“Not the Answer…

not the answerThis statement appeared on the day of the budget in my Twitter feed.  The person tweeting was referring to the ‘Sugar Tax’.  There was heated debated about how futile it was, or what a good idea, or how it was taking the heat off other more important issues (are there many more important things than our children’s health and well-being?)

I got a bit foot-stompy and this blog is the result.  Well, no, of course it isn’t ‘the’ answer, or not the whole answer anyway.  No one is that naïve, not Jamie Oliver, not the general public, the nutritionists not even the politicians who approved it.  But here’s the thing, maybe things are so bad, with our own health, our children’s health and the health of our environment, that there is no single big ass solution – maybe there never was. Big ideas, high level strategic solutions are for governments and world organisations.  As people, we identify with the practical; what’s meaningful for us.  We feel irritated and overwhelmed by policy, policing and projects.  Most of us I suspect want to engage, but when the message is: ‘you must do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ – negative dictates from above – we feel quite the opposite: disengaged, disenfranchised, and if you’re me, down right rebellious.

We long to be inspired by a vision of something we can achieve, something positive.  The carrot being infinitely better than the boot (to mix metaphors). We need to see results of the steps we’re taking and to take them one at a time, each one leading inexorably to the next until we’re on that journey towards making a difference. Thankfully there are trail blazers, eco warriors, impressive environmentalists and campaigners for the health of the planet and the health of the human race. And we need them to inspire and encourage us to take action.

However, there are people who struggle to survive now, people in this country who have to work out where the next pay packet, the next meal, the school books, the bus fare, the money for the electricity is coming from, and people in other places in the world who are far worse off than that.  It’s not always a lack of care that stops us from taking action as much as a sense of priority.  Ironically it is the people least able to take action that poor health and climate change impact first, and to a greater degree.

No one wants to see the earth burn; no one wants their children to be morbidly obese and unfit.  We have to deal with challenges at all levels: personal, societal and political to start making a difference to anything.

So, no, the sugar tax won’t cure childhood obesity, but it has raised awareness of the issues involved, it has raised the political profile of an insidious, damaging and costly epidemic.  There is much more to be done to rescue a generation of children from bad sugar and bad advertising, and a great deal more to be done to save the world for them.

And we all have a part to play.  We are all part of the jigsaw which will give us the panoply of answers required.

The Plan – Jamie Oliver https://www.jamieoliver.com/theplan/


On The Street in Edinburgh

how-to-help-homeless-peopleThey’ve become an homogenised, almost sub-human, element of our society.  A ubiquitous sight in most major cities and yet we fail to see them.  If they do register in our consciousness we ignore them.  Mostly.  Some of us complain.  Some drop a few coins without making eye contact.  Yes, I’m talking people who ‘live’ on our streets.  The homeless.  How did we come to be a society that could ignore ‘Homeless and hungry. Please help’, walking by without a thought or care?

Homeless people need better press.  Someone needs to do a marketing job so that we take some notice. They’re not cute enough or desperate enough.  I am willing to believe that familiarity breeds contempt, that a lot of us do care, but feel helpless: what can one person do to make a difference?  I am willing to be generous about my fellow humans because I don’t have the answers, though neither do I feel I can ignore a fellow human being in need.  So, I want to remind you, to remind me, that this is what the people you see –  and don’t see – on the street are: fellow human beings with history, with stories, with names.

I was chatting to Tommy the other day in Edinburgh (let’s call him that, he was too ashamed to tell me his name).  He doesn’t drink or smoke or take drugs.  He was made homeless by the council when his sister – whose home he was living in after job loss and marriage break down – died of cancer last November.  He wasn’t the tenant so he was unable to live there, even though he had no other family, no home, no job.  He was made homeless and has lived on the streets since.  He can’t claim benefits as he is ‘of no fixed abode’.  He goes from day to day with little hope of a better life, trying to survive because he wants to see his kids.

Tommy’s dad was in the army and Tommy was dragged about the place.  His education was disrupted and his literacy skills are poor. (This is surprisingly common in military families.  I taught literacy skills back in the 90’s). It was hard for Tommy to get a decent job.  After one tour his dad didn’t come home, so his mum had to leave the army accommodation and take him and his sister to a refuge.  Eventually they were re-housed by the council.  Tommy left school as soon as he could and took a job to help the family pay the bills.  He was 15.  The job was low paid and without benefits or security.

Tommy did the best he could with the resources he had.  His mum died in her 40’s and Tommy and his sister made their own lives with their own families.  In 2014 Tommy was made redundant and not long after his relationship broke down.  He found himself on the street with nothing. His sister, now a widow, took him in, but after she died he was homeless yet again.

Tommy doesn’t complain about being homeless or about the unfairness of his life.  He complained about it being a ‘bit nippy’.  He was upset that he wouldn’t get to see his kids this week as he didn’t have the bus fare.  He hates it when he does see his kids because he’s ashamed of himself.

I asked Tommy about homeless shelters and he told me that he stayed in one over Christmas and New Year, but it shut in January.  He told me his stuff got stolen.  I don’t think he was making up his story.  There are thousands of people like Tommy with similar stories to tell.

A contemporary of my stepson came home one day to find his belongings on the front lawn and the lock changed on the door courtesy of his step-father.  It was his 18th birthday present.  In young people’s homeless hostels up and down the country there are similar stories.  Young people are often forced to leave home when a parent takes a new partner or re-marries and the new partner makes it clear the young person, the son or daughter, is not wanted, or worse.  When young people leave the care system the state no longer has a responsibility for them and some of them become homeless.  They don’t have families, or if they do they’re not fit to look after them, and they drop through the cracks and out of the system. 140,000 young people run away each year and a percentage of these end up homeless in cities up and down the UK.  They’re not the only ones: ex-military personnel, people with mental illness, people whose relationships fall apart, people who lose their jobs.  The spiral to the gutter can happen surprisingly rapidly.  And without an address you are nobody.  You can’t claim any state help, you can’t see a GP.

There are alcoholics and drug users on our streets, although which comes first may be a moot point, but no one choses to sit on a busy street on a bit of cardboard and beg.  People sit with their signs and their hats – and yes, sometimes their dogs – because they have no other choices left.  Any number of circumstances can mean that you slip through the net.  When I left my husband, had I not had friends and family who could put me up, I would have been homeless.  It’s scary how easily it can happen in a so called civilised society.

I didn’t give Tommy any money that day.  I gave him some food and a hot drink and a few minutes of my time.  He was grateful, more than anything, that someone had stopped to talk to him.  You may tell me it doesn’t make any difference.  He’s still on the street today and probably will be tomorrow.  And you’re  right of course, but for 10 minutes he felt human again; connected, like someone gave a damn.  I didn’t ignore him, and walk by.  I stopped and acknowledged that he existed and listened to his story.

I’m sure there are plenty of us who care, who feel impotent in the face of such seeming hopelessness.  If enough people care enough to feel indignant about this, for the right reasons, then surely something could happen to change things, to give people a helping hand, a foot on the ladder back into society.

There are charities that do things in some places.  There was a recent TV programme which raised awareness of the plight of ex-services personnel, so maybe there will be a ground swell of public goodwill which will turn this tragedy of wasted lives around.

If you don’t feel you can do anything, if you can’t bring yourself to give money, perhaps you can spare a few minutes of your time to have a conversation with a homeless person, share your common humanity and give someone some hope, make them feel that they are worth your time and are not dross, not nothing, if only for a moment.

If enough people chose to do something small, it can amount to something big.


Let’s End Homeslessness Together  https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts-figures