How the other half lives

May has been a truly miserable month with the rain bucketing downday after day, the wind howling like it was the middle of March and temperatures more akin to November than the onset of summer. When will it all end? I had been hoping that one silver lining of cancelling our 2021 summer school was that I might have a bit more time to enjoy the sunshine and go walking all over London and beyond. Fat chance if things continue like this! Still, at least museums are open again now, which means we’ll have plenty of good places to go to and dodge the showers in. 

One of those museums that I’m looking forward to visiting is the Geffrye Museum which is re-opening after a substantial refurbishment. The museum lies somewhat off the beaten track and can be described as ‘a museum of the home’. The original building was a set of alms houses – kind of retirement homes or supported housing for ex-workers from Geffrye’s industry who had fallen on hard times. You can visit one of these alms houses today, but the main part of the museum is actually more about how the other half lives as it provides reconstructions of the living rooms of the wealthy and upper-middle classes throughout the ages. 

I say ‘how the other half lives’ here, because these days the phrase is only used to refer to those richer than us. If you hear the phrase nowadays, the image that probably pops into your head is of someone sunning themselves on the deck of their massive yacht. People like the ones featured in this programme, for instance. Or maybe it would be one of the ones being pampered and sucked up to in the world’s most amazing hotels. Apparently, wealthy people can’t get a good night’s sleep unless they can choose from a menu of upto 75 different types of pillow or have their towels folded in the shape of a swan! How the other half lives!

However, the phrase wasn’t always used like that. In fact, ‘how the other half lives’ originally derived from the title of a photo report from the 1890s which looked into extreme poverty. The ‘other half’ were the poor and destitute, living in slums that were hidden from view from the wealthier half of the population who bought and read newspapers. The photos of life in these slums aimed to shock the government into action and subsequently became known as ‘muckraking’ journalism. How things have changed! Nowadays, most programmes in the UK that are about the the poor tend to focus more on benefits cheats and illegal immigration rather than exposing slum landlords. And, interestingly, the idea of muckraking has followed a similar shift in meaning from investigative reporting that seeks social reform. These days muckraker is more likely to be applied as an insult to tabloid journalists who are trying to get an exclusive about some celebrity’s sexual affairs or failing marriage. And the muckraking involves using dodgy practices such as hacking people’s phones or stalking the celebrity and snapping them while they are off guard or otherwise tricking them into a compromising situation.

Maybe one reason there has been this shift in meaning in the phrase how the other half lives is that people in the UK increasingly identify with being working class, even though the middle class has grown enormously over the years when measured in terms of wealth and education.  A recent survey suggests that over 60% of Britons consider themselves to be working class and a lot of middle-class people are surprised to find out that earning £35,000 a year puts them firmly in the wealthier half of the population! To be fair, the issue is that wealth inequality is widening most between those at the very top of society and the rest of us. Rising living costs, particularly housing, can mean that even those in the top half of society might not have any disposable income (a one-bedroom place in London could, after all, easily set you back at least half a million quid!). So maybe the phrase shouldn’t be ‘how the other half lives’ but ‘how the other 1% lives’ . . . . or maybe even ‘how the other 8 men live’, because according to an Oxfam report a few years ago, just eight men owned the same amount as 3.9 billion people in the poorest half of the world. Go figure!

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