Tag Archives: crime

Three Clear Sundays: Ken Loach

‘Three Clear Sundays’ aired on 7th April, 1965 on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play.  Directed by Ken Loach, well, I figured it would be sad. I still hadn’t quite known what I was in for. (This is chock full of spoilers, I warn you now).

It opens though, on some lovely footage of 1960s Portobello Market, back when Notting Hill was vibrant and full of life — the Portobello Market I’ve read about but only ever seen as dying embers. It opens on scenes of honest and dishonest graft, casual racism when the barman down the local throws out a black Caribbean fellow. You’re not welcome here, go to the other bar.

Back to his mates and his jokes.

This is where it all starts, where honest Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is accosted by  a crooked copper (I love a film where crooked mean coppers are just a fact of life), belts him one. Heads off to jail.

Again the documentary takes over in the passage down to the nick, the line of men waiting to be locked up. Again the casual racism, a bit of comic relief at immigrant expense  — a new inmate who’s single, though he’s shot the man who stole his wife. But he’s innocent now. Doesn’t know how old he is. Calls the copper ‘boss’, not ‘guv’. Can’t write.

But Danny Lee can’t write either. Nor can his brothers.

Some jokes at the tramp, his smell — a special disinfectant spray used on his seat.

Back to the drama.

Turns out Danny Lee is the youngest, the slowest, and the only straight in a family of fairly lovable thieves, their activities run by their mother (Rita Webb). She’s a fierce one, and never tires of repeating the moral of this particular story — the 11th commandment. “Never plead guilty.” Danny does, and see where it gets him.

Straight to the hangman’s noose.

I suppose that’s the other moral of the story — that the death penalty is wrong.

Danny’s path isn’t of his own making of course. He’s taken advantage of by some lifelong criminals, kings of the underworld — gone to prison for nothing, they ask. Couldn’t keep your nose clean? What couldn’t you do with £2000? He only dreams of a fruit and veg stall to replace his barrow, his Rosa (Finnuala O’Shannon), the baby coming, he’s so sweet and innocent…god you can see this tragic ending coming. So for the money to win this dream of his, he pretends to be crazy, bashes a guard over the head as part of their scheme to be let off early for good deeds rendered, kills him accidentally.

The story was a bit heavy handed for me, but I liked the documentary-styled bits. I liked when the criminals are raising cash amongst themselves and expand on easy money and hard-working poverty. Or when Rosa goes to visit Danny’s mother who dislikes her, says her son is too good for an ‘Irish cockney’ and offers to give her an abortion that very evening. She changes her tune when Rosa mentions her father’s offer of £500 and a caravan if she marries a man in work. I loved this glimpse into everyday life.

All of the scenes open up with a fairly mawkish Irish tune, I didn’t even notice right away that the lyrics tell of the characters and their dreams and their struggles and their failings. They bear the role of a Greek choir, the sentimentality of a drunk, the nostalgia of an immigrant and an innocence lost. The ballad of Danny Lee, his pregnant fiance,  his mother with her heart (almost) broken by her only straight son. I thought it was pretty brilliant when I found this paragraph in an article (‘Love and Justice’ — Andrew Weir, 12 Sept 1997, The Independent) about the original story’s author, Jimmy O’Connor, sentenced to hanging himself for a murder he didn’t commit:

A 24-year-old petty thief called Jimmy O’Connor was swiftly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. It all seemed very straightforward. At Pentonville prison, he spent eight weeks in the condemned cell, listening to the air-raids and the maudlin singing in the pub over the Caledonian Road. He was to hang on the very day of his 24th birthday. But then, just two days before, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, mysteriously reprieved him.

Ah, the maudlin singing. It explains everything. It turns out that one of my favourite things about Three Clear Sundays is the man who wrote it — and the author of those poetic musical interludes? Nemone Lethbridge, his wife.

In 1959, he married someone who was his exact social opposite. Nemone Lethbridge was a pretty, upper-class young barrister, 14 years his junior and the impeccably-accented daughter of a general.

I dislike her already, but I try to reign in my prejudices.

The fact that they met at all was a reflection of the prevailing culture of the mid- 1950s, as authors and dramatists pulled back the heavy curtains on working- class life. Room at the Top and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Frank Norman’s musical, Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, had revealed the existence of what must have seemed an alien universe to the British middle classes. And in the new medium of television, Jimmy O’Connor became the first writer to open up the hermetic world of prison and the criminal underworld to general inspection.

This seems a bit late to be claiming such a thing, noir had been doing this a long time, no? And journalists like Arthur Morrison before that, but maybe through the medium of television this is true, I am no expert. But nor, I think, is this author. Anyway, the article continues:

“It was quite thrilling, extraordinary to see,” Nemone says about these times. “I was so drawn to this explosion of talent. Things we take for granted now, like EastEnders, The Sweeney and so on, would not have been possible but for the ground they broke. It is very hard to realise now how fresh and exciting all this was.”

Nor had I ever heard of The Star Tavern, might be worth paying it a visit. I am just sad I never knew of it before as I spent a few wearying afternoons in the horrors of Belgravia wishing for a drink but fearful of stopping amongst such people.

One of the few neutral zones in the class war of this time was a pub in Belgravia called The Star Tavern, run by a semi-criminal landlord named Paddy Kennedy, who cheeerfully handed out foul insults to all his customers. They included famous figures in entertainment like Bing Crosby, the actor Richard Todd and playwright Emlyn Williams, who would mingle with upper- class bohemians, among them Princess Margaret and the gambler John Aspinall. Both groups could also experience the frisson of hobnobbing with publicity- happy criminals. Men like Eddie Chapman, the safe-blower who worked as a British double agent during the war, Billy Hill, the self-styled “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, and London’s most prolific cat burglar, George “Taters” Chatham.

Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays:

she began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”. “The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’. I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”

Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes…

Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld. For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.

I confess, it’s all very safe true-life flirtation with the glitz and glamour side of organised crime. I prefer in the end the depictions of its costs. The deaths of many a slow young man talked into something by someone slicker and more ruthless, the child growing up without a father, his mother without the man she loves or a chance at the future she hoped for. They’re the forgotten side of such crime that leaches off the system and calcifies into just another of its pillars. Criminals that always do prey on their own no matter the legend.

So back we turn to ‘Three Clear Sundays,’ and Danny Lee waiting in his cell, confessing his sins. We turn to perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, yet the most banal, as the hangmen practice their knots and their touch on the lever. As they talk about their everyday lives.

The end is still a shock.

The final scenes black with white lettering, quotes about the process of hanging, its effect on the body, how men do not always immediately die. A final quote from Arthur Koestler.

Down with the death penalty, you must agree. And still, cheekily, the original moral comes through — “Thou shalt not plead guilty”. Turns out that is the title Jimmy O’Connor used for his 1976 autobiography. I am almost certain this is him on the back of this book.

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Luke Cage: Back to Essentials #1 and #2

Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.

Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:

origin-imageTrue enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.

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Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?

There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:

There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…

img_4868Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.

You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…

img_4870C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.

I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:

“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client

There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.

Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).

img_4875See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.

Of course, the city in these stories plays its traditional role in the American consciousness — dangerous and dirty, home to criminals and those on the run. Still, it’s refreshing to see an ex-prison guard referred to in such terms, who’s the criminal now?

This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…

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Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.

img_4881Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:

img_4883Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.

You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.

On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:

img_4894and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.

img_4895But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:

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Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…

I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska

img_4900Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.

My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.

I love it.

Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.

Oh, Iron Fist.

So annoying.

I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.

I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely,  though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.

Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.

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The Tiger in the Smoke

13497413213_cbb7377327_bI had forgotten just how much I liked Margery Allingham’s writing, though not how much I enjoyed her stories. As always, the class accents trouble me, but Campion is more a mockery of Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey (though I confess I enjoy those too) and these books are rather more self-aware of their station.

I am sad that Lugg has been reduced to nanny in this, but Allingham is such a marvelous observer of detail, look at these  descriptions of London in a pea souper:

The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. the sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.

Already the traffic was at an irritable crawl. By dusk it would be stationary. To the west the Park dripped wretchedly and to the north the great railway terminus slammed and banged and exploded hollowly about its affairs. Between lay winding miles of butter-coloured stucco in every conceivable state of repair. (9)

And this, a poem to Paddington Station, so different from the one I know:

The fog was thickening and the glass and iron roof was lost in its greasy drapery. The yellow lights achieved but a shabby brilliance and only the occasional plumes of steam from the locomotives were clean in the gloom. That tremendous air of suppressed excitement which is peculiar to all great railway stations was intensified by the mist, and all the noises were muffled by it and made more hollow-sounding even than usual. (19)

Both geography and a keen eye for the details of the post-war everyday

Meanwhile Crumb Street, never a place of beauty, that afternoon was at its worst. The fog slopped over its low houses like a bucketful of cold soup over a row of dirty stoves. The shops had been mean when they had been built and were designed for small and occasional trade, but since the days of victory, when a million demobilized men had passed through the terminus, each one armed with a parcel of Government-presented garments of varying usefulness, half the establishments had been taken over by opportunists specializing in the purchase and sale of secondhand clothes. Every other window was darkened with festoons of semi-respectable rags based by bundles of grey household linen, soiled suitcases, and an occasional collection of surplus war stores, green, khaki, and air-force blue…As they waited, Mr Campion reflected that the evil smell of fog is a smell of ashes grown cold under hoses, and he heard afresh the distinctive noise of the irritable, half-blinded city, the scream of brakes, the abuse of drivers, the fierce hiss of tyres on the wet road. (25)

This is reflected as well in the gang and their enormous cellar hideout — recalling old rubble films of a London where so much more is possible in the ruins. Not all of it good, as you see, but possible. It seems so distant from the sanitised and impossibly priced London of today.

I liked this too:

Mourning is not forgetting… It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the knot. (33)

And this — as told by the inspector.

Remember V 2’s? The whole city waiting. Silent. People on edge. More waiting. Waiting for hours. Nothing. Nothing to show. Then, strike a light! Suddenly, no warning, no whistle, wallop! End of the ruddy world! Just a damned great hole and afterwards half the street coming down very slowly, like a woman fainting. (37)

The Tiger in the Smoke — most enjoyable.

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The Mysteries of Paris (a la Eugène Sue )

Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)
Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)

Eugene Sue has raised himself above the horizon of his own narrow world view. He has delivered a slap in the face of bourgeois prejudice.
–Karl Marx

How could anyone resist a back-cover blurb like that? Along with a slap, Sue also delivered a fairly rip-roaring story of good and evil and murder and love and hate and an immensity of sentimentality as it involves both princes and thieves, but really, you can’t care too much about that because it is what it is and it’s entirely enjoyable.

Well, until the last few chapters, maybe even the last third. Sue was just dragging shit out by then. You can tell it was published in 90 installments as one of the first serial novels, but there is something quite wonderful about this sprawling art form published in the Journal des débats from 19 June 1842 until 15 October 1843.

I am so glad Karl Marx found it irresistible.

It opens on the streets in the cité:

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Wretched houses, with scarcely a window, and those of worm-eaten frames, without any glass; dark, infectious-looking alleys led to still darker looking staircases, so steep that they could only be ascended by the aid of ropes fastened to the damp walls by iron hooks; the lower stories of some of these houses were occupied by sellers of charcoal, tripemen, or vendors of impure meat; and notwithstanding the little value of these commodities, the windows of the miserable shops were barred with iron, so much did the owners fear the bold robbers of this quarter. (9)

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And so we come to the Rue aux Fèves, where our hero Rodolphe saves our heroine La Goualouse (but wait, it’s probably not quite what you think):

Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer - Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882 (after it had been demolished through Haussmanisation around 1860)

and they go to the Lapin Blanc:

It was a long, low room into which they entered, with smoky ceiling and black rafters, badly lighted by the murky rays of a miserable lamp. The whitewashed walls were covered with vulgar sketches, or with sentences in slang; the floor of beaten earth and salt was covered with mud; an armful of straw was placed at the foot of the counter or bar of the Ogresse instead of a carpet, and this was situated near the door, and under the lamp on each side of this room there were placed six tables, one end of each, as well as the benches, nailed to the walls. (15)

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They just don’t build shit like this anymore. Nor would it remain standing much longer. Of course, Sue was probably paid by the word and thus paid to describe in detail, but I am so glad he did. The ogresse watches the bar, rents rooms, and rents clothes to young women — the book never calls her a procures but it is clear she also plays this kind of role. But I won’t give the plot away, wikipedia does that quite well.

This all takes place only a few years before the uprisings and barricades and attempts at revolution in 1848, those heady years fomented in just such small cafes in the cité. It is why Haussman was so determined to demolish them, along with the narrow labyrinths of streets so easily defended. But that all comes later.

There is no hint of revolution here, just greed and some terribly involved crimes and some very simple ones. This is, in fact, rather a reactionary tale — like in the way that blood defines character for example, so when La Goualouse ends up back in prison

I asked some of them who slept in the same room with her what was the cause of the difference [deference? Sic] shown her. ‘That’s more than we can tell,’ they answered: ‘it is plain she is not one of us.‘ ‘But who told you so?’ ‘No one told us: we see it in a thousand things. For instance, lat night, before she went to bed, she went on her knees and said her prayers; as she prays, as La Louve said, she must have a right to pray. (218)

God, the good old days when only the better classes with their blameless lives had the right to pray.

There is a black physician, rescued from American slavery, who is kind and good and wise. That’s a nice change, and almost undoubtedly a jab at America (this nationalist pride probably also explains the English nobleman in humble service of the European Prince). This book is reactionary on the subject of race in every other respect — there’s noticably no mention of Haiti here and I’ll get to Algiers in a bit. But first there is David’s wife who is a creole light enough to pass, and of course she is beautiful and unbalanced and Sue makes a fine art of insulting people here:

Her detestable predilections, for some time restrained by her real attachment for David, were developed in Europe; civilisation and the climactical influence of the North had tempered the violence, modified the expression. Instead of casting herself violently on her prey, and thinking only, like her compeers. to destroy as soon as possible their life and fortune, Cecily, fixing on her victims her magnetic glances, commenced by attracting them, little by little, into the blazing whirlwind which seemed to emanate from her… (283)

There is a great deal more in this vein and she causes an evil man to lose his reason entirely as part of a plot of vengeance on the side of good. That gets a bit confusing, but she’s clearly just in here to ratchet up the sex quotient (hard to do with everyone so good and pure). This involves some quite extraordinary detailed descriptions of her Alsatian costume (she’s in disguise involving a shortish skirt showing some leg and a laced up bodice) that would please the most OCD of fetishists. I know a lot more about race, class and corsets in 1840s France than I did before this book.

There is a whole lot here about female purity and the ways that shame can never be forgotten nor forgiven, the infuriating view that rape is always somehow the woman’s fault and she is never pure as a woman should be after. In fact, she’s better dead or in a nunnery. There’s a whole lot of stupid aristocratic nonsense. The Saxe-Gotha almanach makes an appearance. Another unbalanced woman. Once this story starts heading for these exalted shores it becomes much less interesting I confess. But given my interest in the intertwined histories of Europe and its colonies, it is fascinating that Rodolphe sends the thieves who have repented of their past off to Algiers to forge their new future.

I think in some ways this is the dream that Europeans and white Americans (and white Africans and Australians and etc etc) held to most — that opportunity to go somewhere, find some land, leave behind what you were and reinvent yourself anew. A new chance, a new and better future you define for yourself rather than entrapment into the one you were born into.

…they mutually congratulated each other on the agreeable prospects before them in Algiers.

And so everything was sacrificed, above all those occupying the land that financed and made reinvention possible. Those original occupants had to be made less. Even the infamous empathy of our heroine does not even give a quiver at this:

To end your family of protégés, my lord, I will add that Germain has read in the papers that Martial, a planter in Algiers, has been spoken of with great praise for the courage he has shown in repulsing, at the head of his farmers, an attack of thievish Arabs, and that his wife, as intrepid as himself, had been slightly wounded in the side while she was discharging her gun like a real grenadier. From that time…she has been called Madame Carabine. (365)

That’s one for the women, but only in defense of white privilege to take over farms by conquest. Here the roots of the pied noirs and the bloody conflict stretching across years and decades and as formative of France as it would be of Algeria. As a footnote, but I am always fascinated by just how much the colonies infuse the consciousness and the stories of the colonisers when you look.

For more on Paris…

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Ratcliffe as was (in the eyes of Walter Besant)

I work now in Ratcliffe, the hamlet that has disappeared really…sitting between Limehouse and Shadwell it was bombed heavily in the war, and then the building of Commercial Street and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the new railway line and its thick arches destroyed most of the rest. I work now in the remains of an old mansion belonging to a sugar merchant, on the site where the church and school once stood before their remnants were torn down. There is not much else left.

It’s very different now, so it’s fascinating to read old descriptions of what was once there. These are from Walter Besant’s East London. I don’t much care for his view of the working  (or even lower) classes, but these are fascinating as glimpses of this part of the East End (and a bit of casual racism really…though perhaps more directed at sailors in general?):

The Church of St. George’s-in-the-East stands…beside the once infamous street called the Ratcliffe Highway….Portugal Jack and Italy Jack and Lascar Jack have always been very handy with their knives, while no one interfered and the police could only walk about in little companies of three and four. Within these houses, these windows, these doors, their fronts stained and discolored like a drunkard’s face, there lay men stark and dead… (72)

More on Ratcliffe:

It consists of mean and dirty streets–there is not a single street which is not mean and dirty; none of the houses are old; none are picturesque in the least; they are rickety, dirty, shabby, without one redeeming feature; there is a church but it is not stately…it is unlovely; there are “stairs” to the river and that are rickety, there are warehouses which contain nothing and are tumbling down; there are public houses which do not pretend to be bright and attractive–low-browed, dirty dens, which reek of bad beer and bad gin. Yet the place, when you linger in it and talk about it to the clergy and the ladies who work for it, it is full of interest. For it is a quarter entirely occupied by the hand-to-mouth laborer; the people live in tenements; it is thought luxury to have two rooms; there are eight thousand of them, three quarters being Irish; in the whole parish there is not a single person of what we call respectability, except two or three clergymen and half a dozen ladies; there are no good shops, there are no doctors or lawyers, there is not even a news vender, for nobody in Ratcliffe reads a newspaper. But the place swarms with humanity; the children play by thousands in the gutters; and on the door-steps the wives and mothers sit all day long and in all weathers, carrying on a perpetual parliament of grievance. (81-82)

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There is still a Ratcliffe-Cross Street but it ends at Cable Street rather than stretching down to the river. It’s almost hard to believe now that enough people lived here to muster a side in the massive fights between Cable Street and Brook St residents — a street that used to be the center and heart of Ratcliffe and is no longer even on the map.

There is also a mention of the old heritage of the Dissenters in Ratcliffe in the physical form of Medland Hall, formerly a Dissenting Chapel and become what Besant called a free lodging house on the riverside at Ratcliffe. To be explored in a future post…

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Morrison’s Child of the Jago

I am not sure why I loved Child of the Jago so much more than Tales of Mean Streets. That had artistry and skill and eschewed the spectacular and violent — I was worried that this novel focusing on the violence of the true slums (actually a rarity in East London contrary to popular legend) would edge us more into sensationalist territory which rarely fails to piss me off (especially after reading Burke). But it didn’t. A Child of the Jago

The novel itself works well, almost proto-noir of the kind with a heart like Crumley or Chandler. It is based on intensive research — while Morrison came from the working-class East End, it was very different from the streets and courts of the Old Nichol described here under a different name. He turned to Father Jay Sturt, who had established a parish there and figures large in the narrative (and some of his paternalism got a little annoying to be honest). Sturt himself had written about the place in Life in Darkest London (1881), The Social Problem and Its Solution (1893), and A Story of Shoreditch (1896). Hard to find, sadly. He helped Morrison meet the residents, and he visited homes, drank in pubs, listened to stories, learned to make match matchboxes, Morrison invited people to his home in Loughton and made recordings of how they spoke (at least I think I read that right — it is just possible given the date, so are those lying around somewhere? Can you imagine the treasure that would be?). Morrison himself notes that he set ‘traps’ of particularly bad incidents that he thought reviewers would call out as impossible — and made sure all of them were things that he could document actually happened.

jagoA square of two hundred and fifty yards or less–that was all there was of the Jago. But in that square the human population swarmed in thousands. Old Jago Street, New Jago Street, Half Jago street lay parallel, east and west: Jago Row at one end and Edge Lane at the other lay parallel also, stretching north and south, foul ways all. What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials and Ratcliff Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt–all that teemed in the Old Jago. (45)

And he gives us a map! Along with descriptions of this place, you can only be glad it was torn down to become the London County Council’s Boundary Street Scheme:

Front doors were merely used as firewood in the Old Jago, and most had been burnt there many years ago. If perchance one could have been found still on its hinges, it stood ever open and probably would not shut. Thus at night the Jago doorways were a row of black holes, foul and forbidding.

Dicky Perrott entered his hole with caution, for anywhere in the passage and on the stairs, somebody might be lying drunk against whom it would be unsafe to stumble. (48)

It’s treads are missing, the rails gone from the sides, the interior cold and damp, grim and soul destroying. Morrison describes a world run by two families, the Ranns and the Learys, where no one is in work, where women pick up wealthy drunks and bring them home to the ‘cosh’ from their husband. Everyone else lives on various levels of hustle. At the top — the high mobsmen. There is much left unsaid, but a surprising amount actually said. You navigate this place alongside a tiny little boy named Dicky Perrot who questions none of it, dreams only of a piece of cake and knows well that to get it he must steal it. I was snared by this longing because of my own immense love of cake. I remember a time when I too wanted nothing more in the world than a piece of cake though I know it can’t compare. I have eaten today, and well. I ate yesterday and the day before. I can buy cake whenever I want. I am blessed.

As if the cake weren’t enough, when in trouble Dicky pours his troubles into the ears of Jerry Gullen’s donkey, his beloved Canary. He can’t trust anyone else with pain and tears and weakness. That too is something I know, though I know it can’t compare. I was never beaten by my father. I had places to be alone and cry.

So you cheer him on through his life of crime, celebrate his exploits, mourn his shreds of innocence and exploitation by the horrible Mr Weech, who later destroys any chance of honest work. You feel superior when the good Father has no idea at all what is going on and is confirmed in his prejudices. I like that this book takes him down a bit.  Too quickly you jump ahead in time and it ceases to be quite as good a story, but still an important one. It has memorable fight scenes of all descriptions and more evil and poverty and death and despair and occasional kindnesses than you could ever ask for.

All that, and in addition he makes fun of liberals and ‘missionaries’ who come slumming down to the East End:

Other young men, more fortunately circumstanced, with the educational varnish fresh and raw upon them, came from afar, equipped with a foreign mode of thought and a foreign ignorance of the world and the proportions of things, as Missionaries. Not without some anxiety to their parents, they plunged into the perilous depths of the East End , to struggle–for a fortnight–with its suffering and its brutishness. So they went among the tradesmen’s sons and the shopmen, who endured them as they endured the nominal subscription; and they came away with a certain relief, and with some misgiving as to what impression they had made, and what they had done to make it. But is was with knowledge and authority that they went back among tose who had doubted their personal safety in the dark region. The East End, they reported, was nothing like what it was said to be. you could see much worse places up West. The people were quite a decent sort, in their way: shocking Bounders, of course, but quite clean and quiet, and very comfortably dressed, with ties and collars and watches. (54)

A fortnight. Ha. I am only sad this shit still happens all the time, but people call it something else and go to Guatemala or Burkina Faso instead. There is none of that attitude here, which is why it is so good, and why it rings true the way many another story does not. I can’t really understand why Morrison has not won wider acclaim, perhaps I’ll read some London and refresh my memory as to whether this really is so much better. Because I think it probably is.

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Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

More on similar stories…

Field Lane and larceny, then and now

Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:

Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.

The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).

I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):

Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)
Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)

What Was Field Lane

Near Field Lane c. 1844 Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding (Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)
Near Field Lane c. 1844. Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding
(Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)

They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.

Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:

By John Rocque (John Rocque's 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By John Rocque (John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But these were to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 09.05.25

Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.

What Was Field Lane
And it feels part of the City, the banking industry and corporate London has ever been a hotbed of crime I think.

Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:

What Was Field Lane

What Was Field Lane

I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing,  or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.

People with money desire curious things.

For more on Victorian cities or Dickens…

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