setting Sun.

©BenStupples2014