Tag Archives: Labour

On Salad

It takes a lot of work, salad.

So. Much. Work.

This is because today we worked picking for the market, for the ‘city folk’, not for our own meal. I know now I never appreciated enough where my usual salad came from.

It took two of us much of the morning to harvest two boxes of spinach and one of chard. True, it’s near the end of the harvest and they are just at the point of bolting, but still. So much work. Back — aches. Hands — itch from that one sneaking nettle. Bending over to pick leaf by leaf, not too much on any one plant so more can be harvested. I know spinach disappears when you cook it, but it does the same damn thing filling a box.

I also picked and washed and de-slugged lettuce. I thus discovered today there are not two kinds of slug — the fat round kind and the long slithery kind with antlers. The slitherers roll up. Life was all right when I didn’t know that.

Mizuna, roquette (this is the same as arugula, who knew? Maybe I knew, but I have also been known to state I’ve never had ‘rocket’ in the US. Perhaps this forgetfulness arises from the fact I don’t care so much for it…) and a third I can’t remember. Those you can just cut all the leaves in a satisfying bunch about an inch and a half above the roots and they will grow back better than ever. Those were a pleasure to harvest. A little chicory, endive, some calendula petals and my salad bags for market tomorrow were a pleasure to behold.

There is, of course, also the choosing of varieties, preparing of beds, planting, watering and etc. Today’s labour was only the end of a much longer labour of hours and thought.

The afternoon we spent weeding around the chard and spinach, and weeding and weeding. But these polytunnels are amazing.

Farm 2.2

Today’s moral: appreciate your damn salad.

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Day 8: Sheep shearing and the beauty of labour

My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.

Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.

Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.

It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.

I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.

He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.

It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.

In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.

Thank you.

The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.

Farm 1.8

The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.

I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.

The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.

That made me a little queasy I confess.

T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.

Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.

Farm 1.8

He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.

We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.

And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day

Farm 1.7

Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.

Farm 1: Sheep And Beautiful Gloucestershire

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Earth’s a Roadside Picnic. Still, we live here

Roadside Picnic - The StrugatskysThe central idea of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic grows on me the more I sit with it, and it will forever undercut the more familiar heroic tales of encounter and discovery.

Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:

Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)

And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:

‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’

At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)

Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.

I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.

The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)

Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).

I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.

And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:

Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)

This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:

All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)

I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.

With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.

I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.

Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:

Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)

And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.

Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!

And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.

‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)

Sherwood Anderson on the Romance of Industry

Sherwood Anderson - Poor WhiteSherwood Anderson published Poor White in 1920, but it feels as though it is from an earlier era (and describes one sure enough). I haven’t read anything else by him, haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio though it is the one on all the lists of American classics…It centers on this guy:

Hugh McVey was born in a little hole of a town stuck on a mud bank on the western shore of the Mississippi River in the State of Missouri. It was a miserable place in which to be born.

But then

In his fourteenth year and when the boy was on the point of sinking into the sort of animal-like stupor in which his father had lived, something happened to him.

It’s all too easy sinking into animal-like stupor, lying on a riverbank. He gets a job at a railroad station, stays with the station master there and falls under the influence of the station master’s wife, who has grand ideas:

When Sarah grew into young womanhood and went about among the young people in the new country, she heard much talk of mortgages and of the difficulty of making ends meet, but every one spoke of the hard conditions as temporary. In every mind the future was bright with promise. Throughout the whole Mid-American country, in Ohio, Northern Indiana and Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa a hopeful spirit prevailed. In every breast hope fought a successful war with poverty and discouragement. Optimism got into the blood of the children and later led to the same kind of hopeful courageous development of the whole western country. The sons and daughters of these hardy people no doubt had their minds too steadily fixed on the problem of the paying off of mortgages and getting on in the world, but there was courage in them. If they, with the frugal and sometimes niggardly New Englanders from whom they were sprung, have given modern American life a too material flavor, they have at least created a land in which a less determinedly materialistic people may in their turn live in comfort.

This is a book of broad generalisations, of sweeping statements, of attempts to plumb the broad changes in the white American psyche during the rise of the industrial age. We learned about it in school as the gilded age, the time of the robber barons and railroad giants. It describes a man who I struggle to imagine now, though I’d never deny the possibility of his existence. Someone so isolated from his fellow men he doesn’t know how to talk to them, doesn’t know the birds and the bees, doesn’t know anything we might read in books or papers, doesn’t understand relationships of any kind. He wanders in a sad isolation, wondering at the strange human beings around him.

This was part of my Chicago reading, what the city meant for this great metropolis, how it connected to the people of the countryside and the towns that filled it. Here is what this simple lad up from riverbank animal-like stupor thought of his few hours in the big city:

In the spring of the first year of his wandering he passed through the city of Chicago and spent two hours there, going in and out at the same railroad station.

He was not tempted to become a city man. The huge commercial city at the foot of Lake Michigan, because of its commanding position in the very center of a vast farming empire, had already become gigantic. He never forgot the two hours he spent standing in the station in the heart of the city and walking in the street adjoining the station. It was evening when he came into the roaring, clanging place. On the long wide plains west of the city he saw farmers at work with their spring plowing as the train went flying along. Presently the farms grew small and the whole prairie dotted with towns. In these the train did not stop but ran into a crowded network of streets filled with multitudes of people. When he got into the big dark station Hugh saw thousands of people rushing about like disturbed insects. Unnumbered thousands of people were going out of the city at the end of their day of work and trains waited to take them to towns on the prairies. They came in droves, hurrying along like distraught cattle, over a bridge and into the station. The in-bound crowds that had alighted from through trains coming from cities of the East and West climbed up a stairway to the street, and those that were out-bound tried to descend by the same stairway and at the same time. The result was a whirling churning mass of humanity. Every one pushed and crowded his way along. Men swore, women grew angry, and children cried. Near the doorway that opened into the street a long line of cab drivers shouted and roared.

Hugh looked at the people who were whirled along past him, and shivered with the nameless fear of multitudes, common to country boys in the city…. They came in waves as water washes along a beach during a storm. Hugh had a feeling that if he were by some chance to get caught in the crowd he would be swept away into some unknown and terrible place.

Hugh doesn’t understand it, flees it.  But this is a time when small towns have their hopes and dreams of greatness too. This book is as much a biography of their change as it of the inventor Hugh, who builds machines, helps create the new age, makes a fortune. This is what they were for a while, before the industrial age:

In even the smallest of the towns, inhabited only by farm laborers, a quaint interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence. The schoolmaster and the country lawyer read Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” and Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” They discussed these books with their fellows. There was a feeling, ill expressed, that America had something real and spiritual to offer to the rest of the world. Workmen talked to each other of the new tricks of their trades, and after hours of discussion of some new way to cultivate corn, shape a horseshoe or build a barn, spoke of God and his intent concerning man. Long drawn out discussions of religious beliefs and the political destiny of America were carried on.

Genocide is half way completed, swathes of land are clear and ripe for development.

In all the towns of mid-western America it was a time of waiting. The country having been cleared and the Indians driven away into a vast distant place spoken of vaguely as the West, the Civil War having been fought and won, and there being no great national problems that touched closely their lives, the minds of men were turned in upon themselves. The soul and its destiny was spoken of openly on the streets… Every one had something to say. Even Charley Mook, who dug ditches, who stuttered so that not a half dozen people in town could understand him, expressed his opinion.

There is such a curious commentary on the need for homogeneity, for safety, for sameness and security so that people can open up and become philosophers:

Within the invisible circle and under the great roof every one knew his neighbor and was known to him. Strangers did not come and go swiftly and mysteriously and there was no constant and confusing roar of machinery and of new projects afoot. For the moment mankind seemed about to take time to try to understand itself.

There is a similar prejudice against foreigners, who are just even more strange strangers I suppose:

Like the other people of Bidwell, Hugh did not like to see foreigners about. He did not understand them and when he saw them going about the streets in groups, was a little afraid. It was a man’s duty, he thought, to look as much as possible like all his fellow men, to lose himself in the crowds, and these fellows did not look like other men. They loved color, and as they talked they made rapid gestures with their hands.

And in this white utopia still aware of hard work and just how hard life can be tied to the soil and struggle, still moving on rural time not city time, still not convinced in the universal belief that profit is the only thing that matters — in this brief time, philosophy begins to flourish:

The judge, an ex-politician from the city of New York who had been involved in some affair that made it uncomfortable for him to return to live in that city, grew prophetic and philosophic after he came to live in Bidwell. In spite of the doubt every one felt concerning his past, he was something of a scholar and a reader of books, and won respect by his apparent wisdom. “Well, there’s going to be a new war here,” he said. “It won’t be like the Civil War, just shooting off guns and killing peoples’ bodies. At first it’s going to be a war between individuals to see to what class a man must belong; then it is going to be a long, silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get. It’ll be the worst war of all.”

This is just one of the men, some of the thoughts burgeoning. But it is already doomed to a short life by progress itself. I haven’t read such sweeping statements as this book contains since Victor Hugo, but the action sections aren’t nearly as good.

I still find myself fascinated by this very particular casting of myth:

A new force that was being born into American life and into life everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying individualistic life. The new force stirred and aroused the people. It met a need that was universal. It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air, to change the entire face of the world in which men lived. Already the giant that was to be king in the place of old kings was calling his servants and his armies to serve him. He used the methods of old kings and promised his followers booty and gain. Everywhere he went unchallenged, surveying the land, raising a new class of men to positions of power. Railroads had already been pushed out across the plains; great coal fields from which was to be taken food to warm the blood in the body of the giant were being opened up; iron fields were being discovered; the roar and clatter of the breathing of the terrible new thing, half hideous, half beautiful in its possibilities, that was for so long to drown the voices and confuse the thinking of men, was heard not only in the towns but even in lonely farm houses, where its willing servants, the newspapers and magazines, had begun to circulate in ever increasing numbers. At the town of Gibsonville, near Bidwell, Ohio, and at Lima and Finley, Ohio, oil and gas fields were discovered. At Cleveland, Ohio, a precise, definite-minded man named Rockefeller bought and sold oil. From the first he served the new thing well and he soon found others to serve with him. The Morgans, Fricks, Goulds, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, servants of the new king, princes of the new faith, merchants all, a new kind of rulers of men, defied the world-old law of class that puts the merchant below the craftsman, and added to the confusion of men by taking on the air of creators. They were merchants glorified and dealt in giant things, in the lives of men and in mines, forests, oil and gas fields, factories, and railroads.

And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order.

Ah, the passing of poetry. The passing of men of true greatness, rather than men made by their publicists and their ability to make money. It didn’t have to be like this, for there is the special kind of man like Hugh, the inventor who does not care for money:

All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is impersonal, useful, and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls. His name is shouted and is carried by the wind into the tiny inclosure in which other men live and in which they are for the most part absorbed in doing some petty task for the furtherance of their own comfort. Men and women stop their complaining about the unfairness and inequality of life and wonder about the man whose name they have heard.

There is everything such men achieve  — Anderson signals a moment when the invention of new machinery lightens the terrible burden of toil and allows men to philosophise:

Hugh’s machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got a little into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.

This is the moment we perhaps could have clung to. Instead money rather than dreams and the stars became what mattered. This is the fuel for the move of America’s centre from the countryside to the city, a new breed of mice rather than men:

Modern men and women who live in industrial cities are like mice that have come out of the fields to live in houses that do not belong to them. They live within the dark walls of the houses where only a dim light penetrates, and so many have come that they grow thin and haggard with the constant toil of getting food and warmth. Behind the walls the mice scamper about in droves, and there is much squealing and chattering. Now and then a bold mouse stands upon his hind legs and addresses the others. He declares he will force his way through the walls and conquer the gods who have built the house. “I will kill them,” he declares. “The mice shall rule. You shall live in the light and the warmth. There shall be food for all and no one shall go hungry.”

The little mice, gathered in the darkness out of sight in the great houses, squeal with delight. After a time when nothing happens they become sad and depressed. Their minds go back to the time when they lived in the fields, but they do not go out of the walls of the houses, because long living in droves has made them afraid of the silence of long nights and the emptiness of skies. In the houses giant children are being reared. When the children fight and scream in the houses and in the streets, the dark spaces between the walls rumble with strange and appalling noises.

It is the passing of the craftsman, content to do his work well, to earn enough to live on. This is embodied by Joe the old harness maker, mocked and eventually pushed into the corner by his young apprentice Jim, who tells him:

“Can’t you understand what you’re up against? The factories are bound to win. For why? Look here, there can’t any one but some old moss-back who has worked around horses all his life tell the difference between hand- and machine-sewed harness. The machine-made can be sold cheaper. It looks all right and the factories are able to put on a lot of do-dads. That catches the young fellows. It’s good business. Quick sales and profits, that’s the story.”

The arrival of the heavy-handed metaphor of Joe killing Jim in a frenzy without making any change in the system or with the remotest change for the better in his own system doesn’t come as much surprise.

There is not much depth in any of the men, just a whole lot of confusion and isolation, with a dash of poetry perhaps. There are some truly egregious imaginings of women, especially in an attempt to enter the interior emotions of Clara:

There was something back of her desire for a man. She wanted something more than caresses. There was a creative impulse in her that could not function until she had been made love to by a man. The man she wanted was but an instrument she sought in order that she might fulfill herself. Several times during those evenings in the presence of the two men, who talked only of making money out of the products of another man’s mind, she almost forced her mind out into a concrete thought concerning women, and then it became again befogged.

She has a deep friendship with a woman in the big city before returning to her hometown — and it’s curious this friendship with Kate Chancellor who is clearly a lesbian, encouraging Clara to think herself equal of any man, to face life without one. Clearly, she failed, though it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. The descriptions of Clara are confusing, in that she doesn’t seem at all worth the effort.

Clara grew tired of thinking, and listened to the talk. The name of Hugh McVey played through the persistent conversation like a refrain. It became fixed in her mind. The inventor was not married. By the social system under which she lived that and that only made him a possibility for her purposes.

Ah, you can see this is trying to be a critique of the social system. It notes that:

She was very hungry for love, but might have got that from another woman. Kate Chancellor would have loved her.

This all reaffirms the ‘natural’ need for a man, for children. How this is strangely tied in to the changing times (I don’t think this means anything more, but maybe it does)

The woman at the window, like every one else in her town and in all the towns of the mid-western country, became touched with the idea of the romance of industry.

That and procreation. The romance of industry and the myth of the great man, not interest in his actual ideas or any sense of who he actually is, or the benefits that could come to others through his work. It is all very sad.

Her father was a schemer; he had even schemed to get her married, perhaps to further his own plans. In reality his schemes were so ineffective that she did not need to be angry with him. There was but one man of them all who was not a schemer. Hugh was what she wanted to be. He was a creative force. In his hands dead inanimate things became creative forces. He was what she wanted not herself but perhaps a son, to be. The thought, at last definitely expressed, startled Clara, and she arose from the chair by the window and prepared to go to bed. Something within her body ached, but she did not allow herself to pursue further the thoughts she had been having.

See?  All about procreation. No wonder poor Kate had no chance, with just an ability to talk and think and laugh. To fight. She is a curious figure and I begin to wonder if this post shouldn’t have been all about her instead. But she is too much a caricature, even if a surprising one to find here.

I found the myths rather fascinating, however, all in all. And there are moments I liked. So I will end with one of them:

He looked at the towns and wanted light and color to play over them as they played over the stones, and when that did not happen, his mind, filled with strange new hungers engendered by the disease of thinking, made up words over which lights played. “The gods have scattered towns over the flat lands,” his mind had said, as he sat in the smoking car of the train, and the phrase came back to him later, as he sat in the darkness on the log with his head held in his hands. It was a good phrase and lights could play over it as they played over the colored stones…

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Salford in Love on the Dole

Love on the Dole Walter GreenwoodLove on the Dole (1933) might be the last depressing, worthy, important account of the toll and misery of working class poverty I read. Every now and then I suffer flashes of panic that I myself will fall back into it, die poor and struggling. Reading this really doesn’t help, and every year older I get the more deeply existential this fear becomes. Especially as I am now too old to escape, like Sal, through becoming a kept woman and making the most of that to help myself and my family.

So thought I’d make the most of this book. But though 1933 is several decades along, it’s descriptions are depressingly, distressingly similar to the East End’s Mean Streets described by Arthur Morrison,  Lambeth’s slums from Reeves’ A Pound a Week or Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth. Things have become a little better from the abject poverty of Manchester in the 1850s described by Engels in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, but while bodies hold together survive a little longer, the soul is still crushed.

They call this part ‘Hanky Park’. It is that district opposite the parish church of Pendleton, one of the many industrial townships comprising the Two Cities. In the early nineteenth century Hanky Park was part of the grounds of a wealthy lady’s mansion; at least, so say the old maps in the Salford Town Hall. The district takes its names from a sloping street, Hankinson Street, whose pavements, much worn and very narrow, have been polished by the traffic of boots and clogs of many generations. On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, ‘crofts’, as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill.

The doorsteps and windowsills of the houses are worn hollow. Once a week, sometimes twice, the women clean them with brown or white rubbing stone…Some women there are whose lives are dedicated to an everlasting battle with the invincible forces of soot and grime. (11)

Hanky Park has emerged from the industrial revolution, the modern upheaval of everything driven by capitalist industry and the transformation of stately homes and country fields into factories and ugly homes for the workers they need to work in them. Greenwood writes:

Trafford Park is a modern miracle. Thirty years ago it was the country seat of a family whose line goes back to the ancient British kings and whose name the area retains.Thirty years ago its woodlands were chopped down to clear the way fro commerce and to provide soles for Lancashire clogs; thirty years ago the lawns, lately gay with marquees, awnings and fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, were obliterated. The Hall still stands though it now houses only dust and memories and echoes. And the twin lions surmounting either side the wide flight of steps now survey…a double railway track only six yards away, and, where the drives once wound their serpentine paths through the woods, the fungus of modern industry, huge engineering shops, flour mills, timber yards, oil refineries, automobile works, repositories for bonded merchandise, choke and foul the prospect….

A Five Year Plan thirty years ahead of the Russian. Yesterday the country seat of an aristocrat, today the rowdy seat of commerce. Revolution! and not a drop of blood spilt or a shot fired! (158)

This is of course, novel as call to conscience, call to action. There’s little room here for the humour, the humanity that got people through these conditions. I’d happily read more of those, like Mord Em’ly, or oral histories of these times where grinding poverty can’t efface the cheer and character of everyone. Still, there are too many familiar elements to deny or diminish the power of this reality — the reason for my panics after all:

In the staring gas light, the women, throwing back their shawls from their dishevelled hair revealed faces which, though dissimilar in features, had a similarity of expression common, typical, of all the married women around and about; their badge of marriage, as it were. The vivacity of their virgin days was with their virgin days, gone; a married woman could be distinguished from a single by a glance at her facial expression. Marriage scored on their faces a kind of preoccupied, faded, lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by some problem. As they were. How to get a shilling, and, when obtained, how to make it do the work of two. Though it was not so much a problem as a whole-time occupation to which no salary was attached, not to mention the sideline of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards. (31)

I do like how this almost journalistically portrays the changing times, the new fashions, the weekly routines of labour and leisure of both men and women.

Clatter of clogs and shoes; chatter of many loud voices; bursts of laughter. Hundreds of girl operatives and women from the adjacent cotton mills marching home to dinner arm in arm, two, three, four and five abreast. They filled the narrow pavements and spread into the roadway.

A generation ago all would have been wearing clogs, shawls, tight bodices, ample skirts and home-knitted, black wool stocking. A few still held to the picturesque clogs and shawls of yesterday, but the majority represented modernity: cheap artificial silk stockings, cheap short-skirted frocks, cheap coats, cheap shoes, crimped hair, powder and rouge; five and a half days weekly in a spinning mill of weaving shed, a threepenny dance of a Saturday night, a Sunday afternoon parade on the erstwhile aristocratic Eccles Old Road which incloses the public park, then work again, until they married when picture theatres became luxuries and Saturday dances, Sunday parades and cheap finery ceased altogether. (42)

I like how it acknowledges the fascinations of these new factories as young Harry burns to become more than just a messenger:

Machines! MACHINES! Lovely, beautiful word! (69)

But still it describes a system of labour that guarantees steady work at lowered wages to women and children, and lays off men to ensure they do not have to pay the higher wages their training (and the simple fact of being men in this sexist world) entitles them to. It leaves them to hang about street corners and pubs and wait in queues for the dole until they are kicked off it through the new and now infamous means test. A government seal on an acceptable level of utmost misery. In this book at least (much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), none of them asking the whys or fighting back except for one. Socialism and struggle showing him glimpses of a better life and how to get there.

He dies.

Worried about whether you have in fact escaped poverty? This is what you need:

That dirty hovel, home? Where else? In all the wide world, of all the sweet dreams and fond imaginings of such homes as were writ or projected at the pictures, of them all, hers was that in North Street.

Dully, insistently, crushing came the realisation that there was no escape, save in dreams. All was a tangle; reality was too hideous to look upon: it could not be shrouded or titivated for long by the reading of cheap novelettes or the spectacle of films of spacious lives. They were only opiates and left a keener edge on hunger, made more loathsome reality’s sores. (65)

Then there is this passage, which describes the mix of industry, housing and government offices that marked poor urban areas, reduces its residents to animals, and then more or less compares them to the animals heading in great bewilderment to the slaughterhouse.

An erstwhile reformatory school for erring boys, an ugly, barrack-like building, serves as one of the Two Cities’ labour exchanges. Hemmed in on three sides by slums, tenements and doss houses, the remaining side stares at the gas works and a cattle-loading mound, into, and out of which, bleating sheep, cows and bulls, their eyes rolling, their parched tongues lolling, are driven by loutish men and cowed dogs. And the slum children, seeing in the inoffensive creatures a means to exercise their own animal instincts, come out of their dens armed with whips and sticks and stones to belabour the animals as they pass, meanwhile indulging in the most hideous inhuman screams, shouts and howls such as occasions horror in the mind of a sympathetic observer and, doubtless, terrified bewilderment on the parts of the doomed beasts as they, starting under whip, stick and stone, run blindly along the dinning unfamiliar streets finally to find themselves packed, suffocatingly, in wretched cattle trucks.

A high wall, enclosing an asphalt yard, ran round the building. On it was scrawled in chalk, and in letters a foot high: ‘Unemployed Mass Meeting Today 3 o’clock.’ The handiwork of Communists five or six weeks ago. (153)

If only the unemployed had come in their masses.

The Hardcastles escape from this fate to some extent — but the moral of that escape is clear. I have great admiration for Sal, after her socialist love and hope dies of consumption she stares her fate in the face (with the help of the older and wiser Mrs Bull). To escape it she becomes a hard-headed woman of business, using her beauty to obtain security as her labour cannot do it for it her. I like that the novel is not sentimental and does not seem to judge her harshly for this. Simply points it out to a world that will, in the hopes that such a fall from grace might spur action where nothing else has.

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Masson Mill: the glories of early machinery

Masson Mill (built 1783) was Arkwright’s showpiece, constructed after his system was perfected at Cromford. The museum was amazing — not entirely because I now understand how this new revolution in weaving worked, but because I am so enamoured of these old machines (now that women and children are no longer at risk of losing fingers in them). And who wouldn’t love the world’s largest collection of bobbins? This made my photographer’s heart go pitter pat, and I truly mourned the temporarily comatose state of my SLR.

If I had to pick one amazing thing to highlight, it was these old punch cards that defined the patterns for weaving — and of course, served as the forerunners for computers.

Masson Mill

Masson Mill

Masson Mill

But the rest, oh the rest was such a treat of extraordinary old iron, wheels and cogs, bobbins and threads. And the ghosts of workers, cut out and placed happily smiling at their visitors when actually this place must have been deafening with the noise, full of wisps of cloth and cotton dust and children running machinery…

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Caudwell Flour Mill and Mill Stones Left Behind

In every city, town and village we have walked past old mills, now repurposed and turned into luxury flats most of them. It was good to see one still running as a mill, and even better to learn it was open as a museum. It was such a pleasure to walk around a working mill, see the history of past innovations. Had we not been about to embark on a walk of many miles up several large hills, we would have bought some flour…

Some of the exhibits discussed the changing technologies — both the move from the beautiful old water wheels that to my mind still signify a mill to the new water turbines that so much more efficiently powered the machinery, and the use of rollers to grind grain rather than the great circular millstones. Once upon a time mills were a ubiquitous feature of towns, villages and cities — I loved this map that showed just how many there once were in this area along the river systems:

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The change in the grinding of grain to bake our bread is just one of the changes that modernity has brought to our lives, a change to both the rhythm of our days and the food that we eat. I wonder if we can even guess now just how great a change that has been.

Caudwell's Mill

The machinery inside was wonderful

Caudwell's Mill

The Hammer Mill — ‘Miracle Mill’ No. 2, used to pulverize stock into powder:

Caudwell's Mill

Measurers and grain elevators:

Caudwell's Mill

Flour sifters at all levels of fineness, and their machinery:

Caudwell's Mill

Caudwell's Mill

Caudwell's Mill

This was less the amazing old machinery, and more the title — Baron “Dreadnought” Grinder:

Caudwell's Mill

You climb story after story, here is a view of the beautiful country from the top:

Caudwell's Mill

An old dust collector at the very top, of exquisite carpentry surrounded by bewildering belts and struts

Caudwell's Mill

This area was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, which impacted upon flour mills as much as mills of any other kind — the Caudwell Mill was in the forefront of some of these changes. It was fascinating to continue our walk, get a bit lost per usual, and stumble across further remnants of this past. Not without first passing one of the most lovely farms I’ve seen:

Stanton Moor Walk

and a chicken crossing a road — though too far away for questions:

Stanton Moor Walk

We climbed up into the woods

Stanton Moor Walk

We think we had already gone wrong at this point, but I could not be sorry. Because then we found this:

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Something to do with the quarry we think, though perhaps another mill. Up through more forest

Stanton Moor Walk

More ruins:

Stanton Moor Walk

To find a fallen stack of old mill stones — victims of technological change left here unwanted and unneeded…

Stanton Moor Walk

and perhaps this was part of the end of these quarries, now reclaimed by the forest and more beautiful thereby.

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

This is heading up to Stanton Moor, which was more beautiful still, but more on that later. Better to sit with thoughts of human endeavour, how much everything has changed, what happened to technologies left behind and the men who once excelled in them…

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Will Thorne: My Life’s Battles

20150715_201917 Will Thorne (1857-1946) was an amazing trade union activist back at the dawn of trade unions. Born in Hockley, Birmingham he lived in London’s East End from 1882.

Originally published in 1925, this is perhaps not the most eloquent of books, but plain-spoken and deeply felt. Written by a self-educated man who shaped our lives, and yet is all but forgotten.

He started work at age 6, ‘turning a wheel for a rope and twine spinner at Rob’s Rope Walk’ from 6 am to 6 pm, a half hour breakfast and one hour for dinner, on Saturday’s he worked a half day and then went to his uncle’s who was a barber to lather faces for him until 11 pm.

His first strike? The rope maker reduced his wages from 2s. 6d. a week to 2s., and he refused and walked off.

He worked for another uncle at a brick and tile works, describes how each brickmaker was essentially an independent contractor, paid piece work and paying piece work in turn for the various other labourers needed. Dismissed for being caught asleep while tending the fire, he got work somewhere in another factory further away.

Aged nine, he awoke at 4:30 am, walked 4 miles to work, worked a 12 hour day, and then walked back home to a scanty meal. He writes of his mother telling him he had to quite, that:

‘I remember her telling me that the 8s. a week would be missed; some one would have to go short. But it was no use my being slowly killed by such work as I was doing, and it was making me humpbacked. It was not until I was away from the work for several weeks that I was able to straighten myself out again. (19)

Later he began in the gas works:

The retort houses are exceedingly hot, for both behind and in front of the stoker are the burning eyes of the furnaces; amidst the roaring of the heat-hungry retorts a breeze as of hell fans me. This is my job; these are my conditions. (37)

Men there worked 12 hour shifts, one week on days and one week nights — on the transition day/night between the two they worked 24 hours shifts. There are a number of scattered descriptions of the grimness of this work, and the constant efforts of employers to force the men to work longer and harder for the same or less pay — through both improved technology and shifting employment policies.

All of it echoes the description of the gas works which made such an impression on Flora Tristan in her visit to London.

the system we lived under at that time, the poverty and hardships the workers had to endure…made us rebels…. I was only fifteen, working at the metal-rolling mills, when I swore that I would do everything in my power to help prevent other children going through the same hardships, misery, and suffering that I had to go through. (46)

He started educating himself, talking to his fellow workers, trying to organise resistance. There are incipient organisations and blacklists.

There is also, of course, not least the allure of London:

I had always wanted to go to London, and my desire to go to the biggest city in the world was stimulated by letters from an old workmate at the Saltley works, who was no working at the Old Kent Road Gas Works… I finally decided to go to London in November, 1881. With two friends I started out to walk the journey, filled with the hope that we would be able to obtain employment…(49-50)

There are some comments on Jews swindling people in Petticoat Lane, and the rest is laced with thoughtlessly unkind references to peoples of colour, along with embarrassed footnotes that such language was accepted then as it shouldn’t be now. Yet this is the power of whiteness, even amongst those with nothing.

Once established in work, he brought his family down from Birmingham, but his son died at 6 mos while another daughter was born. The work dried up and back they went to his wife’s parents home just outside Birmingham. Then back to London the following year with two Irish brothers by the name of Keegan. Got a job in Beckton with help of foreman, who had also been on strike with him at the Saltley works. He brought wife and children down again, and this time it was to stay.

He joined the Social Democratic Federation, and would become secretary of Canning Town branch — he met everyone who was anyone. On a speech by George Bernard Shaw, he writes:

His lecture , while very interesting, was couched in such language as to make it difficult for him meaning to be grasped by most of the audience. He spoke to us just as if he was talking to an audience of thousands of people in the Albert Hall. I remember his sharp, caustic criticisms and the keen flashes of wit, which, however, where mostly lost on the hearers.

The East End of London has never taken kindly to the “highbrows,” although the growth of education is gradually permitting the submerged workers of this crowded, over-worked and over-populated district to appreciate the finer things in life. (56)

His education came from speeches, from conversations, and from the circulation of books and pamphlets. His definition of Socialism is part of a story he tells of a confrontation with a foreman, and is copied from a pamphlet giving the contents of a speech by John  Burns on the dock at the Old Bailey on 18th January, 1888, charged on charges of seditious conspiracy:

Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangement of the social relations of mankind than that which prevails now

Substituting the principle of association for that of competition in every branch of production and distribution, Socialism proposes to abolish the system of wage slavery, and establish instead governmental, municipal cooperation, securing to every honest worker the full value of his labour, partly in personal remuneration, and partly in social and public benefits, such as education and recreation, sustenance and care in old age.

Socialism proposes that labour shall be a noble elevating duty, not an unhealthy slavish drudgery. (63)

He notes another book that helped him form his critique of society — J. Sketchley, A review of European Society, and an Exposition and Vindication of the Principles of Social Democracy. I’ve never heard of it.

will-thorneAnd all the while he is trying to organise for improved conditions.

Out of evil comes good. The despair of the workers at the conditions they were compelled to put up with was causing a stirring in their souls–souls deadened by long hours of hard labour, rewarded with the smallest possible amount of money to provide sufficient food, clothing and shelter to enable then to continue their drudging toil. (61)

He describes the 1st attempt to form a union of gas workers and general laborours in 1884 by Jack Monk, but fear of victimisation was so great it had to remain secret and lasted only a few weeks. 1885 saw the 2nd attempt to form a society, headquartered at the “Sir John Lawrence” in Canning Town.

His own union formed at a public meeting on 31st March, 1889 at the Canning Town Public Hall, on the subject of new rules whereby  men could be required to stay on after their shift on a Sunday. Thus was born the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.

They asked for, and won, the eight hour day without going on strike.

By July 1889 they had over 60 branches, 44 in London. But it’s on to the big Dockers’ Strike of 1889 with barely a halt…

1889 was a big year, and at the end of it, it was accounts due and Thorne’s first report as head of the union. From it, I extract this gem:

In conclusion, I hope that every member, male and female, will do their utmost to make our union one of the strongest in England, and I am glad that we have the females with us, it being our duty to help our fellow-women, and raise them from the starving position in which they are at present placed. (102)

Clumsy in wording, but rather nice all the same. I can’t help but think this mention of women is all down to Eleanor Marx (Aveling), later on Thorne writes

Near to the Chancery Land lived Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Dr. Aveling. I knew them well. It was Eleanor that helped me more than any one else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and general knowledge. (117)

How wonderful of her.

Just in case you were thinking that all those victories were too easy and the bosses just handed over the eight hour day across the board, by December 1889 they had plotted their come back on a number of fronts, and gas workers had to go on strike again. They received donations of tea from a merchant and sold it on again, profits going to the strike fund — this expanded to become a store in Barking Rd, Canning Town near the union head office.

They started up a bakery — the first attempt failed, but the 2nd succeeded.

The profits from the bakery, although the bread is sold cheaper than at the ordinary bakeries, is used to subsidise our political efforts. Our nominees who are elected to the Town Council are paid the wages they lose while attending to their municipal duties. (111)

One of the biggest clashes was the strike at Wortley Gas Works in Leeds, a good reminder of the old strike days when the fight for our rights was a life and death one — and all of it illegal.

One of the local leaders, Tom Paylor, had heard that a number of blacklegs was to arrive at the New Wortley station at three o’clock in the morning. He chalked this information on the pavements in different parts of the city, and when the time arrived hundreds of strikers were in the vicinity.

The police were also in evidence in large numbers, but we had decided that no blackleg would go into the works without a fight, despite the great odds we were facing in challenging both the police and the blacklegs. (129)

Men and women massed along streets and a railway bridge blacklegs would have to pass under, armed with stones and wooden railway sleepers to throw down on police and scabs below — and they did. In a melee at the gates to the factory the crowd rushed the scabs, Thorne himself was knocked out cold.

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Engles sent him a signed copy of Capital 1 and 2 after this. Bless. Thorne was at his 70th birthday party as a guest of the Avelings, and over the course of his days he met Jean Longuet, Marx’s grandson, William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and many others. He was elected to a majority Labour Council in West Ham, and then to Parliament.

He seems to have been a grand old man. While the book certainly gives you the sense that he was on the more conservative side of the Trade Union Movement of his time, and not forgetting the apparent racial limits to his views on the rights of man and his four wives, you could be pretty damn sure I think, that he’d always be on the right side of the barricades.

For more on labour and struggle…

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Royal Victoria Docks, Old and New

I picked up East End and Docklands in the library on something of a whim, because the photographs are amazing, and show the docklands as I never knew them, though 1990 still doesn’t seem that far away. Until I count the decades. I am now eager to find Fishman’s Streets of East London.

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It’s been in my stack of books to read and evacuate from this room before I must, and the parallel of poverty and decay swept away before regeneration and a shiny but far less interesting wealth is not at all lost on me.

This bank holiday weekend facing a broken boiler, days behind and stretching miserably ahead without hot water, we decided to take up a deal and escape to a cheap hotel off of the old Royal Victoria Dock. I took this picture:
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Reviewing the book before sending it back to the library I found this:

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Inside the Royal Victoria Dock, looking west. It opened for business in 1855 on land acquired at little more than the going agricultural rate. By 1860 it was leading double the tonnage of the London Docks: now grass and weeds grow in the crevices of the once thriving jetty (54).

Granted they are facing a different direction, but the differences are still clear. An astonishing transformation.

As we walked down along the old docks to the Ramada, we passed this grouping of buildings I was fascinated by, that also found parallels in these old pictures:

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

The old Spillers Millenium Mills Building, I can’t quite figure out the angles here, but this is the same building:

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They get more interesting as you walk:

Royal Victoria Docks

I quite love the armadillo.

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

A final pairing of pictures, though this one I took of Limehouse is from last year:

Limehouse

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The major employers today seem to be the miserable jobs in the hotels and the ExCel centre — which has created a most depressing and dead riverfront area with nowhere to sit, enjoy, discuss, daydream, stare at the river and think.

Royal Victoria Docks

Royal Victoria Docks

Funny that we call that regeneration, it was very reminiscent of the almost empty wasteland of the Olympic Park we had just left in Stratford. Except there the tiny handful of people on the grass did seem to be enjoying themselves and here they seemed more passed out really. Though I could be wrong.

The text in here gives a very good background to the docks and riverside, the development and decay and the struggle over their redevelopment. Of course it did not go uncontested, and who doesn’t love old protest posters:

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But they did not stop the cranes, this is one of the more extraordinary pictures I’ve seen I think. I would guess that today in the East End there are just as many of these bastards, but not with an unobstructed view like this.

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And to end on a happy note, a memory of the better days in Poplar. If only Ed Milliband had carved this message into stone and meant it.

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Walter Besant on East London

Large and heavy as this old hardback was, it was also a quick read and a most infuriating one (though I enjoyed the illustrations a great deal). I can see why Rector J.G. Birch of St Anne’s Limehouse felt impelled to pen a book about his own neighbourhood in response to this and the vileness of Thomas Burke. It is, of course, also full of great quotes to take issue with and contrast to other works on the East End, so I’ve collected the ones that struck me most here as signposts, to return to in future and tear apart properly.

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Walter Besant opens with this broad description of what East London is — fairly innocuous to start with:

…it is not a city by organisation; it is a collection of overgrown villages lying side by side. It had, until this year (1900), no center, no heart, no representative body, no mayor, no aldermen, no council, no wards; it has not inherited Folk’s Mote, Hustings, or Ward Mote; it has therefore no public buildings of its own. (8)

there are no hotels, he writes: ‘Actually, no hotels!’ (9) That is, in fact, quite interesting when you think about how people move from town to town looking for work, perhaps visiting family. I wonder if he discounts lodging houses here, it seems unlikely to me that this should be true. For further investigation.

This crowded area, this multitude of small houses, this aggregation of mean streets–these things are the expression and the consequence of an expansion of industries during the last seventy years on a very large and unexpected scale; East London suddenly sprang into existence because it was unexpectedly wanted. (9-10)

In this, it seems to me perhaps he has in mind Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, it certainly chimes with both his title and description. I initially felt quite charitable towards Besant running the People’s Palace, a most splendid name for an institution I thought, I need to know more! I have not yet found out much more. But Morrison worked under Besant on its journal, which makes the below even more curious and insulting:

Some twelve years ago I was the editor of a weekly sheet called the “People’s Palace Journal.” In that capacity I endeavoured to encourage literary effort, in the hope of lighting on some unknown and latent genius…I discovered, to my amazement, that, among all the thousands of these young people, lads and girls, there was not discoverable the least rudimentary indication of any literary power whatsoever. (13-14)

I suppose he is excluding Morrison himself from this description but Morrison did come from these streets himself and his writing is impressive I think. I have a novel by Besant on my list to read still, but I am not impressed with his style and doubt he holds any capacity to judge working class voices. But the why of that is demonstrated through this series of quotes really.  Back to monotony:

What appearance does it present to the visitor? There is, again, in this respect as well, no other city in the world in the least like East London for the unparalleled magnitude of its meanness and its monotony. It contains about five hundred miles of streets, perhaps more…

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From the point of view of the visitor:

The Unlovely City, he calls it [the traveller], the City of Dreadful Monotony! Well, in one sense it is all that the casual traveler understands, yet that is only the shallow, hasty view. Let me try to show that it is a city full of human passions and emotions, human hopes and fears, love and the joys of love… (16)

In thinking about topophilia, the impact of space on human beings and how they shape and are shaped by it I am curiously struck by the idea of the Unlovely City, though not in the sense that Besant discusses it as despite this seeming defense of its residents and their unique passions — it is patronising and soon breaks down when they start demanding too much. Still, most of the illustrations seem to show what to my mind is a fairly liveable city, and I love the great masts that must have always been in the background:

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But perhaps its principal illustrator, Joesph Pennell, just found Limehouse picturesque and fun to draw unlike much of the rest. Brook St was a centre of life and community in Limehouse and no longer exists:

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I did like the chapter, playing on the Unlovely City, titled ‘The City of Many Crafts’ — and he goes on to list them from the days there was still work here. Silk trade, bootmaking, factories, furniture and bootmaking, fur and leather dressing…all of them now gone. they brought vitality that the City of London lacked, as people lived near where they worked, the streets did not clear on weekends but remained full of life. ‘it is a city of the working-classes’ he writes. (28)

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There is a colourful passage on Billingsgate Fishwomen, which makes me admire them in a way slightly distinct to Walter Besant’s intention I think, especially as I hate descriptions of  labour as picturesque. I also hate this mawkish sentimentality over what is gone as though it’s somehow a natural process, I suspect made more picturesque through existing only in memory rather than as living breathing cursing women:

They were as strong, also, physically, as men, even of their own class; they could wrestle and throw most men; if a visitor offended one of them she ducked him in the river; they all smoked pipes like men, and they drank rum and beer like men; they were a picturesque part of the market…Alas! the market knows them no more. … we all have our little day; she has enjoyed her’s, and it is all over and past. (55)

He is, however,  as Birch noted, mostly insulting to those along the river:

…the people left to themselves, grew year by year more lawless, more ignorant, more drunken, more savage…The whole of the riverside population, including not only the bargemen and porters, but the people ashore, the dealers in drink, the shopkeepers, the dealers in marine stores, were joined and banded together in an organized system of plunder and robbery. (48)

This illustration shows Limehouse as it perhaps once was, one of its so-called thieving lazy shiftless workers in the foreground (though possibly it’s just that he hasn’t eaten for a few days, though he does look well fed):

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Walter Besant talks approvingly about the increased control of the docks, fences, body searches:

I am sorry that we have no record of the popular feeling on the riverside when it became at last understood that there was no longer any hope, that honesty had actually become compulsory…For the first time these poor injured people felt the true curse of labor. (52)

Could anything make me first laugh and then rage more than this sentence? There is so much documentation (see Harkness or Stafford) of how terrible dock work was, how it was work of last resort with its uncertain hours, its desperate daily competition for positions and need for constant readiness with starvation when you failed to obtain a place, its backbreaking work. It was widely understood to be the work that killed you the fastest.

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That sentence is really unforgiveable. His further thoughts on factory girls are almost as bad:

They work from early morning till welcome evening. The music of this murmur, rightly understood, is like the soft and distant singing of a hymn of praise. For the curse of labor has been misunderstood; without work man would be even as the beasts of the field. It is the necessity of work that makes him human… (115)

This was obviously written by a man who had not himself worked in a factory of the time, suffered phossy jaw or died early from lungs full of lint or lost a limb loading ships. It also means he does not understand one of the the other true curses of labour beyond early illness, injury and death: Bosses:

Meantime, the factory people are as careful about their girls as can be expected. They insist on their making a respectable appearance and wearing a hat….There is a good deal of paternal kindliness in the London employer…(141)

They didn’t give them the hats sadly, and this sentence is not mitigated by being followed by a patronising sentence on strikes, even given that it is a nod to the fabulous matchwomen’s strike.  There follows more on the lads, the problems they face since their working hours have been reduced from 12 hours and bedtime at dark, giving them too much time on their hands.

…he has four hours, perhaps five, to get through every evening…What is that boy to do?

If lucky they join one of the boys’ clubs, ‘work of their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gymnasium with the boxing gloves…they become infected with some of the upper-class ideals, especially as regards honor and honesty, purity and temperence… (172)

That’s quite vomitous as well. I’m trying to think of novels or description of virtuous young male aristocrats who do not drink, sleep around, gamble or dock owners and merchants who are not ruthless and mercenary…I am at a loss. But I like the verb ‘infected’ in this sentence.

I laughed at his horror that these young men love the penny dreadfuls, imagine! Earlier he stated they didn’t read at all, so clearly he classes this literature as below contempt.

There is an archaic and awkward chapter on the ‘Alien’ — it starts with the huguenots, contains some uncomfortable words on the Jews.

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He visits an opium den and is disappointed by a fair sized room ‘neither dreadful nor horrible’. (206) He writes

There are small colonies and settlements of other foreigners. Anarchists make little clubs where murders are hatched, especially murders of foreign sovereigns… (206)

That made me laugh as well…

There is a chapter on the Houseless — the great throng of them. He mentions the new LCC development in Bethnal Green — describes 5000 people turned out of their homes, moving to other districts already overcrowded and most unable to return.

He also has a curious chapter on ‘the Submerged’ — like the ‘Unlovely City’ this category is one that I find actually incredibly useful, even if only for the thoughts it provokes. It essentially describes those who have fallen in life and stay down at the bottom listless, unable to lift themselves.

Not the tramp, nor the sturdy rogue, nor the professional criminal, nor the vile wretches who live by the vilest trades, may be numbered among the submerged. They fall noiselessly from their place of honor, they live noiselessly in their place of dishonor; they might perhaps be brought back to work, but the cases of recovery must be very few in proportion, because the causes which dragged them down are those which prevent them from being dragged up (250).

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This describes those suffering addiction, mental illness, what we would now call ptsd…there are so many different reasons people end up surviving on the streets.

There is quite a lovely illustration of a women’s workhouse which captures a little more of the gloom and the discomfort and the despair that Mary Higgs‘ more clinical descriptions couldn’t quite manage:

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Besant finishes with a few chapters on the East End’s old villages now suburbs, Hackney and more…I might have filled posts on those if I knew them better but have left them to one side. If I end up finding a new flat somewhere out there perhaps I will return to it. There is a cluster of interesting things about Ratcliff however, and a long description of where I now work, so that will fill a new post at some point.

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