Through all the pandemic talk, the sense that perhaps we’re being given too many conflicting stories of what’s going to happen next, I saw a man walk down a street in what I perceived as wretchedness. I was driving past with my children and wife and looked at this man who seemed completely marooned. He was tall and thin. His face was grim, as if hurt and disappointed too often. Probably between 40 and 50, he had on an old mackintosh and struggled with his bags. He walked carefully, as if uneasy yet seemingly determined. His two big bags, one advertising Tesco, the other a launderette bag, seemed to pull him down as he tried to make his way along the pavement.
Where did his wretchedness come from? I created an imagined journey into wretchedness. I imagined his mean circumstances at birth, and in early childhood. I imagined the struggles he had to bear.
Later I was speaking to a friend who works in a homeless hostel. He told the story of a man who had died in his room, 57 years of age. Dead after many years on the street but taken in recently. With so many health issues it was difficult to imagine him surviving long.
Wretchedness; the wretchedness of the left behind. The stalled in life. The harmed by early childhood. The broken. And then the drink or drugs to compensate, the self-medication, as they call it.
Most of the wretched people I have met come from exactly the same milieu. The ingredients of their failure start often with failing at school. Badly educated, they are unable to get decent work because only their hands were needed. To dig holes or stack things, or sweep up. Perhaps drive and deliver. A stratum of society that was not greatly improved by the coming of the welfare state. Improved only in making available small sums of money, but never enough to invest in reversing the misfortune of school failure.
Of course the saving grace of the welfare state is that, if through all of your poverty and limited finances you became ill, at least the NHS will work hard on bringing you to a fit state. But only if you had first become ill. No prevention was offered by anyone. You couldn’t go to the state and say, “Help me help myself and improve myself.”