BOOKS

Poverty, Inequality and Health in Britain,1800-2000: a reader Edited by George Davey Smith, Daniel Dorling and Mary Shaw Publisher: Polity Press. ISBN:186134211X.424 pages.£15.99 (hardback£50)

When some of society's leading ideologists tell us that history has come to an end, it is useful to be reminded how much the past determines the present.

'The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, 'wrote Karl Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

In fact, much of the nightmare has, thankfully, been left behind us.Over the past 200 years, British society has confronted, by and large successfully, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, war, pestilence, mass unemployment and mass poverty.

We, or at least the majority of us (and more on that in a moment), enjoy an unprecedented standard of living and better health than ever known to history.

Problems and new threats remain, but while Marx's political revolution never happened, the public health revolution certainly did.

This reader is essentially an account of the past 200 years, with particular reference to the conditions that have supported or degraded health, presented through the eyes of some of the most alert observers of the day.

We may call it history, but in fact this is all contemporary reporting and analysis spread across time.

Yes, Marx is here, and Engels.

But also Thomas Mathus, William Farr, Edwin Chadwick, Henry Mayhew, Rowntree, Charles Booth, Richard Titmuss and many of the usual suspects from the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

There is also an excerpt from a very recent item, Acheson's Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health. In total, 28 chapters.

I must be better read than I thought because there were only three, apart from the thoughtful introduction and the timeline, that I hadn't read before.

Some of these pieces remain remarkably prescient today, such as J Boyd Orr's report on the adequacy of diet in relation to income, written in 1936.

Other pieces, such as Aneurin Bevan's In Place of Fear, 1947, are hard to get hold of and so nice to have as references.

That is the marvel of this book: thought-provoking and hard-to-reach works of the day are brought together in one place - though important authors are missing, like Annie Besant.

And one could argue that a slice of Dickens might have been there for the impact of his views on housing, social relations, poverty, etc. But then Dickens was novelist, and his work is in every bookshop.

What, for the editors, is this compilation really about?

Return to the title.

Poverty, inequality and health in Britain.

What they are essentially saying is that documents drawn from the past two centuries of British history allow us to experiment and test the ideas of today - for example, the view that the poor only have themselves to blame.

What they also say is that despite the public health revolution, poverty continues to shame our society. In relative terms, it is getting worse. (The editors are clearly not 'Friends of Blair' for they snipe: 'Our current prime minister is and has been cosseted from the harder side of life'. ) The editors point to the influence of these past writers in shaping events through good argument, exposure of social conditions and involvement in the construction of the modern state public health infrastructure of the day.

Actually, this is also the job of the modern public health movement as it chides government to do more and fights its battles with our modern anti-health forces.

What this book amply shows is that for all the progress, poverty and inequality must remain at the centre of the concerns of all people of conscience.