Hackney

W.G. Runciman

  • Inside the Inner City by Paul Harrison
    Pelican, 444 pp, £3.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 14 022419 X
  • Brighton on the Rocks: Monetarism and the Local State
    Queens Park Rates Book Group, 192 pp, £3.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 904733 08 4
  • The Wealth Report edited by Frank Field
    Routledge, 164 pp, £6.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9452 3

Paul Harrison is at pains to make clear that his impassioned report on poverty and social conflict in the Borough of Hackney is not an academic survey. It is journalism, and proud of it. It would be totally inappropriate for a reviewer to cavil at the lack of cross-tabulations, or details of the conduct of interviews, or sampling techniques which might have proved that his selection of informants is as representative of the disadvantaged as he says it is. He is treading geographically but not methodologically in the footsteps of Charles Booth. His aim is to convey to his readers as vividly as he can just how awful are the lives of the poor and powerless inhabitants of the inner cities of a supposedly civilised nation which ought to be a great deal more ashamed of allowing such conditions to persist than it shows any signs of being.

Yet if he is to succeed in his aim, he must carry no less conviction than the most dispassionate and pedestrian of the arithmeticians and scholars of poverty. As he well knows, the people whose opinions he needs to influence will be as reluctant to confront his description as they will be determined to resist the conclusions he draws from it. Some of his readers, to be sure, will agree with him before they have turned his opening page: soggy liberal intellectuals, YS militants, inflation-happy NUPE-loving anti-monetarists and professional prophets of the terminal crisis of capitalism will all be standing ready to cheer his every word to the roof of Toynbee Hall. But they were on his side already. The people he has to reach are the ones who didn’t know, don’t want to believe it and have umpteen reasons of their own to dismiss as prejudiced, Utopian, sentimental and counter-productive every suggestion he may venture to make about what ought to be done.

For this, the most effective technique – perhaps the only technique which can even hope to be effective – is to make such people ask themselves how they would react if they had to live the lives that the poor and powerless do. They may not answer the question quite as Harrison thinks they ought. But he is perfectly right to suppose that nobody who was prepared to accompany him on a guided tour of Ridley Road, Queen’s Drive and the Holly Street estate could then seriously pretend that the question doesn’t call for an answer at all. It is as true now as it was in the days of William Morris that you only have to walk from one part of London to another with your eyes and ears – and nose – open to be aware that some people have a great deal more money than they need and other people a great deal less. Maybe Harrison’s informants aren’t all that representative and maybe some of them aren’t wholly to be believed. He could have said more about the Hackney-dwellers who do lead decent lives, the agencies which do achieve material improvements and the networks of families and friends which do provide effective financial and emotional support. But not even the most sceptical reader can do other than accept, however reluctantly, that the lives of a very large number of the inhabitants of Hackney, as of several other London boroughs and parts of several other British cities, are much as he describes them.

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