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November 2008
In Sunderland I first needed to make a mobile phone call – a business call – and I sat on a street bench to do that. Sunderland is a very poor town, and people who sat nearby me looked curiously at me, as if they’d never heard someone say things like, ‘I’ll be back in the office tomorrow morning and will email you from there’.
I went into the Winter Garden, which is a kind of circular glass building containing tropical plants – not very large; and a party of primary-age schoolchildren in blue blazers had just completed their visit and were being ushered in and out of the toilets in small groups. I had a look in the adjoining museum and art gallery but was not greatly gripped by anything (I much prefer the museum and art gallery in Kirkcaldy). I then thought I’d try their café and bistro, as they called it, for lunch, but on looking at the menu of meat stew and mashed potatoes and the display of rather tired-looking cakes decided against it. Usually museum cafes are quite good, but the Sunderland one certainly didn't appeal, or not to my urbane middle-class tastes at any rate.
I also thought I’d take a look inside the public library, partly because it was there signposted on the ornamental street signs, and partly because it was nearby. I wondered who would be in there browsing the books, for Sunderland has a poor look about it. The answer turned out to be hardly anyone. The ‘Study Area’ had a few old blokes looking at a newspaper, I could have stayed and studied something, had there been enough time, for there were plenty of free tables. But what was busy, with a queue of people waiting, were the computer terminals, of which there must have been 20-30. I don’t know whether you have to pay anything to use them, I omitted to ask. The people using the terminals and waiting for a vacant one were mostly young – in the 20s and 30s or maybe late teens – and with a large proportion of ethnic faces, that is to say, of an ethnology not generally thought traditional to Sunderland. And that was slightly surprising, as in the streets the population are almost all white. The foreign-looking people are studying, while the indigenous population shuffle the streets (as I have to confess, I was that day).
I had been wondering, strolling the streets of Sunderland, what is it that makes someone look poor? I think it must be a mixture of clothes, complexion and countenance that does it, but I couldn’t precisely pinpoint it. Also if you try looking this up on Google, it is one of those topics of information, that among all the mass of available information, is not there. I have resolved to study this some more, since no one else appears to be doing so.
I think that better-off people tend generally to hold themselves more erect, and I think they wear more-revealing clothes. I was watching the students of Durham University and many of the girls were wearing little pumps on their feet, that are like small boats that cover their toes and heels, but sweep down at the gunwales to reveal an amount of veiny foot. The financially-struggling women of Sunderland, in contrast, wear trainers or clompy male-like shoes. Also the privileged students of Durham University tend to body-hugging jeans, while the downtrodden women of Sunderland have loose-fitting jeans that sag about the bum. But that’s just the shoes and the jeans, there must be a lot more to it than that and I have put it on my list of Very Important Things to Research.


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