Benefits Street: At last - a Brum I Recognise on the Goggle-box
Posted on the 17th Feb 2014 in the category sport

Well it is time for me to write about Benefits Street.

Perhaps I should have written about it before, but well, I've been struggling to hold down a job whilst caring for my mom, who brought me up as a single parent who worked but needed benefits, who suffered another bout of depression.

But as A) An inner city Brummie. B) A member of the media. C) A loose-lipped dude who had a documentary made about me and did not see it until it was publicly aired. D) Someone who smokes a lot and E) Someone who seen everything depicted on Benefits Street with my own eyes, and I mean everything, living in Perry Barr, Handsworth, Newtown and Smethwick in the last 15 years.

I feel I have something to contribute to the debate.

I loved Benefits Street. I've finally seen a life I recognise on telly. It is a Birmingham I recognise. So I don't buy all this patronising shit about the media taking the residents for a ride and that this side of life should not be shown on TV. It is real life for countless people but what the producers did brilliantly was finding likeable human faces to a class or underclass of people which is ignored by the country.

Benefits Street is a primetime tv programme, do you think they are going to show the mindnumbing boredom of living on benefits for an hour? Would that have gripped the nation? No.

If it had been called “Community Spirit in adverse conditions” would it have drawn in millions? No.

If the first episode had not included the shoplifting and drug abuse would it have caused a storm which it allowed it to explore more complex themes in front of big audience? No.

The most disturbing aspect of the show was the reaction. Realising I live in a country full of so many c*nts who take to Twitter to heap abuse on the residents. Residents who live a life a million miles from the snarky keyboards of the mean-minded warriors.

What I loved the most about the show was the laughter.

White Dee, who has served me a bacon sarnie at Stan's Cafe in Handsworth, was so funny.

Her big laugh for me was the signature of the show. And for that twat on the debate to say “she did not look like she had clinical depression” is beyond parody. People who have depression are great at hiding it, believe me I know.

Her chats with Fungi were TV gold which will be shown for decades to come for entertainment and as social history of this nation.

She was likeable, hence why she now has the world in the hand when she was a hate figure for the first episode.

Soon as they mentioned White Dee and Black Dee I laughed, remembering White Chas and Black Chas from the Little Crown where I drank in Perry Barr as a "nipper".

I love being from inner city Brum, which is a very different animal than leafy Brum. A bit more violent and crime-ridden as well as a thriving black market in nicked gear too ("support your local shoplifters" is something I've heard countless times).

It is multi-cultural Brum. I went to Boys Brigade where 95 per cent of the kids were black, yep I said black, not afro-Caribbean like on the street I'm white and not caucasian.

If I am honest I get freaked out if I go somewhere and it is all-white as I know I am somewhere far from home, the Crown and Cushion. I don't see colour I just see genuine people and twats, whatever the colour. And the lack of racism on Benefits Street was a beauty to see.

And perhaps, I am biased but I think it being in Birmingham made a difference, it is our accent. People take the piss but our accent is the only major accent that is not shouty or cocky. Walk into a Brummie or Black Country pub and there is no shouting just a wonderful hum of laid back accents. We are likeable people. We don't come across as cocky types like Londoners and Mancs so easily can. Hence, why the outpouring of hatred slowly changed and why White Dee now is a cert for Celebrity Big Brother or whatever she wants to do.

White Dee has depression, she is not stupid, she has an illness but her helping everyone who knocks her door must help her as much them.

If she stands for MP I will offer my services. It will be brilliant for so many reasons. For one I will be able to get involved in politics in my city, something which I can't do because of my job. But volunteering for White Dee whether it be pushing envelopes through doors or coming up with publicity stunts it would not effect my day job, or give anyone the chance to call me “bias”, cos the White Dee-mocrats will not be standing in my journalist patch.

She could be a touchstone for a shit-on class who will have found someone who can say something profound with a smile on her face. She is wonderful, so what she fucked up a few years back, it was for love. And I cant think of a better reason to break the law.

What about Skidder Mark? Who it appears has learning difficulties as well as a gentle soul. In years gone by he would have gone to work at Lucas's factory or some other industrial giant. He would have worked there for years, contributing to the economy. Not everyone can be a go-getter, go to university, be whizz kid, but they used to have jobs on tap, not anymore because our manufacturing base has been decimated. This affects lives. Millions of lives.

I love the welfare state. But let's get this straight it was meant as a safety net, the architects would be horrified if they realised it would be used by generations of families who did not work. Something needs to be done to stop this.

For me it is all about education, from educating young parents to ensure their kids can understand reading and writing before they get to school to educating politicians that ham fisted attempts at mass changes will not work, it has to be more nuanced.

And academic education, educating to people's intellect and skills. Just because you don't have a high IQ don't mean you cannot be a great worker that contributes to our economy and society.

What about Fungi? Who admitted being raped as a kid. Yeah you take the piss out of him now. I loved how he said how positive people have been with him, made me again proud to be from this neck of the woods. Of course his case brings in the role of social work, probation, drug-programmes and social workers and the NHS but that is a blog for another day.

Another thing I loved was how the street changed in the sun, anyone from inner city Brum knows what an amazing place it is when the sun comes out, it can be magical, violent, fun and sleazy in equal measure.

Black Dee, which due to the legal constraints of this country I cannot write about too much, reminded me of loads of ladies I've lusted after, funny, dangerous and a born survivor. In fact I'm sure I've seen her twerk in hotpants at some Blues party or another.

I have loved women on benefits, loved their mother-in-laws who were on benefits, loved women who cannot get a job, loved women who did not declare I lived in their house.

I am lucky because I have worked as a journalist for nearly 15 years, I dread to think the lows I would have sunk too if Sam Holliday had not given me a job all those years ago. In fact I know how low I would have sunk.

A couple of months before my current job showed me, working for a commission only position at Scottish Power, I tried to stay positive, but I had to walk back into the office and say “I sold in the high zeros” and high five the prick team leader and walk out before he knew what I meant.

But I work, I earn about £19,000, I am skint almost a week after every pay day because I'm shit with money and I expect to work as a hard news journo until I drop dead.

And I'll never own a home. Or even get on a council housing list. Because even though I work everyday the property prices have kicked me, and millions like me working for under £20,000 , off the property ladder before I put my grubby hand on the bottom rung.

If someone offered a cheap flat I could rent, let alone buy, on James Turner Street would snap their hand off. I've lived in worse roads and up worse tower blocks than JT and was happy.

And if I knew my neighbour was on the fiddle, well, then I would not grass. That's just the way I am. I pay my taxes for the police to solve crime and I despise the turning of communites against each other. Being a local journo where I am from took a lot of hard work and a lot of trust from a lot of people that I wasn't a grass. Yes I'd sell my granny for a story, but grass? No. I can walk in any boozer in Handsworth, Perry Barr, Kingstanding and beyond and get called a scav, but never a grass.

And lets be honest, the amount that is fiddled in benefits is less than the amount that is dodged in tax.And we are one of the richest countries in the world which is so often forgotten.

Like all sequels Benefits Street's second series will not be as good as the first and as it is not in Brum then I probably will not watch, well not every minute.

Anyway, stay safe and keep reaching for the stars from the gutter.

Steve Zacharanda, hard news journalist and social justice campaigner (I put that on references I write for friends who are in court)



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