I was asked for a definition of poverty recently…. It’s a hard one.
All poverty is relative. One definition is being beyond a certain percentage out from the rest of your peer group, another being where you fall on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs spectrum. A pyramid diagram where on the bottom level lies, food, clean water, warmth and shelter and, as it narrows, things like education, comfort and self fulfilment become available but the relative availablity is shown through the narrowness up to a tiny point where so few people get their hearts desire. On the other end is the term “fuck off money” the ability to tell anyone you don’t like to “fuck off” with no consequences to your wellbeing or standard of living. I know a few of these, they buy my art occasionally, they have a fascinating outlook on life. Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buffer you from an awful lot of woes. It also buys you time… Time is the most precious gift any of us will ever have, well, along with health and, no, we can’t buy that either, but we can safeguard it. A friend of mine is alive today because his parents could afford to go private and jump a queue, he has two children who would not have been born. I’m way beyond a socialist and have sacrificed a lot for my principles over the years but I would go private like a shot if I had to and the money was there, which it isn’t. That said, the nhs saved my life and I thank its wonderful staff every day of my life.
My own experience of poverty is this…
I was born to elderly parent in 1970s in North London. Dad owned a small central heating business, mum was a secretary. They both worked and I was brought up by my nan mostly. They had a bit of money left after the mortgage and had a few luxuries, in truth too many. For some people, poverty is never that far away, it lurks like a monster in the shadows, one illness, one accident, a simple change of fate and there it is. Like many of the working class, my dad the guy in the pit village who left for the navy in the Second World War and never went back and my mum and her parents not able to comprehend the importance of an offer to attend one of the best schools in England and not going, my parents weren’t brought up to handle money carefully or understand the dangers of having credit. When they had money, they spent it, when they didn’t, they spent it still. And then came Thatcher. My dad’s business went down the toilet and, in a fit of desperation, he hit upon the idea of selling a three bedroom house in London in 1978 to buy a place in Yorkshire. My mum was so out of it on Valium that she put up little fight. I remember the screaming and the arguments though. Both then and for years later when the bills and the bailiffs arrived. There was no work for either of them up north, my dad leaving for the evil south and bringing one back to the heartland. People were backwards then, they still can be now sadly, but about different things. No work, predudice, freezing in the winters, hiding from people chasing debts. No phones, no going anywhere, wrong school uniforms, decaying shoes and the bulling that went with. There are things that stay with you forever, the look on my mum’s face when she had to sell her engagement ring and her dead mother’s wedding ring for next to nothing will haunt me to the day I die.
They refused to go under though and one, then both, went to seek work in London leaving me in the care of my sister with mild learning disabilities. Mealtimes were interesting and school was infrequent as the ease with which I could pull the wool over my sister’s eyes was spectacular. When I broke my arm on my bike I never went back for a year. I didn’t miss much mind, the school was fodder for the mines and the army if you were a boy and retail or pregnancy if you were a girl. In a way that year of saved me, I sat there in front of the television and there was nothing to watch but schools tv and the open university. I still can’t do long division but I know an awful lot about the strangest of things.
The quality of the local hospital and my almost feral behaviour led my parents to drag me back south where they could keep an eye on me. I slept in a camp bed at my nan’s at first and was put in the remedial class at school, I was smarter than that but had little motivation. My horizons and expectation in life were limited and once in that class, the second you showed any drive, intelligence or ambition, the other kids beat it out of you. These were third generation unteachable children mostly, dads in prison, mum’s on the game, doomed from day one. It put the wind up me and I wanted to get out, even if it was just so I didn’t get punched in the face every day. It wasn’t long before we were homeless, the house worth a pittance in Yorkshire wouldn’t sell and remained dormant while my brother (see numerous daily mail articles) sold my nan’s house, which was in his name, just to spite my parents. My Nan was granted a one bedroom maisonette by the council and in we all moved. My nan, who instantly went from forgetful to senile slept in the double bed with my sister, my mum on a camp bed in the same room and my dad and I took turns of the sofa and camp bed in the living room area. There was both black and green mould up the walls, the flat was infested with silverfish and woodlice. The toilets in the flats above would overflow as would the river nearby. Everything I owned was constantly damp and smelt bad. We were ill permanently and the lack of personal space affected everyone. My grandma took to shitting in the bath and to absconding in the middle of the night to either Walthamstow or Peckham where she lived as a child to be brought back bewildered by the police. Then, irony of ironies my nan died just a month before a family member was legally entitled to continue the tenancy and eviction proceedings began. I remember we were interviewed for the today show on radio 4 as Norman Tebbit had come out with his “get on your bike” speech and the housing charity shelter thought being on that might help our case, it didn’t.
After much fighting, eviction day came and we found refuge in a very strange place, a tiny bungalow that was in the middle of a garage forecourt. The rent was cheap, but there were catches, lots of them. What little electricity there was, was put in in the nineteen thirties. Bakerlite switches would buzz and arc in disconcerting ways and the rubber cascaded from the fittings like toxic dandruff. I had no electricity in my room, but I had a room!! My parents had a pull out sofa bed and my sister a grotty room with electric but no daylight. The worst thing was the lack of privacy though. The mechanics kept their parts in a room off the kitchen and their mot book and security embosser in a secret safe in the front room. They were in and out constantly and there was never an evening or weekend went by without some idiot ringing the bell at all hours to drop off car keys or pick some up.
It was about then that my dad had his first heart attack and my sister started to get strange headaches. Heart attacks begat strokes, begat heart attacks and my dad became more disabled and brain damaged, my sister was going through the long and painfull process of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I spent a lot of my free time caring for both of them, nursing my sister and escorting her to Barts and Moorfields hospitals and changing my dad’s pissy trousers and washing stuff there wasn’t much time left but I managed to do art foundation course. Walking half the way sometimes and skipping lunch to pay for paint and pencils. Doing a degree was out of reach though. My family situation caused me to fall inbetween the cracks in the local council’s system and I was prevented from doing further edjucation until I was 25. So I plugged on, working, caring, doing evening classes. My mum was pensioned off and left me caring for my sister but, whilst absolving herself of the rent and bills, still spent nearly as much time in the crazy bungalow. At twenty five I went to university and at twenty five my dad died, leaving me with two traumatised people to deal with. The student loans came in and the grants disappeared and I paid my way by getting up at four am and doing the books for a building company before heading for campus. I got my degree through, and was immediately headhunted by a prestigious Japanese designer. It was impossible to survive on the starting wage though. Poor people are locked out of progressing in the creative and media industries by all the unpaid foot in the door jobs, without independent support. I had friends at the time from similar backgrounds who only survived by becoming drug dealers just to keep going on their chosen career path.
Lacking the mindset to become Pablo Escobar, I went back to my old job and promptly went mad. The squalor of my home and the lack of official tenancy documents meant no paper trail. No paper trail, no housing benefit and once I had racked up every debt I could and sold everything I owned, I spent a couple of years off the grid, sofa surfing from relation to relation, friend to friend, I never did the rough sleeping thing, but wasn’t far off. I spent a decade in the white elephant house in Yorkshire on sickness benefit, barely leaving the it, severe depression, severe anxiety, almost a shut in. I never stopped learning though, never stopped making things. Taking every small opportunity back to something like a life. Eventually I got one…. Just in time for the Tories to get in. It was simple, I couldn’t hold down a real job, still can’t. Now I get by on things I make at home in the peace and quite and then the occasional phenomenally well paid thing that leaves me wiped out for the next few days. Then though, it was a case of turning up at a medical every three years by which point I was a gibbering wreck and then they would promptly wheel me home again.
Then came Atos and the work capability assement, a benign scheme created by new labour that was turned to a witch hunt by the Tories. The first one I promptly failed, I found out three days before Christmas, followed by a year of appeals, meetings, sick notes, scraping by on emergency money, psychiatric assements, culminating in a tribunal which left me mind fucked and in tears. They found in my favour and I had a year of relative peace…. And then it all started again. Next time I went mobbed up, a massive paper trail, a social worker, a legally trained advocate and I passed. It wasn’t the end of it though, in a new dodge I was put in the active work related activity group, where you are forced to jump through hoops and be patronised and demeaned at ever turn. There was another option though, and that was to become self employed.
The last few years have been exhausting, whilst I have had cash flow, made sales aplenty and done some pretty amazing things, knocking up sales on every continent bar the frozen ones, it goes straight out again. Materials, fees, printing, it all adds up. Going without food and warmth to pay for £250 a metre bear fabric, being awash with debt whilst investing in the next project. This could all blow up in my face any second though and I will end up back where I started or worse. Poverty is hiding in my shadow, poverty is breathing it’s foul stench over my shoulder, only the beta blockers and the ssri’s keep it from swallowing me whole.
For nearly forty years now poverty has been in my life and that of my family. One thing after another, affecting health, affecting sanity, everything having a knock on effect, setting off the next one, you never catch up and with every struggle you sink further and further into the quicksand. Living in poverty is living in fear, I have all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, you get that from spending time in combat situations normally.
The worst thing about being poor is other people though. You buy one nice thing and it’s pure hatred, as if that new t shirt would have cleared all your debts and left a bit more to invest in a pension. Then there is socialising, standing at a bar buying drinks for people you don’t like that would have fed you for a fortnight. Even joining things, there are never the right clothes or you are expected to chip in for such and such’s wedding gift, or God forbid! they ask you round for a dinner party, a day’s food on wine, another on afters and then you have to do a return one. Poverty ghettoises you so you can only hang out with the equally poor who would never do something as cruel as to invite you to something and so there you stay, stuck on the same level, never making contacts or getting opportunities.
Worst of all though are the do gooders. Well meaning people who unwittingly rob you of the last of your dignity, without even knowing it. Trying to empathise but never truly knowing what it is like to live without hope or to realise what it is to know that you are so far behind in the race of life. When you are that in need of help it is so demeaning, you have nothing left, not even a sense of self worth. Plus you can feel the warm glow that you are giving them in return for doing their good deed, the trade off is never fair.
The way a lot of people cope is to just give up, just sink into the mud and stay there like a good little peasant. Sink into the oblivion of drink and drugs, throw what little money they have at a betting shop or on scratch cards. I wish I could do that, I wish I could just give up, but a little voice in the back of my head keeps pushing me forward, inch by slow inch and it reminds me that this is my one life and I better make the most of it.
Hope is a dangerous thing to have if you are poor, it takes you forward but it also torments you at every chance. According to Dante, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” is written across the gates of hell.” Those words are not a warning, they are a piece of kind advice.