Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: What the Dickens is happening?

Charles Dickens tried - but some Kiwis are still living in Dickensian conditions.
Charles Dickens tried - but some Kiwis are still living in Dickensian conditions.

You have to be a very special author specialising in a particular theme to get your own adjective: Kafka worked out that things were really weird, Shakespeare was obsessed with power, Orwell knew they were watching you. All are relevant today. But if you're looking for the best writerly word to sum up the times in which we live, you really can't go past Dickensian.

It usually goes next to words such as "squalor", "conditions" and "filth". It seems to sum up the state of things rather neatly.

Consider some recent phenomena, from considerably more recently than Dickens' time. More than 5000 people in Havelock North became ill when the town's public water supply became contaminated. According to the Guardian, although national pollution standards allow for one polluted day a year, in 2015 Christchurch had eight such days and Timaru had 26.

Child, Youth and Family told a landlord and grandmother who reported two children living in "a 'filth pile' littered with cigarette butts, dirty dishes and animal and human faeces" that their concerns were not high priority.

A Wellington cleaner who couldn't bring himself to tell his wife that they and their three children were being evicted after falling behind in their rent set fire to the house. He was charged with arson.

Work and Income lent a mother of eight more than $60,000 to cover the cost of emergency accommodation, a sum she had no hope of repaying. She was an extreme example of many similar cases.

An unemployed man living in his car placed an advertisement on a supermarket notice board offering to pay rent if he could park his car in a driveway and use the house's bathroom. Housing New Zealand - which provides housing to people who would otherwise be homeless - applied to evict 2591 of its own tenants in the 12 months to June.

The Auckland Regional Public Health Service announced that the number of cases of rheumatic fever was 36 per cent higher for the first half of this year compared with the same period last year.

Ashley Peacock, who has autism, was locked up in a mental health unit for all but 90 minutes a day for the past five years.

The Household Net Worth Survey disclosed that 10 per cent of people own 60 per cent of the country's wealth, and 40 per cent own a total of 3 per cent.

In Kaitaia in the Far North - where median personal income was $23,400 at the last Census - six people under 25 committed suicide within three months.

The reason was "a sense of hopelessness and helplessness of the young people", according to a community leader. "They believe the sun isn't going to come up any more."

Lifeline, the free phone helpline for people with mental health and other problems, notably those considering suicide, said it would close after 52 years when the Government said it would not be renewing its contract with the service.

When a paedophile was moved into a house next door to where two girls aged 5 and 6 lived, their parents complained to the Corrections Department.

It recommended that their daughters play where he couldn't see them.

Dickens was a campaigner - he campaigned against, among other things, pollution, child poverty, poor public health, homelessness and the exploitation of women and children. He died nearly 150 years ago.

Great writer, but he doesn't seem to have made much of a difference.

- Herald on Sunday

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