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Opinion

Much has changed in the 70 years between coronations – except poverty  

Society has progressed plenty since Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, but those still in poverty will tell you that progress is uneven

Little did I know that a few weeks after the coronation, following eviction, our slum life would end and we would have baths, beds with sheets and blankets, three meals a day – and shoes that were not holed. Pullovers and other niceties that other classes took for granted became ours. These were all administered by tough-handed nuns who mainly came from the west coast of Ireland and who had devoted their lives to Jesus and the wellbeing of the downtrodden and those in poverty.  

You could get a bus from our part-condemned slum flat to Buckingham Palace and Westminster on the day in 1953 they coronated Queen Elizabeth. Although we did not have a street party, we ‘raided’ others held nearby. I was seven and we were the street urchins loved by filmmakers intent on establishing ‘mood’. In fact, in between the coronation and our eviction from our flat, a French film used our street as a location and I was given a few bars of chocolate to walk a girl my own age across our street. It was called the Queen of Hearts – or Spades. I have yet to see my handiwork.  

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Clean disaster befell me and my brothers, for we were so used to the rats and mice, the well-fed cockroaches and succulent fleas, the damp walls and cold rooms, as we had the compensation of being with our parents. Nuns providing solace of a physical kind could never replace those ‘heroes’ that we came from.  

Having made you feel suitably sorry for me, I now turn to a very truncated, slightly prejudiced roundup: Great Britain, as it was called (now the United Kingdom or ‘Untied Kingdom’ if you misspell it), was a different country 70 years ago. We had yet to reach the obesity levels that have come largely from the over-consumption of sugar and processed food. The poorest among us ate poorly, but there was not much of it.   

Most workers did hard and strenuous work. Exhaustion was the order of the day. A journey on a bus would often look more like a dormitory than a mode of transport. The UK was largely white, the 1945 Citizens Act that allowed people from the old Empire – now Commonwealth – had yet to stir people into moving. Notting Hill and other poverty stricken parts of Britain had the first of the Windrush Generation. But still in 1953, at the time of the coronation, the UK was largely as it had been since Alfred burnt the cakes, except for those beastly Normans who came in and gave us our over-privileged and snobbish ruling class.  

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Our Health Service was in its infancy. The NHS was the largest builder of social housing as it was recognised that health went with housing. Slums were being torn down and poorly made council housing replaced it. Houses designed by the middle classes, that the middle classes would not live in themselves, began to spread all over by the 1950s. Urgh, you might say. But bear in mind that by the end of the Second World War 90 per cent of working-class housing, mostly privately rented, was substandard. No bathrooms or inside toilets, with large families packed into not enough rooms.  

Increasingly the UK was diminished in the eyes of the world, even though a vast number of British soldiers were stationed all across the globe. The Empire/Commonwealth had to be maintained. Until 1960, ‘call-up’ into the armed forces was your duty if you were 18 and male.  

Little did we know that in 1953 we were only three years away from the arrival of commercial TV, which changed working-class life enormously as it spread. Making the working class seemingly obsessed with gravy, washing powder, toothpaste – and bodily odour with the arrival of deodorants. TV ads were repeated endlessly.  

Entertainment and distractions and a youth culture came also with rock’n’roll and Elvis in 1956. Life was not going to be the long bore it often was because there were cheap goods and cheap entertainment to be had. And with American cop and cowboy shows on the TV, we were spoiled and indulged with distractions that have only increased and multiplied with the decades.  

Yet for all of the great improvements to our housing stock, our distractions and the increase in food, we never seemed able to destroy poverty. We dressed it up in different clothes, disguising much of it in social security payments. The NHS increasingly became an enormous social sponge soaking up the worst problems thrown up by poverty. With 50 per cent of its budget going on trying to keep the poorest among us as healthy as possible. We never produced a new politics. We ran on the old party model which, built on class lines, seemed incapable of dismantling the evils of the class system. Mouthy men, mostly, would promise the earth and deliver a flowerpot.  

Excuse this rather jaundiced roundup of 70 years, where improvements have been undeniable – how many university graduates proudly tell us that their grandfathers worked down mines or in factories? – but it is uneven.  

The splintering of politics into interest groups intent on seeing their own interest as paramount is a big concern. Where’s the unity, I ask. Charles, can you take us back to the 1950s so that we can start all over again?  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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