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Smoke some fags and play some pool

02/02/2014

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Shirebrook seldom makes it onto the national news but you can be sure when it does it’s likely to be bad news. Even the local media appear reluctant to run a Shirebrook good news story. Take this sample of some recent headlines on the world wide web for instance. Two arrested during police search at a suspected cannabis farm. Gun fired during Shirebrook burglary. Mum of two fined after wrongly claiming benefits. Fire at a derelict pub may have been started deliberately. Freak weather and mini tornadoes hit Shirebrook. Crikey, even the local football team appears doom-ridden. Miserable month continues for Shirebrook Town in the Toolstation Northern Counties East League Division One.

So when the story emerged, at the beginning of January, of a new born baby found in the toilets at the Sports Direct warehouse in the town and of a woman arrested on suspicion of wilful neglect the media had a field day with coverage on the national television news on the Sunday evening and in the following day’s papers. Fuelled by the hoopla around Channel Four’s Benefits Street series social media weighed in as well. “Don’t know a worse place in the world than Shirebrook” and “trust someone from Shirebrook to give birth in a warehouse” were typical comments with numerous references to “Shitebrook” and “Shitbrook”. In addition, speculation was rife that the woman may have been of eastern European origin and possibly threw her baby down the toilet.

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If you’re wondering where Shirebrook is, well, there’s some confusion even among the locals. It’s a market town of around ten thousand close to the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The town’s name is a reference to a brook running along the border between the two counties. The frontier location has resulted in a geographical schizophrenia that sees residents of the Derbyshire town looking mainly towards nearby Mansfield in Nottinghamshire for retail, entertainment and sporting sustenance.

Shirebrook is a former coal mining community. For nearly a century, men dug coal at Shirebrook Colliery that powered homes and businesses across the nation until it closed in the early nineties. Since then, the town has fallen on hard times like many towns and villages across the region and many young people are forced to look elsewhere to make a better life. As the town’s raison d’être disappeared, high unemployment and drink and drugs problems have become endemic.

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As a result, it’s probably not the sort of place that you’d take little Tarquin or Penelope for a wander round. You probably wouldn’t need your camera. There’s no obvious tourist attraction as such. None of the shops or restaurants that we’ve come to expect from the modern well-to-do high street. No Starbuck’s. No Pizza Express. Sadly, it exists as a sort of down at heel monument to Thatcherism; a once proud, thriving, industrious community that’s had the heart ripped out of it and replaced by a sprawling warehouse that distributes cheap sports tat to a nation of couch surfers. The profits generated by the low paid workers are not ploughed back into the town but are sucked out into a vast retail operation headed by a billionaire businessman who cares not one iota for the people of Shirebrook. Yes, the business generates jobs for locals. But at what price?

It’s a shame. I know people from Shirebrook and they are all unfailingly, genuinely lovely people. People that wouldn’t think twice about helping you out in a time of need. A world away from the image portrayed by the rotten finger pointing media coverage of stories like this that perpetually panders to the prejudices of middle England. Yet another story of the daft antics of the unemployed, boozed up, drug addicted, benefit scrounging lower classes to keep you amused on your journey into the office. But whether you live in Shirebrook, Sheffield, Shrewsbury or Shepherd’s Bush there’s bonkers behaviour going on across all walks of life.

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A few days later as trade unions and local MPs delved behind the headlines a rather different, less sensational, story began to emerge. Trade unions have long raised concerns about the working conditions and treatment of staff at the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook. Five thousand people are employed there with the vast majority working casually or on zero hours contracts. How do you think Sports Direct manage to knock out their stuff so cheap? In addition there is no union representation in the warehouse.

In the days following the initial story many staff bravely approached local newspapers to describe their experience of working at the warehouse. They spoke of a “six strikes and you’re out” policy, of being searched as they leave the premises at the end of a shift and of generally being in fear of losing their jobs. Many described it as “a horrible place to work”. Interestingly some were unsurprised that a twenty eight year old woman had apparently been so fearful of losing her job that she’d worked through her pregnancy and given birth to her baby on the premises. Local MPs and trade unions have raised questions about the health and safety record of the UK’s so-called number one sports retailer.

Of course, the truth is still to emerge but it’s sad with stories like this that the knee jerk reaction of many is to believe the worst of people particularly when something occurs in a town like Shirebrook. You can almost picture some people rolling their eyes and going “see, told you, that’s what they get up to when they’re not smoking fags and gawping at Cash in the Attic on their fifty six inch plasma tellies; chucking babies down the toilet”. People with no idea of what it’s like to struggle for money have long been fed an unflattering image of the undeserving poor, constantly ducking and diving and up to no good, through television dross like Shameless, Little Britain, People Like Us and Skint. And now Benefits Street.

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As Owen Jones, the author of the superb myth-busting book Chavs, pointed out in a recent article in The Independent “a healthy media would stand up to the powerful and wealthy. Ours targets the poor and voiceless”. It would point out, for instance, that only three percent of social security payments go to unemployed people. Most of the so-called benefits bill goes on pensioners who have paid in throughout their lives. What is too often forgotten is that a significant chunk of welfare payments go to people who are grafting in low paid jobs. Like people working at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct. Businessmen like Ashley are often portrayed as self-made when the reality is that their businesses are often propped up by taxpayers’ money as profits are eked out through poverty wages and bullying of the workforce.

It’s time that we stopped this relentless finger pointing at the low paid and unemployed and turned the spotlight onto the real scroungers. Let’s take a look at the wealthy tax dodgers who deprive this country of more than thirty billion pounds annually. Yes, THIRTY BILLION.

I’ve got an idea for a television programme called Scroungers. I’ve been doing some research on my way into work and I reckon that there are several streets tucked away off the King’s Road in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea where, I suspect, and admittedly this is just a hunch, most of the residents are tax dodging scroungers. Mind you, we’ll have to get beyond the high walls, closed circuit television cameras, security gates and elaborate intercom systems before we get anywhere near a human being to interview. It’s almost as if they’ve got something to hide. But I think this programme could be a goer. Anyone fancy helping out?

In the meantime, Viva Shirebrook. Please send me your Shirebrook good news stories.

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