Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Red Cross or Lifestyle Choice - take your pick?

After last week’s thick layers of four-day-old snow dissolved out of sight in heavy downpours, traffic swept past once more and the post got through. 

On the first morning after the white-out I received two letters. In one envelope there was a persuasive testimony from someone who’d been a rough sleeper. His biography accompanied a monochrome image of him as he was then. He’d had a long beard, wore many scarves and a bobble hat and carried a huge pack - the burden of the homeless. Because he gave up drink, which he said kept out the cold and helped him forget, he now had a job and a flat. He helps others who live the life he once lived. It persuaded the reader to donate to the charity he now works for.

In another envelope a stapled, thick card booklet of subdued whites and rich, inky-blue hues announced the latest Farrow and Ball colours. For someone sleeping rough interior decor is the last thing on their mind, although perhaps their dreams are of richly decorated rooms. I can’t tell.

The following day a package from the Red Cross showed more images of others in crisis - this time of children and the aged in Yemen, some with missing teeth. Other pictures were of the elderly, lonely, poor and cold in this country. In the same post there was a flier advertising the services of a dental-whitening practitioner. Perhaps the toothless in Yemen have reveries about bright, white, pearly teeth. I imagine, though, that they have more pressing needs.

This disconnect is a little like watching a documentary on television, in real time, about the work,say, of the Trussell Trust and the huge increase in the numbers desperate for food banks. And then, in the commercial break, being blasted with tv adverts for deep crust pizza and gooey puddings. From that, before the investigation into deep neediness in the UK resumes, we are shown ads for products to help us slim. With another blink of the eye we are returned to watching people clutching vouchers for three-days’ worth of food handouts.

We flip from one reality to another as if we share those experiences, all at the same time and all with an equal weighting in our lives.
But it isn’t so. My reality isn’t that of the dying in Yemen nor is it that of the glamorous forty-year-old with shiny white teeth.

A recent article on facebook led to an outcry from social media followers. A reporter had lived for one week on state benefits and was left with £6 in his pocket with which to buy an evening meal. He learned very fast to buy a whole cabbage and chicken as both would feed him, in different guises, for almost a week. He realised that his usual post-work drinks were a no-no, that he’d never have a take-away nor another ready meal again if he only had £6 left at the end of each and every day. A trip to the cinema was out as was travelling on a bus. While he experienced these abrupt changes to his former well-being: - his lack of choices, his non-existent social life and lack of any small luxury - the outcry from others was that his endurance had only lasted a week. If you know that this week you have to walk everywhere, can only afford very basic food, can’t see any mates for a drink and have to go to bed early to stay warm then, for one week, you’ll cope. Readers protested that a week on the margins of society was not long enough. Most impoverished people are continually without spare cash. They cannot have a change of shoes, and not just for one week but for next month, next season and the foreseeable future. So why bother living like it for just a week? What does it teach you? 

The juxtaposition of suffering with trivia on the tv must detract from the seriousness of the ‘Man Alive’ type documentaries, wouldn’t you think? An investigation into society’s ills shouldn’t be bombarded with adverts for things most of us don’t need and the subjects of the documentary can’t have. Which reality is real? Are we in danger of being exposed to extremes - both of deep poverty, need and squalor and of conspicuous, sickening opulence? 

Wouldn’t it be sensitive to stop the adverts, just for once, while viewers concentrate on the important messages about our failing welfare system? 

I found it hard enough in Delhi, in the eighties, to see beggars in rags rattling their tins under a banner advertising slimming products. 

Such juxtaposition could be avoided on the airwaves. But what do I do about my letters? I suppose I could simply open the ones from charities... But would I evade important communications if I stopped opening every other envelope? It’s highly likely I’d miss something important.

I fear I’m stuck with a promoted reality, unless, of course, I get rid of my tv and all access to social media. Whether it’s in fliers, in tv adverts, in inserts inside magazines or just in pop-ups on social media, the two worlds of desperate need and lifestyle opulence simply don’t marry. How must it be for someone feeling hungry, who wants half an hour’s relaxation in front of the box, to be bombarded with ads for prosecco and a 'chocolate bouquet' when they only have a tin of beans in their all-but-bare cupboards? 

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