...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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November 13, 2004 || 7:56 pm

I've finally (thank you Aunt Min!) got my own copy of 'Let us now praise famous men', the Walker Evans/James Agee classic exposé of the poverty in rural Alabama in the 1930s and written about precisely the area where I now live. It is almost de rigeur to say that nothing has changed here, save the replacement of cotton with catfish. But reading that stark, intensely detailed prose, coloured by the pointed discomfort of Agee's relatively privileged background of which he is acutely self-aware, it still makes me draw breath to read the comparisons. Of course, conditions here are better than they were then - only 3% of houses now lack plumbing - but the gap in living conditions between this area and the rest of the nation is as wide now as it was then - this statistic is five times the national average. 53% of single mothers live in poverty, which means an income of less than $12,000 for a family of two.

It is a book that also struggles vividly and unashamedly with the awful paradox that the Rural Studio and the like also grapple with, the paradox of the beauty that comes from poverty: the simple, time-worn shapes of buildings, clothing, landscapes, faces that derives from existing in the most horrible conditions. Poverty now, however, seems much more ugly. Rotting trailer homes, the diabetes and obesity, polyester jogging pants and stained, shapeless t-shirts do not have the romance of faded denim overalls and the silver-grey boards of the sharecroppers' shacks. The poverty 'we' find beautiful here is the remnants of the poverty of Agee's time - the older generation still living in these timber two-room houses, still wearing old brown trousers held up by suspenders, with a creased cotton shirt and a flat cap, driving an ancient Ford or Chevrolet. Having said that, I looked in my iPhoto for a suitable illustration and found the ambiguity still remaining - I'm not sure whether the following pictures show some strange beauty or not.



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