Bed, shelter, home, refuge.
January 17, 2013 8:06 AM   Subscribe

The journey with no destination.
"We board in northwest London on a regular bus, with the intention of heading into the heart of the capital, where there is a much greater choice of night buses when it gets later and colder. By now the group seem to have fully accepted my presence and are keen to tell me about their lives. The most pressing question I have is: why? Why would you eschew safety and warmth and comfort for this? It turns out that while a couple of kids might be along for the ride, for most this is their only option.

A boy with huge brown eyes, who is so small he barely looks older than 12, tells me: “I’m allowed home in early mornings to have some food and change my clothes, but I have to be gone by the time my mum wakes up.” When I ask him why, he shrugs, as if the answer is forgotten or irrelevant."
posted by fight or flight (34 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
“There are so many teenagers in peril,” said one charity worker, “that the ones who have an Oyster card, a jacket, even a place to go for a few hours in the day to change or sleep won’t be seen as a priority by the government, social workers or indeed charities.”

Fucking Tories.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:24 AM on January 17, 2013 [9 favorites]


they pounce like penguins at feeding time, flapping and squabbling.

The attempt to get to know the subject like Laurie Penny, an attempt at a Gibson like style, but all of that fails to work because there is a distinct othering/condescension towards these kids who were clearly nice enough to talk to her in the first place.

Snark aside, I think this article highlights (as an American) a phenomenon I wasn't aware of in London. That being said, it achieves it in a way that is, quite frankly, at least a little objectionable.
posted by sendai sleep master at 8:28 AM on January 17, 2013


[...] there is a distinct othering/condescension towards these kids who were clearly nice enough to talk to her in the first place.

It's worth noting that the author is a teacher at a comprehensive (state) school in London, so I expect she's very used to dealing with kids like this.
posted by fight or flight at 8:31 AM on January 17, 2013


more from Chloe Combi:
Sex acts for money in the playground
Porn: the shocking truth
Casey won the day, but kids are natural bullies
Baseball caps go over my head, but that's OK
Wipe that misty-eyed look off your Facebook
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:33 AM on January 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


There is a tendency amongst those who work "on the front line" to let the frustration and stress turn into a little dark humour and the darkest humour is almost always that which is forbidden. Being there, they know more than most what and why it is forbidden.

tl;dr
She's on the bus, she gets to take the piss a bit.
posted by fullerine at 8:36 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wish policy-makers at all levels were willing to get firsthand experiences like this. Aside from the occasional stunt of "living off of food stamps for a week" and the like, there is a gross isolation between those who make the rules and those who live by those rules.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:40 AM on January 17, 2013


From Portland's own The Decemberists:
On The Bus Mall
posted by Dreidl at 8:48 AM on January 17, 2013


tl;dr
She's on the bus, she gets to take the piss a bit.


Fair enough. Perhaps I was rash to make a broad statement.
posted by sendai sleep master at 8:52 AM on January 17, 2013


I, also, saw Gibsonesque images here. A number of sentences in the article reach out and touch me.

“How many of you totally fucked up school? Refused to work, missed exams, got kicked out and so on?” Most admit to this and express regret. It’s a heartbreaking paradox that teachers and parents will recognise: so many kids get it just that little too late.

Evokes images of people I know.

Writing from a position of "otherness" is the only option. The alternative would be an anthology of oral transcripts. Possible maybe, but vanishingly unlikely. This is as close as most readers will ever get to understanding this stuff; by this stuff, I mean those people. You are more likely to know their parents, more likely to be sitting in the front of a late-night bus, keeping an eye on them out of the corners of your vision and hoping they don't notice you. Here's the rub: they are feral. They see the sidelong glances, and judge them correctly.

Now we know. Now we can move on.
posted by mule98J at 8:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wish policy-makers at all levels were willing to get firsthand experiences like this.

What, like Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? Be careful what you wish for.
posted by alasdair at 9:10 AM on January 17, 2013


[Come on folks, quit trying to change this thread so that it's about hating what you hate.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:12 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


That being said, it achieves it in a way that is, quite frankly, at least a little objectionable.

I dunno, I mean I agree that some of it is very clearly showing a certain... distaste? for them and their ways of doing things, but we are talking about these kids as a 'they' as an other as mule98J says and that's in part because they just are. That's what marginalisation means.

And I'd rather both hear those judgments being made so that I can see myself maybe how I too would judge them even if I don't want to AND so that I can hear about these kinds of lives.

I thought it was awesome, one of the best pieces of journalism I've seen in a while, clearly really brave.
posted by litleozy at 9:19 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was a really good piece, thanks for posting.
posted by Diablevert at 9:21 AM on January 17, 2013


And heck, what better image for Modern Britain that a group of teenagers put out onto the streets, having to cling on to the last remaining piece of public infrastructure and who have nowhere really to go.
posted by litleozy at 9:23 AM on January 17, 2013


This was heartbreaking, but so good to have read. I'm glad I got linked to more of her writing - she makes it so easy to understand just how alien the world of today's teens is, and what some of their struggles are. I didn't use to feel that old, but she has showed me how clueless I am in a lot of regards - including the proper way to wear a baseball cap.
posted by harujion at 9:25 AM on January 17, 2013


I wish policy-makers at all levels were willing to get firsthand experiences like this. Aside from the occasional stunt of "living off of food stamps for a week" and the like, there is a gross isolation between those who make the rules and those who live by those rules.

Prince William spent the night under a bridge with homeless people sleeping rough once. Also he married a commoner. How low do you really want them to go?
posted by srboisvert at 9:36 AM on January 17, 2013


jesus. maybe i'm just tired but what the heck?

“You can come with us again!” says the little one, enthusiastically. “Even though you’re a woman, you being around might protect us a bit from the police and even some of the older ones who hassle us!”

Several agree: the idea that an adult might protect or help them seems a novel but pleasant concept.


how incredibly sad. these kids WANT an adult around because an adult would protect them. holy cow. imagine that. it seems like these kids are not of the type who have parents that aren't home because they're always working. it seems like they actually CANNOT be home due to fear of violence or being forced into crime (like the one kid's brother making him shoplift).

incredibly incredibly sad. i thought Dickens was supposed to a book about the past, not what came to mind when reading the current news.
posted by sio42 at 9:41 AM on January 17, 2013


Help me out, srboisvert, your comment is balanced on the knife-edge of Poe's law.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:41 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh my god, I have just finished reading through the rest of her articles (thanks, the man of twists and turns). I am just 25 and saw some fairly bad things in state education, but it's slightly alien to me too. I can't imagine how it looks to the average middle-class parent, let alone the 50-60 year old Etonians who run this country, but I can see that it's going to be very difficult to convince them to take the right actions and not just treat these kids like feral write-offs.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:59 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am curious about the mechanics of this. £5 for a night on bus doesn't jibe with my experiences as a transit user in Birmingham, UK. It was £2.60 for a daysaver ticket that was unlimited travel in the city for the entire day. There was also a group daysaver ticket you could get that was £8 for 5 people for the whole day and an evening group daysaver for £5. London is probably different but I am guessing these kids ride for less than £5 / night which would end up running them £150 a month. At that rate they could pool their money and get a crappy flat somewhere.

Kids did tend to travel in groups on the bus and though i preferred the upper deck during the day for the better views at night it was generally pretty awful - smoking, shouting and cellphone music -so I would switch to riding the lower level.

Of course the worst public transit experience I ever had in England was when I was on the train between New Street Station and the Convention Centre during the wine and food show. I'll take gangs of poor kids any day over intoxicated middle-aged middle-class mobs everytime.
posted by srboisvert at 10:09 AM on January 17, 2013


I am curious about the mechanics of this. £5 for a night on bus doesn't jibe with my experiences as a transit user in Birmingham, UK.

These kids will all be on monthly all you can eat Oyster cards. Up to age 15, with the appropriate card, travel is free. Up to 18 (or beyond if a student), it is discounted.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:14 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


£150 a month for a flat anywhere in London? Are you having a laugh? Plus, Oyster cards can be bought at corner shops. Renting a flat requires documents, bank accounts, deposits, references, legal guardians, the landlord considering you remotely trustworthy, paying bills, etc etc. Not at all plausible for these kids.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:16 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth srboisvert, £150 per month will just about get you perhaps a nicely furnished parking spot somewhere on the Old Kent Road. I'm currently paying £480 per month for a share in a three bedroom house an hour's commute from the city centre, and it took three months of dedicated searching to find. Just to give you an idea of what these kids are up against.
posted by fight or flight at 10:45 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


...pool their money and get a crappy flat somewhere

Where to begin with this? Come on man.
posted by colie at 10:48 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I kind of wish it was longer. I really want to read more, more depth.
posted by Splunge at 11:14 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


London is probably different but I am guessing these kids ride for less than £5 / night which would end up running them £150 a month.

The way Oyster cards work, once you've spent £4.40 in a given day* on bus fares no more money is deducted from your balance. The kids likely have one of the discount Oyster Cards that have a much lower daily fare cap.

This also means that once they've spent their daily fare cap overnight, they also have unlimited free travel for the day, which is a pretty big deal if you're skint.

(* I'm not sure if staying out overnight counts as two separate capping periods, but if they're doing it on consecutive nights it should work out the same regardless)
posted by grahamparks at 11:55 AM on January 17, 2013


I hate to say this - but I really, really wish the direct quotes from the writer's interviewees didn't appear to be so perfectly scripted.

“What do you think they are all waiting for?” I ask Kieran, and he shrugs with little emotion. “Life, to start, man. Do you know what I mean? I mean this wasn’t the fucking way it was supposed to be. This wasn’t on anyone’s wish list.

and

You can come with us again!” says the little one, enthusiastically. “Even though you’re a woman, you being around might protect us a bit from the police and even some of the older ones who hassle us!”

I've just read a couple of her other pieces linked here - they give me exactly the same odd vibe. That she's either an extraordinarily lucky & gifted part time journalist to get quite so many pithy & sentimentally touching quotes just when she needs 'em - or she is massaging/assisting her quotes much, much more than she should.

Apparently the author has very recently left teaching. Her most up to date byline in The Guardian newspaper reads: Chloe Combi is an education consultant, scriptwriter, journalist and founder of the educational charity Write Club. She was previously a teacher in a London comprehensive. Her first book is being published in 2013.

(I think London is an absolutely brutal city for teenagers on the fringes of society. I loathe what the Tories have done. But I also hate it when I feel unfairly manipulated.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:56 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


What is it exactly about the kids which leads you to believe they wouldn't be that articulate, or am I being unkind?
posted by fullerine at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2013


It's not that they wouldn't be articulate, it's that no one is really likely to have developed the pithy newspaper's weekend magazine style of soulful proclamations at that age.
posted by elizardbits at 1:48 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is it exactly about the kids which leads you to believe they wouldn't be that articulate, or am I being unkind?

Fullerine,
I think you can get wonderfully articulate - often brilliantly -disgustingly - eloquent - kids of any background and/or level of education.

What you don't normally get is a bunch of kids who ALL sound like plucky urchins & who all appear to have the same insight into their disenfranchised status as modern Londoners without a future.

They all seem to be part of a sentimental narrative in the writer's head - the Invisible Night Bus Orphan Riders Under The Gruff But Protective Eye of "Kieran"...this bit, for example:

“So do you feel like you have a family here, that you keep each other safe?” Everyone nods. “No one gives a fuck about us but we look out for each other,” says the little one.
“Shut up, man,” says Kieran, but he is kind of smiling.


Surely that's fiction?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:53 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


(* I'm not sure if staying out overnight counts as two separate capping periods, but if they're doing it on consecutive nights it should work out the same regardless)

The day clicks over at either 04:00 or 05:00, can't remember which.
posted by jaduncan at 3:04 PM on January 17, 2013


When I was a kid I read everything, and one book that affected me terribly was Froggy's Little Brother by "Brenda". Froggy looks after his little brother Benny, you see, after their parents die, and they're terribly poor, and then Benny dies too and ... oh dear, the tears are welling up again. I was nine years old. I cried and cried and cried.

Anyway, it was sentimental Victorian slush with brave urchins living in a bare garret and working industriously to earn their stale crust of bread .... but the thing is, it was true. This particular story, these incidences were either false or dramatised, but the fact is that tens (hundreds?) of thousands of kids really did live like that. The whole point of the book was to raise public awareness of the problem, and a more accurate depiction (Froggy shits in the street, steals unguarded washing from clotheslines and sells it to a shonky store, pays thruppence to a whore for a knee-trembler) would have been less effective and therefore less informative: the readers would have focused on the shocking elements rather than the heart of the story.

And given what I know of poverty in the UK, I totally believe that many kids ride the buses rather than sleep rough. So even if the author has cleaned up her subjects and cleaned up their sentences ... it's all true. And I am terribly, terribly sorry.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:22 PM on January 17, 2013


What you don't normally get is a bunch of kids who ALL sound like plucky urchins & who all appear to have the same insight into their disenfranchised status as modern Londoners without a future.
There's only two plucky urchins quoted in the article as far as I can see and just a couple of lines from the few hours the journalist spent talking to them. I would assume that's enough time to get something for a story without resorting to embellishment.

Also, I thought they were modern Londoners without a future.
posted by fullerine at 4:21 PM on January 17, 2013


Fucking Tories.

That's right, the boy who isn't allowed at home when his mum's awake? David Cameron did that! The lad whose brother forces him to steal? What they don't mention is that his older brother is actually Nick Soames.
posted by atrazine at 2:45 AM on January 18, 2013


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