Books as blunted weapons, unicorns, invisible children and how to see them.
I spent International Women’s Day in the company of an invisible woman and her child.
Here she goes again, I hear you say, the ‘invisible author’ banging on about her imaginary friends. To be honest, even my wildest imagined families live in apartments. Maybe by the sea. With palm trees. And freshly picked fruit. And unicorns.
Not in a single room.
And shared bathrooms they can’t use routinely.
And shared kitchens five families can’t be in at once.
Sure, I could see their hazy outlines. I mean, I am well informed. Sort of. Though their outlines were muddied and muddled by the debates we are all spaghetti-wrapped in, debates over ‘foreign’, over ‘bad immigrants’, over ‘control’. Then, through the slow bleed of months, and much laughter and some tears, these women became visible to me. So sharply in focus that my eyes hurt. I can no longer think of politics without thinking about people.
And here is what I wish would disappear.
A family in the UK living with kids in a single room.
A woman visiting a food bank for her weekly meals.
Families relying on getting their baby’s milk from a charity, or a cot from a church, or clothes from the Salvation Army (though praise be for all of these amazing places of respite, resources and kindness).
I am a writer, and last month I also celebrated World Book Day’s ‘SHARE A STORY’ campaign and heralded the positive effects that ten minutes reading aloud can have on the development of a child from any background. Books are a democratic force for change. But books are hard weapons to marshal in a single room. I’ve tried. When there is nowhere to sit, and mum doesn’t speak good English, and the child just wants to get outside and run, my beloved books are blunted weapons. It’s hard to play in a single room. It’s difficult to do your homework. The imaginary sister of my protagonist in my (slowly!) progressing teen novel, Make Me Beautiful, gets read to more often.
Of course, I don’t wish that I could un-see these things… but, quite frankly, knowledge is a pain in the butt. And it’s endemic; I don’t even live in one of the London boroughs (or elsewhere in England) identified in research published by the End Child Poverty Coalition (ECPC) as being the very poorest in the UK (2). In these areas, 15 out of a class of 30 children are growing up in poverty.
My glass walls have shattered leaving me, uncomfortably, exposed.(3) And this is what I am asking myself: how dare these things exist in my city in 2018. How can the life expectancy of the poorest girls in England fall for the first time on record since the1920s?(4) How is it possible that rickets, a disease virtually eradicated in Britain half a century ago, is back?(5)
I am thankful for my sheltered, mentally and physically spacious, upbringing; but now I have to break the walls and speak up, nay: ‘write up’ for change. Of course these are just my experiences and it would be dangerous and wrong for me to extrapolate about the reasons for, let alone about the solutions to, poverty. They are complex and differ for each family. However, those whose business it is to know (Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), ECPC) point to: the fact that the continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty; that state support is falling in real terms; and that rents are rising. (6)
And, before you say anything, it wasn’t ever thus. Something is changing. In their UK Poverty 2017 report the JRF acknowledged that over the last twenty years there have been very significant falls in the numbers of children living in poverty, but that this progress is at risk of reverse as child poverty rates again begin to RISE.
So today, I give up my chair for all those invisible women struggling in poverty with their children. That’s why there are so many, many empty seats in the picture, folded tight because they have no room to sit down. An endless auditorium of chairs stretching, I fear, out into space. Something has to change and maybe the first, oh-so-tiny step towards that change is to see.
(1) Last year Home Start’s 16,000 volunteers supported 30,000 families facing challenging circumstances. If you want to get involved with this amazing charity, after training, it’s two hours volunteering a week.
(3) (Poor Kids (Poverty Documentary)) – Real Stories You Tube published 24th Feb 2016
(4) Office For National Statistics, Health state life expectancies by national deprivation deciles, England and Wales, 2014 to 2016.
(5) Pearce SHS, Cheetahm TD, Diagnosis and management of vitamin D deficiency 2010 British Medical Journal