Tag Archives: East End

Memories from Beryl Knotts: Meals on Wheels begins and more

[My interview with Beryl Knotts inspired me immensely, especially after so much reading on the East End and writing about Fr John Groser and his work there, so I thought I would repost this blog I did for St Katharine’s]

Beryl Knotts first interviewed for a position at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in November of 1953. It all happened quite by accident too — having left school at sixteen to take care of her mother, Beryl first trained and worked for three years as a secretary in two posts in London and Woking. For her third job, she went to inquire at the Tavistock Appointments Bureau, but unwittingly went into the “graduate” section by mistake! Although she had no degree, the woman behind the desk took the time to help her anyway, and recommended she apply for a secretarial job at the national office of the Training and Personnel Department of the YWCA in Baker Street. Thus she began a lifetime committed to social work, as, in due course, the YWCA staff recommended her to move to the work of the Stepney Old People’s Welfare Association then developing at St Katharine’s to get hands-on experience in community work.

20150714_153339She had never been to the East End before, and remembers the fog and the Dickensian feeling of the place, with St Katharine’s an oasis of warmth and light in the middle of a bombed out city. Cable Street was narrow and grimy then, taking a different route past St Katharine’s than it does now. I’ve found an old map from Fr. John Groser’s history of St Katharine’s distributed at the time. It shows the old buildings that once stood here, and also marks the memory of our local train station as Stepney East.

Beryl worked for the most part with Dorothy Halsall, one of the two sisters living and working here as part of the St Katharine’s community. The other was Ethel Upton. There were also two brothers at the time, Brother Bernard from the ministry in Peckham, and Brother De Jong, a layman. Jean Denford was Fr. John Groser’s Secretary, and also an assistant to Dorothy Halsall.

Apart from the main buildings there was a big yard, and alongside it a cottage where for a while Tom lived, a Canadian worker-priest who had committed his life to serving his vocation through work in the factories. He married Sherry and they lived there together, Sherry becoming a model of generosity for Beryl (and now for myself, this is an ideal I love but hard to reach in this day and age I think). Sherry would always begin cooking the evening meal for say four, but as people dropped by they were always invited to stay until it often became eight or more. No matter how many came they would manage to provide them a meal, though the soup might be a bit watery. What food there was would always be stretched to include everyone.

After commuting from Woking for six months, Beryl moved to Bethnal Green — in those days, the wonderful St Margaret’s Settlement provided not just community services but also rooms for 25 young people, half of them students and half of them working in the East End. As part of their life there, they had to do some social work in the local area. Beryl had the most delightful story of the first time she was sent to visit an elderly lady in a second floor flat. Beryl Knotts knocked and this lady (who had clearly met several social researchers in the area before!) answered with ‘Come in love, and I’ll answer all yer questions’ (even though Beryl was just a ‘visitor’!). This lady always gave her great big mugs of very strong hot tea, and her generous but practiced and humorous answer showed perhaps something of how it was to be in an over-researched area of social deprivation as the East End tended to be in those post-war years.

Even so, both the deep commitment to the work and the warm fellowship that arose between the young people living at St Margaret’s and serving the community emerged clearly through our conversation. So much so that I felt its loss deeply, and wish I might have been part of something like that. Beryl has still kept the sparkling sense of fun.

So the Stepney Old People’s Welfare Association. After the war, the housing in this area that hadn’t been bombed flat was often dangerously weakened, and had been in very poor condition even before the bombing started. For this reason, most of the young families were moved out further east towards Dagenham, leaving a disproportionately large proportion of the older age group suddenly alone and in bad housing, bereft of both the useful roles they might once have held in taking care of children or helping with the home, as well as the support and companionship of their families.

She remembers them very poor, very tough, and very strong. Above all her stories are humorous ones, life made better with laughter rather than tears, and hard times always lightened with a joke.

Across the span of sixty years some of these memories ring very clear. There was Alfie, an old docker whom she met in her very first week at St Katharine’s. His wife had just died, and he didn’t know what to do. Dorothy Halsall helped arrange a pubic health funeral for her, and in those days even such funerals involved a carriage and horses and plumes, the procession that stopped in every location that had been important to the person whose life was being celebrated and death being mourned. Alfie had wanted to buy her some flowers and found an old purse in which his wife had hidden away some £5 worth of savings.

He used all of it to buy daffodils, her favourites. The carriage was absolutely filled with daffodils when it stopped at the Hall at St Katharine’s, where she had found so much enjoyment.

The next week Alfie came in and asked them, ‘do you know a woman who would come and live with me?’

The old hall that once stood here sounds absolutely wonderful. They ran lots of clubs from it as well as elsewhere in the borough, including lunch clubs. Beryl remembered every Monday afternoon it was opened up for the elderly to come and play cards or dominoes, and have their tea and biscuits.

We have too few pictures in the archives, but I have found a couple proofs from the Old People’s Welfare Association Christmas Party of 1957. Although Beryl had left St Katharine’s by the end of 1956, most of the people would have been the same:

OPWSxmasparty1957web

Old People's Welfare Society Christmas 1957

Meals on wheels also got its start here at St Katharine’s, believed to be the first one in the country. They had a specially fitted van that would pick up food from a restaurant in Limehouse and deliver it through a rota of staff and volunteers to the elderly who were housebound Monday through Friday for which they paid three shillings and four pence a week (ten pence a day). These were always hot and fresh meals, meat and veg and lots of gravy, plus a pudding, on china plates that were returned the next day.

They came to realise that there were also a smaller number of Jewish elderly who needed the same services, but of course offered a special challenge because of requiring kosher meals and kosher service. Dorothy contacted the LCC for help, and they put her in touch with the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Somewhat to the amusement of the St Katharine’s staff, they sent an ex-service lady to discuss the programme. Beryl remembers her as someone who, although out of uniform, gave the decided impression that she was still wearing it! She linked them up with Jewish Board of Guardians, who were able to provide a rota of Jewish volunteers with private cars who would fetch the meals from a kosher restaurant in the area, and then deliver them each day to probably around twelve to fifteen homes.

Miraculously, Beryl didn’t think there had ever been any accidents with those meals, though the food was not nearly so secure as in the van they had for the main delivery. There was only one day where they didn’t have a Jewish volunteer able to come. She rang up the taxi rank at Whitechapel to find a Jewish driver, and with his help they were still able to provide the meals.

Beryl would also often take people’s pensions to them when they could not go for themselves to collect them, and Jean Denford would visit the housebound regularly who were referred (perhaps from the Clubs or local agencies) as having special needs. Beryl remembers the older people were always so very happy to see Jean, and just how dreadfully they missed their families.

It seems a very hard thing to have separated them from their families, hard on both sides and a great lesson to be learned there about how important those ties are to people’s wellbeing. This is especially poignant as we face much the same situation again for very different reasons, as the housing crisis is pushing younger families further and further away into London’s outskirts, leaving their elderly parents lonely and isolated in older neighbourhoods like Stepney, Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse.

Another big issue they provided for here at St Katharine’s was the care of elderly people’s feet. In this very poor and ageing community people often couldn’t manage to take care of their own feet. Most of the people living here, and in the East End more broadly, had always worn second-hand shoes, had seldom had proper nutrition or medical care, and thus had multiple issues with their feet that often threatened their independence and mobility.

Once a week then, St Katharine’s brought in a chiropodist to provide free services — the only requirement for his patients was that everyone first went to the public baths just across the street.

Only last week I was in a meeting of health workers and local champions in Stepney, discussing the realities that with decreased funding available, older people are once again finding it impossible to access care for their feet such as supportive shoes, massage, nail-cutting services and the other things they need to help them stay independent and walk comfortably. Once more, charities serving the elderly as St Katharine’s once did are being asked to find ways to subsidise chiropody services.

Of all the ways that St Katharine’s could honor and revive all that it has done in that past, it is disappointing that we should have to consider anew providing such a service.

There are also, however, collective and the creative ways we could take as inspiration for moving forward that do not invoke a past many hoped we would have left long behind.

Father Groser quite loved acting, so they would put on plays — Beryl remembers once they hosted a performance of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in the open air garden. And of course his son Michael was a wonderful sculptor, another son, Tony, was an actor, and his daughter Gillian very musical, so life here had a very creative feel.

Like many people in our community, Beryl remembers the garden parties held here, and the old people’s parties (though you’d never call them that nowadays, she noted). The elderly often put together musical entertainments in the big hall, with sing-along numbers. There was even someone who would dance the can-can in union jack knickers. Mr Donovan was the M.C. with only one eye and no teeth. He was a proud member of the Queen’s Bays (the 2nd Dragoon Guards) and always wore the badge on his lapel. During the Queen Mother’s visit in November of 1955 (she wore a lovely pale mauve velvet coat, pearls and hat) — as the Bays’ Colonel-in-Chief she quickly recognized the badge and Mr. Donovan was absolutely over the moon, and told the tale for weeks afterwards!

St Katharine’s also followed many of the same patterns from year to year, a massive clean every March/April, where absolutely everything would be taken down, shaken out, and thoroughly cleaned — down to all the curtains taken down and washed and rehung even the great old curtains from the stage in the hall. St Katharine’s day on 25th November was also a very big event, with a service and a special meal cooked by Mrs. Pomfret — old Pom as everyone who worked there used to call her. The kitchen and dining rooms today are of course completely different different to what they once were, though more or less in the same place.

Beryl had found her old diaries, they sat in front of us small and worn, and she had noted down some of the many entries she had made so long ago to jog her memory about all that once happened here. It was marvelous of her to prepare so. There were a number of outings: one was to see the Queen’s homecoming at Westminster Pier after her world tour, there were others to Beaconsfield, Ramsgate, Knebworth Gardens, Southend for jellied eels. They sang all the way home from that one.

One summer evening they had what they called a ‘frail party’, with special transportation arranged by Jean Denford and volunteers from the Soroptimists Club (to which Dorothy Halsall belonged) to help a group of housebound elderly escape their own four walls for an evening. They had parties for the mum’s club, St Katharine’s club, a film night where they showed Isle of Summers.

They had an evening lecture called ‘The Social Consequences of the Present Housing Policy’ given by Arthur Blenkinsop, MP from Hull. Fr John Groser sometimes invited public school boys to debate with the dockers and the point of it was for the boys to hear about life from the dockers’ point of view.

We had a most wonderful session of reminiscing, Beryl and I, on a sofa at Friend’s Meeting House beside Euston Station, as she was only down for the day from Oxford. She only briefly let fall how in 1956 she went on to get her social work qualifications at Edinburgh University and LSE — inspired by, and perhaps also with some gentle pushing from Dorothy Halsall. She would have been quite happy, she said, to continue longer in the East End. With so much discussion of how St Katharine’s used to be, we had little time to talk more about her time in Brazil, and all she did upon her return to England and her work around the world, but I hope that we will meet again to talk more about that.

It was an inspiration to speak with her. It always is to meet people who embody a wonderful curiosity about the world alongside generosity and compassion. Especially those who have devoted their lives to making this world a better place. It is only as I was typing up my copious notes that I thought to look for her online, and found a short bio which she has forgiven me for including:

Beryl KnottsBeryl was brought up in a Congregational family and had early experience with the Surrey Congregational Youth Council. She trained and worked as a social worker in the UK and from 1966 to 1969 served as a UNA volunteer in Brazil. This led to 10 years international social work experience in Peru, Nigeria, South Sudan and Geneva, followed by 11 years with Oxfam, latterly in international human resources, until retirement in 1991. She was a URC Racial Justice Advocate, an avowed ecumenist and was a local Church Secretary from 1997 until 2011.

I had a lovely and inspiring time hearing all of her stories, and hope to hear more…

 

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Fu-Manchu: The Yellow Peril in the East End

Sax Rohmer - Fu Manchu The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913) is an extraordinary racist thriller of white fear and desire. While knowing vaguely about the character of Fu-Manchu, I admit I had no idea quite what I was getting into.  It is a singular example of racist rhetoric, one that highlights the power and ancient knowledge of the ‘other’ rather than his stupidity or savage nature, a genius which puts the entire white empire at risk — I found its open racism and mad worldview shocking given its popularity — but I know I shouldn’t have.

It opens with a late night visit to Petrie by his friend Nayland Smith, just returned from Burma. Smith explains the reason for his return:

“A fiend who, unless my calculations are at fault is now in London, and who regularly wars with pleasant weapons of that kind. Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong–that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”

Sentences like that are just a bit jaw-dropping. And his mission? To foil the evil Dr Fu-Manchu:

“There is little to fear until we arrive home,” he said calmly. “Afterwards there is much. To continue: This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is an adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant.”

It gets sillier from there:

“But, Smith, this is almost incredible! What perverted genius controls this awful secret movement?”

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

This explains American and British fears of the yellow peril better than anything else I have read, the crazed inversion of our own desires of empire and domination, our own motives forced upon others and thus excusing all of our cruelties:

“I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to PAVE THE WAY! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”

It is described as inevitable struggle, a clash of opposites in East and West:

That I moved amid singular happenings, you, who have borne with me thus far, have learned, and that I witnessed many curious scenes; but of the many such scenes in that race-drama wherein Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu played the leading parts…

They represent the polar opposites:

A breeze whispered through the leaves; a great wave of exotic perfume swept from the open window towards the curtained
doorway.

It was a breath of the East–that stretched out a yellow hand to the West. It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith–lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.

The subtle versus the efficient, the scented and floral versus the clean and manly. I could keep writing binaries, but they are devolving fast. Still, they are all here. At least there is enough of some version of respect here to make of this a titanic struggle:

The mere thought that our trifling error of judgment tonight in tarrying a moment too long might mean the victory of Fu-Manchu, might mean the turning of the balance which a wise providence had adjusted between the white and yellow races, was appalling.

Wise providence? English greed for opium and world domination more like. And still we project upon the ‘other’ in a struggle of good and evil in which the two may never cooperate or combine, only fight to the death:

East and West may not intermingle. As a student of world-policies, as a physician, I admitted, could not deny, that truth.

indexWow.

It is only in the bodies of women that there lies a chance of it, a hope of it, but one forbidden. There is certainly desire, but it is a fatal one:

“She is one of the finest weapons in the enemy’s armory, Petrie. But a woman is a two-edged sword, and treacherous. To our great good fortune, she has formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental, for yourself. Oh, you may scoff, but it is evident. She was employed to get this letter placed in my hands. Give it to me.”

Women are used against white men, yet often backfires given women’s innate treachery — even if she loves Petrie now, she will not for long and he knows that she will betray him. But how tragic it will all become before that happens:

Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror. I ask their forgiveness in that I regarded her quite
differently. No man having seen her could have condemned her unheard. Many, having looked into her lovely eyes, had they found there what I found, must have forgiven her almost any crime.

That she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality–her history–furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured.

But indeed let me confess that hers was a nature incomprehensible to me in some respects. The soul of Karamaneh was a closed book to my short-sighted Western eyes. But the body of Karamaneh was exquisite; her beauty of a kind that was a key to the most extravagant rhapsodies of Eastern poets. Her eyes held a challenge wholly Oriental in its appeal; her lips, even in repose, were a taunt. And, herein, East is West and West is East.

Wow again. I don’t even know what that means.

I think of all his cringing hateful infuriating sentences, those must be some of the worst.

But to return to the city, the geographies of race and crime…this struggle has been brought to London, where a small band of devoted servants shall fight on behalf of the white races:

To Smith and me, who knew something of the secret influences at work to overthrow the Indian Empire, to place, it might be, the whole of Europe and America beneath an Eastern rule, it seemed that a great yellow hand was stretched out over London. Doctor Fu-Manchu was a menace to the civilized world. Yet his very existence remained unsuspected by the millions whose fate he sought to command.

Within these racialised logics, there is really only one place where Fu Manchu could go to find his permanent base, the centre of his many operations — the exotic and exoticised East End. I mean, look at the assumptions of the working class docks, even without his presence:

The cabman she had directed to drive to the lower end of the Commercial Road, the neighborhood of the new docks, and the scene of one of our early adventures with Dr. Fu-Manchu. The mantle of dusk had closed about the squalid activity of the East End streets as we neared our destination. Aliens of every shade of color were about us now, emerging from burrow-like alleys into the glare of the lamps upon the main road. In the short space of the drive we had passed from the bright world of the West into the dubious underworld of the East.

Aliens, people of colour, burrows and underworlds. Where better for Fu-Manchu to camouflage himself? This is the secret London, the London sought by the slummers and the journalists, the wealthy come to gawk, to escape, to make themselves feel better through drugs or charity, to assuage desires and discover new ones, to shiver in their proximity to criminality. Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Burke, and Sax Rohmer among them.

It is a fact, singular, but true, that few Londoners know London. Under the guidance of my friend, Nayland Smith, I had learned, since his return from Burma, how there are haunts in the very heart of the metropolis whose existence is unsuspected by all but the few; places unknown even to the ubiquitous copy-hunting pressman.

It is so clear who Petrie (and Rohmer) understands by the term ‘Londoner’ — the working class, the poor and the non-white are forever excluded.

Curious too, that the East End should be the world of the docks, and that Fu-Manchu’s hideouts are always alongside the water, almost as shifting and treacherous in Petrie’s eyes as Karamaneh:

Ten minutes’ steady tramping brought us within sight of the Thames. Smith and I both had noticed how Fu-Manchu’s activities centered always about the London river. Undoubtedly it was his highway, his line of communication, along which he moved his mysterious forces. The opium den off Shadwell Highway, the mansion upstream, at that hour a smoldering shell; now the hulk lying off the marshes. Always he made his headquarters upon the river. It was significant; and even if to-night’s expedition should fail, this was a clew for our future guidance.

***

Another question often put to me was: Where did the Doctor hide during the time that he pursued his operations in London? This is more susceptible of explanation. For a time Nayland Smith supposed, as I did myself, that the opium den adjacent to the old Ratcliff Highway was the Chinaman’s base of operations; later we came to believe that the mansion near Windsor was his hiding-place, and later still, the hulk lying off the downstream flats. But I think I can state with confidence that the spot which he had chosen for his home was neither of these, but the East End riverside building which I was the first to enter.

I’m as fascinated by the shifting views of South London as I am by the East End and those are here too, here we have Brixton as a centre of suburban respectability:

“The address is No.–Cold Harbor Lane,” he reported. “I shall not be able to come along, but you can’t miss it; it’s close by the Brixton Police Station. There’s no family, fortunately; he was quite alone in the world. His case-book isn’t in the American desk, which you’ll find in his sitting-room; it’s in the cupboard in the corner–top shelf. Here are his keys, all intact. I think this is the cupboard key.”

There are other interesting things here and there, like in Conan Doyle you find the ubiquity and legality of cocaine, casual sentences like: “Sir Crichton was addicted to cocaine…” Then there are the similarities this bears to some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the way this is a more noble version of the prurience and violence of the Chinatown of Limehouse Nights. It’s pretty distressing that these were best-selling novels, inspired numbers of films, have entered fully into popular British and American culture. More distressing to untangle how they have shaped it…

I am almost curious to read the latest reboot of the Fu-Manchu novels by William Patrick Maynard, written in the past few years. See how much this shit has changed.

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Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years

Eleanor MarxThis was part two of Yvonne Kapp’s enormous biography of Eleanor Marx, and I confess, not as enjoyable as the first (you can read about that one here).

Perhaps this is partly because so many of the grand personalities are dead or moved away by the end of the first volume, and there is not the immediacy of family drama. That is undoubtedly part of it. You know the rest will die by the end.

But really, mostly, I think it’s due to the deadly and boring factionalism of the left between 1884 and 1898, after all, that’s what I had to plod through in Morris’s biography as well. A few highlights shine through like the organising of the gas worker’s union and their victory in obtaining the 8 hour day, or the dockers’ first strike, and of course Eleanor is there supporting them. Why I love her. But she spends so much time trying to bring male egos together, to create movement, to keep schisms from growing ever further.

Unless we’re talking about the anarchists. That is one bridge she is busy burning rather than trying to put back together again. I’m still not sure I can wrap my head around the politics of those days, but I didn’t try too hard. Many of the descriptions and long detailed accounts of infighting here made my eyes glaze over I confess…I am also rather jaded by the continuing dose of them still fracturing movement today.

Still, this is well worth a read. Even if you can’t make yourself care about all that the way many still seem passionately to do. So here are some highlights of what I did love — from the frivolous to the important.

Frivolous, but cool: to find out that Eleanor and Edward Aveling spent their sort-of honeymoon in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, where Mark and I just were for our own holiday and loved enormously. We weren’t at the Nelson Arms, and in Wirksworth proper, but still. A lovely place.

There’s some lovely scatterings of social history on the East End:

The fight for free speech and the right of assembly had a long and stormy history. In the early ‘eighties, the East End Radicals who held regular meetings on Mile End Waste in Stepney were constantly chivied by the police. They then adjourned to Limehouse where an open air meeting in Piggot Street, off the junction of the Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road, was addressed by a member of the SDF. it was stopped by the police for causing and obstruction. Thereafter both Radical Club and SDF speakers took to nearby Dod Street, mainly occupied by factories and warehouses and thus deserted on summer Sunday mornings. (69)

The importance of these East End Radical Clubs — which covered the boroughs from Poplar and Hackney, Bermondsey and Stepney as far west as Islington and Finsbury, with their local Federations — lay in that they drew together politically conscious working men…(196)

On Sunday 27th September 1885, 60,000 people marched from Stepney Green to take possession of Dod Street to protest ongoing arrests.

I loved how theatre and literature never ceased being important parts of Eleanor’s life — and Aveling never stopped trying to make his fortune through plays either, curiously enough.

The impact of Ibsen upon Eleanor and her immediate circle was violent: as violent as the sense of outrage felt by the majority of English critics at the first performance of his plays. This new “social drama” stunned them — though not into silence — by its complete break with the theatrical conventions of the time, both in manner and content. (100)

Although it seems that Eleanor lost many of her female friends (a tragedy that I am sure put her more at the mercy of her own depression and Aveling’s moods — though it was Aveling that was the most likely cause), it does seem that at one time, Eleanor met them regularly to go to the theatre– herself, Dolly Radford, Olive Schreiner, Honor Brooke and Edith Lees would pour out afterwards and argue and talk on and on about them.

There a number of curious little views into the left society of her time — like the programme for an Arts Evening to raise funds for the SDF. G.B. Shaw and Kathleen performed in a piano duet composed by Mendelssohn, Aveling read Shelley’s Men of England, Mother Wright read from Adam Bede (!), Bax played Schumann (and went on too long apparently), Morris read his own poetry (went down very well), and a dramatic piece filling the 2nd half saw Eleanor and Aveling playing main roles in In Honour Bound.

There are some interesting asides on Marx’s papers as well, such as Engles ruminating on the translation of Capital, and the difficulties of it:

To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literature of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too… but there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too… Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms requires the corresponding new terms in English… (113)

Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling
Eleanor Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Edward Aveling in America, 1886

Then there was that time Michael Davitt refused to meet Aveling because he was an atheist, while both were speaking at the Easter Sunday ‘gigantic demonstration’ in Hyde Park, 1887. Maybe there were other reasons, he is the constant unsettling rather unprincipled presence that seems to taint everything. This in spite of Kapp trying to be rigorously fair. But he causes drama and discord everywhere he goes, undoing every effort by Eleanor.

At least they are equals in calls for speaking, Eleanor spoke at that same rally with Aveling and Davitt, and there is a constant whirl of public speaking engagements that continues through the whole of her life. More than I can possibly imagine.

Returning to 1887, a brilliant description of direction action tactics I wish I’d thought of:

One of the “small matters” which had become “a great question” was the conduct of the unemployed. Some of them had hit upon novel ways of drawing attention to their plight, such as holding church parades in various parts of the country, marching into places of worship to swell the congregation which they treated as a public meeting, objecting loudly and strongly whenever they did not agree with the sentiments of the speaker in the pulpit. (219)

We are also coming to what Kapp believes was a pivotal moment in Eleanor Marx’s life, she writes to her sister Laura that the year is harder than any within recent memory, and quotes Maggie Harkness as a source. Later she writes to her friend Dolly Radford:

…in the streets here one sees so many starving people — people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched… (222)

This is the background for Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square, that day that so impressed everyone on the left, but in very different ways.  Eleanor writes in a letter to Laura:

Last Sunday the troops had ammunition ready and stood with fixed bayonets. Next Sunday I think it very possible they will actually fire. That would be very useful to the whole movement here. It would complete the work some of us have been doing this long while past, of winning over the better Radical element to Socialism. (230)

She is determined to march, to provoke. Kapp’s interpretation is rather lovely, but I am not sure she is entirely right about these being Eleanor’s thoughts:

In Eleanor’s view only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly. Revolution for her did not have a “a very big R”: it was a process inherent in the small act of standing your ground, asserting and extending your rights, defending your dignity as a human being in every situation and in all the circumstances of daily life. In that way, and that way alone, would men and women change their conditions, their circumstances and, in doing so, themselves. (231)

This was also a pivotal moment for Morris, but from it he took the lesson of retrenchment and building the revolution more seriously. Many felt that way, many experienced and understood the day not as Eleanor did, but as Shaw’s letter to Morris revealed, dated 22 November:

you should have seen that high hearted host run. Running hardly expresses our collective action. We skedaddled and never drew rein until we were safe on Hampstead Heath or thereabouts. Tarlton found me paralysed with terror and brought me on to the Square, the police kindly letting me through in consideration of my genteel appearance. On the whole, I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one.  (footnote, 231)

A report of a meeting at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green on what to do following Bloody Sunday from George Standring, editor of the Radical (who later became a member of the Fabian Society in 1893) describes her thusly:

In front of the platform sat Lady Macbeth Aveling and the redoubtable Edward, S.Sc. They were, of course, in favour of a spirited dash at Trafalgar Square; and very fine it was to see the lofty scorn of Lady Macbeth when any speaker on the pacific side rose to address the meeting. When the resolution proposing the Hyde Park meeting was read Lady Macbeth turned to Edward, D.Sc., and hissed ‘C-o-w-a-r-d-s!’ between her teeth. It was very fine indeed… (233)

It’s not flattering, and hard to tell how much the caricature is personal and political, but throughout reading this biography I wondered how much that love of the stage translated into everyday life. I still don’t have an answer.

1888 sees final split of the Socialist League. Important I know, but still. Yawn. But also this continued Eleanor’s evolution, and finally she begins to spend more time with actual working class people and their struggles.

1888 was a year of trade recovery and the great wave of demonstrations subsided. But it was something beyond the ill-usage of the unemployed that now produced a shift in her attitude to the working class. She had begun to explore the East End, sometimes alone, occasionally with Margaret Harkness, not as a speaker nor a demonstrator but more as an explorer, and what she discovered left her deeply and personally involved with the lives of the people. They were not any less the downtrodden and exploited “masses”…but they were no longer featureless crowds… (261)

In letter after letter written at that time, whether from London or the country, this preoccupation with suffering is reflected. (262)

Curious her wandering about with with Margaret Harkness. She describes the docks:

To go to the docks is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts–not men–and all to earn at best 3d. or 4d. an hour! Si serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron palings with wooden ones–the weaker men got impaled in the crush!…You can’t help thinking of all this when you’ve seen it and been in the midst of it… (263)

This is the year of the match girls strike, Eleanor becomes fast friends with Will Thorne, labour leader of the gas workers to victory. After reading his biography and without this assumed familiarity, it was funny to read this:

At that time Thorne was not the stout and stolid figure familiar at the House of Commons to later generations. (323)

As Eleanor shifts her work to focus on working class struggle in the East End, there are some more cool glimpses of history, like this of Silvertown:

In 1852 S.W. Silver & Co., “the well-known outfitter of Cornhill”, bought one acre of land between Bow Road and Braking Creek to which it removed its small waterproofing works from Greenwich. It was the oldest factory on the waterfront. Seven more cares were added in the next few years and, by 1860, the premises were so extensive “that the name of Silvertown was given to the district of which they formed the centre.” (336)

There’s a fascinating aside (possibly just to me) about the transportation links available to Eleanor when she was going to Silvertown daily from Chancery Lane in support of the strike:

  • Metropolitan and Inner Circle line running 6 am to midnight, taken from Farringdon to Aldgate, connecting to Great Eastern or Blackwall Railways to Silvertown.
  • North Metropolitan Company tramcars between Aldgate and Bow, Stratford and Dockland.
  • A Blue Bus from fleet St or Ludgate Hill, a Green Bus from Holborn every ten minutes.

Eleanor became secretary of the Silvertown Women’s Branch of the Gasworkers’ Union in October 1889, and remained connected to them for many years, being elected time and time again to office.

Another little interesting fact from the Trades Union Congress, Liverpool, 1890 — Eleanor was excluded though elected by the Gas Workers and General Laborers’ Union, because she was not a working woman. The representative included 447 men and only 10 women, representing eight womens’ unions with 2610 members. 1300 of them belonged to the Matchmakers Union.

The highlights really, of the whole book, are the letters between Tussy (Eleanor’s childhood nickname) and the General (good old Engels), stories told off the cuff and in great often hilarious detail of the congresses and people attending, and others simply full of personalities, politics and daily life. You remember how much you like her as you read them, a feeling sometimes lost in the detail of the history.

It is even more sad, then, when Engels begins to fail. All the personal drama that surrounds him, and puts Marx’s papers at risk — and god did he have a curious relationship with women. The blow of finding out Freddy is actually her illegitimate brother, tarnishing her view of her father. Aveling was always fairly horrible, and then he goes and marries some very very young woman even though he has an open abscess in his side (I don’t have words for either the ethics or the logistics of that), but Eleanor continues to take care of him, old friends are ill and dying, I’m still unsure of how close her relationship with her sister was, some of their letters are wonderful but not at all personal. She cuts herself off from those who might have been wise and supportive.

And then all the drama at the end. Such immense sadness. The role Aveling may or may not have played. I wanted always a different life for her, but she did so much, spoke to so many people in so many places, supported most humbly working class organising and struggle, tried to bring together a movement across the insularity of different factions and organisations…

Eleanor Marx, presente.

[part 1]

Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Street Mystery

big_bow_mysteryMrs. Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.

She is quite a brilliant, gloomy character of a landlady, and the whole of this novel was immensely enjoyable. The actual locked-room mystery was perhaps a little heavy handed, but for a serial written in four weeks — that had the felicity of responding to some of its reader’s guesses within its pages — it is quite awesome. I loved the nod to Dickens in the names and the form of it, but it is far funnier and stripped of most of the Dickensian sentimentality.

There are a number of funny digs at hack writing in here, in the introduction as well as the story.

So much written about the East End was written to to uncover and to educate on poverty and working class misery on the one hand, or to titillate with crime and tales of the underworld. It occurred to me halfway through this how wonderful it was to read something without any of those aims. To read something set in the East End because the East End is what the author knew, to involve the whole panoply of East End characters, from landladies to Oxford and Toynbee House gentlemen to labour organisers with political pretensions to hack journalists scrounging their way and their ongoing debates with their friends the cobblers and the ex-detectives. Some theosophy thrown in along with the socialism. It is therefore mocking and irreverent, but compassionate too. Written from the inside as one of this great diverse throng, too often reduced to caricature.

That said, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie, which of course I also loved. This is a time of organising to change the world. Near the end he allows himself an aside:

A sudden consciousness of the futility of his existence pierced the little cobbler like an icy wind. He saw his own life, and a hundred million lives like his, swelling and breaking like bubbles on a dark ocean, unheeded, uncared for.

“The Cause of the People,” he murmured, brokenly, “I believe in the Cause of the People. There is nothing else.”

Israel_ZangwillIsrael Zangwill (1864-1926) born in London to immigrant parents, was long a champion of the oppressed. In reading about the suffragettes and East End struggles, his name appears time and time again. He had a complicated relationship to Zionism, wrote numerous books and plays, including a play about America as the ‘melting pot’ which earned him a letter from Roosevelt. Reading this, I thought to myself he is someone I would have really loved to know, so I shall investigate further at some point — or read more of his fiction.

 

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Brick Lane

117664There is such a richness to be uncovered here in Brick Lane, and I fail to uncover it in this post. I just collected a few quotes I particularly liked about life in London…that’s what you get, reading for enjoyment. I did enjoy this exploration of immigration and grappling with culture as they intertwine with character and expectations, and of course, the city itself. I loved its focus on women’s experience, enjoyed Nazneen’s attainment of strength and freedom, how it compares to her sister’s, how it connects to politics and race and self and place.

I remember first coming to the city from the desert — nothing like a village full of verdant green, but still this critical view of the East End strikes a chord. Of course, I moved to L.A. first, the bits with far fewer parks and green spaces, so it’s harder to be so critical of London in face of that sprawling concrete disaster (much as I love so much of it).

There was a patch of green surrounded by black railings, and in the middle two wooden benches. In this city, a bit of grass was something to be guarded, fenced about, as if there were a sprinkling of emeralds sown in among the blades. Nazneen found the gate and sat alone on the bench. A maharanee in her enclosure. The sun came out from behind a black cloud and shone briefly in her eyes before plunging back under cover, disappointed with what it had seen. (58)

This is an East End without all the lovely and curious things in it I have come to love, an East End restricted to estates and concrete — all the problems of social housing without much to redeem them:

She turned into the Berner Estate. Here, every type of cheap hope for cheap housing lived side by side in a monument to false economy. The low rises crouched like wounded monsters along concrete banks. In the gullies, beach-hut fabrications clung anxiously to the hard terrain, weathered and beaten by unknown storms. A desolate building, gouged-out eyes in place of windows, announced the Tenant’s Association: Hall for Hire. (468)

That said, I have seen a number of these Tenant Association halls, and they really are entirely dire. I always wondered about that. They, more than anything else, show that estates weren’t always built with the most respect for the people they were to house. Many were, of course, but not these perhaps.

The meeting was in a low building at the edge of the estate. It had been built without concession to beauty and with the expectation of defilement. (236)

Even so they contain so much life, friendships that matter, families and tragedies and love and plans for the future and organising for better or for worse.

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Debord & Jorn in Limehouse — and the best single objection to planning you will ever read

In 1955, the London Times published this piece of garbage:

London’s Chinatown is threatened with extinction. That labyrinth of squalid streets, mysterious passages, and shuttered hovels a mile or two east of Aldgate pump is doomed. The planners have been told to go ahead. By the end of the year much of Pennyfields will have been demolished to make room for blocks of flats. After that, it is only a question of time before the rest of it will vanish like an opium smoker’s dream.

Tenacious as the type of Oriental who jumps ship and settles within the purlieus of London’s Docklands is, he is helpless under the New Order. Whatever he and his compatriots may feel, they cannot hope to frustrate the designs of the modern builder. The series of rabbit warrens, from which a Chinese head was once wont to pop out with disconcerting suddenness, must give place to neat and tidy dwellings fitted with “h. and c.” and a sanitation calculated to make the old time denizens of London’s Chinatown shudder.

For it has never been the dwelling place of the Mandarin, much less the hiding place of the communist plotter. But it has been, and still is, the home-from-home of the Chinese Common Man, who, sick of the sea, had found the precarious existence to be derived from gambling, catering for his fellows, or pandering to curious visitors much to his liking. (49)
–anonymous, “Limehouse Nights in the 1930s: Chinatown of Romance and Fable Receives its Death Blow from the Planners.” London Times, August 31, 1955

In response, Bernstein, Debord, and Wolman write in Potlatch no. 23 (October 13, 1955):

We protest against such moral ideas in town-planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become.

***

Anyway, it is inconvenient that this Chinese quarter of London should be destroyed before we have the opportunity to visit it and carry out certain psychogeographical experiments we are at present undertaking.

Finally, if modernization appears to you, as it does to us, to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions. (52)

Bam. I almost like them again.

3621776_0bcc87ccIn McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, he describes their brief stay in Limehouse, in the building that formerly housed the British Sailor’s Society. A building on Newell Street, one of my favourite streets in all of London, and this building one I have puzzled over after noticing the plaque. Wark quotes a 2008 property advert that describes what it has become — and then goes on to describe what it once was:

“Newell Street, London, E14 7HR. £1,250,000: A beautiful Grade 2 listed house formerly headquarters of The British Sailors Society. Built circa 1802 for one of Horatio Nelson’s captains, the property retains many naval features including one of London’s only Victorian swimming pools, originally built to teach sailors to swim. The property is laid out over three floors and consists: large entrance hallway, drawing room, conservatory, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, studio room, sauna, private garden and two parking spaces. The property has also been used for filming, including Beginner’s Luck and Dead Cool and has been graced by stars such as Rosanna Arquette, Liz Smith, and Julie Delpy.”1

It’s easier to sell a property with a story, but beneath these stories lie others. The ad neglects to mention that the same address formerly housed the homeless, or that it was once disgraced by the anti-celebrities of the Situationist International. In preparation for the 1960 London conference, Debord and Jorn embarked on a dérive of the city looking for a suitable venue. They settled on this hall in the Lime-house district, mythologized by Charles Dickens as a seedy warren of opium dens. (253-254)

It’s so much more than that of course, I don’t much care for Edwin Drood, but I quite love knowing more about this little piece of it.

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The Rum Factory Opens!

The wonderful Bow Arts held the opening of the Rum Factory today, studios filling an old warehouse that has held many lives over its 200 years. They are all present here, I will show them to you. But it was no small feat to open 90 affordable studio spaces in London this close to the city, and we also celebrated their 20 year anniversary, so it was a happy occasion. Prosecco in the middle of the day, delicious nibbles.

And oh the bite-size brownies topped with cream.

But above all was the building.

We arrived, were directed upstairs to join the rest, find the drinks

Rum Factory Opening

Marcel kicked it off with many thank yous and much happiness

Rum Factory Opening

Above the mic, you could hear — and these are the notes I made on my phone, I like their abbreviated poetry and I am finishing my damn novel agonizingly but surely so you get the notes:

Amazing noises hammering, sounds of waves — Long Good Friday showed such foresight we will be the capital of Europe, Olympics, but development in Wapping creating challenges, one is to artists and creativity residential land values pushing out other uses St George developers good in that studios not left to the margins but part of development

Sound of wheels metal rain draining dragging of materials of weight itself in construction forms across a metal roof. Rebeccas Brooks’ office as was down the end and behind me the times office with glass and blinds remaining and a white board full of figures and print schedules, Michael called it a ghost of what was. This space is two floors so you can look down, feel the expanse, we stand in the middle at the top a mix of people in suits people in beards Mark in his collar beside me some plaid shirts some diversity

Cuts coming still going we have to be more creative

I don’t think they intended irony there, but I was sad that funding for the arts should be left to third sector and intensive fundraising and enlightened developers. God knows I don’t believe in them.

Few remaining buildings of London docks still to be redeveloped did once hold rum and spirits

I am tempted to drop things on people.

Speeches are over and I am free to wander.

This was indeed the former offices and distribution centre for News of the World. Here are the ghosts of what were:

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

This is what it has become:

Rum Factory Opening

Beautiful and massive wooden beams, old brick with its curious arches and niches — I try and imagine their purpose, fail.

Rum Factory Opening

I confess I prefer these as empty spaces, or in the process of becoming:

Rum Factory Opening

There was an artist who made birds of beautiful shape.

Coming down Pennington Street to the entrance this is what you see, a great solid mass of brick that has an odd weight and beauty to it, these old warehouses make my heart quake and I don’t quite know what it is about them.

London Dock

But wandering along the first floor in the still unoccupied spaces you find the curiously medieval windows, and the view behind towards destruction:

Rum Factory Opening

This survived the blitz, but not regeneration. Or maybe that’s just the new build that needs to come down to build some luxury flats that are even newer.

I wonder what this tunnel once did, why it is here. It is like an organic thing caterpillaring up in that great curve to swallow rubble. I hope it survives:

Rum Factory Opening

This dock once provided jobs for thousands of people — first the dock workers, then the newspaper printers (those printers’ strikes in the 80s, picking up leftist campaign literature, Sean and Helen’s stories about early mornings in the darkness and fascists and beatings and the heart pounding fiercely and idealism surging high — one of the later panel speakers was supporting the strikes too, but a bit deprecating of the part he played. Fighting for jobs seemed a little passe). I am glad this place now houses artists, otherwise there are only temporary employment opportunities here. Dude with a broom on a break:

Rum Factory Opening

There was a panel after and it was interesting, but I am a little too angry about rents and bankers and austerity to have enjoyed it much. I did love something the moderator said as part of the invitation for responses from the panel — my quixotic notes again:

on London as the centre of the world, this place the concrete tangible memory of goods flowing through…News of the World and media now become the goods? the flows? … Art now as tangible as rum?

I couldn’t help but think this ironic as well, as I made the leap to art become commodity and imperialist lacky. Not what he meant, not what is happening here, but undoubtedly worth some thought.

A few other thoughts from the woman from the GLA stayed with me, made me a bit sad:

Desire for immersive and authentic experience from tourists

Creating a cultural vision for the royal docks, how you grow a new development a new space before homes going in, bold ideas creating a different way about creating space

How do you create authenticity for tourists? How does a bureaucratic organisation, however well meaning, create a cultural vision? These things can only increase the ways that London is destroying upswellings of life and creativity through high costs and poverty where you earn simply to live, through the prescriptive stifling of culture as it is spontaneously created and lived by and through a vibrant community. Only a certain kind of people need their culture packaged and handed to them.

Sadness.

I found this picture of this warehouse’s former days, or as it came to the end of them.

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You leave the warehouse — once dockers would have been searched as they left the building — and walked up past plywood to the welcome site of St-George-in-the-East, and I remembered again the WWII story of Father John re-burying corpses thrown up by a bomb as Rev. Denys Giddey read the Commital by search-lights and explosions.

St-George-in-the-East

And then on the corner, a more eloquent reminder of how the community once here has been whittled away.

The Old Rose, Wapping

Things do change I know, it is nice to be able to celebrate something good that is happening amidst all the rest.

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Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End

groserbookThis book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito.  So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:

if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)

Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.

This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:

One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)

I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:

God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)

He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.

This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:

Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)

All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:

PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.

There are 4 points on what tenants should do:

(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)

The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.

What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.

Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.

Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.

Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:

For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?

Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)

In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)

groserbecket1949you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.

He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:

‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)

I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:

This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)

There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:

“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”

The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)

Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.

You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:

Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)

I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that

their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).

There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.

If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.

And more on London’s East End from myself…

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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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