I had no idea such poverty existed



Owen Jones mentioned in a recent TV programme (10 06 2012), that when interviewing Hazel Blairs, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the last Labour Government, he asked why they had not done more about housing.  Her answer, it seems, was that given the background and lifestyle of Labour Ministers, they had no experience of privation and bad housing conditions, and were thus not really interested.


The background of those who rule us matters.  A story is told about William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, who as a great Whig aristocrat had a liberal background and attitude, supporting the abolition of slavery, reform of factory conditions, and the like.  However, on one occasion he went, with his steward and a load of silver, to Aspreys to buy new silver, and have existing silver renovated.  Whilst there, he spotted some circular silver rings.  Turning to his steward he asked,


‘Charles.  What are those?’


‘Those, my Lord Duke, are known as napkin rings’.


‘What is a napkin ring?’ asked the Duke.


‘My Lord Duke; when the middle classes rise in the morning, and take breakfast, they take a fresh napkin, and when they have finished, they take it and fold it, and roll it and place it through the ring, which often has their name inscribed on it.  They use it again for lunch, and high tea, and dinner, and if they take supper, for that as well.  It is then sent to be laundered’.


‘Do you mean’ said the Duke ‘that they use the same napkin throughout the day?’


‘Indeed, Lord Duke’.


‘Dear God’ said the Duke, ‘I had no idea such poverty existed’.


Don’t laugh, I have heard dafter statements in professional meetings.  I marvel at my political friends who have humanity overload, who message me from the Caribbean about genetic engineering, when my godson, who is unemployed and disabled, cannot afford the money to take his three children to a caravan on the South Coast for a week. He buys food and pays outstanding gas and electricity bills instead.


Of course so many people are, at present, having to make sacrifices.  There are those who have to cut out one holiday a year, and those who have to use the smaller of the family cars because of petrol prices.  There can be compensations though; Millie’s school breaks early so that holidays can be taken off peak, – the saved money offsets the school fees.


Off the radar are the increasing number of children going to school hungry in the morning and, because of this, playing up and not able to concentrate.  There are teachers who buy food for them out of their own pocket.  There is a government which intends to do nothing to introduce free school breakfasts.  But if you live in Islington you know nothing of hungry children.  And we are told that the number of such children is increasing, and that they are the children of working parents.  Such matters are a surprise to government ministers: one minister in the last Conservative government (and this one also) defined the homeless as ‘the people I step over when I leave the opera’.


So we are back to the 1950s, if not earlier.  I remember my mother, a midwife, taking sheets and blankets to patients in downtown Birkenhead.  She was from a poor family, she had started her nursing training in a workhouse hospital, she had a feel for what her patients were going through.  My mind trails off to remember statements about there being no such thing as community………………………..


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