Viewpoint: Poverty is a state of mind

Washday in 1970s Leeds

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.

About the author

Bernard Hare, image courtesy of Howard Walker and Sceptre Books
  • Bernard Hare is a social worker-turned-writer, and author of Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew
  • Born in 1958 into a Leeds mining family

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.

Couple watching television in 1967 Many homes had TV sets by the end of the 1960s

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.

Bernard as a baby with his father With his father - also Bernard - in 1959

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.

Joyce Hare Bernard's mother Joyce

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.

Start Quote

For the first 10 years of my life, I had little idea that we were poor”

End Quote Bernard Hare

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.

The Magazine on the welfare state

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.

Miners' badges from the strike days The miners' strike was a time of bitter battles in some areas

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.

Start Quote

The worst poverty is found when there is a lack of education, understanding, hope ”

End Quote

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.

Newspaper clippings from the miners' strike days, about families starving

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.

Bernard with his father The two Bernards, father and son

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.

Why Poverty? on BBC Radio 3 features five speakers on different aspects of the subject of poverty. Bernard Hare's essay is broadcast on Wednesday 28 November at 22:45 GMT, or listen again on iPlayer

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  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    Try reading 'The Spirit Level - Why Equality is Better for Everyone' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
    The sooner we adopt the obvious messages in this, the better.
    In the meantime, working class people lose their lives defending the freedoms, rights and privileges of the rich.
    Any freedoms we have were won by the Chartists and Trade Unionists. None were given to us by the ruling classes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Yes, you can be poor and happy - because everyone around you is likely also poor and getting by. What changed was that TV became common..."
    Very good point.TV gave us a model of materialism to aspire to.Along with some other bad habits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    There's a difference between poverty and destitution. Both are valuable terms. Living in poverty may not be as bad as living in destitution, but it's still a problem. Nine out of ten people with disabilities are living in poverty, for instance. There's no excuse for resenting people because you don't think their poverty is valid enough, as some sadly do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Seems like my sort of guy its a pity that we are in a minority and getting less by the day. It was a wonderful read and very well presented, the word passionate kept jumping out of my laptop screen.

    Thank You

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    #73 " What wrecked the coal industry wasn't Maggie Thatcher, but years of inflated wage demands by the miners. It was a terrible time and Thatcher had to rebuild a country wrecked by Wilson and Callaghan." True, BUT
    "What wrecked the banks was the system that gave inflated pay packets to bankers. That started under Thatcher's watch with Major, Blair and Brown failing to notice anything was wrong"

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Thanks so much for the essay. The BBC is one of the few places where this art form still can be found. We need more of them.

    And thanks, too, Bernard, for being an eye-witness to history. Your eloquence makes the tragic, lost, Thatcher years almost palatable. Very stoic. You can take the tyke out of Yorkshire, but you can't take the Yorkshire out of the tyke.

    More please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    #380: "Afraid to open the door or leave windows open in the summer in case the debt collectors call. Every spare penny going to mounting interest payments."

    And whose fault is this? I have absolutely no sympathy for those who end up with unmanageable levels of debt - no-one to blame but themselves and their own financial ineptitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    This is the first time I have ever heard a Yorkshire accent described as 'lilting'! (even after 5 years in a Yorkshire grammar school with a Yorkshire father too!)
    The poverty might not have been as bad as he thinks: miners made a fair bit selling their coal allowance! No one needed 4 tons a year to heat a small (back to back) house and my grandmother for one never made use of a coal merchant...

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    What utter rubbish. She had heating and she got food - that was not poverty. That was in an age when everyone helped each other and relatives lived nearby.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Seems as much a tale of a self-destructive hedonist,as a tired cliche of 'us vs Maggie'.My parents came from Grimethorpe,my dad a miner,it wasnt a black and white 'them and us' battle.As many police skulls were bashed in as miners',and if there was ever a conspiracy it was the rabble rousing well-paid union godfathers like Scargill,quick to be Comrade Chairman,just as quick to live the spiv life

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    Theoretically, a lack of money may not be a big problem - if one is reasonably secure in one's person and have liberty, then life can proceed happily without much money. The thing is, our system makes basic liberty and security in one's person contingent upon having money - so poverty and happiness are more or less mutually exclusive

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    @380 Sam

    Unmanageable debt is self inflicted and caused by people thinking that they should have more than they do. It's a sad situation but unfortunately people put themselves into debt. No one does it for them.

    They say that insanity is constantly doing the same thing and expecting a different result. There are solutions to individual issues. You just need to apply them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    Some aquaintances of mine seem bent on self destruction, habitually spending beyond their means, not for essentials but imo fripperies, with the result that they now do find it difficult to buy necessities. To my knowledge,none is actually hungry, but they live meagrely and their childrens health is sacrificed to their passion for 'stuff' & what they call 'quality of life' = topshow/debt..

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    My family has bought acreage in a somewhat remote area and are trying to teach ourselves survival skills (veg growing,preserving, animal husbandry, etc) just in case. We shall be poor if we should need to leave our comfortable 'leafy suburb' but might be safe at least. Inner city poverty (deliberately engineered these days) must be hell on earth, who can blame protesters & where will it all end?

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    @378 Dazzler
    In the UK many people can claim that. I have met people in that exact situation as a direct result of unmanageable debt. Afraid to open the door or leave windows open in the summer in case the debt collectors call. Every spare penny going to mounting interest payments. Suffering with depression, contemplating suicide.

    The real poverty is not the lack money but the lack of hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    I fear that the consequences of deprivation are far too concrete to be dismissed as a state of mind. More than anything, poverty means limited opportunities to take control of your fate. Let's be careful. All religions of this world have tried to talk poverty down in an attempt to rein in the poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    @377 sarah

    Really? That's quite extreme and I'm not sure anyone in the UK can claim to be short of all those things. If they are then they're doing something very wrong.

    Poverty only registers (in the mind) if you feel you should have more than your 'lot'. Poverty is most definitely a state of mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    Poverty is not a state of mind. It is having no electricity, no gas, no water, no toothpaste, no toilet paper, no food, no clothes to go to school in, no pen with which to write at school, no money for bus fares, no money to repair shoes worn out with walking everywhere, no money for school dinners. Poverty is hiding from people who come to the door. Poverty is fear and rows and sleepless nights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    One is poor when one thinks he / she is poor. like as, 'One is old when one thinks he / she is old'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Beautifully written and very inspirational - thank-you, Bernard.


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