1936, Saranac Lake. Snapshot my mother in law took of Einstein, the greatest man of the century, according to Time Magazine.
I've been reading The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardner, the chapter about poverty in England. I have a stake in the story, as that is where my father lived as a student. His parents were rubber planters in Malaya. He went to School at St. Bees in County Durham, a pretty place on the coast.
He's dead, but he often spoke of his miserable childhood in England. He said he starved at his prep school and that he was shuttled from relation to relation in the summer as he couldn't go 'home' to Malaya.
From what I read in this book by Juliet Gardner, he wasn't alone in his misery. The thirties were a miserable time for miners and factory workers in the North of England, most of whom were 'on the dole' for much of their life, living a subsistence existence.
Some men turned to petty crime, such as stealing pieces of coal from the mine's rubbish bins, for heat, or poaching rabbits for food(considered vermin in those days, but you still couldn't catch them legally).
These desperate men sometimes went to jail, but jail was OK as at least you got shelter and something to eat.
Anyway, yesterday as it happens, my son gave me a call. (My husband had phoned him.) And we talked a bit. He's twenty two and he's worried about the kind of society Canada is evolving into. (He's studying philosophy.)First, he's worried about the economy.
His food bill, he says has doubled in the past year (and he works as a cook part time so he knows about food.) So has mine, I said, feeling a bit guilty about the 20 dollar organic chicken I am preparing to eat this weekend.
Then he told me about some media outrage over a man who had killed his children, was deemed not guilty because he was mentally unfit (a very rare occurrence)and now after two years is allowed re-enter society.
My son can't understand why people are upset; this shows that the system is working, he thinks.
He believes that our government just wants to create a new industry, a prison industry, like in the US - for free labour, etc. So, I told him a bit about the Gardner book I am reading, and I said I had to agree: Yes, it does look like we are trying to go back to 'the good old days' now that most people who remember those days are dead and gone.
Today, I read in the online newspaper that our Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises to put through an omnibus crime bill in 180 days - if he gets a majority. And stories like the one my son told me are what convince some average Canadians he is in right to do this, even is statistics reveal otherwise. And this despite the fact Mr. Harper seems unconcerned about hiring criminals for his inner circle.
Too bad average Canadians spend no time reading social history or the great books that came out the 30's. That's all I can say. It's so deju vu all over again.
Gardner desconstructs the crash of 1929 and it sounds no different from today: greedy ivory tower money speculators bringing down the economy, no political party able to figure out what to do to fix the economy because the problem is far too complex (even back then)..although they all vow to never again leave the economy at the mercy of high stakes gamblers. (Well, until next time.)
So it all comes down to whether you want to open your heart to the suffering of ordinary people, or practice "tough love" and cut down on unemployment insurance etc. etc and blame these working men for being lazy (even though some young men walked all over Northern Britain looking for work, any work, until their boots fell off their feet. Then people called them vagrants because they looked shabby.)
Or blame the housewives for being selfish and incompetent for not being able to make do on their husband's miserly dole money. Britons back then closed their hearts and chose the second option and booted Labour big time out and it was only after the war that they were re-elected.
War is a great way to kill off all those superfluous unemployable young men.
The fact is you only feel compassion for the less fortunate ONLY if you feel safe yourself... If it's a matter of 'them' or 'me', a person (a bundle of very selfish self-serving genes) always chooses 'me'.
Naomi Wolfe says that there are five steps toward creating a fascist state: the first is to create an internal and an external threat. Well, the external is obvious, but the internal in Canada is 'criminals' on the streets. (In the US it is immigrants, but that doesn't work in Canada.)
The second step is to build prisons.. Hmmmm. But I digress. In those days, the early 30's, Britain was 75 percent working class and 40 percent of these people were living under the poverty line. And still, Britain wasn't as badly off as the US or Germany.
Women suffered most, its seems. (Gardner claims it was 4 times more dangerous for a woman to have a baby in those days as it was to work in a coal mine. Poor pre-natal nutrition and medical care...and to think that Britain and the US today are cutting back on just these things, reproductive and maternal health.) You see, women were the ones who managed the meagre family earnings and they often fed themselves last, if at all. So, in those days before birth control, many many babies were still born.
And then there's me and my organic chicken.
I'm like a modern Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat deformed mush-muscled factory chicken."
Oh, I didn't ask my son if he was going to vote. I doubt it, as he didn't in the last election. Of course, he's on the list in our Quebec riding, a long time bloc stronghold, so we're essentially disenfranchised, so I can't blame my son: I know just how young people feel. The power brokers know it too and they are counting on our apathy. Apathy and 'managed' selective anger driving a democracy. How lovely.
And all my very selfish genes do is make me worry about an impending war (if history repeats itself and it always does )and what if my son had to go.