In the Euston Road

Traveling between England and France recently was a profoundly depressing experience.

First I had to get to Euston Station and then walk the few hundred yards to St. Pancras Station. The Euston Road, which runs between them, is not a beautiful thoroughfare at the best of times, and this was certainly not the best of times. I never thought, however, that I would miss the suffocating traffic that normally clogs and chokes it, but this unpleasing phenomenon had been replaced by another, namely a dispiriting emptiness except for numbers of homeless people wandering intoxicated in the road or camping in urine-soaked sleeping bags propped up against walls, surrounded by the detritus of their appalling lives—bottles, packaging of junk food, needles, flattened cardboard cartons.

As a liberal who is only too aware of his own good fortune, I was slightly ashamed of the visceral disgust that they aroused in me. My wife said that these people had the appearance of true degenerates: malnourished, dirty, with rotten teeth and feral expressions. When they spoke—often shouting at each other from great distances—their language was only barely recognizable as English, indeed as language at all, though they were English and almost certainly spoke no other language.

Had they always been there in the Euston Road in such numbers, and had I failed to notice their presence because, before the great confinement of the rest of the population, it had been diluted by that of thousands of normal people passing by? Or had they emerged from somewhere underground, like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ story The Time Machine? To reach such a state of degradation, however, was not the work of a moment; rather, it was that of a lifetime. They must have been somewhere.

Nothing would have been easier than to dismiss them from my mind as degenerates, such as there have always been and probably will always be. But each of them must have had an individual history, most likely a tragic one, or at any rate not one of great privilege. Their every decision would almost certainly have been the worst possible, taken without forethought and always in pursuit of the gratification of the moment. Surely they should be swept up and forced to live better? But how, by whom, and by what right?

One thing that I have noticed about such people in England (though not in France) is that they are almost all white. If such degradation were the result of poverty alone, as if by a kind of mechanical operation, there ought to have been among them a disproportion of people from those ethnic minorities that (we are informed almost ad nauseam) are economically downtrodden and discriminated against. But there were none; hence I concluded that the degradation that I saw was not purely economic in origin, but had some kind of cultural source. I have encountered many alcoholic Sikhs, for example, who were among the most refractory with regard to abstinence of all my patients; I have encountered almost every kind of social pathology among Muslims, from incest to drug addiction—but I have never seen any Sikh or Muslim living the kind of life that I witnessed on the Euston Road.

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