The view from my window

The view from my window
The view from my window

Thursday 8 December 2016

Slum Britain

Did anyone see the programme on TV the other night called "Slum Britain"? I found it so very sad but also very thought-provoking.  Fifty years ago, photographer Nick Hedges went round Britain taking photos of families living in poverty in various cities around the UK. Birmingham was probably what interested me the most (although not necessarily the most soul-destroying) because that is where I grew up and I knew some of the areas he had photographed. I believe he was commissioned by Shelter - the organization working on behalf of homeless people - and the programme took a look, where possible, at the current lives of some of the children from those photographs 50 years ago to see what had become of theme.

Photo by Nick Hedges
The living accommodation (if you can call it "living") was dire - damp, cold and over-crowded, and of course many, not yet having access to contraception, had large families, with ever-more kids coming along each year and often no way to take care of the ones they already had.

I was born in inner-city Birmingham in housing somewhat similar to that portrayed in the film Billy Elliott. It was nowhere near as appalling as that shown in the Hedges' photos of course, but cramped and depressing nevertheless and our home was, in fact, bulldozed as a slum when I was three years old. I obviously have very limited memories of that home but I do have some (I remember describing things to my mom once and she was stunned that I could remember so much detail!). 

Billy Elliott
We were moved out to a council estate to what, in comparison, must have looked like a palace to my family, with four bedrooms. Even then, in the six terraced houses in our new little block there were 40 kids! How our parents managed to keep us all fed and warm is beyond me (but I suppose on the positive side, we always had someone to play with).

Dad and Judy (down the "old end")
The overwhelming feelings I got from watching the programme was of hopelessness but also stoicism. As one man put it, "yes we were poor, but then so was everyone else and we knew no different". I understand that absolutely. Another sad, but very telling comment, was that in those days everyone pulled together and there was a sense of community, which is sadly missing nowadays. But I think the comment that struck me the most was that where previously people were short of "stuff" today people are short of "hope"! That really hit me.

They highlighted the case of a few of those "children" (now adults) whose current situations were pretty dire. At first it annoyed me somewhat because in some cases they were drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and had pets (one was even shooting up) and I thought if they could afford all that how come they were using a soup kitchen? But as the programme went on I got a better understanding of how - when you remove just one brick from that security wall - the hole thing comes down and your life and future can be lost just like that. In fact, someone recently mentioned to me the movie "Cathy Come Home" which gives a vivid portrayal of just this.

Another man described how he had skipped school, joined the army and worked hard at every job he subsequently had because there was "no way he was going back to that"! 

I have always been interested in these kinds of issues. I remember reading a book called "Around About a Pound a Week" which (and I paraphrase) detailed a survey of how people in the 1930s (I think) in similar circumstances as described above tried to manage on "around about a pound a week", with the inevitable large families and poor housing. One of the salient points, to my mind, was that the more they were able to afford in rent (i.e. live on the ground floor), the less likely they were to have to live in dank, depressing basements, and hence the less likely the children were to get sick (and possibly even die) - the catch-22 situation!

I also read sometime ago (and I can't for the life of me remember the title of it) a book written by an American journalist as she tried to survive on minimum wage jobs in several different US states (for six months, I think). The biggest take-away from that book was that, as with the English survey mentioned above, accommodation was pretty much the deciding factor in who would survive and who would go under, because if you couldn't afford a kitchenette, you couldn't cook for yourself, so were more likely to live off junk food and hence more likely to get sick and so on and so forth. Depressing stuff I suppose but something that fascinates me.

Every week when I am shopping I pick up a few items for the local Red Cross-run food bank, and when I have a case full I take it down there when they are open on a Tuesday night. I am also the treasurer (i.e. I have a little tin with the "takings" in) for our second-hand book store at work and occasionally we meet to discuss where we would like to make donations to. (Last time we were able to fund two wheelchairs in Peru for an organization close to a Peruvian colleague's heart). I suppose because I work in such a wealthy city as Geneva the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots" is more striking, although I'm sure the same could be said of any big city, to be honest.

I am hoping to retire in three-four years time (when my mortgage is paid off) and I am already giving thought to how I would like to spend some of my time working with these kinds of organizations. Many of my colleagues already work voluntarily with various aid groups here in the region so I will have opportunities to see where is the best fit for me (they are currently working with local refugee groups - of course - a battered women's refuge, a local soup kitchen, two orphanages in Uruguay and I am slowly introducing the idea of working with the food bank in the small town where I live).

I actually had an idea for another post in my mind today, but watching this programme last night really brought home to me how someone only has to lose just that one brick in the wall and the whole lot can so easily come tumbling down!

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