In 1935, poet and author, Edwin Muir, toured Scotland in the middle of the last great depression. His ‘Scottish Journey’ is a fascinating retrospective with eerie echoes of current concerns on housing, social division, and poverty (ISBN: 978-1851588411).
The core of the book concerns the impact of industrialisation, its sudden decline, and the relationship between those who have lost and those who have gained; at least materially. He is amazed at how the polite middle classes live, apparently at ease, adjacent to extreme poverty as he describes the beginnings of the tightly spaced geographic/economic apartheid that came to characterise so much of urban Scotland.
It is his take on the ‘otherness’ of ‘the poor’ that is most thoughtprovoking. Then and now, many criticise the damaging ‘lifestyle choices’ of ‘the poor’, Muir offers a more thoughtful challenge. In doing so he quotes Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s reflections of poverty in London in 1863: “It does not occur to us that what we are dealing with is a separation from our recognised system of society – a separation, obstinate and unconscious for the sake of salvation at any cost; an instinctive separation accompanied by horror of, and aversion to, us..”
Muir envisaged hope in the community based, cooperative activity which was reawakened after 1945. It would be interesting to know what he would make of current attitudes to ‘the poor’ and the extent to which we are ‘all in it together’ as we struggle through a more modern recession.