Instead of watching the football this evening, I was at the cinema in Hebden Bridge watching Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, Jez Lewis’s documentary film about people growing up in Hebden Bridge and being drawn into a vicious circle of drink, drugs, and the eventual spiral to overdose and death.
There has been much discussion locally about how much of a drink/drugs ‘problem’ the town has, but it’s clear that there is or has been a problem with kids growing up and ending up in this cycle. The film covered people who’d grown up in the 70s and 80s and were still abusing drugs and alcohol today, as well as those much younger.
What struck me was that the people in the film kept raising the same issues when trying to explain how they’d ended up in their situation. There seemed to be three main problems.
Lack of opportunities
People in the film commented on the lack of jobs in Hebden, and to a certain extent that’s true, but the real problem seemed to be the lack of ideas of what they could do and how to go about doing it. The lads admitted to truanting from a young age, and many of them probably left school with few qualifications at sixteen and little idea about what they were good at. I hope that careers advice is better at Calder High these days but one thing I think is critical is to get vocational subjects into our education system much earlier. Many boys are completely turned off by academic study when they reach their teens. So instead of forcing them to sit in lessons, why don’t we get them learning practical skills for part of the day. How to repair a car. How to build a wall. How to fit a kitchen. I don’t mean we should give up on English and Maths completely, but secondary school should be an opportunity to find out what you’re good at – and not just those who are good at studying for exams.
It’s true that house prices in Hebden have rocketed over the last few years, fuelled by a combination of Gordon Brown’s property boom, and the popularity of Hebden for people like me who live here but commute elsewhere to work – in my case Keighley, 10 miles away. There is a desperate need for more affordable (for purchase) and social (for rent) housing. Derelict land like that opposite my house needs redeveloping and the percentage of affordable housing in each development needs to be much higher. The government really needs to develop the necessary criteria and regulations so that new housing can be developed which is affordable to buy in the first instance, and remains affordable when it is subsequently sold on.
Easy access to drink and drugs
The iconic image of the film was the can of Special Brew, present in somebody’s hand in almost every scene. Heavy drinking is a real problem. When I had visitors from Germany a couple of weeks ago, we came across a youth lying in the street too drunk to get up. I offered to help but their friend was calling an ambulance. So what’s to be done?
For a start I think we should have minimum pricing for alcohol. My libertarian friends tend to be against this but we make cigarettes expensive to dissuade people from buying them, and we make petrol expensive to stop unnecessary journeys. I think the same needs to be done with alcohol. Certainly we should ban selling below price and all of the heavily advertised special promotions that you see so often in supermarkets. I think this would help, but of course the best thing is for young people to have something to do other than just hang around and drink.
I hope that the “fair for youth” organised a few weeks ago by local youngsters together with Hebden Royd Town Council will be a real turning point for the town. It took place on Calder Holmes park, where much of the film was set, but instead of hanging around drinking, there were bands, dance, art, skateboarding, and all sorts. The kids weren’t just getting involved, they were running it. That’s the sort of thing that gives me real hope for the future.