Saturday, January 27, 2007


We entered the house,my son and I. It was a birthday party for one of his friends. Everywhere, there were the signs of building work and house improvement. The hallway was half-stripped wall and bare plaster; a door for the living room was still encased in its plastic wrap; a toilet lay covered in dust, waiting to be plumbed in; the kitchen-cum-dining room, newly extended, was a hotch-potch of old furniture, dismantled panels, and packages waiting to become new furniture. Half the lights didn't work. In the year since we'd last been there, it seemed to me that little had changed, except that the hostess' eyes had more lines around them, darker circles of care. I couldn't help noticing a letter rack bulging with bills and torn envelopes. The party fare, laid out on a worn paper tablecloth, was of the kind of things that kids loved, but it was spread thinly. Cheap fizzy drinks clustered to the side; Value sausage rolls were cooling off on a paper plate, and setting in their own grease; Lurid pink iced biscuits were lumped on a tray uninvitingly.
While the kids entertained themselves, I asked the hostess how it was going.
'Oh, fine', she said, 'you know. It's a bit tricky at the moment, but it's a birthday; we have to do something for that.'
And everywhere about the place, there was that smell; the smell of clothes that had been left a little too long, a little too damp, on a dryer; the smell of bodies not quite looked after; cheap perfume, cheap room deodorants, cheap detergents, all with their bitter underscore in the nose; cheap food, exuding unhealthiness into the air like a plague; And worse, the smell of desperation, a need to rise above this seeming morass, a vast, hungry desire to make it, to be bigger, better, stronger, all of it expressed in the dust and damp smell of Home Improvement.

The United Kingdom is still, just about, the fourth largest economy in the world, a fact that never fails to stagger me when I look about and see how many people in this country are quite clearly living in poverty. Now, I'm not talking about the gut-churning, soul-wrenching horrors of the Brazilian Favelas or slumtowns of Nairobi, to name but two, or the abject existence of the average Chinese peasant (don't be fooled by the economic miracle there - most of the population still grinds out a living from the land) - no, I'm talking the poverty of lives that are truly unlived. It's a poverty that ironically takes its shape from having a glut of things, a riot of choices - all of which are placed in front of the punter with no information given as to how to use them. And without knowledge, all choices are necessarily bad, because we don't know what to do with them.
I've mentioned before my profound mistrust and, indeed, hatred of advertising, and the main reason why is because it sells nothing but dreams, and grinds our faces back into the apparent nightmare of our own existence - I say apparent, as all ads imply that without the product being sold, we are somehow inadequate. Adverts essentially exploit poverty, or the perception thereof, leaving people unhappy with their lot. This has become especially noticeable, in Britain at least, over the past twenty-five years or so,certainly since that nemesis of honesty and decency, Margaret Thatcher, pronounced that there was no such thing as society, and opened the floodgates of the morass of greed we find ourselves in now.
I have to go back here a little bit, and describe my family as we found ourselves in the mid-70s, and one particular incident that etched itself on my mind. It was, if memory serves me correctly, my mum and dad's wedding anniversary. My granddad and nan had bought them a pine welsh dresser, and I remember thinking then, as it was unwrappped and given pride of place in acorner of the living room, 'Wow! Nan and Granddad must be really rich!' Also, another incident, visiting one of my uncles, and being impressed not only by their detached house with large (to my eyes) garden, but also their top-of-the-range family tent, resplendent in 1970's orange and brown swirls.
I still have that welsh dresser; its base sits in my living room now, a rather nondescript piece of not very expensive furniture. Its top is in my shed, being used to house various garden implements. In other words, a rather cheap piece of household goods impressed me with its wealth way back then. And it is only in the past few years in conversation with both my parents that I have realised just how poor, in real finacial terms, we were back then. However, it was something I never noticed at all. I never realised that I was supposed to be counted as being one o f the poor, and I daresay that my parents never contenanced this either, at the time.
Yet things change. How would we define poverty now? Who do we see as poor in our own society, let alone in the developing world? It strikes me that the goalposts have not been so much shifted as raised to almost impossible limits. You MUST have that iPod, You MUST have that plasma screen telly, you MUST have those trainers, you MUST have the right kind of flooring, you MUST have white teeth, glossy hair, perfect tits, even more perfect sex, the best set of wheels, perfect abs, brilliant mates et cetera et cetera ad fucking nauseam.
And it's impossible to be that! In other words, we consign ourselves to an apparent failure, one tinged with that odour I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the scent of poverty's desperation. However, it's important to remember this one important fact: The vast majority of us are born into 'poverty'. Look around you at the world: of the other five or six people born in the same second as you were, you are the only one of them, statistically speaking, who is actually even able to read this, let alone having access to the internet; two of them are almost certainly dead due to poverty-related diseases.
In reality, we must distinguish the different forms of poverty that afflict us all. Now, I could go on about Maslow's hierarchy of needs at this point, but I'm not going to - if you're interested, do some googling on the subject. Basically, there is objective, real poverty, based on a lack of those things that are essential - shelter, clothing, clean water and adequate food. This we all know, and I think it is fair to say that no-one in the UK can say that they lack any of these - or that should be the case. Notice, by the way, I say adequate food, not necessarily healthy food - that should cover some of the crap Brits are liable to consume. No, other forms of poverty haunt us: a subjective poverty, based on our measurements against how well or badly others are doing compared to us; Poverty of choice, being stuck in a rut or a situation that one cannot escape; A poverty of education, meaning we cannot exercise choice in a meaningful way; And a poverty of mind, a bleak outlook that informs us that we are defined by how we appear and what we consume rather than by what we really are.

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