Behind the figures lay very considerable discrepancies, in terms of race, age and location. According to the 1971 census, unemployment amongst men of Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent was 138 per cent of the level experienced by white men. Ten years later, with unemployment having more than tripled, that differential alone would have produced many more black unemployed, but in fact the recession impacted disproportionately in terms of colour, to such an extent that even the Sun recognized there was an issue here: ‘Unemployment in Britain rose by 37 per cent in the year up to last August,’ it reported in late 1980. ‘Among black people it rose by 47.5 per cent.’
Even in London and the south-east there were places where unemployment, more especially youth unemployment, became an habitual way of life, as described by a character in Martin Millar’s Brixton novel Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvation: ‘Everyone I know is broke, no one ever has any money apart from a brief flurry on giro day, sitting celebrating this fortnight’s pittance in the pub and maybe even lashing out and buying something to eat.’ Rural areas too often suffered disproportionately, though seldom attracting much attention: in 1983 the unemployment rate stood at 17.5 per cent in Cornwall and at 25.5 per cent in the Western Isles, way above the national average.
But it was the north of England, where the decline in manufacturing industry was most concentrated, that tended to be the primary focus of political concern. In Hartlepool, it was reported, it was more likely that a school-leaver would get a place at university than a job. The resultant desperation was encapsulated in the story of Graeme Rathbone and Sean Grant, two unemployed 19-year-olds in the Merseyside town of Widnes, who committed suicide together in the summer of 1981. ‘What have we got left to live for now there is no work for anyone?’ they wrote, before killing themselves with the exhaust fumes of a stolen car. ‘All teenagers have to do is hang around street corners getting moved on by police who think you are up to something.’
Interviewed afterwards, the mother of one said that her son had become increasingly withdrawn in the last months of his life and, when she had asked him why he was sitting around at home and not going out, he had replied: ‘Well, there’s nowhere to go, Mum. There’s no jobs, no money, there’s nothing to do. You just walk up and down the street. It’s the same every day.’ The story sparked the creation of one of Mike Leigh’s more depressing films, Meantime, which centred on the relationship between two unemployed brothers (played by Phil Daniels and Tim Roth), set in the East End of London.
The dispiriting tedium of youth unemployment was captured in the Specials’ single ‘Do Nothing’ (1980), written by guitarist Lynval Golding: ‘I’m just living in a life without meaning, I walk and walk, do nothing.’ As the decade developed and began to become obsessed with ascribing a financial value to everything, it was discovered that even inactivity had a price: in 1985 a Kent farmer named Eddie Waltham was reported to be employing youths at a wage of £50 a week to walk around his cherry orchard banging bits of wood together to scare off starlings. So desperate were the times that five unemployed school-leavers moved from Birmingham to take up these roles as human scarecrows.
It wasn’t just the young. Amongst the most famous fictional creations of the first Thatcher term, was Yosser Hughes, who became a symbol of the wastelands of the north. First seen in Alan Bleasdale’s 1980 television play The Black Stuff, which following a gang of six Liverpool labourers laying tarmac on a job in Middlesbrough, Yosser (played by Bernard Hill) was a nightmare character fuelled by violence, greed and hatred. When the gang stop to give a lift to a female student who’s hitch-hiking to Leeds, Yosser greets her with a leer: ‘Been raped recently, love?’
The original drama was followed two years later by a series of five plays, Boys from the Blackstuff, that included ‘Yosser’s Story’, where he struck a much more pathetic figure. Increasingly gaunt, dressed in shabby black clothes, and with scars across his forehead from his tendency to headbutt anyone and anything that stands in his way, he now looked like a Scouse incarnation of Frankenstein’s monster, the unwitting creation of a society that can find no place for his lack of talents. ‘He wasn’t very good at anything,’ notes his ex-wife, Maureen, a condition exacerbated by his own frank admission that ‘Nobody likes me’. His plea to everyone he encounters – ‘Gis a job’ – became something of a national catchphrase, a plea to the government, and was used on a Labour Party document, ‘Working Together for Britain’, about youth unemployment.
As he sinks into mental illness, however, even that desperate cry subsides in favour of a simple declaration, ‘I’m Yosser Hughes’, as though, with his job, his children and his house all taken from him by a system over which he has no control, the only thing he has left to hold onto is a memory of his identity. ‘I thought I knew where I was going once,’ he says simply, in a rare lucid moment. ‘There’s nowhere left to go.’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2010