It was the scene in the food bank that did it for me. Up until then, I had been watching Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake as a film, noting the decisions made by the actors and the writer and the director. But when single mother Katie (played by the brilliant Hayley Squires) was forced to humiliate herself, desperate and starving, in a Newcastle food bank, I stopped viewing the film as a piece of work that could be critiqued and just gave in to the sheer emotional force of it.
My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness. When it was over, I walked home from the cinema, noticing that the night was the coldest we’d had so far this year. I passed a woman sleeping rough and I didn’t give her anything or even respond to her plea for a few quid; I didn’t have any cash on me and I felt awkward about that, so I just shuffled on. And the stinging shame I felt was worse than usual (this was not the first time I had walked past a rough sleeper).
Then I did what I always do when I ignore the plight of someone less fortunate than me, and I tried to rationalise it, reminding myself of my standing-order donation to the refugee charity and the fact that, whenever I do a shop in the big Tesco, I donate a few items at the food-bank collection point. But, having watched I, Daniel Blake, I realised those excuses that I placate myself with aren’t quite enough. What am I doing to help the most vulnerable people living in my borough? What are we all doing to help the most vulnerable people in our country? How is it that I can simply walk past a woman who needs my help, when I have just spent an hour crying about a similar woman, who is fictional?
How can I try to help people facing hardship in my own pitifully small way? Is there anything 'smug Londoners' can do?
When I got home, I lay on my bed with my coat and my shoes still on, feeling wretched. I scrolled through Twitter and came across journalist Camilla Long’s I, Daniel Blake review for The Sunday Times. She awarded the film three stars, but the tone was derisive. I suppose it’s her job to not simply disregard her critical faculties as I had done, but the review felt deliberately churlish. And she had seemed to misunderstand the basic premise of the film – Daniel Blake is not refused sickness benefits after a heart attack because of a computer error, as Long asserts, but because the authorities employed to carry out these health checks regularly fail dangerously sick people, as a matter of course. She concluded that the film “is patronising and simplistic, an hour and 40 minutes of misery porn for smug Londoners”. And that’s when I worried she was right. And that’s when I wanted to prove her wrong.
I am not Daniel Blake. I cannot understand the character the way writer Jack Monroe can. I am a smug Londoner. Sure, I am not wealthy, I am not a homeowner, but I am an enfranchised woman with a voice and a disposable income, who ignored another woman as she sat begging on the street.
How can I change that? How can I try to help people facing hardship in my own pitifully small way? Is there anything “smug Londoners” can do? I asked Dr Frances Ryan, a Pool contributor and writer on disability and inequality, what she would recommend. And here’s what she told me:
1. Give to a “clothes bank”
Donating to food banks (including giving sanitary towels) is a simple way of helping people struggling through benefit cuts, but it’s worth searching your local area to see if you have a "clothes bank" near you too. Bedding, old school uniforms and warm clothes are always needed.
2. Get involved in activism
Join a group such as Disabled People Against Cuts or @Dis_PPL_Protest (for non-disabled allies as well as disabled people) and put your fury to good use. This could mean turning up to Parliament to protest or something more low-key, like supporting a local campaign to stop the closure of a mental-health organisation.
3. Lobby politicians
Stopping government policy can feel an insurmountable challenge, but is possible. If you see a proposed cut in the news, lobby MPs and Lords – via social media, email or letter. Climb-downs do happen. Look at the abandoned cuts to Personal Independence Payments.
4. Become an appeal advocate
When people are rejected for benefits, an appeal is their only hope. But, with welfare advice centres cut and Citizens Advice under huge pressure, many have no one to support them at what’s an exhausting time. If you have legal knowledge or can simply help at filling out forms, search online to see if there are any groups in your area you can volunteer with (or start your own).
5. Donate to existing advocacy services
Alternatively, donate money to organisations doing it. Welfare advice groups like Fight Back 4 Justice are made up entirely of volunteers and can only survive on donations. And it’s vital – advocates are often the difference between someone getting the benefits they’re entitled to and being left with nothing.
6. Help someone who’s homeless
Buying a rough sleeper a sandwich is a kind, short-term fix but, for a more long-term approach, try StreetLink. It’s a simple idea: if you’re out and are concerned about a rough sleeper, call 0300 500 0914. The details of the location you provide will be sent to the local authority (if you’re in England or Wales), so they can help connect the person to local services and support.
7. Challenge anti-benefit stigma
Just like with sexist comments, if a friend or colleague is making comments about disabled people or benefit claimants, challenge it. It’s a long-term tactic but, as much as the benefits cuts themselves, we all need to tackle the culture that helps breed them in the first place.