by Iqbal Siddiqui (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1422)
A Stranger’s Eye: A Foreign Correspondent’s View of Britain by Fergal Keane. Pub: Viking Books, London, 2000. Pp: 217. Pbk: £6.99.
A key part of Western propaganda is the creation of the myth of the good life in modern Western societies. At the same time, the Western media machine regularly reports on the conditions of poor parts of the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and other places.
In this book, Fergal Keane, a well-known BBC foreign correspondent, tours his own country exploring the sorts of places that he regularly visits elsewhere but, as he himself admits, he had never previously realised existed in Britain too. The result is a damning expose of the true state of Western society and the true nature of modern capitalism.
While the myth of the West focuses on the consumer society and the ever-increasing standards of living of Western people, with increasing disposable incomes, increasing leisure time, and an apparently insatiable appetite for the good things in life, Keane discovers a huge ‘underclass’ for whom life is a perpetual struggle and who have no more chance of achieving the Western ideal of a good life than do the poor of Dhaka or Mogadishu.
Keane does not provide a detailed sociological study, laden with statistics and social theories. His strength is in highlighting the human experiences and tragedies of ordinary people struggling to survive in a world that even most Britons would not recognise, let alone foreigners fed a steady diet of sanitised and polished media propaganda.
Many of the families that Keane meets are victims of capitalism: the workers in old industries that are no longer central in modern economies. In the shipyards of Glasgow, the coalfields and steel areas of south Wales, and the agricultural areas of Cornwall and Devon, huge numbers of people live in massive poverty and deprivation, working for subsistence incomes in jobs that they may lose at any time, and surviving on debt and by the sort of economising and sacrifices familiar to Pakistanis, Indians and others in the ‘developing world’. All the while they face the reality that there are few prospects for improvement, while seeing constantly on television and in the shops advertisements for consumer goods that they will never be able to afford for themselves or for their children.
In South Wales, Keane quotes another, rather earlier traveller who asked a local child if he lived well. “When there is bread, we live well,” the child replied. The improvement in conditions since then is marginal, by Keane’s account: there are still households where parents have to decide whether to feed themselves or their children before bed.
Keane also highlights the effects of this social deprivation and hopelessness: the growth in youth despair, drug abuse, homelessness, crime, prostitution and other social ills that come when young people try desperately either to escape the desperate conditions of their communities, or to escape the despair and hopelessness of their condition.
Nor are all the evils that Keane finds linked to social ills. Among the most moving parts of the book is the account of the plight of elderly people who find themselves alone and without support in a society which glorifies youthfulness and independence, and treats them as irrelevant and unimportant. Abandoned by their families and ill-served by the ‘welfare state’ which has been pared down in order to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy of the country, there is a palpable sense of an unwanted people waiting to die.
The conditions in which many immigrant communities live, including Muslims, are often highlighted; Keane’s book shows that the problems affect all parts of British society, suggesting they reflect a deeper malaise.