A colleague who retired in the 1980s used to comment, “at least there is no poverty now.”
Of course, he was right. There was nothing comparable with the conditions of the 1930s when he had been a young man.
But he knew himself that poverty continued. He would comment that man made fibres had disguised the poor, that the ragged clothes that were once a clear sign of deprivation had been superseded by polyester and crimplene and nylon.
Forty years on from his comments, in times considerably more affluent than the 1980s, there still seems poverty, but it seems poverty of the spirit as much as material poverty.
Catching a bus from the city centre on the evening of a bank holiday Monday, I should have been aware that it would be busy. People would have come into the centre to go shopping, for shopping is our chief leisure activity now.
The lower deck was crowded but the upper deck offered space until the second of the city centre stops was reached. Noisy girls crowded up the stairs and filled up whatever seats remained empty.
The girl who sat beside me took out her phone and plugged its power cable into one of the seat’s USB sockets. She proceeded to watch TikTok videos: inane dances to bursts of forgettable music.
Whatever happened to teenage rebellion? Whatever happened to young people standing against the ‘system’? Whatever happened to the newness and vibrancy and energy that once characterised youth? Social media seem to have sedated any tendency not to conform, any desire to be original or unconventional.
Worse than the noise was the smell.
In 2022, body odour is not a sign of material poverty, it is a sign of a lack of hygiene, a sign that someone has not bothered to wash and has not bothered to use a deoderant.
Someone who has an iPhone to follow her friends’ TikTok videos has no material excuse for not washing. It is a poverty of spirit, an indifference, an apathy.
I remember a colleague who worked in a poor area of Belfast in the 1990s talking about how a cookery course in a community had been an empowering experience for many of the participants, they could cook healthy food and have money to spare.
Thirty years on from such programmes, perhaps even more basic training is now needed. The social, personal and health education courses need to teach personal hygiene – and be blunt in telling learners that everyone will know if they have not listened.