Alan Sillitoe in the Nottingham issue of Anarchy, number 38, April, 1964.
I ONCE KNEW AN AMERICAN WRITER IN MAJORCA who, over a bottle of gin and a dish of spiced snails, smoking a two-peseta cigar, would lean back contentedly in his chair after finishing his work in the evening, and exclaim: “Ah! I wonder what the poor are doing tonight?” I didn’t try to tell him, because I was poor myself. In any case, he didn’t really want to know, because he was joking, and because he also had been poor.
In England there are half a million people out of work, and ten times that number living in real poverty, what I would call below the telly-line, as well as below the bread-line. The gap between the very poor and the normal rich is wider than it has even been. The adults of these five or six million people form part of those twenty-three per cent who regularly never bother to vote at a general election.
Voting can never make any difference to their plight. It would take too long. They want to get out of it now, this minute, this week at the most. When you live from day to day, how can you believe anyone who says he will alter things in a few years? The years ahead are an empty desert, without landmarks of any kind, beyond the imagination. Poor people live in the present.
The poor lack manoeuverability. Without money you are born and die in the same place. To travel presents difficulties that are rarely overcome. You are tied at the ankle, and cannot stray beyond a certain distance from the roots of your poverty. The advantage of this is that you become familiar with the environs of your sleeping place, and there may be a chance of living off the land.
Your world becomes small, intense and real. Your senses are sharpened but, strangely enough, this doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in intelligence, or the ability to act. Intelligence is often stunted in the fight for order and food. A near-cretin, mustering energy in order to survive, may present a dextrous visage to the better-off, who imagine he must be cunning to survive at all on so little.
The very poor are too busy surviving to want to get on. To get on is something often dinned into them, handed down by the culture beneath which they exist. They are unable to take advantage of it, for to reach next week with clothes on your back, food still on the table, and enough life in your brain to face another week is the most they can do.
The rich, or normally well-off, cannot imagine how much an achievement this in fact is. The rich can accuse them of fecklessness, lack of thrift (qualities that the rich dare not enjoy if they want to stay where they are) but the greatest virtue of the poor is that they have learned how to survive without disturbing the rich.
Apart from the natural failings found in people of any class, they are where they are because of the lack of opportunity to develop intelligence or learn skill. Their life is maintained by patience, tenacity, scepticism and pride. This quality of survival is one that the better-off have forgotten how to use because they do not need it any more: to keep what they already have demands a different mental process.
Films on the telly, or at the cinema, giving examples of people who, one way or another, got on through personal striving, are enjoyed for the story, but believed only as a fairy tale is. That, they say, is not for the likes of us. In a way they are right. The poor not only know their place (maddening as this may seem to many) but they will go on knowing it until they can get out of it on their own terms.
The poor live in isolation, unreachable by private benevolence, goodness of heart, or sound advice. Poverty is a disease, as incurable as cancer, incurable because the resources of the state are not made to do a great surgical operation.
How can one define a poor person? When I had some money in my pocket I was walking down Holland Road and saw a grey-bearded man in absolute rags lying on a piece of wall. Rain was pouring down. I offered him some money, but he waved me angrily away. I should have known better. The poor either earn money, ask for it, or take it. They have a way of keeping their self-respect, in these forms of getting what they need.
There are degrees of being poor. The most common is that of the man who earns twelve pounds a week and has a couple of children. If he is living in London he may pay four pounds a week for a room, and his wife will be unable to go to work because the children can’t be left alone. This is not usually regarded as poverty. In such a room you might find a telly or radio. The man will smoke cigarettes, go to the pictures now and again, drink a pint maybe—all in small degree, after his rations are secure, sometimes when they are not.
Orwell did his nut about the diet of the poor, in The Road to Wigan Pier. He would do it again if he were still alive. Not for them the simple wholesome stuff. Frozen-this and processed-that, tinned muck, loaves of sliced, wrapped, steambaked pap, margarine and turnip marmalade, tea, flaky pastries made with axle-grease and saccharine, meat like broken rope—is what keeps people pale and frantic, and just strong enough to work, or strong enough not to. The womb-sweets and womb-custard (as advertised on telly) keep them close to the umbilical cord of the “deeply satisfying”.
If a poor family doesn’t throw some of its money away each week on fags and the pictures they may go under quicker than if they do. Their morale cracks, and they end up either in the poor-house or the looney bin. This is a reason for the so-called fecklessness of the poor: a visit to the pictures is often better than a hot dinner.
A poor family cannot always find a room to live in. They may be terrorised and thrown out by someone wanting vacant possession of a house in an area becoming fashionable. Sometimes my eye catches an ad in a newspaper, of a house for sale, and the tagged-on phrase “vacant possession if desired” makes me think of two hundred police and bailiffs ejecting a family recently in St. Stephen’s Gardens at four thirty in the morning after a ten-day siege. A poor person can never be sure, from one week to the next, where he will be living. He has mobility within a wall. To get beyond the wall, into the big wide world, he needs an entrance ticket. That means money, and he knows it. The poor live in a vicious circle, work hard, and payout so much a week in order to live—an eternal HP so as to get the biggest Bingo prize of all at the end of sixty or seventy years: death in a fine coffin.
There are different kinds of poverty then. First is the never-ending sort, which collapses in death, a poverty in which you were born, and from which you were never able to move. Then there is the poverty of the young man, say, who is to become a writer or painter: poverty from choice. This can be awful and degrading but, whatever he may say, it is a lesser form of evil than poverty. It is a stage to something else. It has compensations.
There is the poverty of the man who has known better days, as they say. This, is bad enough, but he knows it is not the only state of living. He knows also that there is a possibility of alteration. At least he has had better days.
The worst poverty of all is that which afflicts the man who is out of work for a long time, through no fault of his own. This is a destitution of the spirit as well as a destitution of material means—the man who wants work yet has to see his children never quite getting enough to eat, who knows that something could be done about his situation but is powerless to do anything on his own. Such a man becomes filled with bitterness.
The poor know of only two classes in society. Their sociology is much simplified. There are them and us. Them are those who tell you what to do, who drive a car, use a different accent, are buying a house in another district, deal in cheques and not money, pay your wages, collect rent and telly dues, stop for you now and again at pedestrian crossings, can’t look you in the eye, read the news on wireless or television, hand you the dole or national assistance money; the shopkeeper, copper, schoolteacher, doctor, health visitor, the man wearing the white dog-collar. Them are those who Tabbed you of your innocence, live on your backs, buy the house from over your head, eat you up, or tread you down. Above all, the poor who are not crushed in spirit hate the climbers, the crawlers, the happy savers, the parsimonious and respectable—like poison.
When there is widespread poverty, people help each other in order to survive, but when poverty is patchy, uneven, and separated in its unevenness, they lose faith in unity. They acquire a sense of guilt, and this is worst of all because it is unnecessary, undeserved, and undermines even further their self-respect.
It creates a good atmosphere though, as far as action from outside is concerned: the government can ignore it. When many other people appear to be OK and getting on then the poor can imagine it is their own fault that they are poor. This accretion of guilt far outweighs the encouragement they are supposed to get from seeing people less poor, whose example they are expected to follow because they somehow have managed to eke out a better form of living.
If a poor person slides his hand on to some counter and pulls down a bar of chocolate he is dragged into the court and made to pay a hundred times its value. This is the basis of all justice as they see it. Is there not, they might ask, enough for everybody if all food were to be shared out? Enough room for us all to live in? You have to go on working, of course, work until you drop (that’s all right, you have to work, expect to) but isn’t there an abundance that, if shared out, would be enough for us, for everyone? It takes them a long time to realise that, while there is enough for the poor, there would not be enough for the rich. Only those who win a football pool see that.
Their folk heroes are those who try, by brains and daring, to get some share of the rich man’s loot. He is superior to those who get it on the pools, which means the falling in of mere luck. The idolisation of Robin Hood went out centuries ago. If it hadn’t, would schoolbooks still tell of him? It never quite rings true to them that someone should, as an individual act, rob the rich and give to the poor. That was a way of buying off enough of the poor, who would prevent those not given anything going straight to the source of wealth-that only Robin could get at. Robin had an unofficial monopoly of wealth by being able forcibly to tax the rich. There is a saying: “Robin Hood? Robbin’ bastard, more like.” He ended up becoming one of the king’s men.
The poor idolise and idealise those who bring off wage or tram robberies and don’t get caught. A patriotic Victoria Cross or George Medal has nothing on the thrill of reading about this. They don’t expect any of the robbers’ loot: the mere act of striking is enough for them.
A man who takes from those who have more than himself is not a robber. The word “robber” is applied in all its tragic depth only when one poor man robs another poor man. If the first factor of poverty is lack of mobility, the second is powerlessness. There is nothing you can do about it, except endure and survive. If you can’t help yourself, then don’t expect God to do so. If God helps those who help themselves, then how is it possible for him to be on anybody else’s side but the rich? God is a Tory, a landlord, a millionaire, a magistrate. If he’s a worker he’s the sort of bastard who started out with five pounds and made five millions. He did it on his mates’ backs, and wouldn’t give them the skin off his nose.
For the desperate, which means those who feel their poverty most, and deserve it least (if such a thing can be said) there is always the gas oven. But that is your trump card, a fate you often think about in order to get yourself over the worst times.
If it is used it is only as a last desperate defence. It is the great individual act of which you are capable-without asking anybody’s permission except that of your own deepest inner self. You don’t sign for it, you do it of your own free will, to spite either someone you know. or the world in general, or because there is nothing else left to do but that—for a thousand reasons. It has a dignity nothing else has been able to give, and few are able to make this last act of dignity. It is the final freedom which no-one can take from you, which depends on you alone.
To me, after saying all this, the poor do not have a common psychology. That would be an inadmissable statement from a writer. They are all individuals for whom the rich—who form the state—are responsible. And because the rich can never effectively help the poor (they just don’t want to know them) then the only solution is a political system which makes such responsibility not an act of charity but a fundamental principle.
Research psychologists John and Elizabeth Newson report in Infant Care in an Urban Community (Allen and Unwin 42s.) how 700 Nottingham mothers of all social classes rear their babies, including the discrepancies between what mothers feel are the official answers and what they actually do, over such matters as feeding, pot-training, dummies, tantrums, “spoiling” and settling the children to sleep. Most are conscious of being more indulgent than their own parents, there is a “very widespread preference for indulgence rather than discipline.” There are still many class differences: middle-class mothers smack their babies less, report fewer temper tantrums and are less inclined to punish them for playing with their genitals. In spite of all the propaganda for breastfeeding it is widely disliked: half the working-class babies are weaned from the breast in a month. Breasts are so eroticised today, the authors suggest, that mothers are shy of revealing them to their husband, to slightly older children, and even to baby.
ALAN SILLITOE, born in Nottingham 1928, started work at Raleigh’s cycle factory 1942. He is the author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 1958, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner 1959, The General 1960, The Rats 1960, Key to the Door 1961, and The Ragman’s Daughter 1963. David Brett’s stage adaptation of his first book opens at the Nottingham Playhouse this month.