LISTENING TO CHILDREN
Frame by frame: the lost
voices from Britain’s urban hell
The slim, dark-haired young boy looks
into the camera. “This is not a good place to come home to,” he says. “I
don't want to live here any more because people want to fight with me
and it's crap. I've tried to hang myself and I've tried to drown myself
and I've tried to make myself bleed to death, and that's it.” The words
of a 13-year-old boy living in Arden in Glasgow. Steven is speaking on
film about his life in one of the most deprived areas of Europe. He is
talking about what it is like to be poor; how it affects his life and
why he wants to commit suicide.
The film cuts to the next scene and the camera pans to four young boys.
Jim, 15, and some of his friends are ducking into a ramshackle hut they
have built in woods near the Castlemilk area of the city. It follows
them inside. The four teenagers sit close together, knees hunched up,
and explain to Ruth Carslaw, the film-maker, how to smoke cannabis using
“You go to a dealer, you buy a half deal or a deal, that's a fiver or a
tenner, or as much as you want. Resin, you just burn it for a wee while,
then you sprinkle it into the gauze, that's the gauze,” Tom says,
pointing to a thin mesh over the top of an empty plastic Coke bottle he
is holding. “You sprinkle it in, then you light it and burn it for a wee
while, and because of the water the smoke goes in and then you inhale
The four boys tell Ms Carslaw that they have just started smoking hash.
The den and the drugs are their escape from the tooled-up gangs, from
the boredom and from their own weary existence in an impoverished part
of Glasgow. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Britain's
leading social policy charity, in conjunction with Oxford University,
depicted a dark picture of a lost generation trapped in urban housing
schemes across the UK that have seen little or no improvement for a
generation. Glasgow fared worst. It has the highest number of council
wards in Britain (28), where more than half the children are in families
receiving out-of-work means-tested benefits. This was more than double
Liverpool's total of 12.
Despite a number of high-profile regeneration projects by both Labour
and Tory governments since the early 1980s, the cycle of family
breakdown, drug abuse, crime and violence prevails. Thousands of
children in Glasgow continue to be born into a life of poverty, social
exclusion and deprivation. In January, a study commissioned by the
Scottish Prison Service said that people living in the most deprived
parts of Glasgow are more likely to be imprisoned than black men in the
US. One in nine people will have been jailed by the time they are 23.
Another study published by St Andrews University in December linked
suicide rates among young people with poverty.
It found teenagers in poor housing schemes were four times more likely
to kill themselves.
Suicide rates for young men in Scotland have risen dramatically — up by
72% since 1980; for young women the increase was 19%.
It is now the nation's biggest cause of unnatural death among young
people. Drug abuse, divorce and unemployment were the major factors and
the report strongly criticised the Scottish Executive's lack of priority
given to social deprivation in its 2002 national strategy for combating
suicide. These shameful statistics confirm that deprived children in
Glasgow suffer some of the severest poverty in the Western world.
Ms Carslaw's groundbreaking films — to which The Herald was given
exclusive access — are about the children. They give them a voice and
provide a human face to the depressing statistics. “A stat means nothing
— what is it? 200,000? We show these kids, we give a face to that, we
give a voice to that, to those statistics. And every single child living
in poverty has a different experience,” Ms Carslaw says. In the den,
Paul, bearing a wound on his head from a bottle attack, is telling her
that there is nowhere for them to play football anymore. “We used to
play football every single day, didn't we?” he says. “Then that school
got took down. Now we can hardly run to save ourselves.”
The boys now play on a small area of grass in a local graveyard.
“I want any pitch. A grass pitch. We need something to do. Like a club
to go to. I want something to do that will stop us smoking hash.
Something to do, man, something to f***ing pass time so you don't need
to smoke hash. This is all we do, play football in a graveyard because
there's nowhere else to play football,” Paul says. The bottle attack was
a result of a fight over drugs.
“He stole my pal's hash. I was fighting and somebody ran up behind me and
hit me over the head with a bottle. People use swords, bottles, knives,
anything they can that will hurt you.”
Ms Carslaw has been working with impoverished children in Glasgow for
five years and is based in Govan with a charity called the Braendam
Project. She spends time with the children gaining their trust and then
hooks them up with a camera so they can speak candidly about their
lives. The results are very raw footage of them taking her through their
environments. “Its about guiding kids towards artistic expression,” she
says. Her films are attracting a great deal of interest — from Ireland,
from Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, and from Berlin where Ms
Carslaw will visit this July to show them at a conference. She plans to
premiere her latest production, Generating Movement, in a late summer
public street screening in Glasgow. “I follow the kids with a camera
round their area and let them talk. It's simple but effective . . .
Every single child living in poverty has a different experience.” Her
work is not easy.
On a visit to Milton the other day, she explains, she could not do any
filming because the children she was with had had their windows broken
and there were gangs roaming about on an area of grass behind where they
lived. “There was glass everywhere,” Ms Carslaw says.
“The kids were worried they would come back and break more windows. But
there's a sort of 'I'm getting on with it' attitude about these
children. It's their imaginations and that's part of the work as well.
It's about getting a child to speak out about how they actually feel —
about the darkness, the smell. I was guided downstairs once by a child
with a lighter. It was so dark in the flat you could not see.” Ms
Carslaw mentions another young girl who was homeless for two years and
talked about people beating up her brothers. She would sometimes mention
gunshots and people coming to her door at night. “There's only so far,
so much they will tell you. How you get them speak about their lives is
a long process.” she says.
Stacy is 11 and lives in Penilee. She smiles at the camera and jumps on
a swing. “Here we are in the scabby park. I think it's scabby because of
all the writing all over the place. It's a dump and there's hardly
anything to go on. I've got to travel from Penilee to Paisley (around
three miles) just for a park and fun things to play on like this. “We
really need things like that up there (Penilee),” Stacy says. Despite
showing one of the earlier films to MSPs in Glasgow almost four years
ago, little has changed for these children. “I don't want to say that
things have not got better but we showed the film and launched the stage
one debate of the Housing (Scotland) Act back in 2001 . . .” Ms Carslaw
sighs and pauses. “You know, everyone was like 'Oh, good, children
speaking out, fantastic'. One boy who worked on it said he wants to see
Glass burst the tyres of his bike and he said he wanted it cleaned up.
He said 'I want my area cleaned up.' He actually came up with the idea
of recycling. Who is listening to him?” she asks.
28 March 2005