London is undeniably one of the richest and coolest cities in the world (I’m only slightly biased), receiving on average 15 million visitors a year. However, despite the fact that apartments can sell for £27m (as was recently the case in Knightsbrige, a chic area of London), the gritty truth is that London has the highest rate of child poverty in England. With 37% of the capital’s children living under the poverty line, there are more poor children in London than in Wales and Scotland combined. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest report predicts that the number of children living in poverty in England in 2015 will reach 2.9 million, up from 2.3 million this year. Despite these horrifying and utterly shameful statistics, the current coalition government is continuing with its proposed benefit caps, which will undoubtedly have a negative effect of the problem.
So, what are the consequences of child poverty, and what exactly does living in poverty in London actually mean? Whilst ‘poverty’ can be defined in many different ways, in London, families living in poverty typically have around £10 per family member per day to buy everything they need – this includes food, heating and transport costs. To put this is perspective, the average household in London would have £44 per member per day to spend. This in itself is 20% higher than the average household in the rest of the UK, which displays the massive divide between rich and poor – and even ‘middling’ and poor – which currently exists in England’s capital city. There are both long term and short-term consequences for children who live and grow up in poverty. A survey conducted amongst teachers in five of London’s poorest boroughs last year showed that almost all (95%) had talked to students who were coming to school hungry after not having had breakfast, and 60% reported buying those students food with their own money. This is frankly humiliating: the Mayor of London is spending time and energy on developments like the cable car across east London and the River Thames, solely for the enjoyment of wealthy tourists, whilst those very cable cars are passing over schools full of students whose families cannot afford to give them breakfast.
Turning up to school hungry is not just an unfortunate inconvenience: numerous studies have concluded that concentration and general academic performance are improved when students are able to focus properly in class. Down the line, this affects exam results and future prospects. If we can solve this basic problem, there will be major benefits for our country as a whole. The question is, in a time of such financial instability in England and with government economic resources stretched to their limits, how can we help bring an end to child poverty?
As a starting point, it is vital that we do not underestimate the power that large private companies such as banks can have in supporting projects such as breakfast clubs in underprivileged schools. Many schemes already exist, and they have proved very successful. One investment bank has paired up with the high street bakery chain ‘Greggs’ to provide breakfast for the students at a school in one of London’s most deprived areas who would normally be arriving at school not having eaten since the night before. This seemingly small-scale program can reap massive benefits for everybody involved, and also takes the strain off local borough resources, which are already scarce. Clearly, breakfast schemes alone will not succeed in ending child poverty in London for good, but they are definitely a positive step in the right direction. The links between private companies and these deprived schools could be part of the answer, and the private companies also gain from seeing direct results of their financial support, something they
would not normally get from their charity involvement.
However, these private businesses can never fulfil the role that the national government has: a responsibility to ensure that there is no more poverty in London. The new proposed benefit reforms which involve cutting the amount of money that families in need receive could lead to the already shocking child poverty statistics worsening, something that we absolutely cannot let happen – it is expected that 27,400 London households will be affected by the new caps. Government cuts are no simple matter, and there are always people who will not be satisfied, but it is undeniable that in this day and age, children living in poverty should take absolute priority – nothing at all can be more important. It is unacceptable that in 2014, poverty is a real problem for so many families living in England, and this is something that the government needs to keep in mind when making decisions which affect such large numbers of people in their capital.
(photo from http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2012/02/07/london-inequality-what-would-charles-dickens-think/)
For two countries which share the same language, England and America can sometimes seem like a world apart (well, they are an ocean apart, I guess). I noticed this most acutely on my recent trip to New York with two friends from London. Whilst in London, shop assistants acknowledge you briefly if you’re lucky, or watch you through narrowed eyes suspecting you of shoplifting if you’re not so lucky.
In New York, it was a completely different story. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by friendly staff asking us about our trip, and recommending things for us to do. The friendliness extends to people on the streets — someone found me the name of a restaurant in Williamsburg and then actually called up for me, and a couple stopped to Google the nearest subway station for us when we got slightly lost. Of course, not everyone is unfriendly in London, but New York seems so much warmer in terms of customer service at least.
This being said, the tipping culture stateside seems crazy to me — in London I wouldn’t hesitate to leave a cafe or restaurant without tipping if the waiter had been especially rude. In New York, one waiter went out of his way to follow us as we left the cafe, muttering “You’re unbelievable” under his breath. It’s not like we hadn’t left any tip at all — it wasn’t 18 percent, but we’d only had a small snack and he had been unfriendly and brusque throughout.
The most fascinating difference between England and America for me as a British visitor lies with the language (ironic, given we’re meant to be speaking the same one). From foods (“Aubergine? Wait, that’s eggplant right?”) to clothes (“Trousers? Do you mean pants?”), there are different words, different pronunciations and different expressions. We say “lift,” you say “elevator,” we say “get in line,” you say “get online.” The weirdest of these for me is “restroom” — why restroom? You don’t exactly go there to rest… “toilet” seems like a much more logical word.
New York and London are two of the world’s most visited cities, and it’s not difficult to see why. The fact off the matter is, both England and America are great countries, and it is their individualities which make both so intriguing to visit/live in.
Look at any list of The Best Books Ever Written (subjective I know, but still), and you’ll see that a large number of them were written by foreign authors in foreign languages. English may be the most widely spoken language in the world, but I find it sad that according to some statistics, only 3 percent of all books published in English are translations. Foreign literature gives us an insight into the national psyche of other countries, allows us to better understand the history and gives us a first-hand account of life from a foreigner’s perspective.
Sure, we can read newspaper articles and blogs to find out how other people in other countries live, but there’s nothing quite like reading a French, or Dutch or Japanese novel in translation to get a sense of what it’s like coming from and living there. Reading Murakami’s massively successful Norwegian Wood gave me a much deeper insight into Japanese life than anything else could — and similarly, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling offers a view into Japanese office hierarchy from a Belgian’s perspective, obviously not something you’d easily come across otherwise. People tend not to go for novels in translation when choosing something to read in a bookshop or library because of the misconception that it will be “more difficult” to read, or more “challenging” than an ordinary English novel, but this just isn’t true (unless you pick War and Peace). The main benefit of reading foreign literature is, of course, that you look really smart reading on public transport…
Foreign books and movies can be a great way of encouraging young people — especially teenagers — to take up a foreign language. In England, where I live, we are currently experiencing a language crisis: the number of people choosing to study them at university is decreasing every year. This is rather sad — having graduates who can speak one or more languages is an asset to any company, and there are several reasons for the lack of interest. Firstly, the standard of teaching in secondary schools is often not that great. Secondly, and more importantly, the syllabus for 14 to 18 year-olds is honestly rather boring. Each examination board is different, but with some, the topics studied rarely stray from the environment, family and the world of work. This is especially true at GCSE level — the public exams we take at the age of 16. If the course were more interesting — incorporating popular culture, music, film and books — way more students would choose to study languages. Spending time with other European teenagers from Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, it’s actually embarrassing that on the whole, most of them can speak three or four languages. To solve this crisis in England at least, one thing is clear: we should draw more attention to foreign language film and literature, as there is so much for us to learn from them.
Catalonia, a region in the north of Spain most famous for containing Barcelona, is in the process of trying to become an independent state. There are divided opinions on the subject, so we interviewed Max, an 18 year old proud Catalan who lives just north of Barcelona, to tell us a little bit more.
1. Hola Max! What’s the current situation in Catalonia?
Hi! Well, currently Catalonia is in a sovereignist process in which we are trying to separate from Spain, to become an independent state. This process started after the massive demonstration (more than 2 million people on the streets) that was held in Barcelona the 11th of September of 2012 and the situation is now in a crucial state. The Catalan people are asking the Spanish government to let them vote in a referendum, but the answer is always no. Nevertheless, a date for the referendum has already been fixed by the Catalan government for later this year: 9/11/14.
2. Why do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?
I want Catalonia to become an independent state for many reasons. First of all, because I do not feel Spanish at all. We have our own language, flag, institutions and traditions which are almost 1000 years old. Catalonia has only been part of Spain for the last 300 years. Before being defeated by Felipe V, Catalonia was, along with Aragón and País Valencià, a sovereign country (Corona catalanoaragonesa). Through these 300 years of Spanish occupation of Catalonia, we have been abused day after day and year after year. The Catalan language and the Catalan institutions have been banned several times through these 300 years in an attack on the Catalan nation. Therefore, I don’t want to be part of a state which hates me and which has been unfair to mine.
Secondly, I want Catalonia to be an independent state also for economical reasons. Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions of Spain, and as an Autonomous Community (AC), each year it gives a large amount of money to the Spanish government. The thing is that, although being one of the AC that gives the most money to the Spanish state, it is the one which receives the least money back. Every year Catalonia loses 16 thousand million euros to Spain. This is a very important amount of money that would prevent the Catalan government to use restrictive policies and to cut the budget if we were independent. We are also abused in many other ways. Catalan students are the ones who are given less scholarships, Catalonia is one of the the few AC with tolls, and the investments in the improvement of the railway system are ridiculous compared to those made in AC like Madrid, Andalucia or Castilla La Mancha, which are AC that give much less money to Spain than Catalonia. The centralism of Spain harms the catalan economy so much, and the situation in unsustainable.
3. Do you think it would be a problem to come from a country with such an unusual language spoken by only 11 million people? Would schools only teach in Catalan or would students learn Castilian too?
Not at all. I’m very proud of being a Catalan speaker. Catalan is such a cultivated and historical language and the fact of being bilingual is so useful. Catalan dates back to the XI century and played a great role in the Middle Ages. Great and famous novels have also been written in the region, like Tirant Lo Blanch, the first chivalry novel ever. Plus the language is spoken in four countries ( Spain, Andorra, France and Italy) which gives the language more repercussion. If Catalonia became independent, Castilian wouldn’t stop being taught in school since bilingualism is one of the things that defines Catalonia. And as former members of Spain, it would be nonsense to stop teaching Castilian.
4. When is the soonest that Catalonia could become an independent state?
I think the soonest Catalonia could be independent is 2015. Providing, of course, that the answer to the referendum were yes. If the referendum eventually couldn’t be celebrated, there’d be plebiscitary elections and 2015 would also be the soonest Catalonia could be independent.
5. Do all your Catalan friends agree with you? Do most people have strong opinions, or do some not care whether it becomes independent?
Yes, the vast majority of my friends are in favour of independence – up to 90% of them. Although there are people who don’t care very much, almost everybody has his respective opinion about the subject. And there are also some people in the region who don’t want Catalonia to become an independent state but want it to become a federal state of Spain, like the Socialist Party of Catalonia, PSC.
Read about a famous Catalan tradition here
Read about Barcelona here
Read about Catalonia’s national day here
Read about another Catalan city, Girona, here
Read about a novel set in Catalonia here
So, what can be done about the problem of youth unemployment? It’s a massive problem with no clear solutions, and this is party the reason why it has already escalated to such worrying heights. Understandably, individual European governments have not got money to throw at the problem. It is therefore necessary to think outside the box, and suggest alternatives like becoming freelancer writers or journalists. Clearly, there are downsides to this too – job instability and lack of previous work to name a couple – and certain governments don’t make this a particularly easy path for young people to take. In Spain, amongst other countries, freelance workers are required to pay a certain amount of money to the government per month for the privilege of not working for a company. This means that for many, especially those just starting to work, freelancing is not a viable option as they do not make enough profit once they have paid their fee to the government. Another option for young people looking to go down a less conventional route is in start-up companies – either working for one, or creating their own. This too can have its disadvantages, but no job is completely perfect. Start-ups can become very successful with some hard work and an innovative idea, and investment can come from private companies both in their home country and abroad. The added benefit is of course that start-ups can employ more people once they start to grow. In the mean time, however, governments should focus on keeping young people in school for as long as possible, so that they leave with decent qualifications and have various options open when deciding what to do with their future.
(PS – sorry for the cheesy photo (which is from http://www.transmitpromo.com))