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George Bailey (James Stewart) spent his life giving to The People of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to begin with. As George morphs into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
Most people I know who watch this film every year love it for its warmth, and Victorian themes, what today we’d now call family values. Something that fits Christmas so well. However, my affinity to it is for it’s social commentary. For a Christmas film, it’s quite depressing – which is a contrary opinion to the many that have it as part of their annual traditions.
Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas cracker dropped right as America left one of the most difficult fifteen years (and a bit) of its history, from the Great Depression in 1929 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. George Bailey is part of “The Greatest Generation,” the millions that came of age during the Wall Street Crash which ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. The undertones of this film, to me, are in that ruthless Wall Street capitalism via characters like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Yet, the character of Mr Potter is a reminder for many people of what happened in 1929. Between The Crash and the end of The Second World War sat FDR’s New Deal. Within this time, we had The Banking Act of 1933, which is relevant to the characters of Frank Capra’s film, and the bank run. Whilst Capra’s film was released in 1946, Potter is a reminder of how it used to be before Roosevelt and the Democrats ushered through the New Deal.
Once, communism could have been called anti-greed, anti-corporations, anti-fat-businessmen-with-a-cigar-in-their-mouth-getting-rich off-poor-people-in-slums. It’s a Wonderful Life is a voice for the working classes. It’s the I, Daniel Blake of its time, a stark indictment of a system that eats people below the poverty line for dinner. It comments on class and family values, but also austerity in America. In its time, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover donned it, (what was the buzz term of the post-war years), “anti-American.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with modern Britain, in its themes of class and austerity that laid the backbone for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto. This is a film that cares about people, the individual working people of America – where the American Dream is just that. A dream. Echoing the thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Slumlord Potter (Barrymore) describes the poor as “A thrifty working class,” which shows you the measure of the man.
In wake of the recent General Election, I will watch this film once more at Christmas for its straight-at-the-jugular representation of working-class communities. Britain has voted for five more years of austerity (oppression), more likely another decade under the Conservatives. It’s a Wonderful Life shows what happens when the powerful do not care about powerless. But isn’t that how they became powerful in the first place?
For families around the world, watching this film is a yearly tradition. But as long as the powerful step on the powerless, this film’s legacy will endure. Institutional violence plods on. Bailey runs a business that helps poor people onto the property ladder. Played to perfection by James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), this is a man who cares what happens to those around him. Potter is out for Bailey, wanting the company to close so he can swoop in, and coerce more residents into living in his slum-level housing.
Potter is a metaphor for power, the controlling state that denies people dignity in their own home. Call him Potter, or Boris, or Trump… every era has their tyrants who stop others from thriving, just because they can.
And as long as man is man, history is the last place he will look for his lessons, as history is written by the victors.
In its long, eventful history, the town that I grew up in has been home to theatre proprietors like John Franklin. It’s also been home to Thomas Beckett, Charles Bradlaugh, and partook in the Wars of the Roses. What’s now Delapré acted as the stage for the Battle of Northampton in 1475. Northamptonshire housed slaves from the era of Britain’s colonial ambition. It was the muse of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and sporting legends, including Mobbs’ Own battalion of rugby players during the First World War, as well as Walter Tull, who went on to be the first Black (mixed-race) officer in the British Army. But now embarking on a general election before entering 2020, we are in a homelessness epidemic, rivalling the plot of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. These are austere times.
Whilst Walter Tull and his siblings feared the workhouse in the epilogue of Victorian Britain, our buzz terms in 2019 are “austerity” and “universal credit,” essentially prisons of the poor. Growing up in the county, with all its beauty and brutality, it’s now a much changed environment. Its landscape has much changed from the one I remember as a youth. It’s not identifiable to my seven-year-old self climbing trees in Abington Park and Salsey Forest, Charlie B standing menacingly in Abington Square, whilst the Doddridge Centre played host to many a community event by Jimmy’s End.
On the brink of one of the most important elections since forever, “He who rules Northampton, rules England,” stated All Saints’ Father Oliver Cross. I look at the town I grew up in and I want to weep. Walking through Town Centre and into the outer rim, you can see how austerity has ravaged communities. How community spirit has rotted from the inside, as apathy and hopelessness can be tasted and sweated, foaming at the mouth – from blood in the River Nene to knife crime, and bus stops stood like cenotaphs.
Walking through London’s southwest last Wednesday to see homelessness brushing shoulders with the Ritz reminded me of the some 14,000 children in poverty in the shoe town. Austerity is a scouring pad to these brittle streets, orchestrated by a system that eats people below the poverty line for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The release of I, Daniel Blake in 2016 and Sorry We Missed You in 2019 are prime examples of how institutional violence has been used to rip gaping holes through working-class Britain.
On exiting MK Central, it’s a sight that leaves a lump in your throat. Milton Keynes has been nicknamed “Tent City” purely for its massive street-sleeping population. And the grass patch near the site of Northampton’s old bus station has been nicknamed “Rat Island.” I think that speaks for itself.
Seeing how the Government has operated these last ten(ish) years, it’s a migraine to the soul, temporarily broken by fireworks at New Year and the gong of church bells at Christmas. But the heart-shattering discordant noise of “spare some change, sir” on Abington Street and The Market is enough to make this Northamptonian cry. From childhood to being a student at the university, the homeless population here and I are acquainted – as I walked to catch my school bus in the morning, as I now walk to Waterside Campus.
Suddenly, Northampton has shrunk to a few miles of boarded up buildings, shivering hands, defaced shoes, and fleeting images of a hollowed-out shell of what used to be a thriving high street. A thriving community. Businesses come and go, and the street-dwellers, students and members of the public alike I’ve seen, to be devoid of all expression. I watch their writhing white eyes, looking into this winter of discontent – as the consumer capitalist culture of Christmas sneaks up on us like a gentle hand out of a grave.
When I see a homeless person, I greet them like I would anyone else. “Good morning, sir (or ma’am).” And I give them some change if I have it. But what else can I say? What else do I do? I walk through the underpass behind Boots. I see wrapped up bodies on the ground. They look dead. Cold corpses, but the system sheds no tears for them. Forgotten in a split second of time. They shiver, freshly alive. And now they are footnotes to history.
Hardworking people going to food banks because their wages do not cover the basics. Working students that have student finance at food banks because it does not cover the basics. Austerity’s mortar fire. Machine gun fire. Austerity grinds on the bones. Austerity chases you down river rapids, collecting fallen objects from your pockets, taking from the mouths of your children. It’s zero-hour contracts and six-days of fourteen hour shifts p/w.
Northampton is a zombie. Sheep Street’s boarded-up buildings and how the Hope Centre which was once a charity for the homeless, is now one that supports austerity-stricken communities and families and people that are deprived and have fallen on hard times too. Hope saves lives. Having spoken to CEO Robin Burgess a number of times, he highlighted to me how a number of the rough sleepers are citizens from mainland Europe. The EU.
Oliver Twist, Les Mis, Poldark – texts on poverty. When we think about poverty, it’s always the third world. In places like India, where I visited in 2016: amputees on the streets and children on the precipice of death. I look into their eyes. I wasn’t the same after that. I think I cried for a fortnight when I returned. Our public services are in a state of disarray – social care, the NHS, the police, education – this is Britain, in 2019, as the idea of Brexit has split families and friends, as it eats away at the national consciousness.
This is a parable of biblical proportions: Northampton won’t survive another decade of this, and we have not even begun to talk about austerity through the lens of minority Britain, where gender, race and sexuality all play roles of bias.