Give us this day our daily bread.

I just fixed a hot dog for my grandson’s lunch- one of his favourites. Yesterday it was quesadillas. My main worry is his lack of willingness to eat veg, but as his parent survived a similar lack of willingness, I don’t let it concern me too much. But what if, this school holiday week, I had no food in the cupboard and no money to nip down to the Co-op.  And we just got an electric bread baker and have started to enjoy freshly baked bread again. Not day-old.

Quote:” ‘Client told me her & husb have stock cubes & mug of hot water for dinner 4 x week so that their kids can eat’ tweeted Rob McDowall, Director of the Scottish Welfare Support and Advice Network yesterday…
On Easter Monday, the Sun ran a full page non-story attacking the Trussell Trust [Food Bank Network] for tenuous and supposed hypocrisy. Was there any mention of the fact that thousands of parents are going hungry to feed their children in the UK this Easter holiday? No.”

My husband volunteered for the local Food Bank for years- and was for a while chairman of the Board, and saw the increase in poverty and need as successive cutbacks were made to the Welfare system. Need has mushroomed. Our experiences have included both US and UK, and both are cutting back for the poor while rewarding and lowering taxes on the rich.

“Please, Sir, may I have some more?” is a quotation many will recognize, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I have just read Dickens and the Workhouse, by Ruth Richardson, a historian who discovered that one of the places Dickens, as a boy and young man lived, on two different occasions, in London was very close to the Strand Union Workhouse. Many characters, names. settings and scenes in Dickens’ works are tied to this location by the author, but her key insight is into the awareness of the workhouse and the New Poor Law of 1834 which galvanized Dickens into writing Oliver Twist, the story of a baby, workhouse born to a mother whose only identification was stolen, and the way he was treated, farmed out, used until… nobly born… happy ending… all those things that make us able to deal with the misery.

“Please, Gran, may I have another?” has already echoed from grandson.  “No problem!”

The New Poor Law of the 19th century refused all aid to the poor except in workhouses, where  families (even old married couples) were separated, food was mostly gruel and bread, refused for minor infractions of the rules, and harsh working conditions were forced even though most of the inmates were old, ill, disabled or children, and others either seasonally or chronically unemployed.  “A sort of prison system to punish poverty” the book calls it. Even this was farmed out to private companies who promised to cut costs, “warehousing the poor more cheaply than parishes might manage themselves.” Does this sound perhaps a little bit like the attitude of the “blame the poor” government and its press PR? Sanctions? Cutting off social care visits which keep old people independent and in their own homes? Privatising increasingly important parts of the NHS? Work assessments that ignore the realities of disability, mental illness, lack of transport and so on? Now as then, the unfortunate can die quietly out of sight of the people whose rules caused those deaths. I am not speaking metaphorically.

And, after death, the Anatomy Act of 1832 authorized giving the bodies of the indigent for dissection in medical training. (At least we aren’t there yet.) One of Dickens’ characters, an old and ill lady, treks from village to village selling bits and bobs she makes, with money for her funeral sown into her bodice, so she can die in peace, as a vagrant, and avoid the workhouse.

Dickens writes within the framework of his culture and the expectations of mass market serialized fiction, a proviso I put here because as one of my daughters noted, he believes that breeding and intelligence are linked and important, and he has a narrow range of fairly passive heroes, and needs to have tidy endings. Said daughter does not like Oliver Twist.

Amid the books providing detailed information about the situation of the poor and the growing inequity in our society, which will not reach mass audiences, and the self-serving slogans “Workers, not Shirkers” of politicians, and the popular press showing eagerness only to find the small time crooks, where will we be challenged to see and feel empathy and respond? Pope Francis has a big bully pulpit which he uses not to bully but to show the way, to emphasize the common humanity that ties us all.  Writers too can help us live in imagination within the life of someone who we might otherwise ignore or be prejudiced against.

As a boy (after the boot blacking factory years and a bit more schooling) Dickens had worked in legal chambers, but did not find there a quest for Justice.He had worked as a short hand writer and transcriber in Parliament, where he was thoroughly disillusioned. However, his assault on the social ills of his time puts him, in my mind  on a par with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Who is writing that way for the needs of the 21st Century?


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4 Responses to Give us this day our daily bread.

  1. George Russell says:

    Interesting contrast to what I am reading at the moment, ‘Empire, How Britain Made the Modern World’ by Niall Ferguson. As I said on Tuesday evening, I’ll lend it to you when I have finished it.


  2. ahuntca says:

    when I was in Lawrence the second time, I met for a short period of time with a group of folks who had been meeting for years perhaps decades to read dickens. I do not like Dickens. But I went for reasons other than DIckens and perhaps to see what it was that drew people to his work. Granted I was there only for a few months time but I did not hear any of them express compassion for the plight of his poor or say that their conscience had been quickened in some way. Perhaps they were not able in front of one another to move to this level. (As I write this I do seem to remember that some woman may have tried to say something to this effect but the conversation passed over her/it) Instead I heard praise for his characterization and the concreteness of his descriptions and for creating a world that seemed so real…

    I loved Thomas Hardy for a few years in my life… I was introduced to him, but not Dickens, in a High School English & Literature class. I read in somewhat quick succession Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I think they were too real for me or plugged in to my not so buried emotional life at the time and I quit reading him. The little bit of Dickens that I have read also plunges me into darkness. Both men may provide somewhat happy endings or ending where things turn out right, but mostly they seem to be stories of folks cast about rather unkindly by fate and/or trapped by scripts not of their own making. And it grates me. I do not want to believe in a world where we are mere leaves dropped from a tree and left to be blown about by the winds of time or trampled on till our ignoble death/decay.

    My sister watches chic flicks on tv. I’m sure she’s seen some of them dozens of times if not 100’s. She says to me that their appeal is that they always end well, sort of happily-ever after. I’m not sure I’m looking for that either as I don’t believe happily ever-after is the fate of all persons. Perhaps that is why I read and loved those John Jakes books of historical fiction The Kent Family Chronicles and the North & South Trillogy… There is suffering in them. There is a sense that things resolve in the creation of new circumstances/lifes/futures, but not sure happily ever-after would be how I would describe them… Especially in the kent family chronicles (that 8 vol series that came out during the bicentennial years that chronicled the history of several generations of an American family) there is a bit too much of manifest destiny as I remember it… but mostly it is that when we hold on to a vision of a better tomorrow somehow the inevitable suffering is bearable and temporary.

    What I think I don’t like about the poverty we see in Dickens and in our present is that for many, not all, poverty is increasingly unrelenting and will never end and what little aid is offered is designed to punish or shame or assure that there will be no way out for any but the so-called worthy. I must have lived that life sometime in one of my past lives because I shiver when I think of it and I certainly do not want to read fiction depicting it (or justifying it).

    I do remember another book that quickened the conscience of many at least for a time and it was a powerful influence on me. Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps. His focus however was not on the poor but on the people who had the means to make a difference… (the original book not the more recent retelling)


    • readingmater says:

      ” I shiver when I think of it and I certainly do not want to read fiction depicting it ” Yet you live among people who are struggling. You live the life I read about, vulnerable to people you meet!
      And I think people will become aware of the callousness of our governments (US and UK) through experience, and maybe movies or online sharing. Different world.


      • ahuntca says:

        And unfortunately as more and more of us all over the edge into poverty and talk about that publically, things will change. Experiencing a woman minister changed many minds. Know a glbtq person changed many minds. Knowing people who are falling through the cracks will do the same.
        Maybe because I have known these people, and know how hard it has been and is for them that I don’t want to believe that they are fated to be there forever…
        And yet that person that says, “If only they would try harder” if only they would do this or this, things might be different, still lives in me… But the longer I am in the place where I am now increasingly drug down by my exhaustion etc… I understand how immobilized persons can become by little things…


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