Saturday, September 19, 2009

Affluenza in Winchmore Hill

I don't buy into the relative poverty argument that surfaces on the Today programme every year. I'm not sure of the significance of the fact that there's a greater wealth gap than ever before between an Albanian beggar on Oxford Street and, say, Roman Abramovich. I can't see where that gets you. My working definition of real poverty in the first world comes from Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes a school Johnson taught at in the Texas hill country during the twenties where they had to have a major fund-raising campaign in the local community to buy the basketball team a basketball. It's never about money. It's about what you have or don't have and the expectations that flow from that.

I've just returned from Sainsbury's where I was kept entertained by a 19-year-old who was talking on his mobile as he pushed the trolley round with his mum. Being English I am obviously compelled to make a guess at his background from his accent. He had a pierced ear and was dressed by Hackett. I am guessing that a generation ago his family would have described itself as working-class. His great-grandparents might have rented a radio and holidayed at Southend. In the course of a ten-minute conversation with his friend he recounted which three pubs he and his friends had been to last night, which ones they planned to go to tonight, which clubs in Essex various people were deejaying at, how the Freshers Ball at his "uni" was being held at Pasha and it was only £15 and how he and some mates planned to find a cheap hotel in Brighton so they could stay over when they went clubbing there the following weekend. The fact that they had access to cars was taken for granted. I guess they had most of the things they wanted.

His was clearly not a life of simple pleasures. It's highly geared, as they say in the city. There's something about hearing this round of pleasure being airily outlined on a device that twenty years ago would have been the sole province of merchant bankers that brings home to you just how massively the expectations of ordinary people have grown in the same period. And is the future going to inevitably disappoint our friend on the phone, will he find a way to continue to pay for it or will he be marching in the streets within the next few years, wanting to know what happened to the Good Life?


  1. It's refreshing to hear someone at last puncture the flawed 'relative poverty' argument. This is always discussed on Radio 4 in shocked terms of 'we've actually gone backwards, and the gap between rich and poor is wider than the 1930s etc etc.' There's no denying this is true in absolute terms, but is meaningless when you consider the changed-beyond-recognition materialism and living standards of even the poorest in society today, compared with 80, or even 40 years ago. A look at Benefit Busters on Channel 4 should confirm as much.

  2. but how much "suffering" is the right amount when i was student our house was basically unheated and one night having wiped the table down (we ate in my room) it froze in a shiny sheet. Now none of this killed me but it was miserable.
    So I'm not sure where the balance lies.

  3. It has been a growing trend for the past 15 years or so. I first noticed it when a vacation student turned up for twelve weeks of work experience with car, mobile phone (in 1994 I didnt have one even after 8 years of decent salary) and the ability to drive the 200 mile round trip home each weekend. Five years later, it was a new graduate who took on a mortgage within his first 6 months, bought a hot hatch (which he crashed within weeks with concomitant insurance hike), satellite tv and endless ability to spend on games and nights out.

    Much more recently I saw another aspect you mention: having the misfortune to stay for a weekend in one of the seaside hotels that is affordable at the last minute (in my case Bournemouth rather than Brighton). Between 11pm and midnight the noise from elsewhere on our floor sounded like the last days of Saigon. A brief respite arrived when they all decamped to some nightclub only for it to kick off again at 4am. This time with the added "percussion" and "choir" of post clubbing coitus resounding through the paper thin walls. Still, they all looked well pleased with themselves the next morning as I heard them congraulate each other on having such a wicked time, make bookings for the following month, with not an iota of self-awareness on their effect on other guests. OK, so maybe I'm just a grumpy early forties man, but when the big correction comes, I fear it could be civil war.

  4. "Once basic needs have been translated by society into demands for scientifically produced commodities, poverty is defined by standards which the technocrats can change at will. Poverty then refers to those who have fallen behind an advertised ideal of consumption in some important respect." (Ivan Illich)

    I've always liked that quote, and I think it gets to the heart of what you're trying to say here.

  5. Paul K9:55 pm

    "His was clearly not a life of simple pleasures." Really? His pleasures seem confined to partying, which seems pretty simple to me. Perhaps the really depressing thing is that all of the development in communications, the growth in wealth and the possession of cars etc are all being get pissed.

  6. Something I've been meaning to blog on for some time, a sentiment that this excellent piece has now rendered redundant.

    The only poverty that exists in Britain today is a poverty of ideas and ambition.

    The relative poverty argument trotted out by the talking heads on the BBC is an insult to the real poor I see every day on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

  7. James Cohen9:08 am

    Hi David,
    I've never commented on here or on the Word site before, but I'm a fan of the magazine and enjoy the blog a great deal. However, this post has irked me a little and I felt that uniquely modern need to respond to someone I don't know who has written something on the Internet that I think is wrong. Here goes...

    It's mostly the first paragraph that I take issue with. Caro's biography certainly does paint a bleak picture of rural Texas in the early 20th century. But it also describes how Johnson managed to improve conditions by using his influence to bring electricity to the region - even though it was often not in the power companies' immediate financial interests to do so. Maybe he wouldn't have bothered if a wise old head had pointed out to him that the difficulties of life in 1920s Texas were nothing compared to how awful things had been in another part of the world in the 1830s.

    Although I share your admiration for the Caro biographies, I don't really see where the basketball story 'gets you'. Are we to discuss poverty in today's Britain only by comparing conditions to one of the poorest regions of the U.S. almost 100 years ago? Relative poverty is a flawed concept and one that is regularly used to justify misguided, overly-complex redistributive policies (e.g. elements of the tax credits system). But the arbitrary absolute poverty standard that you suggest is even more ridiculous and unhelpful. Adam Smith, that famous sweaty left-winger, commented on this in his moral philosophy (the portion of his writing that the right, strangely enough, are not so keen on discussing):

    "By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but what ever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into, without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England."

    I'm not arguing that it is the responsibility of the state to make sure that your new friend can spend every weekend deejaying, going to Pasha and drinking until his vital organs give up. I don't know anything about him, his background or his talents. But just because you consider this individual to be undeserving that doesn't justify your initial flippant dismissal of any debate about inequality and hardship using the hoary old "You call that poverty?!" line.

    Best wishes,

  8. There's a danger here of this turning into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch. Hasn't 'relative poverty' always been so? I watched The Grapes of Wrath again last week and was surprised by how the 'poor' Okies took their car for granted and how they liked stopping off at the 1920s equivalent of Little Chefs.
    One of the charms of having a cheap holiday in other people's misery is the chance to feel rich compared to others. And this is why gap year students like to go to help the poor in Delhi rather than in Dewsbury

  9. @James:

    Fair enough, but if you can argue with a straight face that the difference between being able to afford say, just the basic Sky package as opposed to Sky Multiroom is analogous to Adam Smith's linen shirt / leather shoes argument then good luck to you...

    Ok, I'm being facetious but despite your very well put argument, I still view comparisons between now and the 1930s as risible, and I will take some convincing to persuade me otherwise.

  10. Leaving aside the question of how you measure poverty, one thing which I think is indisputably true is that the concept of saving for something/waiting until you can afford it has almost completely gone. Whatever the latest 'must have' object of desire is, people see it as a right to have what they want, and will borrow/use credit/defer paying for something else to get it. I'm not being self righteous here, I've done it myself, but it seems to become more and more prevalent as you go through the generations. But when the whole of the economy seems to be founded on ever increasing consumption funded by exponentially increasing levels of debt, how can we expect people to behave any differently?

  11. On a lighter note; the fact that you know what 'Hackett' is says something about you.

    Label conscious?

    I had to google it.

    The only time I'm aware of a label is when it is emablazoned in large letters that cannot be missed.

    That way I never feel any poverty when it comes to clothes.

  12. Actually schools here in America still have fund-raising drives to buy sports equipment, even team uniforms. You see kids on street corners and on trains with buckets asking for money.

    Though as you'd imagine these kids are nearly always black, kids in rich white suburbs don't have to do it. School funding in this country is completely arse about face.

  13. Hackett's clothes do usually have their name in great big letters on them. All it says about David is that he can read.