The heart of Dewsbury Moor

December 4, 2008 at 11:19 pm | Posted in Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

Whilst there’ll still be enough legs in the story to titillate the tabloids for a few days yet, today we finally saw the end of the Shannon Matthews saga. Shannon, a nine year old girl at the time of her ‘disappearance’, was kidnapped by her mother Karen and imprisoned in the flat of her ex-boyfriend’s uncle for 24 days. It goes without saying that their crimes are contemptible.

Having done a series of posts at the time of her disappearance, I’ve spent the past few hours struggling to cook up some kind of comment, but then I remembered that that I’d already written all that needs to be said for the moment.

What follows was written shortly after Shannon Matthews was found alive and well; several days before anyone knew that her mother may have had a hand in her own daughter’s disappearance. Whilst the events following this post have made one or two of the sentences obsolete, the majority of it holds as true today as it did back in March:

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.

As has already been noted here, the people of Dewsbury Moor were true working class heroes, and no amount of the crude tabloid moralising which is sure to come could ever detract from that fact.

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