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I, Elspeth Blake

No, that’s not my surname. You’ll have worked out real one by now. But I’m showing solidarity with the film I’ve just seen – I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s latest instalment in the Cathy Come Home mould. More humorous I think than that 1960s docudrama, but I hope that this feature film has the same social impact.

I noted that this film about the welfare system chooses to base its story in an inner city, round a manually skilled older man with a medical condition, and a single mum. People we can feel truly on side with without any controversy.

But they’re not the only examples of those hit by state support’s cruelties.

These issues are found in the country too, and with people you might not guess. I’ve been in rooms where we talk about ‘the poor’ as those out there, statistics in particular postcodes. But they were in the room too. I was one of them.

Katie in the film takes 2 years to get a real home – and nowhere near the place she’s from. If you’re not in the vulnerable group of old or young, ill or disabled or with children, support of any kind can be even harder to get.

What struck me is the coldness of the system, the attempt at breaking you or resocialising you. Not just you the claimant, but those behind the desk.

Those in officialdom have lost their humanity.

They need to regain it – their ability to think, to feel, to question. This film is a good start.

I’ve often said that those in various corporate roles don’t understand any other kind of work and are almost robotic in their adherence to rules and shocking in their stupidity.

Are they chosen for those qualities or do they come after the years of employment in government offices? They are removed from the public – call centres, automated phone messages, PO box addresses, the internet with preset answer boxes that won’t send until you put in what they want. Quite often these decision makers (‘adjudicator’ was thought too big a word by the DWP, though it remains in the tax office and ombudsman) are also unnamed, as are trustees of grants for those in need, such as Charis – who have no understanding of the grace of their name. As I pointed out.

I have my own story to tell, but I don’t yet feel ready to tell it here. Of course, I have another which I have told. I also began a TV series script on a comedic satire on the world of work. My Near Professor Sally Gababa is in a different situation to Ken Loach’s Daniel and Katie – an academic misfit of middle years without children or illness, or not one that’s understood – which makes her life such a struggle.

I still recall the name of the jobcentre staff I lampoon.

I do remember nice ones too, and I’m glad that I, Daniel Blake shows one. There are those that helped make the film.

Rather than feeling depressed, I felt energised: The people on the street in solidarity with Daniel when he sprays his appeal on the wall. The packed cinema. And whether those people me had ever suffered what Daniel had – and you can’t tell or guess demographics – they came. They saw. And they clapped. They’re on side.

We need a system that’s likewise, where appeals are not rigged (read PHSO – the true story for more on that), where citizenship doesn’t have to be earned in narrow ways, where we’re not valued for the taxable income we generate. Where we’re not to fit drop down menus and preset boxes. Where, as one staff said to me of my claim, we make free use of the form. Where staff too are not faceless and also support us instead of being a mindless, soulless bullying chain. Where we’re not graded on a point system, where we’re not intimidated and intruded into.

I like the idea of citizenship being about grace, not earning. It’s the theology I have and it’s also the society I believe in. Even those who support Citizens’ Income sometimes talk about deserving – ie fitting their patterns. But I want a world where ‘paying your way’ and rejecting charity are no longer signs of dignity and worthiness; where we don’t have to put our time into categories of work and leisure, living to do the former to deserve a little of the latter. Where we’re not justifying ourselves and our existence to another who won’t be challenged.

“I, Daniel, Elspeth, [your name]” is a statement of individuality, of personhood. As Daniel says, we are not a government given number or term for those who need to use the system; we are ourselves, and we are worthy.

And we look to those who really drain resources, and that’s not those at the benefit queue, but quite the other end of society. There’s far worse handouts and passive income (benefit claiming is not passive) than the dole.

Daniel Blake didn’t tell me anything much new. If you don’t know about the system, go and see it. If you’re in it, go. And if you judge those in it, go. And if you work in it, go.

But let there be a discussion that is wider than just the issues of the film and those I can touch on here. And let there be, as with Cathy Come Home, the sea change that is needed.

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