Some thoughts and notes on the Crisis Conference held in London last Thursday — and my first ever storify blog! It’s pretty cool, though almost as terrifying as tweeting as your every word is immediately out there — I don’t know why this blog feels safer but so it is…
I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.
Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.
I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:
gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.
I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.
Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.
I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.
A newly growing majority once again.
It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.
Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.
The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.
For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.
And thus begins the great descent.
First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.
One bedroom, no married life…
You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…
Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.
It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.
The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?
Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.
Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.
Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)
You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.
Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.
Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.
With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.
Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.
Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:
people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…
And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.
Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice
Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…
This place is full of even more women and children.
What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.
So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.
I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.
I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.
So I do believe that this will be blog three of four (see one and two), combining Lofland’s descriptions of antiurban scholarship and feeling as found in The Public Realm. I recognised more of the figures from these chapters, but she looks at them in interesting ways.
First, the ways that this sentiment emerges on both left and right — for example from David Harvey (1973) writing that:
the ultimate villain for the Left is the economic system and its operation, cities per se … become the “intervening villains” as in David Harvey’s assertion that “cities…are founded upon the exploitation of the many by the few. An urbanism founded upon exploitation is a legacy of history. A genuinely humanizing urbanism has yet to be brought into being.” (1973: 314) (111)
I never think of Harvey in this way really, but of course it makes sense that for him the city is the locus of exploitation. From the right it is more clearcut:
From the point of view of the Right, cities are simply blamed in a relatively straightforward manner … for the failings that might otherwise be attributed to the economic system. Thus the existence of a black underclass, poverty in general, and crime are all defined as urban problems and, as such, not worth “throwing money at.” (111)
She looks at huge amount of literature n the negative impacts of high-density living — things it will be good to follow up for the next piece I’m thinking of writing — Baldassare (1983), Cholding (1978) and Freedman (1975) give summations of these, though dated. Other scholars, I think she is thinking in particular of many of teh social movement scholarship, trace the city’s negative psychological impacts. For them the city is often seen as a variable causing protest, conflict and violence (and these are all greatly conflated and all bad). This was challenged by Tilly. Who I still haven’t read but need to.
Lofland departs from all this to look at what she believes to be the true source of antiurban feeling:
I do not believe we despise the city of any of these oft-mentioned reason. Rather, I would like to offer the hypothesis that we despise the city largely because it is the only settlement form that has a public realm. (113)
This is because we judge the public realm with the moral standards of the parochial and private realms. Interesting. Do we? Do I? Have I been until now?
Lofland starts with what she calls the ‘Direct Assaults’ or the kinds of open attacks that have been made on the public realm, arranging them thematically:
The Presence of the Unholy and the Unwashed (116) — Based on Victorian ideas of contamination (particularly in encouraging women to stay home), views of poverty, homelessness. God knows this is still far too alive today.
Mixing the unmixable (118) — this is a place where different categories of people mix together (oh no!), this is fear is broader than, but includes the fear of, the most poor. She doesn’t talk much about race, but this clearly includes the ‘Other’. She describes:
The idea that there is a social territory in which various types or categories of people whom a deity, nature, tradition, etc., had intended to remain forever separate are allowed to mingle provides the occasion for much agonized hand-wringing… (119)
The Sacrilegious Frivolity of Uncontrolled Play: (121) I rather love this one, as will situationists and performance artists everywhere.
In the public realm, the argument goes, the unquestioned virtues of sobriety, industry, rationality, diligence, and so forth are not only challenged, they are discarded. (121)
Political Anarchy: Oh yes…
… it will seem particularly attractive as a site for politics to those who cannot command significant private space… the unmonied — the outcasts, the dangerous classes, the unworthy poor, the mob, the unwashed masses, the proletariat, the underclass — in short, to all those urban folks who … inspire fear in the hearts of authorities everywhere. (124)
Then there are the ‘Indirect Assaults’, where the target is another issue, but the public realm gets drawn in. ‘Preserving the Gentler Sex’ (128) and the appropriate conduct of women, ‘Leading Men Not Into Temptation’ (129) and the Victorian anti-prostitution movement, ‘Prohibiting Demon Rum’ (130) and the temperance movements, ‘Protecting Innocent Children and Corruptible Youth’ (131) are the examples she gives. It is clear that the city has been a something of a villain in all of those movements, this is making me remember Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets among other works …
The focus to this point has been on larger antiurban social movements, in the next chapter, however, Lofland moves to individual feeling and the rise of value give to private space.
In trying to understand this, she distinguishes privatism from privatization as the individual preference for private space. This shift is made possible by the changing technological innovations that have allowed a withdrawal from the public realm (and also the parochial realm) in ways impossible for all but the very wealthiest before — cars, a weekly shop at the grocery store rather than regular stops at the local market, entertainment through radio and television to be enjoyed in the home, all of the things that work to create ‘cocoons of privacy’ (145). She also notes that this emerges from a:
social-psychological condition… the extremely high value modern Western humans in general, but Americans in particular, seem to place on intimate (read, “authentic”) relationships. … Richard Sennett has long argued not only that there is such a preference but that it leads to a dismissal of more impersonal public–and even parochial–relationships… (145)
This hierarchization of relationships — something that so fascinates me because I think I have been just as guilty without thinking about it — is key in making growing privatism possible. Lofland argues that it connects to consistent feelings of fear and loathing of streets and the way they are filled with strangers — and that this is what is driving the many attempts to control public space so visible in both our histories and in our present. While difficult to prove how this connection works, Lofland argues that there seems to be something connecting anti-urbanism and privatism, the built environment and people’s feelings.
This leads into a discussing of ‘Control by Design’ or the way architecture is used to control (or destroy) the public realm — a lot of work has been done on this since she was writing, I think, but this is still so insightful, drawing on the already existing wealth in literature (as of 1998) about how to control people and access to public spaces — particularly the poor and the ‘other’. Lofland describes 4 conditions that she believes must be met before
…genuine control of the public realm can be accomplished architecturally: First, a specific set of political, economic, and legal arrangements must be in place and accompanied by, second, cultural attitudes that support, third, a large number of construction projects that are, fourth, large in scale. (193)
All of these brought together could be able to control or purify the public realm. A lot. But they have come together in the dream of what Lofland calls the “private city” as described by Le Corbusier, visible in Brasilia, or the Barbican. Present in the massive building of suburbs in the US. Why did I never encounter this before in literature of the suburbs? She looks at the five critical deign elements:
Megamononeighborhoods (200) – specialized and segregated land use, sprawling suburbs that may have public spaces in them, but Lofland notes few qualify as public realm. Strangers have no reason to go there, and are actively discouraged
Autoresidences (201) – characteristic of the megamononeighborhood.
…the peculiar fact that a significant proportion of houses built since 1945 have as their dominant feature the prominence of the garage.
Autostreets (201) – made for cars, discourage walking, cycling
Antiparks (203) – the non-residential megamononeighborhood — industrial parks, business parks etc, landscapes without people
Megastructures (204) – interiors full of what Lofland calls counter-locales for control of people using the space, but in the larger city they work to ‘reduce, destroy or inhibit, the creation of street life outside its walls.’ (204)
Lofland uses this image — Sketch of ‘Radiant City’ from Le Corbusier (1929) to illustrate exactly what she means. I have always found Le Corbusier chilling…
Lofland brings more concepts to the fore — what she calls ‘sanitary design’ and the counterlocale. Earlier she defined locales as bounded nonprivate space where people were likely not to know each other. I love her definition of counterlocale (though more terminology always makes me worry):
locales to which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting, annoying, or threatening interactions. … counterlocales are “purified” or “sanitized” locales. (209)
This is such a familiar kind of space. She continues
Again, it took the massive postwar building program in the United States to transform a weak and insignificant strategy for taming the public realm into a colossus. (209)
She then defines four principal mechanisms to ‘rehabilitate’ spaces (for evil), or make them counterlocales:
Privatization. Growth of megastructures has ensured ‘what was once permeable has become impermeable. Once inside the megastructure, the individual is fully in privately owned space…’ (210-211)
Shadow Privatization. (211) Through public-private partnerships, where public space given under some level of private control, or in return for some kind of subsidy, private spaces are opened to some degree to the public. BIDs an example of the first, privately owned plazas made semi-public an example of the second. Some of these made deliberately uninviting to discourage use.
The “Panopticon” Approach. The use of surveillance.
The “Hideaway” Approach. (214) Where ‘public’ plazas are tucked away and hidden, like in LA above the main streets, surrounded by imposing high rise offices.
Then there is camouflaged control — Disneyland kind of spaces, mall spaces.
All so familiar. All things I have studied, but wish I had found this earlier, as it is so helpful thinking about this historical context and the difference between public realm and public space, as well the role (and fear) of strangers.
To end, something that surprised me though it shouldn’t have, her discussion of just how many sociologists have fought the idea that space has any impact on society. Very curious indeed to me, but a wealth of citations. I think ‘the spatial turn’ has changed all that, but it seems worth remembering.
More on The Public Realm…
and even more…
Street Kids is a thought-provoking ethnography of youth on the streets and those who try to reach out to them – and one that faces squarely all of the ethical issues involved in an academic studying such a population. I appreciated that so much, as I did the fact that she became an outreach volunteer for two years to complete the study. Thus
What I learned is that when young people tell adults anything about their lives, it is a gift (18).
Ain’t that the truth.
I also appreciated that this got beyond some of the more liberal heartbleeding to look at structural factors – the way that neoliberal privatisation of services and cutbacks in social spending has decimated service provision as the state makes way for private and often faith-based charities, the way that zero-tolerance policing and controls over public space by BIDs and others have forced non-white, non-hetero, non-middle-class populations out of the spaces they have long inhabited and into greater mobility, invisibility, and danger. One consequence of gentrification is even more deaths as youth find themselves under more stress from police, far from services and the familiar networks they rely on for survival, and in neighborhoods that are less safe. The majority of New York’s youth on or of the streets are not the highly visible white population of kids panhandling and scruffy and from around the country, but rather local kids of colour who do everything possible to hide the fact they are homeless, a high percentage of them queer, a high percentage of them escaping abuse. White middle-class residents of newly gentrified areas demanding that they just go home? Just not getting the dynamics are they. Not wanting to get them either.
Scholars argue that public-space laws that drive any perceived source of disorder from gentrifying or commercialized public spaces are ‘revanchist’ that they punitively deny people a right to space. In effect, these laws dismiss homeless people as legitimate social subjects with the right to exist in public… Public-space ordinances are being used to spatially exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously constructing some groups as deviant, disorderly subjects with no right to an orderly, commercialized city (13-14).
Thus society is ‘disciplining street youth into invisibility’ (19). Out of sight, out of mind. Out of funding.
There is a lovely discussion of ‘emplacement’, building on work by geographer Tim Cresswell – how have I not read him before?
Human geographers contend that social subjects are also spatial subjects, that as social beings, people understand the world through grounded and contextual categories. Moreover, places help naturalize social structures and hierarchies by their seemingly stable existence. In the popular lexicon, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Places are always both physical and social locations organized through powerful social ideologies. This sociospatial construction is a process of “emplacement.” Besides occupying spaces, these spaces makes us who we are; that is, we shape and are shaped by complex geographies, as both agents and subjects of places (25)
This not only offers insight into our characters and development, our own relationships to places, but also helps define what is at stake in the formation of place. Thus:
The presence of street youth marks a social fissure disrupting modern Western society’s imaginary of itself as orderly and just. Because street you present a type of social dissonance—a ripple in the social stream—social forces over the years have attempted to dislodge, explain away, reposition, reimagine, and erase them.
In an interesting addition to the whole debate about the use of the word ‘underclass’, she clarifies what I kind of knew but hadn’t vocalized – that it is grounded in ideas of youth, as well as race and class and gender. Unemployed youth, criminal youth, teenage mothers. Young people. Even more reasons to hate it, apart from how it’s been used to undercut welfare and demonize those in poverty. ‘They’ are different, outsiders when the term ‘community’ is mobilized as an ideal form in service of cleaning up and cleaning out, in service of attracting the middle and upper classes back to the city and creating spaces for capital.
I also liked her critique of the ‘end of public space’ argument mobilized by Mitchell, Davis, Sorkin and others, presuming that there was an earlier ideal. Instead:
Public spaces have never been open and accessible to everyone in society; rather, policing and shifting norms have functioned together to shift geographies of access and rights to particular spaces and subjectivities. Over time, women, children, and minorities have all struggled to gain the right to access, use, and be visible in public…public spaces become arenas for members of society to claim their rights. According to this view, public space is a process, a nexus of power relations, not a fixed state. Public space may not “end,” but it can shift in regard to power relations.
I really love this idea of the public and public space as process and power relations, I need to think about it more.
I have a few critiques of course. Street Kids moved from description and storytelling to theory, and what I’ve written above I found really useful, but other sections not so much and it made it a bit disjointed at times. I’m not the biggest fan of Foucault, for example, so to draw on him in discussing the rise of child labour laws and compulsory schooling as disciplining and the imposition of middle-class values on working-class children earning a living in the street I find a little maddening. Not that it isn’t true, but that is not the whole story – working classes fought hard for child labour laws and schools, these have always been contested areas and created new spaces of contestation in which struggle could play out. I always feel that Foucault condescends, that he loses that aspect of regulation, health and education services fought for and won (though not everyone would agree with me on that I suppose). The discussion of outreach as performance I also found interesting and disturbing truth be told. There is an element of performance in anyone’s activities in public, on the street. But in something like outreach, as I found in organizing, what you are striving for is connection. To get through performance to something deeper. Buber’s I-Thou, or Fromm’s work or anything in addition to performance.
Finally, there was only one mention of FIERCE!, who I love. Who organize and work politically for the preservation of their right to public spaces (being primarily LBGTQ youth of colour and as fierce as their name). Who question the whole social service framework and what is possible working within that framework. The ways it can save, empower, but more often I think, disempower. The ways this connects up to capitalism and gentrification. This book doesn’t really engage with the critiques they make. Interesting, because otherwise I so appreciate the focus on engagement, commitment, concreteness in turning academic work towards improving a situation and changing policy.
In this Diocese of Southwark there is a small Community of men known as the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. It has its Home in a large rambling house in Nunhead, with several detached centres. It follows the aims of St Francis, though in a simplified form, as the members are usually so busy during acts of service to persons in any kind of need, that there is no time to be too “precious”, and what has endeared the Brotherhood to the diocese is its intense humanity and “practicalness”.
This is the community founded by Father George Potter, from the introduction to this lovely little autobiography of a modern-day friar written in stolen moments from a life of service to others.
That is why this story of mine is written in bursts, like those of a machine-gun. I have only been able to explode a few rounds at a time, in between all my other work. (12)
It is a life shaped by poverty and he geographies of South London, and that in turn shaped his city, particularly this little piece of Peckham and the people living within it — and more particularly the homeless children that he gave shelter to.
I wish he were still alive to talk to rather than writing a short book in bursts. He grew up as one of five children in Cavendish Road, Balham, poor and supported only by a working mother after his father died when he was a baby. But who lived across the wall from them? Dan Leno, that’s who, Music Hall entertainer extraordinaire. He was in and out of Music Halls, and his continuing friendships throughout his life with performers kept emerging through offhand remarks — like borrowing that proverbial horse costume where he was the back end and it all went horribly wrong.
He started work at 8 doing odd jobs for a greengrocer on Saturdays, often going with him at 3 am to Covent Garden and Burrough Market. He left school well before 14, worked for a private detective’s agency in Queen Victoria Street, a sugar-broker’s office in Mincing Lane, a stockbroker’s office as a junior clerk.
His journey into the priesthood was a difficult one, not for lack of calling but for lack of money, learning the rudiments of Latin, Greek, the Bible and Church history in the evenings from two volunteer priests, and struggling along through evening classes, finding a scholarship to Kelham. He became the vicar at All Saints in South Wimbledon, after a year as army chaplain in WWI.
Time as army chaplain in WWI seems to have had a profound impact on the priests I most admire, Father Groser also endured it, and also dedicated his life to not just the service of the poorest, but to living among them and working with them to rise from that condition.
This book is a collection of stories, told as you might over tea or a pint, and always with humour but many of them, most of them, are tragic. They are also revealing of the role of the church. When he first came to St Chrysostom’s, Peckham in 1923, there was no vicarage and no vicar had ever lived in the parish. He writes:
The church was closed and the churchyard was simply a rubbish dump.
We eventually found the church-cleaner–a dear old Victorian body–who lived opposite the church. When we got inside we found the place spotlessly clean, though parts of the ceiling were missing and pails and baths rested on some of the pews and in the sanctuary. The clock in the turret proved to be about ten years slow, and there had been no heating in the building for decades. (25)
There was a church hall that also began to serve as vicarage where he lived with his mother, and perhaps my favourite thing about his introduction to the neighbourhood was this:
The hall doors were open, and kettles and saucepans were bubbling on the parish gas-stove. It seemed that some of the neighbouring parishioners found it cheaper and more convenient to use the church’s stove rather than their own. (26)
Community in action right there. It is quite beautiful how they came together to transform that place. Their sanctuary lamp for a while was the lid of a soup toureen, an empty fish paste jar, three yards of chain, and for more important feasts only — some Rowntree’s wine gums to add some colour. Father Potter had a gift.
In 1925 they gave up the fight against the rats in the old church hall, and moved over to a derelict pub called the Eagle. All labour donated.
There’s no one didn’t like the new management sign. It was there that they found the space to take in a few boys then living on the streets — Police courts and bobbies on the beat had also begun to drop of boys at Father Potter’s. Much of his life from then on seems to have been focused on moving to bigger and better quarters to provide room for his sisters and other brothers in the order and continue that work. The pub was retained as club room and Scout headquarters.
1929 they found a building being leased for a factory when in fact it had been an old school. Father Potter writes:
After several trips to the Record Office, trying to trace some Deeds to prove our position, we did not get very far. We felt it best to take possession — which we did. We took down the board on the gate, which bore the words “Shirts and Pyjamas”, and (as we knew no saints of those names–even in the latest Missals) we re-named the old buildings “The Hostel of St Francis”. (46)
I like his style.
The animals of the city were not forgotten either here — people brought them — some unwanted but mostly old and sick and needing to be put down or burial. The RSPCA gave them six ‘lethal boxes’ so they could perform this service when they could not give animals away to a new and good home.
I cannot find it easy to be gentle with bullies either. I am almost ashamed to say that I have found it helped them, at times, to pay them back in their own coin. It sounds un-Christian–but it worked when it was explained to them. (59)
He is humorous about the coshes, knuckle-dusters and razors, understanding about the amount of violence often suffered in their young lives from families or institutions. He admires their intelligence and courage, you believe him when he tells stories of seeing through most of their lies, right down to the stark and terrible realities that lie underneath. He certainly understood key things like this, from a talk he gave to others embarking on similar work:
Don’t lose your temper or shout. If you do, you must not be upset if the boy laughs at you. Remember, he probably has a sense of humour, and we do look funny when we lose our temper.
A boy does not necessarily show respect by standing in your presence, nor by saluting and saying “Sir!” Perhaps he has been brought up in an institution, where he has got so used to doubling up and saying “Yes, sir!” when he wants to say “No. Damn you!” So he finds it hard sometimes to say “No!” to the devil. (71)
If we talk a lot about Jesus Christ, the boy rightly things that we know something about him–and expect us to be something like him. (72)
It’s been fun, he titles a chapter…and the stories that follow prove it.
A boy was serving me at Mass. I waited for the lavabo. Brother Francis shouted to the boy, “Water! water!” He looked up and said, “Lumme! who’s fainted?”
There is the story, tragic and funny, of the most wonderful untamed girl named Liz, who often slept in the church to escape the violence of her father…and anyway, she could not get to sleep until her bed was vacated by her brother who worked night shifts, as it was his bed during the day. Father Potter talks of her drunkenness from the age of 12, at 14 her care for the reputations of married men who gave her the drink, how she once threw a man over a table for propositioning her. How she hated wearing hats. I loved these compassionate and understanding and somewhat heartbroken glimpses into lives lived against all odds and the humour and courage there, despite enduring a level of poverty that has not existed since the post-war settlement.
There are tales of cockneys camping in the country, Peckham during the blitz and letters home from the boys that will make you cry.
It’s a rather little book, but it allows us to remember so many of those whom history and society both would wish to forget. I think, too, it perhaps allows them to be remembered as they might have wished. I happened to start a biography of Dr Bernardo on the same coach trip and the differences are immense, but that is for another blog.
[Potter, The Rev. Canon George (1956) Father Potter of Peckham: A South London Saga. Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.]
This is the first of three posts on Mary Higgs (1854-1937), a social reformer who beyond running a shelter in Oldham actually went on the tramp in the North of England (and tested the waters in London) to better understand the conditions suffered by the poor — and particularly women — moving from town to town. Her experiences were published in a series of articles, pamphlets and a book Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906).
This was an extraordinary thing for her to do.
She is a curious mix, Mary Higgs, a woman who actually did seem able to see the conditions of the poor with a great deal of empathy, and even to listen to them. She suffered to do so — to voluntarily submit oneself to the workhouse seems mad to me even now. She cannot quite escape her middle class judgments of how people manage their poverty or Christian judgments of how they manage their morality, but her actual descriptions are for the most part fairly kind. The amount of detail provides a brilliant window into the lives of women who have otherwise been lost to us.
They stand, then, in even greater contrast to the theoretical bombast she surrounds her narrative in. I know it was the common currency of reform of the time and I have seen it raise its ugly head before, but never quite so clearly laid out as this.
First though, from the introduction, more on her background (and poverty as social disease):
Securing a lodging where a destitute woman could be accommodated, and providing cleansing and dress, she has steadily taken in through a period of six years every case of complete destitution that came to her, willing to undergo remedial treatment. The work grew; accommodation for four was provided, with two paid helpers. The small cottage used acts as a social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history, and present need, and dealt with accordingly. The writer, as Secretary to the Ladies’ Committee of Oldham Workhouse, next became personally acquainted with the working of the Poor-law and studied it by means of books also. By degrees the Rescue work came to cover Police-court and Lodging-house work, and, as there was no other Shelter in Oldham, cases of all sorts came under her notice. She thus studied personally the microbes of social disorder.
By degrees she came to understand the existence of certain “classes” (classifying them much as observation led her to classify objects observed in physical studies). Also, she clearly perceived that causes were at work leading to rapid degeneration, and was led to pre-suppose currents working for social destruction.
This is particularly revealing perhaps:
She reflected that exploration was the method of science, and became herself an explorer of “Darkest England.”
I am fascinated by this constant reference to the middle and upper classes ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ working class life and neighbourhoods through Victorian slumming, just as they ‘explored and discovered’ the colonies they exploited, just as now the ‘pioneers’ discover and expand the frontiers of gentrification. And so often it seems, it is ‘Darkest’ Africa, England, Harlem… this has been much written about I know.
So on to Higgs herself, and how she tried to initially frame the results of her experiences and her policy recommendations. It’s fairly vile and everywhere the theoretical language insults, and I am thin-skinned and easily infuriated by such vileness, but in this case I feel called to defend her to the extent that she was open enough to the reality she encountered on her tramp that it almost reads as though written by someone else, and her recommendations at the end have moved much further to understanding the structural causes of labour’s movement and respect for those needing shelter.
Still. It is good to remember what many rich people once thought of us poor people, what we white people once thought of other races, what ‘pure’ women once thought of those who enjoyed a night down the pub. Sadly we haven’t come as far in destroying this as we might hope.
A very simple theory, which will be found to accord with Plato’s diagnosis of the degeneration of a State or an individual, with Meyer’s “Disintegrations of Personality,” and with James’ “Phenomena of Religious Experience,” therefore underlies this essay; but it is apart from its objects to do more than state it. It is enunciated more fully in an article in the Contemporary Review, now out, entitled “Mankind in the Making.” It is this:
(a) The psychology of the individual retraces the path of the psychology of the race.
(b)In any given individual the whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.
(c) Granted that any individual attains a certain psychical evolution in normal development, either evolution or devolution lies before him. Wrong social conditions lead to widespread devolution. The retrograde unit retraces downwards the upward path of the race, and can only be reclaimed along this path by wise social legislation, bringing steady pressure to bear along the lines of evolution, (barring extraordinary religious phenomena, which often reclaim individuals or communities).
(d) Society has now arrived at a point of development when these facts must be recognised, and the whole question of the organisation of humanity put on a scientific basis. It will then be possible to reduce the sciences of sociology and psychology to scientific order, and our national treatment of such questions as vagrancy will be no longer purely empirical.
Words fail me here, but I am glad we have almost overcome this insane vision of evolution and racial hierarchy.
There was an odd resonance with a quote in Horne’s A Savage War of Peace in relation to the French policy of erasing Algerian resistance by destroying family structures, and a commentary that all that was left was dust. Higgs says the same thing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from an agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on free (and willing) labour:
As early as Henry VIII., 1531, we find a second class, that of the “incapable,” those who could not work, who were “licensed to beg.”
The formation of this class was accelerated by the failure of the Church to provide for the assistance of the poor, by suppression of abbeys, etc., at the same time that the abolition of villeinage, which was still recent, threw off from organised society dependents very unfit to live a self-supporting life. (See Note 2.) Thus again the drying up of means of subsistence created as it were another layer of easily drifting dust.
Since, therefore, a transition period leaves behind such a layer of social débris, it is only to be expected that we should find the third great change that has passed over society, which is still recent, namely, the change to the industrial epoch, to be productive of another layer of social débris or dust.
John A. Hobson points out (in “Problems of Poverty,” p. 24) that “the period from 1790 to 1840 was the most miserable epoch in the history of the English working classes.” It is doubtful indeed whether we have really recovered from the “sickness” of that period.
There are some familiar definitions of vagrancy, where like the poor there are the willing and the unwilling:
Vagrancy proper was the crime of individuals who dropped out of a settled, mainly agricultural, society into the wandering life. Vagrancy as induced by modern conditions may be no crime. It is not a crime for a man who cannot obtain work to migrate to find it, or for a man to return home on foot from a distance.
And here are some of the actual numbers:
So much is the tramp ward disliked, and so useless is it as a remedy for destitution, since at best it affords only a night’s shelter with poor food and hard labour, that numbers prefer to “sleep out.” The London County Council’s census of the homeless poor, Friday, 29th January, 1904, revealed 1,463 men, 116 women, 46 boys, and 4 girls walking the streets, and 100 males and 68 females sleeping in doorways, etc., a total of 1,797 homeless poor in a small area in London (from Hyde Park in the west, to the east end of Whitechapel Road, from High Holborn, Old Street and Bethnal Green, in the north, to the Thames, in the south). In the winter 1903-4, no fewer than 300 people were known to be sleeping out every night in Manchester.
And we come to the results — the terminology is cringeworthy and in itself worthy of further reflection on the way that both the processes and the discourses of industrialisation dehumanised workers. In the following posts you will be able to see just how human some (not all) of these ‘inefficients’ became to Mrs Higgs, so where then does this discourse come from? It points to the deeply problematic underpinnings of social reform, underscores where my own traditionally deep distrust of theory comes from.
VIII. SUMMARY OF RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION.
We may summarise results as follows:
1. There exists at the bottom of society the hereditary vagabond or “tramp” proper. He is the remains of a vagrant class squeezed out of society and preying upon it…
2. There exists also a class of “incapables,” i.e. those infirm, old, blind, lame, epileptic, etc. These are supposed to be provided for by our Poor-law system, and should be inside workhouses. But numbers of them are allowed to wander in penury and beggary.
3. There exists a large class of “inefficients,” the special product of the Industrial revolution. It is not probable that they will disappear as a factor in social evolution, save by means of wise social
(1) They are continually renewed from the lower levels of the population, who breed quickly.
(2) The standard of industrial requirements rises, and leaves many behind stranded.
(3) Employment after middle age is difficult to obtain.
(4) The shifting of industries and changes in employment leave units unprovided for.
It is evident therefore that the whole legislation of our country must be remodelled, for it is on the social organism as a whole that social provision now devolves.
Up next — a glimpse of women’s actual lives on the tramp in shelters and workhouses, and then boarding house as brothel. Poor Mary Higgs had her horizons opened up in a hurry…
In 1908 Else Jerusalem wrote an exposé of prostitution in Vienna, a runaway best seller. Translated into English in 1932, it is almost nowhere to be found now.
I heard of her watching a BBC program on Vienna (‘Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities’), the only woman featured from this study of Vienna in this incredible year of 1908. A year which epitomised the key role Vienna was playing in the shaping of modernity. Freud first discovered the Oedipus Complex, Klimt had a major exhibition, the launch also of expressionist artists Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Shiele, the first example of modernist architecture by Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg and musical modernism, the mayor Lueger’s antisemitism (“I will decide who is a Jew” he said) picked up by a young Adolf Hitler.
Only one woman.
She came near the end, with a much appreciated look beneath the glamour, the dark underside of the pomp and bright lights (darker even than the malaise and immensely high number of suicides). We get one fascinating and brief look at Else Jerusalem, and the 50,000 prostitutes of the city.
Denied a place at university as a woman, Jerusalem conducted her own research and wrote a book called the Red House on the treatment of women and prostitution during the height of imperial Vienna. A best-seller, reprinted multiple times. From a middle-class Jewish family, she wrote other books and articles but almost nothing is known about her, and there seems to have been one English translation of in 1932. The Open Library says this:
A shattering exposé of prostitution in Vienna, published in 1908, it lifted the lid on the hypocrisy of polite Society and the miserable suffering inflicted on powerless women, who frequently were subject to severe abuse, venereal disease, near slavery and a drastically reduced life-span. Factual/investigative journalism.
The Spectator of 23 September 1932 said this:
THE RED HOUSE. By Else Jerusalem. (Werner Laurie. 7s. 6d.)
Readers who can stomach the subject of this novel will find it exceedingly well done. Those who cannot (the theme is prostitution) are advised to leave it alone.
I looked for her. All I could find was this:
E. J. (geb. Kotányi), geb. am 23. November 1876 in Wien, stammt aus bürgerlich-jüdischer Familie ungarischer Herkunft. Sie genießt eine höhere Bildung und gehört zu den ersten außerordentlichen Hörerinnen der Philosophischen Fakultät der Universität Wien. Anschließend betätigt sie sich als „Vortragskünstlerin“ und Schriftstellerin. Bereits in jungen Jahren widmet sie sich dem brisanten Thema der weiblichen Sexualität („Venus am Kreuz“, „Komödie der Sinne“). Die 1902 erscheinende Broschüre „Gebt uns die Wahrheit“ beschäftigt sich mit der Vorbereitung junger Mädchen auf die Ehe, wobei E. J. vehement für sexuelle Aufklärung eintritt. 1909 erscheint ihr fast 700 Seiten starker Bestseller-Roman “Der heilige Skarabäus”. Sein Inhalt ist für eine Schriftstellerin der Jahrhundertwende skandalös und ein Tabu-Bruch: er handelt im Bordell-Milieu. 1901 heiratet sie in erster Ehe den Fabrikanten Alfred Jerusalem, mit dem sie zwei Kinder hat. Nach der Scheidung geht sie eine zweite Ehe mit Viktor Widakowich ein und geht mit ihm nach Argentinien, wo sie ethnologische Studien betreibt und vermutlich 1942 stirbt. Über ihr Leben nach der Emigration ist leider sehr wenig bekannt.
I don’t speak German. So this is a bookmark to dig deeper.
Also mentioned, and also to look into deeper, was the fascinating study by photographer Hermann Drawe and journalist Emil Kläger from 1900: ‘The Third Men / Living in the sewers’. Pictures turned into lectures showing the misery of hundreds (thousands?) of people living underground. Reminds me of the people from New York’s subways written about in Tunnel People, that I helped translate and edit, and the film Dark Days. Portraits of a bankrupt society.
For more on women and struggle…
I saw a post on the Lambeth Housing Activists list asking for support in a protest to the council not to evict a vulnerable tenant recovering from a stroke. So I protested. we were hoping to speak with someone in charge but they said that wasn’t possible.* What doesn’t seem possible to me is that they will send this human being back to live on the streets when he needs a home and he needs care. In fact this story would once have been quite impossible, but the changes of the past few years means that Lambeth Council has been selling off social housing rather than building it, even as the waiting list for homes rises and rises — because we all know rents are rising and rising some more. As a citizen of this country, not its customer, I really hate the term ‘Customer Service Centre’. Lambeth Council has made their service centre look as impersonal as a bank, and when we went in we saw it was full to overflowing with people in need. This physical reality is as much a part of the neoliberalisation of space and services as their capacity to kick Gustavo Garcia back into the streets unless we can stop them.
* UPDATE: Needed because after I left the manager came out to speak to them. Apparently they were supportive and said that the eviction notice is suspended until further notice while they review his case. A small victory, and not yet permanent the way it needs to be for Gustavo’s health and well-being, but nice all the same.
The below is a description of Gustavo’s circumstances from the folks working to give him support:
2014 has been a tough year for 54 year old Gustavo Garcia. He suffered a stroke, causing him memory loss and physical weakness, and has also led to severe depression. He now faces his 55th birthday next month with the threat of life on the streets, as Lambeth have given him notice they will be evicting him.
Gustavo became homeless in June when he had to stop work after a stroke. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get Lambeth to accept that he was actually homeless, the Council finally agreed to assess his housing need and give him temporary accommodation. The stroke he suffered means the right side of his body is now numb and much weaker. He cannot do the things he used to. His previous job as a window cleaner fills him with fear as he doesn’t have grip in his right hand, so climbing ladders and working at great heights is dangerous for him. He is shaky. This in itself is hard enough to cope with, but his memory loss has also caused him much distress and disorientation.
Gustavo came here from Ecuador eighteen years ago, and is now a British citizen. He spoke fluent English prior to his stroke, but the memory loss caused by the stroke means he has forgotten a good deal of the language. Before the stroke Gustavo was self-employed, but memory loss means he also cannot remember his customer base. Nor can he remember friends that he had before the stroke. “I feel so alone. I can’t sleep at all. I’m always worrying, afraid of being put on the street” he tells me in broken English. As his stroke was caused by stress, Gustavo’s greatest fear is that the mental stress he is now suffering will provoke another one. “I think of suicide often. I’m finished” he shrugs, with an unbearable look of sadness and despair.
The council now accepts that Gustavo is homeless, but say that he is not sufficiently vulnerable to deem him a priority case for housing. They say that although they accept he suffers numbness in one side of his body, because he doesn’t need a walking aid, he would be okay on the streets.
Join us in protesting at Lambeth’s Homeless department in Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill at 9am on Wednesday 8th October in solidarity with Gustavo to let the council know it is unacceptable to treat vulnerable people in this way.
This book is a massive undertaking, both for the author and the reader, and the amount of extraordinary, fascinating and brilliant detail in here is mind-boggling. It pulls from an awe-inspiring number of primary sources to provide the most delectable quotes on everything from pubs to fashion to murders to popular food. In fact, I can’t think of a subject that isn’t in here, and it’s all woven together in a form that is almost like fiction. It muses, ponders, revels in minutiae. This is the first book I started reading after my father died about a year and a half ago, I hadn’t been able to read anything at all for a month or two and this was perfect for getting back into it, reading a couple of chapters at a time, setting down, coming back to. I loved loved loved so much of it, both the tidbits of history, but also the ways in which Ackroyd combined them, sometimes by theme or period or area. It’s changed how I walked around London streets, how I see the Thames every time I cross it, the ways I contrast old and new and am always seeking out the echoes of past times. I was a bit that way before, I confess, but now I have a much better feeling for what might be there and understanding of what I find.
It’s hard to judge a work of this size and scope with so much that is amazing in it. But as I read I became increasingly critical of the celebration of commercialism. It all comes to a head in the final chapters which left me angry. A sort of mystical view of London steadily emerged, a sort of organic living creature of a city with its own requirements and demands of its inhabitants. I liked playing with ideas about the ways in which a city shapes its residents, but was disappointed to find Ackroyd’s jubilation at the financial centres surviving the blitz as proof that the living beating heart of London might well be commerce and finance. There is a celebration of Thatcher’s big bang of 1986 loosing regulations on bangs — that would ultimately lead to our current economic crisis. And he writes
If the city had a voice it might be saying: There will always be those who fail or who are unfortunate, just as there will always be those who cannot cope with the world as presently constituted, but I can encompass them all.
…Lincoln’s Inn Fields was occupied once more by the homeless, after an interval of 150 years, while areas like Waterloo Bridge and the Embankment became the setting for what were known as ‘cardboard cities’. … Despite civic and government initiatives, they are still there. They are now part of the recognisable population; they are Londoners, joining the endless parade. Or perhaps, by sitting upon the sidelines, they remind everyone else that it is a parade.
I threw the book across the room. As though the homeless and the masses of poor are a natural phenomenon like weather, and not caused by deindustrialisation, the roll back of the welfare state and Thatcher’s own policies channeling wealth away from them towards the already wealthy. As though they are separate from ‘us’, there for ‘our’ amusement. That Lincoln’s Inn field should have been free of the homeless for 150 years was an accomplishment of society hard fought and bitterly won. Their return is an indictment of our current direction, not an ornament to London’s wealth, or a gaze that seeks to remind the well-to-do of how wonderful they are.
Had I only stopped reading with the Blitz I would have unqualifiedly loved this book, as it is I am torn between giving it a five and giving it a one. I look back and wonder how much of this view seeped into the history. I am sure it did in celebrating trade, muting struggle and resistance. But in terms of how theatre changed over time, the love of jellied eels and pies, the roles of gravediggers, the building of churches, the vast panoply of literary views and all such topics,this is quite wonderful.