It’s time for a call to arms to prevent poverty, film director Ken Loach tells Laura Davis.
It’s time for a call to arms to prevent poverty, film director Ken Loach tells Laura Davis. But who should lead it?
HE MAY be one of the most softly spoken directors but there is fire in Ken Loach’s quiet sentences and his captivating film sequences.
Viewers of his latest work will find it hard to resist feeling equally impassioned – at least if they are already at least partly converted to his message.
Mixing archive footage with newly shot interviews, The Spirit of ’45 looks at the extraordinary accomplishments of post-Second World War Britain, when the nation was hungry for a society which pulled together for the benefit of the many.
The Government, trades unions and ordinary people resisted a return to the high unemployment and destitute conditions of the 1930s, determined that it should “never again be about that kind of peace where everything was run by rich people for rich people”.
Those words, ominous in today’s Britain – where there are almost one million young people out of work and where, this year, more than 230,000 people are expected to visit a foodbank – open the documentary, to a backdrop of snaking dole queues and barefoot children playing in the rubble of the Blitz.
“That period where people thought the basis of society was co-operation and not competition is largely being written out of history,” says Loach, 76, who is taking part in a Q&A and screening of the film at FACT’s Picturehouse cinema next week.
“The people with the memories of the ’30s are not getting any younger. It seems really important to have their memories recorded while they are still alive.”
Sam Watts, 87, who found himself homeless after serving in the Navy, is one of those featured. Born in the slums off Great Homer Street, Liverpool, he recalls the squalor of poverty.
“I was one of eight children and we slept five in a bed – my bed was three lads and two girls,” he says.
“We got into a bed full of vermin. When I say vermin I mean the bugs and fleas were in the hundreds and there was nothing we could do about it because they were in the building behind the wallpaper, in the skirting boards. The next morning when we got to school we got the cane for having dirty knees.”
In such unhealthy conditions, infant deaths were sadly common. Sam lost three siblings between the ages of two and four.
“I can recall putting two coffins across our knees in a one-horse coach and it taking us to the cemetery,” he says.
The first step in preventing others from experiencing such hardship was the 1942 Beveridge Report, which proposed widespread reform to social welfare to address the five “giant evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.
The 1945 Labour landslide triggered a period of intense change – including the implementation of the National Health Service and universal child benefit, improvements in National Insurance and the nationalisation of the railways and mines. Conditions for workers in areas such as safety, housing and minimum wages for dockers, improved dramatically.
It wasn’t to last however. In the 1970s, manufacturing employment fell by a quarter, with 1.2 million jobs lost between 1971-81. With the challenge too great to overcome, the Conservative Party dropped the Government’s commitment to full employment and introduced an aggressive reprivatisation programme.
Meanwhile, the increased birth rate and costs of medical care put strain on the NHS, placing its future under threat.
But despite its relatively short-lived success, there is much to be learned from the can-do attitude of the 1940s, Loach believes.
“It seems we’ve now come full circle but now poverty expresses itself through obesity and cheap food that is rubbish and does you harm, through drug culture, through alienation and the desperation of unemployment,” he says.
“It is much less visible than in the 30s. We found that in trying to find contemporary images of poverty.
“You drive through parts of cities where you know 50% of the kids aren’t working and there is nobody there. Maybe daytime TV is pumping out.”
There is dire need for a call to arms, says Loach, but who to lead it?
“There is a vacuum on the left – we don’t have a movement or a party that speaks for the interests of ordinary people.
“All the parties from one extent to the other support the market economy. We’re been led down a path that gives us no hope at all.
“There are so many people outside the Labour Party who would be activists were there a viable party to belong to. People are desperate for an alternative, they just don’t know where to turn.”
The Spirit of ’45, produced by Dogwoof Films, ends on a note of optimism – a girl raising her arm victoriously during a VE Day celebration. Is there hope for the nation yet?
“People have been told that this is inevitable, the way the world is is like an act of God,” says Loach.
“It’s not. It’s a conscious choice by politicians acting on behalf of private interests.
“People forget the strength they have. The working class is told how impotent they are, they must accept their lot, but actually they can stop things tomorrow if they choose to.
“They could turn the lights off. They could close the shops, shut down the transport, close the factories until things change. If they knew the power they had. . .”
Ken Loach is taking part in a Q&A at a screening of The Spirit of 45 at FACT on March 5 and a second by satellite link-up on March 17. The film is on general release on March 15.