From Single Parent On Benefits To Chauffeur-Driven Rolls

The ever-growing problem of inequality was vividly brought home by a recent item in the News: waiters and waitresses at the prestigious Mayfair restaurant Le Gavroche, where a mere starter can cost more than £60, are paid less than the minimum wage and receive no share of the service charge, despite being the ones delivering that service.

Issues of class, privilege and hierarchy have permeated our society since feudal times, and my own family history is certainly one of extremes. My Hungarian grandfather, once in sole charge of the upmarket Blenheim restaurant in Bond Street, was described by his little daughter as “looking like a Prince in his frockcoat, grey waistcoat and starched white shirt-front, collar and cuffs”, as he greeted his wealthy, cultured clientele. Yet in 1914, the “Prince” was imprisoned as an enemy-alien and reduced to breaking stones in a labour-camp. His wife, my grandma, only survived with the help of the Quakers, who managed to obtain her low-grade sewing-work, which she could do at home while caring for her children. But, when she fell ill, those children – my father the eldest – had to move into lodgings, where they were excoriated as “bloody foreigners”. Yet Dad ended his life as a wealthy man, awarded the MBE for his services to management, and reputed to be the oldest person, at 96, ever to be awarded a Doctorate by the Open University!

My own first encounter with snobbery was at age eleven, when I went to boarding-school and proudly showed a classmate a photo of my small suburban semi, only to be told in sneering tones, “But that’s a slum!” And, yes, it probably was, in contrast to her country mansion and stableful of thoroughbreds.  The only equine interest in my life back then was the milkman’s ancient nag!

Later, as a single Mum, I was riled by the way I was treated in the Benefits Office, including impertinent suggestions that I was sleeping with my elderly lodger (who smelt of mothballs and kipper), and the overall lack of any courtesy or compassion. And did such places have to be so bleak – not a single pot-plant, or poster on the wall? OK, things may be very different nowadays, but, as a twenty-something, I was indelibly marked by the experience. And, when, not that long afterwards, I turned up at a five-star hotel in a chauffeur-driven Rolls (don’t ask!!), I was struck by the fawning and kowtowing I received from the reception staff. I was exactly the same person underneath, yet a high-status motor had hugely upgraded my standing in society.

After a further roller-coaster of Fate (the Rolls long since sold), we had bailiffs at the door, come to distrain the property and, once again, I tumbled down the social scale, now faced with Dickensian ruin! I’m not complaining – I’d had my time in clover – and, anyway, all this is great for writers, who need to know the details of existence at both ends of the scale.

In fact, one of the reasons I wrote The Tender Murderer was to highlight the present contrast between the fat cats and the lowest paid in society, globally as well as nationally. The gap in per-capita income between the rich global North and the poor global South has increased three-fold since the 1960s, and the richest eight people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 50% of the entire global population.  Here in Britain, the bosses of our largest public companies, luxuriating in their super-yachts, or eight-bedroomed homes, complete with private gyms and cinemas, earned an average of £5.5 million in 2015, which, including pensions and bonuses, was 129 times more than their employees. Notwithstanding such a pay-gap, those employees are reasonably well-off compared with the so-called precariat, who are often forced to choose between eating and heating, and, in the absence of any sick- or holiday-pay, don’t dare to be ill or take time off.

My protagonist, Anthony, would of course know nothing of this hand-to-mouth existence, born as he was to wealthy parents, educated at the finest prep- and public-schools, and never meeting anyone outside his charmed circle, except those “menials” who make his life still easier by relieving him of any chores. However, his stint in custody brings him face to face with those he would formerly have dismissed as “scroungers”, or “scum”, or “the criminal class”. Only slowly does he come to realize how intolerant and ill-informed he was, and how much he took his cushioned life for granted, along with his automatic access to a gilded circle who eased his way through every step in life.

Post-prison, he actually joins the have-nots, when, unable to get any job except office-cleaner, he finds himself working nights on less than the minimum wage. Many such workers also do a day-job, thus losing out on sleep and family-life, and most face a long journey to and from their Central-London workplace, since they’re unable to live anywhere but the cheaper outer reaches of the capital. Researching this line of work, I found another hidden world, similar to the hidden worlds of prison, or gang-culture, or the chronically unemployed – hidden in the sense that much of the population is blind to them. But Anthony’s eyes are opened and, once aware of the glaring discrepancies in income, housing, education, and even in genes, health and diet, he begins to question the easy assumption that man is born equal. Do we even have free will, he wonders, or are we largely the products (victims) of our circumstances?

Research done in 2015 by a team led by the neuroscientists Kimberly Noble and Elizabeth Sowell revealed that poverty can actually change the way a child’s brain develops, so that the poorer a child is, the more likely s/he is to have decreased cortical thickness compared with the norm for their age. Whether this is due to stress, malnutrition or other factors, no one yet knows, although a similar study showed that a key factor in the development of the cortex – and of future cognitive ability – is dependent on how much affection, attention, conversation, reading and explanation children receive by the age of 3. Those receiving a large amount in this very short window of time are given the best start in life, and thus glaring inequalities exist before a child even starts school – inequalities that Anthony never even considered in his former cushy life.

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