Saturday, 9 June 2018

When Britain turns crappy

Our street’s a bit crappy at the moment.

I don’t mean that’s it’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing, even though it’s not really much to write home about. But then, I’m not sure why I’d write home about it. After all, it is home, so there’d be little point in writing.
The sewage flowing past our doorstep
In any case, in this instance my judgement is meant much more literally. The street’s crappy because it has sewage running down it. Not a torrent or anything, not a flood, but a fairly constant trickle, filling the gutter and spreading a vile, malodorous miasma around.

You’ve got admit that ‘malodorous miasma’ is good, isn’t it? I hope it means what I want because I’m not changing it. I’m pretty certain you know what I mean, anyway.

We’ve spoken to the people in the house from which the sewage is flowing. They’re tenants. They tell me they’ve spoken to the landlord but nothing’s happened yet.

Luton Borough Council kindly provides an out-of-hours number to report such emergencies. After all, it’s a serious public health problem. Think of all the cholera epidemics in cities before proper sanitation was introduced.

Sadly, no one actually answers the number. Nor does it provide a voicemail function so we can leave a message.

I don’t blame the council. They’d do something if they could. But eight years of austerity have pared staffing levels down to the minimum, and then pared more.

Nor is Luton council the only service to have suffered this way. Most recently, such problems have been much discussed in the media in connection with the railways. Trains have been repeatedly cancelled, so there are fears that students won’t be able to get to school in time to take their end-of-school examinations.

The school buildings themselves are increasingly dilapidated, teacher numbers are down, and people are leaving the profession in increasing numbers, leading to a vicious cycle: they leave because understaffing is making the stress unbearable, and by leaving they increase the understaffing.

We have another personal example of this kind of thing just recently. My 93-year-old mother has been admitted to hospital. The care she is receiving is excellent – we were there when she was examined and advised by a consultant (a senior physician) who was admirable in his gentleness, reassuring good humour and kindness. But what struck us most about the place was the tiredness of most of the staff: the faces are drawn as they struggle to cope with a huge workload, never able to devote more than a few minutes to any one patients.

Many of the voices we heard were distinctly foreign. It’s well-known that the National Health Service depends heavily on foreign staff to keep operating. There’s nothing wrong about that. What’s wrong is that since the Brexit vote, there is a feeling that foreigners aren’t welcome in this country. Like the teachers leaving the profession, immigrants essential to the health service, to catering, to hotels, to agriculture and to many other sectors are leaving the country.

That hostility to foreigners is grounded in a sense that Britain is somehow superior to other nations. That pride seems misplaced in a country with failing railways, schools or hospitals. Or, indeed, on sewage running in the streets.

Curiously, our street here contrasts starkly with the street where we’ve recently taken a flat, in Valencia.

In my youth, Spain was a nation made painfully inward-looking, closed to the outside world and, frankly, poor – rather as Brexit is likely to make Britain – by its stultifying dictatorship under the last of the declared fascists, Francisco Franco.

But he died and Spain returned enthusiastically to democracy. It became one of the first European countries to allow same-sex marriage. It has been leading the way in moving towards gender equality – indeed the new government has, for the first time, a majority of women. And now El País, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in the world, is just about to appoint its first woman editor.

When we were last there, I was struck by the level of public service. I got chatting to the woman who cleans the streets around the flat we recently acquired in Valencia. She cleans them – ‘the same streets’, as she assured me, ‘every day’ – since they always need cleaning. That’s principally because a significant proportion of dog owners are highly irresponsible.

Now, I’d like it if dog owners always picked up after their dogs. But failing that, it’s wonderful to know that there is someone who’ll be along within the next twenty-four hours to clear up anyway. That seems particularly desirable when you live in a street made crappy by sewage flowing down it.

What’s more, Spain seems a lot less unfriendly towards immigrants than Britain does right now. That’s not to say that racism is unknown there – it isn’t – but at least xenophobia is less rampant than here. Which is just as well, since we plan on moving there just as soon as we can. Emigrating from a nation hostile to immigrants to become immigrants in a nation that is less unwelcoming to them.

Besides. The weather’s a lot better.

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