Viewpoint: Poverty is a state of mind
- 28 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
What is poverty? Can it be measured by income - or the lack of it - or is it a state of mind, asks social worker-turned-writer Bernard Hare, who grew up in a Yorkshire mining family.
I was born into poverty in 1958.
My father worked as a coal miner while my mother was a shop worker in a department store. Both were on low wages, but both were proud of the fact that they paid their own way through life.
My first 10 years were spent among the cold, cobbled terraces of east Leeds. The cobbles were cold, but the crumbling, back-to-back houses were warm inside. Miners, back then, got free coal as part of their wages.
Every three months, a lorry came and dumped a ton of it on the pavement outside our house. It was my job to shovel it through a small grate and into the coal cellar. I was the blackest five-year-old boy in our street - stood atop my coal pile, proud too to be earning my keep.
My Nan lived a coal's throw away on the other side of the street. Her door was always open to me while Mam and Dad were at work.
All the doors in the street were open all the time, as I recall. Neighbours just walked into your house and announced themselves with "hey up".
You really could leave your door open all day, because no one had anything worth nicking. We got our first black and white television in 1968, then mum tightened up security a little.
Henceforth, the key was kept on a string behind the letterbox where only the most sophisticated criminal would be able to find it.
The world was changing. Post-war austerity was turning in to 1960s affluence and people were beginning to put more store in stuff. Nan warned against complacency, but nobody listened.
Nan had been through the war and knew a lot, but nobody took her seriously because she was old.
I loved going to her house, because she always gave me uncut brown bread with butter, which I adored, while we only ever got sliced white bread and margarine at home, which I wasn't so keen on.
For the first 10 years of my life, I had little idea that we were poor. As far as I was concerned, we had warmth, love, shelter, enough to eat - except towards the end of the week sometimes, as most people got paid in cash on Fridays - and a safe community environment to run around and play in.
To this day, I have good cause to be grateful for the tight-knit community I grew up in. I had an inquisitive mind as a child and once wondered what would happen if I tied a washing line round my neck and jumped off the midden yard wall.
Annie Glasgow, a constant and reliable curtain-twitcher, knew full well what would happen. She rushed over to where I was choking, untangled me and then knocked me into the middle of next week for being so stupid.
Britain then was a good place to grow up. Home was warm, school was stimulating and challenging, the "bomb sites", as we called them - in reality slum clearance zones - made excellent adventure playgrounds, and everyone still felt good about pulling together and bashing the Germans.
I even liked Sunday school, where I fell in love with Bible stories and colourful pictures, although I wasn't entirely convinced about virgin births, miracles and risers from the dead.
Nan cited the NHS (free), education (free), full employment, labour-saving technology (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc), TVs, radios and record players as the main advances we should be grateful for over the bad old days.
She often criticised my parents, however, because they drank and smoked. Nan was teetotal and didn't approve of that kind of thing.
"You'll never have any money if you drink and smoke," she warned. My parents said she was right, but that didn't stop them going to the pub and smoking their heads off at every opportunity.
I was becoming aware that there might be a self-inflicted element to some people's poverty.
My second decade of poverty, my teenage years, were heavily influenced by something that happened to me in the summer of 1969. Man landed on the moon that year, but Nan said that was of secondary importance to the importance of passing my 11-plus.
If I passed, she said, I would get a good education and a good job. If I didn't, I would be off down the pit with my dad. Suitably fired up, I passed with flying colours and went to grammar school.
It was strict for a ragged, bolshy boy like me and there were a few close shaves, but I came out at the age of 18 with eight O-levels and two A-levels, enough to get to college. By my late teens, I wanted out of Leeds big time.
Britain in the 1970s was different to 1960s Britain. Something had happened to the happy, hopeful atmosphere I grew up with.
Not everything in the garden was as rosy as I had imagined. Tensions were simmering in society. My dad was involved in the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974, so the coal cellar was bare for long periods.
In my middle teens, I stood on the picket line with him at Ferrybridge power station and warmed my hands at the brazier. By now, North Sea gas was being pumped into our homes, so no one really cared about coal any more.
The miners won the battle, if not the war, on that occasion, but I had my own problems. I was expressing my teenage angst and disaffection with society by kicking people's teeth out at Leeds United matches. I was arrested on public order offences on more than one occasion, just like my dad at Ferrybridge B.
Like father like son, good education or no. Education is one pathway out of poverty, but the road is only worth taking when combined with social justice.
Injustice breeds anger and anger breeds violence, and the world around me was becoming an increasingly angry and violent place. In 1975, aged 16, I was one of the Leeds United mob that smashed up the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris after we lost the European Cup final.
I didn't want to be a mindless thug. Poverty wasn't working out for me.
In 1977, aged 19, I headed to rural Hertfordshire with a clear conscience and escaped the bad environment that was holding me back. Hatfield Polytechnic was my new alma mater and I studied there for the next four years, and drank a lot, and smoked a lot.
You can take the boy out of poverty, but you can't take poverty out of the boy. I was raised in the drink culture and I took it with me. Nevertheless, by 1984 I was a highly-paid peripatetic social worker in London, working with troubled and delinquent young people.
I had escaped poverty, I told them, so anyone could do it. All they needed was opportunity. Opportunity, however, was getting thin on the ground.
A year later, I was plunged right back into poverty again. Margaret Thatcher was in charge and she was out to destroy the miners' union. My father was on strike for over a year with no wages, no strike pay, no benefits and very little charity.
Miners were arrested and jailed for moving about the country, heads were bashed in, conspiracies were arranged to put all the blame on them. I kept working and sent money home.
I went into pubs in London shaking a bucket, collecting for the cause. In some pubs, I filled the bucket. In others, I was spat at and pelted with food. My disaffection began to grow again, until I eventually quit work and returned to the north.
To me, it was civil war and I felt I had to choose sides. My mother died at the same time and I was concerned about my dad, who was being starved to death by the same country he had fought for in Korea.
The miners marched back to work in 1985, battered and beaten, but defiant. Most would be redundant within the year. Angry, bitter, disillusioned and alienated - belligerence, the most finely-tuned of my social skills - I descended into a world of drink and drugs, where I wallowed for the next decade, plotting my revenge.
In my new life as a dropout, I never suffered the absolute poverty I knew as a child. I was in my 30s, a man in his prime, quite capable of earning plenty of money, one way, or another.
The world of drugs is the world of crime - and when you no longer care about society, or feel any obligation towards it, no longer feel the need to pay taxes, a whole range of possibilities open up. I made cash doing up old cars, buying and selling knocked off goods, drugs, bootlegged tobacco, booze, you name it.
I might spend £50 a day on beer and drugs before I realised there was nothing in the fridge. I didn't care. Why kill time when you can kill yourself? I felt I had nothing to contribute while the Tories were in charge and I wasn't alone.
Most people who made their living in the black economy felt the same way. Basically, like the miners before us, we were on strike.
I happily wasted my life away until 1995 when I came across a glaring example of child poverty, which I couldn't ignore. A dozen children, aged 10 to 14, were living in a garden shed in East End Park, where I grew up.
Only one of them was in school and she truanted most days. The others had long since been excluded or expelled. Most were on the run from the care system and spent their days drinking, sniffing glue, smoking dope, or worse.
Promiscuous, violent, hedonistic, uncontrollable, they stole anything that moved, especially cars. Between them, they were making life on the estate a living nightmare for the residents. The original "feral" youth, they made my childhood seem positively pastoral. Absolute poverty was back with a vengeance.
Most people were scared of the Shed Crew, as they called themselves, but I'd seen worse in London when I worked as a social worker. Nor did I blame them for the situation they found themselves in.
The kids soon started to look to me as the nearest thing they had to a responsible adult in their lives, while I became acutely aware that I wasn't setting them any sort of example. They left me with little choice but to get my old social work books out and start cleaning up my act.
By the time Labour returned to power in 1997, I was ready to call off my own personal strike and begin the process of truth and reconciliation.
I chose writing as the best way forward. What had happened to the Shed Crew wasn't right from any angle and I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
I would eventually write a memoir, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, but first I had to learn a new trade. I spent a year improving my English, did a year on a creative writing course, then joined my local community arts group and started collecting stories.
Stories, I knew from Sunday school, were what it was all about. I no longer hated the Tories, I pitied them. I'd lost years of my life to feelings of anger and the thirst for revenge. The main thing my mum taught me was forgiveness.
I took time, but finally I decided to let it rest. Good might come of it yet. I let go of my own particular poverty, a poverty of spirit.
Poverty isn't only about a lack of money and resources. The worst poverty is found when there is a lack of education, understanding, hope - liberty, fraternity, egality, as the French say. Even after being on strike for a year, without money, the miners never thought themselves in poverty, because they had each other.
I loved spending time with my dad and his workmates in the pub.
As a child, I went in to collect my pocket money. As an adult, I went in to spend it.
Even before the strike, the men never went to work on Mondays or Fridays if they could avoid it, preferring to smoke, drink and play dominoes together in the tap room of the Slip Inn.
After the strike, undeterred, the old man and the other redundant miners continued to meet every Monday and Friday for dominoes and beer for the next quarter of a century, until, one by one, they died.
I loved the noise of dominoes clattering on tables, the lilting Yorkshire voices, the tongue-in-cheek arguments over a few pence in change, and their loving insults and banter.
Their lives depended on each other underground and they were as close as men can be.
It seems to me poverty is a state of mind. If you think you're poor, you're poor. If you think you're rich, you're rich.
No-one is ever going to come along to cure your poverty. The only solution is to do it yourself.
Long dead, now, those miners to me are a music of the mind. Whenever I'm worried about life, or disappointed in humanity, I listen to them.