Paul Graham, from Beyond Caring, 1984-5
It was hardly the best of times. Thatcher’s Britain, the Britain of the 1980s, was a place where high unemployment met a government that, at best, didn’t care and the result was a sorry existence for the many for whom work was no more than a distant dream. But of course, this is Britain. We have the welfare state to care for us from cradle to grave, or so we thought.
Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, a series of photographs made in dole office waiting areas in 1984-85 – coincidentally, the time of the miners’ strike – makes for depressing viewing. There is a hopelessness that permeates every aspect of every picture: the spaces are grimly dehumanising; the posture of those who occupy them speaks volumes. There is a sense of resignation, of stalled lives.
I was lucky, in part because I was only unemployed for about six months in the 1980s but more than that, my time of signing on coincided with a DHSS strike that much reduced the actual waiting and signing aspect of the transaction. Nonetheless, I remember the ticketed queuing and the hopelessness of the whole thing. If you didn’t have the skills to find work unassisted (and I was a graduate for whom unemployment was never going to be a long term state, however long those six months might have seemed at the time), the system certainly wasn’t going to help.
The picture Graham presents is a world away from the 1980s of yuppies and the excess of the grasping culture that emerged as the financial sector was deregulated (a culture that remained largely alien even as I inhabited it later in the decade; none of my then colleagues were surprised when I ran away to art school). That the system allowed the unemployed to be treated like this seems to me to amply illustrate Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society’ for if there were, surely it would care?