In the documentary Housing Problems, directors Elton and Anstey attempt to document the living conditions of workers in the slums of England. As they document the current conditions and the current/proposed changes, there is an interesting trend to note: the involvement of the private sector in solving the poor’s issues. Rather than leave the government to design, build and construct new buildings designed to improve the living conditions of the poor, businesses such as cement firms and gas companies were promoting contests in which new living quarters were developed. While this is an interesting development, the real question is why are these business promoting these contests? How does it benefit them? Why are they doing such activities?
As we see these trends in inter-war Europe, we as students truly fail to contextualize the futurism that is promoted in the documentaries and where reality truly went. While all of the developments mentioned in the new “slum” buildings would have created a fantastic world, how many of these buildings were constructed in reality? We see the blip in the attempt to deal with poverty, but fail to grasp what these evolutions mean in the overall history of Europe.
The interwar period brought about a shift in Britain’s attitudes toward the poor. Rather than continuing to believe that poverty was the fault of the poor, the British government began to implement programs aimed at helping them and increase awareness about their plight. The documentaries Housing Problems and Enough to Eat are examples of these efforts at awareness. Housing Problems interviews residents of a British slum about their living conditions while Enough to Eat describes Britain’s efforts at minimizing malnutrition.
In Housing Problems, the use of interviews with actual slum residents offers a more human look at the issue than simply a reading of statistics. These people give their own emotional accounts of their struggles, which allows the viewer to feel more sympathy toward them. This technique also helps to give the impression that the government views these people as individuals who they want to help, rather than just another aspect of creating a stronger nation. The documentary gives faces and stories to the struggles of slum life in order to create emotion while at the same time separating the British government’s motives from those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, whose main concerns were strengthening the state.
While Enough to Eat also creates the image of a more sympathetic government, it also implies the more far reaching effects of introducing nutrition to the impoverished. At one point of the documentary, one of the men who is being interviewed states that the government’s methods are an “…important factor in restoring peace” because the promotion of nutrition will also help boost world trade again. This implies that while promoting better nutritional habits amongst the poor is of concern, ensuring that Britain assumes a powerful role in trade is also of importance to the government, and they will do this in any way possible. This documentary does a better job of displaying more of the underlying motives of helping the poor in Britain.
Could the British have had any greater motives in wanting to improve the housing conditions of the poor as well?
Following the First World War, the general British attitude toward the poor and their situations changed. It was then thought that it was people’s own fault for being poor. They were too lazy to work hard enough to afford better living quarters. In his writings “Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, George Orwell, argues against this idea. Those who are poor, for the most part, are not well educated, and perform unskilled labor. They lack skill sets and the means to obtain a skill set that would allow them to acquire higher paying jobs.
In his short film, Housing Problems, John Grierson interviews people living in British slums. They’re not happy to be living there, but they don’t have a choice. They can’t afford to live anywhere else, and they feel some shame about their living situations. The film argues that if people are provided with well-built homes, that they can afford, they will take care of these homes. Living in the slums, people are not motivated to keep their homes clean because they’re falling apart and full of rodents.
Even in the slums, people attempted to keep up appearances, with a well-kept living room, like that of the first interviewee. This seems to conflict with the film’s assertion that only a well built home will be well kept by its inhabitants. Why did people maintain living rooms in a smilingly bourgeois style? Was it to preserve their dignity in their filthy homes? Was it to uphold personal or family identity in a row of identical homes?
In the excerpts from The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes the daily struggle of living in poverty in England—particularly for men. In Down and Out in Paris and London, he strives to depict “tramps,” or vagabonds in a more positive way, and offer the reader an opportunity to overlook former prejudices. He describes tramps as Englishmen with broken spirits; they are not dangerous or manic. In his later book, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell describes his findings when visiting houses in lower-class neighborhoods in England, and provides examples of the filthy residences that thousands of English families are forced to call home. He argues how difficult it is to support a family on such a low income, and describes the loss of hope that many people feel after living in such disgusting homes for so long. Generally, Orwell’s aim in these excerpts is to humanize the lower classes of England who have often been swept aside to the margins of society.
Something that I thought was interesting in Orwell’s excerpts was that he mentioned the lack of productivity of people who were down and out, and incapable of giving back to the state. While Orwell’s aim was to make the reader feel sympathetic toward members of society living in poverty, it seems contradictory to his argument to go on to describe them as a loss to the community. His book was released in 1933, the same year that eugenics in Germany took off, so it is interesting to compare and contrast Nazi Germany to Orwell’s eugenics at the time.
I also thought that Orwell brought up a fascinating point about the very different roles of males and females when discussing tramps. Orwell stated that being a tramp as a man was mentally debilitating, because there was little or no access to women. Women were not tramping, because during that time, they relied on men to support them. Because male tramps were unable to engage in sexual activity with women, they turned to other men to satisfy their desires. Ultimately, the number of men who were out of work and living as vagabonds had an impact on the traditional gender roles of that time.
Orwell often describes the “broken spirits” of homeless men, and aims to inform the audience that people who are living in poverty are not dangerous. His two pieces were written in 1933 and 1937, times that weaker members of society were frowned upon, and often corrected. How much do you think his work impacted the people of Britain and France? Do you think their perceptions of the lower classes change? Or did they remain loyal to the eugenics movements at that time?
Chapter IV of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier made many interesting points about poverty and housing conditions in Interwar England. Orwell developed a very in depth study of the living conditions and how this may have affected the psyche of the inhabitants.
The Interwar Period was very concerned with behavior and order, especially in the wake of the Great War’s chaos. Psychology was one way in which many scholars began to try to understand the actions of both society and the individual. This type of study also began to influence other academic areas, like History, Anthropology and Literature. Orwell demonstrates, in questioning the behavior of this group, how various areas of study had become more interwoven.
Orwell at one point in Chapter IV discusses how some impoverished families portrayed themselves as more economically comfortable. Many Corporation houses seem to have been filled with well-maintained furniture; these items seemed to belong in a more financially stable house—a family that is not living at or below the poverty line. Orwell argues “it is in the rooms upstairs that the gauntness of poverty really discloses itself.” (60) He believes that it is a matter of pride to protect the nicer, more valuable pieces of furniture so that the family can appear to be less impoverished. These had most likely been passed down within the family throughout generations. It is the items that need to be bought every few years or months that were more difficult for these families to afford (i.e. bedclothes), and therefore, fewer families in more desperate financial situations had access to many basic items, like bedclothes.
This excerpt shares some similarities with Leora Auslanders’s article “’National Taste?’ Citizenship Law, State Form, and Everyday Aesthetics in Modern France and Germany, 1920-1940.” Both pieces referred to the tendency to “keep up with the Joneses.” How did this idea, needing to present a better image to the public or society, reflect larger themes from this period? Was this a reaction to the chaos of the war? Or a reaction to the uncertainty of the period? Or would this type of behavior have occurred regardless of wars, death and economic troubles?