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Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges - Science Museum

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
Event: -
How do you make life worth living?

Earlier in 2014, I was commissioned by a homeless shelter in Calgary to come up with a tagline for their annual Calgary Stampede campaign. Coming up with a few ideas, I felt I was being useful. It may not have made much difference to the people in from the cold served, but at least I got paid for my 6 hours effort.

Hyde Park, near The Science Museum
Hyde Park, where the poorest lived near the richest in London in the late 1960's.

Worthwhile as this may seem, it really takes longer to really raise awareness of social problems. One photographer took four years between 1968-1972 to document the grim reality of how three million people in Britain lived in the late 1960's and early 1970's, which is only now being exhibited at the Science Museum in Kensington, London.

You are greeted with a cobbled street straight out of Coronation Street, only to realise that the fiction portrayed doesn't square with grim reality. Indeed, the shots you are presented with are ones documenting communities in the final throes of decline, looking like something out of Peter Watkins controversial film, "The War Game", yet he captures the pathos, warmth and humanity of these people in abysmal living conditions (some of which were owned by the councils).

You can really feel the love these parents have for their children, even under the toughest of circumstances. It was all they had, as they couldn't afford to heat their home, yet their hearts were warm. Despite being captured in stark monochrome, with rich details such as wallpaper peeling, the scars of infection, you really see the dejection in the subjects' eyes.

You cannot focus of the technical aspects of the work shown, as you really put your own circumstances into perspective as you view how the icy conditions were (and are), which Friedrich Engels could have written about only 100 years earlier. The fact this was in the late 1960s, there was the myth of "Swinging London" and the emergence of American style consumerism that engendered it.

It appears the social changes passed them by and ran off into the distance. What astonished me was a shot of a woman scrubbing her step was taken by nearby Hyde Park, which is right next to some of the wealthiest people in Britain living in Mayfair, Belgravia, Kensington and Knightsbridge. Cliched as it is for me to say it, but these really are like an emotional kick on the balls to see because we are supposedly the fourth biggest economy in the world, yet we can't put our own house in order first. At a personal level, as a freelance writer, I could be writing about this or one job away from living like this, if I'm not careful. After all, most people end up homeless either through no fault of their own or through bad choices, which I own up to as well.

It really shows that the ironic fad for ripped jeans is an insult to the poor. When you've seen the effort they put in to looking good for job interviews, religious parades and even a night out at a dancehall. Seeing this reminded me of a story Lee Kuan Yew told some students, where he was investigating the slums of his hen and he saw a man wrapped in a blanket. "Are you cold?" He asked. "No," the man replied, (it was a tropical climate), "my friend took my trousers because he had to go to work." When one image reminded me of this, I realised how lucky I am to earn money from my writing and photography.
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Where: The Science Museum - Exhibition Road South Kensington SW7 2DD
Cost: Free
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