If, like me, you happen to reside in a neighbourhood that retains the majority of its Victorian architectural roots, chances are you may have noticed the high proportion of churches – even if not all of them are still open for business. In an era when working hours were long and wages were low, Christianity served a purpose beyond mere faith, being at the heart of community life in a way it only appears to be today in rural England. But the church’s core business at its most basic was to offer hope – however slim – and a kind of ethereal distraction from the toil that the mass of the country’s workers endured.
Times change, of course; and religion, at least the one that has been that of the nation for centuries, no longer commands the same authority it once had or is turned to by millions as an escapist alternative to the dispiriting norm. Celebrity culture, certainly for what used to be called the working-class, seems to have taken its place. The reasons for an elevation that is to many utterly baffling are myriad, but the fact that it exists in its current form at all suggests there is a need for it as there was a need for the church in the nineteenth century.
Working conditions then were notoriously bad, even though there had been several pieces of legislation (largely prompted by campaigning reformers) that gradually improved the wellbeing of workers; the days of bewildered orphans being bussed from one part of the country to another in order to provide unscrupulous mill-owners with cheap labour were thankfully gone by the end of the nineteenth century. But for all the vast contrast between the lot of the working man and woman of today and their equivalents just over a hundred years ago, there is little cause for celebration; and many might argue the overall picture implies the situation has got worse rather than better over the past couple of decades.
Parents have always mapped out a newborn’s life, whatever their social demographic. Following in father’s footsteps was a familiar scenario both to those at the top and those at the bottom, whether that entailed journeying along the same prep school/public school/University/Foreign Office conveyor belt as Daddy or joining yer old man darn t’pit. So, in some respects, modern mania for catchment areas and ‘the right school’ isn’t necessarily an entirely unprecedented development. But it does reflect a very contemporary, almost obsessive, desire for absorbing people into the system at the earliest possible age, a mantra of propaganda pumped-out by media. Once Junior boards the educational treadmill in twenty-first century Britain, he or she is on the first lap of a marathon operation that surpasses anything his or her nineteenth century predecessor had to suffer. The old, rather quaint, boast that the National Health Service would provide the people with cradle-to-grave care has now been surpassed by a far less benign watchdog spanning the same timescale.
A child at school today is placed under fanatical observation and surveillance more or less from day one. The bureaucratic box-ticking that has permeated all public services settles its all-seeing eye on the school-kid and will never avert its gaze thereafter, ensuring the child slots into the system; and the system preaches that the child is secondary to concern for what the OfSted report will say. The idiosyncratic teacher who fired and inspired the imaginations of the open minds before him – the kind that could be seen in the likes of ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ or ‘The History Boys’ – has no place in today’s academic institutions. There are boundaries and boxes, and stepping or thinking outside of them is simply not allowed. A teacher is there as a trainer of trainee drones, not simply in terms of a workforce, but in every aspect of work, rest and play; and there’ll be little of the latter once Junior is released into the big bad world.
An unpaid internship or a zero-hours contract – what are they really but updated and rebranded nineteenth century working conditions? A Victorian working man or woman low down the food chain was, in many cases, dependent on their employer for a roof over their heads, a scenario not that different from the tied cottages they’d left behind when migrating from country to town. They could never have imagined owning their own home and the prospect of doing likewise for the working man or woman in both the same position and far higher up the food chain of today is just as implausible.
Their working hours are barely shorter than the working hours of their nineteenth century ancestors and they will have to keep working for more years, probably up until their mid-seventies. Money they owe may not land them in debtor’s gaols anymore, but in all likelihood they will never pay off all their debts before they die; their debtor’s gaols are the jobs that drain them and the homes they don’t own. Where do they go for much-needed, albeit temporary escape? They want to watch a family of rich bitches talk bollocks as opposed to a lone, lonely vicar talk bollocks. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Kardashian both offer unrealisable dreams because dreams are necessary when reality is a master-plan drawn-up by people with no imagination, no compassion, no heart and no soul, people who don’t have to live the lives they’ve designed – Tory, Labour, Liberal or Whig.
The unacceptable face of capitalism? The unacceptable face of Britain.
© The Editor