“Dear people of London, it’s 28 degrees here in Middlesbrough, that’s right, that place further north than York, but a bit below Durham, 28 degrees. Nothing good to wear, obviously. Don’t believe the capsule wardrobe lie. Boiling”

I was frustrated by my own foolishness. In a desire to make my Middlesbrough, dispersed asylum seeker experience as authentic as a white, middle class woman from Tunbridge Wells could, I packed a small rucksack with clothes. My only non-jeans option was a black T-shirt dress. I had worn it for 3 days in row and I was sweaty and grumpy.

It wasn’t just that I was warm, although I was, it was that I didn’t feel like myself. What with frizzy hair from cheap shampoo and bad skin because soap costs 1/3 price of face wash, I was far from enamoured by my appearance. What was worse was that I didn’t have the financial ability to change it. I clung to my mascara in some vain, vain hope that it might bring back aesthetic control.

A little light acne on my face for 3 weeks is not the end of the world. However, the situation caused me to question the availability and accessibility of aesthetic beauty and correspondingly art. I use ‘aesthetic beauty and art’ here to mean the full gamut of music, art, gardening, play, personal expressions of sartorial style and much more[1]. Are they only reserved for the few?

Asylum seekers should be grateful for food and housing, those on benefits should eternally swear to the god of bland uniformity as an appreciation for money to keep them alive. Beauty, art, the process of making something aesthetically wonderful is considered secondary to practical need, to food and water and breathing. This ‘truth’ continues to allow beauty to be the privilege of the wealthy, yet, as the old union song puts it, ‘Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses’.

When we underfund the arts, when we decide that History of Art A-level is no longer necessary, when priority funding goes to galleries and playgrounds and experiences in big cities, rather than across the UK, we make a statement about who is worthy of such goodness.

Ada Salter, a 1920s politician and campaigner lived and worked in Bermondsey, South London. Ada understood that beauty was not simply the privilege of the rich, because they could afford it, it had to be accessible to all. The Beautification Committee that she chaired had this brief,

‘to plant trees and flowers…make use of all open spaces, and include amenities for music, sport and children’s playgrounds. Any work done would use unemployed labour, and thus reduce unemployment in the borough.’[2]

Noticeably, there is a direct correlation between the organisations that recognise the intrinsic value of humanity, want to improve social and economic conditions and simultaneously encourage expressions of beauty.

The exceptional Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) houses a choir of current and formerly homeless people, has a free lunch every Thursday which all are welcome to attend and uses exhibitions to address the dispersal of asylum seekers to the area, by looking at the cultural and political context. Similarly, a small charity, ‘Trending’ provide clothes, sartorially equipping people for interview, allowing choice of colour and design and style, and all for free. Drop in services like the Methodist Asylum Project have a selection of adult and children’s clothes on offer, Open Door North East has craft opportunities to allow expression and creativity. Garden competitions in Gresham and a back alley improvement group are quietly working to improve living and community spaces. This is not frivolity this is the stuff of life, humanity and community.

We cannot measure the worth of beauty and artistic expression. It does not sit easily in financial budgets, aims, objectives or economic priorities. Yet it causes people to think, dream, remember, connect and engage. It causes people to come alive.

Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin was sent to help clear Belsen Concentration Camp at the end of WW11 puts it into perspective,

 

“I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen… It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in beds with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”[3]

 

In the UK there are swathes of people dehumanised by bureaucratic systems and budget cuts, whether asylum seekers, single mums, the elderly, the disabled, those on benefits. Most don’t see themselves as ‘poor’, they rightly neither need nor deserve pity, but alongside restorative economic support, there must be opportunities to interact with life affirming aesthetic beauty.

 

 

[1] Yes, there are important conversation about cheaper clothes and cheaper make up, about supply chains and the beauty industry, this piece doesn’t seek to undermine that, but to look at the broader poverty v beauty situation.

 

[2] G. Taylor, Ada Salter, Lawrence & Wishart 2016 p.189.

[3] The Imperial War Museum via http://www.bergenbelsen.co.uk/pages/Database/ReliefStaffAccount.asp?HeroesID=17&