Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Year in Books: May

This month we have a book on a slightly different topic, Toynbee Hall: The First Hundred Years by Asa Briggs and Anne Macartney.  For years I have seen references in various books to the settlement movement or university settlements, without truly understanding what they meant, so I went looking, which led me to Toynbee Hall and this book.

Toynbee Hall, in the east end of London, was established in 1884, named after an Oxford historian who had died the previous year.  In the 1880s there was a movement to address the poverty and appalling living conditions of many in the great cities.  Rev. Samuel Barnett, Toynbee Hall's founder had moved from a church in Mayfair to St Jude's, a derelict church in the east end in 1872 and it was here that Barnett and his wife Henrietta became drawn into community action.  The great idea of Toynbee Hall and the university settlement movement was to bring young undergraduates into the poorest communities to learn what life there was truly like, as a catalyst to change and to run schemes for education, welfare, better housing and even in time union organisation.

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, painted by Hubert von Herkomer  
Barnett seems to have been determined to see his faith lead to practical action, he wished the people who came to the east end "to settle, that is, to learn as much as to teach, to receive as much as to give".  He wanted those making social policy to have knowledge of the problems faced by the people they were trying to help and his work had a huge impact.  Among people and projects he influenced were Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Booth, who mapped London's poverty, future prime minister Asquith and William Beveridge, author of the eponymous report that led to the foundation of the NHS and welfare state.  Moreover for some men and women involvement in Toynbee Hall led to considerable social and educational advancement, the first scholarships for pupil teachers to go to Oxford or Cambridge were established in 1892.  While some involved in Toynbee Hall did very well such as J M Dent, bookbinder who became a publisher and established the Everyman series and Thomas Okey, a basket maker, who became first Professor of Italian at Cambridge.

I am not far through the book but already I find the breadth of the aims and vision of Toynbee Hall inspiring and slightly breath-taking.  Their work has a lot of relevance for today; sadly the problems they were tackling are still with us and getting worse, especially economic inequality.  It also makes me sad that these men and women fought so hard to get decent housing, health care etc. for all and we are now watching their work being dismantled or crippled by lack of funding.  So I would recommend this book as very readable and would commend it to any publisher who would consider republishing it.  Let us follow in their footsteps.

You can see the other entries for The Year in Books here

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Where next?

If I am honest I put too much hope in the election result, in a change of government, in a change of culture and approach.  The exit poll and subsequent results have knocked me flat: I am honestly not sure how I am going to cope with another five years of Conservative government.  Another five years of being described as a "scrounger" and a "shirker", another five years of the poorest in society suffering the most, another five years of fear and blame and divide and rule.

It is not that I hate the Conservatives per se, or that I hate Conservative voters.  I do hate the campaign they ran, filled with fear, fear of the Scots, fear of the economy, fear that if you do not grasp all you have you may lose it.  I hate the idea that all that matters is you, you and your hard working family, nothing else matters.  I hate the idea that the poor deserve poverty, that it is a matter of personal responsibility, if only people tried harder they would not be poor.  This is blatantly untrue: it ignores all the structures that keep people poor.

I am filled with dread of what £12 billion of welfare cuts are going to mean to my community, to the disabled, none of whom chose their circumstances, what is going to happen?  How are we to live?  What is it going to mean for the increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty?

There is so much that concerns me, scares me, angers me, I feel so passionately about what is happening.  But, but, I am ill, I am exhausted, the anger and anxiety make me more exhausted and sore and ill.  How can I make a change?  How can I get involved and fight and campaign?  To be sure, if I were well, I would be out there, doing everything I could to make a difference.  Instead I feel like my arms are tied behind my back, my feet tied together and my mouth gagged: I feel silenced and made invisible by my illness.

So where next?  I am at a loss.  I am trying to keep an eternal perspective, trying to pray, trying to find hope in God, but the present feels so overwhelming.

I may head back to the Psalms, it feels like a time for lament.