Gary Raymond mulls over the recent announcement that Newport City Council will consult a ban on begging in its city centre.
Yesterday evening, Channel 4 News ran a feature-length report about Newport City Council’s decision to consider a ban on begging in its city centre. It’s unfortunate because this was yet another instalment in the endless trek where Newport leaves only negative footprints across the nation’s media. The report must have given the impression to many that Newport is a mean and intolerant place, which, although having a good share of mean and intolerant people, is not a defining characteristic of the town I have known for nearly 40 years. Despite giving examples of other councils who have trotted out similar edicts, the report could not help but paint Newport as some medieval enclave driving out pestilence with excitable swishes of broomsticks.
The ban itself, (an uncommon example of proactivity by Newport City Council), is a real shame, particularly when you look at the reasons: apparently people are intimidated by “aggressive beggars”. More intimidated than they are by, say, “aggressive benefit sanctions”? The reporter, Andy Davies, elicited explanations from two spokespeople for the consultation, a councillor and the representative of a local business collective, who both spoke about the need to address concerns of “some people”. A beggar was interviewed (I recognised him too), and he was eloquent and compassionate and full of understanding of the emotions that have driven people to support this idea. He was embarrassingly dignified about the whole thing.
In one sense, this is an attempt to clean up the consumer experience. The narrative goes that there are people who will not go shopping to Newport because beggars are too relentless, too intimidating, too off-putting. The poverty is too ugly, the desperation unseemly. The idea, one must presume, is to drive out the poverty from the shopping experience, improve Newport’s economy, increase tax revenue, so that Newport City Council can improve services that will lift these beggars and vagrants off the street and put them back into the glorious parameters of our beautiful utopic society. This is trickle down thinking, by God! One day, they will thank us for being banned.
When I was a child – in Newport – the idea of banning anything was absurd. That was the first lesson in politics for a comprehensive schoolboy. “You don’t ban it, you defeat it,” I’m sure one of my coal-miner-turned-history-teachers used to say. One way to defeat something is to cure it, of course. In fact, “banning” is defeat. That is why my school eventually banned the yard game British Bulldogs – because there was no cure for the diseased desire of young boys to form huge human clotheslines and hack each other down bloodily into the gravel. The teachers had been defeated by the powerful allure of British Bulldogs, so they banned it.
Times are different now of course. The proud culture of the lower echelon of ruling classes (local power) has been eroded over time by the oppressive culture of the second-to-lower echelon (Westminster), and where once was vim and vigour now lies only the sallow glare of the defeated. Newport City Council’s proposed ban is not (only) a stupid, reactionary, careless endeavour, but it is just another death note from the (local) governing class. They cannot help us anymore, not while Britain is in the grip of its right wing. They cannot find people homes, find them jobs, they cannot help people in to society, so they push them further from it.
So what is the answer when the problems are so big?
Well, I say, rather than protest, riot, or rant, why not embrace this newfound council proactivity and really clean up our city. I suggest more bans at the heart of our habitat. I have grown to be quite the snowflake since the EU referendum as it happens, quivering in my arboretum at the mildest hint of my poetic existence being de-versified, and I have a long list of groups of people I would like to see banned for their intimidating presence.
I suggest we ban anybody who take their political views from Wetherspoon’s beermat slogans. They can go. And how about anybody who has ever been drinking in The Greyhound? (Apart from the old fella with one eye and no eye patch who “stared” at me with his walnutted socket when I once had to deliver misdirected mail to the bar in the late nineties – long story). Keep in mind, for several years The Greyhound had a sign in its window that read, “Footwear must be worn at all times”.
I am left wing, so ban all Daily Mail readers, of course. But I am also in the sticky situation of being a professional writer, which I suppose makes me middle class, so I am also terrified in my ignorance of youth culture, so ban all the children.
We hit a difficult patch when I think of the businesses that intimidate me. The Newport banning is all for the good of local businesses, after all. But, I am intimidated by people who get up early for work. I have always struggled with this, and my working-class upbringing meant that I have had to live with this struggle in the form of shame. So ban anyone who runs a shop that opens before 10am. Hey, why not make it midday. Goddammit, I will not be made to feel less by people who get up earlier than I do.
But when I think about it, I’ve never really been one for “can’t-beat-them-join-them” sentiments. The Welsh are, I think, traditionally steadfast when it comes to doing the right thing. What should concern people is that the sort of thinking that brings about bans on begging, is very much a sign of a defeated Wales. Who is this type of gesture really aimed at? Is it aimed at clearing up Newport, or is it a flag waved at the right, to let them know the council has their concerns at heart? Is it a sign that local government, steamrollered by austerity and then Brexit, have nothing left to give other than to the join the wrong side?
Gary Raymond is a novelist and critic, and editor of Wales Arts Review.