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How the poor die – and how power must learn from their lives

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How the poor die – and how power must learn from their lives

Post by Jill Segger on Thu Jul 27, 2017 10:43 pm

In 1929, George Orwell was admitted to a public hospital in Paris. He was suffering from pneumonia and spent several weeks as a non-paying patient in the Hôpital Cochin. The essay he wrote about this experience remained unpublished for almost two decades, only appearing in Now – a political and literary magazine published by the writer and critic George Woodcock – in 1946.

It is not difficult to see why such a distressing and disturbing piece of first hand experience would have been thought a risky bet amongst editors reluctant to harrow their readers: “In the public wards of a hospital you see horrors that you don't seem to meet with among people who manage to die in their own homes, as though certain diseases only attacked people at the lower income levels...This business of people just dying like animals, for instance, with nobody standing by, nobody interested, the death not even noticed till the morning – this happened more than once.”

This was, of course, almost 90 years ago. Although How the Poor Die details medically crude procedures which are long gone, Orwell's essay still has something to tell us about an attitude towards the provision of what is no more than minimally acceptable – if that – for people who are without money or influence.

The terrible deaths at Grenfell Tower tell the same story. From inferior quality building materials, lack of safety equipment and poor inspection regimes, to the inadequacy displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Prime Minister, the narrative is one of neglectful contempt for the public realm. It is impossible to believe that residents of an 'exclusive development' would have had the same experiences.

But one thing has changed beyond measure since Orwell recorded the appalling treatment of patients in Hôpital Cochin, and that is the almost immediate visibility of the suffering and the unfolding sequence of dysfunction and incomprehension in the days following 14 June. Whereas How the Poor Die reached only the readers of a small left-wing magazine, the horror that is Grenfell has not only been seen all around the world, but the survivors and their supporters, through their social media presence and effectiveness in organising, have spoken with a voice that cannot be ignored.

For the first time that I can recall, the rulers have had to face the ruled in uncontrolled circumstances under the eye of the world's media. They handled this with varying degrees of incompetence and there are signs that they are already trying to re-bottle the genie. But both the human qualities and the realities of life for the just-about-surviving have been laid inescapably before a power which has hitherto preferred not to look too closely.

A disabled man lived and died on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower. Families were bringing up children six stories and more above the ground. No one appears to know just how many lived in the tower because some flats were sublet and some tenants would seem to have been undocumented migrants. 'Unofficial' lives are not necessarily evidence of innate criminality or fecklessness: people learn to go below the radar when an environment is hostile to their existences.

As widely separated cultures were forced into proximity, the most telling moment for me came when Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, visited the site and was approached by a group of five or six residents. They were polite but searching in their questions and challenging as to why council officials had been invisible in the aftermath of the fire. The questioning was led by a young man who did not speak in Received Pronunciation. He was articulate and persistent without becoming aggressive and his poise and moral intelligence were very obviously unsettling to Ms Leadsom. She deserves credit for being available to such questioning – a stance which her leader had been unable to take – but it was both comical and disturbing to watch her struggling to recalibrate her preconceptions even as they were in the process of being overset.

This must be the lasting legacy of Grenfell. If we are to move towards a more equal, just and empathetic society, the assumptions of superiority which flourish in privileged isolation cannot continue. The rolled-back and de-regulated state, with its disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable, has come under scrutiny and the lives of people who too often go unnoticed have been seen in every sitting room in the country. Those who hold power and those who make and execute policy must not be permitted to forget.

This blog first appeared on Ekklesia and is reproduced with acknowledgement. www.ekklesia.co.uk


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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen
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