We are re-living a traditional Victorian Christmas – of excess for the few and struggle for the many

The rich are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.

When it comes to Christmas, we British are gonna party like it’s 1899; watch the TV over the next week and you will see countless images of an idealised Victorian Christmas, probably including families gathering round a tree and urchins gazing through the frosted window of a toyshop.

Unfortunately, this Christmas will be more authentically Victorian than we’d like, not just because Bob Cratchit’s great-great-great grandson is once again struggling to buy festive poultry, but also because while most of us are getting poorer, the great-great-great grandsons of the top-hatted gentry are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.

Some of the signs of poverty are well-known: the low-paid parents forced to resort to food banks and the huge growth of the payday loan industry – a modern-day equivalent of the pawnbrokers (although the latter have doubled their numbers in the last four years, too). This poverty is not just about low incomes; it is also about income insecurity. Victorian stevedores each day hoped they would get lucky and be assigned work, whereas today growing numbers of workers wait to see how many – if any – hours of work their employer will give them.

Like the Victorian poor, Britons on low and middle incomes are often treated as a different caste of people to those which in the nineteenth century were called the "upper ten thousand" and are now the "super rich" 0.1%. The practice of sacrificing workers’ need for reliable incomes to the desire of employers to have flexibility is spreading - through zero-hours contracts and false self-employment – up the income scale. This is reflected in how our incomes are described: too often, the business pages of refer to the pay of the 0.1% as "reward" (they are valuable creatures to be nurtured and thanked) whereas the rest of us are "labour costs".

At the other end of the scale, the rich are getting richer. The UK’s 1,000 wealthiest people last year got richer by £35bn: they now have assets, on average, of £450m each. London now boasts the world’s most expensive home, and we are seeing the return of the butler. The share of national income that the top 1% get fell throughout most of the 20th century, but is again heading towards Victorian levels.

And this new gentry are not, for the most part, talented hard-working who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. As in the Victorian era, the rich are the privileged offspring of privileged parents. The UK has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. A child whose parents send them to private school is 11 times more likely to go on to run a major company than his state-school equivalent, and 30 times more likely to become a high-court judge.

At the end of the 19th century, the consequences of inequality for the country became clear: one in three recruits for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. We are again constructing a Victorian folly:  the UK is suffering from unusually high levels of mental and physical health problems for a developed country, problems which are associated with inequality, and which have detrimental effects on our economy as they impact on our productivity. In addition, inequality harms the economy by leaving the majority with little to spend and giving a minority lots of spare cash to spend on property speculation and other schemes which drive up costs for the rest of us.

The Victorian era saw a tiny plutocracy grab a huge share of the wealth of the country (and, for good measure, numerous other countries) but they left us a weakened nation that was heading for a sharp decline. Let's make our national new year’s resolution to stop making the same mistake.

Duncan Exley is director of the Equality Trust

Foodbank volunteers sort through some of the food donated by people to the Rochdale Foodbank. Photograph: Getty Images.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war