Open the curtains

Sunday 02 December 2012

This is a guestpost by Jacqueline Crooks, Director of Befriend a Family In September I was invited to join an Orwell Prize panel to discuss poverty then and now in the 75th anniversary year of The Road to Wigan Pier. When reading the work in preparation for the event I was struck by the issues such as homelessness, isolation, and secrecy that Orwell wrote about the inability of the poor to believe in any kind of future. These are the same issues that are experienced by the families we support. I know something about the secrecy of poverty that Orwell wrote about. I grew up on the Havelock Estate in Southall, one of the estates featured in Gavin Knight’s seminal book, Hood Rat. I’ve seen poverty from two perspectives: the personal and the professional. From the 1960’s as a child growing up in a poor migrant family, to the sixteen years I have spent working with disadvantaged children and families in the voluntary sector. Fifty years watching the changing face of poverty. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the curtain of secrecy that occludes the poor. In my work, I spend a lot of time in the homes of vulnerable families. I have seen the desperate ways that they try to conceal the reality of their lives. They paste posters of golden landscapes over black mouldy walls. The posters last a month or so before falling away to reveal the rot and decay behind it. I go to homes on barren estates, stand outside doorways, hear children playing inside. When I knock on the door the house becomes silent. They will not open the door. The house is in no state to receive visitors, even if it is someone who has come to help. They don’t want the world to see how they live. They don’t want to go out into the world to see the good life that everyone else is living. They lock themselves in. They close the curtains. It was something my Mother was always shouting at us: “Close the curtains!” She didn’t want the neighbours to see our poverty. She didn’t want to look out into the world. Our charity took a group of mothers out for a coffee some months ago. Their children were attending our martial arts project and it was an opportunity for us to consult with the mothers informally. The mothers all said it was the first time they had been inside a café, sat at a table and drank ‘expensive’ coffee. They watched the everyday world coming in and out, buying lattes, espressos, cupcakes. They became animated, talked about their childhoods, their talents, their hopes. They were visible. We need to give voice to disadvantaged communities. Some years ago we ran a writing workshop for disadvantaged young people. The young people produced an anthology of short stories called Visible, detailing their lives in poems and short stories. It is a small step – we are a small charity – but an important one all the same. Books like Gwenton Sloley’s, From the streets to Scotland Yard, are important. We need to hear from individuals living in poverty, in their own words. Equally important, are books like Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat and Stephen Armstrong’s The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited. These books attack the secrecy of poverty and its deleterious effect on individuals, families and communities. We also need to hear from small local charities like Befriend a Family who are working hand-in-hand, inside the homes of people who are living in poverty. We raise substantial levels of funding to support families living in poverty. We channel resources from the business sector to families. It is important that the government continues to support small, local charities working at grass roots level. Orwell’s writing sought to open the curtains and it remains relevant as a legacy. Befriend a Family are a charity working with children living in poverty within Westminster, you can support them and see what they do at a special Christmas concert on the evening of Wednesday 5th December at Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair where Gavin Knight will give a reading from Hood Rat. Proceeds will support families. Get your ticket here