I thought I was pretty much bomb proof after my years working with extremely marginalized people, but this one took me completely by surprise. We were walking up from our plot last night after shutting the greenhouse and the polytunnel when Madame spotted a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties crouching on a neighbouring allotment. I asked him what he was doing and he answered rather unconvincingly that he was taking photographs. I couldn’t see a camera and judging by his whole appearance he was more likely to be a drug user nicking strawberries or soft fruit – he had that hollowed out sallow look and couldn’t even be arsed to make a plausible excuse. How did I make that rather harsh judgement? – well experience I suppose.
Anyway he wandered off and climbed back over the gate and I thought no more of it until this morning when we went back to work and I took a look at the spot he’d been crouching in. There were neither strawberries nor any other edibles anywhere near where he’d been but there were poppies and it took no more than a glance to figure out that what he’d been up to was cutting seed heads to get the milky sap which is the precursor to most of the dangerous drugs in the world, and mother to the crime that is endemic to the trade in drugs.
But I’m not accusing this poor young man of being some kind of drug baron because clearly he is one of the victims. It’s when that sticky white sap is scraped off the seed heads and pressed into dark brown balls that it enters the drug trade. I suspect that his intention was to scrape a little sap and then smoke it in a pipe; inhaling some of the fifty alkaloids which include heroin, morphine and cocaine but heaven knows what other poisons. A few minutes escape, perhaps, from a dreadful life or perhaps a misjudged permanent escape.
Of course we could do more to help, but listening to the news at lunchtime today, the government seem to be saying that another 100,000 people thrown out of work is a price we have to pay to stabilize the economy. Grenfell and Covid suggest a rebalancing of the economy based on the sacrifices of the weakest in society and the continuing enrichment of the already wealthy . Somehow the shaming of Johnson has not made me as happy as I’d hoped. Now we see the problem, and it’s a metastasising tumour for which the only cure is to root out the intolerance and indifference to suffering that feeds it.
Here at the Potwell Inn we see the results every day. Notwithstanding the eagerness of the local businesses and the Council to project an image of Bath as the place where history comes to life; here in this neglected ward so close to the city centre we see how badly the dreams of Bridgerton and Jane Austin unravel in the harsh light of neoliberal economics. In a world of transcendental beauty – if you know where to find it – the rats still fight over fast food litter – and slavery, however modern, still stalks the earth; out of sight, and so out of mind. The drug dealers still gather on the corner of the Green to sell their wares, the street beggars pass us morning and night as they return to their shelters – and the deranged, denied any proper mental health support, howl at one another and at the skies with inarticulate rage. But I would argue that we are fortunate to live in a place where the contradictions are so cruelly exposed because, however painful it might be, we can’t look away.
The young man on the allotment is not the folk demon crackhead; but the political and economic culture which has trodden him down to such a desperate and vulnerable state is the true work of the devil, where vice masquerades as virtue and evil wears a suit and handmade shoes. Three calamities – the climate emergency, the environmental emergency and the economic emergency are the unholy trinity at the root of all these phenomena and confining our response to saving a few rare species, recycling, going vegan and buying a bike just won’t do. It takes will and determination and – as Ukraine demonstrates – courage to rise to the challenge and resist.