Letter from London: Institutes of Destitution

In the country, the rain would have developed a thousand fresh scents, and every drop would have had its bright association with some beautiful form of growth or life. In the city, it developed only foul stale smells, and was a sickly, lukewarm, dirt-stained, wretched addition to the gutters,’ wrote Charles Dickens in ‘Little Dorrit’.

Dickens was known to the world as a champion of the poor. This was one of the reasons the world so warmed to him. He was like the great Scots poet Robert Burns in this regard. Until recently, we used to look upon the work of Dickens as representative of just how bad things used to be, especially here in London. Subliminally, we were relieved this type of thing had been sent packing and was now relegated to the past. This was precisely why it has been so saddening of late to hear or read with marked regularity the phrase ‘bed poverty’ used when describing children in this capital city today so poor they have to sleep on the floor. That’s if they have a floor.

Though no economist by a long stretch myself, I can safely state that spending and debt in this country is untenable. Presently we are losing more money servicing the national debt than paying for our entire defence budget. That is to say, this so-called fifth richest country in the world, this dear and blighted Blighty, tucked like an affluent in a queue by an already emptied and outdated cash machine, bitcoins long since cashed, is going down fast.

We may be behind only the US, China, Japan and Germany — with Brazil catching up fast — but we were defined last week by one anonymous off-shore financier, who has appeared in these pages before, as a sinking ship. ‘And that is all there is to it,’ he said. ‘Economic fundamentals can only be defied for so long.’

Despite our prime minister’s extraordinary private wealth of £730m, largely but not entirely through marriage, and despite UK government borrowing being declared two weeks ago as almost £20bn lower than expected, confidence in Blighty’s economy by the rest of the world is shot. The most recent fiscal report from the OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) claims to see debt on this blessed isle at 310pc of GDP by the 2070s. ‘There is real biblical economic stuff coming to the UK soon,’ reported my well-informed purveyor of doom, an Oxbridge man with broad global credentials. He added: ‘If people only realized.’ This person doesn’t consider the UK poor, he considers it broke. ‘The entire economy is an illusion,’ he said. ‘GDP can be cooked up out of nothing, or in the case of the UK out of wholly unsustainable borrowing.’ He even reckoned the country won’t be a so-called first-world country much longer. Should we believe him? Do we risk something by ignoring him?

Is it funding or the allocation of funding that is the problem? Is the economy the only reason the system is broken? What about old-fashioned compassion? What about our attitudes towards personal debt? What about rent control? Our money man was particularly riled by this last question. ‘Even socialist economists know that rent control is a catastrophe,’ he said. ‘It leads to a collapse in the number of rented properties.’ That said, I perhaps should have said to him, putting up rent still makes people homeless and not looking after your property makes people sick.

The ex-headteacher of my two children’s former primary school in south-east London was telling the BBC last week how it was for her. Somewhere through the tumulus and sorrow of war, somewhere beneath the attendant layers of hate and humanitarian angst, the long marches in the capital, the ripped posters, the religiose vitriol, was another kind of desperation much closer to home.

In short, the great woman with whom we once entrusted our children each school day was bravely telling the world about the state of the nation at precisely the time when the nation didn’t want to hear it. As I digested her words, I was obliged to remember with a glow of nostalgia the light that used to stream into the large assembly hall during primary school concerts, the extensive mural painted by the artist in the playground, the air of hope maintained against the odds, the way mothers, in particular, kept an eye out for each other.

Some of these memories go right back to before 2008 when the globe’s gifted financiers began their financial crisis of the day — thanks to their own cheap credit and slack lending standards that, in the end, pumped loads and loads of sulfurous air into the housing bubble — and when this almighty bubble popped, the banks were left standing there, manicured fingers to nose, in their own self-created vacuums, with trillions of dollars of useless investments in sub-prime mortgages.

No, the message from this remarkable woman was clear. The large majority of pupils at her present school — also in south-east London — were homeless. That is to say, without homes. That is to say, sofa surfing, living in bed and breakfasts, or makeshift hostels, or just going each night to a different place altogether, no doubt depressed, no doubt heavily medicated, often too broken to work, with insufficient mental health back-up. Critics say some of these parents need to get a job, when many of them already have jobs — people simply cannot make ends meet.

How I wish I could be singing from the rafters, waxing lyrical about all the fun we are having over here in Blighty. How I want to be skipping across the screen, unable to contain my euphoria. I have written about London’s rising homelessness here before but had no idea just how swiftly worsening the crisis was until last week. Even when we are lucky enough to be in a position to rent our homes in the capital, we do not call them homes anymore. They are rented accommodations, as if we exist within a grid of roadside motels.

Executive principal Marie Corbett’s school — Harris Primary Academy Peckham Park — has nearly 300 pupils. I know that at the same time in Iran, a 16-year-old girl assaulted by so-called morality police on a Tehran train for not wearing a hijab died last week. This was after lying in a coma for weeks. But this does not make what is happening here any better. We are all drowning in tragic tales from Gaza too. But charity also exists at home. It is bad as it is. Every one of the pupils at Harris Primary Academy already receives from the state a free uniform, free trips and free meals. Nor is this a peculiarly London story. English councils paid a record £1.74bn on temporary accommodation for homeless people in the year to March 2023. Identities have been frozen. Poverty has become generic.

We loved it when Marie Corbett taught my children. We had never felt more baked into society than when my daughter and son were at their small but beautiful local state primary school. Briefly, everything made sense. Parents felt a part of a genuine community. One family was refugees from the Balkan War. Another had parents who were actors. One was a gifted creative leader in the animation world. One father was in prison. Another was a concert pianist. One Eastern European mother was a healer. Another mother, a single mother, died. The teachers were second to none.

Of course, if you finally get through school today and choose to go to a college or university in England, from your student loan you will have on average after paying for accommodation only 50p a week to live on.

In fact, it is getting so bad here in Blighty and the banks have grown so unreliable and unstable that one or two experts are now recommending that people buy gold ‘Britannias’ or sovereigns as they are legal tender so don’t incur capital gains tax.

Can we fully expect therefore to see a second ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ soon? The first was when our buccaneers patrolled the Caribbean between 1650 and 1720. These were from the islands of Tortuga and New Providence and included such maritime luminaries as Henry Morgan, ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach), Mary Read and Anne Bonny (both women touched upon by the genius that is Jorge Luis Borges in ‘The Widow Ching — Pirate’), ‘Calico Jack’ (John Rackham), William ‘Captain’ Kidd, Charles Vane. Playfully — were such a thing possible in this dry and humourless age — is it not time to hoist the Jolly Roger and swing sword in mouth from ship to ship again?

Peter Bach lives in London.