Tag Archives: slums

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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SCLC’s 1966 Plan for Organizing Chicago

Eyes on the PrizeIt gave me chills to find the SCLC’s plan for organizing Chicago in Eyes on the Prize. Chills to read it, think about just how much resonated with the organizing work we were doing in LA at SAJE. I look back and honestly have no idea how much was influenced by the kind of thinking embodied in this document by the SCLC, passed down through generations of movement people to us, and how much we come up with on our own because it’s only common sense once you have some experience fighting and share similar outlook and goals. I think we probably inherited more than we ever knew consciously, soaking up wisdom and workshops and for myself at least, not paying enough attention to  this incredible history. Our luck at being woven into this long history of struggle and sacrifice and incredible human beings.

The document is entitled ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ It was put forward on 5th January, 1966, and was to be conducted together with Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). You can read the full text online here.

It opens with their analysis of the city of Chicago, and this political and economic moment of 1966:

Chicago is a city of more than a million Negroes. For almost a century now it has been the northern landing place for southern migrants journeying up from the Mississippi Delta. It was the Promised Land for thousand who sought to escape the cruelties of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee; yet, now in the year 1966, the cycle has almost reversed. Factories moving South, employment and opportunities on the increase, and recent civil rights legislation are rapidly disintegrating the cruelties of segregation. The South is now a land of opportunity, while those who generations ago sang, “Going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you,” now sink into the depths of despair. (291)

Their articulation of their own strategy and philosophy, rooting their projected plan of action in their philosophy and what they believe is the strength that has previously brought them to victory:

THE SCLC PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL CHANGE

In our work in the South two principles have emerged. One, the crystallization of issues, and two, the concentration of action.

In Birmingham we confronted the citadel of southern segregation. In 1963 not one aspect of Birmingham community life was desegregated. In approaching this complex segregated society, the issue was simplified deliberately to: Segregation. Early newspaper critiques challenged the simplification and offered a thousand rationalizations as to why such complex problems could not be dealt with so simply and suggested a hundred more “moderate, responsible” methods of dealing with our grievances. Yet it was the simplification of the issue to the point where every citizen of good will, black and white, north and south, could respond and identify that ultimately made Birmingham the watershed movement in the history of the civil rights struggle.

The second point was the concentration of action, and we chose lunch counters, a target which seemed to most social analysts the least significant but one to which most people could rally. It was a target wherein one might achieve some measure of change yet which sufficiently involved the lines of economic and social power to a point beyond itself – to the larger problem. (293-294)

Back to the concrete nature of what they face in Chicago (and what we faced in LA, and what communities of the poor and people of colour face across the country…interesting that they felt they could separate out the issues in the South.

THE PROBLEM IN CHICAGO

The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation. Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the SLUM.

Look at this analysis of slum housing in 1966, ain’t nothing changed at all.

A slum is any area which is exploited by the community at large or an area where free trade and exchange of culture and resources is not allowed to exist. In a slum, people do not receive comparable care and services for the amount of rent paid on a dwelling. They are forced to purchase property at inflated real estate value. They pay taxes, but their children do not receive an equitable share of those taxes in educational, recreational and civic services. They may leave the community and acquire professional training, skills or crafts, but seldom are they able to find employment opportunities commensurate with these skills. And in rare occasions when they do, opportunities for advancement and promotion are restricted. The means that in proportion to the labor, money and intellect which the slum pours into the community at large, only a small portion is received in return benefits. [James] Bevel and our Chicago stall have come to see this as a system of internal colonialism, not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium. (294)

But I wish I had read this before, this is such a smart, comprehensive way of analysing the problem from some of the best minds in the country — why did we go reinventing this wheel? It never occurred to me when we were working on the issue of slum housing for so many years that it would be well worth my while to do more research on earlier battles to end it. I did a little, but not enough to find this. Not that I had time for research, and perhaps still might never have found this without knowing where to look. It’s why continuity in movement and halfway houses are so important I think… and better ways of making accessible information:

As we define and interpret the dynamics of the slum, we see the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer in Chicago and in other northern cities.

1. Education: … slum education is designed to perpetuate the inferior status of slum children and prepare them only for menial jobs in much the same way that the South African apartheid education philosophy does for the African.

2. Building Trade Unions: Building trade unions bar Negroes from many employment opportunities which could easily be learned by persons with limited academic training.

3. Real Estate: Real Estate Boards restrict the supply of housing available to Negroes to the result that Negro families pay an average $20 per month more in rent and receive fewer services that persons in other neighborhoods.

4. Banks and Mortgage Companies: Banks and mortgage companies charge higher interest rates and in many instances even refuse to finance real estate in slum communities and transitional communities, making the area easy prey for loan sharks.

5. Slum Landlords: Slum landlords find a most lucrative return on a minimum investment due to inefficient enforcement of city building codes as well as inadequate building codes, overcrowding of living space, and a tax structure on slum property which means the more you let the building run down, the less you pay in taxes.

6. The Welfare System: The welfare system contributes to the breakdown of family life by making it more difficult to obtain money if the father is in the household and subjects families to a dehumanized existence at the hand of impersonal self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

7. Federal Housing Agencies: Federal housing agencies will not insure loans for purchasing real estate in Negro communities and make little money available for financing any low-cost housing or renovation of present housing.

8. The Courts: The courts are organized as a tool of the economic structure and political machine. Judges are political appointees and subject to political influence.

9. The Police: The police are little more than “enforcers” of the present system of exploitation and often demonstrate particular contempt for poor Negroes, so that they are deprived of any sense of human dignity and the status of citizenship in order that they may be controlled and “kept in line.”

10. The Political System: The established political system deprives Negroes of political power and, through patronage and pressure, robs the community of its democratic voice in the name of a Democratic Machine.

11. The City Administration: The city administration refuses to render adequate services to the Negro community. Street cleaning, garbage collection and police protection are offered menially, if at all.

12. The Federal Government: The federal government has yet to initiate a creative attempt to deal with the problems of megalopolitan life and the results of the past three centuries of slavery and segregation on Negroes. (295-96)

Tackling all this was no small task, even in contemplation. They knew they were confronting something a bit different, and that required a change in strategy:

In the South concentration on one issue proved feasible because of a general pattern of state and local resistance. However, in Chicago we are faced with the probability of a ready accommodation to many of the issues in some token manner, merely to curtail the massing for forces and public opinion around those issues. Therefore, we must be prepared to concentrate all of our forces around any and all issues. (296-97)

Mobilization is always key seems like, another main section:

MOBILIZATION OF FORCES

Though we always fought hard that more was going on. You can do a lot just moving people to one meeting and then another, but we never thought that changed enough either in terms of consciousness or lasting change.

The SCLC saw their main targets as members of churches, students, and the unemployed. Like we did at SAJE, they thought about how to create small groups that could themselves deal with smaller issues but come together in a larger force, and they came up with the same idea decades before we did — someone there agreed with us that mobilization wasn’t enough:

In two or three selected neighborhoods, household units must be organized into some type of union to end slums (or householders union, tenant union, or community union). These neighborhoods would be organized on a door-to-door basis to bargain collectively with landlords and the city in an effort to change the conditions which create slums. It would provide protection against eviction and exploitation and help resolve many immediate problems, but its main function would be to band together to demand that the conditions which create slums be ended. This would be a tremendous power in dealing with both political and economic factors which affect life in the slums.

Some explorations are under way in Longdale, East Garfield Park, Kenwood and Englewood. (298)

We too thought in terms of stages, always moving from one to the next, escalating, getting bigger, being strategic about that. That, I am sure, was a direct result of the ways that this kind of strategic thinking continued through various groups in the movement, even if some of the details that would have been so useful to us were lost:

DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH TO ACTION

During the first phase of the movement organization and education are the primary purposes. This will be done largely through mass meetings, neighborhood rallies and work shops and should continue through the month of February. Demonstrations must also be thought of as educational and organizational tools, and there may be some occasions which call for demonstrations. When this is the case, it must be clear that the purpose of the demonstration is to dramatize and so define this incident as one link in the chain of economic exploitation which occurs in slum life.

Phase 2: By the first of March, community response and live issues should have evolved to the point where some consensus has been reached around specific targets. At this point we should be able to develop the detailed day-by-day strategy which would seek to demonstrate the total chain which enslaves us. Demonstrations should be scheduled at points which should reveal the agents of exploitation and paint a portrait of the evils which beset us in such a manner that it is clear the world over what makes up a slum and what it is that destroys the people who are forced to live in a slum.

Phase 3: By the first of May we should be ready to launch the phases of massive action, but just as no one knew on January 2, 1965, that there would be a march from Selma to Montgomery by March of that year, so now we are in no position to know what form massive action might take in Chicago. However, as we begin to dramatize the situation, we will be led into forms of demonstration which will create the kind of coalition of conscience which is necessary to produce change in this country. (298-99)

And of course, every campaign needs its goals and objectives, and they looked to change both individual consciousness as well as policy and external structures.

OBJECTIVES

Our objectives in this movement are federal, state and local. On the federal level we would hope to get the kind of comprehensive legislation which would meet the problems of slum life across this nation. At the state level, we should expect the kinds of tax reforms, updating of building codes, open occupancy legislation and enforcement of existing statutes for the protection of our citizens. On the local level we would hope to create the kind of awareness in people that would make it impossible for them to [be] enslaved or abused and create for them the kind of democratic structures which will enable them to continually deal with the problems of slum life. Among these would be active community organizations, a coordinated and powerful civil rights movement, religious institutions which are prepared to minister to persons in urban society as well as to the structures of that society. We would also hope that from this would emerge several pilot projects and institutions which might be of some permanent significance. (299)

Sadly, that list of objectives that Martin Luther King nailed to the door of city hall like Luther himself didn’t quite seem to live up to all of that. But I don’t know enough to quibble with the actually policy changes proposed, all I can say is I think established organizations often don’t ask for enough, putting a small win above getting anything close to what people really need in a campaign big enough to inspire people. But that’s an aside.

Following this document comes an interview with Linda Bryant Hall, member of CORE in 1966 and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations – I love that they contrasted these two things. It raises all the key issues about the importance of local organisation and power, and how that connects to national organisations who have their own agendas. She talks about King’s presence in Chicago, how happy everyone was that he was coming — because how could you not be? But that despite their own organising proposal, he hadn’t thought enough about the differences, and seems like as well, he hadn’t expected a full working partnership.

After he came here, it was quite obvious–at least to me–that this was a more diversified community and the tactics were going to have to be a little different here. What happened is that when he came in, I think what he tried to do was to try and take that kind of style he had operated with in the South and just plant it down here in Chicago, as if it worked there it would work here, too. Not taking into consideration the difference that would be here. (311)

In Chicago they had already brought community organizations together to work under in a group called the triple CO, an umbrella group. In the words of Bryant:

We needed him to lend us his strength, to lend us his name. And we wanted him to come and join our movement–not come in and lead it, because we already had leaders. So when he came in to try and discount what was already here, I think, he offended quite a few people. (312)

She goes on to talk about the march to Cicero (one of those all-white no-go-or-you-will-be-hurt-real-bad neighbourhoods for people of colour, I am finding every single city had a number of those) and the drama and confusion around that, how the CCCO decided to go through with it but they hadn’t done the leafletting, knocking on doors, all the things to get people to the march. There is so much work involved in pulling off a good march most of the time, but people came anyway, they just put down what they were doing and joined up.

This march was community people. These people had not attended any workshops on nonviolence; they had not listened to any lectures on love and loving your fellow man at all; they were just people who were angry about what was happening and wanted to do something. (315)

I dream of marches like that.

Chicago…SCLC’s campaign didn’t meet it’s own goals. It was a bit of a shock to their system. I feel like this city was a turning point, a Northern city but one where residential segregation was deeply entrenched and very violently defended (see Arnold Hirsch’s work, or Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis–a book I absolutely love and am in some awe of intellectually, yet still haven’t quite managed to blog in all its massiveness). It definitely seemed at the time to highlight differences between north and south, rural and urban, fall into that gap between Martin and Malcolm. With calm hindsight, I don’t feel those as opposing things so much and even at the time I know they weren’t experienced as complete binaries by folks in the movement the way press portrayed them. But now I’m writing about things I might not know enough about. In terms of the nitty gritty on analysis and strategy though, as well as the insight into what role a national organisation should play when there is plenty of local organisation, this little section was awesome.

For more on organizing…

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Salford in Love on the Dole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He dies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only the unemployed had come in their masses.

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

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