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Slumming It

March 14, 2011


In Dickensian London, wealthy young ‘swells’ would visit the gin houses, brothels and opium dens of Limehouse and ‘slumming it’ became part of the language. Such examples of vicarious voyeurism – cheap holidays in other peoples misery –  are still with us, even if they are masked as charitable enterprises.  

The Victorian model of social philanthropy as a replacement for government intervention is ofcourse what drives the so-called Big Society. It’s not up to the political executive to provide for the vulnerable and needy it’s down to you and me and any generous Daddy Warbucks (that’s war bucks y’see?) who happens to be passing and fancies plucking the odd Little Orphan Annie from a  lifetime of abuse.

The Secret Millionaire, How The Other Half Lives and similar programmes operate within the Big Society framework. Wealthy egotists get to write ‘life changing cheques’ for the derserving poor as they waltz around run down estates and ‘see what it’s like to live on the other side of the tracks.’ Ofcourse these hollow exercises are always bogus. How can someone pretending to be poor for a week or two really experience the reality of generations of under-investment in housing, education and employment?

Comic Relief plugs a hole that the government can’t or won’t fill. Africa is poor. It’s poor because the west has raped it for centuries and now the poor bastards have to make do with what has been left to them now that other regions have become more lucrative. So here we have famous and rich Lenny Henry and his pals, Radio 1 DJ, Reggie Yates, actress, Samantha Womack and former newsreader, Angela Rippon slumming it in the Kenyan ghetto of Kibera. They’ve been there for a whole week and don’t like what they’ve seen. Not one bit.

Lenny’s paid for a new home for a family of orphans OUT OF HIS OWN POCKET. When I say ‘home’ what I really mean is a slightly better class of hovel. It came to just over a grand and I’m not sure if his selected ‘gracious orphan’ wasn’t really thinking ‘fuck that, I thought we were coming back to live with you and your horses in Devon.’  

Angela, displaying stiff upper lip Raj get up n’ go, helped HIV infected hairdresser, Caren to pay her kid’s school fees with some simple cardboard poster promotion. Now Caren’s paying all her kid’s fees thanks to Ange and her school ma’am marketing.    

Reggie meanwhile was helping an aspiring hip hop star to leave behind his job washing spuds for 30p a day simply by calling up his chum, Kenya’s number one hip hop DJ, ‘The Moyles of Nairobi’ no less. Hey presto, the kid got to record his vocals in the radio studio and is on his way to becoming the Ghost Faced Killah of Kibera.

Samantha cruised the mean streets of downtown Nairoi with prostitute Helen who has moved her kids out to the country to live with their nan after riots ripped through the neighbourhood. We’ll have to take her word for that.  Sam lasted an hour in some seedy club before re-uniting Helen with her kids and ‘helping her to give up brassing’ as the feelgood subtitles didn’t say.

                     ‘it’s just a bit of fun for charridee isn’t it?’    

And YOU too can help people like these simply by texting ‘SMUG’ to 6407 – which might sound harsh because Comic Relief does do some great things for the starving and the destitute both in Nairobi and Netherley but such selective stories of (relatively) rich folks helping extremely poor folks smacks of the Cameronian future. The larger questions of why wealth is concentrated in the pockets of Dave and his merry band of aristocrats and merchant bankers never gets asked. Lenny’s just doing his bit and doesn’t want to rock the boat ‘brother.’

It’s a miracle that the likes of Comic Relief and Children In Need still manage to squeeze millions from the pockets of ‘big hearted Brits’  every year but such emotional exploitation is really a lie; your five quid text donation or your few hundred or even thousand sponsorship cheques and card payments is a trickle of piss in the ocean of debt that is steadily drowning Africa and the third world. No dount Lenny and Reggie and Angie and Sammy are all very sincere and not taking a penny in appearance fees but in the end, poverty is not only a moral but a political issue and no amount of tokenistic ‘success’ stories will help the billions who are not filmed for programmes like this.

for more TV related shite visit ‘Cathode Rage’


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  1. bob greene permalink

    Love your Brits article “Comic Relief .” I especially liked reading about the Gin houses, brothels and opium dens. There’s a world famous brothel in the USA called Sheri’s Ranch.

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