The pandemonium inside the walls and minds of the underclass provides entertaining television for a society obsessed with being reminded of just how lucky they are. The underclass is often presented as a chaotic blend of unfruitful habits and distasteful choices, but the level of disarray suffered is often inescapable. Growing up poor is chaotic. It is disorder and constant instability. It is unknowingness and fragility. From not having enough money to put in the electricity meter, to the bailiffs pricing up your furniture, to the fear of another heroin relapse.
Growing up in poverty meant that I could tell you what heroin smelt like when I was just a child. The stagnant vinegary scent stuck to the insides of my nose, reminding me that chaos reeks. Arriving at school was equally chaotic when our only mode of transport was the back of a transit van. The unwanted appearance of brown envelopes through the letterbox indicated another missed payment or a last reminder. The untidiness of our home mirrored the dispirited climate that was cemented into the foundations. The use of anti-depressants softened the blow of a reciprocated hectic mind.
Recently, I was made aware of Ken Loach’s film Raining Stones in a lecture. To my disbelief, it felt like a pure representation of my childhood. The dichotomy between my parents, one who went into debt to give us everything we wanted, and the other, who would rather see us go without. Much like the little girl in the film, who was preparing for her Holy Communion, unaware of the extent to which her new dress had made their lives all the more unstable. Falling deeper into debt meant that a knock at the door caused an uneasy stir in the room. On the occasion that a bailiff did arrive to remove our goods, not even my mother’s prayers could salvage the situation. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ will be forever etched into my mind as a reminder of my mother’s vigilant attempts to inject a conscience into those who pose as stewards of this rigged system.
My father’s absence arrived with one too many cans of lager, shortly followed by a repossession notice, shortly followed by severe anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Growing up in poverty meant that I had to learn to adjust to unpredictable environments more than my middle-class counterparts. But it also meant going out of our way to cover up the stresses that existed at home, which only plummeted us into more debt. Those positioned politically to the right often argue that the recklessness of the underclass is to blame for the level of disarray experienced, but in our current capitalist system, poverty is unavoidable. When this is realised by those who have been suffering generation after generation, the only logical solution is to give up.
The simple things like not sitting at the table to eat our dinner, shopping in Farm Foods and Iceland instead of Sainsbury’s or Marks, not being able to afford a week away and not having Sky TV made me resent my parents for not giving me the life wealthier children had. I longed to live in a house where I would not encounter heroin addicts, leaky ceilings, and police warrants. But as I grew older, I realised that I had been directing my anger towards the wrong people. This, however, was a necessary step in acquiring the knowledge to begin my own radical odyssey. The works of Antonio Gramsci recognise this as the formation of an “organic intellectual”. He states, ‘every social group coming into existence on the primal basis of economic production creates together with itself, organically, a rank or several ranks of intellectuals, who give it homogeneity and a consciousness of its own function in the economic sphere.’ What this means is that the poor, after recognising their systematic oppression and position in the ongoing class struggle, form the most primal group of intellectuals in society with the ability to spread class consciousness.
Amidst the chaos in our heads and in our homes, we the poor must utilise our ability to tell our stories and to educate those like ourselves, to create a system of solidarity. In our current political climate, a chance to calm the waters has emerged in the form of a government opposition. For the first time in my lifetime, the poor might actually catch a break.
Image: Claudia Rutherford