Like many people of my generation, I have always feared or at least been anxious about poverty. Memories of lack rather than emptiness have conditioned me as the first of my family to go to university to always have a desire to look over my shoulder to see the past story of family poverty coming up on the inside lane. Professionally I have seen and witnessed first-hand the demeaning and devastating effects of poverty. It comes in all sorts of sordid shapes; the inability to put food on the table which is nutritious and healthy; the indignity of having to borrow money or get the shopping on the ‘tick’; the rented room with the constant air of damp that infiltrates everything and leads to avoidable asthma; the parents struggling to get the ‘right’ Christmas present for their wee one so that they don’t become the object of bullying on their return to school; the holidays not experienced, the birthday parties not held; the continual drip drip of debt and borrowing; the pensioner whose savings are to bury them and who sits shivering in front of a one bar electric fire to say nothing of all the countless lives drowning in the false illusory escape of alcohol and drugs. I’ve seen them all and I’ve also seen the subtle poverty that might not even call itself such. The poverty that is one of limited ambition and silenced perspective – don’t seek to contribute or achieve because you went to the ‘wrong school’ have the ‘wrong’ accent or simply don’t wear the ‘right’ clothes and conduct yourself in the ‘right’ way. The poverty of “I know where you came from and nothing worthy has ever come from there.” Poverty of opportunity, access and aspiration can and is just as sapping of hope as poverty in its traditional sense.
It has therefore been with a degree of more than self-interest that I’ve been watching the media portrayal of the current cost of living challenges facing our society. I have become concerned and irritated by what I would call the glamorisation or acceptability of poverty and its effects. Now I accept there is and always has been a fine balance between stigmatising poverty and romanticising or validating it.
There is nothing new in this. For every example of modern ‘slum tourism’ there have been antecedents not least with the Victorians who were masters at the hypocrisy of poverty. On the one hand they held guided tours to allow the rich to ogle at the mentally ill of the Bedlam asylum and on the other they tried to address the horrors of child labour in factory and field. They painted paintings of elegiac beauty about Highlanders being cast out into the snow but perpetuated the brutal clearances of people in the name of mutton progress.
More recently social commentators have coined the phrase ‘poverty chic’ as a catchall phrase for the growing cultural tendency of using poverty as a vehicle for inspiration, idea or design. It is a phenomenon most commented upon in relation to American popular culture, but it also has its expressions closer to home. If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, I’d recommend the writing of the blogger Stacy Lee Kong. She has reviewed the hugely popular work of Justin Bieber and his album ‘Hold On’ and argues how it is illustrative of poverty chic. She concludes: (and I would suggest this resonates with some contemporary British song writing):
‘It’s clear what Bieber and his collaborator on these videos, director Colin Tilley, are trying to do here. Their goal is to make some unspecified statement about precarious work, affordable housing, the high cost of healthcare in America and/or poverty in general, which is an admirable desire, I guess. But in practice, these videos feature Bieber and a bunch of other actors pretending to be members of America’s downtrodden in order to tell a love story and to project some sort of nobility and honour onto “simple” lives. There’s no actual engagement with the systemic reasons why hard, dirty jobs are often the only option for young people in North America, or why so many young, and particularly racialized, women don’t have access to healthcare. And okay, maybe that’s a lot to ask of a music video. But without that context, what’s the final message of “Holy,” really? That people experiencing poverty and homelessness can depend on the kindness of strangers? That love overcomes all? These are glib platitudes, not reality.’
Of course, she is absolutely right. The glamorisation of poverty is a perversion of painful reality. When art and fashion curate poverty into a new aesthetic for clothing or interior design; when philosophies and belief systems elevate the poor as being somehow especially worthy or when creativity and genius are portrayed as the fruit of suffering and economic want then we have perversely lost our moral compass.
Bringing things back to the present – what has recently concerned me as along with others I have sought in blogs and in the media to highlight the dangers of energy and cost of living poverty – is the possibility of a new subtle version of poverty chic beginning to appear in our media. At times it smacks to me of the stench of bread and circuses.
So this past while I have begun to read many stories about how we can survive poverty or the challenges ahead. I read a Daily Telegraph story of the benefits of hunger and intermittent fasting appearing on the 16th August. Then the next day I came across a story in the Express about how mouldy food was perfectly okay to eat. Then just a few days ago on the 23rd August the Mirror carried an article entitled ‘I went shopping for Asda’s Just Essentials range and couldn’t believe what £10 got me’ – at least in its text it noted the risk of stigma and impact. Along the same lines we have had some articles stating that waking up with ice on the inside of the windows in winter as you were growing up wasn’t all that bad indeed it was character forming! Delusions which ignore the generations who grew up with respiratory conditions!
What is going on here? Am I being over-sensitive about the sudden growth in articles and commentary which might be arguably said to be asking us to accept the inevitability of less, the reality of restriction, of poorer food quality, greater want and poverty?
The acceptance of poverty as inevitable, the willingness to concede that it is a given that people will die because of an economic down turn or an energy crisis, the collaterising of life is a moral and political trap we would do well to call out and avoid where ever we see it.
Those who are living through and who have known poverty know it is an experience and pain not ultimately worthy of art or creativity, design or aesthetic, but rather demanding of action, solidarity, re-orientation and change. Don’t be deluded into thinking poverty is either romantic, glamorous or inevitable.
The brilliant poet Edwin Morgan who regular readers will know I much admire sums it up well. The air of poverty is one too raw to breathe or glamorise. It robs us and we should not let poverty chic suffocate the air of action and response.
GLASGOW SONNET i
A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash.
Hackles on puddles rise, old mattresses
puff briefly and subside. Play-fortresses
of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash.
Four storeys have no windows left to smash,
but in the fifth a chipped sill buttresses
mother and daughter the last mistresses
of that black block condemned to stand, not crash.
Around them the cracks deepen, the rats crawl.
The kettle whimpers on a crazy hob. Roses of mould grow from ceiling to wall.
The man lies late since he has lost his job,
smokes on one elbow, letting his coughs fall
thinly into an air too poor to rob.