As the plot thickens around the Grenfell tragedy, my thoughts have been glancing backwards. I grew up breathing the poverty line, and I can tell you from my first hand experience, contempt for the poor is not a new thing.
The biggest problem with having nothing, is that predators can smell your desperation. They are ready to exploit you, purely because they can.
My very first job, after leaving home education-less at fifteen, was working as a waitress in a greasy spoon market caff. I worked my arse off, running around for ten hours a day, and earned £2 an hour for my troubles. In fairness, my bosses were respectful and didn’t scar me for life. Unlike those in my next job.
I moved on to a home wares shop, still in that East London market. I was still earning a meagre £2 an hour, which was the going rate for illegal workers back in the day. I was classed as underage for over a year, so had very few options when it came to my employment.
The men who ran the shop were not nice people
They were in their late thirties, early forties, and most of their workforce were teenage girls. Every opportunity they got, they would try their luck – get us drunk and take advantage. Vile, dirty old men, dressed up as business owners. Flash gits with fancy cars, and more money than sense. Always ready to pounce when you least expected it.
When I finally got my national insurance number, and could legally work, I got a job in a department store. I was still only sixteen though, and exceptionally naive.
I’d go to parties with my my much older colleagues in deep dark London. They’d tell me they thought I was twenty five, and say how mature I was. That they couldn’t believe I had left school at fifteen, what a survivor I was. They lulled me into a false sense of security.
I once had to run from a car at the traffic lights because a ‘dear friend’ of a lady I thought was a friend was being over zealous with his affections. He must have been at least fifty years old, and he put his hands on me as if it was his right to do so. Just because he was loaded to the hilt, and had flashed his money in a bar that evening, meant that I owed him more than a few pounds.
Even now, thinking of the way he touched me, makes me shudder
I wish this was the only story I have to tell, but sadly I encountered too many predators in those days. Rich men who treated me like I was a hooker because I did low level jobs for minimum wage.
Then there were the nicer people I met along the way. At the crux of it though, I would only ever be a common girl to them. I’d never be taken home to meet the family. Even if I had entered into what I considered a genuine friendship or relationship.
That’s the thing about contempt for the poor, it’s passed down through the generations. Just as financial literacy is a given for the middle and upper classes, but almost non existent to those who have very little. Kindness costs nothing though.
Especially in the wake of what happened at Grenfell Tower, it would be good if everyone could remember that these are real people that have lost everything.
They might be poor, they might be desperate, but they are human beings. They do not deserve your contempt.