Many years ago, I lived in a flat in a run-down area of an industrial city. The woman in the rooms directly above me was working as a prostitute.
We became used to the traffic of her clients up and down the stairs and there was little trouble from anyone. But one day, her 'manager' chose to stand outside my window to shout up at her in very disagreeable terms. Taking my courage in both hands, I opened the window and asked him to desist. To my surprise, he did so and ascended the stairs, to continue the conversation in – I hoped – a more civilised manner.
A couple of days later, the recipient of this aggressive behaviour came to my door to apologise. I assured her that she had nothing for which to be sorry and that the offender had to be be responsible for his own manners. It was the first time I had been able to really take in my neighbour's appearance. It was not that of the 'lady of the night' of popular fiction and film. She was probably in her fifties, slightly dowdy, shabbily dressed and carrying an apologetic air. She looked worn down and resigned rather than actively unhappy and my youthful embarrassment at her way of life disappeared in a rush of concern. So when she invited me upstairs for a cup of tea, I had no hesitation in accepting.
I'm not sure what I expected her flat to look like – perhaps I had a fin-de-siècle notion of a decadently appointed chamber of sin – but the reality was as unremarkable and plain as her own appearance. There were no books, magazines, ornaments or signs of a personal history except for a framed photograph of an elderly couple on the mantelpiece. “My foster parents”, she told me. “She was good to me.” The singular pronoun was disturbing.
Iris (not her real name) showed no self-pity nor did she seek to blame anyone for her situation. But her air of polite hopelessness spoke of a life of oppression and of subservience to the desires and control of others. Some of her “regulars” were OK, she said, leaving me to wonder about the ones who were not.
Because youth is optimistic, I tried to suggest to her that there had to be a way into a happier life and that there were lots of people who could help her. I remember her slightly sad smile. And although I have forgotten her exact words, the gist was that it seemed that way to me because I was educated and “had a nice feller”.
What I didn't realise at the time was that Iris was gently reminding me that I had choices. She had not, and probably never had. It was not realistic to imagine that she could suddenly believe in and embrace the possibility of change powered by something she had never experienced. And this is what may be so easily forgotten when the makers and enforcers of policy touch on the lives of people who are heirs to deprivation and dysfunction. The habit of powerlessness and of finding the line of least resistance that will enable survival, is not likely to be understood by those who have been more fortunate. It is not surprising if this produces behaviours which are at best misinterpreted and at worst deplored, by people to whom disapproval seems to come more naturally than reflection.
If you live in an unpleasant – even hostile – environment; if you are unemployed or poorly paid; if you are suffering from fragile mental or physical health; if you are lonely, abused by a partner, feel unequal to guiding the lives of your children; if you can not even perceive the possibility of change, the last thing you need is to suffer the condemnation and prescriptions of those who have not had to contend with these circumstances.
It should be a particular cause of concern when power compounds its offences by suggesting penalties against people whose supposed shortcomings are nothing but the inevitable outcomes of the experiences for which power must take some responsibility.
Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw has expressed the opinion that headteachers should be able to fine parents who allow homework to be left undone, miss parents' evenings or fail to read with their children. In this circle of punitive thinking, it seems that bruised reeds are to be broken rather than supported or healed. It is only one example of the great gulf which appears to be fixed between the choosers and the choice-less.
I often think of Iris. I pray that she may have passed her older years in greater security and contentment than appeared possible during that brief period when our very different lives and expectations coincided. It seems unlikely and none of us can be exempt from challenging the thinking which condemns so many of our fellow citizens to quiet despair.
It is a long work to enable deprived lives to grow towards flourishing and fulfilment. It demands more of us than tutting, recoil and arms-length policy making. “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgement unto victory.” At the very least, that challenges us to encounter, to listening and to understanding.
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