Friday 26 August 2011

The Spirit Level... and never said a word

I have a book in my possession with a ‘wandering word’ BookCrossing sticker in it. I didn't find it on a bench though, it was given to me last winter by Erik at a Low Carbon Cookbook meeting. And although I’ve read it, and would recommend it highly, I probably won’t be leaving it on a bench any time soon. But only because I have no plans to visit Germany soon – if that changes I’ll take it with me…

The book in question is Heinrich Böll’s …und sagte kein einziges Wort (…and never said a word). It is set in Germany around the end of the 1940s and tells the story of a married couple as they struggle to meet their most basic needs and stay together in a world trying to rebuild itself from the ruins and trauma of war. This is a Germany in transition, a Germany in the predawn time of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s.

The story is narrated in turns by the man and the woman and Böll’s language is sparse and clear as he relays an almost visceral sense of postwar reality. There are the bombed out churches, grey government buildings and the rented room the couple and their two children live in, separated from their neighbours only by a flimsy screen. There is also the face of the woman, prematurely lined from hardship and worry, looking into shop windows at clothes she can’t afford and the gaunt figure of the man as he enters a Kneipe to spend the last of his change on schnapps and the pinball machine.

…und sagte kein einziges Wort is a kind of novel-cum-social report. It is frequently harrowing with an ending at once ambiguous and with a glimmer of light. Not precisely holiday reading. Then again we're not really in holiday times.

If …und sagte kein einziges Wort takes place in a Germany in transition after the second world war, then The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is firmly set in the first decade of the 21st century.

I am not a fan of books filled with statistical graphs. Having to prove everything exists by researching numbers then crunching them into averages has become endemic in our culture, even pathological. As far as social inequality goes, (which is what The Spirit Level is about) a good look around at our society (the recent riots, government spending cuts aimed at the least well off, a walk around any city, talking to people) will tell us most of what we need to know.

But The Spirit Level is a book well worth reading, for all its graphs and statistics. Its main aim is to show the social effect of income inequality (i.e. the gap between rich and poor) in different countries in terms of those countries' well-being.

The book looks at factors such as life expectancy, physical health, obesity, depression, education, teenage births, violence and punishment and provides evidence to show that in countries where the income gap is large (such as the UK), everybody is adversely affected. In other words it shows in tables and graphs what most of us in our hearts are aware of. That social inequality, with its attendant atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, is bad for all of us, with perhaps the exception of the very rich. And it is the level of income/social inequality within a country and not how wealthy a country is in and of itself which is the determining factor.

Other key points in the book include a necessary shift of “attention from material standards and economic growth to…improving the psychological and social well-being of whole societies". There is also the need to get beyond seeing the problems we face as individual psychological issues with individual therapies and remedies, to seeing them systemically, and ourselves as active parts of the social and political fabric.

And perhaps our greatest challenge lies in the last point above. Each one of us has been educated and conditioned to think and act individualistically (though not necessarily as individuals). So to shift to thinking in a more social way, as a member of society, is to go against that conditioning and is therefore a task. A task requiring both individual and collective effort in the face of a future where a 'Wirtshaftswunder' of the kind Germany saw in the 50s remains highly unlikely.

Photos: Heinrich Böll book cover; photo from BBC documentary 'Poor Kids'; The Spirit Level cover from the Equality Trust

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