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A different story

posted 24 Mar 2011, 04:16 by James Higgerson
My first foray into novel writing (as an adult - I wrote a series of books in my teens, long lost and only vaguely remembered) happened in the year after I graduated from university and moved to Manchester.  It was about a young man who moved to Manchester after graduating from university.  Luckily my writing has become much less self-referential in the past seven years, but recently I've been wondering how that story would have worked out if it had been written in the present day.

The character in Gap Year wasn't entirely me, but the bare bones of the story came from my own experience, and my protagonist fulfilled the angry young man criteria happily.  He resented working in a call centre (the chicken coop, as he knew it), and encountered all sorts of emotional turbulence that a relatively naive young person encounters moving to a big city for the first time.  He resented the war in Iraq and the lies that politicians told.  He didn't know he was born.

Were I doing this again, my angry young man would be magnified a hundred times over.  He would have protested tuition fee increases and met with the derision of the nation and the press, for protesting something that will have no obvious benefit to him.  As the fee increase won't harm him at all, at least until he has his kids with ambitions, he would have been protesting for the people that followed, the next generation.  In return, he would have met with widespread cynicism and disparaging remarks about being one of the lucky ones to have time to protest.  He would have been called out for being over-privileged and treating further education as a right over a luxury.  He would have known exactly where this country stands on solidarity.

He would have left university tens of thousands of pounds in debt - aged 21 - with a degree but nothing to offer when it comes to employability.  If he went on benefits, he is lumped in with the blanket 'scrounger' term that applies to anyone who isn't in gainful employment.  He would want to be useful, to earn money and have a life.  He would be living back with his parents and settling into the opposite of the life he mapped out for himself.  He would be portrayed as a burden on a struggling country, as being too picky to get a job, unwilling to get real and accept anything that is out there, even though he knew that he was being declined for even the most basic of call centre jobs.   He is also expected to feel grateful, for if he had been born a couple of years later, he would have been suddenly outpriced of the education he'd been working towards all of his life.    

That's how these spending cuts will pass through, because people simply don't give a shit about anyone else.  Those who weren't standing up with the students are now experiencing half-arsed support for their own protests against public sector redundancies, lecturers pensions, the shutting down of libraries, swimming pools and other local resources.  He will see from those older than him that the majority believe that nothing can be done, that it's all a futile effort and that everyone should get on with it.  He will have voted in his first general election and found that even in a democracy, it is possible for no-one to get what they want.  He would know indifference and he would wonder what his whole life has been building towards.

Perhaps this is just the perspective from the city centre.  In places where community still exists, where people talk to each other on the street and show an interest in their neighbours.  Yet it seems to be all self-interest on this side.  The Labour run Manchester City Council have been hit in a political move from the Coalition, and are ticking the maximum disruption box in order to score counter-points.  People care about their own specific amenities being cut, but won't do anything collectively about it.  These cuts are divisive, making everyone state their case and place it as the most pressing concern.  Art is devalued as unimportant in the context of crime and health-care, education has become nothing more than a commodity.  My library is more important than your lollipop man, which in turn is more important than their swimming pool.  Fight among yourselves whilst they go on screwing us from above.  Did solidarity die with the miners, or was that just a rare moment of collective action? 

Were I to rewrite my first novel in 2011, I figure my young man would have plenty more to be angry about.  I don't envy him in the slightest.