A Personal Account of Poverty in the United Kingdom: Entrenched Difficulty and Tenacious Myths
I live in Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland, and a place of inequalities. Walking from the new town at the centre of the city, you can go in several directions to find sink estates built of concrete modules to a plan which had either forgotten to incorporate important social and economic infrastructure or deliberately omitted it viewing it as a cost.
I am sharing a small insight into some bits of my life as a result of a conversation I had with a someone who had a specious view of the realities of some people’s lives in the UK today, in 2016. They said that “real poverty does not exist in the UK today”.
I have encountered this uninformed attitude in a number of guises over the years, and it stinks. The worst manifestations lead to nasty views of people being lazy free riders who have not tried hard enough otherwise they would not be in poverty.
This is a path of dehumanisation, and those who have had the opportunity to succeed in the economy will sometimes forget all the good fortune that came their way – the chances other people gave them to get their foot on a ladder – and attribute everything to their own hard work and innate genius. This is troubling and unreflective of much of the truths which shape the world.
The kind of secular fantasies which represent the kind of nonsensical political myth which I want to address here is well represented in the extremely popular ‘self help’ book called The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Central to it is the idea of ‘the law of attraction’ proposing that positive thinking can create life-changing results such as increased happiness, health, and wealth.
The law of attraction is the name given to the maxim “like attracts like” which she suggests that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life. This kind of one dimensional thinking gives rise to all sorts of distractions from significant external structural problems that year on year compound the misfortunes of more and more people.
Like there is a whole happiness industry arisen from people’s misery and people are medicating away woe’s visited upon them, the grand narrative of our culture reinforces that poverty is of people’s own making. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation funds research on poverty and documents the issues as they grow or diminish; below you can read their findings for 2016 in the UK:
I went to a state funded school which was saturated with middle class values which instilled a sense of glazed eyes when confronted with any major social issues. Thus I grew up on the fringes of a middle class bandwidth marinading in the grand narratives which came to set up grand illusions as I went into the world.
Run as an industrial school with structures un-befitting for a number of people to learn (and I dare say teach), I left school without qualifications after having been excluded on a number of fronts. No point in staying in a party when it’s been made plain that you’re not welcome.
I have lived on sink estates now for most of my life, and have a much better handle on reality. I lived in the infamous tower blocks of Oxgangs in the south of Edinburgh named after the Pentland Hills which they sat in front of – Caerketton, Allermuir and Capelaw. I lived in Allermuir and had been moved into the building six years after it had been declared unfit for habitation. This was after years of waiting for emergency housing and being ushered around in a labyrinthine system of ‘failure demand‘ for years.
Failure Demand is a term developed by Professor John Seddon in his study of moving ‘telephone work’ to call centres from local bank branches in the 1980s. This caused an explosion in the volumes of demand – the number of phone calls soared. He found that the rise in volume of call volumes was attributable people ringing back because they didn’t get their problem solved the first time; this he called ‘failure demand’.
John Seddon – It’s the system stupid! from Dare Festival on Vimeo.
Allermuir Court, the high rise which I moved into after years of desperation for any option, was one step better than the streets. The original design which had stemmed from the architectural vision which Le Corbusier laid out for vertical villages. The problem was that between the visionary’s drawing board and the farming out of plans to build the high rise blocks, many contractors were found to cut out those pesky details which made the structures amenable to living in such as launderettes, social spaces, shops and concierge.
In fact, in the tower blocks where I had moved in via a long concatenation of unfortunate events, were more akin to prisons than living quarters. The hallways were painted with hospital surplus paint such that the choice of pallid greens were designed so that in institutions, should blood fall on the floor it shows up black rather than scarlet to avoid raising alarm. The shops, launderettes and social spaces had long since been removed, and the concierge had morphed into a gatekeeper for the building – monitoring comings and goings.
The whole space had ‘security cameras’ wincing and following every step with the insult and injury of inference. It was positively paranoia inducing. If I hear Joseph Goebbels quoted at me again that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”…
The poor are subjected to a tormented sort of existence which breeds fear and distrust in those who don’t live on those estates via the CCTV cameras as signifiers. These are people’s lives and homes, and tacit in the placing of these are that it is among criminal populations – ugly semiotics…
The flat I had was on the 12th floor but because of the retrofitting of the building I could not access my front door by using the elevator which serviced the even floors; I had to use the elevator which went to either 13 or 11 and walk down or up a floor… Inside the house, in the kitchen behind the cupboard, light came in directly from the external environment – something I am assured is against building regulations.
Originally the flats had underfloor heating when built, but that packed in decades before my tenancy. To replace this storage heaters were mounted on external walls. The ‘double glazing’ had been fitted without seals which met with each other, and it was a fantasy trying to get most things fixed. The energy companies were predators on the low income households, charging extra to run meters in the vividly cold environs.
The houses were riddled with damp and mold; nothing could dry. I had large fungal growths coming out of the concrete ceiling – I had no idea that something could sustain itself in such a harsh environment. Stress fractures ran through the whole building…
Socially, it was a mark on you to those outside. Even the telephone company would not deliver a telephone book. Your postcode defined the job chances you got offered. It was used as a social dumping ground for those with multiple needs from what I could see.
It was the outlands, and I remember the discovery that it was viewed like this when I invited a girl back one evening from town – her response was very ugly; but only after she had found that my place of abode did not match the ‘bools in the gub’ (marbles in the mouth) Morningside accent I had acquired from my youth.
I had lived there for seven years. In April 2005 Capelaw Court was demolished to make way for a new development. Caerketton and Allermuir Court were demolished in November 2006. The demolition of Capelaw Court was filmed and featured on the National Geographic Channel.
This is a taster of the things I have seen. Everybody inside that community knew the issues and lived with them. Some of the best folk with the highest values Ive known – highly intelligent, capable people in the deepest parts of UK poverty.
Of course, the irony was that I grew up for some early distant years in the adjoining posh neighbourhood of Morningside. The irony and impoverished notions of people and civilisation which I had acquired were stripped by necessity in later years, but I have memories of the othering which went on in the idylls of the affluent.
For some it seems now that I am not rich enough to be posh, but not working class enough to be poor – just an oddly painted bird.
In my moment of middle class oblivion, flocks of relatively well off kids would run rampant through the place – myself included. Largely we were moved out of the parks by the park keeper, and so wound up hanging out on the main streets of Morningside chewing the cud and getting into mischief.
The petty stuff which went on traveled through transformations from it’s relatively innocent source of displaced kids, through neighbourhood watch assumptions, via wagging tongues, and out the other side – where the social ills were a result of kids from the estate. No son or daughter of Morningside could be the issue.
At the time I was a part of that oblivion, happy enough that it was not me the demon. Come my time, through my personal series of misfortunes and misapprehensions of living, I wound up on the other side of those wagging tongues.
After my parents had an acrimonious divorce, it was amazing to watch how people averted gaze from ‘the broken family’. Even as a young child I remember feeling ill at some of the things which were said about ‘a single mother’. My mum was in charge of trying to raise three children and hold down gainful employment in an overpriced neighbourhood. Everything looks peachy on the surface, but I also remember the fact that everyone had their problems.
The easy stereotypes were where the pass the parcel ended up, and single parent families were anathema back thirty five years ago – they are still used as objects of disdain now. In white middleclass suburbia, it was the exception which was out of sorts with the local parish and collective image. I recall the displeasure of the adults and how the children in the school I attended created a pecking order – at the end of which, the kids which lacked a parent were pecked at. It is often easy to detect when a child says something which comes from an adults vocabulary…
Topping this in the school experience was that I was not of the faith denomination, so consistently was maneuvered away from the faith activities until that set of actions seemed to spill into other areas. I did not understand. Socially it was a huge poverty. Emotionally it was devastating when notions of ‘those who were to be saved’ did not include you, and that the occasional malevolence came your way expressed through the millenia old customs of a religion.
Having dyslexia and a painful inability to do some tasks in the prescribed ways using the prescribed methods made things all the worse. Being dubbed stupid and other seemed to create in some children a desire to joust and attack. Defense became the call of the day, and so I found myself defending myself but then identified as the problem…
This seemed to follow me. ‘You always seem to be at the centre of things Alex’ it would be said by some probing adult, ‘it cant be mistake’. And so there seemed to be adults who were to take it on themselves to break me ‘for the good of the others’.
I was viewed as the disruptive force leading people into the dark recesses of naughty behaviour in primary school, and then socially deviant behaviour in secondary school.
Gradually, it came that I realised I did not have a choice or chance in all of it. No protestations would leave my mouth, no longer would I utter an alternative account. I would just smile at the gross and systematic stupidity of the system iron clad around everyone.
That is what I majorly remember – everyone was incorporated into the trauma, everyone was shunted in some way. Eventually I my feelings were aptly described by ‘fuck it all’.
I recall moving towards what gets called counter culture, but is in fact just the rag tag list of people who have been displaced or abandoned being a part of the pecking order. People dipped in and dipped out; cannabis culture ran through the whole as did booze when young adults are starting to socialize. But when the blame fell, it was to run off some people’s precious backs. Bullshit flows downhill, and the wealthy always live atop the hills.
Of course, I was volunteered as the person who had brought ruination on lives by inculcating drinking and smoking – what a travesty ha ha.
This is what happens. The golden children and the prize pupils don’t get identified with the the naughty activities which might blunt the myths – at least this is what it appeared like to me. Shit never seemed to stick to the well to do kids, despite being at the heart of the same ‘play groups’. I don’t begrudge them getting away with many of the pettiness’s of youth, but I do feel strongly about the very real phenomena of scapegoats in society.
Sometimes it gets me pissed off that because someone reads the occasional Guardian (a great paper!), they feel they are paladins of righteousness; all the time happy not to think about divesting their bank accounts from banks involved in the mercenary destruction of cultures and ecosystems – i.e. their money is invested in arms trade or wrecking the natural world. The cowl does not make the monk, and have seen so many examples over the years.
Persistent Social Exclusion
Poverty and impoverishment is woven into the structures of our class ridden society. What I mean by class is defined largely by the finance that individuals have available to them, which in a simplistic sense equates to the opportunities that are available to them. Class is a set or category of things having some property or attribute in common and differentiated from others by kind, type, or quality; so this is the root of how I am choosing to use this tricky word.
When I think about my life I live in the spaces that are left over, not the ones which I choose. Festive seasons like Christmas are simply a trauma, because the world is taken up with a mania of buying and gifting. The old tropes of “it is not about presents, it is about being with the one’s you love” are anaemic and unrepresentative. These times have become socially exclusive rituals of which many people cannot afford to take part in.
Like the potlatch – the gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States – gift giving is part of the primary economic system, of which many are excluded from. People cannot afford to take part in the pecking order, or exist on the peripheries once choosing a sensible course of feeding themselves first rather than taking part in the social ritual.
The talk of the taking part is also an issue. Like the rhetoric of money not being an issue for many people in context with dating – it is total rubbish; just a pleasant myth for the vast majority to indulge in. Status has a firm ruling place in our simian species. The taking part in parties or birthdays and social occasions leads to travel costs, the cost of food, drink, entertainment; and reciprocation. The ritualized forms of friendship are socially exclusive – ‘a bunch of us are going out for dinner… to the cinema…’
I have abandoned the notion of birthdays and avoid the commercialized festivals as best I can. It is with a heavy heart, as these things I too grew up with, but I can no longer accept digging deeper into fuel debt (with the mercenary companies wringing every penny out of contracts they migrate to tariffs convenient for their coffers) or hobble myself by not being able to get on a bus through the week, or eat the reduced food from the supermarket (which throws tons of edible food into landfill and is part of the industrial complex involved in artificially inflating the price of staple foods).
Over time even the best willed people wain if you are not involved in reciprocal actions. It is an basic animal fundamental – it defines the social capital you have available. As Robert Putnam discusses on page 20 of his book Bowling Alone “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t go to yours“. Reciprocity is a heart of social relations, thus when reciprocity becomes tied to activities enclosed by systems of finance, then it demarcates who can be involved.
The logic of resources delineates what social opportunities one has access to. The clothes you wear implicate you in different strata, the accent you tout identifies you to different social groupings, the assets you have available relate you to people who have similar means…
These are all nuances of poverty which get lost from the nasty, two dimensional media representations which have little or no bearing on reality. The poor are being used as a kick board for the rest of society in the tabloid media
It is by understanding the nuances that we can get to grips with why poverty and impoverishment replicate themselves. So much of the problems are woven into the structure of society. The disparities of wealth and opportunity are growing year on year, and yet because people see the world as a thing of the future – the bread and circuses of the X factor and space travel and smart phones – they look past the embodied issues which affect lives.
by Alex Dunedin