New Internationalist

Work For Idle Hands

Issue 143

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[image, unknown] UNEMPLOYMENT & YOUTH: Dundee [image, unknown]

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Work for idle hands
‘There’s the alkies and the loonies, the junkies and the thiefs, then
there’s us, the youths.’ Andy searches for things to occupy and amuse
him and his mates - from rape to starting a young people’s centre.
For he’s unemployed, with no future and living on a problem
housing estate in Scotland.

Solvent abuse, or glue sniffing, in action. These teenagers get their kicks from the vapour given off from the cans in the bottom right side of the picture.
Simon Archer / Camera Press

My name’s Andy. I live in a housing scheme just outside of Dundee. Dundee’s in Scotland. I’ll tell you my story anyway except I haven’t really any story to tell. That’s my problem. I can’t get started. I mean, I look into tomorrow and I don’t know what’s going to be happening.

In my old man’s day I would have been doing an apprenticeship or something else solid like that For me. I knew things were going to be a bit dodgy workwise when I left school. Not that I had much idea of how the world looked anyway. living out in the housing scheme a busride away from anywhere, anywhere being Dundee.

Anyway, when I left the school I wasn’t prepared for what was coming to meet me which was precisely nothing,

I wasn’t prepared for nothing except I had myself. I knew that much anyway. You see, this place where I live has got to be seen to be believed. Sometimes I think it’s a prison block the way they’ve built it, All you would need would be a couple of machine guns up on the roofs on the opposite corners of a crescent and you’d control the lot of it. Me and my mates haven’t got a gun but we’ve got a ghetto-blaster and all that concrete makes a great echo chamber.

Of course everybody hates us. We’re part of the problem of the place. There’s the alkies and the loonies, the junkies and the thiefs, then there’s us, the youths. We’re lumped in with all headbangers that give the place a bad name. We don’t have to have done anything. We just have to be young. And unemployed. Kicking about the scheme all day. But we’re like the Vietnam boat people - we’ve some of them here too - we’ve got to live with it, all the madness round about us. We get things nicked just the same as other people, but everybody thinks it’s us do all the nicking. And if your mum and dad are on the bottle that doesn’t encourage you to stay home all day. Even if they’re not, the man upstairs might be and you have to put up with him setting fire to the place and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of basic ordinary people too and they’re just trying to get on with it.

Get on with what? Which brings me back to what I was telling you in the first place. I look into the future and I can’t see where I’m going. What I figured, I told my mate, is that you’ve got to get yourself a project. Like what, he said. Well, maybe your project is you join the army. Or maybe. I said, we could get into religion. Or politics maybe. I know some blokes that joined the Workers Revolutionary Party - WRP - more initials. They give you an education which is more than the Labour Party have got on offer at street level. Let’s join everything. We could be the new’ recruits.

So we took a bus ride down to Dundee to see what we could join but when we got there we met Big Scarvie that we’d known at school and he’s gone all punk - leather jacket all chains and zips and his head shaved bald but with ridges of hair running in lines across his skull and metal studs pressed into his bare flesh. I said to him. Scarvie. is that not painful? But that’s his project At least he’s got one. But dressing up weird never appealed to me. So I didn’t join the punk brigade. Didn’t join the army either, Don’t fancy getting my brains blown out in Londonderry. No thank you. I might not be able to see the future but at least I know’ what to avoid.

We met Macnulty and he showed us his syringe and the state of his arms just about sickened me. He’s got his project too. Anything’s better than doing nothing. Smack makes your nose itch but at least it stops you questioning. For a while at any rate. All these questions that have no answers. If suddenly there wasn’t any smack around, all the junkies would go crazy and tear the place apart and murdering people all just from sheer rage. Because all the stuff they’re pumping into themselves they really want to be putting out there, but they’re frustrated because there’s no way out Smack’s just a way of keeping them down just like they do with the blacks in America.

While we were downtown we saw all the students. They were all dressed up and doing daft things. Looks like they’ve got a project too. Nice-looking girls but too posh for the likes of us. My mate said he’d like to rape them. Doesn’t matter if you go to jail. Going to jail’s a project too. Except raping lassies doesn’t appeal to me either. It would be nice to have a bird that loved me and maybe that will happen one day. I mean, that’s what’s supposed to happen, isn’t it’? You grow’ up. You get a job. You find yourself a bird and the two of you get married and have bairns who grow up get jobs get married, have bairns. and on and on like a picture inside a picture going on forever, except that’s not what happens anymore. So if I can’t get a job does that mean that I can’t get married and can’t have bairns and does that mean that I can’t grow up?

Most of the women around here are sterilised anyway. Once they’ve had a couple of bairns they go into the hospital and get it done. My mother thinks it’s bad for them. Slows them down. But they go on getting sterilised. It’s like second nature. All except for the woman who lives on the end of the block. She just keeps on having bairns.

Doesn’t matter too much who the father is. Every so often she just has to have another. It’s like she’s on a hunger strike except with her it’s having babies. You know, like she’s saying something. Here’s the children what are you going to do about them? Like she’s saying it to the world. That’s her project.

Another mate of mine, he did a youth employment thing where they took him into a place and trained him up and things. The wee bird that ran it had a big nose but she was one of that type she really cared, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of them about. Educated people. Nice manners and that They’re like a different breed. The guys all have beards and are dead soft-spoken. Sometimes it bugs me. They come out to the scheme and put in their time then next thing they’re off again jumping into their cars and back to the cosy wee places they’re living in. Some people say there’s more social workers to the square inch out here than in any other pan of Scotland and I believe them. The only difference is that they don’t live here. Which is the only way they’ll ever understand the place.

Anyway, I was telling you about my mate. He did this youth scheme with the bird with the big nose; and him and the bird started fancying one another. He denied it but I could see that was what was happening alright. I mean, they were spending hours together. Days and nights. Even when she wasn’t supposed to be working, she’d be spending her time with her darling Alan - that was my mate’s name like. The two of them really turned each other on. But he said it was just a Platonic friendship, which was one of those words she’d taught him to say. She taught him a lot of things. And he got all excited about it.

Then, when the time came for him to leave the youth scheme, it was a right bring down. Because one day he’d something and the next day he’d nothing. He wasn’t in with the bearded wallahs anymore.

We needed something to distract him, So him and me came up with a project all of our own. Something that made sense.

There was going to be a supermarket down the shops and the building was there, ready to go, but they didn’t open it, So here was this big space lying empty and here we were with nowhere to go. This was our idea. Why not make the supermarket into a young people’s centre?

All we needed was for them to open the doors and we could have got on with it ourselves, but, of course, nobody trusts us to do things like that so there had to be a meeting.

There we were - all the skinheads in the communal lounge they used for the meeting. There was a wee guy with red hair and he kept calling us brothers. He wanted every-body to sit in a circle so that we’d all be equal. As if the way we sat made any effin difference,

Anyway, there were about sixty of us, so we made half a circle and all the councillors and officials and sorts made up the other half, and there we were facing each other across the communal lounge. This woman from the posher houses further down the road stands up and says something’s going to have to be done about these young people. There’s been vandalism down our way now. And one of the heads shouts out from the back, ‘We’re fed up vandalising our own place. So we’ve started moving out. And made it sound as if eventually the whole world would be vandalised. The rest of us laughed.

What do you want? they asked.

Somewhere to go, we said.

You’ve got somewhere - the community centre.

There was an old house about a mile away out on the green. They’ve got pingpong there and computer games and sometimes they have discos. One of ours shouts out – ‘we cannae go tae the discos because we have to walk along and it’s pitch dark out there that’s just asking for trouble. There’s always some of the Sham Gang waiting for us.

‘Yeah. We need somewhere that’s next to where we live.’ Then somebody else shouts out – ‘Why don’t you give us a bit of grass to play football oan, then we widnae need tae sniff glue in the bushes.’ That’s the trouble with these meetings, everyone starts talking at once. It was about half an hour before we got back to the supermarket.

They didn’t want us in there because they didn’t trust us. ‘Who’d keep an eye on you?’ they said. And we had an easy answer. The supermarket’s right next door to the police station. The police are always moving us on when we’re hanging around the shops but if we don’t hang around there where else do we go? Whereas, if we had our own place we wouldn’t need to hang around the street anymore getting on everyone’s nerves. Anyway that supermarket’s boarded up right to this day: the police are still moving us on. No-one consults us about anything. So much for our project.

I look into the future and I don’t see any pictures.

By Tom McGrath, a playwrite best known for ‘The Hardman’,
‘Animal’ and ‘Laurel and Hardy’. For television he has written
‘The Nuclear Family’ and ‘Blowout’. He is writer-in-residence
at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee.

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The Facts

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. The percentage of young people aged 15 - 24 among total unemployed were, for: Australia 56%, Canada 47%, UK 42%, compared to Third World nations like Syria 70%, India 67%, Ghana 60%.
(Source: 11.0 Bureau of Statistics 1980)

* Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, Holland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States.


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[image, unknown] Gluesniffing, rape or vandelism, why are the choices all so negative? Can’t these young people make the community a better place?

Not all of Andy’s choices are negative. He also describes an attempt by young people at positive social action. His main point is that all ‘projects’ are an attempt at escaping the experience of meaninglessness which accompanies long-term unemployment. In order to create a sense of self and group identity, the person - whatever age - will do almost anything, positive or negative.

[image, unknown] Why is it always another community centre or football green that’s needed. Surely more leisure facilities are not the answer to Andy’s problems?

A real solution to Andy’s problems involves rethinking the thrust of our social effort. This s not impossible but has to be consciously pursued. Housing should be planned to avoid isolation of breadline communities. Where isolated schemes exist, ways should be found to link them with the main flow of city life. We are caught within the stereotypes of consumerism and the work-based society. There are other ways in which individuals might develop. It would be more fruitful to consider everyone as unemployed and having a job as only one option among many as to what to do with your leisure time. Other options should be upgraded in status. Meantime young people are right to demand spaces and places they can call their own.

[image, unknown] Isn’t it too easy to attack social workers? Would it be better if there weren’t any, as conservatives would like?

Andy does not condemn social workers hut ix alert to the irony of so many being employed to study and help with the problems of the unemployed. Within the present meagre provisions for deprived areas, social workers are essential. More help needs to he provided, not less. But a rational programme would employ the unemployed.

[image, unknown] You say ‘Everybody hates us ... We just have to be unemployed.’ Yet else-where you describe, the young as getting into some nasty mischief. Isn’t that a good reason not to trust them with a community centre?

Andy’s main complaint is that the young are not consulted. Vandalism and other abuses are inevitable when the young are either ignored or stigmatised. Vandalism is an unconscious act of social protest. At least it provokes a reaction and prompts the adults to think about providing some facilities for the young. What is not freely given is extorted by the threat of more damage against property.


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