‘But it looks beautiful!’ When looks deceive

A short while ago, our church had some visitors from New Zealand. They asked about our church, what we were doing and what the local area was like. I opened, as I often do these days, with the comment that Oldham is now the most deprived town in England. They responded with absolute shock.

‘But it looks beautiful!’ they exclaimed. ‘We’ve been shown around the local area and it looks lovely’, they averred. They could hardly believe they were stood in what is considered to be the most deprived town in our country.

Now, to be fair, they had just come back from a visit to some of the poorest parts of Africa where they were supporting some projects including the building of local wells. Given that nobody in Oldham is walking several miles to collect water for the day from a well, things probably looked in fairly good shape. They had just recounted a story about some homeless bloke with some gaping hole in his leg, with something oozing out of it and who was almost certain to die from it left as it was. They mentioned that nobody would help in any way because to access medical care would cost them money. Wandering around Oldham, you’re not likely to see that sort of thing – the NHS doesn’t cost us anything at the point of use so helping someone to get medical care isn’t much of a bind. Things on the face of it, by comparison to where they had been, seemed OK.

What they wouldn’t see is that Coldhurst is the ward with the highest levels of child poverty anywhere in the country. 62 per cent of children in that ward face severe levels of deprivation. They wouldn’t have seen the families who are struggling to feed their children, particularly as they are home during the summer holidays and can’t rely on a free hot meal from their school. They wouldn’t have seen the asylum seekers given less to live on than those who claim job seekers allowance, who themselves can’t pay their own bills. They wouldn’t have seen the local news documenting regular stabbings that, taking account of the relative size of the town, would give London a run for its money. They had no knowledge of our former race riots and the ongoing, underlying tensions that persist increased by entrenched segregation.

What they would have seen is the nice landscape as viewed from the moors (they wouldn’t have seen the child bodies that remain buried there, the location of which Ian Brady, the Moors Murderer, took with him to his grave). They would have seen housing that looked in better nick than the ramshackle huts they had just seen in Africa. They would have seen roads and shops and cafes and all the things that exist in any other English town and give the appearance of affluence and a bustling local economy.

I remember having similar feelings when I went to visit another minister in a hard area. As they showed me around their estate, whilst I admit I wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting, it all seemed much more salubrious than I imagined it would. It all looked alright to me. ‘What’s so hard about this?’ I thought. ‘Where are the burnt out mills?’ I wondered. Where were the markers of deprivation, unemployment and poverty? ‘Oldham seems much worse than this!’ I thought to myself.

But I didn’t see the drug addicts shooting up in the ginnels hidden from view. I didn’t see the empty fridges of the people living on the estate. I didn’t see anyone sat on the street clearly looking dishevelled and poor. But just because I didn’t see them doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Why would I see those things? We weren’t going on some sort of poverty tour in a bid to revel in others’ misery. That would be perverse and not a little distasteful.

All of this is to say that it is easy to judge how things are from the relatively sanitised view of an outsider. If you don’t know what lies beneath the surface, and you have no particular reason to look, why would you think anything was as bad as all that? At the same time, it goes to show that it is possible to take people on a tour that skips over the worse parts of where we live and give the impression that things really are much better than they might think.

Looks, as they say, can be entirely deceiving.