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 much 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, both useful and so so necessary….
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.
Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.
I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.
Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need — and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.
Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.
So much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End. I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.
This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.
Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.
The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:
Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)
I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.
Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions
But back to Dr Barnardo — born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.
His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:
He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)
Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:
As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)
The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.
That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)
It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine — ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:
A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)
Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):
There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)
Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)
He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.
There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:
Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)
Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.
A missionary to East London instead of China
Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.
He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.
Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?
Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:
“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)
His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.
It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)
It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:
As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)
East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds
His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:
We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)
And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.
A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)
It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.
A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.
Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:
“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)
I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.
From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge
When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)
But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.
The Uses and Abuses of Empire
Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.
Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.
Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.
A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.
They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.
Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.
Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:
Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)
They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.
Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children
I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.
A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.
It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)
At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)
Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.
The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:
There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.
Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.
There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:
Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)
There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:
In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)
and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.
There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.
How dare they, I think again.
[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]
In this Diocese of Southwark there is a small Community of men known as the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. It has its Home in a large rambling house in Nunhead, with several detached centres. It follows the aims of St Francis, though in a simplified form, as the members are usually so busy during acts of service to persons in any kind of need, that there is no time to be too “precious”, and what has endeared the Brotherhood to the diocese is its intense humanity and “practicalness”.
This is the community founded by Father George Potter, from the introduction to this lovely little autobiography of a modern-day friar written in stolen moments from a life of service to others.
That is why this story of mine is written in bursts, like those of a machine-gun. I have only been able to explode a few rounds at a time, in between all my other work. (12)
It is a life shaped by poverty and he geographies of South London, and that in turn shaped his city, particularly this little piece of Peckham and the people living within it — and more particularly the homeless children that he gave shelter to.
I wish he were still alive to talk to rather than writing a short book in bursts. He grew up as one of five children in Cavendish Road, Balham, poor and supported only by a working mother after his father died when he was a baby. But who lived across the wall from them? Dan Leno, that’s who, Music Hall entertainer extraordinaire. He was in and out of Music Halls, and his continuing friendships throughout his life with performers kept emerging through offhand remarks — like borrowing that proverbial horse costume where he was the back end and it all went horribly wrong.
He started work at 8 doing odd jobs for a greengrocer on Saturdays, often going with him at 3 am to Covent Garden and Burrough Market. He left school well before 14, worked for a private detective’s agency in Queen Victoria Street, a sugar-broker’s office in Mincing Lane, a stockbroker’s office as a junior clerk.
His journey into the priesthood was a difficult one, not for lack of calling but for lack of money, learning the rudiments of Latin, Greek, the Bible and Church history in the evenings from two volunteer priests, and struggling along through evening classes, finding a scholarship to Kelham. He became the vicar at All Saints in South Wimbledon, after a year as army chaplain in WWI.
Time as army chaplain in WWI seems to have had a profound impact on the priests I most admire, Father Groser also endured it, and also dedicated his life to not just the service of the poorest, but to living among them and working with them to rise from that condition.
This book is a collection of stories, told as you might over tea or a pint, and always with humour but many of them, most of them, are tragic. They are also revealing of the role of the church. When he first came to St Chrysostom’s, Peckham in 1923, there was no vicarage and no vicar had ever lived in the parish. He writes:
The church was closed and the churchyard was simply a rubbish dump.
We eventually found the church-cleaner–a dear old Victorian body–who lived opposite the church. When we got inside we found the place spotlessly clean, though parts of the ceiling were missing and pails and baths rested on some of the pews and in the sanctuary. The clock in the turret proved to be about ten years slow, and there had been no heating in the building for decades. (25)
There was a church hall that also began to serve as vicarage where he lived with his mother, and perhaps my favourite thing about his introduction to the neighbourhood was this:
The hall doors were open, and kettles and saucepans were bubbling on the parish gas-stove. It seemed that some of the neighbouring parishioners found it cheaper and more convenient to use the church’s stove rather than their own. (26)
Community in action right there. It is quite beautiful how they came together to transform that place. Their sanctuary lamp for a while was the lid of a soup toureen, an empty fish paste jar, three yards of chain, and for more important feasts only — some Rowntree’s wine gums to add some colour. Father Potter had a gift.
In 1925 they gave up the fight against the rats in the old church hall, and moved over to a derelict pub called the Eagle. All labour donated.
There’s no one didn’t like the new management sign. It was there that they found the space to take in a few boys then living on the streets — Police courts and bobbies on the beat had also begun to drop of boys at Father Potter’s. Much of his life from then on seems to have been focused on moving to bigger and better quarters to provide room for his sisters and other brothers in the order and continue that work. The pub was retained as club room and Scout headquarters.
1929 they found a building being leased for a factory when in fact it had been an old school. Father Potter writes:
After several trips to the Record Office, trying to trace some Deeds to prove our position, we did not get very far. We felt it best to take possession — which we did. We took down the board on the gate, which bore the words “Shirts and Pyjamas”, and (as we knew no saints of those names–even in the latest Missals) we re-named the old buildings “The Hostel of St Francis”. (46)
I like his style.
The animals of the city were not forgotten either here — people brought them — some unwanted but mostly old and sick and needing to be put down or burial. The RSPCA gave them six ‘lethal boxes’ so they could perform this service when they could not give animals away to a new and good home.
I cannot find it easy to be gentle with bullies either. I am almost ashamed to say that I have found it helped them, at times, to pay them back in their own coin. It sounds un-Christian–but it worked when it was explained to them. (59)
He is humorous about the coshes, knuckle-dusters and razors, understanding about the amount of violence often suffered in their young lives from families or institutions. He admires their intelligence and courage, you believe him when he tells stories of seeing through most of their lies, right down to the stark and terrible realities that lie underneath. He certainly understood key things like this, from a talk he gave to others embarking on similar work:
Don’t lose your temper or shout. If you do, you must not be upset if the boy laughs at you. Remember, he probably has a sense of humour, and we do look funny when we lose our temper.
A boy does not necessarily show respect by standing in your presence, nor by saluting and saying “Sir!” Perhaps he has been brought up in an institution, where he has got so used to doubling up and saying “Yes, sir!” when he wants to say “No. Damn you!” So he finds it hard sometimes to say “No!” to the devil. (71)
If we talk a lot about Jesus Christ, the boy rightly things that we know something about him–and expect us to be something like him. (72)
It’s been fun, he titles a chapter…and the stories that follow prove it.
A boy was serving me at Mass. I waited for the lavabo. Brother Francis shouted to the boy, “Water! water!” He looked up and said, “Lumme! who’s fainted?”
There is the story, tragic and funny, of the most wonderful untamed girl named Liz, who often slept in the church to escape the violence of her father…and anyway, she could not get to sleep until her bed was vacated by her brother who worked night shifts, as it was his bed during the day. Father Potter talks of her drunkenness from the age of 12, at 14 her care for the reputations of married men who gave her the drink, how she once threw a man over a table for propositioning her. How she hated wearing hats. I loved these compassionate and understanding and somewhat heartbroken glimpses into lives lived against all odds and the humour and courage there, despite enduring a level of poverty that has not existed since the post-war settlement.
There are tales of cockneys camping in the country, Peckham during the blitz and letters home from the boys that will make you cry.
It’s a rather little book, but it allows us to remember so many of those whom history and society both would wish to forget. I think, too, it perhaps allows them to be remembered as they might have wished. I happened to start a biography of Dr Bernardo on the same coach trip and the differences are immense, but that is for another blog.
[Potter, The Rev. Canon George (1956) Father Potter of Peckham: A South London Saga. Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.]
The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)
The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing. Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.
Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty. (17)
I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:
There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)
Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.
The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.
God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.
Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.
While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.
You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.
We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reveriehas some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.
This film has been so long in coming, and I have been there for a small piece of its journey. It has been an honour.
Once upon a time I lived in Bow, and out for a long wander up the Regent’s canal one day, I saw this:
A wondrous thing. I had passed other estates with windows boarded up yet signs that people still clearly lived in them. This left me both angered and confused, as housing is in such short supply for us, and this is our housing standing empty. These are homes that people love in the midst of desolation. Here I could tell someone was fighting back, ensuring they were visible and not simply to be silently swept away.
I met Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson (part of Fugitive Images, those who had put up these pictures with fellow residents) a few months later, the three of us on a panel put together by This is Not a Gateway at the Tate Modern (the Tate Modern! I called home, ever so proud).
This photo installation, i am here, was only the first part of a longer exploration of the process of decanting an estate against its resident’s wishes. This, a protest against the estate’s abandonment in preparation for regeneration. It sat alongside endless meetings, letters, petitions, protests, lobbies to preserve and improve the housing for those who lived there and loved it.
The second was the book, Estate, a combination of personal essays, photographs, and political-economic contextualization. I loved it. You can buy it here, from Myrdle Court Press.
This film is the third, and perhaps the most powerful of the three. especially as the Haggerston Estate is now gone. I have been away or working during previous showings, but finally got to see it as part of the Open City Doc Festival. That is how we came all the way to the West End and discovered this gem of a place — the Regent Street Cinema:
Built in 1848 and housed within the Polytechnic Institution on London’s Regent Street, the cinema was the first in the country to show moving pictures. In 1896, the cinema showcased the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe to a paying audience, and, as the curtain fell, British cinema was born.
Go there. Enjoy.
I had seen various versions of the film — in snippets, and bits of pieces. A work in progress. But I wasn’t prepared for the full feature.
(After going through the foreclosure with my mum only a year ago, a replay of losing the house they built when I was a teenager, I feel I have lost a home twice, and this drew upon all the neverending grief and anger that such experiences leave inside of you. I don’t know if anyone else dripped tears throughout.)
Inspiring and heartbreaking both, it does two things wondrously well.
It shows the residents as they were, neighbours getting to know each other, the ways they had chosen to decorate their rooms, children playing and growing up, a father and daughter being forced to move, the elderly over time as they grew sicker and sicker. It is the most honest view of Parkinson’s I have ever seen. It brings the people of Haggerston Estate into your heart and they will never leave it. It does not does this with a bright and clinical gaze, but with the warm compassion of someone who has shared space with them for fifteen years. That sees people as they are for good and bad, and thus can love them truly.
You know exactly what suffering the lack of repairs has caused and what the loss of this community will mean. Something planners and housing managers and city officials somehow never understand.
This film could only have been made by someone who had lived there, fought for it, loved it.
That is why it captures the magic that also happened here. Slated for regeneration, the council stopped caring what people did here. Relaxed the patronising and controlling sets of rules that controlled behaviour. You hear a woman recount a story of her grandfather moved here when the estate first opened from the slums. Removed from his home and patch of ground and his animals, when they tried to force him to get rid of his dog too, he gassed both of them in the apartment.
This film is full of dogs. It is full of colour. People didn’t run riot, they painted logs and made seats, they painted goal posts on the wall for the next-door kids, they planted flowers and vegetables. They had barbeques and built a fire pit and sang songs to welcome in the New Year. They helped each other. They told stories.
They put on regency dress and discussed and acted out Samuel Richardson’s novels, whose heroines provide the names for the estate’s buildings.
Councils never did quite figure out that poor people weren’t the enemy, and the slums weren’t their creation, did they. But oh, the things people on estates can build when left alone to come together as a community.
There is so much more to say, and I’m writing a fuller review somewhere else, but just a few notes on the wonderful Q&A that followed with Andrea:
She highlighted that this was a film of all the things unseen, to explore what it meant to lose the place after so many years fighting to get repairs. She felt they had to do something after the financial crash, seeing the posters go up everywhere about benefit fraud with slogans like ‘we are coming to get you.’ The strong feeling that something must be done to challenge this image production that blamed everything on the poor who were least to blame.
This was always a collective effort.
She talked too about the transition period where they could do anything they wanted, a time when people were able to take the space and decorate it as they wanted, and it became a magical place. There were some questions about why this film didn’t show struggle, the fight to improve it and keep it.
Hard choices were made on this, footage exists of everything, but there are so many films of struggle, it is something we understand (even if we don’t yet know how to win — but that is my own aside). She chose instead to show the reality of people’s lives, explore not just what the estate and its loss meant to them, but what they were able to create there when allowed some freedom for creation.
(In a previous cut, I remember seeing people come back to the estate who had already moved on, bursting into floods of tears at seeing their old flats, torn in half between all the frustrations of living somewhere in such terrible conditions but also all of the memories that still made that space a home. It was so powerful but Andrea is right, it did not fit here).
She talked about the architecture, about how vilified it is yet in these passages in the sky you have to meet your neighbours, you see them every day, you say hello. New buildings are secure by design, you never see anyone, community cannot grow and people are lonely in them.
Something else we are losing. We still have a great deal of public space, it is important in this country, but home is still seen as private, insular. It’s an interesting observation. Early estates were built to try and help create community, with multiple shared spaces — perhaps not public space but community space. That is something that is disappearing, and surely we are losing something with it.
There is so much to think about here, the film so rich it will reward reviewing. Go see it.
[A version of this post can also be found at drpop.org]