Saturday, 5 November 2016

Stolen Childhoods


William Blake published his 'Songs of Experience' in 1794. Holy Thursday is one of the most poignant. The reference is to Ascension Day, when a service was regularly held at St Paul's Cathedral for the poor children of London's Charity Schools. Blake's verses are a bitter outcry against the hypocrisy of church and state (then closely linked), that doled out charity with 'a cold and usurous hand' and then paraded the recipients through the streets in a humiliating public spectacle.

These 'Babes', he says, do not enjoy 'sun' nor 'fields', instead their young lives are marked by 'misery', 'poverty' and 'eternal Winter'. The lexical polarity is quite deliberate. It is a bleak picture of a cruel and harsh time. Not that the Babes' lives got any better in the 19th century. Poor children were expected to contribute in some way to the family earnings from birth onwards. Small girls sold watercresses, strawberries or sulphur matches, depending upon the season. Boys risked life and limb sweeping the muck off the streets for people to cross. Babies were frequently 'lent' to elderly beggar women to make them look even more pathetic. Others sold flowers or matches on street corners, standing in the open in all weathers. Still more risked life and limb darting between carriages to sweep a path. Some children spent long lonely hours minding smaller siblings. Few could read or write.

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of London life recorded in his London Labour & the London Poor (1852-4), the words of  a coster-lad. His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving his mother to cope. He told Mayhew:

''Mother used to be up and out very early washing in families ~ anything for a living. We was left at home with some bread and butter for dinner. Afore she got into work, we was shocking hard up. Sometimes when we had no grub at all our stomachs used to ache with the hunger, and we would cry when we was werry far gone. She used to be at work from six in the morning till ten at night which was a long time for a child's belly to hold out again, and when it was dark we would go and lie down on the bed and try to sleep until she came home with the food. I was eight years old then.''

1889 poverty map of London's East End . The blackest streets mark areas of complete destitution

Sadly over two hundred years later, we still see the lives and life-chances of poor 'Babes' being trampled in the dust as their parents are treated with scorn and contempt by a government that regards them as idle wastrels. We see benefits cut, sanctions applied, help denied,

Daily there are stories of parents denying themselves food so that their kids can eat. Children arrive at school too hungry to concentrate; sometimes they don't arrive at all because they have no shoes, or uniform, or a warm coat. We see the rise of foodbanks: an utter disgrace in a 'rich & fruitful land' like ours. We read tragic reports of families being made homeless because private landlords raise their rent, and greedy profit-focused developers are reluctant to build 'social' housing. The 'free school lunches' are on the verge of being abandoned in favour of cheap breakfasts.
The cap on housing benefit and the rise of rents potentially throws numerous families onto the streets, depriving their 'Babes' of the right to stability, education and a decent family life. Thousands of children are, even as you read this, having their hopes and dreams of a happy future kicked into the nearest gutter though no fault of their own.

Someone on Twitter recently asked: How can any Government do this to innocent children? My reply: Because they aren't their children so they don't care. Blake cared. His poems, of which only seven copies were printed, were radical critiques of the rich landed fat cats in Parliament and the Church who lorded it over society and inflicted terrible damage to the lives of ordinary human beings by their selfish, greedy policies and attitudes.

The Songs of Experience were considered deeply 'seditious' and could have led to Blake's imprisonment if they'd ever been read by government officials. Nowadays, I guess he'd just be roundly mocked in the rightwing tabloid press and trolled on social media.

14 comments:

  1. I hope you are pushing at an open door here, Carol - and meet nothing but support for your outrage.

    What horrifies me - as much as the injustice suffered by so many, and so often - are those that subscribe to the 'scroungers' theory. We can only carry on standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and be true to ourselves and our convictions,

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    1. I agree...but it is so hard when the forces ranged against the poor and powerless ar so vast...and so uncaring

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  2. A bit Berthold Brecht? "Denn der Schoss ist fruchtbar noch, aus dem das kroch."

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  3. The bad living conditions and the misery came from what? Someone (a lot) thought they were better (deserve more) than others. And those others deserve their condition. Need further elaboration? "Arturo Ui" works not only to describe the rise of Hitler et al.

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  4. William Blake was very ahead of his time, tragically.I studied Songs of Innocence and Experience for A level and was very moved and influenced even as a teen. Excellent post.

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    1. He is as startlingly topical today as he was then ....and I wish he wasn't!!!

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  5. I don't know in detail about the present UK government's policies on housing benefit and the like. Knowing the government is politically conservative, however, I imagine their policies are mainly designed to lower taxes for the better off and for large corporations. My own view is that societies have a responsibility to look after all of their citizens, and make sure that everyone, even the very poorest, have enough food, safe housing and access to quality education and healthcare. That was true in William Blake's time and it's true today.

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    1. I agree, however we have lost that sense of responsibility and replaced it with a sense of 'self'.

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  6. Such a good, relevant blog, Carol. My own knowledge of housing law since the 1980s means I'm well aware of the role of the 1980s government in creating the current mess. It's so depressing, knowing the cause us in the past so can't be changed.

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    1. Cameron's 'right to buy' hasn't helped ~ and that this now applies to Housing Associations means that they cannot borrow against their assets to create new housing stock. It is an iniquitous policy. In Victorian times, very few ''owned'' their houses BUT the work of Joseph Roundtree and Henry Peabody in creating 'social housing' for the poor helped to alleviate the problem somewhat.

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    2. Yes. If we had a caring government in charge, instead of a copy of the one that caused the problem in the first place, we could start to put it right by building lots and lots of new council housing

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  7. I find it almost beyond belief that this can be happening today in the country I grew up in. Just out of curiosity, are there no school dinners anymore? They used to be provided to ensure that children had at least one nutritious meal a day, didn't they? I've been away so long I don't know what happens now, but it's diabolical that children should go hungry like this in today's Britain.

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