Wrong Side Of The Tracks
From comfortably NUM to uncomfortably numb. Annie Taylor investigates the escalation in heroin abuse in former mining towns. Photographs by Richard Heys.
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pp. 22-25.
REJOICE, a housing boom is upon us. Propertied southerners can celebrate that their homesteads are rocketing in value. But the less well-heeled wanting to buy their own bricks and mortar can take heart that there’s now somewhere where houses come well-cheap. A three-bedroomed family terrace in corners of post-industrial Yorkshire is now yours at auction for a knocked-down, rock-bottom £5,000 - or the price of a good second hand car. Why such a snip? Research suggests it’s just one of the ramifications of the swingeing closure of the coal mines and the decline of heavy industry that has blasted the area. The ripple effect of the mass pit shut-downs announced by Michael Heseltine in 1992 has been far more wide-reaching than was publicly anticipated. But at Hallam University in Sheffield - the city where Scargill’s NUM used to have an impressive office until plummeted membership forced it to sell up - academic Alan McGauley has been investigating the continuing impact of the decimation of the industry and has exposed a disturbing, rarely acknowledged side-effect.
He has been examining the massive explosion in the market for heroin in the former pit communities since the closure of their mines and his findings make uncomfortable reading for those who have sought to ignore or gloss over the drastic results of stripping an area of it’s staple employment, who have failed to acknowledge the link between deprivation and drug use.
McGauley is in no doubt about the seriousness of his findings and his work makes grim reading. That’s if you can get copies to read. His recent study on the once-thriving mining area of Barnsley which was funded by the local health authority was suddenly, after its completion, turned into a private internal document and he is unable to talk about its contents.
So Squall has obtained a leaked copy. In it McGauley concludes: “... economic and social conditions have a very strong impact on developing drug markets. The increasing and well-established deprivation which characterises large parts of Barnsley provides a potential market for many different substances that can, and are, being abused... It is clear that ‘problematical’ drug use has a strong correlation with other factors such as high levels of poverty and deprivation.”
This is a town which in the past few years has experienced a 300 per cent increase in the number of drug users declaring themselves addicts. McGauley has seen a similar trend in several former pit towns and says the reasons are clear.
“If you have a situation as you have in the coal areas where they lose almost all male employment over night that doesn’t only impact on the people who lost their jobs. It’s their kids’ jobs that have gone as well and with them their kids’ prospects. And it also has an effect on shops and local businesses. People who can leave have left and others have gone on long term sickness benefit. It creates an environment of decay and loss. What held villages together was the pit and work. Without that structure people who are using heroin have more impact and pull others into their group who would have been peripheral if there was something else to do or if they had money.”
He’s found that heroin now fulfils a crucial role in the lives of many young people.
“Major social changes in employment available particularly to young men has important consequences for young people’s lives in terms of structuring the day as well as economic prospects. Ten to fifteen years ago a sixteen year old would have had a good chance of getting a job in heavy industry. That to a degree would have socialised him into a lifestyle where he would probably have gone and abused alcohol. He would have eventually got married, because that’s the structure that the men at work would have socialised him into by the age of about 23 or 24. But without a wage they are excluded from the male world of the pub and they need to find alternatives. The appeal of drugs is more likely to get to them now - it’s something to block your time out with. The ceremony of drug use passes the time and heroin provides a structure in terms of a network of users and also for some improved economic status.”
He says that while there have always been a small number of old alternative-culture heroin users in every town, what’s happening now is that a new wave of heroin users have come to the fore. Over the past two years heroin in the north appears to be getting cheaper, making it more accessible to more people. It’s now as cheap to buy a small amount of heroin as it is to be a cannabis smoker. New users around here seem to prefer to smoke heroin rather than inject it, which again encourages experimentation by those who were squeamish about the idea of dirty needles. One 22 year-old woman I met was having a great time tooting something she called “brown”. It wasn’t until she realised that she was addicted to it that she discovered what the substance was - she was panicked to learn that brown was another name for smack.
McGauley believes that her story is not unusual. There are plenty of people looking for a means of escape and have got to the stage where they will try anything.
“No-one chooses a career as a heroin user, people fall into it. We shouldn’t forget in all this that heroin is something they enjoy. The ‘Just Say No’ message doesn’t work. Why should they say no when there’s nothing else on offer?”
Squall has visited several former mining areas to see for itself the extent of heroin use and to meet those involved. Users, their parents, their lawyers, the police who arrest them and the probation officers and counsellors who try to get them off the stuff all say that in the past two years heroin has become the drug of choice in these areas. And they all feel powerless to help the twelve years olds showing up at court off their faces and the sixteen year old girl about to go to prison for persistent burglary to support her habit.
Neil is one of this phenomenon’s young entrepreneurs who was doing very nicely out of it for a while. In his early 20’s, he has run a business - the corner shop of the alternative heroin economy - selling heroin from his home. He says there’s at least one small-time dealer in most of the streets around him, but small-time can mean big money when demand is so high.
His start-up costs were met by a local legit businessman who saw the easy profit to be had if he could find someone to take the risk and sell. Neil accepted the offer as a way of funding his own habit. He’d been out of work since a period of illness forced him to leave a warehousing job. But soon found he could make more money than he’d ever thought he’d earn.
“I was making owt from £200 to £500 a day. I’d had a warehouse job and I could earn in a day or even a couple of hours what I used to earn in a week. It were so easy. My friends who have been to university and that, they’ve finished their degrees and they ain’t got a job. They’re just bumming around the village. They’re just the same as me - on the giro except they’ve got a degree. Studying had been a waste of three or four years.” His was the only route he could see to decent money.
His enterprise has had its down sides as well. He had to get used to living with half a dozen bolts on his door. They paid off when the police busted him. It took them as many attempts to get in as he had bolts by which time the place was clean. “You never got a minute’s peace, that’s the main downfall. As soon as you sat down to do anything it were ch..ch..ch.. on the door. Someone else wanting stuff.”
He’s heard of all the grant aid supposedly aimed at relieving these areas but he’s sceptical that the benefits will trickle down to the likes of him. He thinks heroin will remain the main source of relief for some time to come.
“It’s just going to stay round here and kids coming up now through schools, they’re just going to do exactly the same as we did. There’s nowt round here, no jobs, nowt.”
He’s stopped dealing now and is taking a course of methadone.
Injecting new hope
HEROIN has become an inescapable part of life for many in the former pit communities, and not just for those who use it. Rachel, who’s 22, grew up in South Kirkby and South Elmsall near Wakefield and understands the pressures on her peers but she’s found the signs of the popularity of heroin too in her face to hang around. She’s left the villages in the hope of bringing up her daughter away from daily sightings of drugs doing their worst. Out shopping in the village she was regularly encountering friends who are now slaves to it. It was too close for comfort. She felt depressed and angry knowing kids of fourteen who were on it and she decided she had to get out.
“It’s worse round here than ever. Two dealers got thrown out of their houses not long ago. But there’s still more folk getting on it. In nearly every other house there’s someone using. I see some of them on it - mothers my age with two or three kids round them and I think ‘Get a life’.”
She’s taken a house several miles away in a remote village.
At a Barnsley village community centre the afternoon drinkers are confident that their response to the problem is proving a great success. Forget the police... a bit of DIY is all you need, they say.
“Drugs aren’t a problem round here. A certain lad comes in here, I’m not going to put no names to him, but he got rid of certain drug dealers. We’ve looked after ourselves, we’ve gone in a roundabout way to sort it out ourselves. We get shot of them as quickly as possible. A lot of these guys in this village have got a lot of muscle and are very determined.” Carl recalls there was much commotion one night last summer when a house caught fire. The emergency services were ranked outside. Carl was out with his dog and took the opportunity of giving them a clue as to the cause of the blaze.
“I says ‘what’s going off, like’? They said ‘well we don’t know’. I turned round to one of the police officers and I says ‘look I’m telling you now it’s time you’d raided that place because they’re dealing’. I just walked away and took me dog back home.”
The dealers moved away and villagers claim it’s been all quiet ever since, no thanks to the police.
“In the miners’ strike they were pulling police out everywhere but where are they now? We were ordinary working men fighting for what we believed in, for our rights, and they put thousands of police into the lines to get the miners down. But they’re not putting thousands of police into the lines to get the dealers down.” said Carl.
There’s much talk about how much property crime is generated by drug users on their desperate sprees to raise the cash for their next feed. But for many people there’s now bad crime and good crime. It’s OK to break the legs of the lad you catch stealing your video who’s robbing to fund his habit, or to scare dealers shitless. To them this is not vigilante-ism, it is protecting your kids and the law is far more useful in the hands of a community than those of a remote police force.
They may be convinced that their homespun drug prevention measures are standing the test at present but you can see in their posture and their furrowing foreheads as kids bomb past on their bikes that they still fear for their futures. They admit there’s nothing for the kids to do and worry about them searching out ways of whiling away the time.
A mixture of pride and regret comes over Steve as he flicks through the volume of pictures telling the history of Frickley pit that he has painstakingly compiled. He worked in mining for nearly 30 years, more than 20 of them at Frickley in his home town of South Elmsall. Frickley shut in 1994 and Steve says the effect on the village was “tremendous”.
“There was a lot of despair because things looked so bleak. Local shops closed, big chains moved out, the crime figures rocketed and the druggies moved in. When the pit closed people had money to burn and they were easy to convince that drugs were a good thing. The dealers moved in in a big way, people started getting habits and the burglary rate shot up.”
He says the younger men who were redundant and still in their 20s were the ones who eagerly gave it a go.
His new role as chairman of the district’s crime prevention panel keeps him well informed on such trends. Since 1994 there have been 10 new addicts on the register in his district every week. The figure has remained static and some come off the register all the time but the fact that there are still new names being added alarms him.
In his new role he’s heavily involved in damage limitation, fitting security locks and toughened doors and windows to the homes of the elderly. Comfort in difficult times. He’s full of praise for the miners who spent their redundancy money on sensible business ventures. Two former colleagues have a thriving welding company with a popular line in security shutters for shops and they’re snowed under with work.
At its peak Frickley employed 3,000 men, dwindling to about 800 when it closed. Nothing remains of the bustling, churning complex but hillocks of coal awaiting removal to storage. Standing on the banks surveying the errie flattened expanse it’s as if a whole century has passed. A landscape transformed in three years, and in another five years Steve expects it will have changed again. The land is due to be handed over to the local council and Steve has founded an environmental group to steer through plans to create Frickley Country Park complete with a fishing lake, woodlands, picnic park, bike track and skateboard area.
He’s keen that the community should get something back to help it break through the bleakness.
Fear of putting off potential investors is often cited in these areas as the reason for not publicising their plight. Health authorities and councils worry that the major consequence of standing up and saying they have a problem will be that they will be dubbed the heroin capital of the north.
But locally Alan McGauley senses that the communities are starting to exert pressure for something fundamental to be done.
“People see what’s happening around them, but what do you do? Heroin is just so widely available now that you can get it wherever you are if that’s what you want.”
For him the answer is obvious but he says it’s old and unfashionable. It’s jobs:
“You can have addicts going into schools talking to kids. They have credibility so they have a good impact. You can improve access to drug rehabilitation which is terrible at the moment. But what do you do when people come out of rehab? How do you stop them going back into the same cycle if they haven’t got a job, they haven’t got a decent home and they haven’t got hope?”