I went shopping very briefly in Bristol’s shopping area yesterday. The shopping area is basically divided into two; a vast modern concrete collection of shops and mid market food outlets called Cabot Circus and the old, decaying, decrepit Broadmead with its traditional Vaping establishments, mobile phone cover stalls and Subway. Okay. There are a few more stores than that, but you get the picture?
I am a fan of neither complex and to be fair I never was. Cabot Circus has all the atmosphere and warmth of a large car park. It’s tidy enough with lots of shops I am not interested in. Broadmead just made me sad.
It was especially sad because as I approached Union Street, there was a flashing ambulance. To my left was a man who did not look too well. He was attached to breathing apparatus and lines came out of his arms. He wasn’t moving, either. I had nothing by way of expertise to offer the attending paramedics and decided not to join the small crowd that was taking it all in. I suppose that made me even more sad. Some spectator sport.
Lots of people didn’t look very well as I made my way through the shopping areas to the city centre. a decade ago, rough sleeping and homelessness was all but a thing of the past. Poverty had been dramatically reduced, although there is always work to do in that department. I looked around and it felt like I had gone back 20 years.
An old friend who worked with the homeless once told me he could ‘spot a smackhead at a hundred paces’. So can I these days. Pale, drawn, far too thin, spotty, rotten teeth and those giveaway needle marks. There were more than a few of them.
People used to talk about an underclass. People who lived outside the ‘normal’ system, who had almost literally nothing. They weren’t in work but they weren’t on the dole, either. Not the unemployed but the unemployable. The people that time forgot, shuffling from A to B, except that there A to B were two places that were mere rubble.
A million miles, yet only a few feet, away from the hipster bars of Bristol, where people of no accents drink craft beers before returning to their unaffordable (to all but the rich) housing, safe from the madding crowd. As I walked along King Street, I could have been in a different city, a different planet, even.
Everywhere I saw people huddled in doorways. Yet everywhere I looked there was new student housing or soon to be student housing. It’s as if the powers that be think Bristol exists solely for affluent students and no one else.
I had no answer for any of it. Britain, as we know, is broken by a combination of inequality and unfairness, topped by a disastrous Brexit that will only accentuate the differences and make them worse. And the only answer of the rich and powerful is to go on making themselves even more rich and powerful.
I’ve lived in Bristol all my life and I fear for its future now more than ever. Not only do we have haves and have nots, we have those who have more money than God and those with less than nothing. It cannot go on like this forever, although I am sure it will carry on for the indefinite future because we have no leaders worthy of the name leader.
And the concrete jungle at Bristol’s core illustrates perfectly our city of two tribes. Is this a powder keg ready to explode? I rather think so.