I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.
Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.
This miserable town. Boredom, hopelessness, despair drip as condensation down its every surface to deaden the skin and the eyes, light up a thousand cigarettes. Defeat’s miasma curls wood, strips paint, shatters windows, repairs them again with superglue and uneven squares of plexiglass. Or leaves them jagged stars. Watches beautiful buildings sag and fall in a slow moaning plea for new use, truncates facades gawping at the sky, metals up entrances as it sends roofs slowly collapsing into the mildewed black holes beneath. Closes up all but the cheapest pubs, strip clubs. Ensures anger and violence always simmer just beneath the surface, marks couples by angry words, makes bodies spread wide or condense into hardened addict knots of wasted flesh. Faces too old.
Here and there a brave effort tries to rise above it. One holds knock-off china of a poorly-executed traditional pattern and cakes no one will ever eat embalmed in its windows. There are no bookstores. There are many people who do not embody poverty and despair here as foil to the rest, but they will not be found walking here after five. They disappear in cars to pockets of relative prosperity after picking up groceries at the giant Asda, carefully avoiding its predecessing poverty-stricken brutalist arcade next door. The two buildings together must have claimed a large section of the city center.
It is as miserable in the heat as it was in the rain and December’s freezing chill.
I hoped to escape, to find a mountain I walked up a broad paved path through a park, garbage winking at me everywhere beneath a welcome cover of riotous summer growth. It was isolated, trees and high banks to either side, beautiful old trees. Defeat running through their sap, their leaves keening. This is no safe place, there is nowhere to run but a preordained forward or back. A shuffling figure ahead of me, zombied with spice, dragging something from the bushes. Forward or back. Forward. No fear. It is some kind of jacket left here some time ago, he has dragged it into the middle of the path. Forward, he tries to see me but his eyes can’t focus, his lips can’t move to shut the gaping mouth over rotting teeth. His skin is mottled, I would not recognise him again because there is little of him here. It must feel like hours between thought and jerking steps. My heart breaks. Three others up ahead. Two young and one old, none of them have many teeth. All way too fucking thin, sinews standing out, anger simmering, arguing. Still walking with purpose, intent. Homemade tattoos stand out against white flesh. Only the old (prematurely old) one sees me, at my nod he makes way. ‘Sorry, love’ he says. I like his smile.
And then I am on an estate. A wide sprawling one, semi-detached houses that have all seen better days. Nothing else here. A sense of barrenness. Isolation. No plants, gardens. A place strangers never come, I can tell by the way cars slow with their music blaring, by the curious gazes of the children. I feel myself curling up inside because there is nothing about me that belongs to this place. This is somewhere so long cast out from belonging they belong only to each other. I am familiar with these places, knowing one makes you no more welcome in another. The mountain is getting closer. I swing my way through stares like wet concrete.
I approach what I suddenly realise is a motorway. No way over to escape to the mountains, you must go under. A fucking underpass, here. No way to walk alongside the road. No way to safely cross it. I can already smell the underpass. There is only forward and back. The air is horribly sickly sweet but underneath is human waste. Two fires have been lit here, I would guess to burn the sum of someone’s meagre possessions. Charred shapes rise from the ground, they feel alive, malignant. The underpass is actually a series of bridges. I stared, you cannot see from this place of safety what lies beyond. The tunnel that must be there.
Forward or back.
It was back. Had to be.
Past the same eyes, wading through the same concrete for the worst of it. I did manage to bypass the ‘park’ and instead curved down another road that opened up views across the valley — I had no idea how high I had already climbed. It should have been beautiful, but wasn’t. Down I went.
The Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor. There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:
Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)
This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.
Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:
Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)
Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.
Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!
The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.
How Inequality Gets Under the Skin
I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:
The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.
The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).
I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.
Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:
So for the great list of indicators:
Mental health and drug use
One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the
‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)
Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.
Physical Health and life expectancy
They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)
Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.
Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.
They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:
…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)
Imprisonment and punishment — inequality
I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact
In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)
Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:
I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.
Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:
In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)
Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality
This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.
Part 3 — a better society
I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…
in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…
So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)
It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.
There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.
systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)
So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.
Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)
even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:
Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)
So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write
The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)
Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):
Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)
Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.
En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.
On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:
It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.
Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.
This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?
I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.
Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)
We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas. The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.
Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:
A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)
My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.
A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.
Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.
Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…
— No puede ser verdad…
¿Y por qué no?
¿Por qué no, papá?
¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)
A giant interplanetary ship appeared…
— It can’t be true…
And why not?
Why not, papa?
Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?
All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:
al final, in the end:
Ésta es nuestra casa Ésta es mi casa Ahora intenta tirarla (186)
These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.
This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.
So I outlined Piven and Cloward’s principal arguments found in Poor People’s Movements in the previous post, but in a nutshell they are that mass social movements must always be looked at as separate from social movement organisations. That organization generally tends to tame and reduce the power of mass movement. That the role of organisers should be to maximise disturbance while people remain enthusiastic, to mobilise not organise to push as hard and fast as possible to get everything they can. But the form of that protest and its demands will be found in the structural conjuncture overcoming people’s resistance to uprising and causing this spontaneous rush towards change. Again, organizations don’t cause or shape it, they just slow it down.
So the case studies, I learned a lot despite disagreeing with almost all of the above analysis.
The Unemployed Workers Movement
I like this:
The habit of work, and the wages of work, underpin a way of life. As unemployment continued to grow, and wages of those still employed shrivelled, that way of life crumbled. (47)
I liked too learning more about struggle during the Great Depression, which consisted (among other things) of
organized looting of food
mass demonstrations of the unemployed
rent riots and blockades
Unemployed Councils formed
But I read this and it was full of things I felt counteracted Piven & Cloward’s argument because in the background? Activists from the communist party, organizers working with the unemployed councils, creating strategies and acting on them. The Council for Progressive Labor Action formed in May 1929, trade unionists and socialists. A.J. Muste a leading figure after running the Brookwood Labour College. He would go on to lead the Fellowship of Reconciliation FOR, which played such a key role in the civil rights movement. They worked to form Unemployed Leagues. Multiple local groups, Antioch College forming the Mideast Exchange, Inc, to support self-help and barter. United Mine Workers played a key role in local protests in West Virginia and Gallup, NM. People with deeply held larger goals of social change and experience in organising and protest are running around all over this damn scene. Where did they come from, what revolutionary struggles in Europe and elsewhere might they have been trained in? There is no look at legacy here, it’s like they all emerged spontaneously. They might have got some things wrong, but shit, some of this stuff was pretty amazing.
Still, it is interesting to try and understand what they got wrong —
Through 1935, these local movements attempts to create a national movement, and created the Workers’ Alliance of America. This was the big mistake apparently, knocking the heart out of local organising. Piven and Cloward argue that they were slowly bought off by New Deal, moved into administering funds and programs, attempted reform through institutional and electoral pressure, left direct action to one side.
Still, they had never seen anything like the New Deal before. How were they to know, and actually the New Deal transformed our expectations of labour law, introduced welfare and care for the elderly, public housing… I have a big critique, but to win it was something. I don’t blame anyone who thought they would take it, and try to get more.
So this seems an…unkind account. Ungenerous. Piven and Cloward are good enough to include critiques of their account by the leaders involved. They argue that the Alliance did not take advantage of the unrest to increase the turbulence and win more, rather diverted attention into organization, and won less.
‘The tragedy, in sum, is that the alliance did not win as much as it could.’ (92)
I just had to copy one amazing quote from Horace Cayton, eating in a restaurant, joined a long march of black people though he didn’t know where they were going. His description of one ‘rent riot’:
We were met at the street by two squad cars of police who asked us where we were going. The black crowd swarmed around the officers…no one moved. Everyone simply stood and stared at them. One officer lost his head, and drew his gun, levelling it at the crowd…No threats, no murmurs, no disorder; the crowd just looked at him. There the officer stood. Just then a siren was heard–the whisper went around–the riot squad was coming! … four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They jumped out befor ethe cares came to a stop and charged down upon the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. :Hold your places!” shouted the woman. “Act like men!” answered the crowd. They stood like dumb beasts–no one ran, no one fought or offered resistance, just stood, an immovable black mass. (55)
the Industrial Workers’ Movement
The main argument, again:
Their power was not rooted in organization, but in their capacity to disrupt the economy. For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them. (96)
They also argue it was not divisions within the labour force that brought labor down, but that
‘they were smashed by the coercive power of the state’ (98)
They were right about that. You forget just how the state did smash workers, and it’s good that they remind you. They quote numbers like
in the years 1902-1904 alone, 194 persons were killed and 1,986 injured. Overall Taft and Ross were able to identify 160 occasions on which state and federal troops were called out to deal with labor agitation (104).
In a footnote:
By the end of the nineteenth century, the ranks of Pinkerton agents and “reservists” outnumbered the standing army of the nation’ (105, quoting Brecher, p 55)
The violence escalated through the 1930s as workers struck, marched, buried their dead. You see the rise of the sit-down strike:
When they tie the can to a union man, Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they’ll take him back.Sit down! Sit down!
When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk, Sit down! Sit down!
Before 1937 was over, nearly 2 million workers had engaged in labor struggles in that year alone (145).
Some of the unions opposed this, sure. Those old, small craft unions. But many organizers helped make it happen, shaped it? Where did those organizers come from? Unions here are treated as blocks, not as schismed entities containing a multitude of view points. The unions themselves were battlefields for how to organise, and how to win rights for the workers.
That’s not to say I don’t think the wrong side won out most of the time. I like this quote from Len De Caux:
The workers were waiting for CIO, pounding on its doors long before CIO was ready for them. (150)
You had your old members of the IWW, Musteites and Communists. You had amazing organizers alive to racism and sexism like Wyndham Mortimer in the UAW.
John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike movement that created the CIO. In the longer run it did this mainly by forcing the federal government to protect unionization by law, and to enforce that protection administratively. (153)
That’s all right though, a union coming into power and driven to the left by the actions of the rank & file — a number of whom belonged themselves to other organisations.
Of course I agree it was problematic that unions clamped down, joined in the red baiting, concentrated on electoral power, and agree there is a critique that:
This dismal overall record in electoral and legislative politics was accomplished by the largest issue-oriented voting bloc in the nation. (170)
But I think this reflects the politics of the faction that took power in the union, and ignores the fact that they were challenged by both organizers and rank and file. Thus it was not a predetermined outcome that
unionization also ritualizes and encapsulates the strike power, thus limiting its disruptive impact on production, and limiting the political reverberations of economic disruptions as well. (174)
the unorganized disruptions of industrial workers in the 1930s produced some political gains, but the organized electoral activities of the unions could not sustain them. (175)
From what I have read, where good organisers were in place, they pushed gains further and better consolidated them.
The Civil Rights Movement
They limit this to the South, and after reading both Morris and Cobb, it is hard to give any credence to their arguments, but here they are.
They argue there were two main goals. Formal political rights in the South, especially the franchise, and economic advances. Only political rights were won.
No one much argues that.
The conditions that gave rise to this amazing mass movement?
The alliance of the national government and southern state and local governments was an overwhelming force. It would require some fundamental change, some large transformation, to disrupt this collusion. That transforming force was economic modernization in the South, a force that gradually altered national politics and, by doing so, helped give rise to an insurgent black movement. (189)
Race? They don’t really get it. This becomes even more visible in their next case study, but there’s this
but the deliberate exacerbation of racial competition for jobs was a strategy long used by employers to control labor both in the North and in the South, and was far from being equivalent to a system of caste. As a social system to allocate and control labor, in short, southern caste arrangements were becoming obsolete. (193)
Funny reading now that people could think to argue caste arrangements were obsolete everywhere, apparently, on their way out. There’s a long logical reasoning behind this. Because of course racism is logical.
I hate that this kind of thinking is so ingrained in the left, but this was written some time ago.
Again in these descriptions they mention organisations over and over: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, NAACP, yet they still argue for spontaneous disruption only harmed by organization. Black Power…well, you can imagine they don’t really get that either. They quote Carmichael & Hamilton:
Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks…solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.
Piven and Cloward’s critique?
Defined this way the concept was especially suited to the ideological needs of a black leadership stratum seeking to exploit the new possibilities for electoral and bureaucratic influence (253).
Political gains, Great Society, Model City all swallowed protest up. I just don’t think this analysis gets us much further in understanding what was achieved, how it was achieved, and why the economic demands were not possible to achieve.
National Welfare Rights Movement
This is the campaign Piven and Cloward were themselves involved in, what got them on Fox news and pasted into conservative power points and rants across the country. The strategy they argued for was based on rapidly rising numbers on welfare rolls. They proposed building on this grassroots movement already taking place, focusing work to enroll hundreds of thousands more onto welfare rolls. this would not only improve each family’s quality of life but also
set off fiscal and political crises in the cities, the reverberations of which might lead national political leaders to federalize the relief system and establish a national minimum income standard. (276)
They write, interestingly:
At that particular moment, civil rights activists activists, and especially northern activists, were shifting away from caste problems to economic problems. This, together with the rising insurgency among urban blacks signified by rioting, suggested that a powerful movement directed toward economic gains could be developed. (276-277)
Of course they argued for mass disruption, but in this found opposition from the organizers, who wanted to work to build mass organization: They write
we maintained that political influence by the poor is mobilized, not organized. A disruptive strategy does not require that people affiliate with an organization and participate regularly. (284)
They describe a movement that becomes lots of case work, meetings, institutionalisation, and fairly quickly fades away…
It is hard not to be as equally unkind and ungenerous as I feel they often are in looking back from today’s vantage point. Today when we know this was a key point in electoral politics as white fear skyrocketed at the prospect of losing some privilege. As ‘welfare mother’ became understood as equaling black inner-city mother, as discourse around welfare rights became in the right wing press a racist discourse around race, around scroungers. This seems a bit crazy to have proposed as an open strategy, feeding right wing fears and helping to fan racist flames as well as the great white withdrawal to tax enclaves and suburban safe zones. Of course I blame racist white people not those demanding welfare for this. I do think, though, this wasn’t the best thing to state openly and a better understanding of race in this country would have pointed to that.
I am glad they wrote this, it challenges unquestioned assumptions about organisation. This is both useful and necessary, and I feel that this was definitely a useful book to think about.
The 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)
‘How can I most quickly improve?’ I asked him one day later on. ‘You must walk constantly in the forest,’ he answered; and he meant what he said to be taken literally. It was his own favourite prescription that he advised for my application.
Brahms’ became Florence May’s teacher through the recommendation of Clara Schumann, and her well researched biography of him is a lovely read. It is, of course, very much caught up in the romanticism of the time — the more I read of it, like E.T.A. Hoffman’s work and his character Kriesler whom Brahms particularly loved, the clearer it all becomes.
Brahms didn’t like playing very much in front of people, especially his own work. May begs him to and he finally did — she describes it and thus gives us a lovely picture of her time with him that you can almost enter:
I never listen to it [string Sextet in B flat] without being carried back in thought to the gardener’s house on the slope of the Caecilienberg where, in my blue-papered, carpetless little room, Brahms sat at the piano and played it to me. The scent of flowers was borne in through the open lattice-windows, of which the green outside sun shutters were closed on one side of the room to keep out the blazing August sun, and open on another to views of the beautiful scenery.
He especially loved Schubert. Me too.
Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about May’s biography is how much insight it gives not just into the hopeful romanticism of the period, but also into their approaches to music. I played a little in my youth, but don’t really understand much of this and similar passages discussing the technical aspects of the work, or if we would still consider it true. Regardless, I am fascinated by them, especially in listening to Brahms’ music now:
He had always been extremely careful, when selecting music for me to work at, to choose what would develop my technical power without straining my hands, and when I had wished to study something of his had answered that his compositions were unfit for me for the present, as they required too much physical strength and grasp. He fancied, indeed, at that time that nearly all of them were beyond a woman’s strength. When I asked why it was that he composed only such enormously difficult things for the pianoforte, he said they came to him naturally, and he could not compose otherwise (‘Ich kann nicht anders’).
Years later they meet again, and she relates to him her continuing efforts to play his music regardless of difficulty:
I told him I had lately been getting up the same B flat Concerto which he had played at the time, and had performed it in London before a private audience. He was interested in hearing the particulars of the occasion, and when I said, laughingly, that the fatigue entailed by the practice of its enormous difficulties had given me all sorts of aches and pains, and made it necessary for me to go into the country for change of air after the performance was over, he replied in the same vein: ‘But that is very dangerous; one must not compose such things. It is too dangerous!’
It is, of course, funny to me to think of a single piece being so difficult for a privileged musician that they have to retire to the country after playing it. But still, I find this understanding of music’s power and its toll on the body fascinating.
Johannes Brahms was the son of Jacob Brahms — an impoverished guild musician, whose own career in contrast to that of his son offers some insight into the difference between everyday musical cultures and high culture, and the many links between guild musicians and age-old folk melodies and new music hall tunes, standing in very distinct contrast to high classical standards and the classical compositions demanded by royalty and high society.
There existed, not far from his home, a representative of the old ‘Stadt Pfeifereien,’ establishments descended directly from the musicians’ guilds of the Middle Ages, whose traditions lingered on in the rural districts of Germany for some time after the original institutions had become extinct. The ‘Stadt Pfeiferei’ was recognised as the official musical establishment of its neighbourhood, and was presided over by the town-musician, who retained certain ancient privileges. He held a monopoly for providing the music for all open-air festivities in the villages, hamlets, and small townships within his district, and formed his band or bands from apprenticed pupils, who paid a trifling sum of money, often helped with their manual labour in the work of his house and the cultivation of his garden or farm, and, in return, lived with him as part of his family and received musical instruction from himself and his assistants. At the termination of their apprenticeship he provided his scholars with indentures of character and efficiency, according to desert, and dismissed them to follow their fortunes. Country lads with ambition, who desired to see something of the world, or to attain a better position than that of a peasant or journeyman, would persuade their parents to place them in one of these establishments. They were expected to acquire a practical knowledge of several instruments, so as to be able to take part upon either as occasion might demand, and the bands thus formed were available for all local functions.
And here we have the Hamburg of Jacob Brahms, one long ago lost to us but some of which Florence May could still see and experience:
It is not easy to imagine the feelings of this youth of nineteen or twenty on his arrival, fresh from the simple life of the Ditmarsh peasants, in the great commercial fortress-city, still the old Hamburg of the day, with its harbour and shipping and busy river scenes; its walls and city gates, locked at sunset; its water-ways and bridges; its churches and exchange; its tall, gabled houses; its dim, tortuous alleys. Refined ease and sordid revelry were well represented there; the one might be contemplated on the pleasant, shady Jungfernstieg, the fashionable promenade where rich merchants and fine ladies and gay officers sat and sipped punch or coffee, wine or lemonade, served to them by the nimble waiters of the Alster Pavilion, the high-class refreshment-house on the lake hard by; the other, in the so-called Hamburger Berg, the sailors’ quarter, abounding in booths and shows, small public-houses, and noisy dancing-saloons, in which scenes of low-life gaiety were regularly enacted. Johann Jakob Brahms was destined to appear, in the course of his career as a musician, in both localities. He made his debut in the latter.
An aside, I quite love how she compares this to East London:
Thrown entirely on his own resources, with a mere pittance in his pocket for immediate needs, he had to pick up a bare existence, as best he could, in the courtyards and dancing-saloons of the Hamburg Wapping.
The street where Brahms was born is also long gone, so it is wonderful to have such a description of it, along with an old photograph.
The house in which Johannes Brahms was born still stands as it was seventy years ago, and is now known as 60, Speckstrasse. The street itself, which has since been changed and widened, was then Speck-lane, and formed part of the Gaenge-Viertel, the ‘Lane-quarter’ of the old Hamburg. Want of space within the city walls had led to the construction of rows of houses along a number of lanes adjacent to one another, which had once been public thoroughfares through gardens. A neighbourhood of very dark and narrow streets was thus formed, for the houses were tall and gabled, and arranged to hold several families. They were generally built of brick, loam, and wood, and were thrown up with the object of packing as many human beings as possible into a given area. The Lane-quarter exists no longer, but many of the old houses remain, and some are well kept and picturesque to the eye of the passer-by. Not so 60, Speckstrasse. This house does not form part of the main street, but stands as it did in 1833, in a small dismal court behind, which is entered through a close passage, and was formerly called Schlueter’s-court. It would be impossible for the most imaginative person, on arriving at this spot, to indulge in any of the picturesque fancies supposed to be appropriate to a poet’s birthplace; the house and its surroundings testify only to the commonplace reality of a bare and repulsive poverty. A steep wooden staircase in the centre, closed in at night by gates, leads right and left, directly from the court, to the various stories of the building. Each of its habitations is planned exactly as every other, excepting that those near the top are contracted by the sloping roof. Jakob and Johanna lived in the first-floor dwelling to the left on facing the house. On entering it, it is difficult to repress a shiver of bewilderment and dismay. The staircase door opens on to a diminutive space, half kitchen, half lobby, where some cooking may be done and a child’s bed made up, and which has a second door leading to the living-room. This communicates with the sleeping-closet, which has its own window, but is so tiny it can scarcely be called a room. There is nothing else, neither corner nor cupboard. Where Jakob kept his instruments and how he managed to practise are mysteries which the ordinary mind cannot satisfactorily penetrate, but it is probable that his easy-going temperament helped him over these and other difficulties, and that he was fairly content with his lot. If Johanna took life a little more hardly, it is certain that husband and wife resembled each other in their affection for the children, and that the strong tie of love which bound the renowned composer of after-years to father and mother alike, had its earliest beginning in the fondness and pride which attended his cradle in the obscure abode in Schlueter’s-court.
Coming from this background, Brahms was able to acheive all he did with the help of his father and the musicians guild, who not only taught him, but also raised funds so that he could be more classically trained.
The upshot of these things was that, a few months after the interview with Marxsen, a private subscription concert was arranged ‘for the benefit of the further musical education’ of Johannes, which took place in the assembly-room of the Zum Alten Rabe, a first-class refreshment-house, long since pulled down, that stood in its own pleasure-garden near the Dammthor. The programme included a Mozart quartet for pianoforte and strings, Beethoven’s quintet for pianoforte and wind, and some pianoforte solos, amongst them a bravura piece by Herz, the execution of which, by the youthful concert-giver, seems to have caused immense sensation in the circle of his admiring friends.
And so the door begin to open just a little. One of the other lovely features of May’s book is a glimpse into the lives and views and battles of Brahms’ contemporaries, beginning with Brahms’ first teacher, Marxsen:
To us, who belong to a generation that has been educated on the purist principles first made widely acceptable by Mendelssohn’s influence and since popularized by the genius of a few famous executants, with Clara Schumann, Rubinstein, and Joachim at their head, it is difficult to realize the revolution that has taken place in the general condition of musical art since the days when Marxsen, three years Mendelssohn’s senior, was young. Many things were then accepted and admired in Vienna, in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, which would now be regarded as impossible atrocities. Marxsen was capable of setting the Kreutzer Sonata for full orchestra, but this is hardly so surprising as that the Leipzig authorities should have produced the arrangement at one of the Gewandhaus concerts, or that Schumann should have mentioned it indulgently, on whatever grounds, in the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik.
I love that May also gives the kind of teaching Brahms obtained under Marxsen, the musical traditions he was taught:
it may be said that as a teacher of free composition, and especially of the art of building up the forms which may be studied in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was great—the more so that he did not educate his pupils merely by setting them to imitate the outward shape of classical models. He began by teaching them to form a texture, by training them radically in the art of developing a theme. Taking a phrase or a figure from one or other of the great masters, he would desire the pupil to exhibit the same idea in every imaginable variety of form, and would make him persevere in this exercise until he had gained facility in perceiving the possibilities lying in a given subject, and ingenuity in presenting them. Pursuing the same method with material of the pupil’s own invention, he aimed at bringing him to feel, as by intuition, whether a musical subject were or were not suitable for whatever immediate purpose might be in view. 
‘Teaching them to form a texture…’ I quite love seeing music like that. Under Marxsen’s tutelage he gave his first public concert, and May is delightful enough to not just give the playlist, but her commentary.
It was on September 21 that Johannes made his fresh start in life by giving a concert of his own, thus presenting himself to his circle as a musician who was now to stand on an independent footing. It took place in the familiar room of the ‘Old Raven,’ ‘Herr Honnef’s Hall,’ with the assistance of Marxsen’s friends, Madame and Fraeulein Cornet, and some instrumentalists of Hamburg. The price of tickets was one mark (about a shilling), and the programme, as printed in the Hamburger Nachrichten of the 20th, was as follows:
1. Adagio and rondo from Rosenhain’s Concerto in A major for Piano, performed by the concert-giver.
2. Duet from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Mad. and Fraeul. Cornet.
3. Variations for Violin, by Artot, performed by Herr Risch.
4. ‘Das Schwabenmaedchen,’ Lied, sung by Mad. Cornet.
5. Fantasia on Themes from Rossini’s ‘Tell,’ for Piano, by Doehler, performed by the concert-giver.
6. Introduction and Variations for Clarinet, by Herzog, performed by Herr Glade.
7. Aria from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Frl. Cornet.
8. Fantasia for Violoncello, composed and performed by Herr
9. a) ‘Der Tanz’ } Lieder, sung by Mad.
b) ‘Der Fischer auf dem Meer’ } Cornet.
10. a) Fugue by Sebastian Bach
b) Serenade for left hand only, by E. Marxsen
c) Etude by Herz, performed by the concert-giver.
Unattractive as it now seems, this selection of pieces was no doubt made with a view to the taste of the day, and the inclusion of a single Bach fugue was probably a rather daring concession to that of the concert-giver and his teacher.
Bach’s Fugue as a concession, not as a crowd pleaser! That’s interesting. But emerging thus as a ‘professional’ musician was not enough to climb out of poverty, instead he entered into the hard narrow life of a low-level musician:
The four or five years immediately succeeding his formal entry into life were, perhaps, the darkest of Brahms’ career. Money had to be earned, and the young Bach-Mozart-Beethoven enthusiast earned it by giving wretchedly-paid lessons to pupils who lacked both talent and wish to learn, and by his night drudgery amid the sordid surroundings of the Hamburg dancing-saloons.
A little more about his poverty as he remembered it:
We have read in Widmann’s pages of the spirit in which the great composer, a few years before his death, recalled these passages of his struggling youth:
‘He could not, he said, wish that it had been less rough and austere. He had certainly earned his first money by arranging marches and dances for garden orchestras, or orchestral music for the piano, but it gave him pleasure even now, when he came across one of these anonymously circulating pieces, to think that he had devoted faithful labour and all the knowledge at his command, to such hireling’s work. He did not even regard as useless experience that he had often had to accompany wretched singers or to play dance music in Lokals, whilst he was longing for the quiet morning hours during which he should be able to write down his own thoughts. “The prettiest songs came to me as I blacked my boots before daybreak.”‘
It was partly luck that changed his circumstances, a meeting with Hungarian refugee Edward Reményi — the commentary from such a time on the influx of refugees is itself fascinating in its parallels with today:
It happened as a natural consequence of the political revolution which took place early in the year 1848 in Germany and Austria, that, during the year or two following its speedy termination, there was an influx into Hamburg and its neighbourhood of refugees on their way to America. Conspicuous among them were a number of Hungarians of various sorts and degrees, who found such sympathetic welcome in the rich, free merchant-city that they were in no hurry to leave it. Some of them remained there for many months on one pretext or another, and amongst these was the violinist Edward Reményi, a German-Hungarian Jew whose real name was Hoffmann. (92 – 93)
Particularly in migrants’ shifting relationship with authority.
The violinist had connections of his own in the neighbourhood. Begas, a Hungarian magnate, had settled down into a large villa at Dehensen, on the Lüneburg Heath, that had been placed at his disposal for as long a time as he should find it possible to elude or cajole the police authorities, and kept open house for his compatriots and their friends. To his circle Brahms was introduced, and much visiting ensued between Dehensen and Winsen, for one or two musicians staying with Begas were pleased to come and make music with Reményi and Johannes, and to partake of the Giesemanns’ hospitality. (93)
It was to be Reményi, refugee that he was, who would make it possible for Brahms to gain introduction to those who would champion his talent and make it possible for him to find the time and space to perfect his skill and compose music.
No doubt Brahms’ heart beat fast when he left home on this his first quest of adventure, and probably not the least ardent of his anticipations was that of making the personal acquaintance of the celebrated violinist whose first appearance in Hamburg at the Philharmonic concert of March 11, 1848, with Beethoven’s Concerto, remained vividly in his remembrance as one of the few great musical events of his own life. (96)
On to more of the politics of the German music world!
The musical world of Leipzig, the city raised by the leadership of Mendelssohn to be the recognised capital of classical art, had become split after the death of the master in November, 1847, into two factions, both without an active head. The Schumannites, whilst receiving no encouragement from the great composer whose art they championed, decried Mendelssohn as a pedant and a phrase-maker, who, having nothing particular to say, had covered his lack of meaning by facility of workmanship. The Mendelssohnians, on the other hand, declared Schumann to be wanting in mastery of form, and perceived in his works a tendency to subordinate the objective, to the subjective, side of musical art. The division soon spread beyond Leipzig throughout Germany, and, in the course of years, to England, with the result that Mendelssohn, once a popular idol, is now rarely represented in a concert programme.
Meanwhile Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianoforte executant of all times, and one of the most magnetic personalities of his own, had exchanged his brilliant career of virtuoso for the position of conductor of the orchestra of the Weimar court theatre, with the avowed noble purpose of bringing to a hearing such works of genius as had little chance of being performed elsewhere. He declared himself the advocate of the ‘New-German’ school, and, making active propaganda for the creeds of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, succeeded in attracting to his standard some of the most talented of the younger generation of artists, amongst whom Joachim, Raff, and the gifted and generous Hans von Bülow, were some of the first converts. There were, therefore, three different schools of serious musical thought in the year 1853, each of which boasted numerous and distinguished adherents.(100- 101)
A world where youth was catapulted into fame as prodigy, like Joseph Joachim, student of Mendelssohn and friends with Liszt, who was to become one of Brahms’ greatest friends and champions:
The loss of Mendelssohn left him, at the age of sixteen, lonely and disconsolate, in spite of his being himself already a distinguished personality and a universal favourite. (103)
Brahms in fact meets Liszt in this first halcyon trip along the Rhine where it seems as the whole world opens up to him. Apparently this first meeting is famous and they didn’t get along. But did Brahms nod off? It didn’t really matter, he was a hit, and from there he would only move up from recognition to recognition.
Why I love him? Because he never forgot where he was from:
He certainly touched Joachim’s heart by his loving talk of Hamburg, rich in proud traditions, and not without art memories of its own, associated with the great names of Klopstock and Lessing, of Telemann and Keiser, of Handel and Mattheson and Emanuel Bach.
Upon his return after this trip where fame first touched him, he began a tradition:
As to Johannes himself, the feelings he had not been able to describe in his letter to Schumann were probably strong enough within his heart to touch the joy of the first home embraces with a gravity that did not immediately admit of speech. The first emotions over, however, an exuberant mirthfulness asserted itself in the bearing of the happy young fellow. He established at this time a custom from which he never afterwards departed. The first visit paid by him after his arrival was to Marxsen. One to the Cossels soon followed, and, on this occasion of his return from a first real absence, he went the round of several Lokals, where he had been accustomed to work regularly, and in his lightness of heart flourished on some of the instruments that had been the sign of his bondage, in very joy at his emancipation. (143-144)
Brahms was to become deeply involved with, and indeed practically part of Schumann’s household, taking care of his wife and family after he committed himself to a mental asylum. In a book written at this time, you can see the helplessness in the face of unknown and terrifying mental illness:
Schumann was already in an advanced stage of the disease which, technically described under different learned names, according to its many varieties, is known to the layman as softening of the brain. (196)
We haven’t many better words for Schumann’s illness today, but he died within three years. After this, Brahms gained employment for a petty German prince (see his mockery of high society here, again following in the footsteps of Johannes Kreisler). Volume 1 ends after he has resigned his post and is getting ready to leave for Vienna. May writes of his leave-taking:
‘Father,’ said Brahms, looking slyly at his father as he said good-bye, ‘if things should be going badly with you, music is always the best consolation; go and study my old “Saul”—you will find comfort there.’
He had thickly interlarded the volume with bank-notes. 
She ends with a summary in terms of his music, just how much Brahms had accomplished over this period of his life. Now to find evenings when I can sit and listen:
It is highly interesting to possess a clear conception of Brahms’ achievements as a composer, and, therewith, of his exact title to consideration at this important moment of his career. This will be best obtained by a glance at the list[Pg 281] of the chief completed works with which he was to present himself in the city associated with the most hallowed memories of his art. His departure for Vienna is by no means to be regarded as coincident with the close of any one period of his creative activity, though it emphatically marks the end, not only of a chapter, but of the first book of his life.
List of Brahms’ Chief Completed Works on his Departure for Vienna.
Variations on Schumann’s theme in F sharp minor.
Variations on an original theme.
Variations on a Hungarian song.
Variations and Fugue on Handel’s theme.
Pianoforte Duet: Variations on a theme by Schumann.
Pianoforte with Orchestra: Concerto in D minor.
Orchestral: Two Serenades.
Sextet in B flat for Strings.
Trio in B major for Pianoforte and Strings.
Quartet in G minor ” ” ” ”
Quartet in A major ” ” ” ”
Five books (thirty songs).
‘Magelone Romances’ (first six).
Vocal Duets: two books.
Three Vocal Quartets.
The 13th Psalm.
The newly-finished String Quintet is not included in the list, as the work was not published in this its first form. The Hungarian Dances, as being arrangements, are also omitted.
I somehow forgot how stunning Graham Greene’s writing is, this quickly reminded me. Both thriller and glorious words. Besides, it contains descriptions like this, one of the bits of London I love, and is no longer like this at all:
Ida came up from Charing Cross Station, into the hot and windy light in the Strand flickering on the carburetors; in an upper room of Stanley Gibbons a man with a long grey Edwardian moustache sat in a window examining a postage stamp through a magnifying glass; a great dray laden with barrels stamped by, and the fountains played in Trafalgar Square, a cool translucent flower blooming and dropping into the drab sooty basins…. In Seven Dials the negroes were hanging round the public house doors in tight natty suitings and old school ties, and Ida recognized one of them and passed the time of day. (37-38)
I loved too, the main protagonist, Ida. She was the one pushing the action forward, investigating and uncovering the truth. She’s usually the woman seen regularly (but not too regularly) who helps the noir private eye hold it all together, the loose woman who likes a drink, enjoys every sensual minute of life, and has a heart of gold beneath what some might consider a bit of a rough exterior. Here she gets centre stage, she stands for life and decency in contrast to the death all around her. She stands a bit outside that limiting equation of poverty vs wealth, misery vs content. She moves between worlds, between peoples, between cities. She is not trapped, either in her circumstances or in her own head.
It makes her a bit terrifying to those who are. She gets her way too, her version of justice for a man she only briefly met, but who recognised her worth.
There’s this too, not something you associate with Brighton, but poverty is there as well as here. Poverty that can only be fled from but can never be fully left behind:
The Boy crossed over towards the Old Steyne walking slowly. The streets narrowed uphill above the Steyne: the shabby secret behind the bright corsage, the deformed breast. Every step was a retreat. He thought he had escaped for ever by the whole length of the parade, and now extreme poverty too him back: a shop where a shingle could be had for two shillings in the same building as a coffin-maker’s who worked in oak, elm or lead: no window-dressing but one child’s coffin dusty with disuse and the list of hairdressing prices. The Salvation Army citadel marked with its battlements the very border of his home. He began to fear recognition and feel an obscure shame as if it were his native streets which had the right to forgive and not he to reproach them with the dreary and dingy past. (140)
How many colons and semi-colons! How much sad and petty violence, a world that cannot be broken out of. A world created within the confines of misery and a single room shared by a family and a burden of fear and shame. A world lived in parallel to holiday crowds as much as to the higher echelons of underworld life able to take a slightly larger view. You are glad it is being torn down, aware that the new building will probably just recreate it.
Outside is life, outside is Ida, implacably looking for what is fair and just. And enjoying it.
Still, the undertones of heredity and environmental determinism are rather disturbing and so this is no simple triumph of life. The Boy’s unfortunate wife of only a few days, unsuccessfully fleeing the same inescapable world that he was and as unable to see the true horizon, is possibly pregnant, and the last line of the book is this:
She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all. (247)
[Graham Greene (1938, 1971) Brighton Rock. St Ives: Clay Ltd.]
“Irish poverty is a thing apart; it has no model or parallel anywhere in the world; once you have seen it you know that in theory the wretchedness of man has no limits…”
–Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland, its Society, Politics and Religion, 1839
This is a quote given by Flora Tristan to introduce part of her travels and studies of London, a look at the Irish quarter on Oxford Street. (I have written lots about Tristan, the general review of her descriptions of London is here).
At its starting-point, the elegant, long thoroughfare of
Oxford Street, with its throng of carriages, its wide pavements
and splendid shops. is joined almost at right angles by Tottenham Court Road; just off this street, facing Oxford Street, there is a narrow alley nearly always obstructed by an enormous can loaded with coal, which leaves hardly enough room for you to pass, even if you flatten yourself against the wall. This little alley, Bainbridge Street, is the entrance to the Irish quarter.
Bainbridge Street still exists but all the rest of it, absolutely all of it is all gone now as though poverty never existed there. You could not image unpaved streets or coal yards or dunghills here:
It is not without fear that the visitor ventures into the dark, narrow alley known as Bainbridge Street. Hardly have you gone ten paces when you are almost suffocated by the poisonous smell. The alley, completely blocked by the huge coal-yard, is impassable. We turned off to the right into another unpaved muddy alley with evil-smelling soapy water and other household slops even more fetid lying everywhere in stagnant pools. I had to struggle against my revulsion and summon up all my courage to go on through this veritable cesspool. In St Giles, the atmosphere is stifling; there is no fresh air to breathe nor daylight to guide your steps. The wretched inhabitants wash their tattered garments themselves and hang them on poles across the street, shutting out all pure air and sunshine. The slimy mud beneath your feet gives off all manner of noxious vapours, while the wretched rags above you drip their dirty rain upon your head. The fantasies of a fevered imagination could never match the horrifying reality! When I reached the end of the alley, which was not very long, my resolution faltered; my body is never quite as strong as my will, and now I felt my stomach heave, while a fierce pain gripped my head. I was wondering whether I could bear to go any further …
Sometimes I want to hit Flora Tristan, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the sentimentality that follows, driving her to go further. But go further she did. It is reminiscent of what she found in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, other centres of Irish settlement:
Picture, if you can, barefoot men, women and children picking their way through the foul morass; some huddled against the waII for want of anywhere to sit, others squatting on the ground, children wallowing in the mud like pigs. But unless you have seen it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine such extreme poverty, such total degradation. l saw children without a stitch of clothing, barefoot girls and women with babies at their breast, wearing nothing but a torn shirt that revealed almost the whole of their bodies; I saw old men cowering on dunghills, young men covered in rags.
What to her could be more other than these impossibly poor people, living in conditions that break my own heart in two. In seeking to describe them she reaches for comparisons and find only ‘negroes‘ and animals. Their dangerous hungers easily mastered by her assurance of authority.
Inside and out, the tumbledown hovels are entirely in keeping with the ragged population who inhabit them. In most of them the doors and windows lack fastenings and the floor is unpaved; the only furniture is a rough old oak table, a wooden bench, a stool, a few tin plates and a Sort of kennel, where father, mother, sons, daughters, and friends all sleep together regardless; such is the ‘comfort’ of the Irish quarter! All this is horrifying enough, but it is nothing compared with the expressions of the people’s faces. They are all fearfully thin, emaciated and sickly; their faces, necks and hands are covered with sores; their skin is so filmy and their hair so matted and disheveled that they look like negroes; their sunken eye express a stupid animal ferocity, but if you look at them with assurance they cringe and whine. I recognised in them the selfsame faces and expressions that I had observed when I visited the prisons. It must be a red-letter day for them when they enter Coldbath Fields; at least in prison they will have fresh linen, comfortable clothes, clean beds and pure air.
A kennel, she writes, where the Irish cringe and whine. They must suffer all the physical misery and hopelessness of poverty, while also being stared at by women like Flora, stripped further of their humanity. This makes me think about the ways such levels of want undoubtedly deform the spirits of those who suffer it (but they are still ‘us’ goddamn it), while also the visual manifestations of it push them beyond the pale of what the middle classes consider human. For Flora, Black folks are already automatically included in this, axiomatic of this status of suffering and otherness. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that poverty should make the Irish look like negroes to Flora. Act like dogs.
How do they all live? By prostitution and theft. From the age of nine or ten the boys begin to steal; at eleven or twelve the girls are sold to brothels. The adults of both sexes are all professional thieves and their sole passion is drinking. If I had seen this quarter before I visited Newgate I would not have been so surprised to learn that the prison takes in fifty or sixty children a month and as many prostitutes. Theft is the only logical consequence when people live in such destitution as this. (156-158)
At least she does not blame them for their step outside of society’s mores in the battle for survival.
As I have mentioned before, the editing of the book and additional information are splendid — so here are some final facts on the area:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Irish quarter in St Giles, Holborn occupied roughly the area bounded by Charing Cross Road, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, but in Flora’s time the two last-named Streets did not exist; slum clearance began a few years after her 1839 visit. According to the census of 1831 the population of this district – commonly known as Little Dublin – was a staggering 36,432. The 1841 census registered 82,291 lrish-born residents in London (3% of the population) but this did not include children born in England of Irish parents. By 1851 the number had increased to 109,000 (4.6%) largely because of the influx of Irish after the terrible potato famines in lreland. Professor Lynn Lees has calculated that if children and relatives were added, the figure
would have risen to 156,000, but even this is still short of the
inflated figure of 200,000 that Flora gives for 1839.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.