March 27, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III


When we come across the Jacob Riis photographs of late-1800’s lower New York City poverty, in his book “How the Other Half Lives,” most of us feel sad yet grateful for our family’s escape, if forebears had lived, say, in Irish Five Points, as some of mine did. Those terrible tenement conditions, the utter poverty, alcoholism, crime, domestic abuse, official disdain and abandonment are difficult to take. But then,

we flip the history book shut and conveniently say to ourselves, “Well, that was a long time ago.”

Forgotten, those troubles, until you come to 2017 and the great eye-opening that social media provides, despite half-baked “news” and the ego-pushing of self-aggrandizement.

Last week, I happened upon a post by Briton Ella Murtha, who posted emotionally searing photographs of poverty-stricken areas of Newcastle, in the north of England, during the controversial Margaret Thatcher years of the early 1980s.

The images, brilliantly captured by her mother Tish, are as heart-rending as those taken by Riis about 100 years before.

(The personal irony for me was that some of my family lived in Hartlepool, near Newcastle, before they moved to other poverty at Five Points in Old New York.)

When Jacob Riis documented dismissed humanity so long ago, the hope was that society would pay attention. That has happened to a degree in the United States, but only in spurts. Appalachian poverty continues, many decades after President Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964 in his “War on Poverty.” The rural South, inner-cities, old farm areas and even parts of promising suburbs remain in decay, with worsening expected as the middle class declines and the government of the people, by the people, for the people once again hardens its heart.

In the Thatcher England of the 1980s, the prime minister’s “Free Market Philosophy” was supposed to trickle down opportunity to the masses so they could pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but as with Reaganomics in the U.S., greed intercepted the pass. Now, at home, President Trump may deflate the ball entirely.

Just as Riis spotlighted failure in humanity, the late Tish Murtha told Parliament in a 1981 address, “Hidden in a smokescreen of cynical double-talk and pious moralising, the shape of the future is nevertheless clearly discernable. Cuts in social spending, including unemployment benefits, mean that the conditions under which they must endure their enforced idleness will rapidly deteriorate to become an intolerable burden, the consequences of which will be enormous. Society

has withdrawn its contract from these young people, can they now be expected to live by its rules?”

In her Facebook post, Tish’s daughter Ella added, “My mam was extremely sensitive to people and their emotions and really, really cared. That is what I see when I look at her work, and that is what I hope people see and feel when they look at them. They are incredibly powerful and evocative, and I hope that the images remain with people long after they have looked at them. Even the least empathic person must be able to see the truth in them.”

Here is Ella Murtha’s link to another episode in, yes, “dismissed humanity”:


The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

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