Dartmouth Park son of Labour royalty goes in search of British Voices

Joe Hayman followed in the footsteps of Orwell by charting the state of the nation

It would be easy to be cynical about Joe Hayman’s Orwellian style journey round Britain capturing the views of the everyday people. Armed with a notebook, a tape recorder and a great deal of bottle, he set off to quiz the people of Britain about the state of British society.

He could see the country was in a pickle - the recession was in full swing, austerity cuts were biting and the riots had left Croydon and Manchester in tatters. Joe felt something needed to be done, and he wanted to do something about it, but didn’t know what - and thought he ought to get a closer view of the country would help him to focus.

Putting the world to rights runs in the family. He is, after all, North London Labour royalty - his mother is Helene Hayman, Baroness of Dartmouth Park, the first MP to breastfeed in the Houses of Parliament, the first elected Lord Speaker to the House of Lords and stalwart of Shelter and the NHS and his father, Martin Hayman is one of those classically understated super-achievers you find holed up in N19 - he is the former chief legal advisor for Cadbury Schweppes and a former director of the Institute of Business Ethics, not to mention former chair of governors at William Ellis where all four Hayman boys went to school. If their 32 year old son wasn’t doing something wackily self-serving all wrapped up in the cloak of the common good it would be the talk of the Lord Palmerston. (“Got a job as a nurse you say? And not even tweeting about it? What’s he playing at? Another half of Adnams please.”)

Labour politicians’ children are almost universally charismatic and self-deprecating, but Joe doesn’t have the Teflon shield of self-protective gloss that often comes with it- he is as artless as a lost puppy, which is probably why he survived the bars of Belfast, the parks of Hackney and the abandoned high streets of south Wales not only unscathed but with a pocketful of personal gripping stories.

He may be 32 but in his t shirt still splattered with water from cleaning up the kitchen he looks barely old enough to have left William Ellis: “I’ve cleared up as much as I could,” he says as he shows me round the flat he shares with his brother, Jake, and his brother’s best mate, Alex. Everyone confided in him, took him in, shared their unsayable and usually unheard fears with him over a cup of tea or a curry. Hayman doesn’t attract cynicism, he attracts kindness and warmth and a welcome in the hillside. And it works - I already feel bad about using the word self-serving - I may have to cut that in a minute.

After all, this was not a gap year jaunt posing as charity - he didn’t ask us to sponsor him as he spent a month counting starfish on the beaches of Goa, he took three months’ unpaid leave from his job as deputy chief executive of ContinYou, an educational charity which supports school breakfast clubs, simply to listen to people he felt didn’t often get heard.

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The result, British Voices, is a coherent hotch potch of views which combines the familiar, the funny and the surprising. The bolshy teenagers smoking dope in the park who feel the world is against them, the distracted student rootling about for her purse who when asked her thought on the future of Britain replies that she can’t see further than sorting out the clasp on her handbag, and a Welsh professor worried about the emerging generation of bizarrely narcissistic unemployed youngsters who had nothing to work on but their bodies. He dubbed them the SAS “SAS?” queried Joe. “Sunbeds and steroids,” he replied.

George Orwell trod a similar path but where he head for Wigan Pier, Joe set off for Southend Pier, and along the way he met Rose, a widow in her 90s from Romford whose opening gambit “I’m not a racist, but...” from similarly fragile old ladies causes so much embarrassed seat shifting on the 214 bus. But Joe did not make his apologies and leave, he accepted her invitation of a cuppa and listened. “Rose was lonely and she was scared. She’d grown up in a street where she had known everyone all the families, for generations and then suddenly things changed, and she didn’t know anyone, and she couldn’t understand their language and then her husband died and she was left alone. I don’t think her views are going to change, but I do think she deserves some company,”

He expected to run into grief at some point, but apart from a few rainy Sunday mornings when he would rather have stayed in bed rather than go out bothering strangers, he was met with almost universal kindness. “The most common greeting I heard was Good Luck,” he said, and he left still convinced that the country was in desperate economic and social straits, but that the individual will and kindness would see us through. He emerged feeling that politicians have not only got to get their act together they have to sift through the negativity to find the gold - the individual kindness and goodwill he found everywhere.

With that in mind he came home to Highgate, transcribed his interviews and turned them into a book, but also decided to do something to harness the goodwill he came across. “I’m setting up a community trust to support and develop people who are already doing good things in their community,” he said, that includes people like the Belfast Friendship Club who arrange weekly meetings in a cafe for people who are new to the city. “It’s very simple,” he said, “ all they need is a bit of cash to hire the room and maybe pay for a few coffees and biscuits” but it’s effective. “It means that at some point in the next week someone will be crossing the city centre and recognise someone on the other side of the street.” He knows what he’s talking about - he has volunteered for years for North London Cares, an organisation which links young professionals with elderly people who need someone to talk to. His brother, Jake, set up Future First a mentoring charity which links children in state schools with successful alumni of their own school. “I’m not looking for donations, I’m looking for ideas,” he said.

All four Hayman boys went to Brookfield primary school, William Ellis secondary school and few have settled further than Crouch End which was why he felt his journey was so necessary. “I’d never been to the Shetland Isles, I’d never visited a Welsh speaking town and I’d only spend one night in Belfast - in a Holiday Inn,” he said, adding, in his self-deprecating way that for such an “incredibly privileged” upbringing there were a few gaps in his education. “I needed to get out from behind my desk in London and explore the UK.”

He might have heard views that he didn’t agree with, he said, but you can’t just pretend those views don’t exist, or worse, just ignore them.

His overwhelming view having completed his trip, was of optimism, and hope in the goodness and kindness of other people, he said, adding that it might sound trite, but that was his experience, of a country populated by people who were struggling with the grim minutiae of getting through unemployment and poverty and high streets full of empty shops or pound shops with wit determination and humour. So much so that he has given up his job and will devote himself to setting up The Community Trust full time. “I just have to go for it,” he said.

British Voices which is available online at �2.99 a pop or in hard copy from Daunt Books, The Highgate Bookshop and The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town.

To find out more visit britishvoices.org.uk or to find out about the trust visit thecommunitytrust.org.uk