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Not (just) what it says on the tin

20 March 2015

It's too easy to be seduced into over-simplification and stereotype, says Jennie Hogan

HEADING up the A1, barely five miles from Westminster, a road sign alerts the driver that "The North" lies ahead. It feels more like a warning than an instruction. This cryptic sign apparently points to a destination; yet the further north one travels, the less "The North" exists. Any Lancastrians who have described themselves as "northerners" in the company of Geordies will understand.

The co-ordinates of God's Kingdom are signposted on Mount Sinai, but they too can easily become ideals, disconnected from reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that the Beatitudes should not be understood in accord with an ethical set of principles, but in the very person of Christ who embodies poverty.

Although we are told that "the poor" are blessed, it can be unclear who "the poor" actually are. The first cohort of undergraduates to have paid £9000 a year in tuition fees will graduate this year; typical graduate debt is £40,000-£50,000. Although a degree doesn't guarantee riches, a decent education at least offers a greater choice of ways to navigate this world.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is currently running at the National Theatre, with an entirely Asian cast. The play is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Katherine Boo, who spent three years living with rubbish-pickers in a slum, Annawadi, which lies beside Mumbai International Airport. She recorded the lives of its inhabitants - not unlike Émile Zola who, in the 19th century, followed destitute Parisians with a notebook. Zola's observations were turned into great novels such as L'Assommoir and Nana. His pioneering "Naturalism" eliminated generalisations, and gave "the poor" of Paris unique identities and emotional landscapes. Zola's novels were banned in the UK for being too shocking.

The energy, violence, humour, and florid language that bounce round the stage version of Boo's book are at once captivating and disturbing. Among wearying chaos, families rage, compete, self-immolate, innovate, fail, and are failed. Here poverty is both petty and brutal. Each character reveals a complex inner life, and faces multiple dilemmas.

It is fair to question whether the audience become greedy voyeurs. A British Indian woman sitting beside me said that she didn't think it was appropriate to be showing this side of Indian life. I sensed that she was ashamed. Wasn't it great that this was being explored in the National Theatre, I asked. The exposure of India's underbelly is at odds with the country's burgeoning economic prosperity. Life would be simpler if, like the management of the deluxe hotels at the airport, we could pretend that "the poor" were invisible, rather than always with us.

It costs more than £16,000 for an overseas student to obtain a postgraduate degree in development studies at the London School of Economics. As a chaplain serving postgraduates from all over the world, I am struck by the zeal and conscientiousness of those studying development. These students genuinely want to change the world. Before I arrived here, I didn't even know that there was such a discipline. It is a multi-million- pound industry. "The poor" are scrutinised, and turned into statistics to be pored over by "the rich".

A man of merchant caste who studied law at Inner Temple, Mahatma Gandhi, denounced wealth, and voiced the cries of India's poor. His statue has just been unveiled in Parliament Square, overlooked by the palace of Westminster. It is less easy to generalise and define this figure by one issue alone. Labels can be deceptive, and are best avoided.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College and Associate Priest at St Giles Cripplegate.

Paul Vallely returns after Easter.

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