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
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
The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College and
Associate Priest at St Giles Cripplegate.
Paul Vallely returns after Easter.