Descent into despair in Hebden Bridge

  • One of Jez Lewis' friends places flowers on his girlfriend's grave. She died in a fire on the evening of her 21st birthday

    One of Jez Lewis' friends places flowers on his girlfriend's grave. She died in a fire on the evening of her 21st birthday

  • Filmmaker Jez Lewis.

    Filmmaker Jez Lewis.

  • A scene from Jez Lewis' documentary film 'Shed Your Tears and Walk Away'.

    A scene from Jez Lewis' documentary film 'Shed Your Tears and Walk Away'.

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, was the sort of quaint, historic town in England where wealthy people re-camped from the city, and tourists browsed antique stores.

Hidden away was the fact that a significant number of the children there were killing themselves, either by suicide or drug abuse. Jez Lewis’ documentary about the seamier side to life in Hebden Bridge, ‘Shed Your Tears and Walk Away’, will screen at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival next week.

Mr Lewis’ parents moved to Bermuda with their three children in 1967. He was born here the family left when he was two years old. He will return to Bermuda for the first time since then next week, for the debut of his film. He now lives in Sussex. “Mostly my friends were dying from suicide but there were some drug deaths as well,” he said of his childhood in Hebden Bridge recalled in the film.

Mr Lewis decided to make the film after one of his friends, Emma, died from a heroin overdose. Although the town seemed idyllic to tourists, drugs were rife.

“It is post-industrial so there is a lot of unemployment,” said Mr Lewis. “When I was growing up it was quite run down. A third of the houses on our street were run down or derelict.

“Hippies had moved in and created a commune. Lots of what they did was positive but they also brought with them a laissez-faire attitude to drugs like marijuana and to acid and magic mushrooms, which grow naturally in the area. Someone introduced heroin and things became progressively worse. There is a whole candy box of drugs available now from prescription drugs to illegal recreational drugs.”

Mr Lewis said when he was a teenager there was an intense campaign to educate people about the dangers of taking heroin, but it came too late for his friend Emma and her brother.

Emma’s brother told Mr Lewis he was introduced to the drug at the age of 14 by a friend of his mother.

“There wasn’t much to do,” Mr Lewis said. “I used to do very dangerous things with a friend of mine. We used to dare each other to climb off tall buildings or jump off things. There weren’t youth clubs. I don’t feel my friends thought they had a bright future. It was during the time of the [former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher government. The Thatcher government was really hard on the North of England. We really suffered economically. ”

He vividly recalled he and a friend being told off by a teacher. The teacher said “if you don’t improve, you’ll never find decent jobs”.

The friend, 15, shrugged and said he’d already resigned himself to a lifetime of unemployment. What might have saved Mr Lewis was a literal kick in the pants. Mr Lewis discovered karate. “That took me out of circulation,” he said. “I am a second band black belt now. As a teenager I trained at two different clubs. I was always terrified of drugs anyway, so that was lucky, really.

“I suspect I would not have gone that way if I hadn’t found karate. I would have found something else. Karate was a very great help in many ways including keeping me out of mischief.”

In early adulthood, he also found jobs such as babysitting, cleaning in a laboratory to keep him occupied and also financially independent.

Mr Lewis left Hebden as soon as he could. He first studied physics in university, but gave it up after a year.

Later, he went back to the University of East London to take cultural studies, which had elements of filmmaking. He also took evening classes in film and television studies.

He now has a master’s degree in science and technology policy from the University of Sussex.

Today, he runs Bungalow Town Films with Rachel Wexler and Rebecca Day. The company makes feature documentaries.

They produced a film called ‘Ghost’ about Chinese immigrants working in Britain. Although he has worked on films for other people ‘Shed Your Tears and Walk Away’ is the first film of his own. It was only intended to be a 15-minute film, but the idea snowballed.

Last year, it won the an award as best UK first film in the East End Film Festival in London. So far, there has been a mixed reaction from the people of Hebden.

“Most people have been very supportive and have thanked me for making the film because they have lived with [what happened] for decades,” said Mr Lewis. “They have lost so many family and friends.

“However, the officialdom has turned a blind eye to the film. They cite official statistics that say there is no problem. These statistics are woefully inaccurate. In 2009, they stated that only one person in the whole region died of drugs. Whereas I know at least five people alone, just from Hebden Bridge, that died from drugs. The borough has five times the number of people as Hebden Bridge. The official line is ‘we don’t have that here’.”

A volunteer group called The Samaritans threw their weight behind the film, because they dealt with similar issues every day. They arranged a special viewing in Hebden Bridge.

The Police Department and the National Health Service refused to officially acknowledge the film or attend. Still, the 500-seat auditorium was packed.

“It is clear there is more of a problem there than elsewhere, although that is not to say that other places don’t have worse problems,” Mr Lewis said. “I now live in a town about the same size as Hebden Bridge.

“I have just been in the park with my children and we didn’t see a single person drinking alcohol or doing drugs. I went to the park in Hebden Bridge two weeks ago and the place was strewn with vodka bottles, beer cans, and drug paraphernalia. It was just a Wednesday evening.

“People need to admit that there is a problem. When I was at the park at Hebden Bridge, I sat down with these guys and had a chat. One kept saying ‘don’t judge me, I am only here for a few minutes’.”

What he hoped to see from the film was official acceptance that there was a problem, and attempts made to address it.

“The NHS need to understand they are the main dealers of the prescription drugs being consumed,” he said. “One lad told me he went to his doctor and got 20 sleeping pills. Then he got on a bus and went to the next town and got 20 more.”

He said one of the problems for the town was wealthy people moving in from the city.

“They won’t accept that there is a severe problem and that they are part of the problem,” he said. “The local community is being dispossessed, because the wealthier people push up the prices of homes and goods.

“People move in and bring a micro-company. They open a jewellery store or sell candles. They occupy a house and shop for one person and don’t generate any employment.”

However, he said Hebden Bridge is a beautiful place, and ultimately, he had more good things than bad to say about it.

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Published Apr 20, 2011 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm)

Descent into despair in Hebden Bridge

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