Minimum wage rates of pay and a zero hours contract bring a realisation of what life might be like for millions of people, but not an understanding of that life, for who could understand it unless it was one’s only prospect, always and forever.
The England of 2017 differs from that of fifty years ago when there was an unconscious belief in some law of immutable progress. Perhaps it was 1950s America that inspired the confidence that everything would steadily get better and better. An assumption grew that each succeeding generation would enjoy a quality of life better than that of its predecessor. Saving money was about accumulating funds for commodities and experiences that forebears may not even have imagined.
In Italo Calvino’s ‘Marcovaldo’, there is a moment of suddenly being pulled up. The tragi-comic Marcovaldo seeks to escape from the grim reality that surrounds him:
For anyone who dislikes his home and finds it inhospitable, the favorite refuge on cold evenings is the movies. Marcovaldo had a passion for Technicolor films on the wide screen, which can embrace the most vast horizons: prairies , rocky mountains, equatorial forests, islands where you live with a garland around your head. He would see the picture twice and never came out until they were closing the theater; in his thoughts he continued living in those landscapes and breathing those colors. But the return home in the drizzling night, the wait at the stop for tram number 30, the realization that his life would know no other setting beyond trams, traffic-lights, rooms in the half-basement, gas stoves, drying laundry, warehouses and shipping rooms, made the film’s splendor fade for him to a worn and gray sadness.
Such a plight as that of Marcovaldo is still shared many people. The neo-liberal policies pursued by successive governments mean millions have not had an opportunity to see succeeding generations enjoy the progress that had filled our television screens in the 1960s and 1970s.
More than a decade ago, there was a BBC radio documentary about a woman and her children having to move into the only council housing available, in what was referred to as a “sink estate”, (though why such a label is appropriate is unclear, at least with a sink you can pull the plug and let the bad stuff run away). The woman said to one of her new neighbours that she wouldn’t be staying there long. “That’s what we all say”, said her neighbour. Marcovaldo would have understood, so would the countless people permanently trapped on minimum wages and zero hours contracts.