Small Town Inertia is a moving collection of Jim Mortram’s portraits of his friends and neighbors in Dereham, UK, portraits that Dave Stelfox, writing in 2014 in the Guardian called “intimate depictions of social exclusion in Britain.” I couldn’t describe it any better, really, so let’s get into the unboxing.
Or, just go order a copy and see for yourself!
I unboxed Small Town Inertia a long time ago. Somehow, it wound up at the bottom of the “to review” pile and, despite following Mortram on Twitter, I largely forgot about it until I commandeered a small, unused bookshelf to serve as the “to review” shelves and organized all the books and zines into a rough order based on acquisition/unboxing date. I’m ashamed of this, full stop. Mortram’s book and the people depicted deserve better.
I was 2 years old when Reagan was elected, and turned 1 the year Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK. Their twin projects of social austerity, based on the nonsense theory of trickle down economics wreaked havoc almost straight away, and here, 40 years later, the super-rich are super-richer; the rich are still sorta rich, but not like they were once; the middle class is poor; the poor are unmentionable. Sure, even the poorest mostly have smartphones and the effbook, and yet there remains a reason politicians only talk to/about the middle class.
But you don’t need me to tell you that. If you don’t recognize it already, you probably won’t, and if you already know, well, you already know. And, anyway, I don’t much know what I’m talking about, middle-class child of privilege that I am.
I always heard, and thought, that there was a social safety net in the UK, that there was this thing called “the dole” that provided a basic income, that there were Council Estates, where struggling people could find inexpensive or state-provided housing, and that the people were all well educated and cultured. My darling wife used emergency housing for a brief period when she left her first husband and availed herself of a number of social programs in the UK, things that pretty much don’t exist here in the US, at least not in the same way. But where my adorable wife had some family and social support, and was able to thrive, more or less, Mortram’s friends and neighbors have far less opportunity, far more obstacles, and his sensitive and honest portraiture shows the reality of the dole (and education… and opportunity) as it exists in the early 21st Century.
I recognize some of the interiors, sort of. They remind me partly of some of the aparments I lived in as a younger man, between high school and college, and partly of a few of the transitional housing units I visited back in the very early 2010s. These old apartment complexes in East Dallas were owned usually by the Catholic Church and provided very inexpensive shared housing to individuals and families who wanted to get off the street. In the three years that I lived in old East Dallas, I saw 3 of these transformed into fancy Melrose Place-type upscale apartments, much like the one I lived in (though much nicer and more expensive; mine was one of the earliest gentrified complexes, though I wasn’t one of the earliest gentrifiers). I expect all are gone now: the last time I was there, the whole length of Gaston was just one fancy apartment complex after another, and I wonder where the few people I knew are now.
I recognize some of the people too. Here in the US, many of them would populate the major intersections, holding signs that offer blessings and request any assistance. Others would pace, muttering, around public parks and everyone would give them wide berth and most would feel some discomfort. It’s the same in the UK, though it seems people there are more willing to talk some smack as they sidestep, or trip, or otherwise harass the weirdo. But for the most part, and due to my massive privilege, well, and the pandemic, most of these people are invisible to me, and by design, more or less.
It seems quite different in the UK. Between the high cost of living on an island, and the high taxes that (used to) provide something for those less fortunate, and the ways the society distributes its schools and teachers, and hospitals and doctors, many people are just, well left out in ways that they’re not here.
Small Town Inertia isn’t poverty porn. It isn’t a call to arms. It isn’t a plea for assistance. What it is, is an appeal to empathy. Mortram, through his portraits, asks those of us who can afford a copy of the book, those of us who have shelves to store books on, have the leisure to flip through photobooks, to recognize that “there but for fortune,” to see those less fortunate as worthy of respect. That, and maybe that we remember them when we vote, even if they don’t.
I’m not going to give Small Town Inertia a rating. I’m too late in writing about it and haven’t done it justice. You can find a soft or hardcover copy for very cheap from Bluecoat Press, and absolutely should. And the next time you avoid that guy at the park or roll to an uncomfortable stop next to the person with the sign, try to recognize their humanity, remember your own good fortune, and at the very least keep you mouth shut and mind your own business. They’re just trying to get through the day just like you, but with far fewer resources, so show some respect.