Just getting by

Have you noticed how, when people portray poverty in fantasy, they dwell on the squalor, and somehow even the squalor is more squalid in fantasy worlds. The cess pits are deeper, the chife is more intense and the degradation more complete.
Yet a few days ago I was taking apart a building. I have to get this job done because only the woodworm are holding it together and they appear to be losing interest. Anyway at one point I was looking down on the roof trusses from above. Now the piece of timber that stretches across the building, the bottom of the truss, is sometimes called ‘the cord’. They form a handy storage area, long pieces of timber can be stuck up there out of the way, and then you can stick all sorts of rubbish on top of them.
So now I was looking down at all the stuff that had been stuck there, and what riches did I find?
Well there were some plastic bags, bundled together, ‘because they always come in’. Those I put there. But there was a cart shaft. Back in 1958 or thereabouts my Grandfather had obviously decided that the tractor was here to stay. Now cart shafts bolt into the side of the cart, and what they’d done was just unbolted the shafts and H Armer and Son, our local agricultural engineer, had made a steel drawbar which bolted back onto the same place. I even remember the cart the shafts came from. I rode on it many times as a kid.
But with the new drawbar in place, my Dad and my Grandfather had put the shafts up carefully out of the way, ‘in case they come in.’
Next to them was a battered model shippon. Not sure if anyone can remember back into the late 1950s but timber wasn’t good to come by. It might not have been formally on ration, but I can remember my father squirreling away anything that looked at all decent. Anyway at some point around then he’d made me a model farm and I was looking down at the last surviving bits.
Can you remember the old tea chests? Well he’d obviously got a couple of the old tea chests and he’d taken them apart and cut them up somehow and used them to make the farm buildings. When I saw the buildings I also remembered the cows. He’d cut out the silhouette of a cow in wood, quite a lot of them if memory serves, and my mother had taken them to the school where she taught and painted them. Other kids might have had more three-dimensional cows, but mine were most definitely the right colour and markings.
Looking back at the world I knew then, actually fantasy writers have got it wrong. Well most of them have, there is one honourable exception and that is Terry Pratchett. I’m going from memory here, I think it is in ‘Guards Guards’, but certainly it is an observation Captain Vimes makes to himself. The smell of poverty is the smell of soap. You didn’t have money so you tried harder. What you’d got might not be special but it was clean and it was looked after.
We’re not talking the poverty of the maxed out credit card or of debt. We’re talking of the poverty of people who were far too wise, and probably far too proud, to borrow in the first place. But most importantly, these people didn’t even think of themselves as poor. They knew what poor meant, they put money in the collection plate for people abroad they knew were poor. If you asked they were getting by. Not comfortable, but getting by.

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