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20 January 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Lady Bountiful tries life in the slums

Why do we need middle-class writers like Polly Toynbee to tell us what it's like to be poor? Poor pe

By Judith Williamson

When Polly Toynbee left what Monday’s Guardian called “her spacious Victorian house in one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods” to live in “a notorious block on one of the capital’s worst estates” on a minimum wage, she was able to write an entire book about being “poor”. While the word “poor” is a perfectly functional adjective, used as a noun it reveals the class of the user with crystal clarity. So Toynbee goes about her series of low-paid jobs and unselfconsciously writes about the “working poor” – something which working-class people would never actually call themselves. She even feels able to tell us “why the poor are invisible”, having been snubbed in the street, while pretending to be a poor person, by Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould (though most self-respecting “poor” would prefer to snub them).

Polly Toynbee is a well-meaning writer who has obviously taken on this peculiar social pretence for the best of reasons – what used to be called a social conscience. She scrupulously contrasts what she calls “my own gold-plated life” of big house, meals out, taxis, etc, with the newly discovered trials of dealing with social security, loan sharks and shoddy furniture.

Yet even as she highlights the material chasm between these ways of life, her enterprise is the embodiment of an equally wide social chasm, one made invisible precisely by perceiving it simply in material terms. We know that the gap between “rich and poor” has grown in recent years: yet this gap is rarely framed in terms of class, which would be to acknowledge the cultural and psychological differences that help perpetuate it. Polly Toynbee can try out being poor, but she can’t try out being working class; her middle-classness is built into the very fact that she feels her activities and what she has to say matter.

The obvious way to find out what it’s like living on a council estate on a low income would be to ask people who actually do. That it seems a better solution for a middle-class person to pretend to “do” it themselves says something damning about class and social communication in our society. It is not just that different classes cannot speak to one another – one must apparently speak for the other. There is a long history of writers “slumming it” – Orwell, for example – but there has been a particular spate of such work again in recent times. A few years back, Lady Olga Maitland spent a week in a hostel on income support to highlight the plight of homeless people. The London Evening Standard recently sent a middle-class writer with her child (but not her husband) to live “as a single parent” on a run-down estate in Hackney: she came up with the usual stuff about finding needles and used condoms, and not feeling safe – though she would hardly be likely to in a strange place where she doesn’t belong.

The grossness of the assumptions underlying these projects may be hard to grasp unless you do, in fact, live on a council estate on a low income and cannot see why someone has to impersonate you to find out what your life is like. The fact that such impersonation seems necessary, rather than gross, not only to individual writers but to editors, publishers and middle-class readers generally, makes “the poor” invisible and mute – “they” are treated as unable to speak in the public arena at all. Imagine if a white journalist blacked up their face and hung around smoking pot on a street corner so they could write a book about “life on the front line” – it would seem outrageous. Yet class is treated as if it didn’t exist by the all-pervasive middle classes, who somehow feel that they can, if necessary, be everyone.

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At a philosophical level there is something extraordinarily solipsistic about the idea that you have to experience something yourself to find out about it – as if people couldn’t speak to one another, use their imaginations and empathise. It suggests a breakdown of faith in communication, and an over-emphasis on “experience” – both of which I would argue are indeed defining characteristics of our culture today. But ours is also a class culture, and it is typical of the upper middle classes to want all experience for themselves, even poverty: what they are incapable of doing is just shutting up and listening.

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Again, I don’t want to single out Polly Toynbee, who is a decent person and a good journalist: but if even she, a lefty-liberal, shares the unconscious assumptions of her class, it shows how very deep-lying and tenacious those assumptions are. The cultural and psychological differences in class experience are almost never discussed in our society, precisely because middle-class people are unaware of them, and working-class people have little public voice. Going to live on a run-down council estate on a minimum wage cannot supply the experience of being working class, which is – though most of the slummers don’t understand this – not all bad. The horror stories written about poverty and inner-city estates are both true and not true: it is the combination of material difficulties and a particular social culture that characterises life here, and while the material problems are easy to see from the outside, the social aspects, which can be positive, are not.

Middle-class people tend to be very big on individual boundaries, and indeed, on being an Individual. In many working-class lives boundaries are much looser – both within families and within a neighbourhood – and there is a greater sense of being part of something. Obviously this generalisation doesn’t hold true on estates where people are housed only short-term, but in a great many awful-looking places people live lives which, though difficult, are not all victimhood. I have lived nearly 25 years with most of the people in my council building, and despite the usual problems (broken lifts, piss on the stairs, crack dealers, muggings, etc) this creates an emotional security – a security that no slummer, seeing only the broken lift, piss, etc, could experience. You could never find yourself with nobody to turn to. People are in and out of each other’s homes; the entire block, rather than the individual flat, is the domestic world. One family of parents, teenage girl and two little boys lives in a flat with only two small bedrooms and a living room. Obviously they need rehousing. But the daughter, who is doing well at school, does her homework in the caretaker’s flat where there is a huge kitchen table and no small children. People look after one another, “keep an eye” on things, and generally know what’s going on in a way that many middle-class people would find intrusive. It is simply a different experience: it is more shared.

I am not trying to idealise life in poverty and bad housing. The point is that these experiences are not transferable, and working-class people make their lives work in ways that are not immediately accessible to someone only dipping into their material aspects. Even on that level, there is no validity to the “experiment”; that would take a lifetime of, among other things, a different diet, a different education, an entirely different, less self-important relationship with the world.

The Polly Toynbees would have to find themselves in bad housing without outlets to book publisher or newspaper: they would have to struggle unglamorously through their tenants’ associations to get windows mended and crack dealers evicted, and immerse themselves for years in council politics to get a repainting job done.

The G2 cover flagging Toynbee’s book extracts asked: “What happened when our columnist traded places?” But she didn’t “trade places” with anyone – nobody from a council estate got to live in her posh house and then write all about it. Trading Places the movie, made in 1983, features Eddie Murphy swapping lives with a billionaire stockbroker: the comedy and plot interest lie in Murphy’s take on the world he enters. It’s not exactly a radical film, but it is very funny, and a lot more radical than having a middle-class person take a one-way life-swap seriously.

Perhaps the whole enterprise is really best suited to comedy. I know any number of council tenants on low incomes who, after a few weeks “being” a well-off writer, could write a hilarious account of “middle-class” life, not just at the material level (big house, Waitrose not Asda, country cottage, etc) but culturally and socially. Everyone has experiences and opinions, but middle-class people think their experiences and opinions are so impor- tant – honestly, you just have to laugh.