Friday, 5 April 2013

Wanted: Empathy

This week, the war on the ‘greedy’ poor has intensified with the chinless, soulless tosspots in charge of us using the less scrupulous in our media to saturate us with their lies about poverty.

First Iain Duncan Smith claimed he could live on £53 a week benefits “if he had to”, though apparently the petition of 400,000 people (so far) demanding he prove it is nothing but a “stunt”, and now we have the one-two punch of Demonspawn Osborne (pictured above) claiming that Michael Philpott, convicted of the deaths of his 6 children in a fire, is representative of everybody on benefits with the Daily Mail backing him via an appalling front page headline with Philpott presented as the ‘vile product of Welfare UK’.

Aside from the fact that Philpott is no more representative of the average benefit claimant than Peter Sutcliffe is of lorry drivers, they seem to have missed the irony of their claims in the same week that the Queen was given a £5 million a year rise, taking her yearly income to £36.1 million courtesy of the taxpayer, and MP's proved we’re all in this together by refusing to scrounge up their own dinners and demanding higher expenses for their free lunches instead. Who are the scroungers now? 

While all this happens, instead of getting angry at the people responsible for the attacks on their livelihoods, communities and families, the public at large seem to be swallowing it all and directing their anger at their neighbours instead.

We all seem to be in need of a little empathy injection, to be able to see things from the perspective of those at the bottom, rather than from that of those at the top. What better way to start feeling that empathy than to read? With that in mind, I’m making three reading recommendations which should give plenty of food for thought while the Government tries desperately to think of a way in which to present slavery as desirable:

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

A remarkable book that’s both beautifully written and structured and still incredibly relevant today, 70 years after original publication.

The Joad family are sharecroppers, forced from the land their family has lived on for generations by the banks who now own it to join the thousands of other families headed out west to California on the promise of work and food, both of which are far harder come across than initially believed.

Through the relating of the Joad’s story, Steinbeck also tells the story of the many thousands of other families that shared their fate during the worst days of the Depression. Not only an intimate family portrait, it’s also a history lesson, a story of a troubled nation, a righteous howl at the human cost of the unfettered march of capitalism, and an illustration of how the seeds of dissent are sown.

Poverty, hunger, greed, fear and love are all powerfully felt within the pages as we see both the decency of people, and the unflinching love of Ma Joad struggling to bind the family together during the worst of times, and the callousness and moral bankruptcy of owners, burning food rather than giving it to the starving for fear of profit loss.

I can only imagine the impact this book must have had when published, and it truly is great that Steinbeck gave these people a voice to be heard by the wider world. Sadly, I still know people today who like to sit in front of their flat screen TV’s eating pre-packaged food and moaning about people ‘coming in and taking our jobs’ (whose lifestyles and jobs remain entirely unaffected but still feel the right to complain about the have-nots having anything at all) and to those people I would like to go out and give copies of this book in the hope of changing their outlooks a little. If any book could accomplish that, I think this would be one of them.

Dark Heart: The Story of a Journey into Undiscovered Britain - Nick Davies

An astounding, horrifying and heartbreaking look at the extent and effects of poverty in Britain; at the time of its publication 13.7 million people were living below the poverty line (this has now risen) and yet it's a world that is largely hidden (albeit in plain sight), ignored as the majority of us go about our daily lives or, more recently, see people attacked for being undeserving, greedy and lazy, regardless of the circumstances that have put them in that position.

Looking fully into the circumstances of, in particular, the child prostitutes of the Forest area of Nottingham and the deprived inhabitants of a crime ridden estate, and looking into the causes of much of the poverty and its associated effects (crime, drugs, prostitution, abuse) and the damage inflicted on communities and people living under its shadow, this is a terrifying look at what is happening to a large section of the country. Horrifyingly, it's a situation that can only get worse as the Government hacks wildly at public spending budgets and welfare.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to know what's going on outside of their front door, and one that should make you angry enough to want answers, and change.

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

An excellent book that had me wanting to go out afterwards and slap copies into the hands of passers-by, attempting to turn everyone I meet into some sort of class warrior, this is a fictionalised account of Orwell's time on the other side of the poverty line that most of us are lucky not to have to experience - not the kind where you're wondering what bills to pay this month in order to meet your rent, but where you're wondering where you're going to sleep that night and how to get food after days of hunger. It's easy to see how these experiences informed Orwell's politics and morals, which are a huge part of his later works (well, of the ones I've read, anyway).

It contains absolutely fascinating insights into many areas of life not seen by the lucky majority, as well as some vivid characters and places (being behind the curtains at the Hotel X. in Paris has made me look at those in the 'service industry' with new eyes, and I'm not quite sure I'll ever enjoy a steak in a smart restaurant half so much ever again) as well as questioning the necessity of some of the work those hard-up are forced to do in order to survive. The life of a plongeur is hardly a life at all by most people's standards, and yet 'jobs' like these will always abound while we have people willing to pay for the illusion of luxury:
"Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want."
Things appear to be harder again once we reach London, where instead of hustling his way into day work or a bed for the night, vagrancy seems the only option left and we find ourselves in a world of 'spikes' where you may be locked in for the night and fed a small amount of bread and tea before being moved on, well-meaning churches that will feed you on condition you get on your knees and pray ("It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level"), and the ridiculous laws that govern the streets of England that are ostensibly there for protection (people are stopped from begging for being a nuisance, and tramps are stopped from sleeping in public places apparently due to the risk of dying of exposure, but mostly it would seem because being poor immediately makes you 'other', something to be viewed with suspicion and despised).

Sadly, it's a situation that we don't seem to have learned anything from over the past 60-70 years, and it seems you could take the sentiments presented within as those of the average educated man and pop it straight into the mouths of the Government and the well-off today:
"We know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness. But don't expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us, and we are not going to take the risk of setting you free, even by an extra hour a day. So, dear brothers, since evidently you must sweat to pay for our trips to Italy, sweat and be damned to you."

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