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?