Finding Shannon Matthews – so much for ‘broken Britain’March 16, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Working Class Britain | 6 Comments
Tags: Shannon Matthews
Editor’s note (14/11/08): In the days following this piece, Shannon’s mother Karen was arrested and later charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice. Whilst that development rendered some of the particulars of this piece as out-of-date, I still believe that much of the sentiment expressed here holds true.
At the age of 11, I was briefly friends with a boy named James Mercer. James was a harmless, fidgety chatterbox of a kid; his learning difficulties meant he could never really concentrate in class, but he could still flash a grin so infectious you’d forgive the trouble he’d gotten you in by messing around in double English. James never spoke of his father; he lived with a mum who worked evenings in whichever local pub was short on staff and who fell in and out of relationships with the wrong men. Though he didn’t invite me very often, for the half-year we were friends I visited him in three different houses in parts of Sheffield and Barnsley, all of which were occupied by guys who bristled at his presence, never mind mine.
The last place they stayed in was a fairly new flat on the outskirts of Sheffield. There were no curtains up, the floors were unfurnished and the sparse décor suggested they wouldn’t be staying for long. I can still remember being in his bedroom, playing his computer games at full volume to drown out the slamming and shouting we could hear in in the front room. One day he told me his mum was taking him to London on a holiday and that I shouldn’t tell anyone at school because it’d spoil the surprise. It was the last time I saw him.
To accept that the personal lives of the poor can be messy and complicated is not to patronise or demean them, nor (unless you’re Alison Pearson or Melanie Phillips) is it to make some moral judgement on the lives they lead. In communities hamstrung by poverty & unemployment, poor housing, bad education, crime and drugs, relationships can be fraught and fleeting, and children will often grow up surrounded by a large cast of supporting actors. Fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins will all live close by, as will a step-father and his family, ex-boyfriends and their families. This large, informal kinship group might have their factions and grudges, bad blood and rotten apples, but if anything does unite them it’s the abiding affection for the children who threw them together.
After 24 days missing, 9-year-old Shannon Matthews was found in the home of her stepfather’s uncle; a victim, it would seem, of a family splintered by someone who didn’t have her best interests at heart. But if, in the rush to apply blame or make easy conclusions, we are to attribute her abduction to the complex and sometimes dysfunctional relationships among working class communities, we must also acknowledge that their unordered affairs also contributed to her being saved.
Though it wasn’t widely reported in the national media, the people of Dewsbury Moor were magnificent. From the moment Shannon’s disappearance was publicised, hundreds of people dropped what they were doing to try to help. They combed the streets looking for her, organised marches to publicise her plight. They put up posters, made banners and pushed flyers into the palms of passers-by. People who on another day might’ve seen the police as an intrusive enemy put that to one side to volunteer any information they had. On modest resources, they did everything they could think of to help bring her back home. So much for ‘broken Britain.’
They did these things because, whether fractious or not, the complex social lives in this small, densely-populated community are what make it a community in the first place – nearly everyone knew someone who’d dealt with those associated with the Matthews family, whether it was Karen or Shannon, her father, step-father, grandparents, cousins or friends.
The right-wing press is already trying to frame the Matthews case as a sign of the moral & societal collapse of working class Britain. But they can’t have it both ways: if being poor is part of the reason why Shannon went missing, then it’s also responsible for outpouring of humanity, generosity and hard work that came as a response to it.
This won’t be recognised, of course. But at least the people that matter – Shannon Matthews, her family, and the wider family of Dewsbury Moor, will all know the truth. And once the reporters have left & the cameras returned down the M1, that enduring truth will be the only thing that matters.