My mother, the pessimist

3 minute read

Perhaps all children are cursed and, eventually, become their parents. And so, I find myself, increasingly, adopting views and traits that I recognise as theirs.

One I have become very aware of is my mother’s pessimism. It wasn’t a mild pessimism, the glum prediction of rain on a sunny day, but a doom-laden vision of the future.

Whenever the news contained stories of another nation’s despair — the death tolls of famines, the disease-ridden refugee camps of civil war — she would see our future. “That will be us in thirty years,” she would assert. The timeframe might change, but it was always likely to be in my lifetime.

I would scoff. We lived in a wonderful age. Society was becoming kinder, the world more civilised, technology revolutionising our lives. The world, or more precisely, our world, could only get better. The fact that science had not advanced enough to prevent her death shortly after I became an adult did nothing to diminish my general optimism.

In the years since she died, my memories have faded, and I’ve tried to keep the happier ones alive. But now I wish I remembered more of her pessimism, partly because I find myself become despondent about the future, partly because I wonder if she had instinctively seen where things were heading. And as we start to bump up against some of her shorter timeframes of pessimism, I wonder if she would recognise where we are.

We welcome a new Prime Minister today, but not with enthusiasm. It is a country where food banks hand out more than two million emergency food parcels a year. A country where many cities are planning to establish ‘warm banks’ to help people through the winter. A proud maritime nation surrounded by a sea of its own sewage.

Rather than bringing hope and change, the new administration seems committed to more of the same. Energy bills will be frozen, we are told, but that will be done with a massive handout to businesses, so they can keep their profits, with taxpayers footing the costs in future years. Employee rights will be cut back because the Prime Minister believes British people are shirkers, and bosses are the ones that need more power. Instead, people will be incentivised by tax cuts for the rich because they are fair.

I should, perhaps, be grateful for all this. My parents gave me a great start, supporting me through an education and start of a career path that means I’m unlikely to be needing a food or warm bank. Indeed, we might even benefit from a tax cut. But at what cost?

We are becoming an increasingly unequal society, and now have a government that seems to revel in that. Food banks are seen as uplifting, rather than evidence of a problem that needs to be solved. So, instead of trying to improve the lot of the nation, the focus appears to be improving the lot of the better-off, in the hope that everyone else gets some of the scraps that fall from the table.

But that simply doesn’t work. My parents were unskilled working class, they earned enough to buy a small house in a cheap area, and put food on the table for most of the week. (Bread and jam was a frequent payday-eve meal.)

Today, that would simply be impossible. Unable to buy a house, they would have found themselves struggling with increasing rents. Their jobs, rather than secure employment, would almost certainly have been zero-hour contracts. The family’s mental bandwidth would have been swallowed by the daily grind of keeping heads above water.

So, now I have my mother’s pessimism. And looking back, I realise that all those news stories never covered the people who were doing all right. The people whose circumstances meant they survived, and even thrived, while their fellow citizens struggled and died.

And I wonder if they, too, felt the same impotent anger and shame, knowing that while they might be able to help around the edges, when governments and systems have inequality baked into them, the outlook for many, many people will never be anything but bleak.