Even The Dogs by Jon McGregor

Christmas is the season of good cheer. It is also the season of forced gaiety and consumerist frenzy. It is also the season of bleak homelessness, addiction and other forms of individual and family disfunction. And should you wish to get an insight into the latter condition, you could do no better than to read Jon McGregor’s, Even The Dogs. I am currently mourning Jim Crace’s decision to retire from novel writing but praise the gods, Jon McGregor has miraculously arrived to fill the vacuum. And he does so with all the literary genius that we had come to love and expect from Jim Crace. Two literary geniuses proving, as if proof was necessary, that the centuries old art of novel writing is not dead.

Sporting Polemics is not, of course, a literary blog. It’s the underlying themes that are of interest; political, socio-economic and philosophical. And in a clear sense, McGregor’s novel has all three, but never offered in a didactic, preachy sort of way. No, McGregor shows himself to be a master at letting his characters tell their own story and the reader is left to draw whatever conclusions they may wish to draw. And although this novel of homelessness and addiction is now eight years old, it is seems more relevant today than ever. In America, even Trump has been forced to declare a national health emergency in the face of the opioid addiction sweeping that nation, and where America leads, Britain and Europe are never far behind.

As far as I can tell, humans have always dabbled in drugs and some get addicted and some don’t. And for those that do get addicted, invariably, though not exclusively, those growing up in deprivation, a whole new form of hell descends upon them and envelopes their every waking moment. Only the oblivion of a drug induced sleep gives any respite. But of course, it’s short lived. How could it be otherwise when homelessness inevitably accompanies addiction. I’m looking out of my window as I write, trying to imagine spending the harsh northern European winter sleeping rough and without hope. But I can’t really imagine it. That grim reality is far too removed from my relatively comfortable existence for my feeble imagination to grasp. But McGregor can and does. I suspect he gets it near perfect.

So, having let McGregor do the hard work, it befalls us citizens of comfort to ponder on just how to break the nexus between addiction and homelessness. Hitherto, the received wisdom has been to tell the addicts get clean before we offer you permanent housing. And not surprising, in 99 cases out of 100, it doesn’t work. So, some bright spark up in the Scandinavian neck of the woods decided to try it the other way around. Offer secure housing first and then wrestle with the addiction and the root causes of that addiction. Hey presto! Some better statistics have begun to emerge.

In Britain, an organisation calling itself, Housing First has begun to promote the Finnish model. Now even Sajid Javid, the cabinet minister responsible for housing, has shown some interest. Brooks Newmark, former minister for Civil Society in the previous Coalition Government, is an enthusiastic advocate for the Housing First approach and, writing in the Evening Standard 18/12/17 has this to say;

With Housing First, people who have experienced rough sleeping and long-term homelessness are given a permanent place to live fast. Once in a secure home, they are provided unconditional specialist support to overcome their addictions, mental health problems and other issues. This is a critical component of the Housing First model. Without this support, individuals more often than not end up back on the streets.

Of course, for this model to work throughout the country, governments and local authorities must commit themselves to rebuilding the social housing stock that was so carelessly sold off under the right to buy Thatcherite regimes. To my way of thinking there is nothing so terrible about that policy providing the stock of social housing is continually replenished. Clearly it has not, thus the seeds of the current housing crisis bedevilling the country. If there is no joined up thinking at government level, no amount of courageous initiatives like Housing First will ever make a real dent in the scourge of homelessness, addiction and family disfunction currently sweeping the land.

Back to McGregor and his powerhouse of a novel. When it comes to finding a suitable quote, great novels just make you want to quote every line. To choose some passages over others almost seems like doing some kind of injustice to the novelist and his work. But choose I must, so without prejudice to the other 195 pages, I offer this little gem as a taster for the rest with the added caveat that before you step over and ignore another homeless and addicted wreak of a human being, ensure you have read McGregor’s novel. It might just give you the necessary insight, empathy and motivation for future action.

Jesus. Boxing Day. One day of the year makes you miss family no matter what. Cold and quite outside, everywhere closed, quiet like a fucking grave. And all the lights on in the houses. And all the houses full of people sleeping it off in armchairs with plates of leftovers spread around the room and their families close by all around them. The day centre all closed up and you realise the day before was just pretend, just another fucking pantomime.P109

One thing is clear. Whichever government policy is adopted, until housing ceases to be a commodity traded for profit and instead becomes part and parcel of a citizen’s human rights, then the deadly spiral of addiction and homelessness is unlikely to be broken.

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