Boccaccio’s Tales during plague time

Lockdown is very busy. Work, so much work. I don’t even know how I am getting through it, I am so full of sadness and grief, the losses in my family seem to grow every day. I thought Boccacio deserved a little more attention. I find blogging so soothing somehow.

I’ll start with this awesome paragraph, though it comes at the end. Boccacio at his best.

I suppose it will also be said that some of the tales are too long, to which I can only reply that if you have better things to do, it would be foolish to read these tales, even if they were short. Although much time has elapsed from the day I started to write until this moment, in which I am nearing the end of my labours, it has not escaped by memory that I offered these exertions of mine to ladies with time on their hands, not to any others; and for those who read in order to pass the time, nothing can be too long if it serves the purpose for which it is intended (801).

Take that ladies. I think I’m going to use this as the epigraph to my next novel.

So you are probably aware of the set up, the plague has transformed Florence. Pampinea urges her six lovely companions met by chance in a church to flee Florence, go to an estate in the country she knows where they will be safe. They are discussing amongst themselves how this is to be done when Filomena starts in.

Pampinea’s arguments, ladies, are most convincing, but we should not follow her advice as hastily as you appear to wish. You must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened; and hence I greatly fear that if we have none but ourselves to guide us, our little band will break up much more swiftly, and with far less credit to ourselves, than would otherwise be the case. We would be well advised to resolve this problem before we depart.’

Then Elissa said:

‘It is certainly true that man is the head of woman, and that without a man to guide us it rarely happens that any enterprise of ours is brought to a worthy conclusion. But where are we to find these men? As we all know, most of our own menfolk are dead, and those few that are still alive are fleeing in scattered little groups from that which we too are intent upon avoiding…’

You can see why I might be somewhat sceptical of claims that Boccaccio is some kind of proto-feminist (made by this translator G.H. McWilliam, with whom I disagree to no small degree, but more of that later).

Luckily three young men join them in the church, and make this country retreat possible. But only with the help of their three man-servants, of course. Three maids. Not everything has broken down you see. Some still while away the time in music, dancing, napping, telling stories while others do the dirty work — if only they had been able to tell a story or two. We only hear from them once, a fight on the 6th day between Licisca and Tidaro, where she argues that women are never virgins at marriage, as it is untrue that ‘young girls are foolish enough to squander their opportunities whilst they are waiting for their fathers and brothers to marry them off…‘ (445). Ladies, virginity is not all its cracked up to be according to Boccaccio, even though your father/husband/brother/man-you-despise-but-who-really-loves-you are all well within their rights to kill you dead for bestowing it where you please. Do not worry about that at all.

I still enjoyed this book. Let that be said.

It almost feels a guilty pleasure, though, but without quite enough pleasure for that. Along with more than a few good stories, Boccaccio provides a string of tales to prove that men’s love for women should always be rewarded, that rape ends happily and can be quite enjoyable, that to the victor belong the spoils. Yet he also celebrates generosity, loyalty (sometimes), wit, intelligence, quick thinking and sexual desire in women. It is what redeems some of this, but does this a proto feminist make? Unlikely methinks.

It is sobering, too, to reflect on what I would have made of a world where the clothes on your back, the wealth in your pocket, the horse beneath you and the food in your stomach were all predicated on pleasing a patron. Most sobering. At some point I would have said f*&^ off and had to go live in a hovel. If I didn’t start and end there that is.

But I shall leave aside such thoughts as they would have applied to men only anyway, as women could be whores or marry well and little in between. Married at 15, you had little chance to shape your life and even in a hovel it seems to me I would have spent much time over the age of 12 fending off attackers. Widows though…widows seemed to have it the best. I think I would have enjoyed being a widow if I’d had a little money scraped together. I think marrying an old rich man close to death seems to be absolutely the best you could possibly do.

Anyway. Ten days, ten stories a day. Most are themed. Each ends with a poem sung to the company — these did not touch me as the stories did, I felt all the great distance of time staring at these little caring for their overdone sentimentality.

There is running throughout a constant anti-clerical theme that can be enjoyed as misogyny cannot:

The story I propose to relate, concerning the manner in which a sanctimonious friar was well and truly hoodwinked by a pretty woman, should prove all the more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact… (205)

hard on clergy really, with so many men having only slightly more options than women in this medieval set up. Had I been a man without the great career of widow to aim for, I should have had to be in the clergy — books, wine, housing, abstinence non-essential.

Of course, Boccaccio also saves much spleen for Venetians:

as a last resort he moved to Venice, where the scum of the earth can always find a welcome. (303)

Though Rome gets a bit of a mention as well:

Not long ago, in the city of Rome — which was once the head and is now the rump of the civilized world… (385)

One of the most infuriating stories is told by Filomena — she’s pretty awful. I’m going to ruin this story but it is well deserved. A man is in love with a woman. She refuses him. Perfectly reasonable. He travels to a remote bit of forest and sees the ghost of a beautiful and naked woman running through the briars, chased by mastiffs nipping at her heels and eventually catching her and ripping her flesh. The naked woman’s sin? Refusing to sleep with this knight who loved her, who chased her, who committed suicide when she refused him and then she gloated. And then she died. And so this is her punishment, to run naked through thorns, to be attacked by dogs, to have her heart cut out by this knight who loved her — loved her? — and then he throws it to his dogs. And then she is resurrected to do it all again. The same time every day. The first man after watching all this and hearing the story brings his own love and a crowd of others to a dinner on the very spot, she sees it all and can refuse him no more.

…from that day forth the ladies of Ravenna became much more tractable to men’s pleasures than they had ever been in the past. (425)

I know I’m not selling this well, but as a window to a world it is brilliant. The 10th story on the 5th day that laughs at a husband and wife falling in love with the same man and the three heading off into the sunset — this is borrowed from a Roman story to be sure, but still, quite a surprise!

There is also this spoken there, from an old woman acting as a go between for the wife and the young handsome thing she hopes to have an affair with:

‘You must help yourself to whatever you can grab in this world, especially if you’re a woman. It’s far more important for women than for men to make the most of their opportunities, because when we’re old, as you can see for yourself, neither our husbands nor any other man can bear the sight of us, and they bundle us off into the kitchen to tell stories to the cat, and count the pots and pans. And what’s worse, they make up rhymes about us, such as “when she’s twenty give her plenty. When she’s a gammer, give her the hammer,” and a lot of other sayings in the same strain (435).

There’s plenty of the belief that our physical appearance, and any delicacy, beauty, intelligence, wit, all come from noble blood (lol). I suppose the belief in a divine order that we are born into as God wills was really a thing.

Fair ladies [says Pampinea], I cannot myself decide whether Nature is more at fault in furnishing a noble spirit with an inferior body, or Fortune in allotting an inferior calling to a body endowed with a noble spirit, as happened in the case of Cisti, our fellow citizen…This Cisti was a man of exceedingly lofty spirit, and yet Fortune made him a baker. (448)

There are sentences you will almost never find in stories of today, but Cisti gets to be a hero. There are a few stories of commoners. I particularly like this sentence:

‘Go now, with my blessing, and come back soon. And if you should happen to meet Lapuccio or Naldino, don’t forget to ask them to bring me those leather thongs for my flails’ (556).

There is a horrible, terrible vengeful story — eighth day, seventh story, Pampinea. It’s hard to keep track of who tells what as you read, but going back over this Pampinea is possibly the most misogynist of the lot. This is certainly the worst story, where a scholar is humiliated by the woman he wants to make his mistress and so tricks her into almost dying atop a tower. According to notes, this is thought by many commentators to be in part a self portrait, and supported by his later work Corbaccio, described here as ‘possibly the most violent anti-feminist diatribe in medieval literature‘ (854). Yowza, I bet that takes some doing. Leaving that aside for a moment, however, there is this amazing quote that I would like to lift completely clear from this context if I may, and just enjoy on its own merit:

Ah, what a poor misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!’ (588)

Lol.

You get the feeling not everyone likes Emilia. Lauretta tells her as she gives her the crown:

‘I know not, madam, whether you will make an agreeable queen, but we shall certainly have a fair one.’ (644)

Lol.

This, this was a bit poignant.

They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers, so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: ‘Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy’. (648)

This can most certainly be read for enjoyment, a little at a time. I did very much love the informative footnotes, with the occasional footnote quite a bit lol. Like this one:

Dioneo’s suggestion of the possible reason for the ladies’ reluctance to discuss the topic he has prescribed, anticipating Freud, reflects B.’s intuitive understanding of the human psyche. (845, note 1)

He’s referring to the topic of tricks women play on their husbands. Honestly, what?

The next one (p 846 note 1) is more interesting, about the Italian fantisima which he translates as werewolf, ‘described by B.’s contemporary, Jacopo Passavanti, as ‘an animal resembling a satyr, or cat monkey (CAT MONKEY!), which goes around at night causing distress to people‘. Sadly, so sadly, there is no real cat monkey (nor even werewolf) in this story.

The last little bit of trivia is that a chamber pot was ‘The distinctive sign for a doctor’s surgery, urine analysis being the most commonly used method of diagnosing ailments‘ (856).

Anyway, well worth a read, even in (or especially in) a time of pandemic.

Boccaccio, Giovanni ([1353] 1995) The Decameron. 2nd edition translated G.H. McWilliam, London: Penguin.

The desert as postmodern metaphor

Think of how the desert gets turned into metaphor in postmodern rhetoric where it functions as the place of origins, endings and hard truths: the place at the end of the world where all meanings and values blow away; the place without landmarks that can never be mapped; the place where nothing grows and nobody stays put. Radically different desert cultural traditions, precise indigenous knowledges about particular wilderness ecologies get subsumed beneath the definite article — the desert as globalized prediction of what, it’s being implied, is really waiting for us out there in the future (275).

Hebdige, Dick (1993) ‘Training some thoughts on the future’ p 270-279 in Bird et al (eds) mapping the futures: local cultures, global change. London and New York: Routledge.

Why Austerity Kills

I think COVID-19 has made all of us realise just how deadly austerity is, but The Body Economic by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu should be required reading for its death-dealing potential outside of pandemic conditions.

Please, can we not go backwards after this.

I am often nervous about anything that draws parallels too strongly between society and body, policy and medicine. But I think they do it really well here.

Austerity is medicine intended to reduce symptoms of debts and deficits, and to cure recessions. It cuts governmnet spending on healthcare coverage, assistance to the unemployed and housing support. At the start of the trial, its potential side-effects were not well understood (ix).

There is a wealth of work on the social determinants of health such as Marmot‘s review — there is nothing so new here but yet it can’t be repeated enough it seems.

Good health doesn’t start in hospitals and clinics; it starts in our homes and our neighbourhoods, in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the safety of our streets. Indeed, a top predictor of your life expectancy is your zip code. (xi)

They study the impact of the economy on health and find that it is not recession but austerity that impacts it most negatively. ‘Recessions can hurt,’ they write, ‘but austerity kills (xx)’. Even the IMF has recognized this, reversing previous policy, writing that ‘austerity slows down economies, worsens unemployment, and hampers investor confidence.’ Yet how little has changed.

This book consists of chapter after chapter of evidence pulled from around the world (I love this scope around the world…) where divergent paths can be seen and tested to some degree, starting with the Great Depression in the US. States implemented the New Deal very differently, states taking fullest advantage of government supports and providing social services showing mortality rates far below those states which did not. They move on the the post-communist mortality crisis–which I am humbled to say I had never heard of. The authors show that the huge rise in mortality in men — the awful, heartrending rise in mortality — took place wherever in the former Soviet Union they pushed Shock Therapy, ‘a radical package of market reforms’ designed to push the transition to capitalism as quickly as possible. Primarily Harvard economists were behind this: Andrei Shleifer, Stanley Fischer, Lawrence Summers and Jeffrey Sachs. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan followed this advice. Stiglitz was on the other side of this argument, pushing for gradual reform, Belarus, Poland and the Czech Republic followed this path.

The austerity imposed through shock therapy did not just cause a spike in mortality, it also significantly slowed economic recovery — even by its own justification (if there could be such a thing causing so many deaths), it failed. Milton Friedman himself admitted Stiglitz was right.

Another chapter on East Asia, again showcasing the deaths caused by IMF imposed austerity in Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia, as compared to Malaysia where austerity was resisted. Heartbreaking again.

On to the ‘Great Recession’, the approach taken by Iceland prosecuting bankers rather than imposing austerity. Quicker economic recovery, fewer deaths. Compare this to Greece. Compare this to the US, where they write:

A 2009 study found that people who lack medical insurance were 40 percent more likely to die prematurely than those who had it. During the great Recession, before the PPACA came into effect, there were approximately 35,000 avoidable deaths due to the lack of healthcare insurance (99).

People were dying, and at the same time

Profits of health insurance companies soared…In 2009 the top five US health insurance companies reported $12.2 billion in profits, a staggering increase of 56% over the figures for 2008. In 2009, a year that saw 2.9 million people lose coverage, insurance companies’ profits rose by 56 percent (101).

I haven’t read Kenneth Arrow, Nobel prize-winning economist, but he wrote in a 1963 paper that markets ‘often fail to deliver affordable, high-quality healthcare‘ (101). What they do instead, is make some people a whole lot of money.

Stuckler and Basu move on to Italy, the protests of the vidove bianche, or white widows of the increasing numbers of men committing suicide after losing employment. This opens a chapter on suicide and its connections to work, the ever increasing numbers of primarily men killing themselves after the imposition of austerity around the world. The way that governments, as they have done here in the UK, averaging out the numbers of deaths erase the spikes that demand attention.

From work to housing… They look at the unprecedented rise of the West Nile Virus during droughts, ultimately it was discovered that this had been caused by the foreclosure of homes and the breeding of mosquitoes in neglected pools. As an aside, West Nile Virus is a pretty terrifying disease.

This is not the only cost to health from the housing and foreclosure crisis. Housing is a precondition for good health — to be without it is to be among the most vulnerable groups.

People without homes tend to die forty years earlier than those with a roof over their heads. They often suffer from a raft of health problems and lack adequate access to healthcare. In addition, the homeless are at high risk of contracting infectious diseases like TB, which can then spread to the rest of the population. Poor health and homelessness are so closely linked that it is difficult to ascertain which came first, but the public health outcome is the same: a huge increase in the risk of death and avoidable suffering (127).

They describe people skipping medicines to be able to pay mortgages, a rise in hospitalisation leading to increased medical debt leading to increased likelihood of foreclosure. They write that the rise in foreclosures in communities strongly correlated to a rates of emergency room visits.

Heartbreaking.

Ultimately austerity has failed because it is unsupported by sound logic or data. It is an economic ideology. It stems from the belief that small government and free markets are always better than state interventions. It is a socially constructed myth–a convenient belief among politicians taken advantage of by those who have a vested interest in shrinking the role of the state, in privatizing social welfare systems for personal gain. It does great harm–punishing the most vulnerable, rather than those who caused this recession (140).

Well said. These are their recommendations:

To break the cycle of radical austerity programs, we need a New New Deal…To work, it must follow three key principles:

1. “First, do no harm” is the ancient higher law of the healing professions. Because social and economic policies have collateral effects on health and sickness, the doctors’ mantra should become a requirement for all such policies.

2. Help people return to work: In hard times, having a stable job is often the best medicine. Unemployment and the fear of unemployment are among the most significant drivers of poor health that people face in an economic crisis (143).

3. Invest in Public Health (144)

Stuckler, David and Sanjay Basu (2013) The Body Economic: Why Austerity Klls. Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death. NY: Basic Books.

Storytelling in a time of plague: Boccaccio’s Decameron

In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing…numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (4)

Boccaccio describes the Black plague then, the swellings in the groin or armpit, the spread of swelling, the blotches and bruises. From the time of the first sign of swelling you knew you would die.

I can’t imagine it. All that we know now of science and medicine and so this bubble we find ourselves in and the ambulances to take people away and the clean white antiseptic of hospitals and experts and antibiotics and you can still die and it is still terrifying…but not like then.

Against these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing (5)

But what made this pestilence even more severe was that wherever those suffering from it mixed with people who were all unaffected, it would rush upon those with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances…

It did not just do so through direct touch, but through clothes and other objects handled by others. Some became more sober and abstemious and god-fearing, others hedonistic, satisfying all cravings. Laws broke down. Servants died or fled, breaking down some of the distinctions between people, women were no longer able to gather and mourn the dead. The bodies were left lying outside of the door of the home for collection to be buried in mass graves.

…it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence…Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.

Ah, how great a number of splendid palaces, fine houses, and noble dwellings, once filled with retainers, with lords and with ladies, were left bereft of all who had lived there… (13)

Thus the circumstances that lead seven young ladies to gather at a church. Pampinea says:

Here we linger for no other purpose, or so it seems to me, than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial, or to hear whether the friars of the church, very few of whom are left, chant and their offices at the appropriate hours, or to exhibit the quality and quantity of our sorrows, by means of the clothes we are wearing, to all those whom we meet in this place. And if we go outside, we shall see the dead and the sick being carried hither and thither, or we shall see people, once condemned to exile by the courts for their misdeeds, careering wildly about the streets in open defiance of the law, well knowing that those appointed to enforce it are either dead or dying; or else we shall find ourselves at the mercy of the scum of our city who, having scented our blood, call themselves sextons and go prancing and bustling all over the place, singing bawdy songs that add insult to our injuries. Moreover, all we ever hear is “So-and-so’s dead” and “So-and-so’s dying”; and if there were anyone left to mourn, the whole place would be filled with sounds of weeping and wailing.

And if we return to our homes, what happens? I know not whether your own experience is similar to mine, but my house was once full of servants, and now that there is no one left apart from my maid and myself, I am filled with foreboding and feel as if every hair of my head is standing on end. Wherever I go in the house, wherever I pause to rest, I seem to be haunted by the shades of the departed, whose faces no longer appear as I remember them but with strange and horribly twisted expressions that frighten me out of my senses. (13-14)

Our coronavirus is not quite like this. It is strange to know that it is all around us, to watch the numbers of the dead climb, to mourn. To hear accounts of places like New York where a friend of mine describes constant sirens, fear, a life more at risk for Asian features as attacks spread. To see the strange attacks here in the UK on G5 masts, this mad conspiracy theory but yet its components not mad at all in marking out the collusion of government and industry for profit without caring about human cost. I can’t look too hard at what is happening around us to be honest.

We have been in a bubble, my partner and I, still allowed to go outside though as of yesterday lockdown extended three more weeks. It will be more, how could it not be more?

And today my grief sits hot and unbearable in my chest, it is not the covid but the cancer, taking my aunt and there is nothing to do. No way to go. Impossible to travel to be present to say goodbye to grieve with family. I am not the first by any stretch to note the horror of this epidemic is the way it keeps us apart from one another, though if we are lucky we can drive by family homes, speak to them from the drive, press our hands against their windows. But not when they are an ocean away.

To travel such distance, always a privilege. It requires money or credit cards, the right to travel with a legal status and passport that permit exit, entrance, return. This should belong to all of us. The cost of its absence immeasurable.

I take refuge, as my family always does, in some level of dark humour. This is from the introduction to the Decameron:

…the sombre and frightening prelude which medieval rhetoricians regarded as an essential component of the genre of comedy to which the Decameron, like Dante’s great poem, was intended to belong. Both works, in fact, despite their obvious differences in form and subject-matter, respect the definition of comedy formulated for instance by Uguccione da Pisa in his Derivationes: ‘a principio horribilis et fetidus, in fine prosperis desiderablis et gratus’ (foul and horrible at the beginning, in the end felicitous, desirable and pleasing’). (xlii)

You don’t even need a translation for that. I rather love this idea of comedy, always have, but it seems even more necessary now. It makes me think of Stewart Lee, though he rarely gets around to the felicitous, desirable and pleasing. I love him for it.

The gifts of the River

I praise
The gifts of the river.
Its shiftless and glittering
Re-telling of a city,
Its clarity as it flows,
In the company of runt flowers and herons,
Around a bend at Islandbridge
And under thirteen bridges to the sea.
Its patience at twilight —
Swans nesting by it,
Neon wincing into it.

Maker of
Places, remembrances,
Narrate such fragments for me:

One body. One spirit.
One place. One name.
The city where I was born.
The river that runs through it.
The nation which eludes me.

Fractions of a life
It has taken me a lifetime
To claim.

‘Anna Liffey’, Eavan Boland

[Boland, Eavan (1994) In a Time of Violence. Manchester: Carcanet.]

From Sam Wild to Robert Donat

Today’s walk was long, inspiring, wonderful, still a bit grim. The home of Sam Wild, who fought against fascists first in Manchester and then in Spain, a piece of history to explore further but I am glad his house is just down the road. The birthplace of actor Robert Donat and a chat at….possibly just one metre with the lovely couple who now live there. His son visited with the Oscar — it turns out Oscars are really heavy! She volunteers at the local food bank which initially shut down, but was about to start up again with different patterns of work.

Talking to strangers, these are mad times.

A Russian Orthodox church. A synagogue. Stone entries falling apart in a way I didn’t know stone could, all student rentals. A bridge club. Pubs shut. Police tape closing off courts. Old moat park with no real exciting history behind it. A huge queue to get into Sainsbury’s (not Nando’s as Mark hoped in vain) so we walked on by.

Sadly the best thing we saw that day might just have been the cat sitting in the window just down the street as we left. But no, Sam Wild won hands down.

Gropius on the architects Behind the New Architecture

Germany: Behrens & the Werkbund

Germany played the leading role in the development of the new architecture. Long before the war the Deutscher Werkbund had been formed in Germany. At that time such an outstanding leader as Peter Behrens was not a strange or isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, he already had a powerful backing in the Deutscher Werkbund, a body which formed a reservoir of the forces of progress and renewal. I well remember the animated discussion at the Werkbund’s public sessions during the Cologne Exhibition of 1914 which so many foreigners attended; and the publication of the first of the Werkbund’s well-known yearbooks at about the same time. It was in active collaboration in the latter that I gained my first comprehensive insight into the movement as a result of drawing up a sort of inventory of the existing state of architecture. Between 1912 and 1914, too, I designed my first two important buildings: the Fagus Factory at Alfeld, and the Office Building for the Cologne Exhibition, both of which clearly evince that emphasis on function which characterizes the new architecture. (61)

France: Auguste Perret

During this same prewar period Auguste Perret was the leading personality in France. The Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, built in 1911-13, was designed by Perret in collaboration with the Belgian Van de Velde, who was then living in Weimar and working in close contact with the Deutscher Werkbund. Perret’s chief title to fame is his extraordinary constructive skill, which altogether surpasses his gifts as spatial designer. Although more engineer than architect, he indubitably belongs to the founders of modern architecture, for it was he who succeeded in freeing architecture from its ponderous monumentalism by his audacious and wholly unprecedented forms of construction. Yet this great pioneer for long remained a voice crying in the wilderness as far as France was concerned. (61)

Austria: Otto Wagner

In Austria, Otto Wagner had built his Post Office Savings Headquarters in Vienna at the tum of the century. Wagner dared to expose plain surfaces entirely free of decoration and moldings. Today, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what a revolution such a step implied. Simultaneously Adolph Loos, another Viennese, began writing those articles and books in which he set forth the fundamentals of the new architecture, and building that large shop in the Michaelplatz, immediately opposite the Hofburg in Vienna, which so inflamed the passions of a population accustomed to Baroque forms. (61-62)

U.S.: Louis Sullivan

Root built a brick skyscraper in Chicago in 1883. About the end of the century Sullivan–Frank Lloyd Wright’s far too little recognized master–constructed buildings of this type which are epoch.making, and also formulated architectural principles which contain the pith of the functional doctrines of today. We must not forget that it was Sullivan who wrote, “Form should follow function.” Intellectually speaking, he was more articulate in his ideas than Frank Lloyd Wright, who was later to inspire so many European architects in both a spatial and a structural sense. Later on, and more particularly in the postwar period, Frank Lloyd Wright began to manifest a growing attachment to romanticism in his lectures and articles that was in sharp contradiction to the European development of the new architecture. At the present moment the Americans have the most fully developed constructional technique of any nation in the world-as I had an opportunity of seeing for myself in the course of my investigations in the United States. But in spite of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and a very highly developed technical organization, their artistic evolution has remained in abeyance. The intellectual and cultural background necessary for its preparation does not as yet exist. (62-63)

England: Housing, Planning and Raymond Unwin

England’s contribution has been confined to housing and town planning; but Sir Raymond Unwin’s ideas and the English garden cities have influenced the whole European housing movement. (64)

Gropius, Walter ( 1966 [1943]) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.

Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture

I almost wholeheartedly loved Walter Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture. One of the key figures of Bauhaus, he still writes this as his preface, reminding us of the ideals behind the best of this new architecture:

CREATION AND love of beauty are elemental for the experience of happiness. A time which does not recognize this basic truth does not become articulate in the visual sense; its image remains blurred, its manifestations fail to delight.

Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic
ugliness of our modem man-made environment when compared to the unity and beauty of old, preindustrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.

How such a unity might be attained to become the visible pattern for a true democracy-that is the topic of this book. It is based, essentially, on articles and lectures written-with a few exceptions-during my years in Harvard University as chairman of the Department of Architecture (1937-1952). (7)

So much in common here with so many others I have read:

ENTERING A new chapter of my life that–contrary to the normal expectation of life after seventy–looks to me just as turbulent and perilous as the period preceding it, I realize that I am a figure covered with labels, maybe to the point of obscurity. Names like “Bauhaus Style,” “International Style,” “Functional Style” have almost succeeded in hiding the human core behind it all, and I am eager, therefore, to put a few cracks into this dummy that busy people have slipped around me. (11)

So many cracks! I am so glad to have read this.

Part 1: Education of Architects and Designers

He is and architect and planner, but in many ways and above all a teacher. There is so much here about supporting the following generations to think, imagine, create for themselves. It is lovely, open-minded, focused always on self-improvement through collective endeavor. I also love the way he italicises sentences — much like Ruskin’s aphorisms but not pulled to one side. I have highlighted them because the formatting loses them just a little.

MY intention is not to introduce a, so to speak, cut and dried “Modern Style” from Europe, but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions. I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him independently to create true, genuine forms out of the technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not so much a ready-made dogma that I want to teach, but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic. (17)

This is a little more of what I was expecting:

Only perfect harmony in its technical functions as well as in its proportions can result in beauty. That makes our task so manifold and complex. (18)

But this relates more to understanding architecture as not simply of aesthetic value but its role in our everyday lives. The way he writes shades sometimes into the uncomfortable pronouncements of the expert upon how lives should be lived, but there is enough sensibility of people’s need to have ownership and control over their environments that could win out over such a top-down assumption of privilege. I am not sure they always did of course, but they might have.

More than ever before is it in the hands of us architects to help our contemporaries to lead a natural and sensible life instead of paying a heavy tribute to the false gods of make-believe. We can respond to this demand only if we are not afraid to approach our work from the broadest possible angle. Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. (18)

My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea

After that violent eruption, every thinking man felt the necessity for an intellectual change of front. Each in his own particular sphere of activity aspired to help in bridging the disastrous gulf between reality and idealism. It was then that the immensity of the mission of the architect of my own generation first dawned on me. I saw that, first of all, a new scope for architecture had to be outlined, which I could not hope to realize, however, by my own architectural contributions alone, but which would have to be achieved by training and preparing a new generation of architects in close contact with modern means of production in a pilot school which must succeed in acquiring authoritative significance…

I tried to put the emphasis of my work on integration and co-ordination, inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, for I felt that the art of building is contingent upon the co-ordinated teamwork of a band of active collaborators whose co-operation symbolizes the co-operative organism of what we call society. (19)

I can’t help but feel that this is the genius of Gropius, not so much in what he designed but in the open vision he developed and invited others to own, the creation of collaborative spaces that respected all aspects of creative work, the support of an ideal that working together we are always better than working alone. This thread runs throughout his writings, as does the necessity of reconciling the new industrial reality with a high quality of art and life in a way that someone like Ruskin never could.

Thus the Bauhaus was inaugurated in 1919 with the specific object of realizing a modern architectonic art… It deliberately concentrated primarily on what has now become a work of imperative urgency–averting mankind’s enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life. This means evolving goods and buildings specifically designed for industrial production. (20)

And so we have interdependence rather than individualism:

What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world. (20)

Our conception of the basic unity of all design in relation to life was in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake” and the much more dangerous philosophy it sprang from, business as an end in itself. …

Here again the emphasis on an openness of vision:

The object of the Bauhaus was not to propagate any “style,” system or dogma, but simply to exert a revitalising influence on design. A “Bauhaus Style” would have been a confession of failure and a return to that devitalizing inertia, that stagnating academism which I had called it into being to combat…

God knows we have too much of the stagnating academism. He opposed this as much as he did the early specialisation to the ignorance of other forms of art and knowledge:

The Bauhaus aimed at the training of people possessing artistic talents as designers in industry and handicrafts, as sculptors, painters and architects. A complete co-ordinated training of all handicrafts, in technique and in form, with the object of teamwork in building, served as the basis. (23)

It embraces this idea of industrialisation as a force that can free us from labour rather than enslave us further. When exactly did we lose that?

The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much unnecessary dead weight so as to leave him freer to develop on a higher plane. (20) … Ruskin and Morris were the first to set their faces against the tide, but their opposition against the machine could not stem the waters. It was only much later that the perplexed mind of those interested in the development of form realized that art and production can be reunited only by accepting the machine and subjugating it to the mind. (21)

and this, refining and repurposing their critique for modern times:

The difference between industry and handicraft is due far less to the different nature of the tools employed in each, than to subdivision of labor in the one and undivided control by a single workman in the other. (22)

His solution? Perhaps not immediately obvious, I am not sure even now perhaps with the benefit of hindsight given all the complexities of capital and consumerism.

DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD TYPES. The creation of standard types for everyday goods is a social necessity. The standard product is by no means an invention of our own era. It is only the methods of producing it which have changed. It still implies the highest level of civilization, the seeking out of the best, the separation of the essential and superpersonal from the personal and accidental It is today more necessary than ever to understand the underlying significance of the conception “standard”–that is to say, as a cultural title of honor–and firmly to combat the shallow catchword propaganda which simply raises every industrial mass product to that high rank. (26)

Last point here, the importance he set on practice, on experience, on book learning and classroom teaching less than half an education. I love how the material space of the Bauhaus came to be.

In particular, the erection of our own institute buildings, in which the whole Bauhaus and its workshops co-operated, represented an ideal task. (27)

Is there a science of Design?

This looks at design psychologically, understanding how we experience reality and illusion, how children’s perceptions change, the impacts of our subconscious. All the new insights swirling about at the time that now perhaps feel a little dated — but so will our theories in the same span of time. I would like to think architects continue to grapple with them. Gropius again turns to a kind of standardisation:

If design is to be a specific language of communication for the expression of subconscious sensations, then It must have its own elementary codes of scale, form and color. It needs its own grammar of composition to integrate these elementary codes into messages which, expressed through the senses, link man to man even closer than do words. The more this visual language of communication is spread, the better will be the common understanding. This is the task of education: to teach what influences the psyche of man in terms of light, scale, space, form and color. (33)

I am unsure what quite I think of this. What resonates more clearly is the insight into a need for change and motion, the enjoyment of creative tensions.

THE NEED FOR CHANGE. This shift in the basic concept of our world from static space to continuously changing relations engages our mental and emotional faculties of perception…Art must satisfy this perpetual urge to swing from contrast to contrast; the spark, generated by tension of opposites, creates the peculiar vitality of a work of art. For it is a fact that a human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. (40)

He writes a bit later:

We have also learned that the human being needs frequently
changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. To produce such a stimulus for him contemporary artists and architects try to create the illusion of motion. (69)

Part Two: The Contemporary Architect

Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture

I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concerns every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe. (59)

I am not sure this still feels true, but I love how it rings.

Archeology or Architecture for Contemporary buildings?

This reminds me quite a bit of Lefebvre, and I love this stretching towards how the co-constitution of society and material built environment might work.

ARCHITECTURE is said to be a true mirror of the life and social behavior of a period. If that is true, we should be able to read from its present features the driving forces of our own time. There is conflicting evidence, however. …

Surely there will always be conflicting evidence, surely this conflict must reflect the various social conflicts as much as capital and its dominant aesthetic and social ideals.

Good original architecture depends just as much on an understanding public as on its creators. (66)

I’m still thinking through that.

The Architect Within Our Industrial Society

His is a broad vision far beyond architecture conceived as a single structure, as his writing on housing issues and planning show. He has strong critique of capitalism:

The satisfaction of the human psyche resulting from beauty is just as important for a full, civilized life, or even more so, than the fulfillment of our material comfort requirements.

We sense that our own period has lost that unity, that the sickness of our present chaotic environment, its often pitiful ugliness and disorder have resulted from our failure to put basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements. (71)

As already noted, a strong preference for the collective above the individual, and a very different vision of leadership based on this:

to collaborate without losing their identity. This is to me an urgent task lying before the new generation, not only in the field of architecture but in all our endeavors to create an integrated society. (78)

The conditio sine qua non of true teamwork is voluntariness;
it cannot be established by command. It calls for an unprejudiced state of mind and for the firm belief that togetherness of thought and action is a prerequisite for the growth of human culture. Individual talent will assert itself quickly in such a group and will profit for its part from the cross-fertilization of minds in the give and take of daily contact. True leadership can emerge when all members have a chance to become leaders by performance, not by appointment. Leadership does not depend on innate talent only, but very much on one’s intensity of conviction and devotion to serve. Serving and leading seem to be interdependent. (79)

Synchronizing all individual efforts the team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials than is represented by the sum of the work of just so many individuals. (80)

Architect–Servant or Leader?

So what has Bauhaus achieved in his view?

If we look back to see what has been achieved during the last thirty or forty years we find that the artistic gentleman-architect who turned out charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences has almost vanished. This type of applied archeology is disappearing fast. It is melting in the fire of our conviction that the architect should conceive buildings not as monuments but as receptacles for the flow of life which they have to serve, and that his conception must be flexible enough to create a background fit to absorb the dynamic features of our modern life. (84)

If only this had not been quite so true, resulting in today’s starchitect working in service of capital:

This cult of the ego has delayed the general acceptance of the sound trends in modern architecture. Remnants of this mentality must be eliminated before the true spirit of the architectural revolution can take root among the people everywhere and produce a common form expression of our time after almost half a century of trial and error. This will presuppose a determined attitude of the new architect to direct his efforts toward finding the type, the best common denominator instead of toward the provocative stunt. (85)

It feels like we now live in ever more global cities of provocative stunts and banal ‘luxury’ residential sameness precisely because ‘we’ (developers, planners, people with money) have failed to put ‘basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements‘. Principally economic as financialisation sweeps all before it. It has resulted in a cold and sterile style that draws on Bauhaus, but has none of its soul, vision or open adaptability to facilitate life rather than capital.

Anyway, a few more posts on this to come — much better than the old post on another of my dad’s old books that I read some time ago now.

Gropius, Walter ( 1966 [1943]) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.

Following the medlock part 1

Longsight…it’s difficult finding an uplifting daily walk for government-sanctioned health purposes in midst of pandemic. Hands dug in pockets. Crossing streets once, twice, three times but giving people a grin as we pass well clear of them. I have come to hate fly-tipping with a previously unknown passion. The strips of park along the Medlock are full of trash.

Still, we have found a wealth of things beyond the markers of resources stripped from Manchester’s green spaces. The previous site of Ardwick Cemetery, open for burials from 1838 to 1950. Here John Dalton was buried among others, named on the stone plaque that marks this memory alongside the playing fields now on the site. They sit behind the Nicholls Hospital, now a school but once an orphanage built in memory of John Ashton Nicholls by his parents after his early death. He did a great number of liberal things with his wealth drawn from cotton manufacturing, and I imagine I shall read more of him at some point.

Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist, was born on 25 March 1823 at Grosvenor Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, the only child of Benjamin Nicholls (1796–1877), cotton spinner and mayor of Manchester (1853–5), and his wife, Sarah, daughter of John Ashton and his wife, Sarah, of Manchester…Having entered his father’s firm during the bitter conflicts of the 1840s, Nicholls displayed a strong desire to improve the condition of the working class and to help reconcile employers and employed through personal example, voluntary endeavour, and civic action. In the vicinity of his firm, he was the linchpin of the Ancoats Lyceum, organizing numerous lectures and entertainments, ‘not knowing’, he wrote to Mrs R. H. Greg, ‘any better way in which employers can show their sympathy with their workpeople, than by joining them in their amusements’ (Nicholls to Greg, 30 Dec 1848, Quarry Bank Mill, Greg MSS)…Nicholls did much for adult education subsequently through his popular lectures and his organizational involvement in the Manchester Athenaeum. He also set up a half-time school for factory children in Mather Street, Manchester, and acted as treasurer of the Manchester Model Secular School established by the National Public School Association…Closely associated with the Cross Street Chapel under William Gaskell’s ministry, Nicholls worked for the spiritual improvement of the working classes through the Unitarian Home Missionary Board. He also joined the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association and spoke eloquently on the need for social improvement, temperance, working-class self-reliance, and rational recreation…Nicholls died of ‘low fever’ at Eagley House, Manchester, on 18 September 1859. He never married. He was buried at Cross Street Chapel, and his funeral sermon (23 September 1859) was preached by William Gaskell, whose wife, Elizabeth, noted the passing of ‘a friend of ours, a young man of some local distinction’ (Letters of Mrs Gaskell 574). His life’s work was commemorated by a tablet in Cross Street Chapel, an obelisk in Great Ancoats Street, erected by the working men to ‘their invaluable friend’ (Gaskell, Christian Views, 129) in July 1860, and by the Nicholls Hospital, an orphanage set up by his parents at a cost of some £100,000, a substantial benefaction in Victorian Manchester. [Gordon, A., & Howe, A.  (2004, September 23). Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 11 Apr. 2020, from https://www-oxforddnb-com.salford.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20113.]

We walked across Pin Mill Brow (such an evocative name but the landscape it references is erased by the Mancunian way, one of these great roads driven trough the heart of Manchester and its working class communities to create a pedestrian hell) to Limekiln Lane (a track and a memory of what was here) and the river (a sad stretch of water running between bricks and concrete).

We followed it from here to Gurney Street (it was a long way just to get to Limekiln lane you know, no way to just hop on a bus home), turning there to see the Church of All Souls, a hulking Gothic ruin that rises high above the council housing surrounding it. It was Radcliffian in its splendour, and its registration entry for Historic England as a grade II building hardly does it justice:

Former church. 1839-40, by William Haley. Brown brick with some stone dressings, slate roof. Romanesque style. Rectangular plan on south-west/north-east axis. The 3-bay gabled east and west ends have square pilasters to the corners and flanking the projected centre bay, all with stone false machicolation and pyramidal roofs and those flanking the centre of the west front including tall open-arcaded belfry stages. The centre of the west front has a stone central doorway, with chevron and lobed nook-shafts on scalloped capitals…built for Dr Samuel Warren, who had been expelled from the Wesleyan Methodist Connection; assigned a district in 1842.

It is nice to see the messages of support for our frontline workers, messages of solidarity. The corpse of Winnie-the-Pooh, however, unexpected.

Octavia Hill: A Housing Legacy

Life of Octavia Hill

This follows on from a first post about the life of Octavia Hill and on to the beginnings of what Hill would become best known for — housing. There are many better books I gather about her housing legacy, but I ended up with this one. I may get to the others.

This is her sister Emily’s account (wife of Charles Edmund Maurice, who put this collection together):

With regard to the housing problem, my wife gives the following account of the incident which first fixed Octavia’s mind on the subject :

“When we went to Nottingham Place, Octavia arranged to have a weekly gathering in our kitchen, of the poor women whom we knew, to teach them to cut out and make clothes. One night, one of the women fainted and we found out that she had been up all the previous night washing, while she rocked her baby’s cradle with her foot. Next day, Octavia went to the woman’s home, and found her living in a damp, unhealthy kitchen. Octavia was most anxious to help her to move into more healthy quarters, and spent a long time hunting for rooms; but could find none where the children would be taken. Then all she had heard as a child about the experiences of her grandfather, Dr. Southwood-Smith, in East London, and all she had known of the toy-workers’ homes, rushed back on her mind; and she realised that even at her very doors there was the same great evil. With this in her mind, she went to take her drawings to Ruskin, not long after the death of his father. He was burdened by the responsibility of the fortune that he had just inherited, and told Octavia how puzzled he was as to the best use to make of it. She at once suggested the provision of better houses for the poor. He replied that he had not time to see to such things ; but asked whether, if he supplied the Capital for buying a tenement house, she could undertake the management. He should like to receive five per cent. (189)

This is the first reference to it from Ruskin himself. I don’t know how I didn’t know it was Ruskin provided the wherewithal to begin this…I love this letter in relation to The Seven Lamps.

May 19th, 1864.

MY DEAR OCTAVIA, Yes, it will delight me to help you in this ; but I should like to begin very quietly and temperately, and to go on gradually. My father’s executors are old friends, and I don’t want to discomfort them by lashing out suddenly into a number of plans,—in about three months from this time I shall know more precisely what I am about : meantime, get your ideas clear—and, believe me, you will give me one of the greatest pleasures yet possible to me, by enabling me to be of use in this particular manner, and to these ends.

Affectionately yours, J. Ruskin.

Thank you for notes upon different people. I’ve got the plates for Miss B. (213)

There are curious moments of reflection on her own character

To Florence (4th February 1863)

I often long for you, dear, with all your sympathy with people in general, and power of making children happy. You know I’ve a damping cool sort of way that just stabs all their enjoyment. I don’t think I’ve any child nature left in me. However, it will injure them less, that what they all want is to grow up. (204)

But she seems to have been such a force of nature, small wonder she preferred to work alone…the number of buildings soon expanded.

May 19th, 1866.

To Miss BAUMGARTNER. My work grows daily more interesting. Ruskin has bought six more houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood. Some houses in the court were reported unfit for human habitation, and have been converted into warehouses ; the rest are inhabited by a desperate and forlorn set of people, wild, dirty, violent, ignorant as ever I have seen. Here, pulling down a few stables, we have cleared a bit of ground, fenced it and gravelled it; and on Tuesday last, opened it as a playground for quite poor girls. I worked on quite alone about it, preferring power and responsibility and work, to committees and their slow, dull movements ; and when nearly ready I mentioned the undertaking, and was quite amazed at the interest and sympathy that it met with. Mr. Maurice and Mr. L. Davies came to the meeting ; and numbers of ladies and gentlemen ; and the whole plan seem to meet with such approval that subscriptions are offered, and I hope to make the place really very efficient. My girls are of course very helpful…

My dear old houses contribute the aristocracy to all Our entertainments. We took twenty of the children from them, to make a leaven among the wilder ones on Tuesday ; and I hope much from them here-after… (221)

This is the kind of thing she wrote to her tenants while abroad for reasons of her health:

LETTER READ AT GATHERING OF TENANTS (16th June 1867)

MY DEAR FRIENDS. As you will be all together I take the opportunity of writing a few words to tell you how much I am thinking of you. I remember the many times we have met on such occasions before, and I long to be amongst you. I should so like to have a little chat with each of you, to hear how all the little ones are, and how you have been getting on all this long time. My sisters write and tell me how you are, more than once a week ; but you know this is never quite the same as talking to you. Those are, however, my happiest days when I hear good news of you ; and the best news I could hear is that you are trying to do what is right. You and I, my friends, each know how difficult this is; we have each our different temptations, but we will strive to do better than we have done. You will all know how I look for good news of you, how I have wished to see you make your homes better and happier, how I have felt that the places I possessed were given me to make them better; how I have loved my work, and now that I have only left it in the full hope of going back to it far better able to do it than I was. So you will understand that I hope we have a great deal to do together, in the glad time to come, when I shall be among you again. (231)

There are these little tidbits…

To Miss F. Davenport Hill (9th May 1869)

I had the report from a surveyor on the houses for which we are in treaty. He says very naively, “It seems to me the houses are much out of repair, tho’ considered by the landlord in excellent condition for the class of inmates.” He says, too, the property in the neighbourhood is in excellent condition, and will let well. . . (252)

She went to see Saltaire where I would also very much like to go (also this is already a taste of her growing fame, won precisely through her work on housing):

6, Clifton Villas, Bradford, September 17th, 1869.

TO EMILY. To-night there is to be a dinner party here. Dr. Bridges and several influential people are asked to meet me;—I do feel such a take-in of a person. I wish some-one would explode me ; it is so difficult to un-humbug oneself. It is all taken for extreme modesty (fancy mine !) and laid to one’s account as so much excellence. A Mr. and Mrs. R. K., who are looked upon as great guns, are giving a dinner party in my honour. Really its very ridiculous ; what I am glad of is that I am going to see Saltaire, a model village near here which has grown up round a manufactory, belonging to a Mr. Titus now Sir Titus) Salt ; no beer shops there, Only model cottages, schools, etc. . . I’m very happy, and as bright as can be ; but save me from this again! (255)

Her housing work is impossible to separate from these complicated relationships with other women, younger women. Her role as part martyr part savior. I am so looking forward to reading Beatrice Webb’s memoirs of her time as a rent collector. But to turn to Miss Mayo.

Church Hill House, Barnet, September 26th, 1871.

TO MISS MAYO. It is no joke to get £3,000, to ascertain precisely the value of the property, and to negotiate with all the people concerned, in exactly the right order and way. I have not had a spare five minutes I think till now ; and I have thought of you so much, and so very lovingly.

There is something ludicrous in attempting to foresee events. On the principles we may build, for they do not change ; but the outward things and their teachings we cannot foresee.

Somehow personal poverty is a help to me. It keeps me more simple and energetic, and somehow low and humble and hardy, in the midst of a somewhat intoxicating power. It pleases me, too, to have considerable difficulty and effort in my own life, when what I do seems hard to the people…(270)

Intoxicating power…there are such fascinating hints to her in these letters, but not enough to go on in pulling them together into a fair picture.

Too Miss Mayo (26 September 1871)

I am thinking of writing on the subject of women’s work from their own homes. You know how strongly I believe in its practicability and power.

You all know Freshwater Place, our first freehold, Mr. Ruskin’s court, where we have our playground, which is mixed up with May festival memories for many of you.

You know something of how hard I worked for it long ago ; my difficulties in building the wall, and in contending with the dirt of the people how gradually we reduced it to comparative order, have paved it, lighted it, supplied water cisterns, raised the height of rooms, built a staircase, balcony, and additional storey; how Mr. Ruskin had five trees planted for us, and creepers, and by his beautiful presents of flowers, helped to teach our people to love flowers. You know, or can imagine, how dear the place is to me.

For some six years now, I have thought that, if ever I could afford it, I should like to put up along the whole length of the four houses which face the play-ground on the east side, some words, which have been very present to me many a time, when my plans for improving the place for the tenants were either very unsuccessful for the moment, or very promising or very triumphant, or very bright, but far away in the future.

The words are these : “Every house is builded by some man; but He that built all things is God” (293-94)

In an 1874 letter to her sister Emily, her mother notes how she continues to receive offers of property. It is a bit tangled here — her sister Miranda’s founding of the Kyrle Society to bring beauty to the homes of the poor (!), which would include public space and gardens, Octavia’s involvement with that and also with the Commons Preservation Society, though she did not quite see eye to eye with this ‘more combative body’ nor according to Maurice did they understand her distinction between her roles for the two at the same time. So she left to focus on the work with her sister which would lead in time to her also cofounding the National Trust.

It also seems to me her heroes did not ask her the right kinds of questions…

June 8th, 1876.

FROM RUSKIN. My question, a very vital one, is, whether it really never enters your mind at all that all measures of amelioration in great cities, such as your sister’s paper pleads for, and as you rejoice in having effected, may in reality be only encouragements to the great Evil Doers in their daily accumulating Sin?

Venice, shortest day, 1876.

And still her housing work continues…the drive and effort involved immense

To Mrs Gillum (7th Feb 1877)

…the ever-flowing stream of persons with whom I have to make appointments on business, and the incessant buzz around me of my assistants and immediate fellow-workers, leave me in a state of utter exhaustion on a Saturday night, which makes perfect stillness the only possibility for Sundays…

I know you will begin to tell me I ought to give something up. And I could only answer my whole life is giving up of work. I part with bit after bit often of that I care for most, and that week after week ; but it is the nearest of all duties, added to the large new questions, in which a little of my time goes a very long Way, which thus engross me. Such, for instance, as those I have now in hand—the purchase for Lord Pembroke of £6,000 worth of houses for the poor. He gives money, pays worker; one of my fellow workers trains her. Mr. Barnett sends me names of courts; but the seeing the spot, its capabilities, value, the best scheme to improve it, getting surveyors’ and lawyers’ reports, I must do. I have six such schemes in hand now, small and large together at this moment. Then I had to see Sir James Hogg, the chairman of the Metrop, Bd. of Works, on Tuesday about the Holborn rebuilding under the Art. Dwell. Bill. I have obtained leave from Sir E. Colbroke to plant the Mile End Road with trees. I have all the negotiations with the vestry to make. The C.O.S. takes much of my time, tho’ I have left all our local works to others. Then all the time I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge and, though I only see my people in one court face to face as of old, and the ordinary work goes on smoothly, yet even the extra-ordinary on so large a scale takes time. Questions of rebuilding, of construction, of changes of collectors, of introduction of workers to one another,—I assure you the exceptional things I can hardly refuse to do (so large is the result from half an hour’s work), use up my half hours nearly every one….(347-48)

The scale of her work is really quite impressive.

On class prejudice and the cost of charitable housing…

Eland House, November 3rd, 1879 or ’80.

FROM MRS. EDMUND MAURICE to OCTAVIA. We went to the opening of Walmer Castle, which was a great success. There were large crowds both of rich and poor. … The whole place looked very clean and comfortable, and all the food very nice ; there were decorations of flowers, and bright flags flying outside. We went over the house, and saw the beautiful dining-room upstairs and the smoking-room, and some very comfortable furnished little bed-rooms for respectable men. General Gardiner turned to a friend and said, ” We should some of us have been very glad of as good a bedroom as this at the University,” My fear about the bedrooms is that they are too dear. A shilling a night is not much to pay for so rice a little furnished room ; but, if a working man has to pay seven shillings a week for his room, I fear he will think it too much. Downstairs there is a nice large room to be used for the Boys’ Club. It is to be decorated by the Kyrle Society. (394-95)

But to return to housing the working classes…there are a couple of letters in here to the women working with her, and they are fascinating in whole:

1885 LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. I have, since I last wrote to you, been successful in establishing my work in South London, according to the long-cherished wish of my heart. In March of 1884, I was put in charge, by the owner, of forty-eight houses in Deptford. In May of the same year, I under-took the care of several of the courts in Southwark for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In November of the same year, the Commissioners handed. over to me an additional. group of courts. In January of 1885 I accepted the management of seventy-eight more houses in Deptford. A friend is just arranging to take forty-one houses in Southwark on lease from the commissioners. But I hope to retain trained workers and a portion of the tenants in a considerate and responsible way, which is quite independent of me or my advice. I ought, however, to repeat here once more that there is much which is technical, and which must be thoroughly learnt; and that unless intending workers set aside a time to learn their business thoroughly with us or others who have experience, they will do more harm than good by undertaking to manage houses.

One distinct advance, that is noticeable since I last wrote, is the readiness shown by men of business and companies to place their houses under our care. A deeper sense of responsibility as to the conduct of them, a perception of how much in their management is better done by women, and I hope, confident that we try faithfully, and succeed tolerably, in the effort to make them prosperous, have led to this result. This method of extending the area over which we have control has been a great help. It has occurred at a time when, owing to the altered condition of letting in London, I could no longer, with Confidence, have recommended to those who are unacquainted with business,and who depend on receiving a fair return for their capital, to undertake now the responsibility of purchasing houses.

When we began in Southwark, we secured an almost entirely new group of volunteers, who learnt there under one or two leaders, and who now form a valued nucleus from which to expand further.

In Deptford, I was obliged at first to take with me helpers from some distance, as we had none near there; but gradually, I am delighted to say, we have found many living at Blackheath and its neighbourhood who are co-operating with us; and we hope they, as the years roll on, will be quite independent of us. Of the success of our work ? Well ! I am thankful and hopeful.

Of course it has varied with the nature and constancy of our workers, and with the response our tenants give us. The new places always tax our strength, and we have had our difficulties in them, but we seem to make steady progress; I feel all must go well in proportion as we love our people and aim at securing their real good, and base our action on wise and far-sighted principles. There is not a court where not I do not, mark distinct advance ; but none know better than I how much more might have been done in each of them, and how much lies before us still to do. (452-453)

On the difficulties of building Red Cross Garden

LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS, 1887, ABOUT RED CROSS GARDEN.

It was, when handed over to me, a waste, desolate Place. There had been a paper factory on one half of it, which had been burnt down. Four or five feet of unbent paper lay in irregular heaps, blackened by fire, saturated with rain, and smelling most unpleasantly. It had lain there for five years, and much rubbish had been thrown in. A warehouse some stories high fronted the street on the other half of the ground, with no forecourt or area to remove its dull height further from the rooms in the model dwellings which faced it. Our first work Was to set bon-fires alight gradually to burn the mass of paper. This took about six weeks to do, tho’ the fires were kept alight day and night. The ashes were good for the soil in the garden, and we were saved the whole cost of carting the paper away. Our next task was to pull down the warehouse, and let a little sun in on our garden, and additional light, air and sight of sky to numerous tenants in the blocks in Red Cross Street.

The next work was to have a low wall and substantial iron railings placed on the side bounded by the street, so that the garden could be seen and the light and air be unimpeded.

Then came the erection of a covered playground for the children… (454)

And finally a picture! This book fails terribly in providing pictures…

Southwark. Red Cross Cottages and Garden. Opened June 1887.

Her thoughts on the growing settlement movement…(though we never see the cutting referred to, I assume that is what this is all about!)

Hotel Bellevue, Waggis, May 24th, 1885.

TO HER MOTHER. I am much interested in the Spectator cutting, tho’ I believe myself that the strain of living in the worst places would be too trying yet to educated people; it would diminish their strength, and so their usefulness The reform must be, I believe, more gradual. The newspapers go in for such extremes, from utter separation to living in a court I I should urge the spending of many hours weekly there, as achieving most just now, because it is less suicidal than the other course, and more natural. (455)

There is too little of the actual day to day business, the lives of the tenants and such here, but occasionally a letter got through like this one reporting to Octavia Hill

1884 or 5

Miss ELLEN CHASE TO OCTAVIA. King (a Deptford tenant) had torn his garden all to pieces and broken pale of fence and windows here and there, and did not show himself at all. We were non-plussed. First I hoped to slip notice under door, but the weather-board was too close ; that is a reason against putting them on. Then we debated how legal a service pinning to the back door would be, but Mr. P. thought it would be awkward if I was summoned for breaking into his premises ; and to post it we thought would not be customary ; so we were balked and Mrs. Lynch smiled sweetly all the time at her door. Mrs. T. had the cheek to offer nothing, so I took her a notice. I gave out several jobs of cleaning to even off the £7. Mrs. Sandal’s cistern was leaking worst sort. Matthews and Arter both said floor too old to pay for removal. My unlets have come down I0s. (458)

And still she is acquiring houses. She writes to Mary Harris in December of 1889 that she has acquired ‘9 new blocks of buildings within a stone’s throw of this house. We are buying some of the worst houses that remain in Blank Court. I am preparing to build in Southwark.’ (500-501)

I wish to see these mapped, wish to know what ‘a stone’s throw’ means for her, who refused to live amongst the poor. London must still have been so much more of a street-by-street checkerboard then.

14, Nottingham Place, W. April 28th, 1889.

To HER MOTHER. Miranda and I concocted a letter to the owners of some dreadful buildings in Southwark, which Miss J. is ready to undertake, asking to have them put under her care. So we have sent that off ; and it may bear fruit now or later. Then we finished the accounts of Gable Cottages, and despatched report of same. They are now complete! Then I settled about the painting of Hereford Buildings. We had an evening’s work over Income Tax returns. . . . To-morrow I collect in Deptford ; Miss Hogg is still away ; also Mr. T. is sending his manager to talk over matters with me… (501)

There is this mad description of an event at ‘the Poor’s land’ in Bethnal Green

Octavia to Mrs Edmund Maurice 14th August 1890

They showed us a workmen’s club there, numbering 600 members, to which is attached a co-operative store, doing £10,000 a year business. It is all under the wing of Mr. and Mrs. B., who used to go backwards and forwards from Hampstead to work, but now have taken a large old house adjoining the club, and live there entirely. . They have a sacred-looking little chapel, where they have family prayers, which opens from their house and from the club…At night we went to Bethnal Green to be present at a meeting of the local committee. They met in the first floor room over a cheesemonger’s shop, the cheesemonger being himself one of the trustees. The committee was all composed of trades-men of the neighbourhood, except that there was one very young but very capable lawyer from Oxford House. Then there was a negro, who, they say, has been most helpful. He has a wonderful gift of oratory, and has addressed numbers of open-air meetings. It was a strange and interesting sight, but oh! so difficult to get any business done, tho’ they were all very zealous and touchingly eager to do all which would enable us to take up the matter. (511-12)

In 1890 they moved to a new house — it’s just a very small glimpse into the home and the way that their lives and work were shared with others…

Miranda to Mrs Durant (12th Nov 1890)

[it is] smaller than this, and with much smaller rooms ; but it is quiet, light, and cheerful (having its chief rooms with a south aspect), and cheap. It is also not a great risk, as we shall take it by the year—at any rate till we know how we like it. It has a garden in front—and a yard behind-to our great delight a little light space and quiet being our chief requirements. The Marylebone Road used to be noisy ; but now it has a wooden pavement, a great boon. There will be room for Octavia and me with Miss Yorke and two of the friends now living with us, Miss Pearson and Miss Sim. It would be a great sorrow to part with them; so we are thankful to get a house large enough for us all.

Octavia’s work is so wide and many-sided, and she is so largehearted and wise in giving all her fellow workers leave to work in their own way, that she often hands a little domain over to me to work in my own way. So there is no sense of not carrying out my own ideas. (515)

The letters skip long periods here, though there are thanks for the funds raised for this paint by John Singer Sarjeant. It is 17 years though, before another of these collected letter calls to my interest but its is a brilliant one to her fellow workers with updates on the work…

To FELLOW WORKERS. (1901)

But by far the largest increase of our work has been in consequence of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asking us to take charge of some of their property, of which the leases fell in, in Southwark and Lambeth. In Southwark the area had been leased long ago on the old-fashioned tenure of ” lives.” That is, it was held, not for a specified term of years, but subject to the life of certain persons. The lease fell in therefore quite suddenly, and fifty of the houses, which were occupied by working people, were placed under My care. I had only four days’ notice before I had to begin collecting. It was well for us that my fellow-workers rose to the occasion, and at once undertook the added duties; well, too, that we were just then pretty strong in workers. It was a curious Monday’s work. The houses having been let and sublet I could be furnished with few particulars. I had a map, and the numbers of the houses, which were scattered in various streets over the five acres which had reverted to the Commissioners; but I had no tenant’s name, nor the rental of any tenement, nor did the tenants know or recognise the written authority, having long paid to other landlords. I subdivided the area geographically between my two principal South London workers, and I went to every house accompanied by one or other of them. I learnt the name of the tenant, explained the circumstances, saw their books and learnt their rental, and finally succeeded in obtaining every rent. Many of the houses required much attention, and since then we have been busily employed in supervising necessary repairs. The late lessees were liable for dilapidations, and I felt once more how valuable to us it was to represent owners like the Commissioners, for all this legal and surveying work was done ably by responsible and qualified men of business, while we were free to go in and out among the tenants, watch details, report grievous defects, decide what repairs essential to health should be done instantly. We have not half done all this, but we are steadily progressing.

The very same clay the Commissioners sent to me about this sudden accession of work in Southwark, the asked me whether I could also take over 160 houses in Lambeth. I had known that this lease was falling in to them, and I knew that they proposed rebuilding for working people on some seven acres there, and would consult me about this. But I had no idea that they meant to ask me to take charge of the old cottages pending the rebuilding. However, we were able to undertake this, and it will be a very great advantage to us to get to know the tenants, the locality, the workers in the neighbourhood, before the great decisions about rebuilding are made. In this case I had the advantage of going round with the late lessee, who gave me names, rentals and particulars, and whose relations with his late tenants struck me as very satisfactory and human. On this area our main duties have been to induce tenants to pay who knew that their houses were coming down; (in this we have succeeded), to decide those difficult questions of what to repair in houses soon to be destroyed, to empty one portion of the area where Cottages are first to be built, providing accommodation as far as possible for tenants, and to arrange the somewhat complicated minute details as to rates and taxes payable for cotta ges partly empty or temporarily empty, on assessments which had all to be ascertained, and where certain rates in certain houses for certain times only were Payable by the owners, whom we represent. (545-547)

There is a second such letter from 1903

LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. It was a huge undertaking, and needed much care and labour to start it well, and naturally we were all keen to help. It was a great day when we took over the place. Our seconds in command took charge man-fully for a fortnight of all our old courts ; and fourteen of us, including all my own responsible workers, and one lady who had gained experience in Edinburgh. We met on Monday, October 5th, to take over the estate, and collect from 500 or 600 tenants wholly unknown to us. We organised it all thoughtfully we had fifteen collecting books, and all the tenants’ books prepared; had opened a bank account, had found a room as office, and divided the area among our workers. Our first duty was to get the tenants to recognise our authority and pay us. I think we were very successful we got every tenant on the estate to pay us without any legal process, except one, who was a regular scamp. We collected some £250, most of it in silver, and got it safely to the bank. Then came the question of repairs; there were written in the first few weeks 1,000 orders for these, altho’, as the whole area is to be rebuilt, we were only doing really urgent repairs and no substantial ones. All these had to be overlooked and reported on and paid for. Next came pouring in the claims for borough and water rates. We had ascertained the assessment of every house, the facts as to whether land-lord or tenant was responsible, whether the rates were compounded for or not, what allowance was to be claimed for empty rooms. There were two water companies supplying the area, and we had to learn which supplied each house.

The whole place was to be rebuilt, and even the streets rearranged and widened ; and I had promised the Commissioners would advise them as to the future plans. These had to be prepared at the earliest date possible; the more so as the sanitary authorities were pressing, and sent 100 orders in the first few days we were there. It is needless to say with what speed, capacity and zeal the representatives of the Commissioners carried on their part of these preparations and they rapidly decided on the streets which should be first rebuilt, and what should be erected there. But this only implied more to be done, for we had to empty the streets swiftly, and that meant doing up all possible empty houses in other streets and getting the tenants into them. Fortunately, there were several houses empty, the falling in of the lease having scared away tenants. The Commissioners had decided to close all the public-houses on the estate, and we let one to a girls’ club, and had to put repairs in hand to fit it for its changed destination.

Meantime, my skilled workers had to be withdrawn, tho’ Miss Lumsden’s staff was new to the work; and I do not know how the business could have been done but for her immense power, devotion and zeal, and the extreme kindness of friends in offering special help.

The matter now stands thus: We have got thro’ the first quarter have collected £2,672—mostly in silver. Plans have been prepared for rebuilding and rearrangement of the whole estate, and these are now before the Commissioners for consideration. They provide a site for rebuilding the parish school; an area of about an acre as a public recreation ground; they substitute four wide for three narrow streets, and afford accommodation for 700 families in four-roomed and six-roomed cottages, cottage flats, and flats of three and two-roomed. tenements in houses in no case higher than three storeys. (557-559)

Yet another letter to her fellow workers 1907, not full of interest given its details on housing like the others, but pretty good none the less given its appalling view of charity as the solution to poverty.

LETTER TO MY FELLOW WORKERS.

The Poor Law Commission has necessarily occupied much of my time, and bids fair to continue to do so. It is naturally very interesting. We have visited Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, South Wales, the Eastern Counties, the Western Counties, and Scotland. My colleagues went also to the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury and to Northumberland; but I could not go. Next year we purpose visiting Ireland. The time has not arrived for making any remarks on the vast field which has opened before us; it is deeply interesting, partly by the great and important questions it suggests, partly by the large number of individuals of whose life-work we get some idea. These latter have often and often recalled to me Miss Alexander’s beautiful legend of the Hidden Servants; and, as I have got a glimpse of the righteous manufacturer, the devoted leader of the Friendly Society, the generous founder of some out-of-sight charity, the faithful nurse, the energetic matron or teacher, the self-sacrificing wise guardian, the humble and gentle pauper, I have heard echo in my ear the thankful words: “How many Thy hidden servants are”.

Of course there is the other side; and the problem appears to me the more puzzling, the more the solution of it depends, not on machinery which Commissions may recommend and Parliaments set up, but on the number of faithful men and women whom England can secure and inspire as faithful servants in their manifold duties. (565-66)

This is echoed in a letter to Lord George Hamilton in November 1908 on the changes to the poor laws. I can’t even remember exactly what was proposed but again she is up in arms over the rightful role of charity:

I can’t see my way about the ” Abnormal ” scheme of National Work; nor to accept what seems to me an extension of out-relief. I am ready not to vote for its abolition. I am glad that the out-relief given should be far more wisely supervised ; that we should have country work-houses with space for real work (called Labour Colonies if the world likes); but, when it comes to money grants for the able-bodied men outside any institution, and without disfranchisement, because they are thought respectable, we seem to be extending out relief to trench on what can only be done by Charity. (569)

A final letter (she died in 1912, but I have left out the last few years). The link between poverty, charity and imperial might…

LETTER TO MY FELLOW-WORKERS. We are, many of us, much exercised now as to the future of the Cadet Corps. The First London Battalion, founded in 1887, has always been linked closely with our work in Southwark, two companies drilling in the Hall, and the headquarters of the battalion being quite near. The health, the physique, and the moral training of our lads have owed much to it. More than eight thousand boys have passed through its ranks; and many have done honourable service for their country both by sea and land. The day has now come when the War Office are about to link on the Cadets to the general organisation for military service. They have issued suggested regulations, which appear to me, and to all the devoted group of gentlemen who have acted as officers to these lads for now so many years, to be full of peril to the whole movement. (571)

Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ([1913] 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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