Opinion

A lot has changed since the war years, but poverty remains

Poverty will never been eradicated while the Welfare State offers only a sticking plaster, not a solution

St Paul's during a London air raid, WWII

St Paul's under fire: Barbara Comyns’ depictions of the Blitz are vivid but the poverty she describes is different to what we face today. Image: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

It is not often that I wax lyrical about a book. But a small book I picked up last week intrigued me. I, a slow reader, read the 175 pages of Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns in just under a day. It’s published by a Northern Irish publisher called Turnpike Books, and I picked it up in Waterstones, attracted as with most of my book purchases by the cover. It showed a reprint of a railway company poster of 1939: a bustling, bus-laden street with St Paul’s Cathedral towering over all.  

Enough of a draw to a chap like me who is in love with the 1930s and the war years, having only just missed them because Mum had only just met Dad. Am I one of only a small number who are obsessed with the years just previous to my birth; or do we all dote on times just before us?  

Set in and just before the war years, Mr Fox describes one long struggle by a deserted young mother who – though from the ‘top drawer’ – has fallen on hard times. The miserableness of her circumstances causes her to have to move in with a black marketeer and petty thief who treats the woman, Caroline, and her child with a combination of kindness and nastiness. She is caught and, in seeking an exit, runs into even more problems. Probably the beast of the whole book is a selfish, moralistic-sorry-vegan mother who Caroline goes to live and work with as the war begins. A cold, virtuous house with a spoilt child and hunger stalking Caroline and her daughter’s life, it is a case of studied menace done in a very middle-class way.  

Suffering is on every page, but the joy of the book is how the young mother, based on the author’s own experience, seems to struggle on to the next solution only to find that it solves nothing. It is a short odyssey of reversals of fortune that is so well written, in a kind of indomitable fashion, that it makes you believe in the whole project.  Cleaner, hostess and almost-compromised young woman, cook and household slave, Caroline manages to get through the deprivation and the war still confident that something soon will turn her fortunes.   

The description of the bombing raids on London and surrounding areas is some of the best I have read, showing it from below. ‘Below’ in the sense both of among the poor and below the threat that came from the skies. 

Mr Fox is one long drama of poverty and being beholden to those who want to exploit and use you; and  Comyns produced a classic in these few pages. Its great strength though, is the remorselessness of the young mother’s struggle, and how much of life is caught in this way.  But it shows a poverty that is different from most poverty in the UK today. The poor of the pre-war and war years were largely left unprovided for; or little provided for. The great machinery of the Welfare State had yet to be invented. The government did not then spend circa 40 per cent of its income on trying to make poor people as comfortable as possible; trying to take the edge off of their being cast out to the fringes of society. Making the internal refugeeism of poverty as bearable as possible, though without actually getting people out of poverty.  

We kid ourselves if we believe that the great machinery of a welfare-inspired government is, or was, going to terminate poverty for all by equipping people in need with the exit strategy out of it. No; it has been a steady, often inadequate holding of hands with the poor, always leaving campaigners having to campaign for a little bit extra to make sure that poverty can become a bit more bearable.  

The day that we face up to this systemic inadequacy, and stop kidding ourselves that the Welfare State is doing its job of removing from poor people all the vestiges of poverty, will be a great day indeed. When political parties start measuring the impact of their ‘holding fast’ and ‘stop-gap’ measures, their seeking of a better sticking plaster to cover the problem, we may see a revolution in thinking and its delivery.  

But at the moment we are not in that debate. We are not constructing the means of tearing down the compromise of a Welfare State that is not proving adequate for the task. And planning for its reinvention. In fact, what was a beautiful project to lift up the poorest among us is now a fudge that needs more than a little bit of TLC.  

Of course, it is easy enough for someone who does not have to fill the holes in provision that the government is tasked to carry out to criticise its delivery. I don’t have the responsibility to deliver social security and to make do with existing resources. Yet that should not stop me and others saying that there should be other ways of doing it.  There should be other ways of spending those vast budgets on getting people out of poverty rather than maintaining them in it.   

These are the questions that seek an answer. For the next election the manifestos need to be written now, showing the thinking that can address why we have so many people caught in poverty; and acknowledge that such help as they now get only keeps them slightly less discomforted. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers
car washes have been highlighted as modern slavery hotspots
MAYA ESSLEMONT

We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers

Westminsterism may think it knows best – but dismantling it can help us move forward
Affected families in Westminster after the damning report into the infected blood scandal was published
John Bird

Westminsterism may think it knows best – but dismantling it can help us move forward

We can make the four-day working week a reality – and make it work for everyone. Here's how
Andrew Fennell

We can make the four-day working week a reality – and make it work for everyone. Here's how

How the life-affirming power of the chicken helped me understand grief and loss
Catherine Swire

How the life-affirming power of the chicken helped me understand grief and loss

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know